Su-Yee Lin's "An Interlude: Pig River"
Third Place winner in the 2017 Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest
So the pig said, "Get on," and he did. It was in the river with all the other dead pigs. The only difference was that this one was swimming. Wang Xun could feel its bloated sides between his knees; he clutched at the pig's neck as it swam slowly through the river of pigs that had transformed this tributary of the Huangpu River.
The pig didn't say anything more – its feet kept moving through the water but no air moved through its lungs. It barely seemed to notice Wang Xun on its back.
To tell the truth, Wang Xun didn't have much of an idea how he'd gotten here. Riding on the back of a dead pig. Sure, he had a slight inkling, maybe. There was the old woman up north. There were the dreams.
They swam up the river. There were clumps of pig carcasses in different areas like an obstacle course, like the gyres of pollutants out in the ocean but pig-shaped. They were bruised in large patches, white and then a dark stain underneath the skin. They floated on their sides or on their backs. The river stank. Wang Xun tried not to look at them. They were diseased, of course. Why else would they be in the river.
The pig eventually swam up to the banks. More bodies here and also empty bottles and pieces of plastic and trash on the grass. "Get off," it said. "Walk straight down the path. There will be a small village there called Wu Jin Bang." Wang Xun stood on the bank. The dead pig rolled over on its side in the river and then was just another dead pig. He looked around to see where the path was. Some trampled grass lined with litter led northeast. He followed the path, past piles of trash into a field of grass with remnants of building materials. Piles of cement blocks, chickens pecking at their bases. A grouping of low buildings, red brick outside.
The pigs were dead was what Wang Xun was thinking. So what was he here for? He couldn't do anything for them. Pigs were his past and not his present nor his future. He'd been done with pigs for years. He had nothing to do with any of this. He was an insurance man, now.
Pig farming back then had been different. A couple dozen pigs at most. You'd slaughter them and sell them at the local market yourself, by the kilo. You wouldn't have to slaughter all that many since the locals just wanted a little. Some fat to grease their woks, a bit of ground pork for dumplings, maybe a cut of belly for red-braised pork. The pig head hanging from its hook, the eyes taken out, mouth open.
The smell, though, was unforgettable. And the way the pigs peered out from their enclosures, their scrabbling hooves trying to gain purchase on the brick. The grunts they made.
"They like you," a voice said from behind him. Wang Xun turned around. It was a young man, his hair long and tied back in a ponytail. He had a thin mustache. His Chinese was accented. Wang Xun nodded. The young man said, "I'm the boss around here. Or the closest thing you'll get to it. You interested in pigs?"
"I grew up with them," Wang Xun said, then added, "I'm in insurance now." A way of distancing himself.
The young man gestured him toward the entrance, the pigs crowding toward them through their enclosures. "I didn't grow up with them but I think they've got a lot of potential. My name's Kyle. I grew up in the States, in the Midwest." There was some sunlight through the windows but inside, Kyle pulled some light switches dangling from bare lightbulbs. "I think China could do a lot more with their pig production, all these little farms with their couple dozen pigs. It's not enough, you know? We need bigger farms. Bigger pigs. Bigger everything." While he talked, Wang Xun looked at the pigs. They had quieted down. They were morose. They looked dazed in the light and tired. Their eyes held a greenish tinge. Kyle was talking about co-ops and the worldwide desire for bacon.
Wang Xun felt himself drifting off, thinking about the pigs they used to have. They'd looked different than these somehow. A bit smaller maybe. More intelligent and active. He remembered a dream he'd had the other night of his wife who'd died last summer. Some unknown illness — he hadn't realized that kind of thing still existed but the doctor, there in that crowded hospital, had said "cause of illness unknown." He'd dreamed her up as a pig that spoke in his wife's voice. That's how he knew to follow the river of pigs. But for what, he wasn't sure yet. For a China transplant who wanted to factory-farm pigs the way they did in the U.S.?
Kyle was still talking as he led him around to another building but Wang Xun interrupted him. "Whose pigs are those in the river?"
Kyle waved his hand dismissively. "Everyone's," he said, "those pigs just weren't up to par. Weak. There aren't enough places to dispose of them so off into the river they go. Now, these pigs, though! They're the next phase of pig farming! Bigger, stronger, with a better taste ..."
Wang Xun saw how obviously proud of his pigs Kyle was. Like a child, his eyes wide and gleaming, almost maniacal. Like a dictator with a pig army. Hundreds of pigs in each building and many buildings besides this one. It seemed wrong but he wasn't sure why. Did wild pigs live in large colonies or not? What was it the old folks used to say? Something about a pig bringing happiness. Oh yes, "Abundant happiness will arrive with a pig entering through the door." Of course, pig farmers would say that.
They stepped out again, the smell of manure wafting out around them. Kyle talking on and on. Wang Xun thought about his wife. She'd always had a soft heart. She'd been very fond of both pork and pigs. He saw her in his mind. She looked sternly at him. She said, "Pay attention!" To what? He wondered. He looked around and saw how there were no other workers, only this Kyle. Kyle with his long hair and eyes opened so wide he looked surprised. With a weak chin and thin mustache over thin lips. Now he was talking about grants from the Chinese government. "This used to belong to just a few little farmers but we bought them out with the help of the government," he was saying. "They were barely using the land! Don't worry, we gave them some money for it, a few thousand but it goes a long way here ..."
Of course, Wang Xun thought, it's a demon. The village folk here must not have known what to do with this new-age demon with all his talking. He was killing the pigs. Maybe he was spreading pig diseases. It all felt clear. Sure, he hadn't believed in them since he was a kid but it seemed to make sense. The dreams, the dead pig in the river. What that old lady up north had said. He didn't let his understanding show, just looking at the pigs the way he was before. Kyle's voice was hypnotizing in the way it bored him.
Wang Xun had heard about demons his whole life. He'd seen them on TV shows and movies, seen the way they flew from rooftop to rooftop with dark features and their skin in bold colors not found on humans. They tricked you with human features during the day, especially the women, but at some point, their true form showed through. Kyle didn't look like a demon but they were tricky that way. But he wasn't sure why he'd been chosen to fight the demon. He was just an insurance man who was once a pig man. Not that insurance interested him much. He'd been a bit lost since his wife had died. What was it the old woman up north had said? Something about two paths, the one of heroism and the one of cowardice. He'd choose cowardice, for sure. He just wanted things the way they had been. Kyle grinned and Wang Xun saw a demon face emerge just for a second. He brought him to the biggest building, made entirely of concrete. Before they stepped in, Kyle said, "And this is what we're really working on."
Inside was one pig. One pig that was bigger than four men. "How great is that?" Kyle asked, "He's about 2,000 kilos with a lot of meat on him. And he's only a year and a half old!" The giant pig stood in the corner. Kyle didn't approach it, only gazed at it admiringly. Wang Xun looked at the pig then at Kyle. A fine pig. A monstrous pig. A demon pig?
"What a monster," Wang Xun said.
"Isn't it? He could feed a whole city!" Kyle turned to Wang Xun. "Go ahead, say hello."
Kyle never touched the pigs, Wang Xun noticed, he just talked. Not a demon pig then. Kyle must use the pigs for his own ends but the pigs were not his friends. Pigs are too smart to be controlled easily, Wang Xun thought. They were pretty sneaky bastards. And this one looked like there was something going on behind its eyes. This one understood what was going on and why concrete walls were built around it. Was it really a pig? Was it a god? Around its neck, something glittered. Wang Xun walked up to the fence (electric, he noticed) separating him from the pig. The pig kept its distance but Wang Xun could make out some sort of collar with a small charm on it. Trapped, he thought.
"Why the electric fence?" Wang Xun asked.
"Just in case," Kyle said dismissively, "he's so big, he could cause quite a bit of damage if he got loose." Wang Xun looked at the pig. The pig looked back at him. He'd have to do this carefully. The pig grunted, low-pitched and urgent, and came forward. Wang Xun put out a hand. The pig was taller than he was. The fence came up to Wang Xun's neck. The pig nudged his hand, just a little. Its eyelashes were long and light. It could leap the fence.
"Mind if I go in?"
"You better not," Kyle said, "A pig like this could hurt you."
"He's just so big!" Wang Xun said, "I wanted to measure him. Hard to tell through a fence. He has to be the size of more than five regular pigs!" Flattery always gets a demon, Wang Xun thought.
Kyle smiled, paused for a second. "Yeah, he's quite a pig. All right, just for a second." He went to the far wall and reached his arm out, "We don't get many visitors here," and opened a control panel. He flicked a switch and Wang Xun slipped in.
The pig didn't move, only looked at Wang Xun who made a show of measuring the pig with his hands.
"He's pretty docile, it seems," Wang Xun said. As he pet the pig, he thought about all those dead pigs in the river. What was Kyle up to? There couldn't possibly be other pig farms in the area. They must've been all Kyle's. This is the path of heroism, he thought. Like in all the tales. A lonely former pig farmer saves the day.
"Not all the time," Kyle said, "He can be pretty mean when he wants to." The electric fence was back up. They were trapped in it together. "So what do you really do, Wang Xun?" Wang Xun didn't remember giving his name. He hadn't thought Kyle was interested in anything besides pigs. But demons have their ways of seeing into the future even if he himself hadn't known anything about all this. "I'm in insurance," he said, "I sell insurance for cars."
"The pigs seem to like you quite a bit." Kyle said, "Funny."
Wang Xun could see the demon, Kyle, thinking. Before he could think anymore, he called, as loudly as his lungs allowed, the hog call he used to use as a kid, a long drawn-out call that seemed to last forever. It was instinct. He did it again and heard a faint rumble. Kyle turned to face the rumble, the doors, and Wang Xun, using muscles he'd long forgotten about, scrabbled atop the giant hog. The other pigs came running. Wang Xun tore off the collar of the hog. Kyle had a look of bewilderment on his face but his hands were reaching for the utility panel. The electricity was already on but there was more he could do. Wang Xun sat on top of the largest hog in the world. He knew what he was going to do next.