Pig-Boy and the Insectorator

by Biff Spork

Chapter 6

Oink's Nutlets

David jerked awake from a half-dream. He squinted at the sun and tried to calculate how long he had lain with Zhiv. "I should check the time."

Zhiv sat up beside him. "First, tell me what you saw. Did any pictures or feelings seem real strong?"

"There was one," said David. "I saw it two or three times, and it's nothing I recognize. It was a stream of clear, cold water flowing over stones and making a tinkling sound like small bells. It was really nice. It came with a weird feeling, like I admired it."

"Belnit! That was Belnit, the stag. That sound you heard was how I got his name. I asked him to send to you. He has stronger mind power than most of us. Anything else?"

David recalled one other clear image. He had seen Zhiv seated cross-legged on a rock above an infinite black space dotted with stars. Beyond him, thousands of different animals had assembled. All were looking at the boy with hope and love. Emanating from them was a sound like rushing winds, "Zhiv." The image had flashed through his mind in a second but left behind it a feeling of awe. "I think I saw you," David said. "You were with a lot of animals, and they were all looking at you."

"Sometimes they all think I can do something, that I can help them, but I don't know what to do. Sometimes it's a peaceful feeling, but there are other times when it's like I'm in a river, in the rapids, and I have no control over where I'm going, or what I'm doing."

"I don't think you should worry," David said. "When I saw you inside, it seemed very peaceful."

"I saw you too," said Zhiv, "much clearer than I did before. The image was like a high mountain lake. There were lots of other animals around you too, just going about their lives like normal. I didn't hear any sound, but that'll come as you get stronger, and then we'll know your name, your inside name."

"Zhiv, I love this; I love doing this," said David. He got to his feet. "But I need to look at my phone to find out the time. If I'm gonna keep my mom and dad happy, I have to show up at suppertime." David laughed. "After what I've seen and done today, worrying about being late for supper is funny. It's like a different world."

In the cavern, David checked his phone and found he was not in danger of being late if he left soon. He emptied the pack of the supplies he had brought for Zhiv and asked if there were other things he could bring. Together they made a list.

Zhiv shouldered the pack, and they set off down the mountain to where David had left his bike. There, Zhiv set the pack down, and they moved into each other's arms for a long hug.

David said, "I'll try to come earlier tomorrow. I won't be able to come after that until next weekend because of school, but it's the last week of school, so I'll be able to come up every day after that."

"I wish you could stay here with me," said Zhiv, "I mean, all the time."

"Me too. Maybe I can get my mom and dad to let me camp up here as soon as school's finished."

They pulled apart. David donned his clothes and wheeled his bike across the clear-cut to the road. Zhiv stayed at the edge of the forest. They waved to each other, and David rode away.

Most of Celia's Social Services colleagues tried not to have clients outside of town. Rural visits meant long drives. Celia liked driving. It gave her time to think, so that when she got back to the office, she knew what she was going to do next. Driving also gave her the opportunity to ponder the needs of her clients more deeply. She liked to think about them as individuals and how best to help with their problems.

After she left Mrs. Wilkins, Celia planned the next steps she would take to complete the paperwork the widow needed. Then her mind turned to a case that affected her like an open sore.

A year and a half earlier, she had connected with an orphan boy named Sol Mundy. He'd been in the system since he was an infant. He had never found a permanent placement, had never found a home, though he'd been in many.

Sometimes he had moved because a family became unable to have an extra child in the house. Sol, however, was returned several times to the agency after a short stay because he was simply too sad. It seemed impossible to make him happy. Foster parents said he depressed them and the other children in the house.

The Social Services' in-house therapist confirmed the boy was depressed. It manifested as persistent sadness. He suggested putting him on a regimen of mood-elevating drugs. Sol resisted taking the drugs. He said he still felt sad, but the drugs made him feel stupid too. Because they seemed to have little effect on the boy's sadness, Celia had decided to discontinue drug therapy.

In addition to being sad, Sol was vegan. He refused to eat or wear anything that came from an animal. His foster families usually found this difficult to tolerate. Yet, despite his sadness and veganism, he wasn't a difficult child. He was never rude or violent. He didn't have tantrums and was helpful and easy to get along with. He was a good-looking boy with bright blonde hair, and though he seldom smiled, his face lit up when he did, and he was beautiful.

Celia was sympathetic to Sol's veganism because her parents had rarely eaten meat, and she had grown up on meals of vegetables and whole foods. There was always cheese, butter, and eggs, though, so she wasn't a vegan. Nor was she religious about being vegetarian. If she was at a friend's place for a meal, she was not fussy and ate what everybody was having. It suited her personal philosophy of being kind and tolerant.

Celia had finally found a family who were willing to compromise with Sol's veganism. They were also prepared to work to overcome his sadness. From their first meeting, Celia had liked the young couple, Evan and Marie Large. She thought that maybe she had finally found a place where Sol could thrive. She had moved Sol out of a group home and placed him with the Larges. The couple was trying to survive on a small, organic fruit and vegetable farm outside town. They were eager to share their life with a child and could use the extra income fostering would bring.

On her first monthly visit, Celia found they had solved the vegan food difficulty. Marie had learned to cook some vegan dishes, and Sol said he was enjoying the food she prepared. Celia could tell there was some mutual affection developing too. Yet the boy's sadness had not lifted.

Celia had asked him what made him sad.

"Sometimes I wake up at night because I hear a sound in the darkness like a lot of people crying. It's like they're hurting, someone is hurting them."

When this happened, he buried his head under his pillow, but the sound was inside his head, and he couldn't escape. In the daytime, outside noises and sights made it possible to ignore the sound. Sometimes it went away for a day or two, but it always came back.

Evan and Marie's farm couldn't provide everything they needed, so Evan had taken a part-time job. He worked at a nearby large-scale farming operation that raised pigs for slaughter, Jameson Pork Producers. One weekend, Marie had an appointment at the hospital for some medical tests. Because Evan was only working a half day, Marie asked him to take the boy to his work site. Sol could look around the pig farm or help him do his work.

When they arrived at the enormous shed where the pigs were kept and went inside, Sol broke down, overcome with terror. Evan had to take the hysterical boy back to their house. It was hours before he ceased weeping, cascades of huge, gasping sobs. Evan had tried to discover the cause of his distress.

"That's the place!" said Sol. "That's the place where the sadness comes from. Don't you hear it?"

"No," said Evan.

"I know people say I'm too sad, and it's a problem," Sol had said. "But now I know: All that sadness is not coming from inside me. It's their sadness that I feel, all those animals, those pigs. Can't you hear how much they're suffering? Can't you feel it?"

Evan said he tried to calm the boy. He and Marie felt that by nightfall, they had made him feel a little better, but after they put him to bed, a low keening coming from his room had kept them awake. It was as if he was mourning. Again, they attempted to comfort him, but the keening continued, and nothing they could say or do made it stop. Eventually they went to bed and to sleep. In the morning, Sol was gone. That was over a year ago. There had been no sign of the boy since.

Though she knew it was unprofessional, Celia couldn't shake the feeling that she was to blame. She felt she had failed, that a child in her care had disappeared, had winked out of existence.

Jameson Pork Producers needed a fresh stock of antibiotics. They were only available in the nearby city of Dryden. The small city was a half-day's drive distant. Aaron had offered to make the trip, though it was his day off. He hoped it might mollify the old man, who continued to fume about the speeding ticket.

On his return from Dryden, Aaron slowed as he passed Jana Mountain. He glanced around to see if there were any of those birds that had attacked him. He rolled up the windows. The only movement he saw was an old man setting down a plastic chair in the yard in front of his house. It was a useless place to put a deck chair and confirmed Aaron's opinion that old people were nuts.

Aaron kept a careful watch on his speedometer as he left Jana Mountain behind. He didn't want to get ticketed again for speeding. He still found it difficult to believe what had happened to him when he was up the mountain — those damn birds!

As the logging road junction came into sight, Aaron saw a figure on a bicycle nearing the highway, then turning onto it. He slowed down when he recognized the boy he'd seen up the mountain the previous week. He passed the cyclist and honked while making a hand signal to pull over. A hundred yards further, Aaron stopped on the shoulder. He went around to the back of the truck, leaned on the tailgate, and waited for the boy to come up to him.

David pedaled up to Aaron and stopped.

"I think I saw you up the mountain last week," said Aaron.

"Yeah," said David. "You ran me off the road."

"That's why I stopped you now. I'm really sorry about that. A bunch of birds attacked me, and I was just trying to get out of there as fast as possible. I hope you're okay, and it didn't wreck your bike or anything."

"No. I'm okay and so's the bike. No problem."

"That's good. I would have stopped, but those birds were like to kill me, and I could see through the rear-view mirror that you were okay. If there's anything I can do to make up for that?"

"No, it's okay."

Aaron held out his hand. "My name's Aaron Jameson."

"David McAdam," said David, as he shook Aaron's hand.

"You probably know my brother, River. He's about the same age as you and goes to the same school."

"Yeah. I know who he is."

"Hey, you wouldn't be any relation to Deputy McAdam, would you?"

"My dad's a sheriff's deputy."

"He gave me a speeding ticket that same day, pretty close to here."

David said nothing.

"My old man was pretty pissed off at me getting a ticket. You know it's gonna cost about five hundred dollars. And that's just the fine."

David looked at Aaron like he was a telephone pole.

"Dads are like that," said Aaron. "I guess yours was pretty pissed off when he heard I just about hit you, even though it was an accident? Maybe that's why he gave me the ticket?"

"No," said David. "When we were eating supper that night, my dad told us about you getting attacked by some birds. I said I'd seen you on the logging road, and some starlings were flying around your truck. If he gave you a ticket that day, it must have been before I talked to him, because we didn't talk until he was home after work."

"I thought you might have been, you know, angry."

"No, I didn't get hurt or anything. There was no reason for me to be angry. I didn't think you'd done it on purpose."

"Hey, I'm glad you feel that way. So, we can be friends now. Right?"

"Okay," David said.

"Maybe, if you're talking to your dad about this situation, you could tell him that ticket is giving me a lot of trouble. If he could just tear it up or forget it somehow?"

"No," said David. "There is no 'situation' that I'm gonna talk to my father about. I'm sorry about the ticket, but it's got nothing to do with me. If you want my father to do something about it, you should talk to him. And right now, I'm gonna be late for supper if I stand around here much longer." He mounted his bike.

"Hey, why don't we throw your bike in the back of the truck, and I'll give you a lift home?"

"No thanks. I'd rather ride."

"Yeah, sure," said Aaron. "It was nice meeting you," he called to David's back, as the boy pedaled away. "Fucking, stuck-up, asshole kid," he added to himself.

Pete readied the grill and helped Doreen prepare the condiments for the burgers. The plant-based patties she'd bought looked like regular burgers, big and meaty. Doreen sliced some tomatoes, and Pete cut up some lettuce. There were some vegan cheese slices too. They looked the same as normal cheese slices. Doreen had also set out a big bowl of her potato salad.

"Is that vegan too?" Pete pointed at the salad.

"Everything's vegan. The cheese. The mayo. Everything."

"So, what's that?" Pete pointed at some small, white cubes in the salad. "Looks like egg white to me."

"Nope." Doreen shook her head. "It's tofu. After tonight, you will no longer be a tofu virgin."

"Wow, looks like hard-boiled egg white."

"Tastes like it too. Egg white and tofu have one thing in common — they're both nearly tasteless."

Pete had thought about this meal all afternoon. At first, he felt disappointed with himself. It seemed like he had surrendered, that he had given up. Then he realized that he felt like a big weight was lifting off him. Maybe now he wouldn't go around feeling grumpy so much, but he worried about his low flash point. If David did something that showed he thought he had won, Pete was afraid he would explode. He mentioned this to Doreen.

"He's not like that," she said. "Don't worry, Pete." She crossed her fingers behind her back, knowing that this meal was more about healing old wounds than satisfying hunger.

As he rode home, David tried to devise a plausible excuse for going up the mountain so often. He knew he wanted to spend as much time as possible up the mountain with Zhiv, but there was no way he could tell his parents about a wild boy running around naked in the forest. Because he couldn't tell his parents about Zhiv, he had to have another reason for going up the mountain every day. He wracked his brain but didn't arrive at a solution until he neared home. After he parked his bike in the garage and plugged it into its charger, he joined his parents on the patio behind the house.

"I hope you're hungry," said Pete. "Should I start the burgers?"

David saw the plant-based burgers package and scanned the vegan cheese and mayonnaise. "Starving," he said, looking around to see if there was any meat. Everything seemed to be vegan.

Pete laid three of the patties on the grill. They sizzled in an appetizing fashion. Doreen handed him some sliced buns to toast.

"Did you have a good ride?" asked Doreen.

"Yeah," said David. "That bike is great. I went up Jana Mountain again today, and it takes me up that old logging road like it's flat."

"What do you do up there?" said Pete.

That was the question David had anticipated. "Mostly just look around. I really like being in the forest. It makes me feel really peaceful, but ignorant. I hardly know the names of any plants or animals, especially the birds. There's so many different kinds of birds." He paused.

"Yeah," said Doreen. "I know what you mean about peaceful. When I was a girl, we lived on the edge of a forest, and I spent a lot of time in the woods."

"You told me once that you were a bird-watcher," said David.

"Yeah, it was great. I wanted to know the name of every bird in the forest. I was surprised at how satisfying it was to get to know them like that. I've pretty much forgotten all that now, but at the time, I could even identify a bird just from hearing its call."

"Wow. I'd like to be able to do that," David said.

"I still have my field guide and binoculars," said Doreen. "They're packed away somewhere, but I could dig them up for you if you'd like?"

"Thanks Mom, that would be terrific."

"Do you want some of that fake cheese on your burgers?" asked Pete as he flipped the patties on the grill.

David and Doreen both said they did. Pete said, "Okay but the personal Pete special burger always has a dollop of mustard on the patty. Then I lay the cheese on top. So, mustard?"

Pete received two loud affirmatives.

"Mom, can you dig up that guide and the binocs tonight? I really want to get started on bird-watching tomorrow when I go up the mountain, and I want to go early."

"Okay, Honey. I'll try, after supper. Mayonnaise?"

"Yes, please," he said.

He stole glances at Pete while his father took a bite from his burger.

"This is great," said Pete. "Anybody want something to drink?"

He reached into the cooler for a beer for himself and colas for David and Doreen.

Pete said that he used to cycle a lot when he was a kid. Then he related a story about taking part in a cycle race around the state. It was an annual event that took about ten days. He and his best friend did it together, with about a hundred other riders. He never got a prize, but his friend did. The friend liked to sing when they were cycling on long, lonely stretches of the route. The prize he got was for 'Loudest Cyclist.'

David confessed that he too liked to sing while he pedaled.

Two more of the plant-based burgers hit the grill for Pete and David. Doreen went off to search for her field guide and binoculars. She came back outside with them as her boys were finishing off their second burgers.

Pete sat back and looked at his son. Then he burped, a challenging burp. David belched, managing to make it just a little louder and longer.

"God," said Doreen. "You guys are such pigs!"

"But you love us," said Pete.

She handed the field guide and binoculars to David.

After they had cleaned up their meal and put everything away, David said, "Dad, you used to ride a bike a lot when you were a kid. Have you ever ridden an electric bike?"

"No. It must be pretty much the same, I guess."

"Well, yes," said David. "But it's different, too. Do you want to try mine?"

"Oh, I don't know. It's been a long time…"

"It's easy, and riding a bike is like swimming — once you know how to do it, you never forget. It's not dark yet. We can go for a spin. I'll ride my old bike. C'mon."

When they had gone around to the garage, Doreen sat down on the patio and smiled. This was the way it was supposed to be. This was the best. There was nothing better than this.

Later, when she and Pete were sitting watching TV, David came in to say good night. He was fresh-showered, soapy-smelling, and barefoot. In his dinosaur-patterned pajama shorts, he looked like he was eleven. He embraced his mother, "G'night Mom."

Then he turned to his father and said, "Uhhh," and hugged Pete. "Thanks, Dad."

"For what?"

"For everything," said David and raced upstairs to his bedroom.

"I saw that McAdam kid today, on my way home," said Aaron. "So, I stopped to have a little chat, to see if I could get him to talk to his father about that ticket. First, I apologized for nearly hitting him, though it was his fault as much as mine. I was trying to be friendly, but he was just like a stone. 'Okay' he says, like it really doesn't matter to him."

That's what he's like," said River. "You talk to him, and there's nothing. You might as well be talking to the wall."

They sat at the supper table, Aaron, River, and their father. The two older brothers were out at what they called a 'beer-b-cue.'

Their father bit into a deep-fried pig testicle and chewed it. Then he asked, "Do you ever wonder why they can make millions of dollars selling 'Chicken Nuggets'? But if we tried to sell 'Pig Nuggets,' we'd probably get run out of town."

"It's all in the name, in advertising," offered Aaron. "You've got to call it something cute, like 'Piglet Bits" or 'Oinker Nibbles.'"

"How about 'Porky Bites'?" said River.

"Oinker Nibbles," said their father. "I like that. Or maybe 'Oinker Nutlets'. We could call the franchise 'Oinkers Away.'"

River laughed and sang, "Oinkers away, my boys, Oinkers away."

"A shorter name is better," said Aaron. "Just call it Oink's. It's like a friend's nickname. People could say, 'I'll stop at Oink's and pick up a barrel of Oink's Nutlets and gravy.' We'd hafta do gravy too. People will eat anything with gravy on it."

His father smiled and held out the bowl of pig testicles. He said, "Have another nutlet, Aaron. So, what did the kid say about the ticket? Did he call his daddy?"

"He said he didn't even tell his father about it until they were at supper, hours after I got the ticket," said Aaron.

"Do you think he was tellin' the truth?" asked the senior Jameson. "Maybe he was afraid you'd get mad if you knew he'd called the law on you. Where did all this take place anyway?"

"He'd just come down from the Jana Mountain logging road. He musta been up there again. Maybe he goes up there every weekend. I don't know. It seemed like he didn't care about our little run-in last week. He did get kinda upset later. We talked a bit and shook hands all friendly-like. I asked him if he might talk to his daddy about the ticket situation, that I was sorry and all. I could see that got him like a firecracker up his ass. 'No,' he says, 'there ain't no situation,' and he's not gonna talk to his daddy about nothin'. Then he rode off in a huff."

"You're some diplomat!" said his father. "River, you get close to the kid at school next week."

"Okay, Daddy, but he ain't friendly."

"Well, see if you can do better than your brother. Maybe try a different approach."

"Yes, Daddy."

Darkness fell at the lower edges of Jana Mountain Park. A lone starling fluffed his feathers and perched on the branch of a birch tree. On lower branches, six red hens and a rooster clucked softly as they settled themselves for the night. Tomorrow, Lilili would lead them deeper into the mara. They were eager to meet Zhiv.

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