Before they found Maribelle, Arlo and Sam were scavenging the remains of a farmhouse. Just piles of charred wet wood and muddy ash. The fire had burned so hot the steel springs from a mattress were melted into a tangle of metal and fused with the concrete foundation. The men managed to recover a few scraps of wood that still had another burn in them so long as they could be dried, but no food or clothes or anything else of use.
It would be easy to mistake them for father and son rather than two strangers sharing circumstances. The men were equally unkempt. Greasy tangled hair to their shoulders. Eyes bloodshot and bleary. Arlo’s beard was a gnarled thicket of grey. It rose high on his cheeks and creeped down his neck. Sam’s beard was patchy and dark. Their clothes were rags on top of rags. Mismatched shoes. They carried their belongings in makeshift packs of canvas and rope. Cans and scraps of food. A damp woolen blanket. A .38 revolver with no bullets.
The silo was the only structure on the property still standing but its outer shell was burned off, leaving only the fire-blackened metal framework like a sketch against the sky. Sam helped Arlo on with his pack and then put the wood they found into his own pack and hoisted it onto his sore shoulders. The men started off across the field towards the woods. Not far from the house, a hundred yards or so, was a substantial dip in the terrain. As they made their way down, Sam stumbled over something in the ground. Two aluminum doors lay flush with the slope. Sam looked to Arlo.
“Storm cellar,” said Sam.
“Looks like it,” said the old man.
They dropped their sacks. A rusty latch bridged the two doors, secured with a padlock.
“I think we can bust that off,” Sam said digging through his pack. He pulled out the gun and knelt on the doors and struck the lock with the butt. He paused to adjust his grip and the men heard shuffling and something guttural on the other side of the doors. They looked at each other and Sam reared back and swung the gun full strength. The latch broke off its hinge. He tossed it aside and got to his feet.
“What do you think?” he asked Arlo.
“Something is alive in there.”
“Well, yeah. You think it’s a person?”
“Just in case,” said Arlo, “give me the gun.” Sam tossed the .38 to Arlo.
More sounds from the cellar.
“Get ready to open the door,” Arlo said.
Sam crouched to the side of the doors and reached across to the handle. He looked to Arlo. Arlo planted his feet in the dirt and raised the gun slowly, aiming it at the door. He adjusted his stance. Whatever was in the storm cellar banged against the doors. Arlo nodded to Sam and Sam threw open the door and jumped back. A large pig stuck its nose out and sniffed the air.
“What the hell?” said Sam.
Arlo lowered the gun to his side. It was a big sow and she climbed out of the cellar, ignoring the two men and set about rooting in the mud. Sam moved towards the cellar and carefully leaned over to look inside. He jerked his head back quickly and turned away.
“What is it?” asked Arlo.
“There’s something dead in there.”
Arlo sniffed the air. “Oh yeah. I smell it now.”
Sam pulled one hand into his raggedy sleeve and held it over his nose and mouth. With the other hand he sparked the lighter and slowly went down the steps into the ground.
Arlo moved towards the pig, holding out his hand. She sniffed him and then went back to her rooting. Arlo patted the sow on the head and looked back to the rubble of the farmhouse and the silo skeleton and across the vast, barren fields. They’d been tilled at some point in the past but never seeded and were now covered in a thin crust of salt.
The men had been wandering together for two months or so and the salt was everywhere they went. Spread all over fields and pastures, poured into the headwaters of rivers, pumped into springs. Most everything had died. Trees turned grey and dropped their leaves. Grass and bushes froze and crumbled to dust if they were disturbed at all. There was a deep silence. Birds, insects, the wind through the leaves, sounds that normally go unnoticed were gone.
Sam came up the stairs coughing, cradling a few boxes and mason jars. Arlo went to him.
“What’d you find?” he asked.
Sam crouched and let the things he had gathered drop to the mud.
“Some food,” he said after catching his breath. He picked up one of the jars. “Looks like okra and beans.”
Arlo picked up another jar and held it up to the dull sun behind the clouds.
“This looks like radishes. Or beets maybe.”
“Carton of cigarettes too. Matches. Another bottle of bourbon.”
“Quite a haul,” said Arlo.
“Looks like there was more at some point. Lots of empty shelves. This stuff was back in the corner.”
Arlo watched Sam open a pack of cigarettes. He put one between his teeth and lit it with the matches.
“Matches work,” he said looking at the ground.
Arlo watched him a moment longer and then spoke.
“Person down there?”
He nodded again.
“The farmer maybe?” asked Arlo.
“Maybe,” said Sam, “hard to tell.”
“How did he, uh,” Arlo trailed off.
“Hung,” said Sam. He looked to the sow.
“It’s not right of that farmer to go and do that and leave his pig to starve,” Arlo said.
“It was locked from the outside,” said Sam.
“Yes it was.”
“That’s pretty grim.”
The men watched the sow rooting in the mud.
“So what do we do with her?” Sam asked.
Arlo mulled it over. “Well, we should eat her, I suppose.”
“That’s what I was supposing too,” said Sam. “Question is, how do we kill her?”
“Guess I could club her with the gun,” Sam said.
“That’ll be a mess but I can’t think of another way.”
Sam held out his hand for the gun.
“You gonna do it now?” asked Arlo.
Sam gestured at the wasteland that surrounded them. “What else do we have to do?”
Arlo handed Sam the gun and Sam went to the pig and crouched next to her. She sniffed him and went back to the mud. Sam reached one arm over her massive neck and tried to pull her towards him but there was no moving her if she didn’t want to be moved. He gripped the gun by the barrel and lifted it high and brought it down hard onto the pig’s head. There was a dull slap and the pig struggled and squealed. Sam hit her again and she wrenched herself from Sam’s grip. She ran a little ways off and stood watching the men.
“Well, that didn’t work,” said Arlo. Sam picked himself up from the mud. “Look at that, you didn’t even draw blood.”
“You try it then,” said Sam holding out the gun. Arlo waved him off.
“No, no. If you can’t do it I don’t have a prayer.”
Sam threw the gun to the ground. “Damn thing is worthless without bullets.”
The pig was already back to rooting in the mud.
“I sorta had a feeling that wouldn’t work,” The old man said.
“Why didn’t you say so?” Sam said.
“Well I figured it was worth a shot. But you know, we’ve got no knife. No way to dress or butcher her. No good way to cook her. We should figure that out first, make the most of her.”
Sam looked to the sky. There were still a few hours until dark. “Alright. Let’s get out of the open and find a place for the night.”
The men put on their packs, Sam helping Arlo with his. Arlo opened a jar of radishes or beets and was able to get the pig to follow him and after Sam retrieved the gun they all three crossed the field and disappeared into the tree line.
Weeks of wandering. They boiled the alcohol out of the bourbon and rationed it out three sips per man per day. Sam found a hacksaw blade in the ground the night they slept in a cemetery. The next day, they found a dead family in a shed holding one another. Arlo wrenched off a shard of corrugated steel from the roof of the shed. Over days the men heated the shard and pounded it with a rock and cooled it in salty puddles until it began to resemble a knife. They soaked a strap of leather in water and wrapped it tight around the dull end of the metal and when the leather dried it constricted and held firm for the handle. Then a long stretch of rain and fireless nights.
“It’s either an oversight or they just haven’t gotten to it yet,” Arlo said.
They’d come to an area that hadn’t been salted. There was a stream and Sam knelt down next to it. He dipped two fingers in and then touched the two fingers to his tongue.
“It’s good,” he said and thrust his hands into the clear water. Clouds of dirt billowed from his skin and floated downstream. He cupped his hands to his mouth and drank. Arlo dropped his pack where he stood and joined Sam. The pig waded into the shallow water and wallowed and drank. Arlo had named the pig Maribelle because, he said, “That’s a good name for a pig.” Sam still referred to her as The Pig. “We know what’s coming. No use in making friends with her,” he’d said.
They drank and washed and then followed the stream downhill which brought them to two roads. The stream ran through a big drainage pipe under the smaller road and continued down the hill on the other side. A long-abandoned highway crossed over that road and the men and the pig took shelter beneath this overpass. It was dark and colder under the highway but they were out of the rain.
Water ran down the walls from cracks in the road above. Sam tasted it and then propped a bottle beneath one of the little streams. Arlo unpacked what wood they’d collected and set about making a fire. Sam looked at the wall, the faded graffiti from another time. Spray painted anti-government slogans. Beneath the paint was a message carved into the cement. Sam ran his finger along the rough grooves, tracing the letters: I Love You FOREVER. Sam looked toward Arlo to call him over, but the old man was crouched and humming tunelessly and stacking kindling.
Sam sat across from Arlo by the pile of wood. He looked at the pig, at Maribelle. She was drinking from the gutter.
“I don’t know how she stays so fat,” Sam said. Arlo nodded but didn’t look up from arranging a stack of twigs.
Sam continued, “She must eat when we’re not looking.”
Arlo ripped small strips of cardboard and added them carefully to his criss-crossed pile of kindling.
“You got those matches?” asked Arlo.
Sam took the box of matches out of his pack and passed them to Arlo. He removed the blanket from the pack and unrolled it. The gun was in there and along with it a bent hacksaw blade and the crude knife.
As if on cue, the pig left the underpass and walked into the woods near the creek.
“Think she knows what’s coming?” asked Sam. Arlo was on his hands and knees with his ear close to the pavement blowing gently on the embers.
“Do you want to do the honors this time or should I give it another go?” said Sam.
“Would you quit your talking?” Arlo snapped. “I’m trying to get us a fire going and you’re distracting me.”
“Okay, okay,” said Sam.
Arlo blew hard and a flame caught and soon the kindling snapped and hissed.
“I told you not to name her,” Sam said.
“It’s not that,” said Arlo. “I just think you oughta have a little respect. We’re about to take a life here.”
“You didn’t seem so sentimental when you had me out there clubbing her with the gun.”
“Yeah, well,” Arlo trailed off. He put two larger pieces of wood on the fire. “Let’s get to it I guess.”
Sam undid the rope from his pack and made a loop with a slipknot at one end. Arlo picked the knife up from the blanket. The men left the shelter of overpass to look for the pig.
It was drizzling. The trees in that area still had leaves and the rain on them made an old sound Sam and Arlo hadn’t heard in a long time.
“Maribelle? C’mere girl,” called Arlo.
They found her in a small clearing in the woods. She was digging intently with her snout and hooves.
“Think she smells food?” Sam asked.
“I dunno. There’s something she wants under there for sure.” Arlo said.
The men watched. When she had broken up the hard soil she used her huge body to push it aside. She repeated this until she’d dug hole as deep as her and about twice as wide. With her mouth she stripped small, leafy branches from bushes and trees and lay them in the hole with surprising precision.
“I don’t think it’s food she’s after,” said Arlo.
She raised the layer of branches and leaves with her snout and burrowed down inside.
The men stood in the rain looking at the pig’s creation.
“We aren’t gonna kill her, are we?” Sam said.
“Are you disappointed or relieved?” asked Arlo.
Sam shrugged. “Now what?”
“Let’s have that rope,” said Arlo
He looped one end around a low branch then walked to the other side of the burrow and tied it off on a stump.
The men returned to the overpass. Sam put another log on the fire. Arlo emptied their packs and the men brought the canvas to the clearing. They draped the fabric over the rope like a tent above the burrow.
“That’ll keep her dry at least,” Arlo said.
With night the men sat under the blanket together and smoked cigarettes in front of the fire. They shared some potatoes and canned peaches and went to sleep.
They woke cold, just before dawn. There was a new sound, barely there. A low rumble.
“What is that?” asked Sam.
Arlo cocked his head and listened. “They’re salting.”
The men grabbed their belongings and Sam kicked the remains of the fire into the gutter. In the clearing they gathered the tarps and the rope. The sound was louder now, grinding engines and squeaks and clanks.
Arlo lifted the branches and leaves covering Maribelle and she raised her head and snorted. Five piglets were lined up against her big body nursing. Arlo tried to rouse her.
“C’mon girl, wake up. We gotta go.”
Sam kneeled in the burrow and plucked the piglets off her nipples one by one and wrapped them in the blanket where they struggled and mewed. Maribelle got to her feet and followed Sam and Arlo down the shallow gully to the stream. Arlo led them deep into the pipe that ran under the road where they crouched in the water and waited. Sam held the bundle of piglets out for Maribelle. She sniffed and nuzzled them.
The rumble was very close now and the pipe shook and the pools of water at their feet rippled. With the machinery came a sound like rain pouring on the leaves and pavement above. Through the openings at either end of the pipe the men saw rock salt pelting the ground like hail. The salters moved slowly along the highway, passing over them. The noise, overwhelming, flooded the pipe from both sides and pressed them all together, the men and the pigs. And then it began to fade.
Eventually there was nothing but the tapping of rain and the men emerged from the pipe with the piglets. The salt crunched under their feet. Maribelle followed closely behind. They returned to the overpass and Maribelle slept while the piglets nursed. Sam fixed a blanket for the piglets in one of the packs and put all of their stuff in the other. When the piglets had their fill and fell asleep, Arlo placed them in the pack and Sam helped him get the pack on his shoulders. Sam hoisted the other pack with all their belongings onto his own and the men and the pigs began walking down the smaller road. The pack was heavy on Sam’s shoulders but it felt good to carry.
Pete Fritz lives in Seattle with his fiancé Signe and their young son Henry. He is a film editor by trade and a contributing writer for The Hard Times, a music satire site.