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Pig Son by Sequoia Nagamatsu


Sequoia Nagamatsu’s “Pig Son” opens with a strong hook and is off and running with an original and emotional premise. The prose style is sharp, clear, and confident, with just the right touches of humor. In writing with fabulist or speculative elements, readers must be grounded in the story’s rules (see the wonderful author’s note for more on this). Nagamatsu integrates the speculative elements immediately and effectively, with seamless management of necessary backstory, handled with clarity and concision—memories of the past do not outshine present action, which is refreshing in a grief story.

Despite the potential outlandishness of the premise, the characters all feel very human and real. Look for generous character development, organic dialogue, and the parallels between Peter and Snortorious that work to build emotional weight and foreshadow the arc of the story. The present-tense narration drives the dual engine of tension and pace toward a lovely ending well-balanced in bitter and sweet. This story concerns ethics, grief, and agency, and yet does not moralize. This story made us want to sit down and talk about it, a strong sign it will stay with us. We hope it does the same for you.  —CRAFT


 

Since my ex-wife and I buried our son, I have committed myself wholeheartedly to my lab, growing hearts and other organs inside of pigs that could have saved Peter. It’s his birthday today, which means Laura texts me more than usual, which is pretty much never. Do you remember how he fell asleep hugging books? I’ve forgotten what he smells like. I ran into some of his old friends at the grocery. They’re all so tall now. I never respond. Laura doesn’t want a conversation. That would be too real. In the same way I have never included Peter’s failed transplant in peer-reviewed articles or presentations. His file sits in my desk instead of our program records, a lost statistic.

My graduate assistant, Patrice, is telling me to come out quickly, but there’s also another voice out there, muffled and nasally and not just a little bit frantic, that I don’t recognize, repeating the word doctor as if they are trying to convey entire thoughts with one word. When I open my office door, I see my staff gathered around one of the glass holding pens where we keep our organ donor pigs. Nicknamed Snortorious P.I.G. after an undergrad intern put a gold chain and shades on him during a Halloween party, Donor #28 studies me as I approach, wiggles his behind, and barely opens his mouth: Dahktar. The sound seems disembodied like a ventriloquist throwing their voice.

“Okay, very funny,” I say, turning to my staff. “Who is it?”

They look at each other and Patrice points back to the pen.

“We really think it’s Snortorious,” she says. Okay, sure. Forget the fact that these pigs lack the necessary vocal cords for human speech even with their genetic modification.

Dahktar. This time the pig’s mouth doesn’t move at all. I’m getting annoyed, but there’s also something to the voice I can’t quite put my finger on.

“Again,” I say. I hop over into the pen, nearly sliding on a piece of shit, and kneel, looking into the pig’s blue eyes. “Say it.”

Dahktar, he says. Jesus. The pig’s strange voice, like Steve Buscemi doing a Don Corleone impression, reverberates in my mind. And after several more tests there is no mistaking it. The pig’s brain, not quite human but not quite swine, spikes like an earthquake on the EEG whenever he speaks.

“This does not leave the building. Not yet,” I say. “We need to know what we have here. And we don’t want someone else taking him away.”

The staff nods, but that simply isn’t good enough this time.

“I need to hear you say yes, I won’t say a word.”

Yes, I won’t say a word, they say in unison like it’s grade school. Okay, good. But this isn’t some top-secret facility. There are no security clearances or repercussions. The undergrads especially are suspect even on a normal day, swiping test tubes and pipettes for god knows what. It’s only a matter of time.


We divide the day between fulfilling hospital organ orders and working with Snortorious, and I pay Patrice’s sister, Ammie, a speech therapist, to assist. The interns clear out a spare room as a study/play area where we put a TV and a computer equipped with pre-programmed paddle buttons specially modified for pig feet, and I dig through my attic for my son’s old books and toys. Dahktar. It’s no surprise the word he heard the most around the lab would be his first. When Ammie and I work with him, he seems to soak up everything we share—flashcards, cartoons, children’s books including The Three Little Pigs and Charlottes Web. We’re treating him like a child, but it’s hard to say where his mind is at any given moment. Ammie gives him treats, gold stars. Positive reinforcement is important, she says. He’s learning so fast. At first, he has favorite words of the day. Something new he doesn’t want to let go of—sheep, horse, farmer, bus, yellow, mud, Ammie. In the mornings and evenings he screams the word hungry or makes a specific request from his rapidly growing vocabulary. Sometimes I swear I can hear the words coming from his mouth, but his speech comes from somewhere deeper within him, a synapse firing directly from his brain into my own.

Apple, he says one morning. Please.

Today, he told Patrice Thank you after he finished eating. Good pig. He favors Animal Planet, snorting excitedly when he sees hippos, but also has a fascination with car shows like Top Gear. Naught to sixty, he says. Petrol, petrol. Flappy paddle gear box. Sometimes he runs around the room, snorting to an imaginary finish line. When I brought him my son’s hot wheels, he pushed the mustangs and corvettes across the floor with his snout. Vroom, vroom, I said, as I placed cars on a track, too delicate and precise a job for the snout or mouth of a pig.

“I’m the blue Camaro,” I said. Snortorious pointed with a hoof to a Porsche 911 Turbo and began snorting.

“Vroom, vroom,” he said, as I let the cars pass through the spinning launchers.

But tonight, just as I’m about to leave the lab, I hear Snortorious say a new word: lonely. I approach his playroom and sit with him, scratching behind his ears. More and more, the observation room that we’ve built begins to look like Peter’s room. Lonely pig, he says, lazing on Peter’s Batman comforter. If I breathed into the fabric deeply maybe I could still smell my son tangled with the aroma of a not-quite pig. My phone buzzes: My ex again with a photo of Peter at Disneyland just before he tried shrimp for the first time and burst into hives. Snortorious repeats himself as he often does, and I can’t help but feel guilty for giving him this life, a life that would have ended weeks ago had he remained silent—a heart to Indiana, a liver to Michigan, lungs to D.C. Of course, we’ve made other arrangements. But something else tugs at me as he speaks, and I think about how when I go home, I’ll heat up a microwave dinner, flick through the TV without settling on anything, and curl up in bed, watching the only video I have of Peter, a two-minute clip of him making a sand castle, over and over again until I fall asleep. Instead, I grab the sleeping bag I keep in my office, a half empty can of Pringles, and keep Snortorious company.

He rests his chin on my shoulder as I read to him, his snorts creating a damp crescent on my polo. Where the Wild Things Are first. He points a foot when he wants me to linger on a picture, sometimes bringing his snout to the page as if he could inhale the words.

Max, he says. Wild rumpus.

“That’s right,” I say. He can’t quite read yet, but Patrice and Ammie are working with him on that. He’s got his ABCs down and I point to words as I read, so he can put two and two together. When we switch books to The Velveteen Rabbit, Snortorious sticks his feet on my hand, as I try to flip past the title page. He points to an orange stegosaurus nameplate pasted onto the inside of the front cover with Peter’s name scrawled out in black crayon.

“Peter,” I say. I take out my phone and show him a few photos. I point to myself and then back to the pictures to drive home the relationship. “My son.” But I don’t know if Snortorious comprehends what I’m saying just yet, having been raised in this building since he was a piglet, never really having a mother save for a petri dish.

Peter, he says. Peter son.

Peter used to yell to me across the hall after he brushed his teeth, telling me it was story time. He’d always ask for one more fairy tale, just a few more pages, almost always falling asleep as soon as I picked up again. Snortorious is getting sleepy, too. His eyes are fluttering. At home, on my nightstand, story time has been waiting for years. There’s a bookmark just forty pages shy from the end of The Return of the King. Peter was already reading it on his own, but when he became hospital bound, we revived our tradition. When the nurses came that morning for his surgery, I almost wanted to tell them to hold on. Please, we have to finish. But the surgeons were waiting with the heart I had carefully engineered. I told Peter that the ending would have to await his return. I hold a twitching hoof and watch Snortorious drift, wondering where his mind is taking him. Perhaps whatever conduit makes it possible for a pig to speak can also reach beyond the realm of science, knocking on the veil of the dead. I fall asleep to snorts and and a damp snout by my ear. I dream about a boy and a beating heart.

I wake up to a still-empty lab, but I find a sticky note on my forehead that reads: Prize Swine. Typical. When I slink back to my office, I have a box full of emails from friends in the department and beyond, asking about Snortorious. Someone had leaked a video on social media. Posted last night, the video already has over a thousand views. Most of my colleagues outside of the lab no doubt think this is a joke, but a couple have said they’ll stop by anyway most likely to take a selfie or something. My associate dean will also be paying a visit but seems less amused by the attention. Outside, Patrice is shuffling about, setting up workstations for the day.

“Do you know anything about this video?” I hold up my phone. I also want to ask her who wrote the note on my forehead, but that doesn’t really matter now.

“I just saw it a few minutes ago.”

“I’m already getting emails about it.”

Patrice is a good seed. Almost too by the book, unlike her older sister who is the sort who spins flaming poi balls at Burning Man judging by her Facebook profile that I admittedly stalk all too often. I know Patrice didn’t do anything, but she’s obviously nervous. She can’t look me in the eye. Her hands shake as she puts supplies into drawers and her large, plastic glasses slide down her nose every time she bends down.

“I’m not accusing you by the way. But if you have any idea who might have done this.”

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe one of the interns? One of their girlfriends or boyfriends?”

“I really didn’t see anything.”

I grill others as they arrive, but I need to turn my attention back to Snortorious and run damage control. Hide him? But how to explain his absence? Can I somehow get him to shut up when my colleagues arrive? He’s outside telepathically yelling hungry, hungry, hungry. Ammie is already tending to him, rubbing her nose affectionately against his snout.

“Patrice, get in here. I need you to play interference. Let me know as soon as anybody shows up.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Get the diazepam.”


By the time anybody arrives, Snortorious is back in his normal pen, all but knocked out. Associate Dean Hayes barely spends time with pig #28, probably concerned that something in the lab will stain his suit. He drags to me to my office to lecture me about keeping a tighter rein on my staff.

“You’re an asset to the university,” he says. I focus on the carnation on his lapel. Who the hell is this guy? “Don’t turn the important work you do into a circus.”

“Of course not,” I say.

I barely register the rest of what he says the moment I see Patrice waving her arms in the air in the background as my friend and colleague, Dr. Brett Gaffney shows up with some of her students in tow. Brett’s in her usual rainbow tie-dyed lab coat, leading her students like this is a sanctioned field trip. They’re snapping photos of Snortorious, laughing it up, taking group photos with one finger pushing their noses up in pig solidarity.

“One, two, three, oink!” Brett says, holding up a selfie stick.

I try to distract Dean Hayes as he leaves, but he notices our visitors, the utter lack of professionalism, the disregard for the sanctity of the institution.

“What exactly is going on here?” he asks. He turns to me. “This is exactly the kind of thing I was talking about.” Ammie and Patrice are in the pen with Snortorious, rubbing his back. He’s still mostly out of it, but he seems to be aware of the commotion.

“They weren’t invited,” I explain. “I promise I’ll find out who took the video and have it taken down.” Of course I want to do this, but I doubt it’ll happen. I’m willing to say just about anything to get everyone to leave. “We really need to get back to work. The Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford is waiting.”

Dean Hayes grunts and he and the Gaffney crew are about to leave when Snortorious decides to speak. Noisy, he says. Noisy, noisy. Sleep, sleep. They stop in their tracks and Dean Hayes does an about-face. It’s obvious to our visitors that this voice is different. Like a microscopic person caught up in the crevices of their minds, shouting to be heard.

“What was that?” Dean Hayes asks. “That voice.”

Ammie, Ammie. Scratch ear.

“Holy crap,” Dr. Gaffney says.

Dean Hayes drags me back to my office.


Over the coming days and weeks, several meetings are held. Half the departments on campus want a piece of Snortorious. Initially Dean Hayes wanted to relocate him (and that still might happen), but we’ve since convinced him that Snortortious trusts us, especially after multiple failed attempts by other researchers trying to get him to speak without me or Ammie present. We have added security of course—a guard at the door and access to the lab for only key personnel after hours. Today, neuroscience has their dedicated time. I’m sitting in the corner, overseeing the session, feeling a little like I’ve just turned over my child to some Nazi scientist. Snortorious looks back at me frequently, letting out subdued, melancholy squeals as the others place sensors all over his body. I would never have let them touch my son. I would have knocked these young scientists with their smug-ass faces to the floor. Dahktar. Dahktar. I want to chase them off and hold him.

“Everything’s going to be okay,” I say. “It’s okay, it’s okay. I’m right here.” But I honestly don’t know if any of that is true. I don’t know what others have planned for him. And that’s not to say that none of us here aren’t studying Snortorious, that I didn’t see fame and money when I first heard him speak. But reading to him every night, getting to know him a little more every day has changed everything. He loves belly rubs and the back of his ear scratched. He prefers Star Trek to Star Wars. This morning, when he asked about the sky, I took him outside to the little Japanese tea garden behind our building. I couldn’t help but feel joy over the wonder in his eyes as he looked up. All the tiny, little things we take for granted that he’s been deprived of—fresh air, the feel of grass on our bare feet. Bird, he said. Bike. Girl on bike. He looked down at his feet, his reflection in the pond, becoming aware of how different he was from the rest of us. Fish. Many fish. I bought Koi feed from a gumball machine and held out my cupped hands. Snortorious lapped up the pellets and dropped them into the water, squealing as the fish did somersaults over each other.

“What do you dream about?” I asked. “Where do you go?” Snortorious looked at me, but didn’t say anything. He dipped a hoof into the water and let a koi nibble at him. But for a split second, I imagined him answering. Maybe he would have said he could hear and feel people across the city, the state, beyond the capacity for any car or plane—a chorus of life. Maybe he could hear the voice of a boy behind a fog that I would never be able to hear.

The researchers bring in all kinds of equipment, but they need my permission to break skin in any way whatsoever. I always say no. Not yet. There must be another way. But I keep waiting for the call where Dean Hayes or my chair tells me that I have no other choice but to let people conduct research as they see fit. And where is the limit to that? Drilling into his head? Can someone turn him into pork chops just to see if Snortorious would taste the same? But as much as I hate all of this, we’ve learned more about why Snortorious decided to speak: 1) The stem cells and genetic instructions that we use to grow human donor organs at accelerated rates had gone rogue, targeting the brain. Theoretically, this was always a possibility. Protestors outside of my lab never let me forget it. But after hundreds of procedures over the years, I think most of us discounted the idea of a pig person let alone one who could communicate telepathically. 2) Snortorious’s brain is continuing to grow in size and complexity at an alarming rate and multiple tumors are pressing against his hippocampus. Most of the researchers are focused on the possibility of what this means for their research, but Patrice helped Dr. Gaffney with the projections. If Snortorious’s brain doesn’t stop growing, complications will arise—headaches, fainting spells, seizures, and eventually death.

How do you tell a child that he might die? When Patrice told me the news, I called my ex out of the blue for the first time in years. She didn’t know anything about Snortorious, and I honestly didn’t want to go there. Maybe she would have thought I was full of shit or maybe she would have gotten upset that I let a pig have our son’s belongings. No, I just wanted to talk to someone who loved Peter, who could remember the moment when a doctor told us our son probably wasn’t going to make it.

“Do you regret not telling Peter how bad his condition was?” I asked.

“How could he have not known on some level? I think he appreciated not really knowing. We let him be a kid.”

I didn’t really know what else to say. I was hoping Laura would pick up the conversation as usual and walk me down memory lane.

“David?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you okay? What is all this about?”

“Nothing,” I said. “Just thinking.” But I could see Peter waving goodbye as the nurses rolled him away for surgery. I could see Snortorious asking me to help him as I stood an arm’s reach away.


You are a doctor. He is a doctor. Everybody doctor. Snorotorious’s speech abilities have improved dramatically over the last weeks, and we’ve reached a point where Patrice, Ammie, and I think maybe it’s time to have a serious talk with him, our pig son as Ammie refers to him. I am a pig. What job is pig? He has begun placing people into categories, purposes, and asking the big questions like why are we all here? Why can’t he talk to other pigs? He asks about love and friendship when watching soap operas. He asks about war and crime when watching the news. Kissing means love. Many bad people outside tonight.

“We can’t just keep telling him we’ll answer him later,” Ammie says to me in my car in the parking lot. When we’re near Snortorious, we try to clear our minds as much as possible. We still don’t know for sure how his telepathy works, if he can read our minds or if he can only transmit that way. She squeezes my hands. And part of me thinks about the possibility of us, but everything has to be about our pig son now in the same way that Laura and I had ceased to be husband and wife and instead became partners in trying to keep Peter tied to this world.

“I know,” I say.

“I know you’re just trying to protect him. But it’s not like he’s a boy. As much as we might wish it, he doesn’t have the same rights in that lab as us. He’s going to have even less freedom when the government gets involved. They’re going to move him away from us. Soon.”

“It’s just that. What is he going to do with what we tell him?”

Ammie remains silent for a long while and looks out the window. The crystal around her neck casts a tiny rainbow on the dash, each color a possibility where Snortorious would have a happy ending, where Peter could have met Snortorious, where I wouldn’t have to say goodbye to someone I loved.

“We help him,” she says. “We give him options.”


At night, after the lab has cleared out, I let the guard know that I’ll be working late, and disconnect the security camera in Snortorious’s room.

Story time? he says.

“Yes, soon,” I say. “But first we need to talk to you about something. You asked me yesterday what is a pig’s job.”

Snortorious comes closer and sits in front of me. He’s wearing a bright red cardigan Ammie knitted for him and Peter’s Yankees hat that I created a chinstrap for, so it would stay on a pig’s head. Now, fully grown, he towers over me when I sit on the floor. Surrounding us are boxes worth of Peter’s toys and books—Stretch Armstrong, a stuffed Rocky Raccoon, and a baseball glove he never got to use that Snortorious likes to stick his hoof into. I knew I would choke up, so I’ve come with a slideshow and videos on a tablet to help illustrate my points.

“You might have had a very different life,” I begin. I show him a vegan activist video. I explain to him that the Old MacDonald song he learned with Ammie has another side to it and that it isn’t just about animals living together with their human. Snortorious takes a moment to process this. I can’t help but see Peter in his eyes when my son yelled at me for lying to him, when he asked me and Laura point blank if he was going to die.

Pig is food?

“Yes, sometimes,” I say. “But some people keep pigs as pets and there are wild pigs like the ones you see on your nature shows.”

People eat pig.

Snortorious’s snorts become frantic, like he can’t quite catch a breath. He is squealing now, the saddest squeal I probably will ever hear, but I’m afraid the guard will hear and check in on us.

“Shh, shhh.” I embrace Snortorious, rubbing his back, his ears. “But that wasn’t your job, okay?” Here we go. I continue my slideshow, and I get to a diagram of the anatomy of humans and pigs, depicting our organs. “Inside,” I say, pointing to my heart, to his heart. I pull up the ultrasound cart and run the probe over my chest. “See?” Thump, thump, thump thump, thump, thump. I tap my hand in tune to the beat. When I run the probe over Snortorious, his ears automatically perk up.

Heart makes us alive, he says, studying the next slide.

“Yes, that’s right. The heart is very important.” I pull my phone out and show him a photo of Peter.

Son Peter, he says. Son Peter.

Peter had a bad heart,” I say. I tap Snortorious’s normal heartbeat on his side—Babumbum, Babumbum, and then mimic arythmia—bababumbumbum bumbum bababum bababum bababum. “Your heart is a human heart, a special heart.” I advance the slide to recent transplant recipients. And then to a diagram clearly depicting the process, a big yellow arrow from a pig’s heart to a human body. “Your job is to save people.”

Again, Snortorious takes time to process the information. He rolls on his side, his ears twitch. Pigs not save Peter, he says.

“No,” I say. “But pigs have saved many other people.”

Pig die without heart.

“Yes,” I say. “Pig die without heart.”

Snortorious lumbers across the room in deep thought and hits the paddle button for the TV. He flips through several stations before finally settling on the Travel Channel, a program depicting Machu Picchu. The snort sniffles start again.

I never go this place, he says. He flips the channel again to two people kissing, an old episode of Dawson’s Creek. I never do that. He’s about to change the channel again, but I place my hand on his foot.

“You’re special,” I say. I almost tell him the whole truth but—but the thing that makes you special is also killing you, I say in my head, hoping he can hear me. Perhaps one revelation at a time. “What do you want?” I ask.

I want home, he says. Not here.           


I call Patrice and tell her and Ammie to swing the lab’s van to the service entrance as soon as they can. Half the time, the rent-a-cop is busy playing games on his phone or talking dirty on some nine-hundred number, so there is little to no chance of us getting caught, so long as we’re back by the morning.

“Pig Express is here,” Ammie says, as she holds open the door. “Where we going?”

“My house.” Before I hop in the back with Ammie and Snortorious, I swing by the driver’s side door.

“Thank you for doing this.” Patrice is visibly shaken. Her hands are clutched tightly to the wheel. “If we get caught, I’ll tell the university that we forced you to do it. Don’t worry.”

“It’s not a problem,” she says, but I can tell it totally is.

In the back of the van, Ammie and I try to keep out of Snortorious’s way. He’s fixed to the back window, getting his first glimpse of the world outside of the campus, narrating things to us as we pass them. Blue car. Truck. Statue. Tall building. Lady running.

“So, what’s the plan?” Ammie asks, pushing Snortorious’s prodigious behind out of the way.

“This isn’t a jail break,” I say. “At least not yet. We need to think this through. Where would we take him? He doesn’t exactly belong anywhere.”

“Why take him out in the first place then?”

I rub Snortorious’s sides. His mouth is half open, his tongue dangling out in a goofy smile. “He asked for home. I just wanted to give him that if only for a night.”


We herd Snortorious into my bachelor pad duplex without trying to draw attention from the neighbors. But a group of college kids smoking a hookah in the back of a parked pickup truck spots us. “Hey, hey dude. Cool pig!” one of them shouts.

“So, this is where the magic happens,” Ammie says.

“I’m barely here,” I say. I pick up trash and dirty laundry from the sofa, and lay out a blanket for Snortorious near the gas fireplace. Fire, fire, fire. Christmas fire.

“Christmas isn’t for another month. But maybe we do have a present for you,” I say. I search the house for Peter’s old soccer ball that he never really got to use and kick it over to Snortorious. It’s already past midnight. We only have six hours at best before we need to head back.

“What are we going to do?” Patrice asks. She’s huddled in the corner of the sofa, still a ball of nerves.

“Apart from getting you a drink?” I slink to the kitchen and return with a bottle of scotch and three glasses. We bounce around a few ideas and settle on watching movies. Ammie and Patrice choose Heathers. Snortorious chooses The Rock.

“Maybe we should get something to eat,” Ammie suggests. I look in the kitchen and heat up all the remaining TV dinners I have—three beef stroganoff, two veggie lasagnas—and then run to the twenty-four-hour market for a cake and some candles. By the time I return, our weird little family is already a half hour into Heathers. I can tell Snortorious is watching, but is preoccupied by the new environment, constantly looking around at photos on the wall, sniffing all manner of stains and spills on the rug. I curl up next to him and pull out a family photo album, keeping my mind wide open for him. Snortorious asks questions about every memory. Who? Where? How old? I have never had someone so genuinely interested in my life before. Ocean, he says.

“My ex-wife and I went to Hawaii for our honeymoon.”

So big, he says. So blue. I try to visualize Laura and I scuba diving off Maui, hoping Snortorious can feel the water around him.

Midway through the second film, we pause for cake. Patrice comes in with the candles already lit, and we sing “Happy Birthday” even though Snortorious was released from his gestation pod in March instead of November.

“Make a wish,” I say. And I wonder what goes through his mind, knowing whatever he wished for will never come true. Maybe he knows, too.


Nicholas Cage is saving San Francisco from being nuked when I get an email from Dean Hayes. Effective later this week, Snortorious will be relinquished from our care and permanently transferred to a facility off-campus under federal supervision. Ammie and Patrice, both beside me, see the message. We share a look, but remain silent behind Snortorious, allowing him to enjoy the movie. I attempt to clear my mind of fear, muddling my thoughts with noise—the theme song to Growing Pains, an image of Peter singing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” during a school play. Ammie types out a message on her phone and holds it in front of me: What are we going to do now?

We give him choices, I text back.

When the film finishes, I turn the TV off. Patrice already has tears in her eyes. Ammie sits on the floor and rests her head on Snortorious.

Sad friends. Sick pig. Sad friends. Pig go away.

“Yes,” I say. “Pig knows?”

Snortorious shakes his head and snorts. If he knew about being taken away, about his growing brain, what else does he know?

“We want what’s best for you,” Ammie says.

“We don’t want you to go away,” Patrice says, barely intelligible through her sobs.

“We’ll find a way to keep you safe,” I say. “We’ll find a way to make the rest of your life as happy as we can.”

The awkward silence and Patrice’s sniffles are killing me. I turn the stereo on low for background noise, and I realize I need happier music. Snortorious sways his head to Hootie and the Blowfish’s “Only Wanna Be With You.”

Pig sick, he says. Friends get trouble.

“We can take care of ourselves,” I say. “Don’t worry about that.”

We go through two more songs before Snortorious speaks again, and at this point, we either have to return to the lab or make a break for it.

Pig go back. Pig sick. Pig help people.

Pig heart help.

“No, no, no, no,” Ammie says. Her voice breaks. “You can stay with us. See more of the world. Whatever time you have left.”

Pig go back. Pig help people.

“Are you sure?” I ask. “Do you understand what you’re asking us?

Snortorious sits up and touches his snout to Ammie’s forehead before walking over to Patrice and doing the same.

Pig sure.


In the campus quad we let Snortorious watch the first glimmers of sunrise. Orange. Purple. Yellow. Pink. Ammie watches us from afar while Patrice is already in the lab making the necessary calls to hospitals in the tri-state area in need of organs. I sit with our pig son on the frosted grass.

Beautiful, he says, shivering. I drape my jacket around him.

“It is,” I say.

Story time?

“Sure. What kind of story?”

Finish Peter story, he answers. Snortorious turns his head and looks straight at me as if to say I know more than I could ever tell you. And almost as a reflex, I gently pull him closer to me and kiss his forehead. Snortorious rests his head on my shoulder, and I do my best to tell him about the return of the king of Gondor. On our short walk to the lab, I tell him about the Hobbits returning to the Shire. Home, I say. Family. Like you. And in the operating room, while he slowly fades from anesthesia, I tell him about Frodo’s final journey, leaving Middle Earth with the elves, before I place my hand on his heart, beating steadily for a boy two hundred miles away and tell him thank you.

 


SEQUOIA NAGAMATSU is the author of the story collection, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone (Black Lawrence Press), silver medal winner of the 2016 Foreword Reviews Indies Book of the Year Award, an Entropy Magazine Best Book of 2016, and a notable small press book at BuzzFeed. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Conjunctions, ZYZZYVA, The Fairy Tale Review, Tin House online, Black Warrior Review, Willow Springs, Pleiades, Lightspeed Magazine, and One World: A Global Anthology of Short Stories, among others. Originally from Hawaii and the San Francisco Bay Area, he was educated at Grinnell College and Southern Illinois University. He co-edits Psychopomp Magazine, an online quarterly dedicated to innovative prose, and teaches at St. Olaf College. He lives in the Twin Cities region of Minnesota with his wife, the writer Cole Nagamatsu, and their cat Kalahira. He is currently working on a second story collection and a novel.

 

Author’s Note

When I was in grad school, one of our professors, Beth Lordan, introduced us to something called the “seven sentence rule.” This wasn’t so much of a rule as an observation that short stories often present critical information within a paragraph or so (this can be as short as a line for flash). Perhaps the opening lines might dig at place or character and the following lines would plant a seed of what the central tension might be. In television writing, the first few minutes before a commercial break often inhabit this space. Why do I want to keep watching? What will this episode be about? Is my interest piqued? In other words, when you’re looking at short stories (or a TV episode) every line counts and openings need to do some heavy lifting. While I think certain stories can be slow burns and be incredibly successful at not providing a concrete narrative compass, I usually tell my students that readers typically don’t want to be messed with. Don’t wait to surprise a reader or trick them. Don’t save the good stuff for later. If there’s magic, let that be known. If the sky is falling as in Kevin Brockmeier’s “The Ceiling,” let us have that on the opening page. Getting lost can be a wonderful thing in a story, but we first need a compass (even if that compass might get broken).

As someone who writes what could be deemed fabulist or surrealist work more often than not, I think providing a firm foothold onto a fantastical or absurd concept at the outset of the story is especially crucial in helping readers believe in the world and the predicament of characters. In Stacey Richter’s “The Cavemen in the Hedges,” I know from the first line that there are cavemen: “There are cavemen in the hedges again.” If this line were offered halfway through the story or even on the second page, I might have questions. And I also might feel misled because cavemen are really interesting and weird, and I’d wonder why the author hid that from me. But as a first line, I’m accepting the assuredness of the author. I’m being given facts, and I’m generally okay with whatever is thrown at me as if I’m getting a less overt “Once upon a time…”

For a story about a telepathic/talking pig, which sounds absolutely ridiculous even when I’m setting up the story at readings, I knew I had to make a few things apparent within the first page—the emotional backdrop of my narrator, how his job is tied to the loss of his son, and the lead into a pig having the capacity to talk. All of these pieces work in concert with each other in quick order to provide a map legend for the story to come. And it is my hope that by front loading this information the reader is willing to play along with what might seem like a joke (but is ultimately a story about loss and healing).

 


SEQUOIA NAGAMATSU is the author of the story collection, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone (Black Lawrence Press), silver medal winner of the 2016 Foreword Reviews Indies Book of the Year Award, an Entropy Magazine Best Book of 2016, and a notable small press book at BuzzFeed. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Conjunctions, ZYZZYVA, The Fairy Tale Review, Tin House online, Black Warrior Review, Willow Springs, Pleiades, Lightspeed Magazine, and One World: A Global Anthology of Short Stories, among others. Originally from Hawaii and the San Francisco Bay Area, he was educated at Grinnell College and Southern Illinois University. He co-edits Psychopomp Magazine, an online quarterly dedicated to innovative prose, and teaches at St. Olaf College. He lives in the Twin Cities region of Minnesota with his wife, the writer Cole Nagamatsu, and their cat Kalahira. He is currently working on a second story collection and a novel.