Return of the Orange Virgin

Chapter One—The Pig Killing

Harry took a pull from the screw-top pint of fortified wine. Empty. Blood and mud. Spring killing. This was the reverse order of things.

Harry Profitt Pease, white stubbled beard and nearing 60, walked in a dream of youth and beauty—firm, brown, country girls blushed by the sun. Their freckled breasts and legs pursued his waking hours; crisp floral prints tantalized with their formal exposition of girl flesh, close and aromatic, hors d’oeuvres of a promised feast to come. These were the girls of his youth: ever fresh with skirts that swirled as they took lazy, calculated pirouettes.

Harry came in bib overalls and with a two-weeks’ beard, a tune from his mother’s Victrola dancing through fumes of sugary wine. Rudy Vallee sang The Whiffenpoof Song. That Harry had been a basketball hero in high school should have brought some consolation to the pigs he killed—blown away by the star center on that championship team. Honor enough. Why, then, the fuss? The pig didn’t know it was special, certainly not Harry, though it had a glimmering just before the end. Every pig was the same pig every time to Harry, an old, familiar face; he had no way of knowing this one was different. After he killed the first one thirty years earlier, introductions had been superfluous, “Hello, again. How are we this year?” as he swung a leg over the fence, a cabbage or stale bread under his arm. They followed him to the nearest dry, level place in the yard.

The firm brown girls in crisp print dresses, preserved from the rigors of late middle age, accompanied Harry and the pig to the killing ground.

Harry didn’t trust his aim. Even at two feet, a yard or so, the alcohol sufficient to steady his hand blurred his vision. He leaned against the pig. The pig grunted amorously and nuzzled Harry’s knee. He fastidiously replaced the cap and threw the empty bottle into the brown sere of last year’s tall grass. It was spring—why were these pigs here and so big?

Harry carried his cannon. Harry’s Father, Profitt Pease, once calls the rifle that—his cannon. “Shit, I could hold off a regiment if they sent one man at a time every Sunday for brunch. And unarmed,” says Profitt Pease. The cannon has a spilt stock held together with duct tape, Harry’s father’s gun. Harry’s father’s bullets, too: machine-gun loads from the Second World War. About half were duds.

Harry fondled a cartridge of green patinated brass. “Duds...” Harry talked through his sweet, sweet wine, “you’re older than I am but half of you still work.” The bullets are short for the chamber so he has to load them bolt-action style, one at a time.

Harry spoke to the pig, “I hope you don’t mind waiting...”

Harry grew dreamy. Was this sacrifice really necessary? Harry was five again and waiting in a railroad depot with his mother during the war. Even miles were rationed. “Is This Trip Really Necessary?” The sign was over the ticket window.

Each year Marcus Hanrahan and his kids raised two pigs on kitchen scraps and garden leavings. By fall, they were haughty and indolent, ready for the transformation to unaccusing packages of freezer paper with masking tape labels. Each fall Marcus sent his pigs to glory. But not last fall. The young Hanrahans, now a quorum of five, had pleaded for the lives of their pet swine: “Oh, Dad, that’s gross.” The blood flowed somewhere else, not here, not out past the swing set, to fill the see-through polystyrene trays at the Red and White meat counter. Marcus relented; the pigs lived and stayed through the winter.

The pigs grew thin and anxious behind the house as their back yard wallow froze and was dusted with snow that, churned by their pacings as they studied their rectangle of sky for a sign, turned into black ooze. Their food kept coming—the garden waste and vegetable trims were replaced with dinner scraps, neglected toast and congealed mashed potatoes, ham fat and egg grease, muffin ends and cabbage husks from the dumpster out back at the WilCo Diner. But where they should have thrived, the pigs grew thin; they knew there was something wrong.

The kids fed them through the winter, and about February, feeling spring coming, they went back on their feed and they grew huge. The food kept coming, though the kids’ attention wandered—trail bikes, hockey, and high school courtships replaced the pigs in the forefront of their sensibilities.

They would be chops and roasts. Harry was called.

Harry Pease, as a killer of pampered swine, favored close personal contact. Too shaky to stand back and take aim, he pressed it to them and blew them away. There was the inevitable spattering, but Harry never missed. He replaced his glasses and wiped his lips.

“To the tables down at Morey’s, to the place where Louie dwells...” If Harry held onto the dream, someday the girls might return.

Folks became attached to their pigs and the necessary step from the backyard pen and into the freezer called for intervention by an outsider. Harry Pease killed the neighbors’ pigs every year; he had a regular round and welcomed the extra income from it. Harry’s skills were honed by a vigorous consumption of alcohol, and if the old ammunition he used tended to misfire, the pigs were willing to wait. It was a leisurely process, a regular fall event. Harry was called and, in a week or so and right on time, his old truck with his poles, pot, and chain hoist rattling around in back struggled up the rutted hills of Willipaq, its suspension and shock absorbers flattened out by the frost heaves and gully washes of the county roads. The kids were bustled into the family sedan for a day at the Mall, four hours distant. Freezer paper and masking tape were set out on the back porch and beer was left in the fridge.

“We are poor little sheep who have gone astray, Baa, baa, baa... “

One special girl moved forward from the throng, Alma Nightingale. His hands on her waist, she had placed her graceful bare arms on his shoulders and stared into his eyes, a small, dreamy smile of possible surrender touching the corners of her mouth. They had danced close and he had kissed her—once—where her long, sculptured neck met her shoulders. Alma had a beautiful neck that paused elegantly at the edge of her cotton floral print before swooping beneath the taut fabric to become the hidden wonder of breasts, waist, armpits, and eventually, Harry supposed, thighs. A dream of galloping bosoms held in check by the mystery of cotton appliances dissipated and Harry picked up the song again.

“Gentlemen songsters off on a spree, doomed from here to Eternity... Baa, baa, baa...”

As the day wore on the song pulled itself together—Harry had all the lines by heart, but they slid around, dictating their own order.

Harry shot the pig. Eyes closed, head turned away, he held the barrel to its head and pulled the trigger.

Noise. After the shot the pig gave a long slow sigh and sank to its knees, then rolled over. Harry trembled, a long lethargic spasm. There was blood on the muzzle of his old rifle. Not looking at the pig, Harry wiped off the barrel where the plaid lining showed at the bottom of his pants leg, twisting it around in the rolled-up cuff.

Turning his back on the three-legged pyramid with its chain hoist where the pig still twitched, Harry stumbled around to the tailgate of his battered pickup. He chucked the rifle at the far end of the load box. It slid along a drain slat and disappeared under a mound of shredded nets from the herring weir he maintained with two partners. They were last year’s and meant for eventual mending. The partners, like the herring, had gone away and left Harry with a pile of useless tack and memories of found money. Once canned, herring became sardines. But a pig became pork. Harry wrestled a 16-ounce can of Seadog beer from its plastic yoke and popped the tab. Drinking it empty, he threw up on the grass, spattering his other pants leg.

Harry felt cleansed of his deed of murder, and turned to his work. Get the pig in the air. Pyramid power. Upsy-daisy with the chain hoist, bleed and peel. He let the blood flow onto the ground.

The second pig nuzzled Harry’s overalls, angling for the cabbage.

*  *  *

An April morning. A woman reclined, naked and glorious, on a ledge of basaltic granite high above an eddying tidal pool. Pulling the pins from her coiled hair, she shook free the nine three-stranded braids to fall below her waist. Her red hair, curly and thick, extended to her knees; she stood and spun it about an extended arm, much as a haughty waiter standing by with a towel after the presentation of finger bowls. She stretched, luxurious in the sun, and thumbed a fresh wedge of chewing tobacco into her cheek. She held a book, Bullfinch's Mythology.

The Orange Virgin closed her book with a snap, flattening the dappled sprig of medicinal hellebore she had picked to hold her place. “Ten thousand years and this is the best I can do? And the tale has yet to begin,” said the Orange Virgin. “If I am to return to the world of men I must read up on what they expect of me. Silly book, but then devotion is all about appearances. My sacred swine must again be murdered. By this account the gods are stretched back on a cloud with our socks off, reclining with a mulled ale and portioning out the conclusions of destiny. They have forgotten me—a lint in the navel of nowhere. ’Twere sweet to be remembered yet again. I am weary with doing for myself. Sometimes, I wish, sometimes...”

Harry Pease—eyes hazy with cheap red wine and the vision of a red-haired woman—licked his lips for the sweet, sugary residue and polished his glasses on his shirttail. Harry replaced his glasses. One shoulder strap on his Big Yank overalls flapped loose, its brass-plated snap hanger jingling when it hit a rivet.

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