As I stepped out of the movie, the sun was already beginning to set, the air filled with the scent of lilacs and roses. The bushes along the canal were glowing in the sun, and I walked toward them, subconsciously deciding to take the long way back to work. 

Before I remembered why it had been so long since I went this way, it appeared before me. The house where Momma rented a room when she left the farm. I always thought it looked old and disheveled, but today it looked different. It looked like the apartments I toured in the city last week. 

The shop was empty when I got back. It was never busy after five, but Glenda kept the same hours because we both knew exactly how much money I needed to make in order to go to college. She helped me do the math. On my way behind the counter, I stopped and took my daily bonus: a piece of Dubble Bubble to pass the next two hours.  


I loved that pig since the day he was born. When I first learned that Lady was pregnant, I wasn’t sure what it would mean. I had never seen a pregnancy before, at least not one I remembered. 

One morning over hot cereal, Daddy asked me to help him care for the piglets once they were born. “Guess your Momma don’t have time no more,” he said, trying desperately to catch her attention. I turned to look at Momma, who was washing up at the sink. She was rinsing a pot, but her attention was outside on the barn. It was clean by now, but she kept running it under the tap, brushing her hand along the surface with the water. She was completely unaware of the conversation at the table just behind her. 

“It’s time for you to grow up and start helping here ’round the farm, Amma,” Daddy said through his overgrown mustache. “Once those piglets are born, you’ll need to clean out the hay in Lady’s pin twice a day. Can’t have them sitting in their own shit getting sick or nothin’—you hear me?” 

“Of course, Daddy.”

We went back to eating our cereal, and I thought of Joey. I wasn’t much bigger than him. When Momma was cooking for us, she would sit me in the rocking chair with a pillow under my arm, propping up his head. I would sit completely still, letting only the wind from the open door gently rock the chair. I would stare into his eyes while he was awake and at his tiny nose and mouth while he slept. Momma and Daddy could never afford to buy me a doll like the other girls, but this was even better. Joey was real, my own baby brother.        

Momma finished cleaning the dishes and finally sat down to eat. I was distracted until she yelled, “Amma quit daydreamin’,” as she sprinkled sugar on her cereal. “When those piglets comin’? I told you I don’t want nothing to do with it.” 

I looked to Daddy, excited for his answer. “Sometime this week, I’m guessing.”

Momma turned her head outside towards the barn again. This time she seemed upset, maybe even sad. Now she was daydreaming, and Daddy was having none of it. 

“Enough!” He slammed his hand down on the table. “Amma will help with the piglets since you want nothing to do with them.” He finished breakfast with one last bite and brought his bowl to the sink. Momma looked embarrassed. I could see tears in her eyes as she stared down into her bowl. She had no defense, no denial, no correction. She did want nothing to do with it, but I didn’t know why. She always helped with everything; Momma knew more than Daddy about running a farm, anyways.

Daddy stood at the sink, staring at his empty bowl for a moment longer. I thought maybe he was holding back tears, too, but I couldn’t tell because instead of turning around, he grabbed his coat off the hook and headed outside.

Late on Thursday, Daddy came into my room and woke me in the dark. 

“It’s time.” He helped me slip on my raincoat and boots, and we headed out towards the barn. The moon was full, bright enough to see our way without a flashlight. I could tell he had been there a while. The radio was playing, and the newspaper sat alongside an open beer next to Daddy’s spot on the milking stool. He threw down some hay and motioned for me to sit beside him.

Lady seemed anxious, unsure of what was happening. Her stomach was so large it brushed against the floor as she paced back and forth. As she passed in front of me, I leaned forward to put my hand on her and gently brushed the course hair along her side. I tried to explain that she was in labor and that soon there would be babies, but she stared back at me blankly.

I fell asleep propped up against the wall and awoke to Daddy yelling at me to fill a bucket with water. Lady was lying down now, and I could see her stomach twitching. She was breathing heavily. Daddy was sitting behind her, with her head in his lap. I rubbed my eyes as I looked around for the bucket. I found it hanging on the hook by the door and went to the well. 

The moonlight reflected off the water as I filled the bucket. It made the water look radiant, somehow alive. The moon seemed more prominent in the sky tonight, occupying an inordinate amount of space. 

“Amma!” Daddy called me back into the barn. 

How long had I stood there, distracted by the moon? Before I could come up with a guess, Daddy hollered again. 

When I returned to the pin, the first piglet was already born. Daddy reached out his arms, handing me the tiny lump of flesh. “Now use that bucket and clean ‘em, then dry them off so they don’t get too cold,” he said, pointing to a towel hanging over the door, “You gotta keep them warm while Lady finishes.” 

Over the next three hours, Lady birthed 11 more piglets. I was so excited I watched closely as the second piglet slipped into Daddy’s hands. When he looked up to pass it to me, I felt dizzy and almost fell over. After that, I moved the bucket behind Daddy and Lady; watching once was enough for me.

I sat against the wall, and when Daddy would hand them to me, I would gently wash their small pink bodies with one hand while holding them in the other. I hung a towel over my shoulder and squeezed them in a little hug to dry them off. I lined them up along the warmth of my legs and tucked everyone in with a bit of hay on top.

As the sun rose, Daddy acted like it was all over now. Lady stopped breathing heavily, and I watched as she struggled to get back on her feet. She slowly limped toward her water. I gently got up without disturbing the piglets to look at her foot, thinking maybe something had become attached to her hoof. When I knelt to inspect what was there, I noticed another piglet stuck halfway between the womb and the world.

Before I could think to call Daddy over, my hand reached in, and I pulled the piglet out. I walked over to the bucket and delicately washed its tiny body. This piglet was half the size of the others. His miniature form reminded me of the prototypes they used in science class to teach us about rocket ships. He seemed to stare directly at me. I thought maybe he was thanking me for saving him. 

“No problem, Proto,” I whispered back. 


For four years, Proto was my best friend. In the mornings, he would greet the cows with me and stand guard outside the chicken coop while I collected eggs. In the afternoons, we would walk down by the river. I would try to skip rocks or identify flowers that I had memorized from books in the library. Proto was curious too. He would intently follow trails of scents, and I would laugh and try to guess what it once was: maybe a field mouse or a rattlesnake. 

It was easier to spend time with Proto than at home. Since he was born, nothing around the house had been the same. Momma kept pulling away from the farm. She and Daddy fought every night about putting in her share of the effort, and she would remind him that he wouldn’t have a farm without her. Eventually, she got a job in town. 

She left every night after dinner for her night shift at the hospital and returned just as I was finishing breakfast or returning from school. I mostly only saw her in these transitory hours—otherwise, she was sleeping, or I was sleeping. It was on one of these mornings that she told me that her and Daddy were getting a divorce. 

“Is it because you don’t love us anymore?” I asked, staring down into my hands. I didn’t want to look her in the eyes if she said yes. It seemed simple. If she loved us enough, she would stay.  

“Of course not. I will always love you; I just don’t love the farm anymore. I can’t spend my whole damn life here. You’ll understand one day, my dear.”

She put her hand on my cheek and tried to guide my eye line to hers, but I kept my gaze held safely in my hands. I didn’t understand—wouldn’t the farm include Daddy and me since we live here too? I began to cry when I realized I wouldn’t see her in the mornings anymore. She won’t be asleep in the bedroom when I get home from school. She will be gone. 

“Can I come live with you?”

She looked outside at the barn. “What about Proto? What about your life here? Do you really want to leave all of that behind?” 

I looked outside and began to cry. How could I choose? I couldn’t find the words to respond, so instead, I stormed outside. I retrieved Proto from the barn, and we set off to find peace by the river. When we arrived, I sat by the bank and left Proto to his own devices.

What would it mean if Mom left? She had retreated enough from our lives already. Her daily efforts wouldn’t be missed; there wasn’t much we relied on her for anyway, not now. But her presence was still there—I could feel it when she was watching me do my homework and when she was secretly proud of me for taking care of the pigs on my own. She had grown up on this same farm, with the same chores, in the same room. Why would she want to leave all she has ever known?

As I sorted through my emotions, there was a sudden commotion from behind. Proto was fighting with a falcon over some kind of carcass. I ran over to help him, but I must have scared him. He ran in the opposite direction. He ran faster than me, faster than I knew a pig could run. I strained to keep up with him, but eventually, my legs gave out. I stood there screaming his name, hoping he would hear my voice and return to his senses. I finally stopped when I could no longer see a cloud of dust kicked up beneath his furious hooves.

When I returned to the scene of the crime, I noticed fresh blood on the ground. There was a dead squirrel, barely anything left. I had never looked so closely at a dead thing before. How long had it been dead? It was mesmerizing in a gross kind of way.  I realized the blood wasn’t from the squirrel and wondered where it came from. My mind went wild, thinking of scenarios where it wasn’t Proto’s, but I saw the claw marks on his side as he ran away, and I knew it was his. 

Walking down the dirt path back to the farm, it felt like a new road, someplace I had never been before. I kept stopping to turn around and check my landmarks. The old windmill was still to the east, and I could see the Reed’s grain silo to the south. Our farm sat in a small valley to the northwest. 

Newly alone, I noticed things I had never seen before. About halfway down the cornfield, I saw an old Coke bottle, weathered and partly buried in the dirt. I wondered how long it had been there, how many times Proto and I had walked past it.

I picked it up. At least I wasn’t alone now. I thought about the person who carelessly threw it out the window. They clearly didn’t care about the return credit, but luckily for me, it would be enough to get some candy after school tomorrow.

I smiled as I thought of my plans. I opened my mouth to tell Proto how excited I was when I remembered he wasn’t there. I turned around, hoping I would see him in the distance, suddenly remembering the way home. But he couldn’t see the windmill or the grain silo. He probably didn’t even know they existed. All he knew were the miles of cornfields that all looked the same.

Further down the road, a car passed by. I looked up and saw that in the backseat was a girl from school. We made eye contact before the car went too far. She must have seen me before I saw her, but she didn’t wave. For a moment, I was glad Proto wasn’t here. What would she think of me if she saw me walking down the road with a pig? 

 She was from the city, and her family owned a clothing store. She was why all the girls had stopped playing on the playground. Her sister had just turned fifteen and had attended her Debutante ball. All the girls in school wanted to be clean and mannered like her. When I asked Momma when I would have a Debutante ball, she told me girls like us don’t need that kind of training. I feared what that meant and what kind of girl I was, but I didn’t ask because I didn’t really want to know.

I finally reached the end of the road and turned toward the farm. I could see it now, not far ahead. The sun was beginning to set, and the springtime breeze was buzzing with animal sounds. I could hear the magpies singing to each other and the pigs grunting as they ate dinner. Then I heard a distinctive rattle and went still—a rattlesnake. I threw my Coke bottle toward the sound and ran as fast as possible. The adrenaline pumping through my body propelled me to the kitchen door, but I stopped short of running inside. Instead, I stood on the porch to catch my breath. As I watched the sunset, I feared that it would be the last day I would ever spend with Proto.

Daddy was sitting at the kitchen table reading the paper when I went inside. He barely looked up when I came in. He asked how my day was in a routine way—asking because it’s what you do, not because he was curious and not expecting much more than fine. 

Returning to the kitchen reminded me of what had driven me away that afternoon. I thought of Momma sitting at the table. It felt like I had a memory of me sitting at the table, too, like some kind of out-of-body experience. Tears started pouring out of my eyes. I tried to stop myself, to hide my emotions, but my blubbering had already revealed my secret. I heard the paper folding and looked up at my father’s confusion. 

“She told you?” 

I nodded, “And Proto is gone.”

I hadn’t said it aloud yet, and the words sliced through me like a cleaver. I fell to my knees. I hyperventilated as I grasped to hold myself together. I no longer felt whole. 

He patiently waited for me to collect myself, and once I did, he invited me back to the table. “Come here, tell me what happened.” I pulled myself into my chair and explained how Proto and I went to the river together every afternoon. 

We liked to be out in nature, away from the domestication of the farm. I could climb the trees, and Proto would eat the flowers or the grass or a random something he found. Or, we would stand near the river’s edge, and together we would watch the birds, birds that never came near the farm. Or, I would catch crawdads and feed them to him until he was full or I was tired. 

I told him how today there was a carcass, and today there was a falcon, and today Proto ran away from me. He forgot who I was, forgot that I would protect him. My emotions overtook my words again. This time Daddy scooped me up in his arms. 

“It’s ok, Amma, we’ll find him.”

Weeks went by without any sightings. I went to the river every day, hoping something in Proto would remember our routine, and he would return too. After another afternoon at the river alone, I kicked a rock home with me until it veered off into the ditch and made a surprising ding. As my eyes followed the sound, I noticed the Coke bottle from the day Proto left. I knelt down to pick it up. We never saw it together, but something about it reminded me of how I felt three weeks ago when he was still my best friend. It felt so long ago now. I thought of the candy I planned to buy and decided to go tomorrow.

When I entered the kitchen, Momma and Daddy were both sitting at the table. I hadn’t seen her since she left, the same day as Proto. Daddy was too sad to be around her, and I was too mad, wanting to blame her for what happened.  

I stopped to fill a glass of water from the tap. I looked out at the barn from the sink and knew it would be about Proto. I sat down and took a gulp of water so big that it made us all laugh. I was nervous, and so were they. Finally, Daddy broke the silence. “Momma came by tonight because someone came into the hospital today and said they had seen Proto.” 

I looked at her eagerly, but her solemn face leveled my excitement. “Well, they think they saw him. . .”

 She paused, and in my impatience, I interjected, “What does that even mean?” I was frustrated by her carefulness.

“You said he was clawed by a falcon? Was it on his right side? Do you remember?” Momma was more patient with me than usual, which gave me a sinking feeling. 

“Yes, yes,” I said excitedly before I had a chance to think. I reconsidered for a moment. “I mean, I think so.” I closed my eyes, trying to remember the scene exactly. “It must have been. He was facing the river!” I opened my eyes, sure of the chain of events, certain this would be the evidence needed to prove that this person did see Proto. That was all I wanted, to see him again.

I looked to her for more information and couldn’t understand why she wasn’t more excited. She looked to Daddy, unable to tell me the rest herself. 

“Well, Amma. It’s been a few weeks since Proto left us. And, in that time, he had to fend for himself in the wilderness. Somethin’ happens to a pig when he has to do that. After a while, he can’t go back. He becomes feral, like a boar.” 

I couldn’t believe him because I wasn’t entirely sure what he meant. Sure, maybe he was a boar, but he was still Proto. We still spent all those years together, all those afternoons. He explained that he looked different and that maybe he would act differently. After a while spent fighting my disbelief, he finally agreed to take me to him. 

We drove down the road further than I could have walked, past the cornfields and into the woods between this town and the next. My head was spinning. How could he be somethin’ different than he was before? He was the same flesh I pulled out of Lady, saving him and forever bonding us as best friends. How could a couple of weeks change any of that? 

When I saw him, I fell to my feet. I was devastated all over again. I cried at him from across the river, hoping he would hear my voice. He must have heard me at one point and turned around, but he didn’t seem to recognize me. I could see tusks coming out on either side of his nose. His hair looked thicker and darker. I could no longer see his soft pink skin, except where the falcon had clawed him. There, I could see a scar forming; blood crusted in the hair around it. 

Standing there, I was scared I would be as sad as Momma without Joey. I thought of the witches in the movies. If only I knew the right incantation, then he would transform again. I started mumbling the words abracadabra to myself until that made me feel worse. A reminder that I had no control over the situation. 


As I chewed my gum, I remembered it was just the next day when I came into the store to trade that Coke bottle for a piece of candy. I looked out to the street, to the spot where I had stood eating it, where I first saw the sign that said they were hiring. 

After that, I came here every day after school, leaving Proto and the river banks behind. Glenda took me in as her own. She taught me about jazz and lent me classic books, and let me do my homework while working the register. Last year, she started sending me to see a movie every Saturday afternoon; she wanted to teach me the importance of treating myself.

She would go on Friday nights with her husband, and on Saturday mornings, before my afternoon viewing, she would tell me what to pay attention to. She would remind me going to the movies isn’t about being mesmerized by a screen. This time, she didn’t tell me anything. She didn’t want to ruin it. She said I would just get it, but now I worried I’d missed something. I couldn’t stop thinking about the ending when Gordie said he never had any friends like the ones he had when he was twelve. It immediately made me think of Proto. It had been years since I let myself think of him, but it was true: I would definitely never have another friend like him. I wonder where he was today. I wonder if he ever thought of me the same way. I wonder if this is what Glenda thought I would be thinking about now. 

I realized I wouldn’t be here if Proto never ran away. Maybe I would still walk with him to the river every day, staring at the sky, watching him eat grass. Something about today feels like how I felt then: unsure what the future would look like. Life back then was peaceful, but wasn’t this better? Going off, going to school? Everyone said I was doing the right thing, making something of myself. But now I wondered: why do we ever have to change at all?

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