It was an accident, seeing the pig. He’d been at the farm as part of the loan application process, assessing the site, having the farmer show him around, show him the proposed location for the new barn, although the barns they already had looked more like warehouses to Martin, like something you’d see on an industrial estate, and the farmer actually referred to them as units. It only seemed to be Martin who’d ever thought of it as a barn.
Let me show you the pigs while we’re here, the farmer had said. And Martin had nodded and said okay, why not, and the farmer—Anthony—had walked with a heavy, rolling gait towards another unit which sat colossal and grey beneath the empty blue sky. They’d gone inside, and the first thing to hit Martin was the smell, different to the other units, different to the air in general in this place. This smell wasn’t that sharp farmyard cow’s muck smell. It was dull, an ache of a smell, close to the stench of a sewer. They stood beneath the fluorescents, looking at the pigs, the sows. It was farrowing time, and he looked at them in their crates, confined as they were, and he felt pity, felt somehow complicit just from the seeing. What are the blue dots, Martin asked, pointing at the nearest crate, the nearest sow, which had blooms of blue spray dotted on its legs, its shoulders. They get sores sometimes, the farmer replied. Bit like a bedsore. The spray is medicinal, antiseptic, they fester otherwise. The farmer continued, talked about other things, litter sizes, how his daughters loved the piglets and he always let them name one, but only one. Martin smiled through it, said oh right, and I see, at intervals. But the place felt diseased. Like you could inhale the filth. He tried to breathe as little as possible.
As they left the unit, the farmer said, “One’s gone missing.”
“Not sure how. Something wrong with the crate mechanism, probably. She’s wandered off somewhere.”
“Have you looked for her?”
“Of course. But nothing.” He gestured east, in the direction of nearby woodland. “She’s probably in the forest.”
“So what do you reckon?”
“The new unit.”
“Should be fine,” said Martin, picturing the sow with its sores. “A letter should come within a fortnight.”
He saw the pig about a mile from the farm.
He had the air conditioning turned high. The cold, processed air felt cleansing. He wanted very much to shower. He wanted to gargle mouthwash, couldn’t shake the idea that he’d breathed in something awful inside the farrowing unit. The smell of filth, of living decay. Which he had, he supposed. He’d read it somewhere: if you could smell something, it was because particles of that thing were in the air you were breathing.
This was when he saw the flash of pale flesh at the side of the road, in the verge, and at first he thought it was a person, collapsed maybe, naked.
He stopped the car. For a moment he sat with his hands on the wheel, looking at the pale pink shape, trying to work it out. He sounded the horn once, briefly, but the shape didn’t stir.
Leaving the engine running, Martin got out and walked slowly towards the shape, calling out to it, saying hello, can you hear me? But then he remembered what the farmer had said.
As he neared it, the smell came suddenly, as though he’d crossed a threshold. It was sharp like off milk, and laced through it was the sewer-smell of the farrowing unit.
There was a faint buzzing. Flies in the air.
Martin stood at the edge of the road. The pig lay in the grass. Two strides and the toes of his shoes would be touching its distended stomach. He imagined the bloated, pink but yellow-tinged gut bursting, covering him in rancid liquid. He leaned forward slightly to get a better look. Much of the sow’s shoulder had been eaten away, had become a red-black crater. He wondered if it had been a sore, once, when the pig had escaped, which had worsened, festering over time. The wound seemed to pulse, but then he realised this was an illusion caused by the maggots, like grains of rice, writhing and twitching.
He had never been this close to something dead. He didn’t count the small dead creatures he saw on his daily commute, their bodies reduced to flat suggestions on the roads and the motorway.
He could not look away.
His eyes drifted to the pig’s face. Black liquid had dribbled out of its mouth, staining the skin, the whiskers. It made him think of the burnt-dark juices around a joint of meat in a tin on a Sunday. A large fly crawled over the pig’s face, disappeared into an ear.
And yet, it seemed that the pig’s eyes still had something in them. They were lifeless, yes, and glassy and staring, but he couldn’t shake the idea that there was still something there, that they were lifeless, but not thoughtless. As though the pig’s consciousness remained, as though it knew what was happening, trapped in its own rotting body with no option but to observe and, perhaps, feel. Consciousness trapped in a flesh prison, just another cage, another farrowing crate, birthing not piglets now, but bacteria and mould and fungi and larvae. Forced to witness its own corruption.
He couldn’t look away.
The fly emerged from the ear, crawled over the surface of the staring eye. Then it went down to the mouth, where it lingered on crusted blackness.
He got up for work the next morning having slept soundly, which surprised him—he’d expected to dream of the pig, it having lingered in his mind as he’d eaten dinner, watched television, brushed his teeth before bed.
Now, in the shower, he closed his eyes against the shampoo suds and saw, briefly, the festering crater in the dead sow’s shoulder. For a moment, he thought he could smell it. When he opened his eyes, the suds gone, he looked down at the plughole beside his right foot. A dark circle, swirling water. And now his mind filled with thoughts of the day’s work: spreadsheets, calculations, recommendations, approvals, a client call at eleven.
He got dressed in the dimness of the bedroom, in the blueish light coming through the thin curtains. He sat on the edge of the bed and pulled on a pair of grey socks, noticing an itch near the ankle of his right foot. He scratched it through the sock. When it persisted, he bent and pulled the sock down a little. Just above his ankle was a small pink bump, the sort of thing his mother had called a heat-bump when he was a child. Or maybe it was a bite, from a grass flea or something. Rather than scratching, he rubbed it with the tip of his finger. After a while, he went into the bathroom and dabbed some cream on it before carefully lifting the sock back up. Then he finished getting dressed and went to work.
That night, after work, riding the elevator up to his floor, he rubbed his right ankle with the edge his left shoe.
In his flat, he sat on the couch and took off his shoes, then rubbed at the itch through the sock. He used his nails, now.
He brought his right foot up on to his left knee, pulled off the sock, and inspected the bump or bite or whatever it was. A pink hill on the pale flat landscape of his skin. The skin around it was a little red from where he’d been rubbing and scratching. The bump itself had a tiny white head on it. He scratched the top of it off, then squeezed with his finger and thumb. A small amount of clear liquid—water, really—came out, like a teardrop. The squeezing, the pressure, got rid of the itch. He did it again, clear liquid pooling against the tip of his thumb. It was satisfying.
He got up and went to the kitchen to make dinner.
When he went to bed, the bump had an amber crust, and the surrounding skin was a little angry, a little pink. He slathered it with cream and went to sleep.
The bump, or itch, never went away. It persisted. He dabbed cream. He took antihistamines. Eventually the scratching made it bleed, if only a little, and he covered it with a plaster. By now the skin around the bump was pink and tender. In work, he was irritable from the lack of sleep, the nights spent half-awake, scratching at his ankle, rubbing it against the sheets.
Looking at his ankle, at the rubbed-raw skin, he began to worry.
At his desk in work, or in his car at traffic lights, or on the couch watching television, he would find himself looking at the angry patch of skin, the tiny weeping hole with its raised edges, and he’d think about the sow. He’d think about the farrowing unit, the living decay of the place. The awful air he’d inhaled, which would’ve reached his lungs, then his blood, then everything. And then he’d think about the sow’s shoulder, gaping, a writhing maw, rotting in the October sun. And the sow’s eye, so human, staring, glazed, and yet . . .
He went to the doctor, who cleaned it, dressed it, prescribed antibiotics.
“A minor infection,” the doctor said. “You need to leave it alone.”
He did his best not to scratch. It became a test of endurance. A strange game he played with himself.
One night he dreamt he was lying on a table. Figures came and went around him, looming at times, looking down, speaking in echoing voices before rising away again. He couldn’t respond, couldn’t speak, couldn’t move. He knew that he was dead, and the visitors knew it too, they were paying their respects. One figure, his mother as she had looked when he was a child, spent a long time with her face very close to his, so that his vision was obscured. She looked in each of his eyes for a long time, inspecting them, like she was trying to look through the keyhole of a locked door. Or was it him who was looking through the keyhole of a locked door? And eventually she pulled back and said to someone that he was dead, there was nothing there, he was gone—and in his mind he screamed and cried out I’m still here, I’m still here, but he couldn’t make a noise, couldn’t move, because he was just like the sow. And as his mother drifted from view, leaving only the beige walls, the white ceiling, there came a fizzing noise, a terrible buzzing, and he knew this was the insects coming for him, and at the last moment a fly crawled across his vision, and then he woke up.
In the cold blue light of morning, he shuffled from his bedroom to the kitchen, having woken ten minutes before the alarm. He moved slowly, carefully, aching all over. Grainy, burning eyes. He hadn’t slept well, had been either too hot or too cold, had sweated profusely, the sheets sticking to him, tangling him, trapping him. And in the moments when he had slept, or something close to it, there had been awful dreams.
He opened the refrigerator. Squinting against the brightness, he reached in for the carton of orange juice and drank from it in gulps.
After he’d showered, he sat naked on the edge of the bed, in the yellowish light of the bedside lamp. The ceiling light had been too bright, had hurt his eyes. He felt weak. Hot. Didn’t have the energy to get dressed.
At nine o’clock, he sat in his dressing gown at the kitchen table, rang the bank, and told them he couldn’t come in. He said he was ill, had a fever or the flu. That he might need a couple of days.
“You sound really bad,” said his manager. “Do you need anything?”
“Try and call each morning, but don’t stress if you can’t. Just concentrate on getting better. Rest up. Okay?”
He went and lay on the couch, leaving the curtains drawn. Watched daytime television. Drank more orange juice. In the afternoon he shuffled to the kitchen and took the antibiotics for his ankle. Returned to the sofa.
The day passed.
He awoke in darkness, although he didn’t remember switching the television off. The clock ticked but in the dark he couldn’t see the time. Reaching down to the carpet, he groped around for his mobile, couldn’t find it. Perhaps it was in the bedroom. He lay on his back, gazing up at the dim suggestion of the ceiling. The bump itched, and he scratched at it, and after a while the tips of his fingers came away wet and sticky. The fever was no better. He didn’t bother going to the bedroom to sleep. He rolled over, faced into the couch, and closed his eyes.
Later. Daylight beyond the curtains, but whether it was morning or afternoon he couldn’t be sure. He was on the sofa, on his back, and he felt as though he had been asleep for a long time. His body ached. Stiffly, he twisted a little, considered the ankle. It was badly swollen, and the bump was no longer a bump; more of a wound now, an angry red crater. Pink skin around it, glistening. Scratch marks, dark and jewelled, like a network of railways leading to a terminal.
He touched his shin and felt heat. Then he reached further down and touched the edge of the wound, wincing at the pain. His fingertip came away tacky. When he touched it again, the wound oozed something like thin custard.
Seeing this, he began to panic. It woke him up.
He sat up quickly. The room swayed, became unmoored. A wave of nausea. Gingerly, he stood, then took a step. Pain exploded up his bad leg and he cried out and fell to the carpet, lay there moaning, his vision swimming.
Time passed. He wasn’t sure how long.
He lay curled like a foetus. The leg throbbed. The skin felt impossibly tight, and with the throbbing and the pain it felt like his leg might split apart at any moment, might burst like rotting fruit.
He needed to call the doctor, but the landline was in the kitchen. It was too far. He wished he knew where his mobile was.
He felt hot. He felt cold. His whole leg itched.
He crawled back to the couch and took the antibiotics from their box, took the correct dose, then took two more.
He wondered what day it was.
His drifting mind settled on the image of the sow’s not-quite-vacant eye. How there had still been something there in the eye, or behind it, some glimmer of awareness, some shred of thought. Dead, and yet: presence.
Was that what awaited?
Lying in the darkness of a buried coffin, unable to move, dead, but conscious? Lying there, acutely aware of the ways in which your body was coming apart, being eaten away, splitting skin and melting organs and leaking orifices.
Did you feel the worms burrowing through you?
A strange part of him wanted to know.
He slipped into sleep.
Then, who knew how long later: daylight through the curtains. The sound of traffic outside. No clue what time, what day. Time had run away from him. His leg smelled. He needed a doctor. He needed to call work. He sat up slowly, and it was as though something sloshed inside his skull. His vision blurring, he lay back down, hot and trembling and sweating.
He managed to raise his head and look down himself. The pain in his leg was there, but dull, distant. The entire leg was swollen, red, with dark purple marbling.
Fatigue washed over him.
He’d call the bank later, he’d call for a doctor later. The antibiotics would have to wait. So would showering, so would eating.
Suddenly cold, he began to shiver.
When he hadn’t called for a week, and when he didn’t arrive at work, and when they couldn’t reach him on his phone and he didn’t respond to their texts and voicemails, they called the police. They reported their concern.
Two officers were sent to his flat.
When they found him, after they forced their way through the front door, the door coming off its hinges and away from the frame with a spray of splintering wood, when they made their way down the hallway, the smell was what hit them first.
He was in the living room, lying on the sofa, his feet at the end nearest the door. He was badly decomposed, all leaking fluid and taut purple-yellow flesh, his stomach a bloated dome the surface of which seemed to ripple, twitch, but this was only the shapes and shadows of maggots beneath the uppermost layer of skin.
But it was the eyes that stayed with the first officer to enter the room. The officer who, later, helped the undertakers get him into the body bag. The eyes, decaying like everything else. Deflated, leaking, greyish.