You said it was because of a dream that you tattooed all the pigs, all thirty-one of our pigs. Thirty-one pigs isn’t a lot, but it is when you’re talking about what you were talking about.
The first night you were out late tattooing the pigs in the moonlight, and this was your dream, tattooing our thirty-one pigs in the moonlight.
You thought about herding them into the abattoir–a ramshackle shed you’d built for your own birthday last year–one by one, and tranquilizing them in there, but decided it was easiest to just pigment them in the corral.
That was your joke: pigment.
Said you were going to send the inked hides to a museum somewhere.
Said you knew about art.
Said this was an original undertaking and that it would sell like crazy, in a more urban area, you said.
“It was this dream,” you said to me out in the yard with the wind lashing and a PBR in your gloved hand. Your tall red rain boots were filling with rain turning to snow around the tops.
“It wasn’t a real clear dream,” you said. “So all I’ve got is a sliver of it, but it went like this, and I got up from bed and I just knew the way you know these things.”
With some tranquilizing needles in your tackle-box you went away into the pen and into the night. Every time you bent for another needle your face blazed in the lantern, and afterwards blazed softer in the moon if there was one.
We studied your movements like this tattooing was a ballet, and you were so scrupulous it was.
“He’s been having this dream,” Dowlinger said. “This dream about it and all.”
We were at the table with glasses of milk. You were still in the yard. Uncle Jasper and Aunt Urbana were seated at the heads of the table with their hands clasped. They were fifty-seven, and severe people. They looked exactly alike in how serious and jumpy they both were, even down to the way they put their hands together just under their chins and squinted at Dowlinger and me and at mother whenever she entered the room with a roast or a bowl of potatoes. Neither Dowlinger nor I liked them much. They had a bungalow down the road a mile, and so were over often.
Uncle Jasper said he didn’t understand about your dream, but Aunt Urbana said she did, and told him he wouldn’t understand something like that.
“Something like what?” he asked.
Dowlinger was trying to grow his first mustache and he kept touching at the pencil line of hair on his lip as he ate bread, smiling at the feel.
Uncle Jasper said, “What’s it for anyway?”
“It’s not for anything,” I said.
“Then what’s it for?” he asked. “It’s got to be for something.”
“Not everything,” Aunt Urbana said, “has to be for something.”
My mother came into the room with wine. Uncle Jasper poured some immediately, and Dowlinger tried to too, but Aunt Urbana knocked his hand away and he went back to smoothing the specter of his mustache. Mother sat down. Everyone waited for her to speak for some reason. She didn’t speak. She couldn’t.
“How long he’s going to be out there?” Uncle Jasper asked.
I thought how you would at the question shrug and I shrugged exactly like that.
“Funny stupid dream,” Uncle Jasper said quietly.
You came into the kitchen with mud on your boots and then on the floor and everywhere and some of the night seemed to have imprinted itself on your face because dirt had dried there and your hands were restless because of the tattooing machine.
“Just finished a sunrise,” you said and sat at the table, satisfied. “On a sow.”
Windows reflected the moon outside and no one spoke and farther outside the outlines of hills and some silos aways over beyond the tree line.
“What kind of a sunrise?” I said.
“An atypical one,” you said. “Took some mixing, but it looks awfully right.” You nodded at Uncle Jasper.
“Maybe the dream was just the hint of a better dream on the edge of the first,” Uncle Jasper said.
Aunt Urbana put her fork down and mother’s eyes eclipsed with comprehending for a moment. She even almost said something, but instead stood up, and didn’t. Across from me, Dowlinger continued petting his face. Aunt Urbana whispered a phrase. Uncle Jasper nodded reluctantly and stood from the table and asked you if you’d show him that sunrise.
Later in the dining room you said to me, when my aunt and uncle had left, “You is I. So you better be careful what you dream about, and about especially not having dreams. Especially about that.”
You were mapping out images on cheap lined paper. The room was barely lit, and you squinted. Then you stood out of the armchair. Pausing, you looked at me.
“You’re eleven years old,” you said, or asked.
I nodded and you nodded.
“That’s right,” you said.
And you sort of shrugged, and I shrugged, sort of.
Days you spent leafing through old magazines for ideas. Most of the designs were hackneyed–Chinese characters, barbed wire, tribal emblems.
You said fish were the easiest to ink, and so tattooed many pigs with koi, fish entwined on themselves, skeletal fish, fish wrapped around anchors. When Dowlinger wasn’t staring at his mustache in the mirror he was helping you sort which images would be good, and which not. I was on the floor browsing the discarded magazines.
Dowlinger was three years older than me, fourteen. Still, why wasn’t I the one whogot to indicate out the good pictures? Ever since Dowlinger turned 14 he’d developed a smirk that wouldn’t leave his mouth and I wished it would.
“This one’s neat,” I said, pointing out a picture of a Greek ruin in one of dozens of history magazines that Uncle Jasper wouldn’t stop bringing over.
Dowlinger glanced at the glossy page.
“No,” he said.
One weekend morning you took me out to the yard and let me see some of the work you’d done on the pigs. Maybe a month had gone by since you’d started inking the animals. Out in the day that had neither sun nor snow, just a crisp white sky, the pigs wandered and looked very tired. Dowlinger yelled out from the house and joined us.
“Just from the tranqs,” you said about the pigs’ fatigue.
Their skin was vibrant with black and white or faded, old-fashioned looking likenesses.
On their pale skins were nautical stars, constellations, compasses.
A fox, dying dogbane flowers.
One pig had a raven on its underside. Another, a Celtic cross on its face. There were cherubs and little men in tuxedos and even Mr. Peanut, though rendered without his wide smile. A deck of cards emerging from a Rider box.
Here and there the smudgy designs were more elaborate.
Expressionistic shapes and objects that, to me, seemed arbitrary. Squiggly lines and squares of color forming no representation at all.
“More of a pureness of the expression,” you said. “Hard to get the dream out except for inexactly.”
You put your beer on a fencepost and instantly it slid off and you said a simple, “Fuck,” and headed inside for another.
In the yard of drowsy pigs there were tattoos of dogs with features of people.
Quarter moon self-portraits of you.
Musical themes rising into the horizon.
Some scary pictures too. Like buildings aflame and buildings collapsing, and the buildings always resembled the apartment your childhood had been in.
But there were also rivers running under pleasant stone bridges, hummingbirds, gentle clouds All the pigs lay on their sides, drugged by the tranquilizers and snorting in their sleep.
“I wonder if they have dreams too,” I said.
Dowlinger scoffed and touched at his upper lip.
“Course they do,” he said. “Why else would they be sleeping?”
We wandered, Dowlinger and I, through the path of lazy animals, trudging through feed and mud and the cold day and the almost-rain. You came out into the yard again, trailing an extension cord partly keeping the screen door propped open. You pulled the tab off a dented PBR and beer spray washed over your knuckles.
“This’s a ‘76 Manfred Kohrs,” you said, showing us the tattoo machine. “It’s old and barely useful. But watch.” The metallic device buzzed on and you smiled at us and punctured the skin of the nearest pig and kept smiling. First you carved my initials and then Dowlinger’s, and then for fifteen minutes you inked our faces just below those and switched off the oscillating needle that was too fast to notice working at all.
“Did they all come from the dream?” I asked.
“Couldn’t all have,” Dowlinger said, shaking his head.
“Most, sure,” you said. Right then your bright blue eyes were very bright, very blue.
You’d gotten the inks and gun a long time ago inexpensively, on a whim in Watertown, from an impoverished nun who was selling her belongings on the median on Dulles Street. But once the inks ran out you’d drive an hour to Syracuse every other Saturday in the pickup. Sometimes you’d bring along Dowlinger and me.
“This city was something,” you said once we’d exited 81. “Back whenever it was.”
Now the downtown was just shuttered storefronts and gabled churches and the occasional camera shop. That was the city.
The tattoo parlor was on a side street. Getting out of the bright day the interior of the place was dim, plastered with hundreds of tattoo decals and huge books filled with plastic-protected ideas for customers. Behind the supply counter was a ponytailed guy with colorful tattoos sprouting up to his cheeks. He dusted the dirty glass. In back was another guy sleeping in a raised chair, his buckled cowboy boots crossed at the ankles.
The one near the entrance looked at us and at you and went on dusting.
“I need a set,” you said.
The guy put down his duster, unlocked the counter and pulled out an antique box of inks.
Dowlinger meandered, studying the dark walls.
“Need a tat?” he asked you. “Fifty percent off today.”
“I don’t,” you said.
“How about the kids?”
“They don’t either.”
You bought the inks and outside the fierce whiteness was startling and we drove back in it. Once on the highway, you pulled a PBR from underneath your seat and drank it fast. Insulation was missing from somewhere on my door and the heat was busted. We all put on gloves you kept in the glovebox for that reason. The silence was like a good conversation no one wants to interrupt. You put on the radio to static and turned the volume low.
Every night for two months you walked through the yard with your tackle box and touched up some tattoos that were unfinished, or hadn’t had their colors applied yet. You wouldn’t let anyone near while you pressed the two-coiled tattoo machine into the animals’ flesh. But Dowlinger and I watched from the upstairs hall window, watched your shadow moving through the shadows of the pigs, some of them dropping after a moment, watching your muddied jeans block the lantern for a split second, watching you kneel and put your head close to a pink flank, sip beer and the noise of a can crushed underfoot and the subsequent, “Fuck,” while you tried to salvage the beer inside.
Mother flipped through channels on the television, cursing at the lousy reception. Her silence was always terrible, but it did not get more terrible. Sometimes she would lift her head to an imagined noise, and it was as though she could actually hear. Those nights her eyes were like two dead small fish floating at the top of a fishbowl.
Around midnight you’d barge inside, sweating and humming and loud in your satisfaction.
Nights were an unchanging sequence of such silence and such noise.
Dowlinger said, “I wonder what he thinks about when he’s out there.”
I said, “Everything,” because that is what I thought of him.
One night in early November you said you were almost finished tattooing them. Uncle Jasper and Aunt Urbana were invited over. You and Uncle Jasper were outside on the porch looking out at the pigs. Some clouds were illuminated by the blinking water tower light in Carthage, and otherwise the sky was a dark wall.
Uncle Jasper took a sip of beer and spat it out all over himself. In the driveway was Uncle Jasper and Aunt Urbana’s monolithic RV, a vehicle the size of our house. They were driving it to South Carolina for the winter but planned to stay overnight and leave after breakfast the next morning.
Aunt Urbana and mother were exchanging pieces of handwritten paper in the living room and Dowlinger was in his room staring in the mirror.
The pigs just murmured softly.
Uncle Jasper said, “So you’re going to butcher the pigs when you’re done with them, skin them and send the hides for display somewhere?” It was a question that held no question.
“That’s what the dream implied,” you said.
Uncle Jasper guzzled some beer and considered. He kicked at a stone on the porch. His beer was empty when he shook the can.
“Dreams can be wrong,” he said.
“Not this one,” you said.
And then the quiet of two men sinking slowly into their beers and their private drunken thoughts about the pigs, or art, or neither.
You got you and Uncle Jasper one more beer each.
“Last one,” you called back into the house when you pushed the screen door with the toe of your boot, answering one of mother’s deprecating glares, or Aunt Urbana’s contemptuous words. Years ago Uncle Jasper was in AA, and the only time he drank now, I heard Aunt Urbana say to you, was when you offered him something to drink.
“Sometimes a person just needs a beverage,” you said.
“And sometimes they don’t,” she said.
“Beer isn’t too bad for anybody,” you said.
Still, whenever Uncle Jasper drank a beer with you on the porch there was a look on his wrinkled, rotund face, like he was sure he’d seen God. Aunt Urbana wouldn’t let the men drink inside, and so they stayed on the porch, and it was funny because when they arrived and Uncle Jasper put one foot on the stairs he’d immediately ask what kind of label you were drinking, and nodded until Aunt Urbana relented and went inside with mother and you brought three or four out and lined them up for the two of you on the railing.
Tonight there wasn’t any joy in the binging. I stayed under the porch for an hour. Finally, Uncle Jasper said, “Those swine are good money and you’re just going to waste them for something like that.”
“Money that’s made from the hides will be enough. The ink might’ve gotten into the flesh. You can’t guess on a thing like that.”
“I’m saying, it’s goddamn foolish.”
I could almost hear Uncle Jasper shake his head.
“Goddamn foolish,” Uncle Jasper said, and a can was crumpled. “This ain’t good for Louise, and you know it. Don’t understand that one bit.”
From where I lay I watched Uncle Jasper trudge out to the RV and slam the door. When I got out from beneath the porch, covered in twigs and candy wrappers, I sat on the uppermost porch step behind you. You winked at me kind of sorrowfully.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“Doesn’t matter,” you said, and you finished another beer.
Dowlinger poked his head into the screen mesh to tell us that there was some soda poured and a bunt cake that Aunt Urbana had baked.
Inside you told Aunt Urbana that Uncle Jasper had locked himself in the RV, and Aunt Urbana gave a nasty look at you and went outside with some bunt cake, a glass of soda and a fork.
By daylight the pig yard was a spectacle. I hadn’t realized, until the morning that Uncle Jasper and Aunt Urbana drove off without saying goodbye or even emerging from the RV, how much work had gone into inking the animals. You’d inked every surface of their bodies with images, lettering, names, inelegant illustrations, the craft done by flashlight and lantern. Your art was sloppy, but it was yours, and that made it somehow beautiful, with lines sloping away from all the birds and the continents etched into the pigs’ skins, some of the words and pictures blurred beyond any sense.
Mother made no sign that she comprehended what you were doing. She viewed your obsession with hard eyes that now and then turned furious, like she had an ocean of hatred inside but couldn’t grasp how to let it flood out. Maybe she knew the inherent disaster of your project. But instead, she mopped ink off the bathroom linoleum where you’d cleaned your needles, and carefully wrote out detailed shopping lists for when you drove to the A & P, bent at the table like she was writing a poem, and scrubbed the doormat where you abandoned your mud-caked boots for the evening. She was doomed to be your footnote.
Dowlinger said, “It’s like she’s an idiot or something.”
He had just got done dry-shaving his face in our shared bedroom with a disposable razor he’d snatched from your shelf in the bathroom and was now plucking his illusive mustache with tweezers, meticulously pinching out a tiny stray hair and holding it to the overhead light before letting it fall on the bureau top.
“Maybe she doesn’t get it,” I said.
“Nobody gets it. What’s there to get?”
“Well, what about the dream?”
Dowlinger set the tweezers down with mock adult frustration.
“You actually think there was a dream?” he asked. “And anyway, what would things be like if everybody went around playacting their dreams? What about that?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“That’s your problem then,” he said. “I don’t even care.” And he posed for his reflection, and starting plucking again.
Three nights later you announced that you were done tattooing the pigs.
“Nothing’s ever finished,” you said, tipping your head back for the dregs in a warm beer. “You just have to know when to quit now and then.”
“What now?” Dowlinger asked.
At the table with a bowl of ice cream, mother raised a hand and wrote something on her napkin. You took the napkin, read it slowly, and shoved it in your pocket with some rage. Mother saw your reaction and took her ice cream upstairs.
“Now,” you said. “Now. Early in the morning I got to start thinking about getting those hides.”
Dowlinger and I heard you pace the whole night.
Before dawn you’d herded the pigs to different sections of the snow-melting lawn. To each you gave some kind of anesthetic and waited for them to doze off. Then you started slitting their throats with a curved knife that reminded me of the Muslims I studied in history, pausing only to wipe the blood off your arms with a dishtowel you’d wisely thought to bring. Watching the soundless butchery was almost worse than hearing the animals’ squeals.
Dowlinger tried not to but he blanched at the sight of the felled pigs whenever you jerked your arm.
Snow was soon falling gently. It felt warm. We were fifty or so yards away, near a strand of sugar maples and breathing hot air at our fingertips.
“Doesn’t seem like any kind of dream to me,” Dowlinger said. He was wearing denim overalls and had on a yellow beanie and sunglasses. “Not really at all,” he said.
Until the sun of the following day you flayed the skins off the pigs and hung them on the fence to dry in the air. I stayed awake alone much of the night observing from the hallway upstairs. Dowlinger was asleep early and he was praying or cursing in his sleep. In the morning you lugged the hides into the shed using a wheelbarrow.
That afternoon I slept a little. Exuberant coffee fumes woke me. Downstairs the percolator steamed and mother stared at you as you rested your head on your crossed elbows at the table. You hadn’t washed. The blood was still damp on your sleeves, fading to the color of a weird sky, and stuck in back of your fingernails.
The morning was intensely cold, but sunlight was everywhere, glaring off the squat snowbanks along the driveway. Carcasses littered the pen.
“Looks like a lost war,” Dowlinger said.
You wrote a draft of your letter to the museum and included a Polaroid of the best tattoo from the hides in the shed.
Dowlinger and I offered tips on grammar, and you revised and had a beer and read it through a thousand times before sealing it in an envelope.
You waited at the screen door for the postwoman, and when she showed up with one of mother’s gardening magazines, you gave her the letter like it was special orders in one of those spy books you used to like reading.
The postwoman saw it was addressed to the Syracuse Museum, and whistled, a burly woman with brown hair in Carthart
“What you got going on down there?” she asked.
“Little project,” you said. “Maybe nothing.”
Towards dusk you built a huge fire, your nerves too frayed for anything other than activity. You disappeared into the woods for foliage and red oak branches for kindling. Set a tin of gasoline out in the pen.
You trailed us inside and to the table, where mother was already sitting with her gardening magazine.
With a beer in front of you, you said, “I’m serious, I don’t want neither of you looking out any window or coming out on the porch for the next few hours.”
You jotted what you’d just told us and slid it across to mother. There was nothing in her eyes when she glanced at your bad cursive. Lately, she’d gotten just motionless and observant. You said it was because she was on some new pills that took some accustoming to, but neither of you had been away from the house in months. I couldn’t understand where all the beer was coming from. Must have been stockpiled somewhere in the garage.
Dowlinger posited that mother was losing all her other senses in addition to her ears and voice and her empathy for us.
“Got that?” you asked then. “Don’t go outside, or look through a window till I get back.”
You curtained the windows. We could only hear what must have been a tall blaze and crackles of fire. Could only smell the charring animals, a smell that was not horrible. You undoubtedly had to cut up the pigs in pieces and broil the individual parts, and in my imagining the process was likely worse than it was. I imagined a field set with pig heads and limbs, blood streaming in rivulets through the snow. That was not how.
Dowlinger and I abided not looking out at you, though it was the hardest thing.
Mother didn’t move from the chair, the note there under her hand.
It took three nights for you to rid the yard of the pigs you’d slaughtered. At dinner the third night, as mother scooped sweet potatoes onto our plates, I said, “This can’t be part of that same dream.”
You were tireder and so much older you were starting to resemble Uncle Jasper. Your beard had grass, twigs, and something pale and gelatinous in it.
“Yeah,” Dowlinger said, “Was it?”
You looked at mother and seemed not to recognize her for a while. Then you shook your head for a while.
“No,” you said. “The dream didn’t include this, but I could have woken before it was supposed to.”
The phone call was startling to everybody. We hardly ever got phone calls except for Uncle Jasper and Aunt Urbana, who hadn’t called since their visit.
Once you heard who it was you hushed us with a splayed hand and listened like you’d never listened before. You were polite and deferential. You said nothing while the person on the other end chattered. Dowlinger and I stood frozen in the entryway.
As you circled the kitchen the phone cord entwined itself on the back of a chair. Mother was at the table but we forgot about her.
The voice got louder. You stopped walking around the room. The disappointment was a physical contortion of your body. Your face crumpled like a plastic mask, the color almost literally dripping off and onto the floor. I could feel the same thing happening to me. Every emotion in the world snagged on your features during the two minute monologue, loitered there for a split second, and as quickly morphed into another emotion.
You didn’t say anything as you let the phone drape over the chair. The voice, a woman, said, “Hello? I am sorry, but it’s not–Hello?” And then she was gone too. I didn’t know what to do and felt like an imbecile for not knowing what to do.
“Well,” you said.
We all looked at mother. She was smiling. She was smiling for the first time in years, probably. It wasn’t a nice smile. It wasn’t really any kind of smile. It was just a symbol that stood in for nothing else.
“Go outside,” you said to Dowlinger and me.
Before we put on two coats and traipsed into the winter breeze you had already begun to cry, there by the sink, and seeing you with your t-shirt pulled up to your eyebrows was like being buried under a ton of gravel.
“Close both doors,” you said, so softly it was just a gesture.
We huddled on the porch step. Great silence was inside. I put my hands under my legs to keep warm. Beneath the moon in the pen was a heap of bones covered in silt.
When I glanced at Dowlinger to mention it, I noticed for the first time that he’d shaved his mustache, that morning or the night before. Looking at his smooth face I didn’t mention the bones, or what was going on in the house, or anything.
The television was turned to full volume, but even over the noise we could hear you screaming at her. You screamed at her for an hour and a half by Dowlinger’s watch. None of the words were particular, maybe just gibberish, because she couldn’t hear them anyway. Your voice trembled low, then exploded. Sometimes your intonation sounded like a southern preacher’s. The garbled phrases echoed.
Once that was done you rushed past us. Said something to us as you passed, but your voice was too hoarse from shouting and came out in a desperate murmur. Then you closed yourself in the shed. Illumination from your lantern shone through the wood.
Dowlinger finally went back into the house. I snuck up to the shed, pressing my eye to a burl. The pale inscribed pigskins hung from the ceiling by wire, and an antique ladder was off to the side in a glow of lantern. You walked through the rows of lightly dangling skins, touching at the pigments of your dreamed pictures. Contemplating you dawdle and caress the tattoos was like watching the dream unspool and engulf you. The dream was all around you in the shed, a dream of constellations and hearts and sunrises and handwriting, and mostly everything.
You turned for the door with the lantern and you saw me but acted like you hadn’t. You bent and replaced the lantern in the corner so that my view of the hides was unconcealed by the night. And so I could at least marvel at your dream.
You went inside and all the lights in the house switched off.
I stayed at the shed until it started snowing again, until the moon drifted behind some charcoal clouds, until you appeared on the porch in your flannel bathrobe, and until you waved me soundlessly inside.
You brought the can of gasoline from the pen and started pouring it all around the edges of the shed. I stood behind the screen door as you ignited an entire book of matches and stared at the ground.