The Pig in the Night
New Fiction by William Brandt
William Brandt has written a novel, a collection of short stories and plays. As an actor, he has appeared on stage and screen. He teaches short fiction at Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters and belongs to Write Where You Are, a charity which teaches creative writing in prisons. And he is also a hunter.
He took up hunting after a stint in Mexico. ‘Kind of a mid life thing, I guess,’ he says. And he began in the Rimutaka Ranges, the rough and soggy mountains just out of Wellington. He has returned there more than a few times, sometimes alone. Hunting solo, he says, ‘is emotionally often very intense – big ups, big downs.’ ‘In a way your personality disappears because there is nothing around you to mirror you back to yourself. Nothing knows you are there.’
He explores that intensity and self-inflicted isolation in this short story, a hunting yarn of sorts, the tale of ‘The Pig in the Night.’
The Pig in the Night
The sun was behind the hill already and if he didn’t stop now he’d be making camp in the dark. But it was so tight and steep here, and gloomy, and the manuka was twisted and low. He got out his water bottle and had a drink but only a small one. That was all he could afford. The only water he had was what he was carrying. He was thirsty, sweating, dirty and tired. His hands and face were covered in scratches. He had been fighting his way up this tight scrubby ridge for the last three hours and all the way twigs and branches tore at his clothes, his pack, his boots, his rifle, his glasses. Fern thickets blocked his path and supplejack entangled him. Sometimes he’d had to crawl on hands and knees, sometimes he’d had to climb, hanging onto trees and rocks.
He scouted around and spotted a small area, just big enough to lie down, at the base of a tree. It wasn’t perfectly flat but it might be okay. There was a log to sit on too and a very small space to cook. He gathered dead ferns and nikau fronds and piled them up high at the foot end. Maybe that would stop him sliding down the hill. He brought his pack over. He unrolled his bivvy bag and spread it out on the nikau fronds and lay down. It actually felt ok. He closed his eyes and opened them. He could still see pale lemony light up through the branches but under the trees it was very dim. He blew up his sleeping mat and slipped it into the bivvy bag, along with his sleeping bag. He arranged his cooking gear on the flat space. He put on his head torch but he didn’t turn it on yet. He sat on the log. Lydia would hate this.
There was a rustling and a pig appeared out of the undergrowth, only ten feet away from him. It froze, and he froze too. It was black with splotches of pink. Its eyes were tiny and its shoulders were huge. It looked weirdly human. He almost expected it to say something. His gun was leaning on a tree, a few feet away. He knew he’d never get to it in time but he reached for it anyway and sure enough the pig turned and ran off in the direction it had come. He worked the bolt and went to look down into the bush. It was completely dark down there and the pig was long gone.
He unloaded the gun and went back to his log. The bush was silent and very still now and it really was just about dark. He switched on his head torch and the world shrank to a small bright circle. It was like you turned on the light and you could see less. He didn’t feel hungry but he thought he should eat. He boiled some water on his gas cooker and poured it into the foil bag. It was dehydrated stew and it actually tasted pretty good. When he’d finished eating, he drank some more water. He closed his eyes and thought about pools, rivers, lakes.
He looked at his watch. 8.30 pm. It was properly dark. The air was starting to cool and he could smell the earth rising up. There were animals all around. Pigs, goats, rats, stoats. Deer, possums, feral cats. Birds, insects worms. And the desperate trees. What was he doing out here? Who did he think he was? Rambo? He wasn’t Rambo. He was a 55 year-old civil servant and father of three. He had responsibilities. A house, a car, insurance, a name. But here he had none of those things. He was that log, that stick, that tree. And Lydia. Right now she was watching TV in a clean lighted room. What if he died out here? What if she never saw him again? The carport gutters – who would deal with that? He felt like crying but he was too depressed.
He cleared an area of ground, swept away the dead leaves to expose the bare earth. He gathered dead standing wood - dry, but still strong. He chose a stick and shaved fine feathers with his knife. He made three piles; tinder, twigs, sticks. He built a little criss-cross platform like a miniature funeral pyre. He got his fire steel and made a nest for the fire starter in a bed of tinder. He struck sparks until it caught. It took a while but once the fire starter was burning he transferred it, in its tiny nest of tinder, to the platform of twigs. The platform let air get in under the fire and it burnt rapidly, frightening him, spitting out sparks and twisting in the dark. He quickly added a couple of sticks and they caught and then he added some more. The fire climbed higher. Bright flakes drifted slowly. He turned off his head torch and squatted, staring into the fire, feeding it, keeping it small but bright. He thought about all the dead people in his life.
He stopped feeding the fire and it sank into the earth, leaving a constellation of bright threads, orange, yellow, blue, floating in a pitch black sky at his feet. Then he turned the head torch back on and made sure the fire was properly out, mixed a little water with the ashes, mashed it to a paste with his boot heel. He crawled into his sleeping bag and lay down.
The breeze was picking up. You could hear the gusts whooshing down the valley from far off, like trains, getting closer and closer, passing over and away. He closed his eyes and immediately opened them because he felt watched but there was nothing. He closed them again but it was hard to sleep with the wind blowing on your face. He closed his eyes again but then he remembered the pig. No pig would attack him but he kept thinking about it anyway. He dozed, woke, dozed. The wind picked up then died away. The bush breathed. He dreamed a pig was tugging ferociously at the foot of his bivvy bag. It was such a vivid dream it was more like a vision. He woke up with the frenzied flapping of the bivvy bag still in his ears.
There was the slightest hint of cool grey light. A pig was squealing in the distance. Scree. Scree. He lay very still. He was perfectly warm.
While he was eating breakfast the sun cleared the hill and came pouring in through the holes in the bush canopy and dotted the bush floor with glowing orange spots. He was flooded with thankfulness and joy. It was incredible. He’d never felt anything like it.
He packed up camp and started to climb. The gradient was very steep but the trees were taller and the bush opened out beneath them. There were huge boulders embedded in the slope, coated in moss, craggy outcrops and hanging creepers. This bush you could stalk; he could move quietly and look ahead through the forest, and if a goat or a deer was moving up there he would see it. He had his rifle in his hand. His eyes were wide. He kept climbing and sidling, in and out of a few steep guts, finding ways around fallen trees and over rock falls and eventually he came out of the bush onto a bare rocky outcropping. He was standing amidst waist high shrubs. He could look straight down into the river valley and if he leant over he would fall all the way. He could see for miles and miles. He could see all the hills and the slips and the sky and the sea and the slow lines of the surf. He could see his own car, parked up on the beach, a tiny glinting shard.
The day was clear but cloud was beginning to push in from the North. He decided to drop down on the other side of this spur, find his way down before the weather came in. There were some big slips up ahead, carved out bowls in the crumbly rock. He’d work his way down to the base of the closest one and from there follow a side creek down to the main stream. He started down, moving as slowly and quietly as he could. This was definitely goat country, and there was plenty of sign and game trails all over the place, criss-crossing, winding up and down, around obstacles and bluffs. He always followed them. The animals knew. He found the creek he’d been aiming for and stopped to fill his water bottle. He drank and drank. A goat wandered round the corner from the next gut but it saw him and left before he could line up on it. He got a feeling in the back of his neck and turned to see another one looking down from the top of a bank but he couldn’t shoot because it was against the sky line. A bullet would travel for miles if he missed.
The bush kept changing; ferns and creepers in the damp protected gullies, twiggier vegetation on the drier faces. Sometimes it was tight, sometimes it was open. He found his way to the base of the slip and dropped out of the bush onto the scree slope below it. He moonwalked down, the loose stones and gravel sliding with him. At the bottom of the scree was another creek and he followed that one down to the floor of the valley. He was only an hour or so from the car now. He ate some lunch and walked on slowly. He kept glassing the slips as he worked his way down the stream, and he moved quietly when he came to a bend, but he wasn’t going to get anything.
The weather came in and when he looked up towards where he’d come from, the hill was lost in cloud. It began to rain, sheets of drizzle drifting up the valley. He put on his rain jacket and pulled the hood low but his glasses were quickly misted over and he had to peer out between the drops.
He had to cross the stream several times on the way down. He was hopping from one boulder to the next when his foot slipped on the greasy rock. He fell flat on his back with his knee folded under him and his rifle clattered away. He slipped out of his pack straps, unfolded his leg and sat up. He felt sick and dizzy so he put his head between his knees and waited. He tested his knee. It felt a little numb but it still worked. He went to find his rifle.
The rain eased off as the valley opened out. He was approaching the coast now. If he listened he could hear the sea. He was tramping across open heaps of river stone. Just a couple more bends and he’d see the car. He was limping, his knee was aching and he must have banged his hand when he went down; the fleshy part of the thumb was hot and swollen and the skin was as tight as a drum. He was thinking about a shower, food, beer, clean sheets, Lydia.
On his left there was a big slip, the last slip before the coast and as he approached he realised there was a small brown shape near the bottom. It was a goat. It had its head down and it hadn’t seen him so he dropped out of sight into the stream bed and hobbled along, doubled over, for another hundred yards. Then he climbed out of the stream bed and peered out from behind a rock. He was directly opposite the slip now, and the goat was still there, moving slowly across the face, head down, nibbling at some juicy grass shoots. It was a young nanny with a brown and black stripy face and it would make excellent eating. It had absolutely no idea that he was there. He felt sorry for it but that wasn’t going to stop him. It never did.
He slipped his pack off, and laid it across the rock. He rested the rifle on the pack. It was only 100 metres and the goat was broadside. There was no wind. He lined up on the shoulder. The goat took a few steps and he waited until it stopped to nibble. He squeezed the trigger. The gun went off. The bullet ricocheted off a rock a good foot to the left of the goat, which jerked its head up in surprise and quickly skipped away up the hill. It was out of sight in seconds. He couldn’t believe he’d missed. It started to rain again.
Half an hour later he was at the car. He was moving slowly now. His knee was stiff but it was his hand that was really bothering him. He couldn’t bring thumb and finger together and it was throbbing violently. He drank the rest of the water, took a couple of paracetamol and ate some Barley Sugars, climbed into the driver’s seat. A couple of hours later he was in city traffic. Everything flowed, smooth and metallic. He had to sing to himself to stay alert.
He was so tired as he came up the path that he had to stop and rest halfway. His left knee was almost locked up, his hand was a balloon and the end of his thumb was going blue. He fumbled with the lock and the hall opened out; warm, dim, carpeted. He could smell frying onion, herbs, wine. He dumped his things and struggled with his boots but the laces were knotted and he couldn’t get them off with only one hand and Lydia didn’t hear when he called so he wiped them as best he could and clumped towards the kitchen.
She was standing over the stove. She was wearing a white fluffy cardigan and she was rounded and small. She was listening to the news but she reached out and switched off the radio without looking at it. “Ah,” she said, staring into the gently steaming pot. “The hunter returns.”
He sat at the table. He closed his eyes. He stank. His hair was full of twigs and his trousers were caked in mud.
"Did you get anything?”
“Oh, well. It’s good for you just to get away.”
“I can’t get my boots off.”
She knelt before him. “My God.” She looked up. “What did you do to your hand?”
She shook her head. She worked at the laces. Her fingers were strong and blunt. She handed him the boots and went back to the stove. “You’ve just got time for a shower.”
He started to go but he turned back. “There was a pig,” he said.
He wanted her to see the pig as he had seen it. He wanted her to see the tiny quick eyes, and the mottled skin. “It was big as a horse,” he said, but that was wrong.