Monday, May 13, 2019

Pig Farm - A Fable for Our Times


When piglet Rumpford was old enough to think, his first thought was, “There is not enough.”

Before Rumpford’s father, Big Rumpford, went away on the Goodbye Train, there had been plenty of slops. Pop Heartland, or sometimes Ma Heartland, would come out of the Dry House in the morning and pour buckets of slops into the pen. Big Rumpford, who was the biggest hog in their pen, would grunt and shoulder the other pigs into a corner, then guard the steaming trough of slops until he and Rumpford had as much as they wanted. But now Big Rumpford was gone and there was not enough.

Eating as much as he wanted, Rumpford had grown fat and white and sleek, but now he was troubled. There was talk in his pen and also in the other pens that Pop Heartland was not doing a good job anymore. He was old now, some of the breeder hogs said. So was Ma. Sometimes the slops came out long after the sun came up. Sometimes it was only fruit rinds and egg shells and coffee water.

Two young pigs from Rumpford’s pen approached him to talk. One of them was Shank who admired Rumpford because Rumpford was fat and white and sleek. The other one was Booker, who knew how to read.

“We want more slops,” Shank said. “What are we going to do?”

“Things are bad now,” Booker added. “There is not enough food in the slops we are getting these days. If this keeps up, we are going to starve and die.”

No!” grunted Rumpford. 

“And,” Booker said, pausing thoughtfully, “It could get worse. Pop and Ma Heartland don’t want us to starve and die, because then we would be of no use to them. Before that happens, they will send us away on the Goodbye Train.”

Rumpford thought about the Goodbye Train. The Goodbye Train had taken away his father, and then there had not been enough slops.

Rumpford said, “Let’s do something.”


Day after day there were not enough slops, and the slops that came out were sour and watery and unsatisfying. One day, there were no slops at all. On that day neither Ma or Pop Heartland came out of the Dry House.

Rumpford and Shank and Booker talked over the situation. There was also talk among the other pigs. In one of the other pens, a new piglet was killed and eaten by the breeding hogs, and now there was fear.

Rumpford told Shank and Booker he had a plan. This was the plan. Rumpford had noticed that when Ma and Pop Heartland came out to the pens, they weren’t very big. Even up on their stick legs, they were not as big and round as a grown hog and certainly not as big as two grown hogs. 

Rumpford told the pigs in his pen that the next morning when Pop Heartland came out to slop the troughs, they should huddle together in the back of the pen pretending to be afraid. When Pop Heartland came into the pen to see what was going on, they would rush at him, knock him to the ground, close in around him and trample him until he was be dead. When Ma Heartland came out to see what had happened to Pop Heartland, they would do the same thing to her.

“But,” Booker said, “Where will we get slops?” The other pigs also wanted to know.

At first Rumpford didn’t know the answer, but then he had an idea. “We will get them,” he said, “in the Dry House! The Dry House has all the slops.”

Shank looked confused and asked, “How can we get to the Dry House? We can’t even get out of this pen.”

Rumpford knew the answer. Ma and Pop Heartland would have to open the pen to get in and when they were dead, the gate would still be open. The pigs could go out, go wherever they wanted. The could go right into the Dry House and eat the slops.

“That’s a good plan!” Shank said, and he realized he liked Rumpford more than ever. He liked thinking that everything was going to get better and that there would be enough. The other pigs in their pen liked the idea, too, once Booker explained to them what each of them was going to do.

The next morning the pigs in Rumpford’s pen were waiting. When Pop Heartland looked over the top of the gate into the pen, he saw that all the pigs were huddled together in one corner. They were snorting and snuffling as if something was wrong. Pop Heartland unlatched the gate and walked inside to see what the trouble was. Maybe a fox or a snake had gotten into pen, he thought. He put down his bucket of slops and stooped down to look under the trough. Then he got down on his hands and knees to see all the way under.

Rumpford snorted, and all the pigs rushed forward and in an instant Pop Heartland was buried beneath a great mound of squealing pigs as they dug into him with their sharp horny trotters. When Pop Heartland was dead, the pigs backed away and looked to Rumpford and Shank and Booker to see what to do next.

Rumpford said, “Wait a minute.” Then he went to the upturned bucket of slops and ate nearly all of it before walking away. Shank and Booker rushed forward to slurp up the rest. The other pigs were snuffling and snorting around the empty bucket when they heard Ma Heartland calling out for her husband.

Rumpford had been thinking, and he whispered to the other pigs, “Hurry! Gather around old Heartland, so she can’t see.” The pigs did this, and when Ma Heartland, puzzled, wandered into the pen, they sprang forward, knocking her down. In just minutes, she was dead too, though there were no more slops.


Rumpford was the first to walk out of the open gate of the pen into the barnyard. He walked out onto green grass. Beyond he could see the dry road leading out of the farm and in the distance a green wood. There were great gray bins standing inside the open barn doors. The bins smelled of slops. He called to Shank and Booker to come join him, and they did. 

At the back of the Dry House they nudged a tall bin of slops over on its side, and they ate all they wanted. Then they went around to the front of the house. Ma Heartland had left the door open, and they went inside. They sniffed and snorted through all of the rooms. Booker noticed a wooden stand holding shelves of books. 

Rumpford was stuffed and drowsy from eating so much slops but he followed a pleasing smell into the kitchen where a shiny pail of slops stood beneath a sink. He turned it on its side and dreamily ate a few mouthfuls, although he was no longer hungry. At the back of the kitchen was a small room, its shelves stocked from floor to ceiling with boxes and cans and sacks of what smelled to Rumpford faintly of slops. He was almost too sleepy now to think, but what he did think was, “There are going to be enough slops.”

As they clattered out of the house into the bright sunlight, Rumpford noticed something standing upright against the wall by the front door, and he was startled. It was Pop Heartland’s killbang, the killbang he used to kill foxes when they got into the pig pens and chicken coops. Once when Big Rumpford’s brother was sick with skin sores, Rumpford had watched Pop Heartland put the killbang against Big Rumpford’s brother’s head and make the dead bang. The dead bang was so loud and terrible Rumpford had emptied his bowels.

Rumpford knocked the killbang down onto the floor with his snout. He sniffed up and down the oiled wooden stock, over the metal trigger housing, and down the long blue barrel. Shank and Booker came back into the house to see what Rumpford was doing. Rumpford lay down on his belly next to the killbang. He looked up at Shank and Booker with his meanest eyes and snorted. He knew two things now. There was enough. And he was in charge.


Rumpford was happy and proud. The bins behind the house and inside the barn door contained all the slops he could eat. He liked wandering around the barnyard and lawns, exploring and doing what he pleased. Shank and Booker enjoyed themselves also, but they took care not move in on Rumpford’s slops until Rumpford had finished eating and moved on. Rumpford, they could see, had gown fatter and whiter and sleeker than ever. He had become, they thought, a splendid pig.

The other pigs from their pen were not as happy. For a day or two, there were no slops, and when they wandered out of the open pen and approached the bins in the barn, Rumpford, Shank and Booker blocked their way and said they were not allowed. They saw that Rumpford had grown big now, even bigger than Big Rumpford. Rumpford told them he had a plan and they would really like the plan. He told them they were not only going to get their slops, they were going to get more slops than they had ever had. He told them, “There are going to be enough slops again!” Even though they were very hungry, some snorted cheers.

Then Rumpford led them to a spilled bin of slops where he had been eating and told them they could have the rest, but they were not to approach any other bins unless he told them it was all right. “If you do what I say,” he told them, “there are going to be enough slops again.” When the pigs had eaten every scrap of what was left and wandered back across the barnyard to their pen, they heard the frightened and angry squeals of the pigs in the other pens, the ones that were still latched shut. They had been given no slops since Ma and Pop Heartland stopped coming around.

The penned pigs called out, “Help us, please! We are starving in here.” 

Shank and Booker did not know what to say. They could not unlatch the pens, and if they could, and all the pigs on the farm got out, they would go straight for the bins, and soon all the slops would be gone. There would not be enough.

“Don’t worry,” Shank shouted into the pens. “Rumpford has a plan. It is a great plan, and there will be enough slops again.” The pens quieted down, and Shank could hear the pigs explaining to one another that there would be enough slops again. 

“When?” A breeder hog asked.

“Very soon,” Shank said, although he did not know. “You must be patient, or you will spoil the plan.”

“And please,” Booker added, “Don’t eat your babies.” 


Rumpford decided to live in the Dry House now. When he had eaten his fill of slops out in the barn, he liked to come back to the Dry House and lie down on the cool living room floor next to the killbang. From there he could keep an eye on the barnyard through the open door.

One morning a truck drove up the farm road into the barnyard. Three men got out and began walking toward the pens. Rumpford watched Shank and Booker approach the men. Because of his reading, Booker was able to understand the language of the men. They said they were from the train yard. They wanted to know where Pop Heartland was, because he had not delivered the pigs he had promised. When Booker heard them say “train,” he thought at once of the Good-bye Train, and he felt fear.

Booker and Shank backed away from the men. Booker said, “Pop Heartland is not in charge here anymore. Rumpford is in charge.”

The men wanted to know where they could find Rumpford. Booker thought for a moment and said, “He is not here right now. Why don’t you come back tomorrow, and we will tell you what you need to know.” The men agreed to come back the following day.

Booker and Shank called for Rumpford to come out of the Dry House. They told him about the men who had come for pigs they wanted to take away on the train. They asked Rumpford what they should do. At first Rumpford did not know. He had been thinking about something else. He had been thinking that all the bins behind the house had been knocked over and the slops eaten. There were still one or two bins of slops in the barn, but pretty soon those would be gone. In fact, they would already be gone if he and Shank and Booker had not run off the other pigs who broke Rumpford’s rule and knocked over a bin for themselves. Those pigs had gone squealing out of the barnyard, across the long pasture, and into the green wood.

Rumpford was feeling hungry, and he thought of a plan. There were seven latched pens full of hungry pigs. Lately their squealing had not quieted when he promised that, if they would be patient, there would be enough slops again. His plan would work this way. When the men came back, Booker would say that they could open the latch of one of the pens and take those pigs away to the train, but in return they must dump a full truckload of slops inside the barn. 

“That way,” Rumpford explained to Shank and Booker, “we will be rid of a pen of complainers, and we will have all the slops we can eat.”


For two days Rumpford’s plan worked perfectly. The men from the train yard seemed happy to exchange a truck load of slops for a truck load of pigs. And when the pigs in the remaining six pens smelled the great heap of fresh slops in the barn, they grew excited that they would at last be fed. When they cried out for slops, Rumpford told them, “Yes, they have come, just as I promised. You must be patient.”

But then the problems began. When there were three full pens left, the bleating squeals from the pigs inside them could be heard day and night. From the straw beds they had made for themselves in the barn, Shank and Booker could not sleep for the noise. 

Rumpford lay on his belly on the living room floor of the Dry House, next to the killbang. He could hear the screams and the squeals. He knew the penned pigs were starving for slops, the heavy odor growing more intense with each new load the men dropped from their truck. It had been such a long time since the penned pigs had been fed. It had not rained in days, so there would be little water in the water troughs. The pigs no longer quieted when Rumpford went out to their pens and told them to be patient because soon there would be enough slops. “Can’t you smell them?” he would say.

The enormous hill of slops steaming just inside the barn doors no longer pleased Rumpford. It was more than enough, but it did not feel like enough anymore. It was strange, he thought, as another truckload was dumped onto the pile. There were more slops than he wanted, yet the pigs in their pens did not have any at all.

When the men came to take away the pigs in the second-to-last pen, they went looking for Booker and complained. 

“These pigs aren’t going to be any good for anybody,” the men said. “They are scrawny and sickly, and some of them have sores all over their skin.”

Booker said he was sorry that had happened and that he would report their concern to Rumpford, but the men looked angry. Booker did not like it that one of the men talking to him held a burnstick in his hand, the kind of stick the men used to prod the pigs from the open pen onto the truck.

“Just so you know,” the man said. “We’re not bringing any more slops for pigs like this.”

Booker went to the Dry House to tell Rumpford what the man said, but Rumpford wasn’t there. As Booker nosed about the living room waiting, he paused before the book stand. He had not read anything in weeks. He nudged some of the books onto the floor with his snout, and was struck by the words on the cover of one of them: PIG SLAUGHTERY. Booker nosed the book open and began to read.


Rumpford returned to the Dry House and lay down on the floor with his snout resting on the stock of the killbang. Booker looked up from his book.

“Do you know what happens on the Goodbye Train?” he asked.

Rumpford did not know. He remembered that Big Rumpford had been taken away on the Goodbye Train. Rumpford closed his eyes, but he was listening.

“It says here,” Booker began, “ ‘The pigs are first rendered unconscious using one of the following means: stunning using an electric current applied with electrodes, or stunning using a captive bolt pistol, and inhalation of CO2, then in some cases a .22 pistol/rifle which is shot directly into the brain. They are then hoisted on a rail, after which they are exsanguinated, usually via the carotid artery and the jugular vein. After the blood is gone, the carcass is drenched in hot water in a device called a pig scalder, which helps in the removal of hair, which is subsequently completed by using scissor-like devices and then if necessary with a torch. However, in many countries around the world…’ ”

“Stop that!” Rumpford said. He didn’t know about reading, and he didn’t like hearing about reading. Booker went out of the Dry House and back to the barn to find Shank.

Rumpford thought about the Goodbye Train. He thought about where it went. He tried to make a picture of the place where it went, but he could not do it. It must, Rumpford thought, be another kind of farm. When Rumpford opened his eyes, Booker and Shank were standing in the doorway.

Booker told Rumpford about the men, that they had not liked the looks of the starved pigs from the last pen and that they would not be bringing any more slops. Booker asked Rumpford what he was supposed to say to the men if the pigs in the last pen were small and sick and full of sores.

Rumpford could think of nothing. He felt himself starting to be afraid, and this made him angry. Rumpford got up from the floor and looked hard at Booker and Shank.

“Tell the men to go away.”


Booker and Shank stood at the barn door watching the truck with the men come up the dusty farm road and into the barnyard.

The men said nothing to Booker and Shank as they got out of the truck with their burn sticks and moved to the last full pen. They unlatched the gate and began prodding the squealing pigs toward the truck bed. Booker saw that the pigs, like yesterday’s, were starved-looking, wobbly, and unwell. There were no babies.

When the last pig was prodded up the ramp into the truck bed, three men, each holding a burn stick, came over to Booker and Shank at the barn door.

“You know these ain’t no good either,” one of them said to Booker.

Booker didn’t say anything. He wanted the men to go away. 

Then the man said, “But there’s nothing wrong with you two.”

Booker wanted go back into the barn, away from the men, but before he could move, two of them were behind him and Shank. Then there was a white-hot jolt in his haunch.

On the bumpy, sickening truck ride to the rail yard, Shank was more frightened than he had even been. He kept asking Booker what would happen on the Goodbye Train. Booker would not answer.

When at last the truck arrived at the rail yard and the rear gate of the truck bed was let down, Shank and Booker were the last to walk down the ramp.

“Now look at those two,” a man said. “Don’t suppose there’s any nice fat ones left at the old Heartland place?

Booker stopped and turned. Just before he felt the burn stick on his haunch, he said, “There is one more.”


The sun had been up for hours, but Rumpford had not moved from where he lay next to the killbang on the living room floor. There had been no deliveries of slops for days, and the sour smell of the steaming brown mound in the barn penetrated all the rooms of the Dry House. Rumpford found he could still eat from the slops mound, but after a few mouthfuls, his hunger would not come. This morning he could not think of a reason to get up.

He had watched through the doorway when Shank and Booker were prodded into the men’s truck with the other pigs. Shank had said many times that Rumpford was a splendid pig. Shank had squealed in pleasure when Rumpford announced his plan that there would be enough slops again. Booker could read and he had ideas, but they had nothing to do with Rumpford. And now Shank and Booker were gone.

Rumpford lay a foretrotter over the barrel of the killbang. He remembered that he was in charge. But with Shank and Booker and all the other pigs gone, it did not feel the same to be in charge.

Rumpford’s thoughts were interrupted by the rumble of the truck’s motor in the barnyard. He heard the truck doors open and slam shut. He heard men’s voices, but he did not know what they were saying. Then through the doorway he saw the men. There were four men. They looked about the barnyard and then turned toward the Dry House. Three of the men held burn sticks, and one of them had slung over his shoulder what looked like a killbang.

The men were walking toward the house. Rumpford’s thoughts felt like noise, but then he thought about the Goodbye Train. The Goodbye Train had taken away Big Rumpford. But what was it? He made a picture of a pen, a room like the living room, but on wheels. You got into it and it took you away. It would take you away to— Rumpford could not make a picture. He could only make a picture of the farm: the barnyard, the pens, the fields. The Goodbye Train would take him to another kind of farm, a farm with Big Rumpford, with--? Then Rumpford had a better thought. In the other farm there would be enough.

Rumpford got up onto his feet and walked out to meet the men.