Francis Haythornthwaite was riding his bicycle on the on-ramp to the Expressway when the light turned red and he pulled alongside a semi-trailer full of squealing pigs. Until that moment, Francis had been daydreaming of Anneli, the new hire, the only one at work who “got” his kind of humor. He was also thinking how sweaty his green Styrofoam bike helmet and pink plastic shoes were, due to the exertion on this, the first truly pleasant day in April. But the squeals of the pigs wrenched him right back to reality.
He knew full well the brutal acts destined to occur in the porcine lives over the next 24 hours. Right now they were penned up in stressful numbers, standing in their own filth, lurching in the stop-and-go traffic. Soon they would be sent down the blind run, one at a time, where each pig would be electrocuted, hoisted up by the back legs, and its throat slit to empty the blood. The assembly-line cutter would make a Y-incision on each upside-down pig, the entrails would be emptied, and then the carcass would be hosed down and moved to the cold room. Francis knew all this because he’d worked undercover at a meat-packing plant before he’d written his exposé, “Gutted: Life & Death at the Abattoir.” Just thinking about the pigs’ fate made his face grow long.
The light turned green and he knew it was time to move on. However, the truck full of pigs beside him stalled. Francis took this as a sign.
“Good day, good sir,” Francis said, calling up to the open window on the driver’s side. “What a fine lot of pigs you have.”
“Maybe they’s good pigs, but this-here truck stinks,” said the man, climbing out of his cab. Fortunately, the stalled truck was already close to the side of the road. His name was Roy, according to the tag embroidered on his shirt. “This is the third innersection I’ve got hung up at.” He pulled out his cell phone and poked at the screen.
Francis carefully set his bike down on the shoulder beyond the road and texted his supervisor at work to say he “might be somewhat late.” Francis asked the man, “Have you ever had a pig as a pet?”
Roy squinted. “Countin my kids or not?”
Francis could tell Roy meant it as a joke so he laughed. And waited.
“Well, lessee…I once had a pet pig. Clara. A real beauty. And smart! I swear, I taught her to count.” Roy’s eyes darted to the road and the phone and then to his semi-trailer, where pink ears bobbed and purply wet noses pushed through the slats. “Damn, they’s put me on hold.”
“Rush hour,” Francis said. “You might have a long wait.” He emanated a calmness, a radiance of conviction, even though they were at the side of a busy expressway. “I will wait with you. Tell me about Clara.”
Francis helped Roy place two flares behind the incapacitated vehicle as Roy began to reminisce. Little did he know that he was speaking to Francis, the world’s kindest man. Francis never drank milk from cow, goat, sheep or kangaroo. He never ate eggs from chicken, goose, snake or beluga. Leather? It never touched his skin, not as shoe, belt or even a fancy man-purse. He carried around a canvas knapsack full of sensible and devious things to rescue animals: flashlights, fake badges, skeleton keys and faux-fur decoys… that sort of thing.
Within twenty minutes, after gentle probing and much sympathetic laughter, Roy was weeping. “Of all the beings in this world, my dear Clara never done no harm to me. Why in tarnation did I let Pappy take her to the auction?”
“Would you like Clara’s forgiveness?” Francis said. He kept his eyes steadily on the man, drilling down to the basic love and respect for all living creatures.
“I reckon so,” Roy said slowly.
“Your redemption is possible,” Francis said, eyes shining. He whispered, “Free the pigs, Roy.”
The sun was hot, Roy was parched, and the pigs were raucous. He took off his sweat-stained baseball cap and rubbed his fingers in his thinning hair.
Francis tried again. “While waiting for the tow-truck, why don’t you at least let Clara’s cousins out for a little water and a snack? I know a lovely place nearby…”
Roy chewed his toothpick. “Yee-up, I reckon we could let them out to stretch their legs.”
“It’ll be easier for the tow-truck to maneuver an empty truck,” Francis said.
“And pigs are intelligent,” Francis said. “They’ll find their way back.” He helped Roy place a ramp from the back gate flush with the roadside.
Roy shrugged and unlocked the lower back gate. “We’d best let the big ones out first, so’s they don’t step on the little ones.” With that, he opened the enclosure of the biggest hog. The ramp bowed under the hog’s bulk as he waddled off the truck, his haunches quivering under the bright April sun.
Francis dug in his knapsack, strung a SuperTastee dog biscuit on a fishing pole, and held it almost within reach of the hog’s snout. He began walking along, guiding the hog to a large meadow, an off-leash dog park really, that lay to the south side of the expressway. One hog meekly followed another because hogs innately understand that the bigger the leader, the more likely the leader knows the way to good food.
Roy put his phone to his ear. “They’ll be here in a jiffy,” he shouted to Francis as the very last piglet left the semi-trailer. All told, 219 pigs left the truck (one had died en route, when a sow lost her balance and accidentally squished him).
This was the moment of rescue Francis had always dreamed of. Leading the condemned animals on a long walk to freedom… from the expressway to a meadow. But now he had 219 pigs walking along the high ridge of a meadow between a busy expressway and an equally busy railyard full of superfast trains. He dimly remembered mention of a pedestrian bridge connecting the park and the railyard.
Down in the meadow there roamed the usual collection of dog owners holding empty leashes while their furry friends frolicked and barked. As well, there was a clutch of kite flyers, a handful of hikers, and two teens toying around with a drone. Plus the entire Kindergarten class of Blessed Innocence Primary School who were out catching butterflies.
* * *
With the baited rod, Francis led the biggest hog the long way round in the meadow while he deliberated on what to do. It was too far to walk to the Farm Animals Rescue Society. Perhaps he could charter a bus or railcar—some humane form of conveyance for the pigs—when he reached the railyard. “Pigs are intelligent,” he repeated quietly, “People in the meadow are intelligent… children are intelligent….”
* * *
Meanwhile, Duchess, one of the meaner dogs, caught the scent of the weakest smallest piglet, Wee Pig. He had peed himself in fear. She began to sniff around like the very wolfish ancestor that dogs have. She paused and gave an eerie, low-throated howl. The ears of a dozen other off-leash dogs perked up and together they drew closer to Wee Pig. Duchess’s owner was many yards away, calling, “Duchess! Come here, sweet poochie!”
The kindergarten teachers grew alarmed by the sight of a pack of dogs loping over the field where their small charges were waving their butterfly nets. The teachers feared the dogs would devour Wee Pig as an amuse-bouche and then hunt around for other tasty fare. Some teachers screamed, “Run!” and others screamed, “Come here!” The children were so confused they froze.
Girded with optimism, Francis began to coax the piggy parade over the pedestrian bridge to safety. He felt he must not waste this opportunity to complete the biggest and most peaceful rescue of condemned animals in the history of the Animal Rescue Society of Edgertonville. He could already imagine Anneli’s tender smile and glowing praise. But Wee Pig was whimpering and the mean dogs were baying and circling and the children were crying and the teachers were screaming— and pointing fingers at Fracis.
Worst of all, the other 218 pigs were sensing one among their number was in danger. With their weak long-lashed eyes, they couldn’t quite see, but they were getting nervous. Some began to break formation. Pig pandemonium loomed.
Francis reached into his knapsack, drew out a dog whistle, and blew until his eyes bulged. The dogs reared back, yelping as if swatted. Wee Pig trotted free and ran to catch up with the others.
Heaving a sigh of relief, Francis led 219 pigs to the end of the bridge and onward to the busy railyard where he planned to charter a dome car. But Wee Pig, still in a panic, kept running too fast and jumped onto the back of a big sow nearby. Wee Pig’s slippery little hooves couldn’t stop in time. He skidded along on the silky hair of sow’s back, right off the bridge, and THUD down onto the train track.
A bullet train came screeching in… on the neighboring track. Wee Pig dusted himself off and ran, squealing, to the other pigs on the platform where they waited, nosing about in trash bins, for the dome car to arrive.
* * *
Back at the expressway, the horn of the semi-trailer sounded TOOOOT! Roy, with a megaphone, hollered across the meadow. “Yoo-hoo! Mah truck is fixed. Bring those pigs on back, yuh hear?”
An hour later, Francis stood at the side of the road, trembling with relief and indignation. Yes, thank heavens the tow-truck operator had got the truck started, but did Roy have to be so rude when Francis informed him the pigs had no intention of returning?
“Clara,” Francis shouted. “Honor the spirit of Clara!” He waved farewell and kept walking to the platform where his new four-footed friends were waiting for him.
* * *
Francis slid into work. He went to the company shower where he removed his his damp cycling attire, his slippery green helmet, and his sweaty plastic shoes before anyone (especially Anneli) could see him. Then, whew: into the cool Hawaiian shirt, cotton cargo pants, and hemp sandals he normally wore at work. He was an operations analyst at the Animal Rescue Society of Edgertonville.
“Sorry ‘bout yesterdat—I had an emergency to deal with,” he said.
“Everybody says that,” his supervisor Cathryn yawned. “What, did you stop to liberate the earthworms stranded after the morning rain?”
“No, that was last week,” Francis said. “Yesterday, I rescued a shipment of pigs destined for the sausage factory. I brought them to our refuge in Vermont.” Anneli turned and gave him a second look. Francis tingled anew.
* * *
People at work were discussing a strange and cruel video.
“Look how this creep goes after the dogs,” Cathryn said. She replayed a newly posted video that began with shaky drone footage of a semi-trailer pulled up at the side of the expressway, and a green-helmeted man. In the grainy footage the man looked like a stick figure, but Francis had a jolt of recognition. The video cut to a view of the off-leash dogs, cowering, after a cruel and unseen force made them rear back, yelping as if beaten. Just a short clip, nothing showing his initial perplexity, and his miraculous success at stopping the potential dog carnage. Oh right—the dog whistle was silent.
“I think I recognize the skyline,” Sidhu said.
“I’ll contact the animal cruelty officers,” Anneli said. “Something cruel and unusual is happening to those poor dogs.”
* * *
By afternoon, his colleagues were in high dudgeon about a macabre video making the rounds. The common area resounded with more screams and groans than a heavy metal concert.
“It’s gruesome. Totally,” Cathryn said. “Give me a nice clean beheading any day. But this is terrible… Some swineherd is leading an entire herd of pigs to their deaths—oh God, I can’t bear to watch…”
“Look! He’s taking them over a bridge to the railyard. Holy shit, look at that porker ramming through the side rail!” The screech of the pig was followed by a sickening thud. The throng of animal lovers responded with a gasp.
“Wait, what?” Francis ran to look.
A second eerie squeal morphed into a full-throated scream. Someone cranked up the volume. Francis shouldered his way into the multitude around the display monitor.
“We have to find that green-hatted sadist!” shouted Sidhu. “He should be shot!”
“That footage—can’t you see?” Francis interjected. “It’s been tampered with!”
Hush, hush, the crowd said.
“Hey guys, you’ve been on that bridge, right?” Francis was blinking rapidly. “You know that rail is strong enough to hold up against a pig.”
“Not a one-ton hog,” Cathryn said. “Come off it, Francis, that’s like a goddam truck ramming the side.”
Sidhu narrated the play-by-play. “The big hog goes over and the train smacks right into him. And then the other pigs start to panic and they go over, one by one.”
“Stop, stop, STOP!” Francis yelled. Anneli did a double-take.
“Back up, folks. Play the video again for Francis,” Cathryn said. She turned the oversized screen toward him. The YouTube headline said, “Cruelest Man in the World – Railyard Massacre.”
Francis saw the drone camcorder had recorded the single-file procession of hogs, sows, shoats and piglets over the bridge. It was all there, the wobbling backsides, the bouncing multiple teats, and the shining pink backs of pig after pig. The parade was all there—and it was all photoshopped to show the big hog breaking through the guard rail.
Francis saw 504 views and was incensed by the unfairness of it all. A couple of punks and their drone camera toy! Well, he’d be more careful next time. But no—there was a ‘K’ beside that number—504 K views, meaning over half a million people had witnessed. And the dashboard said this was the number one trending video that day. His bowels turned to water.
“That’s terrible,” he gasped. “It’s all wrong—but actually, the pigs were rescued—I mean, I was passing by—I saw a chance—”
Anneli lifted her eyebrow. She looked about to say something.
He was drowned out by a chorus of shrieks. The video clip was set on auto-replay so the looping parade of pigs—ohmigawd, the image of Wee Pig twisting as he fell off the bridge—repeated two hundred plus times. The magnified thud, thud, thud was mixed in with screeching rhythm of the Nine Inch Nails’ March of the Pigs.
Francis covered his face with his hands and wept.