I knew how it would end. I knew from that first spring day when my dad and I took the old green pickup over to Big Sky High School’s Future Farmers of America (FFA) building and came back with the 25-pound piglet I called Ash. From that night when I carried an old sleeping bag out to the pen and snuggled up in the straw alongside him. I knew every morning, when I woke up at seven to make sure his feed and water were full. Every day when I let him out in the yard to teach him how to walk for the fair, when he taught me to do what sounds fun in the moment and that happiness is more important than checking items off my to-do list. I knew when I brought letters to local Missoula businesses asking if they would bid on my pig at the Western Montana Fair on August 11, 2017. It couldn’t last. It would be smarter not to become attached, but I couldn’t help loving him anyway.
I lie in the sawdust of the pen, arms wrapped tightly around Ash. Tears slide down my face and onto his warm side. I feel every breath he takes. Every heartbeat. But it’s only days now until that beat grows quiet. He sleeps so contentedly. Does he know what comes next?
* * *
This was my third year in the 4-H hog project, so I had a decent idea of what I was doing, but it was still a challenge to train my pig. I would release him from his pen and out into the yard, and he would immediately run off to eat something. Pigs like to stick their snouts in the ground and dig up the grass, which is not exactly desirable for my family’s suburban lawn. I would rub his belly, and he would flop over on his side and stick his legs out like a puppy. If I was upset about something, I would go out and sit in the pen with him, and I would feel better because he reminded me how good my life was. Of how lucky I was to be in 4-H and to get to raise pigs. Sometimes, on hot days, I would turn on the pump in the middle of the yard. No matter where he was, Ash would come running and drink as much as he could, standing directly under the spigot as the stream of water gushed over him. He was so smart that after a while he figured out that if he put his nose under the handle and pushed up, the water would turn on.
* * *
I hold Ash close, whisper his name, over and over, telling him I love him, telling him I’m sorry. I don’t say it will be okay. It’s hard to imagine that it ever will be. How many times can I do this? Will there be a day when the pain finally pulls me apart, the pieces left to drift like shadows on the wind?
Outside, children still roam the fairgrounds, dragging their parents from one ride to the next, screaming at the moment of weightlessness, suspended upside-down at the top of the Kamikaze, then careening in wild circles on the Tilt-A-Whirl. Teenagers laugh as they try to knock over a tower of bottles, spending more money than they can afford on something they never had a chance of winning. The world still spins; somewhere a man wins the lottery while another begs on the sidewalk. So much like me, that day I got my pig, and now as I let him go. People are born, entering reality at the same moment as others leave. I know this, yet it feels like life has been put on pause. The world slows its rotation, people hold their breath to see what comes next.
I close my eyes and lean my head against Ash’s side. I think of the day I got him, so full of joy. My dad and I piled into the 1994 Chevy pickup, old stickers saying things like flammable, do not play on or around plastered onto the driver’s side door. We pulled into the parking lot of the FFA building. The second I was out of the truck, I ran across the pavement and went to look for my 4-H friends and the piglets the FFA students would soon be auctioning.
This room, usually as bare and colorless as a black-and-white photo in an old magazine, had transformed into a bustling action movie. Full of sound and motion, adrenaline pulsing, an invisible electricity running through us all. The cold, concrete floor was mostly covered by makeshift pens and illuminated by metal heat lamps. We crowded around the pigs, commenting on which ones had the best muscle tone and build.
After half an hour, we moved into an adjacent room, and the auction began. The top 15 pigs would be sold to the highest bidder, at a minimum price of $250. A tall boy stepped out into the ring with a small, white pig, speckled with black spots. The auctioneer called out numbers, and I saw an arm raise. Suddenly my dad lifted his bidding card, and a quick scan of the audience showed that no one else was going to pay for the first animal. Just like that, I had a pig.
Though I didn’t admit it then, I felt a pang of anger. This was supposed to be my decision. The price was amazing, only $25 dollars over what the non-auction pigs cost, so I didn’t complain, but it took me longer to love him than it had ever taken me to love a pig before. The fact that he had not been my choice led me to believe that he was not the right one. Now, clinging to Ash like it was my life ending, not his, I can’t imagine how I could have pushed him away. We only had four months together, much too short a time to waste on anything but unconditional love.
Ash stretches his legs and snorts, a small motion, but it’s all it takes to push through my thoughts, bringing with it the realization that this really is the end. My tears slow, and I hang on tighter. He weighs almost 300 pounds now, but, unlike most people, I still see him as cute. I love the way his curly-cue tail wags when he trots around the yard. The way he always looks like he’s smiling. He’s only six-month-old, a baby really. I feel Ash’s warmth, send my love. This is the last time I will get to hold him, I want to remember every perfect second.
“Time to go,” my mom gently prompts.
I give Ash one last hug and whisper, “I love you.” Slowly, I climb over the gate of his pen and walk away. I made a commitment when I signed up for this project and now I have to follow through. The air feels heavy, suffocating, like the force of the entire universe is pressing down on me, but I take another step.
* * *
I wake in the morning to a slow throbbing, deep in my chest. I can’t even try to heal; every time I smile, I feel guilty, as if I’m betraying Ash by not completely breaking. I collapse in bed at night where sobs shake my body—rational thinking abandoned. Mechanics have taken down the Kamikaze at our fairgrounds, but I’m still spinning along on this wild ride.
Somehow, I manage to go back-to-school shopping and run to get ready for the cross-country season. My family squeezes in one last trip, and I meet my new eighth grade teachers. I wear a locket with Ash’s picture in it, but, gradually, I need it less and less.
* * *
Mid-September, I climb off the bus and walk down my street. I look up and notice that the maple trees have changed color. Crimson and gold frame the sky. Leaves decorate the yards and crunch merrily under my feet. I know fall is the time when plants die, decomposing back into the ground, but to me it feels like a fresh start. I think of Ash and close my eyes. It hurts so much, but I am making money to support my future, and in doing so I’m also supporting the future of farming. There are so many feedlots that treat animals cruelly, but with 4-H they have good lives. I gave Ash healthy food, my companionship, belly rubs, and his own water spigot.
The pain that comes with remembering is sharp, but this time there is something else, too. A spark of warmth, because, in less than a year, there will be a new creature digging up my yard. I’ll take care of it, and then I’ll sell it. I will never forget Ash, but that doesn’t mean I can’t move on. I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and let my pig go.