Chapter Eleven: Death
Between the time Ronald Surry and I separated the two boars and then maneuvered the Landrace into an empty pen, the Welsh boar collapsed into the churned-up snow and mud, his cardiovascular system spiraling into terminal crisis.
But the “event” of the Welsh boar’s death eludes me, both in my recall of it and in my reconstruction of the sequence of what and when it occurred. This is odd, because I was within a few yards when the boar stopped breathing, and whatever consciousness of the world it had fell away and the darkness of non-being that sentient creatures are a respite from engulfed him.
Did I miss the moment because the boar’s death was without drama? For sure, there was no chest-clutching declamation the way it’s done in cartoons, and I didn’t hear the real-world shudder of cessation I witnessed at the deaths of each of my parents many years later. Or did I simply erase the details of this death from the frame within which I’ve drawn out the rest of the event because at the time, I had no way to process it?
I should have looked to Ronald here, no? Before this moment he’d witnessed other deaths on the farm, plenty of them. During the war, he’d seen many dead human beings, and possibly been a witness to—or even the agent of—some of their deaths. Very late one night in front of the fireplace’s coal brazier after we’d each consumed our snifters of cognac, I actually did ask him that utterly indiscreet question: “Did you ever kill anyone?” Of course he hadn’t, but he said it in a dissembling way that had me considering the opposite.
Still, I let it drop. Who was I to have an opinion about death or killing? What had I seen die? A squirrel? A rabbit? A grouse? I’d never even seen a big game animal die—no one in my family was a hunter, and I wasn’t to spend time in the wilderness until several years later when I joined the Forest Service. I hadn’t yet seen a dead human being either, a deficit that would be erased by the same occupation.
Ronald Surry’s generation, coming of age at the climax of the twentieth century’s initial four and a half decade-long festival of slaughter, experienced mass and individual deaths as relatively common occurrences. That is very different from my generation of North Americans and Western Europeans, who came of age in the several respite decades of social democratic meritocracy that followed the Second World War. We have lived our lives in a unique cocoon of peace and non-violence we think is of normal human experience, and perhaps even a natural right. The rest of the human species hasn’t ever been so lucky, which is to say, my generation of North Americans and Western Europeans and the generations that have followed have been the exception even in our own era and world.
Between 1914 and 1945, roughly twenty-five million armed men died in and near Europe while actively trying to kill other armed men. Nearly forty million more civilians also died, more than half of these between 1937 and 1945, as a direct or indirect result of the “advances” in military technology aimed at preventing a return to the trench warfare that characterized the First World War.
Among the regular visitors to Great Crouchs farm was an elderly man named Duncan, who was treated as a much-cherished uncle of Joan’s but was, in reality no more than a family friend and one of the people with whom Ronald and Joan periodically played bridge. Duncan was a small, shyly reserved man who barely seemed to notice when I or anyone else other than Joan was there. He ignored Ronald, sometimes egregiously, even though Ronald invariably treated him with kindly attentiveness. To me Duncan was remote, unobservant, and without discernable pleasures. Physically, he moved about with a tentativeness that suggested some obscure sort of impairment. The respect and affection he received from Ronald and Joan puzzled me, and eventually, in a clumsily indirect way, I asked Joan about it.
“What is it that happens to old people?” I said.
“What do you mean?” she answered, gazing at me carefully. “You don’t mean people older than you, I trust. Don’t you mean, elderly people?”
“I guess so,” I said. “I expect older people to be wise, the way they are in stories and fairy tales. In real life, most of them seem to have nothing to say. It’s as if they’re too tired to care.”
“You mean people like Duncan, don’t you?”
I nodded, reluctant to single out so unassumingly absent a creature. “But many of the old people I’ve met are like that,” I added.
“The world has been an exhausting place for the last sixty years,” Joan said, after a moment’s thought. “Duncan was an officer in the Great War, and a brave one. And he lived through the Blitz, in London. For him, I think, everyday life is as much a struggle to forget what he’s seen and done as to take in what’s happening in the here and now. When you get older, you’ll understand what it’s like when your mind is somewhere else most of the time, and you’re never sure if you’d prefer to be with it or nowhere at all.”
In the rest of the world and even in parts of Europe, the slaughter continued after 1945, and it has kept up at slightly subdued levels well into the twenty-first century. The continued advances in killing technology has further shifted the balance of casualties from active combatants to civilians everywhere but in Western Europe and North America, where the violence of war has become a remote media event in which, now, we watch our armies and people in poorer dysfunctional societies kill one another as part of the infotainment psychosis of our current culture.
In 1962 the primary cultural gulf between me and Ronald Surry was our different experiences of death and violence. He’d seen both, participated in both, and been changed by it, to the point where his first impulse was to avoid all contact with other human beings except Joan and their daughter Judith—and me, once he’d poured enough Merrydown down his throat. For me, death and violence were like nearly everything else: something to be understood in some indeterminate future. In 1962, and for most of my life, threats to mortality have largely remained abstract, invisible and far off in the distance. Lucky me.
I think it was my lack of experience with death that made me more interested in the defeated Welsh boar than in the victorious Landrace. There was nuance to the Welsh boar’s death that went beyond the sort of binary Darwinist explanation that points to which antagonist is the more brutish, violent (and thus successful), and is then either ideologically chuffed or morally appalled. My instincts, even then, were to avoid ideological excitements and moral constructions designed to produce self-comfort and/or show. (1)
The two boars were also a tangible cipher to Ronald’s ongoing diatribe against everything male, whether human, porcine, or any other species, but there was an unexpected nuance here: Ronald appeared to mourn the Welsh. I don’t mean that he sentimentalized the dead boar or pretended that it had spent its days petting bunnies. Rather, he began to present the dead boar as “competent”, which, within his nomenclature, was high praise. Despite being a slightly retrospective judgment, given his greater fondness for Big Boy, it rang true: I’d seen the way the sows stood for the Welsh; he’d rarely required the service crate, even for the most skittish of the young sows.
I could see ways in which the Landrace was inferior. The sows were frightened of him, and not just because he was aggressive. He was, absurd as this will sound, a poor lover. He insisted, when he mounted a sow, on placing his trotters high on her shoulders, from where they would inevitably slip and scrape the sow’s sides painfully enough that she would shriek and, often, buckle even when she was inside the service crate. Most of his services required using the service crate, which offered the sows a little protection, but even then he was notorious for missing his mark. When he did, one of us would have to remove his pink corkscrew penis from the sow’s anus and reinsert it in the correct opening. It was a maneuver that was more unpleasant than dangerous, but still…
Neither the Welsh nor the Landrace boar was pleasant to deal with before, during and especially after any service. Both of them backed away from the serviced sow with characteristic male aggression: head swinging back and forth, grunting sourly and stinking of testosterone slobber—not that I expected them to behave like happy workmen or Errol Flynn. But my field encounters with the Welsh, I now recalled, had been positively genteel compared with those I’d had with the Landrace, who instantly adopted a jaw-grinding threat posture whenever I blundered within his visual range. The Welsh simply kept a wary eye on me and displayed no overt aggression, even if I was close.
Here again, Big Boy behaved differently. Once finished a service, he’d move a few steps away and pause, almost comically, as if he wished to gauge the satisfaction of the sow, and receive any compliments that were forthcoming about his skill as a lover—or, on the farm’s terms, service provider. On Ronald’s example, I learned to grant him this leisure, and once I had, he’d amble back to his stall without having to be prodded. All I had to do was to close the gate behind him.
Death is a fairly routine event on any livestock-rearing farm, and even though Great Crouchs Farm didn’t raise its pigs to slaughter weight, there were enough lethal mishaps to make death at least a passing acquaintance for me. Most of the deaths I witnessed were like that of the little pig the other weaners turned on and were nudging to death when I was told to rescue it from the pen and kill it: contingent, laconic, and swiftly processed without extraneous emotions.
The only exception to this, other than the Welsh boar’s death, was an older sow that died of septicemia during her farrow. The infection that killed her must have been well advanced, but even so, the swift violence of the convulsive crisis was frightening. I was shoveling feed into a bucket for the sows; Ronald was a few feet away, fiddling with the door latch to her stall. The sow—it was one of his favourites—began to buckle and heave, squalling in a way I’d never before heard. The vocal range of pigs isn’t terrifically subtle: objection and contentment mostly, grunts and squeals. Nearly all their objections are high-pitched squeals. But here the sow’s pain was palpable, the squalling tone lower, the harmonic deeper and weighted with tangible terror, as if the sow could sense her death traveling toward her heart and brain on the blood venom. The instant that venom arrived at its destination the terrified squalling abruptly ceased, even though the sow’s torso, now reflex-fueled, continued to slam and buckle against the sturdy wooden walls of the stall, each spasm less forceful than the one before.
The event, from start to finish, didn’t take more than forty-five seconds. Then there was a silence before Ronald entered the stall and bent over the animal. He held that posture for a long time, running his hand across the sow’s flank and throat, as if trying to comfort her while he traced—and possibly reversed?—the bacteria’s flooding advance through her bloodstream. I heard him sigh, and when I looked, there were tears running down his cheeks. He wasn’t grieving the lost profits.
It’s this tableau of Ronald Surry that I first remembered in March 1989 when my mother phoned to inform me that he had committed suicide in the basement condominium he rented from her. She didn’t use the word “suicide” but rather, that he had “let himself go”. Her metaphor was exact: Ronald chose to bleed out a hemorrhaging stomach ulcer in the hours before dawn.
There have been a half-dozen stomach hemorrhages in my family over the last two generations because this is how we deal with stress: we swallow it and it burns holes in our stomachs. But all of us know exactly what to do to save ourselves when an ulcer hemorrhages, including how long we have before it’s too late. Ronald lay down on the carpeted concrete and accepted death as if it were a friend. Maybe it was.
One afternoon, a few weeks after Christmas, I asked Ronald about a large oak tree several hundred feet along the way toward the village. “It doesn’t look too healthy,” I said. “Shouldn’t you cut it down?”
The horrified look Ronald gave made me wonder if I’d suggested we ought to murder the Queen. “Absolutely not,” he said. “That tree is four hundred years old, and under the protection of the British government. I’d have to get a permit to even prune it, and even that would take several years to acquire.”
The next day, after dinner, he deposited a volume of Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology in my lap, and suggested I look up a certain page. “This is what the Germans used to do to people who cut down live oak trees,” he said.
“This book was written by the Brothers Grimm?” I said. “I thought they were fictitious.”
“They were perfectly real men,” he said. “Two brothers, philologists and folklorists. They compiled and published a number of volumes of Germanic myths and folk tales early in the last century. Then they made the mistake of publishing a bowdlerized children’s book, and the world turned them into the Brothers Grimm, as if they were the boogeymen from the stories they’d collected. This book is part of the English translation from the 1880s, so be gentle with it. It’s quite valuable.”
I took the book from him and read the passage he’d pointed out to me, several times over. The penalty for “tree murder” was to have your navel cut from your body and nailed, along with the intestine attached to it, to a tree—and to then be forced to run around the tree with your guts unraveling as you ran, until, presumably, you fell over, empty and dead.
The image haunted me for days after—and it has stayed with me across the years, one of the data coils there has never been a need to unravel because it had remained at the edges of my daily consciousness: what you do can have mortal consequences, and you’re not always going to be able to predict the situations in which mortal consequences will appear.
* * *
(1) Pigheadness? Hey, I know exactly what that term means: if you tie a rope around a pig’s neck, it will pull back on it. Nothing will make it charge once the rope is secured. Perhaps it’s a brain-software glitch, or a fault in their gearing, it’s hard to say. Whatever its derivation, we used it to de-tusk the boars, a procedure that was needed every two months or so because their tusk are more like horns than teeth: they grow continuously. Ronald would loop a noose—the other end tied to a post—around the neck of the boar, tie the rope to a post, and the boar would pull back on it. He would then approach the boar, open its mouth, and crunch the always-growing tusks with a device similar in size and mechanics to a lock cutter. This had to be fairly painful to the boars, because the crude tusk-cutter crushed or shattered the tusks as often as it severed them cleanly. The pain didn’t seem to register. The boars continued to pull back on the noose no matter what we did to them. Ronald said we would have been able to castrate them using the same immobilization. When he said this, I thought about holding one of those softball-sized testicles in my hand just for a second, and then thought about other things, such as the terrible vulnerability that instincts can inflict on us.
Dooney’s is serializing, on a weekly basis, Brian Fawcett’s manuscript The Sussex Variations, and a companion piece, The Martian Invasion. Edited by Karl Siegler, this is one of the last books Fawcett completed before his death, from pulmonary fibrosis, on February 27, 2022. Fawcett is a founding co-editor of dooneyscafe.com since its inception in 2001.
You can find the full list of posted chapters here.