The Hog Reeve

by Francis Walsh

As the hog reeve, I lived beside the town animal pound, and at night the breathing of the animals lulled me to sleep.
      But one evening, the bell on the door of the pound startled me awake. I lit a candle and crept outside to find Goodman Willis crouched before the open door of the pound as he attempted to coax his pig out into the open with an apple. Stars dappled the sky but there was a hole where the moon should be, and when I called for Willis in the darkness, he stilled, remaining on his haunches a moment before slowly rising, turning, and taking a bite of the apple.
      “Just came to collect my pig.”
      His lips smacked as he spoke.
      “You can return in the morning with the wrangling fee and collect Blessed.”
      Willis stepped closer and the light of the candle danced across his face. His lips glistened with the juice of the apple. Pulp flecked his chin.
      “It’s Bless-id. Have some respect. I’m taking her and there’s nothing you can do about it. I’m going to lead her out by the snout, just like this,” he said.
      His hand darted forward, and I reeled back, but too late—he grabbed my nose, twisting till the skin felt like it might tear, and I stumbled, swatting at his arm.
      After I struggled for a moment, he released me and laughed, his voice echoing.
      Later, I questioned whether what I did was right, but eventually I decided that the peckerhead had it coming: I brained him with the candle holder after he turned his back to me. Wax splattered across my arm, and Willis staggered to his knees, then crumpled when I struck him again, and in the dim light, the blood that bubbled out of the rent in his skull appeared almost silver and creeping like mercury.
      Face down in the dirt, he wheezed, and after relighting the candle, I made my next move: I threaded a needle and sewed Goodman Willis’ mouth shut. Beside me, Blessed snuffled, munching on the apple Willis had dropped.
     Previously, according to my ledger, I confronted Goodman John Willis about his hog on August 19, 1699, the morning after the night of a waning moon. He was sweating beneath his wide-brimmed hat when I found him huddled over a piece of leatherwork. He was a dull man, a sexton and a grave digger with a round face who ignored the shade and merrily gritted his teeth at his workbench, and though I found him to be stupid and watery-eyed, he possessed an insistent fire in his voice and an exacting attitude toward decorum—despite the wanderings of his hog—and so I had only approached him after having knocked on the door to his home and inquired of Goody Fear on husband’s whereabouts.
      At the door, Fear touched her hand to mine and said, “It is good to see you again, Goodman Morgan. Please follow me.”
      Fear blocked the entrance to her home, but my mouth watered at the sweet, nutty scent of rye bread baking. I thanked her and sighed, imagining her starched coif bursting into flame. I knew she could not abide such ridiculous headwear. She led me out back and announced, “Goodman Morgan here to see you, sir.”
      Willis continued to work, and I stood there, no more significant to him than the shadow of a turd upon the grass. Fear clasped her hands before her thighs and gazed at the ground, unable to look at her husband.
      “About Blessed,” she added.
      The size and shape of a beer keg, Blessed was a black hog with drooping ears and a light bristling along her belly. Like a cat, she tended to nestle against my calve when greeting me.
      I coughed into my fist, my cloak rustling.
      “Thank you Fear, you can leave,” Goodman Willis said. “Goody—I mean Goodman—Morgan, what can I do for you?”
      Fear departed. Dirt had gathered in the creases of Willis’ knuckles. His leatherwork was shoddy. He did not look up. I stepped closer and darkened his bench, and he set aside his awl and turned to me and smirked. His mouth, at least, appeared pristine, unencumbered with cavity or loss. A sour must wafted from his body.
      “Your hog,” I said. “Blessed seems to have wandered again. She’s down at the pound. You can’t have Blessed rooting around your neighbor’s land. Eating their potatoes. And you still owe for the last wrangling. And the one before that.”
      “I didn’t ask for you to wrangle nothing. A pig wanders. Let her be and she’ll come home. She did last time.”
      “Last time she did not wander home, you broke into the pound in the middle of the night while I slept.”
      Goodman Willis took up his awl and picked his cuticles with the instrument. I suspect he was attempting some form of intimidation, but I was not, in any sense, physically afraid of the man, despite his attempts; rather, I understood the power and charm of gossip in our small town and well recognized the size of Goodman Willis’ mouth.
      “While you slept? Saw me in your dreams then? Reminded you of a horse, did I? Sounds like you need a stronger lock and a prayer or two. But whatever. Gimme a couple days. I’ll pay the fee.”
      We set a date, and as I left, I passed Fear beating a rug. A cloud of dust swirled around her, and she paused, resting the wicker rug beater against her hip. She wiped her brow and winked, but we did not exchange words, and I returned home, awaiting the day when Goodman Willis would arrive to retrieve Blessed from the pound.
      Measuring thirty by thirty feet and comprised of four field stone walls rising to a height higher than that of a man, the town pound stood at the bottom of Salmon River Hill, about seventy rods north of Goodman Willis’ property. A simple wooden gate barred the sole exit of the pound, and though large enough to house wayward cows and horses, hogs were the most common lodgers, owing to their wily and somewhat destructive nature: the crafty hog used its snout to nudge and till soil in search of food, which included farmland and tubers. Cows only chewed the grass, and so my job primarily consisted of wrangling hogs.
      Though appointed, I had conspired to achieve the position of hog reeve in the mistaken belief that my neighbors would view my skill and work ethic with admiration. But they were a suspicious lot, and my behavior did not always endear me to them.
      I attended church sporadically. As sexton, Willis was tasked with corralling any of the stray members of God’s flock, and thus had knocked on my door on more than one Sunday. His eyes would read me from the threshold. To him, I was an unmarried woman who wore a hat. I cultivated a faint mustache above my lip. Sometimes I relented, and the parishioners would turn their heads as I entered, no doubt expecting a burst of flame and a scream for the Lord’s mercy. I tended a garden but did not farm. I worked with my hands and stooped to pluck herbs and flowers from the earth. I bundled the mosses of the earth and ground them with a mortar and pestle. I whispered my thanks as I made the medicine. I had been known to hunt. There were rumors about me, often propagated by Goodman Willis, and though I denied them, there was an element of truth—I was a witch when I was feared, but one of the cunning folk when my skills were needed. It was a family tradition, and Goody Pritchett had been my teacher—a sturdy woman with warm, strong hands, she ministered to the sick, even the wary and fearful, and she delighted in baking fresh bread and performing sleight-of-hand tricks, like pulling a wriggling newt from behind my ear. She never cursed her detractors and instructed me to do the same: “Be patient and let them think of you what they will. Wait for your opportunity.”
      And Goodman Willis certainly thought what he wanted, of her and of me. Contrary to rumor, I did not pledge allegiance to any Dark Lord, nor did I sign my name in any book, either with blood or ink, and my body remained unmarred by any devil’s mark or witch’s teat and possessed only the features with which I was born, minus the amendments of age that afflicted us all.
      Thus, I had arrived in this world in the same manner as my neighbors, and such was my life.
      Being the hog reeve, I well understood how absence arouses suspicion. Someone would notice the lack of Goodman Willis in the world.
      I had hogtied Willis after sewing his mouth shut, and, in the morning, I gathered materials and set about mixing a slurry of clay, moss, and clippings of my hair. Blessed lounged nearby and snored, her hooved feet twitching. Willis watched me as I smeared a thin layer of the mixture over his cheeks and nose and brow. I used my fingers; the mixture was cool, his skin hot. He writhed and kicked, but of course he was trapped, and after a while, he stilled, save for a few heaving breaths. Sometimes, it is easier to relent. Of course, a hammer rested nearby in the dirt, and his body was open to me. I waited, and the mixture on Willis’ face began to dry, contracting into the mosaic of a dry riverbed. With a fingernail, I picked at an edge, slowly peeling away the mask and placing the inverted sculpture of Willis’ countenance over my own.
      I believe he tried to scream, but it is hard to say since his mouth was sewn shut. Blessed, at least, snorted.
      At a different time, I had heard Willis cry out. A week before I brained him, he and I had a confrontation outside of the Church. Willis was attempting to repair a broken step, and, blinded while walking into the sun, I did not notice him at first. He knelt in the dirt, a hammer in hand, and cursed when an errant swing struck his thumb. I attempted to pass without remark—I had a salve to deliver to a rash ridden neighbor—but a grimacing Goodman Willis, his thumb felled by his own witlessness, hailed me.
      “Hey, Goody Morgan, this about what your little feeler looks like?” Goodman Willis held his hand aloft and encircled the injured appendage with his thumb and forefinger. The bed of the nail had begun to blacken where blood pooled. “Your witch’s teat? That little dangler of yours, I bet it does. I know how you creep around at night. Now go on and show me. You can’t fool me.”
      I continued walking, hoping my shadow would swallow Goodman Willis as I headed into the sun. His voice followed me.
      I practiced that voice as I gazed at my new face in a looking glass. I practiced contrition.
      “I’m sorry, Goodman Morgan. Many blessings to you, Goodman Morgan. Thank you for taking care of Blessed. Thank you.”
      Then I inspected my work.
      Besides a slight seam along my brow and jawbone, I had done quite well, although my green did not match the blue of Goodman Willis’ eyes. But I doubted many would notice. People are not necessarily observant unless they need to be. Likewise, the size of my feet. I sat on the threshold of my home and scuffed half-moons into the dirt with my boots and figured few people would ever gaze down. But the hands were another matter. They are often on display or engaged in various greetings. Sitting there, I used one to massage the other, feeling the knots and the coarse grain of the heel, and twisting the attenuated tips of the pointer and pinky; of my hands, I was proud, for they treated me well and were useful tools, and so when I inspected Willis’ mitts, I found myself unwilling to extend the masquerade—the white hashing of scar tissue and the missing fingernails evoked a carelessness I could not bear, and so I wore a long sleeved coat to hide my hands, identity be damned.
      While I slipped on the coat, a muffled voice issued from the animal pen. I went to Goodman Willis and found him slithering toward the door, so I dragged him away, propped him against the stone wall, and left him alone as Blessed followed me, chortling happily. I barred the entrance to the pound.
      We were on our way to visit Fear.
      Some nights ago in the cemetery, as the moon waxed, I scraped clear the white and honey-yellow mosses that bloomed across a gravestone; a winged death’s head—a skull flanked by two feathery wings—adorned the grave and observed my work.
      The moss obscured the name and date, but I knew the deceased: a Goody Pritchett, my teacher, dead of natural circumstances, but denied a respectful burial after Goodman Willis protested her inclusion in the cemetery on an unfounded claim of witchcraft, only relenting on the condition that she be buried face down with her hands and jaw nailed to the floor of the coffin, lest she attempt an escape. What Willis believed she might do after her escape was uncertain.
      As I cleared her name, flecks of moss sprinkled my hands and the piece of cloth I had spread at the base of the headstone. I believed the moss was a gift from Goody Pritchett and could be used for tinctures and salves. Of course, the greatest lesson Goody Pritchett taught me was that most objects possessed no power of their own.
      “Some herbs have healing properties, of course, but others are merely vessels to transmit what you already possess,” she would say, making a sign of benediction and touching her index and middle fingers to her forehead, her chest, and her belly button. And I believed her, and I believed in her, so the moss seemed natural to collect and use, although I preferred to work out of view of the townsfolk, despite the risk I was taking by sneaking around at night.
      When the scraping was done, I bundled the cloth and headed home, keeping to the edges of the woods, but in the darkness, it was as if an eye roved over my body, and I increased my pace. The sound of heavy breathing and the snapping of a twig journeyed from the woods, and I froze as a figure emerged from the underbrush: Blessed, the pig.
      I breathed with relief as Blessed and I gazed at each other in the moonlight. She tilted her head and seemed to smile. There was an endless depth to her eyes. I felt we were friends, given our history; I kept her safe. She trotted forward and brushed against my leg, and I knelt and scratched behind her ear, but when a whistle sounded from within the woods, none the likely to be a nightbird, I scurried into a bush and waited, espying Goodman Willis as he stumbled out of the trees and then took a running kick at Blessed. But Willis missed his target and tumbled onto his backside, cursing while Blessed scampered away. Willis struggled to his feet. He was drunk and reeling, so I returned home, wondering if Willis had seen me, and wondering what Willis was doing that night.
      While wearing my new face, Blessed happily strolled beside me on our way to visit Fear. The few folks I passed on my walk nodded and tipped their hats in my direction, but somewhat warily, as if anticipating something more, something worse than the grunted reply I issued. Regardless, the sun shone overhead in a crisp sky, and I felt free and unencumbered in my newfound guise. The weight of expectation and rumor had lifted.
      After reaching Fear’s home, I directed Blessed to wait in the shade and then stood for a moment at the threshold with my fist poised over the door. I had intended to knock, but then remembered there was no need, so I entered and found Goody Fear with a bit of stitching resting on her crossed knees. She sat beside a table and did not glance up from her work when greeting me, and so I took a seat beside her.
      “All is well?” she asked.
      Again, I grunted a reply and rapped my knuckles on the table.
      A scattering of crumbs dusted the tabletop, and a block of cheese sweated beside a loaf of bread. Goody Fear paused her work to prepare me a frugal meal, slicing the bread with clean even strokes. I thanked her as she placed the food before me; she hesitated at the sound of my voice, pausing to peer at my face, but then she smiled and resumed her stitching while I ate.
      But it was not long before she grunted and dropped her needle; she had pricked herself, and a tiny bead of blood stippled the tip of her finger. I moved to her, kneeling at her feet and taking her hand in mine. She frowned when I pressed her hand between my palms and kissed the tidy package of our mitts.
      “Goodman Morgan?” she asked.
      We burst into laughter, and she took my face in her hands, moving my head from side to side and inspecting my work. When she was finished, I prepared her a meal to match my own and we ate together. We were alone, although not for the first time.
      Weeks prior, I found Fear alone when I knocked on Willis’ door to report on one of Blessed’s wanderings.
      She invited me in, so I removed my hat, set it in the crook of my arm, and stepped across the threshold.
      “I’m not sure where Goodman Willis is,” Fear said. “He tends to wander like Blessed. Some mornings I awake, and he has already gone, and some nights he returns late, although I am not sure what emergencies he could be attending to at the cemetery. It’s not like any of the residents are going anywhere.”
      I ran a hand through my hair, careful to avoid saying anything insulting about Willis.
      “It’s good he keeps busy,” I said. “Idle hands and the devil’s work.”
      “Well, I’m sure the Devil works plenty hard at his craft, unfortunately. People are afraid of Willis, you know, because of his relationship with the Church. Some people whisper that he comes to them at night, but people gossip. He never comes to me at night. He makes a liar of me, in more ways than one, but you seem like an honest man, Goodman Morgan.”
      Fear paused, and the gap in her speech seemed like an invitation, but when I remained silent on the matter, she asked:
      “Would you like some water?”
      Fear glided noiselessly across the floor to a pitcher on the table; I followed, the floorboards creaking beneath my step. It was a humble home, like all the homes in town, and slightly drafty, but inviting and perfumed with a rich, yeasty odor. A few apples rested on the table, and when I bent and inhaled, an aroma like sugar and a grassy field after a rainfall bloomed in my head. Beside the bowl of apples sat a square of fabric—linen by my touch—embroidered with the image of a pig, and while my fingers traced the stitching, Fear said, “It’s just practice. I never really learned animals. Here, look.”
      Leaning beside me, our arms touching, Fear tugged and straightened the pane of linen and pointed to her family initials sewn in a tidy script.
      “I learned my letters for labeling, and I can mend, but the animal is a bit of guesswork. Do you think it looks like her?” Fear nodded toward the door, and there was Blessed, her head canted, her eyes searching. “I’m sure it’s not amusing to you, as the reeve, but I find it fun to imagine she’s a worldly pig off on adventures.”
      The stitching did look like Blessed, and somewhat boxy. I admitted to Fear that I had never learned to sew, neither for mending or labeling.
      “Not even for pleasure?” she asked.
      I shook my head.
      “Our old neighbor, Goody Pritchett, taught me, rest her soul. She taught me a lot of things. She said anyone can stitch. That’s sort of the point—a skill for anyone to master. Or most anyone. Here, I have some extra needles—perhaps, for returning Blessed, I can show you how to stitch for pleasure?”
      After eating, and the reveal of my face, Goody Fear and I hooked arms and strolled to the graveyard to continue our mission. Blessed followed close behind, pausing occasionally to sniff out some hidden treasure in the dirt.
      As we walked, Goody Fear once again admired my face.
      “I wasn’t sure how you would do it, but you do look just like him. But hopefully not forever. Just long enough to dig the plot and have the townsfolk witness your presence.”
      Ahead of us, the cemetery came into view: no fence or sign demarcated the area, but the arched tops of the slate headstones sprouted from the grass beside the church, and here and there wildflowers blossomed, adding splashes of red and orange, while etched on many of the stones was the familiar winged death’s head, the stern skulls glowering at our approach.
      The necessary digging implements were kept in a nearby shed, and I rolled up my sleeves and broke the earth with a pickaxe while Goody Fear sat on a gravestone and tended to some needlework. Blessed lounged in the thin island of shade that the church cast in the morning sun. Before long, I was shoulders deep in the ground and my hands were sore, my face caked in dirt, so I leaned and rested my chin on the lip of the hole while Fear displayed her work to me: a picture of a gravestone engraved with the initials JW.
      “I will cast it into the earth with him,” she said. “Do you think we’ll have enough nails for the coffin? For him?”
      Nearby, Blessed twitched, dreaming.
      Back during my needlework lesson, Goody Fear lectured me on the difficulty in capturing the likeness of an animal, how simple shapes and lines on a flat plane must stand for something real and rounded with weight.
      “We both work at capturing, don’t we?” she said.
      She seemed, in that moment, much different from the woman who often stood beside Goodman Willis in silence, but then, I knew what it meant to be and to be seen—the two states, existence and perception, were often weighted against each other and perched precariously on the fulcrum of public opinion. To myself I was Goodman Morgan. To Willis I was Goody Morgan. And to Goody Fear I was—well, I wasn’t totally sure, but I wasn’t unhappy. As we sat sewing, the hours passed, but Willis never appeared, and the sun dipped beneath the horizon.
      As we worked, Fear spoke.
      “I think we both want to be rid of the same burden, in a sense,” Fear said. “When I married Willis, the preacher said love was the product of marriage, rather than marriage being the product of love. But I found that accepting one’s position and recklessly hoping for the best outcome is a terrible burden. Is the stitch the product of the embroidery, or is the embroidery the product of the stitch? It seems a bit backwards to me. Do you understand what I mean?”
      With a needle perched between my lips, I showed my work to Goody Fear and admitted to her that what I was stitching didn’t look like embroidery at all. She disagreed, placing a hand on my arm and nodding with approval.
      “I hear the rumors about you,” she said. “I’m not fearful and I think we can help each other. Goody Pritchett once advised me to bide my time. And I have.”
      For the next few hours, I listened to Fear. She had many things to say about Goodman Willis and his habits, his absences, and troubling dreams of cowled specters and crows with bleeding eyes, but of course in these unseen matters I had to trust Fear to believe her words, rather than believe her to trust her, much like the stitch and the embroidery.
      And I did.
      “Show me,” Fear said.
      I obeyed, disrobing and bearing my body to Fear. My hands lingered and shielded my sex, but Fear stepped forward and gently pulled my limbs aside. I had never presented myself to another human, and I feared Goodman Willis’ taunts possessed some truth.
      I still wore Goodman Willis’ face. Goody Fear traced a finger along my jaw. She picked at my mask, and a flake fell and broke against the floor. Her voice offered calm reassurance.
      “You know, in Genesis, Adam and Eve have a revelation and cover themselves with fig leaves. Have you ever seen a fig or a fig tree? Neither have I. It’s strange accepting the existence of something unseen. Here I am removing your fig leaves, bringing back your innocence.”
      Goody Fear peeled more and more shavings from my face. She pressed her hands to my shoulders and had me kneel. Gathering a cloth and a bowl of water, she wiped clear my skin, and when she finished, she held my face in her hands while the face of her husband lay scattered across the floor.
      “I like your mustache,” she said. “You do not look like him. I think you were built in your own image.”
      And so I knelt on the floor while Goody Fear pressed my cheek to her belly, and I listened to the warm murmuration of her interior and wondered who, if anyone, had built her, or if she had emerged from a smithy of her own design.
      Outside, Blessed wandered, and in the ground, Goodman Willis lay still.

Francis Walsh is a writer from coastal Maine. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Big Muddy, the Chicago Quarterly Review, the Masters Review Vol. X, the North American Review, and the South Carolina Review. They can be found on Instagram @walshfrancis.