Hooves scraped against fouled cement like a vague thought striving endlessly to become proper idea. The impatient ones had started munching on the unsoiled ends of bedding straw. It calmed the nerves. From her caged cubicle, 325-Leader raised her snout and oinked for attention.
“It’s almost time.”
The troops squealed at once to show approval and solidarity. For a moment there was only the rattle of the double conveyor belt – one bringing the food, the other carrying away the waste. That, the true meaning of the Big C.
“3 days before Big C,” Ranger observed. “It was noted as the optimal period for sacrifice. The flesh, I mean meat would be fresh enough right up until the eve of C, with a chance of being resold on discount to straggling buyers the next day, also known as Boxers’ Day. There is a graph showing…”
“Shut up, Ranger.”
The call bore the anonymity of the crowd. Ranger’s voice stood out. He was only called Ranger because he’d come from a petting farm. They mollycoddled them there. He’d been free range.
“I was only talking for the younger ones,” Rager protested. “It is my duty to see them walk educated into the new life.”
“The younger ones should know the story as it is,” groaned a lame boar voice. “On Big C Day all of us walk into happy harmony with the Bigger Crackling.”
“Is it true,” Round Ears 71 asked shyly, “that Big C Day can be any day?”
“Shut it, Salami,” 325-Leader warned the lame boar. “Just ‘cuz you don’t care what kind of blanket you gonna be tucked in tomorrow doesn’t mean our young don’t deserve a decent future.”
“Yeah, sausage!” another voice reprimanded Salami but went suddenly quiet seeing that nobody praised nor borrowed the imaginative insult.
A few sows swore.
“Actually, little one,” Ranger began, “Big C Day only comes once every year, which is 365 days and 18 hours, but…”
“Not again,” murmured a sow.
“Let him finish,” said Leader.
“Doesn’t matter,” Ranger said. “Just remember they sacrifice more of us, 5 times more to be exact according to a survey of the Food Analysis Collaboration, during the Big C period, with today’s date the most prolific.”
Salami huffed haughtily. “Just because you got smart reading the visitor’s newspapers and books while they were scratching your furry hind doesn’t mean…”
“Get stuffed, Salami,” Leader said. “I bet when the moment comes, you’ll…”
“Here he comes!”
The gilt on duty couldn’t have been more clear. It was two of them. They were already opening the pens.
“Is there a gun?” Leader asked. “I can’t see from here.”
“Captive Bolt Pistol,” Ranger pointed out. “Invented by Dr Hugo Heiss at the beginning of the 20th century…”
“In his right upper hoof!” was the last thing the gilt was able to say before she got picked up.
The boar that they’d picked up second went limp and the executioners had to lift him up. They had a daft look on their faces as if wondering whether the creature was sick.
Salami was humming. His hum rattled into a slightly affected recitation of lyrics.
…The night our Holy Gilt, from Yorkshire travelling
Gave birth to our Saviour sinless sweet Crackling
Guiltless and merciful, his ham so tender
“Somebody seriously batter his ham,” Leader said nudging Round Years to stop humming.
“King Hamburg wanting to see him in a blender
The limp board tensed and twisted at once, slipping from work gloves, landing on the main pen door lever, as instructed by Ranger. The pens opened at once. Only this time the hooves were waiting. Steel-clad muscles had prepared for months tensing and releasing, getting rid of excess fat, doing press-ups in the confinement of barred cubicles, barely larger than a hog’s back. The struggle was quick. Human tendons snapped easily under pressure. Veins burst open from hoof strikes alone.
Some stopped to watch the winter moon throwing a cold-piercing gaze over the reality of a new order.
“Don’t stop,” Leader ordered. “The garage squadron – you know where the weasel is…”
“Diesel,” Ranger corrected her.
“In any case you know what the barrels must smell like. Human dorm division – be merciless. Ranger, are you ready to show us your lighter trick?”
Ranger nodded. He said, “Listen to her, people, we don’t want a reply of that book I once read the blurb of, that I recounted to you. We won’t have other folk on the farm to look through the window and see us sitting around a table, behaving like our oppressors,”
They replied with an affirmative oink.
“What was the book called?” one of Round Ear’s play pals asked.
“The Animal Meat Processing Centre or something like that, I don’t remember.”
“The name’s not important, dears,” Leader said. “This is a new order. That’s all you need to remember.”
As they sat watching the building go down in flames, a slow roasting noise made them all drowsy. Salami’s tunes were the only streak of civilisation to break through the newborn ashes of a dying society.
“And three wandering Wise Swine
Filled his trough with slop to dine…”
The smoke got to him first. The last roast.
A crack thundered through the peace of the heard. A few scattered. Most remained paralysed. An oppressor was approaching, making guttural sounds and waving a steel stick with two muzzles.
“That’s not a stun gun,” was all Ranger could say.
The creature stopped. Aimed. And died.
A pair of antlers protruded from his open stomach. The calf that had carried the antlers retracted his head and allowed the rider to get off. The antlers stayed inside the dying body, strings loose.
Seeing the silhouette with the red cap riding the antlered quadruped, Ranger said, “I’ve heard about this. That’s the Caretaker of the grotto where Crackling was born. But then Salami…”
“Patience,” Leader appeased him. “I might’ve not read the Carnivorous Public Alimentation Outlet Unit or whatever, but I’m old enough not to jump to conclusions. Oh, see… there’s your Caretaker…”
The fowl puffed her plumage and threw her comb to one side, not without a trace of vanity.
“ Fireworks early this year, I understand.”
“The turkey farm too,” Leader half-questioned her.
“And the beef… I mean cattle one,” said the calf.
“This is in bad taste,” Ranger said inspecting the antlers.
“It’s the Season,” replied the turkey. “We found them at headquarters hanging on a wall. I even got purposely worked up over some bad jokes so my comb would be redder than usual. Just don’t tell my husband. He hates it when someone’s redder.”
“We should leave old trophies hanging on walls,” Ranger said, “and make a new trophy out of not living with any.”
“Mummy,” Round Ears said, “can we finally sing Roast Potatoes?”
They pondered in silence. The fire was extending to the hay barn. The moon had warmed up and smiled at them with her troubled teenage face. A snowflake dissolved on Round Ears’ wet snout.
“Oh alright, go on…”
So they sang. And the turkey joined in. And the calf played with the antlers while the oppressor groaned its last groans. From far away came other explosions, spreading like a destructive auditory rash.
“Roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts, the trimmings
Chime their song about newborn beginnings…”