The Pig Who Mistook Himself

Michael Henson

“I used to know a pig who thought he was a dog,” a man once told me. Then he leaned back and set to working on his pipe.

I was puzzled. The pig and dog thing had nothing to do with what I had just said. But I was young and arrogant. I said many things then that I would not say now.

He was a full-bearded, over-sized man in overalls sitting at his desk in a Chicago social work office in Uptown right up under the roar of the El. The office was decked with old Wobbly posters and books of every sort. By his desk, he kept a little collapsible tool kit fitted with devices for prying, scraping, and tamping his pipe. He tended, I had found, to speak slowly, with frequent interruptions for loading, lighting, or plying at his pipe with one or more of the devices, and raising one eyebrow for effect.

“You see,” he said, folding up his tools, “an animal can have a confused identity, just like a human being. And this particular pig . . .” He pulled several times on the pipe to get it going. “ ... lived back home on the farm where I grew up, with nothing but a bunch of dogs to relate to.

“We weren’t pig farmers. Daddy didn’t particularly like pigs or pig farming. He considered it to be a nasty business, and not worth the trouble. But one day, Daddy come home with this orphan pig in a burlap bag. The original pig in a poke. He didn’t say why he brought it home or what he hoped to do with it. But I suspect it had to do with a bad night at poker. Since we didn’t have a pen to put him in, Daddy just let him run with the dogs.

“Now, Daddy would have made a pretty good dog farmer, but that’s a whole nother story. We did have plenty of dogs. We were what you might call dog-poor. And at this point, Daddy had a collection of about half a dozen beagles that he kept for hunting, fetching cattle, collecting ticks, and barking at strangers on the road. They slept right under the house. The house set up on fieldstone corners, so they gathered right up under the stove on winter nights. You’d be setting in the living room and you could hear em just about raise the floorboards when one would go to scratch a flea. We kept em mostly on table scraps and bits of this and that. I don’t recall Daddy ever buying dog food.

“Well, pigs and table scraps is just a natural combination. That pig fit right in. It seems he forgot he ever was a pig. You see, he had no pig peers, no pig mentors, no way to understand or mold his true piggedness, no way to develop a proper pig identity. So he went to living a dog’s life with the dogs.

“I named him Butch, for no good reason.  Butch seemed to me to be the right name for him, and it stuck. And, like I say, Butch didn’t have pigs to identify with. He didn’t know the proper place of a pig in the world.  So he didn’t really know how a pig was supposed to act. But he knew how dogs acted, so he tried his best to act just like them. And he did pretty well.

“When the dogs went to sleep under the floorboards, he shot in under the porch right with them. When the dogs raised up their hind legs to scratch their ears or their chins, Butch would set back, raise up a trotter, and whale away with it til the fat in his neck begun to ripple. I don’t know if he scratched because he itched or if he scratched because the others scratched, but itch or no itch, he scratched.

”When a car pulled up in the drive, all those dogs would lope down the hill just like Morgan’s Raiders and there'd be this awful racket of beagle voices calling out Aroo Aroo Aroo.

“And there come Butch right behind them, those little short legs all moving in a blur, taking sixty steps to their sixteen, and calling, snort snort snort all the way down the hill.

“He even tried to go hunting. Me or Dad would take down the shotgun and head up into the woods. With whistle or two, all six of them dogs would be right at our heels. They’d hit the first of those old rusty, half-strung bobwire fences and each one would jump over or squeeze under it and they’d be off into the woods like a hatch of snakes.

“But poor old Butch, he’d try. The beagles would pant and sniff and call, and old Butch would pant and sniff and snort right with them. But as soon as he hit that fence, he was stuck. His legs were too short to get him over and his back was too high to let him under, and there he set, looking to one side or the other. And if those dogs missed him, they never let him know. They never looked back once.

“The only time he really allowed his essential pigness to show was at milking time. Regarding such things as upsetting cattle or stealing milk, a dog will learn. You only have to kick him once. But a pig . . .”

He paused to reactivate the pipe, which he had been using mainly to emphasize points of the story. He stoked, tamped, relit, and sucked for a moment, then went on.

“They say a pig is supposed to be a very intelligent animal. Much more intelligent than a dog. But I’m not so sure. It may have been persistence more than lack of intelligence, but Butch just had to try to steal that milk. Possibly, he’d been taken too early from his mother and needed . . . But then I couldn’t presume to psychoanalyze a pig. Whatever the reason, he could not leave a milk pail alone. This may even have sealed his fate. Morning and night, he would follow us to the barn. You could shout, throw stones, stomp, and threaten. But there he’d be, underfoot and in the way. And you ever left that milk pail unguarded for a minute, he’d have it knocked over and be licking up the spill.

“You could kick him and curse him til he was black and you were blue. But you could never break him of the habit.

“Well, I went off to college while Butch was still a young pig. And it was quite a while before I came back to visit. I had been to the city and I was changed, you see, and I didn’t want to come back to a little rickety house setting up on stone corners.

“But I did come back. And it was just like the return of the prodigal son. Mom always did put out a spread, even for an everyday meal. She never did set out a single main dish, but half a dozen. And we’d take a little of this and a little of that and you’d have a mound of food in front of you and still she’d say, Take a biscuit, or Have some more of this chicken.

“Well, I’d pulled up to the house, and those dogs charged down the hill just like I was a stranger, and it took them a little bit to remember just who I was. But I didn’t see Butch anywhere, and I didn’t see him when we went down to the barn and I didn’t hear him scratching and snorting under the house.

“But I didn’t think much about it. I was home, after all, and everybody was making over me. And I didn’t think about Butch again until supper. Something brought him back to mind, and I said, “Dad, what ever happened to Butch?”

“Well, he looked at me as if he’d forgot all about old Butch. Then he remembered.  He reached over to a big bowl of a pale-ish looking meat and noodles. A long spoon stuck out of it, and he stirred around for a big chunk.

“I believe . . .”

The big man stirred in the air with the stem of his pipe.

“’I believe.’ Daddy says, ‘that’s a little piece of Butch right there.’”

The big man nodded then, and smiled a big, dimply, Santa Claus sort of smile. I didn’t get it. I couldn’t think of a thing to say. The big man just smiled bigger, shifted in his chair, and began to scrape again at his pipe.

“There’s a moral to this story,” he said finally. For a moment, he appeared distracted by the cleaning of his pipe. But then he set it down and looked at me very stern and serious.

“All his life, that pig tried to be something he wasn’t. And he ended up getting cooked. So you see . . . “ He said this very slowly, so I heard every word.

“You might not know who you are . . .  But they do.”