The decision to kill Hillary involved little hand-wringing or soul-searching. She was a pretty annoying pig, truth be told, giving Farmer John a hard time whenever she could. She would knock down his walls, get into his greenhouse, stick her snout into business that wasn’t hers to go sticking her snout about into. Her death would serve at least two purposes: stress relief for Farmer John and freshly-butchered pork for the rest of us.
Farmer John swore black and blue that Hillary hadn’t been named for a certain presidential frontrunner, but that seemed disingenuous to me. A native of Manchester, New Hampshire, Farmer John has been in Vietnam for more than twenty years and has little time for what he sees as the rampant liberalisation of his home country by people who never loved or understood the place quite as much or as well as he did. He refers to his friends as ‘good American boys,’ unless they’re not from the United States, in which case he calls them ‘good Christian boys,’ even if they’re atheists. He’s the sort of accidental friend or circumstantial acquaintance that one makes in the self-imposed exile of these parts.
My first visit to Farmer John’s property, a small compound some thirty-five kilometres north-west of Ho Chi Minh City at Cu Chi, its high walls crowned with shards of glass, was ostensibly about seeing his aquaponics system at work. The local farmers apparently think he’s nuts, with all that plumbing, all those buckets of fish. But he’s slaving away anyway, on his jalapeños and ghost peppers, his oregano and South African leaf, with the intention of showing them all and then, after he’s shown them, have them follow his lead. They cluck their tongues and shake their heads.
It was on that visit that Hillary started sticking her snout into business that wasn’t hers to go sticking her snout about into—she kept coming inside Farmer John’s ill-appointed shack, where we were sitting on the tiled floor drinking beer, causing Farmer John to pick up a length of old hose and chase her about the yard with it—and I wondered aloud, both hungrily and fatefully, how she might taste when marinated and barbecued.
Over the following weeks, we put together a kill team. In addition to Farmer John and myself, there would be Thomas, a Danish pacifist who, before embracing pacifism, helped to butcher a few pigs, and who would therefore be helping to butcher this one, and Auki, a Japanese-American who hunts with rifle and bow back in Washington state and who would, we thought, commandeer the whole process.
Farmer John’s Vietnamese family had other ideas. They were out in force, the whole extended family, armed with the longest extension cord I’d ever seen, tapered off at the end to exposed wires. Farmer John had originally planned to hogtie and spear Hillary, once, fatally, through the spinal column or heart. Neither Thomas or myself considered this particularly ethical or efficient—let alone conducive to the procurement of good meat—and wanted to knock her out with a blow to the head instead. The Vietnamese family’s idea of electrocution seemed roughly comparable.
But their method of effecting this method was found wanting. They wrapped the exposed wire around one of Hillary’s ears, but did nothing to secure her, to prevent her from running away, and she bolted, freeing herself, the moment the charge reached her. The extended extension cord was further extended and a second attempt was made, but by now Hillary knew exactly what was going on and wasn’t having a bar of it.
On my first visit to the farm, I had been struck by the self-evident intelligence of the pig, her almost-human eyes, her individualism. I had nevertheless advocated killing her—by the time everyone present was wondering aloud about her flavour, I was practically sharpening the knives—and had obviously been willing to participate in her death. I was suddenly beginning to understand what precisely that meant.
After the second, abortive shock, when Hillary backed herself into a corner near the pigpen and started lashing out at all comers, it became obvious that we were going to have to hogtie her after all. As Auki began to ready the ropes, Farmer John’s adopted son—whom he referred to, almost exclusively, as ‘boy’—somehow managed to get a bag over her head. Abu Ghraib came immediately, sickeningly to mind—and Hillary began, finally, to scream.
They say that a screaming pig sounds eerily like a screaming child. It’s certainly an awful sound, high-pitched and born of terror, but it reminded me only of the animal emitting it. There was nothing human in it for me, nor in the strength I felt at the end of the rope, tied to her front-left leg and burning my hands as she struggled to get free. Auki dodged her kicks with a patience I couldn’t muster and methodically fastened her to the nearest tree.
The Vietnamese now wrapped the exposed wire, not around her ear, but her neck. The bag was removed and a bucket of water thrown over her. As the third and final connection was made, she crumpled against the trunk and was still. We could hear Farmer John’s potbellied piglets, recently born to another mother, crying on the other side of the pigpen wall.
I ran for the knife—no one had thought to bring it—and returned it, not to Auki, as I had anticipated, but to one of the Vietnamese women. Rather than slitting the pig’s throat horizontally, as I had also anticipated, she simply set about stabbing it, over and over, until her hands were covered red.
We hoisted the body into a wheelbarrow, or tried to, her head lolling limp beneath her bulk and making it impossible to get her fully into the tray. Because she had dictated the place of her death, and because that was in an unpaved section of the farm far from where she was eventually to be butchered, we struggled to push the wheelbarrow at all, its wheels sinking into the mud, our feet into the dirt.
A small cauldron of water had been boiling on a fire in the yard for most of the day and Hillary was now doused liberally with it. The Vietnamese, squatting in their national style, shaved her with cleaver, knife and spoon, the boiling water helping to remove her bristly hair at a rate of knots. Her head was removed in short order and, when no one was watching, spirited away by one of the Vietnamese for reasons of their own. It took five of us to hang her up.
It was strange. I still thought of her, even then, as a her, however shaved, however headless. I didn’t, however, think of her as a pig. She had become a carcass, mere meat and bone.
I cannot say at what point this qualitative change became absolute and she ceased to be a her: it was a fade to black through shades of grey, for her and me alike. Perhaps it was when the skin came off, Thomas peeling it away with the aid of a small paring knife? Perhaps it was when the forequarters did, Auki giving them a few good whacks at the joints with the strangely unbloodied cleaver? Or perhaps it was when the spine came out—also spirited away by the Vietnamese—and the hindquarters were hanging there in the crepuscular light and I started referring to them almost without thinking as hams. I noticed I had blood on my shorts. Hillary’s parts by then filled five large plastic tubs.
I have been going to bullfights for the past five years and have been accused countless times of being indifferent to the suffering of animals, at best, and of outright sadism, at worst. I have tested this argument—tested myself—by attending cockfights in Indonesia, watching documentaries like Earthlings at home, and now by actually taking part in the killing of a Vietnamese pig. I struggle to buy the accusations.
As much as I appreciate the aesthetics of the bullfight, I am not inured to the suffering of the bull, and certainly not to the much uglier suffering of the cockerels, or to that we inflicted upon Hillary by our own hands. I couldn’t stand to wash the blood out of my shorts until long after her death—by which point it wasn’t ever going to come out completely—preferring instead the reminder of what had gone down.
And as ugly as her death perhaps was, as ill-conceived and shoddily-executed, I couldn’t help but feel that it was still somehow preferable to the death of factory-farmed pigs the world over. I even believe that, by our proximity to that death, by our conscious, active role in it, those of us who knew her and who were going to eat her, it was maybe even redeemed, maybe slightly. When we arrived at the farm again a few days later, marination over and grill fired up, there was no distinction for us between pig and pork, no supermarket abstractions, no obfuscating cling wrap. Is it me who has become inured to the suffering of animals or those who decry such suffering while refusing to experience it for themselves, who would rather it happen behind closed doors, hidden entirely from view? We at least looked Hillary in the eyes. Perhaps we honoured her by doing so?
Matthew Clayfield is a freelance writer and Spectator Australia contributor
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