“The Sanctuary” by Dana Diehl

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Saturday is abortion day at Happy Bellies: Potbelly Pig Rescue and Sanctuary.

I used to be upset by this, the idea of all those potential somethings becoming nothings, but a lot of things that used to upset me don’t upset me anymore.

I see the veterinarian coming from miles away, a smudge of brown dust to the west. He’s late, probably got lost on the winding backroads that lead from here to the interstate. I wipe sweat off my upper lip with the back of my hand and lock up the pen where I’ve spent all morning lathering sunscreen onto the pigs’ backs and the tips of their ears. I pull my Happy Bellies baseball cap down over my forehead. Nine o’clock and already the heat blisters across the desert. The world flattens under its weight.

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I reach the parking lot at the same time as the vet. I can tell he’s never been here before by the way he carefully manoeuvers around the potholes and doesn’t know to park in the shade of the mesquite tree. It’ll be over a hundred and thirty degrees in his car by the time he leaves.

“It’s beautiful out here,” he says, shielding his eyes as he steps out of the car.

That’s what everyone says the first time they see the desert. And although it’s true that it’s beautiful, I’ve learned that what they really mean is, Why would anyone choose this place to build a Pig Sanctuary? When it monsoons, flash floods muscle over the washes and onto the roads, trapping the staff on an island of pigs. In the hottest months we have to drive an hour south to Tucson twice a day, sometimes three times, to stock up on potable water. We can drain two thousand gallons in under twelve hours. In July and August, we chill towers of wet towels in our industrial-sized freezers and drape them over the pigs’ backs so nobody overheats.

“Thomas,” he says, extending his hand.

His fingers envelop mine. He’s tall enough that I have to squint up at his face and cup my eyes with my free hand. He’s much younger than the last vet who came out here to work with us, but he’s still older than me. He has thick eyebrows and brown eyes and shoulder-length hair tucked behind his ears. But the most noticeable thing about him is his mouth. It seems too big for his face, drooping down at the corners like it’s trying to slide off.

I release his hand.

“You can set up in here,” I say, and show him into the small ranch house that we’ve repurposed into a visitor center and clinic. He rolls a large, black case behind him. It makes me think of a magician’s kit. I try not to stare at it, wondering what it might contain.

“Sorry about all this,” I say, waving at the boxes of souvenir T-shirts and outdated pig-themed calendars and piles of neatly folded comforters donated by guests for when the weather turns cold. “The clinic space is in the back.”

I leave him flipping through a box of potbelly pig magnets as I go to fetch one of my favorite pigs from her pen. Lucy. We noticed the drag in her belly a few days ago. Most of the pigs we need to perform abortions on are new to the Sanctuary. Before we introduce a pig to the others, we always make sure they are spayed or neutered. But we’ve had Lucy for a few weeks now. Somehow she must have slipped through the cracks in the system, such as it is.

Lucy smells like maple syrup. Petting her is like petting a hairy boulder. A single fang protrudes from under her top lip. Her eyes are almost completely hidden under rolls of forehead fat. Her neck wobbles as she hoofs toward me. Lucy is my favorite, because I am her favorite. She’s possibly the ugliest pig in our care, but she doesn’t seem to know it. She’s the quickest to roll onto her back for a belly rub, and when I’m doing my rounds she’ll follow me at my heels like a puppy.

I don’t need to leash her like I would the other pigs. Lucy stays at my side as I guide her to the clinic, where Thomas has already set up an ultrasound machine. I pet Lucy’s snout and scratch at the thick skin between her ears as he holds the probe under her belly.

The screen beside us shows indistinct shapes, all black and white, and I’m reminded of watching fish moving slowly beneath thick ice. “Potbelly pigs don’t develop skeletons until the end of their first month,” Thomas says. “That’s how we’ll know how far along she is. If the fetuses haven’t formed skeletons yet, they’ll be reabsorbed into her body.”

“And if they have?”

“They’ll mummify,” he says, not looking at me. “And things will be more complicated.”

He holds the detector gingerly against Lucy’s belly and rests one hand on her side, barely touching her. I want to tell him he doesn’t have to be so gentle. I want to tell him that pigs, even pregnant pigs, are as tough as you’d expect them to be. I imagine Thomas with a boneless fetus cupped in the palms of his hands, pink and amorphous, a clenched fist of cells. Minutes pass. He clears his throat.

“Sorry,” he says. “This is my first time. Doing this by myself, I mean. Oh, here we are.” He points to the sonogram with his free hand. “One, two, three… Seven babies. No indication of skeletal development.” He grins at me. I wonder if he’ll give me a thumbs up.

I turn to the screen and try to see what he sees but looking at the sonogram is like wading through a fog. My eyes are trained to look for the ghostly outline of a skull, the bow-like curve of a spine. The veterinarian we had before Thomas had preferred to work alone, always waved us out of the room if we lingered. This is the first time in two years that I’ve seen a sonogram. Looking at it makes my throat constrict, like it’s fighting to keep something out.

Thomas pulls a syringe from his case, and I press my forehead to Lucy’s damp snout so I don’t see the needle go in. I feel Lucy’s wet, warm maple breath mix with my own.

“All done,” he says. “Wasn’t that easy?” Like it was me he had injected.

He stuffs a hand into his pocket, wrestles out his wallet, and passes me a business card. It’s slightly crumpled at the corners. “I’ll be in next Saturday,” he says. “Call me if you need anything sooner?”

I take the card without really feeling it, stick it into the back pocket of my shorts.

I think of the drugs moving through Lucy’s veins, starting a chain reaction. A monsoon flood stripping the desert bare.

I grew up in Mesa, seventy miles from Happy Bellies, but some mornings I wake up feeling like I’m in a foreign country. Before coming here, I’d never seen a hawk talon a smaller bird from the air. I’d never seen a Saguaro bloom. I’d never seen a shrike impale a lizard on the spines of a barrel cactus. I grew up amongst palm trees and sprinklers. I grew up smashing scorpions with frying pans and shooing grackles from the hoods of cars in the parking lot at Circle K. The only times I ever went into the desert were in high school, when friends and I would drive into the Superstitions at sunset, fast on the winding back roads, windows down, jackrabbits fleeing from the high beams, or when, in summer, we’d float down the Salt River with tins of beer tied to our innertubes and we’d let our skin burn until it peeled.

I never meant to end up at Happy Bellies. A little over a year ago, I left my mother’s suburban home with my car packed full of everything I needed and nothing to make me remember what I was leaving behind. My belly was still soft with pregnancy, a hollowness, a room recently vacated. My plan had been to drive to White Sands. Hide in the dunes after the park closed, burrow like a sand snake, fall asleep pretending I was on the moon.

I had tried to be a mother, but I was a twenty-year-old college drop-out afraid of so many things. Afraid of the way her pupils shrunk into themselves when I took her outside. Afraid of the way my nipple disappeared into her mouth and how it hurt and how I was supposed to be okay with that. Afraid of blog posts with titles like ‘What a good latch feels like.’ Afraid of how her chin looked like mine and made me feel as if I’d had something stolen from me.

I couldn’t be a mother, but maybe I could be a snake in the sand.

My mother tried to stop me. She told me motherhood was supposed to be hard. She told me I was making a mistake and the only way to make amends for it was to grow up and do the responsible thing. I didn’t tell her I’d already contacted an adoption agency. I didn’t tell her it was already done.

I drove south with the windows down, like a teenager again. I saw signs for the Happy Bellies Open House painted on plywood boards. They were the sorts of signs I normally wouldn’t notice, signs that would blur as I drove past and blend into the desert. But now that I’d abandoned my old life, I felt I should accept every invitation, do what I normally wouldn’t, so I kept my eyes open and started paying attention to the new world I’d entered.

The sanctuary wasn’t what it is now — only twenty-five pigs, only two pens — but I loved it anyway. Loved that most of the people who worked there seemed to be seasonal volunteers who came and went, impermanent and unattached. I loved the pigs, with their ugly, rubbery snouts and the flaky skin that turned out to be harder, rougher, than I’d imagined.

A woman named Pam led my tour group. She was sunburnt and sinewy. Her hair was completely silver, cropped short under her Celtics cap. She touched each pig on top of its head and greeted it by name as we approached.

I wondered aloud where so many pigs could have come from.

“Some of them are handed over, no questions asked,” she told me, “by owners who flat-out quit. Some folks just decide they’ve had enough one day and give up caring, offload their burdens onto us.” I liked her voice. I liked her New England drawl and her unashamed anger. “But most of them,” she went on, “we rescue from abusive situations. Every month there are more pigs to save. Abused pigs making more abused pigs, on and on and on.”

After the tour came to an end, I approached Pam as the others dispersed to their cars. I told her I wanted to work at Happy Bellies. I said I’d work for free in exchange for a place to stay.

“What sorts of things are you good at?” she asked.

“I don’t sleep much,” I said. “I’ll work harder than anyone else.” That wasn’t an answer to her question. She shrugged, uninterested, started to turn aside. “Also,” I added, trying to hold her attention, wanting to convince her I was worthwhile, something I wasn’t even sure of myself, “I write things. I’m a sort of writer.” It was partially true. I’d been an English major at NAU before I got pregnant and dropped out.

“Maybe I have something for you,” Pam said.

She told me I could sleep on a cot in one of the offices if I could reliably put together the bi-weekly Happy Bellies newsletter. The newsletter went out to sponsors who liked to read stories, little anecdotes, about the pigs. I’d also have to write the occasional longer piece about what was happening at the sanctuary: new arrivals, repairs and renovations, things like that.

“Stories are good,” said Pam. “Stories are what keep the donations coming.”

I told her I could manage it.

“I’m shit at writing,” she confessed. “I keep getting calls about misplaced commas.”

Within two months I was also helping out in the pens and Pam had put me on payroll.

Within six months I’d saved up enough to buy a trailer and move out of the office.

Sometimes, now, I wake early in the morning and look out my trailer window and see the potbelly pigs playing in the last of the moonlight. The Saguaros’ shadows are long fingers reaching across their bristled backs. The pigs rear onto their hind legs and toss dried grass, confetti-like, into the air. After a year of working at the sanctuary, I can name every pig on sight, even from this distance, even in the darkness. There’s Othello and his sister Pickles. There’s Bigfoot, Esmerelda, Tiny Tim.

My trailer flanks the Active Seniors pen, though “active” is a relative term. People who sponsor the pigs like to bring toys in for their pigs to play with, and they’re disappointed when they find that the pigs prefer to wallow in the kiddie pool or snuffle around the prickly pears before finding a shady space to nap. Our sponsors are mostly wealthy and eager-to-help retirees who live in the Foothills, people who remind me uncomfortably of my mother. The toys they bring in are always toys made for dogs, colorful ropes looped through rubber balls and cute, chew-resistant bunnies with squeakers hidden in their soft chests.

At night, when the sponsors are gone, the toys fly. They get caught in the arms of the ocotillo. They arch over the fences into other pigs’ pens. Like a spell has been cast over the sanctuary, the pigs become spry and limber. I’ve never been a good sleeper. Sometimes I lie awake all night, forgetting what sleep even feels like. But when I see the pigs play, I think that maybe I’m sleepless for a reason. Maybe I was born to bear witness to this pig joy.

My mind drifts to Thomas. Thinking about him now, I notice things I didn’t when he was in front of me. I’ve always been this way. I notice more through memory than I do in the moment. I could live forever on a memory.

I focus hard on the memory of Thomas’s hand gripping mine. He must be older than me, but he seems younger. He seems like someone who’s never grieved.

I imagine kissing the corner of his drooping lips.

I imagine it as an experiment. I want to see what the fantasy of him can make me feel. I imagine him stepping toward me, closing the respectful space between us. He steps close enough that he has to tilt his chin down to see me. He doesn’t break eye contact. His body is stillness and control. I feel electricity in my spine.

I leave my trailer before the sun rises. Bats flap silently overhead, shapes outlined against the stars. I break a sweat loading pig chow into a wheelbarrow. Midsummer days are too hot and the nights are too short for the temperature to drop below eighty.

By the time I make it to Lucy’s pen, the sky is streaked with pink and doves are singing in the Saguaros. Lucy is still in her lean-to, spine facing out. A bucket of pig chow hangs from the crook of my elbow. I slap it with an open palm to let Lucy know I’m coming. We’re keeping her in a private pen for the rest of the week while she recovers from her abortion.

Lucy’s ears twitch, but she doesn’t get up.

“Lucy,” I say, “time for breakfast.” Usually the pigs are awake by sunrise. Usually Lucy is the first to greet me at the gate every morning, a fast shape moving through the dark. Now, though, she doesn’t move. I kneel in the dirt beside her, lay my head against her belly. I pretend I’m Sam Neill leaning into a sick triceratops, moving up and down with the rise and fall of her breathing. Pressing my ear hard against her skin, I listen for movements under the flesh. The gurgle, the whoosh of air in lungs, the heartbeat.

Lucy squirms under my weight, grunts, stretches. She blows a puff of air from her nose, smacks her lips and rolls onto her feet.

I sigh with relief and rise, stepping away from her to dump chow into her trough.

I watch her carefully as I shovel dung and use the hose to fill up her kiddie pool.

After Lucy finishes eating, she returns to her lean-to. She stands there, motionless, watching me. Like she’s forgotten what it means to be herself.

I’m annoyed when I catch myself thinking, She’s missing her babies.

“Hey,” someone calls behind me. I turn to see Pam at the gate. “I need your help with a job today.”

She tells me she’s received a call about a possible hoarding case in South Tucson. A neighbor contacted the police about a backyard filled with pigs, and the police reached out to Happy Bellies after confirming the report.

“Up for it?”

I nod and scratch Lucy between the ears before going to my trailer to clean up. A little later, I meet Pam at her van. Her project over the past few months has been repurposing it into a pigmobile. Back seats removed, space partitioned into sections using a disassembled dog crate, the van now smells permanently of mud and manure and sweat.

Even after my year at the sanctuary, Pam remains a mystery to me. She doesn’t talk about her life before Happy Bellies, which I appreciate, because it gives me permission to not talk about my own past and I feel safe in this space of not-really-knowing each other. But then, as we fly down the highway, I find I have something I want to ask Pam.

“Do you think the pigs realize when they’re pregnant?”

Pam repeats the question to herself, slowly, not taking her eyes off the road. “Do they realize?” she asks. “Do pigs realize they’re pregnant?”

In her mouth, the question sounds silly. Something I learned about Pam early on is that she hates anthropomorphizing animals. She thinks it’s insulting to them to assume that their thoughts or feelings are anything like ours.

I’m about to tell her to forget it, never mind, when suddenly she says, “I dunno. I don’t think it’s so simple. I think what they feel is a pull.” She squints into the bright desert morning, her silver hair whipped about by the breeze through the open window. “Kind of like how geese feel a pull south in the winter, and they don’t question it. They just follow it. You always know when a pig’s about to give birth ’cause it will start nesting in whatever it can find.”

I wonder if Pam has a daughter she tries to forget about. I wonder, if I was going to make up a story for Pam, like I do for the pigs, what would I say?

My name is Pam. I’ve had a crazy life! I had a loving family and a daughter, but then one day a bad man stole my daughter away! I was sad for a long time, but now I have over fifty potbelly pigs to care for. Life sure is exciting in my new home. Whew!

We don’t talk for the rest of the ride. The wind streams into the car in ribbons of heat that numb me quiet.

Pam drives us south, south, south. She pulls off the highway in an area of town I’ve seen once or twice before on similar missions. We drive over bumpy roads until she slows to a stop in front of an adobe house with a swing set in the front yard and a row of shriveled succulents in clay pots on the front porch. There are no cars in the driveway, but we get out anyway. The closest neighbor is a hundred feet away. The house is surrounded by gravelly desert, a few baby cacti poking out of the ground like headstones. The mailbox is so full that the door has dropped open and a mound of envelopes has grown on the ground.

The backyard is surrounded by a metal fence decorated with dried ocotillo branches. Pam tries the door to the fence and swings it open easily. She takes a step through first. I follow.

I want to throw up at what I see.

There are fourteen pigs in the small dirt yard. A sprinkler leaks weakly, creating a puddle of shit. I step over a dead piglet in the mud. Pam would tell me to look away, but I can’t stop myself from staring at its legs, unnaturally stiff, like they’re balking at something. I gag and keep walking. A pig that looks like it must be part hog gnaws at the hose. All of the pigs are emaciated, thin enough that their ribs are showing. I’ve never seen a pig’s ribs before.

“They’ve been inbreeding,” Pam says. Her jaw muscles tremble under her skin, but otherwise she is expressionless. “Back up the van to the door,” she says.

“Are we allowed to just take them?” I ask. “There’s no-one here. Aren’t we supposed to get a license first?”

She looks at me, eyes ablaze. “Do you really care?”

Next to the van, I double over, hands hard against my knees. I heave into the dirt but nothing comes up. I spit and watch my saliva sizzle and evaporate in the heat.

How long had they been left alone? Did the people who did this ever wonder what had become of their pigs? My entire body is pulsing. I try to slow my breathing and feel sympathy for the person who left these pigs. Maybe they’d fallen on hard times. Maybe they’d gotten into an accident and were in hospital somewhere, paralyzed, wishing they could get back to their pets, unable to speak to let someone know that their beloved pigs were starving out here.

But no. Those pigs have never been loved.

I sit in the driver’s seat while Pam uses a board to guide the pigs into the back. In case they’re not tame. In case they bite. We’re only able to fit three of the fourteen in the van, so Pam makes a call to Happy Bellies for a volunteer to drive down and pick up the rest.

As we pull back onto the highway, I watch the pigs in the rearview mirror. Three males. On four legs they wobble as we change lanes. They don’t try to break out of their partitions, as if somehow they know the bars are there for their protection.

“Lucky pigs,” I say to Pam. But we both know it’s not true.

Pam tells me to take the rest of the day off. She’ll find someone else to cover my last shift.

“Really?” It’s uncharacteristic of Pam to give anyone a break, no matter what the circumstances. Once, one of the volunteers was pinned against a fence by a four-hundred-pound hog mix. She still had to do her evening rounds.

I wonder how traumatized I’d looked on the ride home.

I go back to my trailer. The air has been off all day, and I can feel the heat pressing against my skull like thumbs digging into my temples. I switch on the window unit. I fill my tiny kitchen sink with water and dunk my head under. Eyes closed, I hold my breath as long as I can. Water fills my ears and hair seaweeds around my neck.

I count to thirty, and when I can’t hold my breath any longer I lift my head.

The July newsletter is due at the printers by the end of the week and I still haven’t written the main story. With my hair dripping down my back, I sit at my laptop and type:

Fourteen pigs were rescued from a backyard in South Tucson this week.

Is “rescued” the right word? It seems to mitigate the fact that the pigs were victims first. One of the unspoken rules of the newsletter is that the stories need to be tragic but palatable. Not so tragic that anyone will want to turn away. Just tragic enough to entice people to help.

What I really want to write about is the piglet dead in the mud. I dredge up the memory of it. Unlike their parents, baby potbelly pigs are all softness. They’re what you’d expect pigs to be: elf-like ears and round bellies that can fit into the palms of your hands. The piglet in the mud had a second skin of dried mud cracking along its back. It had flies swarming in its eyes.

A thought forces itself into my mind:

My daughter could be dead, and I’d never know. I’d go through life imagining her alive somewhere, going on family road trips to Yosemite, writing memoirs about what it means to be adopted, wearing flats to the prom instead of heels.

I flip the laptop closed and lay on the floor of the trailer.

I bite down on my thumb until the thought goes away, or at least until its intensity fades.

I sit up just enough to grab the vet’s business card from the counter, where I left it yesterday.

I type his number into my phone. He answers on the first ring, and I feel an unexpected twinge in my stomach.

“Hi,” I say.

“Hello?”

“It’s me. I mean, from Happy Bellies Sanctuary. We met the other day.”

“I remember.”

“Lucy’s acting weird,” I tell him.

I expect him to say, “Weird how?” He doesn’t. Instead he says, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

We hang up.

I press my spine flat on the floor and focus on the firmness under my body.

In the morning I go through my routine with one eye on the road. Every time dust swirls up in the distance, I think it’s Thomas in his car. I realize we never discussed when he’d arrive.

Mid-morning, I check in with Lucy. She’s eaten, which gives me hope, but she doesn’t leave her lean-to when I say her name.

By late afternoon, Thomas still hasn’t arrived. I think about calling him, but I’m embarrassed to admit I’m anxious about seeing him again.

I’m in the visitor center, using the table to make peanut butter sandwiches with medication hidden inside, when there’s a knock on the door. Before I can answer, the door cracks open and Thomas pokes his head inside.

“Oh,” I say, jumping to my feet and nearly knocking a tower of sandwiches to the ground. I step forward and reach out to shake Thomas’ hand but realize there’s still peanut butter on my fingers. “Sorry,” I say with a shrug.

Thomas stands in the doorway with his hands in his pockets, smiling pleasantly. He’s dressed more casually today, in shorts and a T-shirt.

“I meant to be here earlier,” he says, “but a couple of earlier appointments ran late.”

“It’s fine,” I say. “Should I bring Lucy into the clinic?”

He shakes his head. “How about you take me to her pen? Sometimes it’s easier to see what’s wrong with an animal if you see them on their home turf.”

“Sure.”

The pens are connected by a series of doors. Because we’ve added on pens as we’ve needed them, there’s no easy way to travel between them. To get to one pen, you have to travel through another.

As we make our way to Lucy, I point out some of my favorite pigs. “There’s Bubbles. He lived the first two years of his life in a bathtub. Now he loves running. He runs laps around his pen like he’s a border collie. And Chuck. His owner only fed him strawberries from her backyard. When we found him, he was so fat his feet couldn’t touch the ground.”

“Where did you find Lucy?” he asks.

“Someone found her walking along the highway in Marana. We never found out where she came from.”

I’m happy to see Lucy out of her lean-to, standing in the shade of a mesquite, when we reach her pen. “Hey, Luce,” I say. She swings her tail from side to side.

Thomas approaches her slowly. He lets her sniff his hand before he squats and reaches out to feel beneath her belly. He closes his eyes as he presses three fingers into the soft space between her back legs and her teats.

I hover behind him while he works.

“What kinds of mothers are pigs?” I ask.

He glances back at me. “I’d expect you know better than I do.”

“We’ve never had newborn piglets here. At least, not during my time.”

Lucy snorts. Thomas pulls back his hand. Lucy digs her hooves into the dirt.

“Nothing seems unusual,” Thomas says, rising to full height again and dusting off his palms with a clap. “It’s normal for her to be experiencing cramps. I wouldn’t worry if she is a little off for the next few days.”

A hawk screams overhead. We both look up, shielding our eyes from the light. Still looking up, I take a step toward Lucy and rest a hand on top her snout. She growls, a deep throat sound. You’re okay, I’m about to say to her, Everything will be okay, but then I feel a sharp heat shoot through my forearm and I look down to find Lucy’s mouth around my wrist. Teeth in my skin. Hair bristled in a Mohawk down her spine, tail swishing furiously from side to side. The sharp enamel of her incisors slips between my tendons, shears against the sides of my bones. The heel of my hand aches, threatens to shatter, under the pressure of her jaws.

Suddenly Lucy shifts her stance and loosens her grip. I didn’t even realize I was struggling, but in the split-second that her grip weakens, I pull myself free.

My blood is on Lucy’s chin. She bends her front legs, lowers her head. Thomas grabs me from behind and pulls me to the other side of the lean-to just as she thrusts at me. He holds my shoulder, guides me through the gate, slams it shut behind us.

“What happened?” I ask. Lucy paces on the other side of the fence. I still feel her teeth in my wrist, trying to sever my veins. “What’s wrong with her? Is she okay?”

Thomas pushes me forward, toward the visitor center. “We need to clean your wound. Now.”

“No, no,” I say, turning sharply in the other direction. “I don’t want anyone to see this. My trailer. Let’s go there.”

I don’t look at my hand as I lead the way. I can’t stop seeing Lucy’s body transformed into something I don’t recognize. I’ve seen pigs turn before, but I’ve always spotted the warning signs. I march through the pens to my trailer with Thomas nearly clipping my heels. Did Lucy know it was me she was biting? She didn’t try to bite Thomas when he touched her. Did she choose me for a reason? When an animal bites, it’s not the animal’s fault. I believe that. An animal is a reaction, its behavior the effect of a cause. Passing by the Active Seniors, I see the pigs raise their heads and snort. Can they smell the blood? Do they know what I’ve done? I think of the dead piglet in the mud, a piglet killed by people like me. The tusks of the Active Seniors are yellow, chrome, in the blazing sun. Can the pigs read my mind? Are my thoughts leaking out for even the animals to see?

The door to my trailer is unlocked, as always. I shoulder it open, hustle inside, collapse onto my narrow couch. “First-aid kit’s in the kitchenette,” I say to Thomas. “Top drawer on the left.”

Thomas grabs it swiftly and kneels on the floor and daubs alcohol onto my wrist.

I feel a pressure behind my eyes and I wonder if I’m about to cry.

Thomas takes a breath. He says, “The average gestation period for a potbelly pig is three months, three weeks, and three days.”

I’m trying to get better at forgetting things. I want to make myself forget my daughter’s birthday. I’m close. I forget the date but I still remember that it was sometime late in the summer. I remember a monsoon had flooded the streets. I was at my then-boyfriend’s apartment when my waters broke. I try to forget that my wrist is on fire, try to forget why.

“Mother pigs are grumpy and clumsy. A mother pig will sometimes accidentally crush her piglets during labor.”

I think of the geese feeling a pull south and not questioning it, just answering. I try to breathe my brain quiet. When I left my daughter, was it because I’d felt a pull to? Or was it because it felt logical? Was it because I had made list after list of reasons that her life and my life would be better off diverging, disentangled?

I stand and Thomas stands with me. He doesn’t try to stop me from doing what we both know I’m about to do. I step toward him, closing the space between us. We’re close enough that I need to tilt my eyes up to look at him. With a breath, I raise my lips towards his lips.

I imagine a pig walking down the highway, hooves clacking on cracked pavement. A pig walking through the boundless desert, stomping through forests of cholla that reach out for flesh to scar. A pig looking for her piglets, snuffling through the dirt, sniffing at the hazy air, trying to catch their scent, trying to see some trace of them. The sky. The sand. The empty horizon. They could be anywhere.

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Dana Diehl is the acclaimed author of Our Dreams Might Align, published by Splice. She holds a BA in Creative Writing from Susquehanna University and an MFA from Arizona State University, and her work has appeared in numerous venues including Smokelong QuarterlySunDog LitThe Collagist, and Necessary Fiction. She tweets at @Servestofurther, writes at DanaDiehl.com, and lives in Tucson, Arizona.

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Photograph Credit: Vietnamese Potbellied Pig by Tom Woodward (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)