In the beginning we are smooshed out and the first thing we are seeing is my Mumma lying there, waiting for us, her fat body dripping and ready for us to juice her. She is smiling at us.
“Hello Lovelies,” she says.
“Why hello,” we say. My brother Ryan is closest to me and he is pushing me out of the way then, and my sisters and everyone, we are snuggly happy drinking and cuddling. We are doing this for a long time. Every morning Mumma is saying Hello Lovelies! and we love to cuddle her. She is singing and we are laughing and we are liking being together on her big fat belly. It is dark and cosy and we are little. My Mumma is big. We have some days where we are drinking a lot, and some days where we are cuddling more.
But one day I am saying to Ryan:
“Stop sitting on my leg. It is hurting.”
Ryan is just about to say something back to me. But suddenly we are both of us not listening because through the darkness and the mug, there is something very beautiful. We are hearing bits of it before, but never the whole lot. It is the song. Me and Ryan and our brothers and sisters are squeezing past each other. And then we are latching onto a teat and tasting the milk that has come and it is different to before. It is thicker and very nice.
My teat is very soft. I am pulling it a bit with my gums. The milk rushes into my mouth and it is hot and it is sweet. I like it. Sometimes I am thinking I can almost lie on my back and then it can rush right down into my tummy. But not today. Not any day yet. There isn’t enough space. There are too many of us. Ryan is sitting on my leg again.
“Get off my leg,” I am saying to him again. But Ryan isn’t listening. He is closing his eyes and looking happy. Mumma is shifting her weight and keeps singing. She is singing about wet things – milk and mud and clear rushing water. She is singing about us, all together. She is singing about each of us in turn. When she is getting to the part about me, she is looking at me through the shadowy darkness and she is frowning at me.
“What’s wrong?” she is asking. “You are moving funny.”
“My leg is sore,” I am saying to her.
“Can you show me?” she is asking gently, lifting her head as much as she can. She can’t lift it much. It is only a little bit. But I can move into the strip where there is some light coming in from the little spaces between the walls, and where the light is hitting me it makes my leg turn warm. Then we see it. We see it and see it and nobody is saying anything.
“It’s a sore,” Mumma is saying at last.
“Yes it’s sore,” I am saying to her.
“No, it’s a sore,” Mumma is saying again.
I am looking at it again and now there is light I can see it a little bit. It is very large and kind of beautiful. It is red and scratchy and there are some bits of straw inside it. There are some flies too. The flies aren’t hurting but the sore is hurting.
“Listen to me, Persephone,” Mumma is saying. My name is Persephone. And so I am listening to her. I am listening to her soft voice that has stopped singing and is now talking to me. My brothers and sisters are listening too, even though they’re not called Persephone. We can all hear my Mumma in the darkness and my brothers and sisters are wondering where the song has gone. They are still drinking, but quietly. They are slurping. I am stopped and I am looking into my Mumma’s eyes, very small and sparkly in the darkness.
“Are you listening to me Persephone?” Mumma is asking. I am saying yes and she is seeing me nodding, and then she is closing her eyes as though she is thinking.
“To fix your sore, you’ve got to let it see the Sun,” Mumma is saying to me.
“The Sun?” I am repeating, because I don’t know what that is.
“Can you see that little bit of light squeezing through the wall?” Mumma is asking me.
“That’s the Sun. It’s a light so bright that your eyes can see it even when they’re closed.”
I am trying to close my eyes then, but it is not bright enough in here. When I am closing my eyes in here, it is a soft furry darkness and there is only a little bit of orange I can see through the skin of my eyes. I am opening my eyes again and then I am looking at Mumma again. But she is still looking at my sore. It hurts, my sore.
“The Sun is a very special thing,” Mumma is saying. “When it is hitting your leg, I don’t know why, but your leg will feel better. It won’t be red any more. Soon, it won’t hurt any more. Put your sore leg there, in the Sun.”
“Okay,” I am saying to Mumma.
I move my leg around under the strip of light but it is not feeling better yet. My brothers and sisters are still drinking now, but more quietly, because they are wondering about the Sun too. We are all drinking, drinking very quietly, and Mumma is starting to sing to us again too, singing now about the light that is falling from the sky somewhere in the world, and sneaking into our home through the slats in the beams that surround us.
I am remembering hands like this once, the last time they took us away from our Mumma, and put hard rods into our mouths and cracked out teeth out. I am scared when, this morning, the same hands start picking up my brothers, my sisters and me. But this time they are not cracking our teeth out, because we don’t have teeth any more. They can’t crack them out when we haven’t got teeth any more. So instead I am thinking that they are going to cut between my legs like they cut between Ryan’s legs last time. I am a girl and he is a boy but it must be my turn now, because last time it was only him screaming.
I squeal and I wriggle and I thrash but there is just a laughing sound and we are thrown into two big boxes. Ryan and my brothers go into one box, and me and my sisters go into the other box.
All I can see through the cracks is my Mumma crying again. She is crying but her head is staying on the ground; she can’t lift it up much anyway. She is crying without any force, like she has already cried all her tears out already. I am screeching as loud as I can, and Ryan too, and the others too, but her eyes are rolling towards the concrete and she cries like she died and I know that I won’t see her looking at me ever again.
My leg hurts.
The box is dark. My sisters are leaning on my leg.
“Get off,” I am saying.
“I can’t,” Georgia is replying.
“You’re hurting my nose now,” I am crying.
None of us have any space. The hands lift us up, up in the box and we are sliding into each other in the hot stink of the box. We can’t see anything any more. Nothing at all.
The box is open now. Me and my sisters, we are all sliding out of the box and onto a new floor. It isn’t like our old one. Our old one was hard and cold and next to Mumma. This one, there is more room, but Mumma is not there. The bars are not around us. For a second my sisters and I are very excited and we are taking a big whoosh of breath. We are breathing very fast. But then I am remembering that Mumma is not there, and I am discovering something else about this place where we are now.
The floor is hard to walk on. It is not so hard and cold like next to Mumma, but it has lots of big gaps in it and I am scared I am going to fall down. I am looking down between the gaps and I can’t see anything down there, but still, I am scared. Georgia is looking worried and she is sniffing around for Mumma. My other sisters, Emma and Prue and Angel, are all sniffing and quiet, and they are standing together in case the hands come back. I am wondering if I can see Ryan but he is not anywhere; nowhere at all. It is just us now, and this big area. And a new box, and another one, appear in turn, and there are more of us; all girls like us. All of us are quiet and worried; looking at the floor and feeling scared.
There is nobody singing now; just a squeal or two as the new boxes are opening. I am wondering whether Mumma’s milk is still flowing like a river or if it is more like a puddle now, with no little loves to lap at it. I am feeling so tired. I want some of that milk. I am sitting down in the corner now, and I am putting my head on my forelegs. And then I remember the sore. And the Sun.
I am lifting my head and I am looking at the sore again. It is hurting more than yesterday, and all the other days. I am always standing funny on it now, because it is starting to get very big on my leg. Ryan is always saying to me Go and put your sore in the Sun, Persephone and I am looking around this new place but I can’t see the Sun anywhere. Not even a thin little sunbeam striking the ground; it is like the floor and its gaps are swallowing up everything; not just my feet but even magical things that float through the air. I am sniffing around the edges of this new place to see if I can find anywhere for the Sun to get in. And that’s when I see him standing next to us.
He is an old boar. Very hairy; very smelly. He is stinking like old poo and winking like a broken flashlight. We are not with him though, because there’s a fence between us girls and him. The others haven’t seen him yet. But he has seen me.
“Hi little girl,” he is saying.
“Hello,” I am saying back.
“You are my new special friends,” the big boar says, and laughs with black gums. His eyeballs are whirling backwards when he is saying that. I am saying nothing now, because he is smelly and he is scary.
“What is your name?” he is asking then, and I am telling him because I don’t know if we are friends or not, but I am more scared if we are not friends. He isn’t looking at me now, but is ignoring me after that, and he is strolling over to the side away from me and the girls.
“Excuse me,” I am saying then, because I think he needs to help me. “Excuse me, but where are the bits of Sun in here?”
The big boar snorts a bitter laugh. He isn’t saying anything else.
I am forgetting about the big old boar, even though I can smell him every day. Somehow, the smell is part of this place now, and some days I am even thinking it is delicious, even though it is an awful stench. It is the smell of something nice gone bad, and if I am trying really hard I can pretend that it is a sniff of Mumma’s milk again, or the hot silence of her breath.
We girls are getting bigger and bigger; me and Georgia and Emma and Prue and Angel, and all the other girls who are living with us in this place. When we are standing in one place, our shoulders are starting to touch. There is not much space here any more.
It is stifling in here and all I can do is try to remember the song Mumma was singing; about wet things and hot things smothered with strange bright light. And all that singing and remembering must be working, because very gradually, I am starting to feel a warm feeling in my body, and my sisters around me are feeling it too, and we all are becoming pink and rosy. Now I can smell more than the old boar beside us; I can smell us girls in rhythms; the hot blast of our heartbeats; the acrid, sticky flush of something unknown. Behind me, I am open, and when the others press against me from both sides, I always stand still. I am hostage to something new that I don’t understand.
The old boar laughs and clears his mottled throat.
The big old boar is gone today.
I am tired today, and my leg is hurting. I am chewing on the bars at the side of our area. I don’t want to but I can’t stop. My mouth is moving and moving and if it’s not moving I want to run. But I can’t run so I need to move and move my mouth. Georgia feels the same as me. She is chewing the bars too, and Angel is rubbing her head back and forth by Georgia’s rump, knocking the top off a sore she is developing on her eyebrow. There are little animals in it. I wonder if they are feeling bored as well, circulating Angel’s wound and chewing at its edges. I wonder what the Sun would do to those animals if Angel found a beam somewhere, sneaking through the walls like it used to in Mumma’s stall.
But today is different because something happens. One of us, Rosangela, is taken away. Through the thick glim of the factory floor we are silent as her quiet haunches are patted out of our enclosure, and she is led to a room with doors we cannot see behind.
Everything is quiet after that. I am worried.
“What do you think happened to Rosangela,” I am asking Georgia.
“Maybe she’s gone back to her Mumma now,” Georgia is saying to me.
Hmm, I am thinking, but I don’t think that is what happened. I want to think about it more, but I am getting hotter and hotter. I am chewing harder on the bars but the more I do, the more an impatient furnace is seeming to lick up my belly and force open my legs; my throat to close. When the hands return for me, I cannot even take in Georgia’s stricken glance, because I am sure she is feeling it too. I am following the hands and their stick.
We are all walking into the room where Rosangela was, only she isn’t there any more.
In the room, the stink hits me once more, and I recognise the old boar in the corner, smiling with his glistening black gums. He is shouting excitedly when I am coming through the door. I stop then but the hands are pushing me in and closing the door behind me.
The big old boar is still grinning as he is walking towards me, so much bigger than me.
“Hello little girl,” he is singing. “I’ve been waiting for you!”
I am not liking the sound of his grunting, and before I know what is happening, I am running away from the old boar. I am trying to find somewhere to get out. But there is nowhere to get out in this room. The old boar starts crunching his teeth together and then, everything is seeming to stop as he runs at me and butts his nose violently to my rump. Something in me is crying as I am feeling my sore leg and there is no Sun in this room, anywhere. The boar is squealing with laughter as, posturing, he lets out a torrential piss on the floor.
It is hot in this room. My heart is beating in my cheeks. I am feeling the wave of burning disgust rise up my body when the old boar noses me once more. I am scared but my body won’t move; the heat isn’t listening to me and my body says go ahead as the boar is clambering up my back and into the centre of my flush. He is working at it; he is finished. The only happiness that comes from this is when they are taking me back to my Mumma’s stall.
Mumma isn’t there.
Now they’ve closed the gates and I am looking around, I can see that it’s not her stall after all. There is no bleak Sun streaking through the crack in the wall. I can stand up though, and for the first breaths I am relieved because there is nobody who can press on my sore leg and make it hurt.
I look down and it is the red of a bruise now; no longer circular but a stripe that runs up and down the length of my haunch. I look at it. I look around. Even though it is hurting, I can stand up and lie down. At least it’s something.
Time is passing. I can’t count how many days. There are two females near to me, one on each side. They are older than me. But they are never talking to me. It is a long time where I am not speaking to anyone.
The females are both so big that they need to lie down on their flanks. They’re never moving, but I know they’re awake because I can hear them breathing in the soft shadows; I can sometimes see the shimmer of a liquid eye behind the slow blink.
Time passes. Soon, I am that big too.
Lying on my side makes everything hurt, not just my leg. I can feel my back on the cold of the concrete. The weight of my stomach as it grows and grows is pressing me into the floor. I can feel every one of my bones. The blunt pain is starting at my pelvis and it is sending shivers of thick aching as far as my neck; my knees and ankles. I can’t chew anymore. I have forgotten about running. I am feeling my girth straddle the bars and poles are pressing marks into my skin. Sometimes I am feeling a tumbling in my stomach, and I am wondering if I am hungry.
But I don’t think I am hungry here. Even if I have never been feeling so warm and full as when I used to be with Mumma and her milk, I am eating whatever appears automatically. I can’t taste it much. When it’s all gone down my gullet, it is emerging from beneath my tail. Hands are coming around and they are hosing it all away.
The same hands are moving me one day to a different stall again. It’s about the same time that I am starting to dream of foreign things. Not the Sun, but quiet, dark places that are soft, not hard and cold. I dream of running through areas so large that I can’t see a wall anywhere. I dream of nosing little pieces of wood and collecting them like precious bits of Sunbeam, and putting them all in a secret place where nobody could see them except for me. In my dreams I am weaving a milk song of my own, pieces of Mumma’s songs mixed up with bits I didn’t know I knew, sung to me through my heartbeat on this concrete floor; resonating up the metal bars and piercing stories of life into the lyrics. I dream of babies; eight of them; Matilda and Oscar and Mason and others that haven’t told me their names yet, born in this silent wood I’ve never seen and suckling; swiftly running and tumbling over tree roots and dipping into running pools of water. I don’t know how I know these things. Tearing their cords with their teeth and moaning as they search me out, and I sing them in the right direction. This is all happening in my dreams. I am tossing my head and wish to turn my body, but the different stall has no more room than the old one and I can’t. I grind my nose to the concrete floor and wait for something I don’t understand.
I am starting to feel sick in one of these moments, and my dreams are turning green at the edges and they are starting to curl like ill things as reality begins squeezing rhythmically at my udder. I feel restless; cold; I am wanting to wander but I can’t lift my head any further than my neck bones. The agony is moving nauseatingly across my side; my chilled bones are thick with radiating, immovable agony. I am groaning and alone; soon they are coming.
Eight babies are born one evening in three hours. They are tiny blind pink things that nose their way to my nipples. We are sweetly suckling and I am feeling awash with their closeness against me; such love for their eager sniffing and base desires; their struggle for teat and smiling mouths as they smell me, their mother. We are separated by bars but linked by love; a mingling perfume of milk and snatched song; new breath and raw, soft skin. We are breathing together and where they are pressing against my sore leg, my body blissfully forgets it.
When what feels like moments later, the hands are returning and grabbing my babies, one by one, and holding them upside-down in front of me as I thrash against the bars. They flail flaming and helpless as their tiny teeth are cut out piece by piece, and we all scream together.
I start remembering then, pieces of a mystery that never made sense to me when I was Persephone with a Mumma and brothers and sisters. I am suckling my children with a ferocity that is driven by fear and frustration.
When the hands come back and they take my boy babies, I am wild with anger and try to raise myself from the cage. But my body is locked in place by the bars; the remaining babies cry and snort for me, and I could not leave them either. So I can watch only with my eyes as my five soft boys have their legs split and their tiny eggs removed from their tender haunches. They sob for days afterwards, and I can do nothing but offer my teats. Search the Sun! I cry helplessly, but when they ask me about the Sun, I have nothing to show them. I am empty of everything but milk and love; I cannot even nuzzle my head into their perfectly trusting little stomachs.
As the days go by, and I sing to them of things I have never known, they are growing larger and larger. It is filling me with a kind of perverse dread, to see my babies so round and loved and healthy, and to start remembering what all this means for them and for me. They frolic against my skin and for now I am forgetting my sore leg; I am letting them touch me; each other. They are full of questions I don’t know the answers to. I have the need for pleasure borne so intensely by the condemned; they have the knowledge of nothing but that which they have known, and experiences they have quickly forgotten.
Finally, the time comes. They are taken. A little after, I am led from the stall, and back to the pen with my sisters.
Now we are all thicker and our eyes are dulled with the loves we miss. We have seen one full cycle and there doesn’t seem much to say. I see Georgia but she ignores me; she prefers to chew on the bars by her head. Angel has more sores all down her side, and I am finding it hard to walk. There is no Sun to be seen. We have no way of healing these mortal ulcers, and for some reason the thought of that smacks me in the neck so hard that I can’t breathe.
The old boar is in the shoulder stall and laughing at all of us; at our staring expressions and indifference to the hands that pass us back; eyeballs permanently widened by darkness and grief.
“Crybabies,” he is saying. “There’s plenty more where those came from!”
The next week I feel the heat in all of us rising again, and we start to stamp at the sides of our prison. I am chewing and chewing and the bar is becoming malleable with my bites; each movement is bringing the bar to my throat because I know now what is coming next. The old boar sneers his inky gums in our direction and wallows in the darkness and the damp of us girls in heat. We are singing our milk songs to stave off the pleasure our bodies seek without the engagement of our hearts, but the smell of the stinking boar turns our rhythms towards him, and we are powerless against it or the hands that smooth us gently towards the room again. That room again. I am not running this time, but I am feeling the froth of his hot breath on my back when he shudders and I am crying for the new innocents that will be gone again all so soon.
This time at the stall, I don’t lay down right away, but I couldn’t if I wanted to. I have fattened since last time; my teats hang towards the floor. I stand in the bars, propped up by them until the hands come later and ease me back down, onto my side again. I am lying here again just like this when the new wave of pain washes me down in the darkness, and seven more are born; seven sweet little bodies nosing me trustfully; seven screaming mouths forcefully gummed by indifferent hands; three squealing voices pealing through the shadows as their parts are peeled with a razor from their tiny three week old loins. And once again, I am back at the stall with my sisters, blinking at the lowing of the melancholy that rises from our gullets; our breasts still leaking and our flanks laced with scabby patches that tell of our mother status.
In all this time I have not thought again of the Sun, but this second time back in the stall, something new is coming over me and I can’t return from it. The girls and sisters who are pressing against me make rise in me a fury that I cannot bear. I feel like bucking against them and biting them into the old boar’s cage; they are too oppressive and fat; they are rubbing against my sore leg so carelessly and their chewing infuriates me into clouds of blood-coloured anger. In the unlit dimness I am seeing the bulk of their bodies slouching towards the concrete ground and the mass of them breathing and shitting and all I can do is raise myself up on my hind legs and fall over their dumb spines, over and over and over.
In my dreams I am nosing through tall slats like walls that root into the earth and shoot off into the dark sky. It is littered with tiny lights like insects crawling in a sore. There is no Sun here. The light that is falling on my body is cool and blue. I shiver and smell the scent of the world; it is soft like new straw.
My nose wants to rummage through it and make a new kind of nest. Beneath the canopy of slats and rotating miniscule lights, I find the corpses of my fifteen children festering like sores in the dark.
I am not sleeping any more. From across the dim sea of fat backs, our eyes catch. Prue is looking at me cautiously. I swim through the dulled bodies until I suddenly realise that I am standing beside her.
She is not chewing or scabbed like the rest of us. My eyes turn sharp.
“Did you have no babies like the rest of us?” I am accusing her. My voice is flooding the space with angry feelings. But when she is shivering up the length of her body I am sorry then, and I move closer to her to apologise.
“I can’t sleep,” she is saying to me.
I am feeling her pressed against my sore leg and I am looking at her properly now. I am seeing her filled with emptiness; the kind where it falls upon you like bars in a stall; when moving won’t budge the constraints.
“I’m going in the morning,” she is saying to me. “My babies all died. There won’t be any more.”
“No more?” I am echoing. Our voices are both as hollow as an empty feed bowl.
“The boar told me what happens now. I am scared, Persephone.”
I am nudging her then. She is feeling warm and smooth against me. I am feeling the heartbeat of her pulsing through her sidebelly.
“Where are you going?” I am asking her.
I am wanting to laugh then.
“But Prue!” I am saying to her. “You are finally going to find the Sun!”
“I don’t want to see the Sun,” Prue is saying. “I want my little babies back. I want them sleeping on top of me and their eyelashes whispering against my skin.”
“The Sun will make it not hurt any more,” I am saying to her.
Prue is just shaking now. The tremble begins at her haunches and ends at her ears. I see her misery and loneliness, with no one to sing her a song, and no one to sing a song for either.
“I’m scared,” is all she can say.
I am silent. My throat is voiceless. The darkness burns melancholy into my gullet. I am thinking about my little ones, the eight and the seven; all those innocents and all that love inside me, waiting to be fed into those little souls I’ll never see again.
Outside, there is the Sun. It must be better. Inside me, it dawns and rises.
“Prue,” I am saying. “You stay in here and try to have babies again. I can go out instead of you. I want to see the Sun.”
My sister is nodding down at her leg and there is a loop attaching her to the wall. I help her to step out of it and I put my foot inside it instead.
“I hope the Sun makes your sore better,” her voice is singing in the dark.
The hands come. They pull me away from all that duskiness of concrete. I leave behind the acrid sting of old boar pheromones and sweating girls. My babies are somewhere else; my Mumma is somewhere else; my brothers all somewhere else; but I am finally going towards the Sun. I trot faster as the hundreds of stalls form a blur beside my body; I can see the crack of light swing wide to an oblong of brightness that hurts my eyes and heals my leg all at once. We move into the blaze.
And then I am stumbling. The luminance is too strong for me to see. I am shutting my eyes and the inside of the lids are amber and warm, as Mumma promised. I am trying to see this world around me, but the light makes my eyes stream with water and I am walking blindly to the place where the hands are taking me; alone on a string and with a firm foot prodding my rump.
For just a few seconds I am able to open my eyes to a crack and I can see the great shining truck before me, silver as polished water; raised and open before a startling blue sky.
Everywhere the air smells so clean that it hurts my nostrils. My leg isn’t hurting right now. I walk in awe up the ramp, in the Sun, and into the maw of the shining truck.