When I was small, my mother told us a story about a talking fish who granted wishes. I got the family sow, who doesn’t.
“Something’s wrong with Little Sister,” I whispered to the sow.
Her ears perked. “Tell me.”
I told her what happened when I saw my little sister, Biyu, at the market stalls.
She was wearing the pants I had hemmed and embroidered with butterflies at the ankles. But her gait, her silence as people greeted her, these were a stranger’s limp, a stranger’s hesitance. She had shadows under her eyes, long sleeves despite the warm afternoon sun. I had seen this for months since her wedding, thinking she was ill, overworked.
But now, when she smiled, she was missing a tooth.
“Marriage, it is hard, Second Sister.” She wiped her face.
Biyu married so quickly after turning eighteen that people asked me if I was jealous that she was marrying before me, the middle sister. Everyone could see why the constable wanted to marry her. She would chat with the customers while selling our farm’s produce, while I silently wrapped their purchases and made their change.
In the evening, she poured out her collected gossip like a bountiful harvest. She replayed the devastation of rice spoiling or chickens growing sick. Her eyes would brighten when recounting how the silk merchant widower had made unnecessary trips to the lonely tailor. I’d give extra eggs to one family, or charge another family more for their deliveries.
“Marriage shouldn’t break you.” I clasped her hand as if I could pull her home to safety. How long had it been since I heard her laugh?
“Didn’t Eldest Sister laugh louder?” I asked. “Weren’t her curses sharper?” Weeds were too frightened to grow in her garden.
“Please don’t tell her.” She stared at our hands. “It is so shameful.”
“I promise,” I lied.
• • • •
“Well, I never liked him,” the sow, Zhu, reminded me. “Get that stick. I got an itch.”
“How could I have missed it?” I started poking her across the back. “I thought he would take care of her.”
“Down, left.” She sighed. “Kid, are you ever going to learn the correct left and right?”
I was older than the pig by at least fifteen years. But Zhu had had six litters by this time and had decided, since I was unmarried and without children, that I was a child.
To the humans, I was an overly educated woman running a farm and market stall that were the envy of most farmers.
“Should have listened to me.” The sow grunted as I found the right spot. “When you were showing off the farm, he never once complimented you. He talked all about himself and his work. And he never smiled.”
“I couldn’t tell Biyu that the pig thinks he isn’t good enough because he didn’t smile at her.”
She squinted at me. “Everyone smiles at me. They admire my spots and ask for one of my piglets from the next litter. Could you get the mud out from that toe? There’s a rock. Thank you.”
I rinsed off my hands using the water meant for the chickens. I would never dirty Zhu’s water, and the chickens couldn’t talk back. At least, they weren’t the animal I could hear.
“Does it bother you that people raise and eat your piglets?”
She snorted. “Given the chance, I would eat a human child.”
Zhu is a fearsome pig.
The year before my father died, he saw her trotting out of the trees across the road. She was a small piglet, perhaps the runt of the litter. He called me and Biyu to help trap her. We corralled her into the pig sty. Or she decided to join our other pigs. We waited for someone to come looking for her. But no one did. She stayed and had her litters.
She didn’t start talking to me until after the first litter, after the fever took our parents. I was mucking out the pig sty when I heard her hiss, “Get off my teat!” She snapped at one of her piglets. “There is food right there.”
She saw me staring and cursed. “Well, since you can hear me, could you scratch an itch I’ve got? It’s behind the right ear. My right. The one I’m twitching.”
I had dragged Biyu outside to see if she could understand the pig. My little sister laughed, “Heng heng. Go to bed, Second Sister.” Then she’d returned to the warmth of the kitchen.
The pig huffed, “I think it’s just you.”
“Can other animals talk?” I asked.
She took a long time to reply, “No.”
“Are you lying?”
“Look, if I told you they could, you would put them to work. I’m not going to betray them.”
• • • •
“What are we going to do?” I rubbed my damp hands against my pant leg.
“I propose murder.” She stood and shook herself off.
“Shouldn’t we start with talking to him?”
“Pfft. You couldn’t scare the constable.”
I rubbed my temples. “The town would look for the constable’s murderer.”
“Not if he just goes missing.”
“Where would we put his body?”
“I volunteer.” She licked her snout.
“Are you suggesting we should kill him because you want to eat his corpse?”
She trotted around her pen. “There are plenty of other good reasons to kill him. I can’t think of them all right now.”
“We don’t need to do all that.” I paced the perimeter of her pen with her. “I can just get Biyu out of there. Eldest Sister has two children and another on the way.”
Zhu snapped her teeth. “Perfect. When he comes looking, I can eat him.”
“Are you just looking for a reason to eat him?”
If a pig could grin with menace, Zhu could. “This is a good reason.”
Convincing Biyu took more time. Every afternoon at my stall, I snuck in a few more words. She smuggled out small bundles of her best clothes. I packed them into the cart under the turnips.
“Biyu, do you remember when you stopped eating oranges?”
She wrung her hands. “Yes.”
“And no matter how much Mom and I showed you that this one had no maggots, you still wouldn’t touch it? Even after we took the peel off and ate a slice?”
“Your husband is made of maggots.”
It was months later when Elder Sister drove her cart onto the farm in the early morning. The fog seemed to part for her.
Biyu wore one of my coats and a hat pulled down low over her eyes. She had a healing split lip as we hugged goodbye. It was only certain death that stopped Elder Sister from taking a shovel to the constable that morning.
“If I wasn’t pregnant.” Elder Sister rubbed her swollen belly.
“And I can’t drive your horses.” I stayed out of biting range. They were wild ones that Elder Sister had tamed.
My sisters departed before the morning sun had overpowered the fog.
I was alone when the constable came looking that night.
“What do you mean my sister is missing? How could a husband misplace his wife?” I asked, wielding my best knife. There were still green onions clinging to it, for plausible deniability.
“Is she here?” her husband asked, his eyes hard. I hadn’t realized how mean they looked, flashing dark.
I pointed at the dinner of one fish and rice with the knife. “Does this look like a meal for company?”
My home only had two rooms so the search was at least quick.
“What about the barn?” he asked.
He followed me as I started toward the pig sty. It was dark, and I hoped Zhu could hear the sloshing of our shoes in the mud. Could she smell his scent mingling with my sweat?
As soon as I stepped aside, Zhu and the other pigs came running out, squealing and snapping at him. He startled backwards. When Zhu put her front legs on the fence, she unleashed a roar that seemed to shake the hills. Her teeth gleamed in the moonlight.
When I saw the fear in his eyes, I realized he was a coward.
“My sister is gone. You and your family will have nothing to do with mine.”
He took a step and I heard Zhu yell, “On your right!”
I ducked just as she reared up behind me and his fist collided with her mouth.
He shrieked in pain as Zhu bit. Hard. I could hear her teeth grind against his bones. The air filled with the metallic smell of blood.
He pulled out his hand, blood dripping down his forearm.
“Screw you, dirty pig farmers,” he screamed as he stumbled away.
I leaned against the fence, my ears still ringing.
“If he comes back,” Zhu said, panting, “Tell him that if he treats another woman the way he treated our Biyu, I’d know.” Her snout twitched.
“You think he’ll believe there’s a network of murderous sows?”
“There ought to be.”
I slumped down, panting. “That punch, it came from my left.”
“I knew you wouldn’t go the correct way.”
I laughed for three breaths before the tears came and I began to sob. Zhu pressed her snout to my shoulder as I shook.
I patted her head. “Good pig.”
Zhu preened. “I know.”
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