I was happy when Mother told me she was marrying Mr. Cooper, and that we were moving to his farm. He was such a nice man. He always brought candy to the Easter parade, and not just the cheap stuff either. He gave me five dollars on my last birthday. Everyone thought Mr. Cooper was fun. And I thought so too.
“Now Lori, Mr. Cooper is quite smitten with me. You be a good girl, and he’ll love you too,” Mother said. She fingered the diamond ring that he had given her. It was small, but Mother didn’t take it too kindly when I pulled out the magnifying glass to get a better look. Mr. Cooper just smiled. It was a good smile — all white and friendly. I thought for sure he would love me. I just had to be a good girl.
And I was always a good girl. I did well in school and paid attention in church even when I was really bored. I did my chores at home. What more could a man want from a daughter?
So when Mr. Cooper and Mother came back from their wedding trip, and I returned from Aunt Betty’s, I was more than ready to do whatever it took to make Mr. Cooper love me.
“You’ll be taking care of the pigs, Lori.”
I was thrilled when Daddy Cooper (Mother told me to call him that; she thought it would make him love me sooner) gave me such an important job. There were two pigs. I wasn’t suppose to name them. But it seemed silly calling them ‘hey pigs’ all the time. So I named the big one ‘Tiny’ and the little one ‘Bermuda’.
Twice a day I had to feed and water the pigs, and muck out their pen. It wasn’t so bad. Daddy Cooper gave me real farmer boots. They were too big for me, but I didn’t complain. He even put my new name on them with black marker: ‘Lori Cooper’.
“The pigs like you,” Daddy Cooper said with a Daddy Cooper smile.
I was thrilled. Bermuda and Tiny liked me. But more importantly, I thought Daddy Cooper did too. With renewed enthusiasm that night, I mucked out their pen. And I gave each pig two sugar cubes that I snitched from the kitchen. Then I worried that maybe pigs were allergic to sugar or that it would give them diarrhea or some thing. But they were fine.
I had been looking after those pigs so well, Daddy Cooper soon gave me another chore.
“Watch this, Lori,” he said. He turned to the pigs, smiled, and in a gentle voice said, “Come hear and let me stick you.”
Tiny and Bermuda both came running over. They rolled onto their backs and stretched out their chins. Daddy Cooper chuckled as he petted the soft flesh of their necks. He cooed to them. “Good piggies. Pretty piggies.”
I started to giggle. He looked up at me and smiled. It seemed silly for a grown man to be sweet talking a couple of pigs.
“That’s an old farmers’ trick,” he said. “I want you to start doing that twice a day, Lori.”
“I don’t get it.” I scratched my ear, dislodging a blackfly that was feasting there. “Why?”
“Come October when we slaughter these two, it’ll be a lot easier to stick them if they think they’re getting a good old scratch on the neck.” He patted me on the back. His hand felt warm and safe.
I watched Daddy Cooper walk away. He had just about reached the house, when I remembered what ‘stick’ meant. My friend Nancy had told me, but I really hadn’t believed her until now. At slaughter time, Daddy Cooper would ‘stick’ a knife in the pigs’ throats. That’s how they slaughter pigs; they stick them.
My heart sank. And in the July heat, my feet felt very warm in my new farmers’ boots.
It wasn’t a surprise to me that we would have to kill them. In the back of my mind I had known all along that Bermuda and Tiny would become bacon and ham. Yet, I didn’t want to pet their necks and pretend. But desperately, I wanted Daddy Cooper to love me.
“Come here and let me stick you,” I said. Tiny and Bermuda raced to me and rolled trustingly onto their backs. I scratched the white flesh of their necks. Then I raced to the house after Daddy Cooper.
I kept it up. Every day, I would tend to the pigs and play this trick on them. “Come here and let me stick you,” I would call, and they would rush over.
I knew it was my job — looking after them. But I thought perhaps they might love me a little. And Daddy Cooper said I was becoming a pretty good farmer.
But it wasn’t all work on the farm. One day I was playing with my Barbies in Mother and Daddy Cooper’s closet. They had gone to town and left me at Nancy’s house. She and I had gotten into a big fight while dividing up the cherry Pez, and, after assuring Nancy I would call her later, I had stormed out. ‘Storming out’ was one of our favourite things to do.
Daddy Cooper and Mother weren’t back from town yet when I arrived home, so I decided to sneak my Barbies into their closet. It was large enough for me to hide in behind the long winter coats. I was there when I heard Mother and Daddy Cooper open the front door. I wasn’t suppose to be in their room at all. I sat very quietly and held my breath. But I was sure they could hear my heart pounding.
They were laughing.
“I think Gordon is quite taken with Debbie,” Mother giggled the words. I could hear her crossing the floor to the dresser, and two gentle taps as she set her earrings down.
Daddy Cooper laughed.
“What does Gordon do?”
“He sells insurance. Pays more than farm work.” Daddy Cooper’s voice was light. I just knew he was grinning lovingly at my mother. I heard him walk across the floor and join her.
“Gordon’s such a sweetheart,” Mother said. “I bet Deb “?”
The smack of fist startled me. Mother screamed and even though I quickly covered my ears, I could still hear the thud of her body hitting the floor.
“Tramp!” Mr. Cooper yelled. The bed springs creaked as he threw my mother down. “I saw the way you looked at him.”
He hit her again.
Mother cried. Silently, I prayed he’d leave her alone. And finally, I heard Mr. Cooper walk out of the room.
When she stopped crying, I ventured a peak from beneath the tangle of coats. I didn’t want Mother to see me. But I needed to see her.
She sat on the bed. Her ankles and knees were locked together. She worked the wedding ring around her finger. My mother was looking ahead, but not looking at anything. She seemed to be inside of herself. It was as if a part of her had just died. Beside her on the bed was a wedding photo. It was the one I had liked the best. All three of us were in it. Mother was dressed in the softest blue. She was beautiful. I tried to look serious, but the photographer had made me giggle. And Mr. Cooper was there of course. Tall, handsome, and smiling as always.
That night it was quiet at supper. Mother had washed the tears away. I didn’t ask about the bruise. But she quickly told me she had banged into a door. Mr. Cooper laughed and nodded. He put a hand on mother’s shoulder and squeezed gently. He grinned so wide I could see his molars — black and boney.
It was dark when I left the house. The pigs saw me coming and ran to greet me. I opened their gate. At first they wouldn’t come out. “Here piggies,” I called over and over, but they just looked at me curiously and waited by their troth.
Then I had an idea. “Come here and let me stick you,” I said about twenty feet from their pen. Bermuda and Tiny ran to me and rolled onto their backs. They trusted me. I scratched their throats. “Good piggies. Pretty piggies.”
I ran further. “Come here and let me stick you,” I called again. They followed me to the edge of the property. Then, finally aware of their freedom, ran into the woods on their own.
I knew Mr. Cooper would find them in a day or two. Or the pigs might come back. I knew, no matter what I did, he would stick them.
I also knew I could never tend the pigs again. And that Mr. Cooper wouldn’t smile at me anymore. But that was fine. I didn’t like old farmers’ tricks.