The Swineherd – Daniel Adler
October 28, 2021
One day at the museum I saw a painting called “The Swineherd,” a Gauguin in the center of the room, the showpiece: pigs dappled yellow, the swineherd’s blue poncho, oversized blue shoes, hand on chin in thought under a turquoise sky, gray steeples and houses, pink paths, a brown horse, gray stones that turn pink in the wall, distant vermilion hills, yellow smears of flowers in the foreground, the same yellow as the swine. Proto-Fauvist, 1888. It made me long for a more bucolic life, wonder if it was even possible, here in the twenty-first century.
It reminded me of my brother-in-law Cody, who raises hogs, adult pigs. Swine. Which are larger than pigs, which to Cody are piglets. Boars are male swine; sows are female swine.
My brother Steven used to call me a swine. We’d go out for dinner, and after eating what was on my plate, I’d fork at what remained on his. Perhaps I’ve always enjoyed being porcine. So I’m not unaware of the irony of my brother-in-law being a sort-of swineherd.
Cody, Shelby says, is a simple man. Shelby’s my beloved, Cody’s little sister.
Cody and Shelby are both younger than me. Cody’s thirty-four, six years older than Shelbs. He lives with a wife of his own on the farm, which was originally their great-grandfather’s, one of the biggest pork producers in South Carolina in the 20th century. Today their four hundred acres produce ten thousand swine a year, sold to local farmers. Cody and Shelby—they both inherited the farm, technically, but Shelby takes her share as an annuity—make some money this way, but it’s mostly a pet project. The majority of Cody’s income comes from hog future derivatives. I think he day-trades in crypto too.
Cody, his wife and his baby live in the plantation-style manor his paternal grandfather built after the war. A brick chimney tops either end, Doric columns support the ground and upper porches, and white rocking chairs and outdoor ceiling fans hint at generations of sweet tea and mint juleps. The only marker of our current era is Cody’s electric F-150 at the head of the long paved driveway.
“Come on in. Nicole’s taking a nap with the baby.”
I follow him into the kitchen. Whistles and crowd sounds from the college football game on the flatscreen in the living room.
“You want anything?”
Why, yes, Woodhouse Reserve 18 sounds lovely. Ice cubes clink in Cody’s tumbler. Two for him. None for me. The sweet sound of whiskey in a glass.
“So what was it you wanted to talk about?”
“I just wanted to hang out.”
Cody looks uneasy, and then he chuckles his unique disarming chuckle. “Come on, let’s watch the game.”
“I did want to ask you a question though.” I follow as Cody enters the living room and sits in a leather recliner, close to the French doors that open onto a brick veranda. Beyond, acres of lawn roll to a distant red barn, lonely in the winter’s dusk. I wonder if that’s where the pigs—the swine—are kept. The game is Coastal Carolina at App State. I sit on the leather couch in the middle of the room. “I wanted to tell you how much I care about your sister.” He lowers his chin, makes a sound that indicates he’s preparing himself for a serious conversation. “But I…Well. I wanted to know what’s the deal with your stepbrother.”
“You mean Toby?” Cody removes his Columbia Fishing Pro hat. He runs his hand through his thick hair.
Shelby’s family is all divorced and remarried, and she doesn’t distinguish her step-siblings from her blood relations. Shelby told me Toby used to do weird things to her when she was ten. He was seventeen, and she’d be in his room playing hide and seek or whatever, and once he found her in the closet where she was hiding and closed the door behind them and made her touch his “flashlight.” And then a few times he’d come into her room at night, “looking for a charger.” One night she woke up and he was touching her and she said no and he stopped.
Shelby told her mom Toby had come into her room—she didn’t tell her mom about him touching her—and her mom told Toby not to go into her room anymore. He never did again. When Shelby told me this, she said it wasn’t a big deal, she never felt like a “victim” (her air quotes), Toby was her older brother, and she knew what she was doing—any lingering trauma she might have had she’s dealt with. Now she and Toby are totally cool.
As far as I knew Shelby had never told Cody what happened between her and Toby. I was hoping Cody would reveal some secret about Toby that would help us bond, bring me closer to the biological clan as an in-law than Toby might be as a step-sibling—gossip is always the best marker of trust. Besides, I liked Cody; he was capable, salt of the earth, reliable. Toby, on the other hand, made too many unfunny jokes which I felt obliged to laugh at; he worked in marketing and lived in a condo in downtown Atlanta with his fiancée, who worked in P.R. Together, they seemed flightier, less substantial; lighter—almost physically—despite the fact that Toby had a considerable paunch.
Cody cocks his head and his gaze softens. “What did you wanna know?”
“What you think of him; I’ve never talked to him heart to heart. I don’t know him that well.”
“Hm. Yeah. Well you know my mom and Jack got married when I was eleven. And while at first me and Toby weren’t super close, we got used to each other since he was a year younger. So by the time we were in high school we’d hang out, and then we both went to Georgia Southern for a year before Toby transferred to Georgia Tech as a junior. Did Shelby ever tell you about that fight we got into? When I was a senior in college. He was driving my truck—cause he was less drunk. And he insisted Rochelle sit shotgun. I said, Dammit Toby I don’t care if Rochelle’s Queen Elizabeth, I don’t sit in the back seat of my truck. And we got into it.” Cody’s eyes moisten as he laughs. “I broke that bastard’s front teeth. Punched ‘em clear outta his face.”
I study Cody’s broad shoulders, the five-day stubble that crawls up his cheeks. He’s at least as tall as I am, with long arms and a stout broad chest. I wouldn’t want to tango with him. Toby has his father’s height, but his weight gain, as Shelby said, had been sudden and dramatic.
“Then he reversed my truck into a wall and ripped the passenger door clear off. Don’t even know how. His insurance paid for it though.” Cody chuckled again and sipped, ice clinking as he reset his tumbler on his lap.
I’d heard this before from Shelby.
“We sorted it out,” he adds. And doesn’t seem prepared to say anything else.
I’m disappointed, but I somehow expected such a benign response—Toby after all, is Cody’s step-sibling. His loyalties lie with him, who he’s known for two decades, rather than me, a newcomer. In a final attempt I ask, “What about Rochelle? What was she doing this whole time? Why do you think she let Toby insist on her taking shotgun?”
I’d met Rochelle my first Christmas with Shelby, and again at a wedding nine months later. Both times I’d met her, her eye shadow was a shade too heavy, stilettoes too tall, nails too long. During Christmas dinner she was on her phone a lot. I wondered if her idiosyncrasies reflected Toby’s perversities or another flaw those perversities had morphed into. Of course, it was also possible that Rochelle and Toby were a good match, that Toby had repented for his past, and Rochelle got it in a way I didn’t. I knew them both so poorly, after all.
Cody shrugs, “Rochelle’s pretty traditional. You know she’s from a small town in South Georgia. I don’t think she had very much growing up.” He tumbles his tumbler.
I hesitate. I want to tell Cody the real reason I’d wanted to talk to him. But it’s not my place. Cody’s not the kind of guy to enjoy dirt.
I’d come sniffing for truffles at the wrong tree.
I change the subject to hog futures. Cody gives me some tips, says next time he’ll show me where he keeps the pigs. Coastal Carolina blows out App State. Then I excuse myself and walk into the cool winter evening, pleased, mildly dazed. I think back to that Gauguin painting and wonder about being a swineherd—its philosophical implications and merits—being alone with pigs all day. I roll the word in my mouth like an ice cube—swineherd—and decide that maybe it’s not as noble a pursuit as I once thought.