How to Steal a Hog

I come from a long line of pig thieves.

My father János VI and his father János V used to drive down from Chowchilla and poach boar along the backroads around Monterey. (Safari-suit-wearing big-game fanatics had created a breeding population of boar on the Central Coast in the 1920s.) One time dad and Grandpa got lost in the fog and shot a sea lion by mistake. Grandma put it in a casserole with macaroni and cream-of-celery soup.

My grandfather had moved to California in disgust after getting out of the state pen in Rochester, NY. He had been in there for stealing 673 piglets and a Wichita truck from a seventy-nine-year-old farmer from Chili who I swear was named MacDonald.

My great-grandfather János IV served in the Austro-Hungarian navy out of Trieste as a supply officer and built up a tidy nest egg embezzling salt pork (which at that point was still by-and-large shipped around in barrels). The moment Gavrilo Princip did his thing (June 28, 1914), Great-Gramps sank his entire fortune into hard salami and used it to buy his way onto a decommissioned U-1 Karp-class submarine that smuggled duty-free Slivovitz and paprika between Cattaro, Montenegro and Oswego, NY via the Saint Lawrence Seaway. He (and eventually his son) then menaced the entire South Coast of Lake Ontario until, well, you know.

His father János III ran a small-time protection racket in Miskolc, imposing a tax-in-kind on famers bringing goods into the city. He kept the next tier of hoods supplied with spareribs and fatback. The hoods fixed things with the local beat cops, and the cops in turn ignored János III’s troglodytic distributors, who mostly operated out of dark basements in residential neighborhoods. Before the Great Flood of 1878 the distributors had kept centipedes, rats and burglars close to zero with wildcats (felis silvestris silvestris), but most of the wildcats (and most of the distributors) drowned in the flood and János III (who barely survived by floating into the rafters of one of his workshops, half-embedded in an amorphous raft of kidney lard that spilled from the rendering vats and solidified around his calves when the floodwaters hit) had to start over from near-scratch with sodden street kids and indignant domestic cats.

His father János II was a tinker and laborer near Hámor who made pocket change doing honest work but whose main income came from trapping, poaching and livestock rustling. His wife Orsolya was locally famous for cultivating a strain of black carrots that had come in hundreds of years earlier with one of the Ottoman invasions (possibly via human or horse manure, but Orsolya fertilized them only with pig manure–which would have been anathema to the Turks). Everyone in the know presumed that the carrots were responsible for János II’s remarkable ability to see in the dark (although as a tinker he built and sold dark-lanterns to the local non-night-visioned thief community).

The original János ran away from home at eleven, climbed high into the Bükk Mountains and sneaked into a woodcarver’s storeroom in the tiny village of Elvesztett.

It was the night before the full moon and thus light enough for my carrotless kinsman. He spent the next day hidden in the storeroom, half-stupefied by turpentine fumes.

When the sun finally went down, my great-great-great-great-grandfather slipped quietly out into the muddy street. He was surprised to see no lights burning in any of the village houses. Surely, he thought, someone must be awake, brewing beer or playing the hegedü.

He heard a hinge creak and stepped back against the trunk of a beech. From inside the house came a low waddling shadow, then another, then three smaller shadows. The shadows snorted. More hinges and wooden steps creaked, and the street slowly filled with low shadows and purposeful footsteps.

János strained to see. The near shapes resembled hogs but the heads were wrong: too peaked, too many ears, too many corners. He stepped out from behind his tree. Hats! The hogs were wearing hats! Hats and rags: ragged cuffs, torn vests, split and holey boots. The hogs grunted softly to each other and marched purposefully as though herded.

János slipped from shadow to shadow and followed them. The hogs were gathering around a small hut on the edge of the village. The hut was silent, squat and dark.

A huge boar approached the door of the hut and began to huff. A shutter scratched open and something heavy hit the boar in the snout. The boar angrily butted the door and the door gave out a low wooden thunk. More missiles flew from the hut and the villagers began to squeal with menace. Several of the largest boars and sows began to shove the hut with their bodies, causing its planks to wobble. A shoat was climbing the bean trellis, though how he managed this with cloven hooves János did not know. The hogs had developed a rhythm, wheezing and puffing and rocking the hut. The shoat had reached the roof and was creeping toward the chimney, somehow maintaining his footing despite the pitch and yaw beneath him. János squeezed his eyes shut, willing himself to wake from his dream–to stop seeing visions in the fog. The shoat vanished into the chimney, and János’ ears were scalded by a horrifying scream. The hogs instantly dispersed, galloping back to their houses and off into the forest.

János, his blood frozen by the scream, stood motionless in the dark, staring at the again-silent hut and afraid to move.

After an hour had passed in complete stillness, János lowered his trousers and pissed in the street. Then he tiptoed to the wall of the hut and tugged gently on a shutter. It swung open. Something was snoring in the dark. His arms straining, he pulled himself up and over the sill. The snoring remained even. He crept to the bed. In the wan moonlight he thought he could make out a wolf’s muzzle and ears above the coverlet. He slunk to the fireplace and felt the heat rising from a great cauldron with a shoat’s hoof poking above the surface. Slowly he pulled his shirt over his head and wound it around his hand. Slowly he reached out and grasped the hoof with his wrapped hand. Slowly and with all his strength he raised the shoat steaming and dripping from the cauldron. Then with a great heave he swung the shoat out the window and sprang out after it. There was a rustling and a thumping and a howling from inside the hut. János lifted the shoat and began to run. His arms and chest and sides burned and stung. But down the mountainside he ran, listening for sounds of pursuit, until finally, in the silence, he slowed to a walk and stumbled tired and aching to the town of Talált, and just outside the locked town gates he lay down with his head on the shoat and fell fast asleep.

Three hours later he was awakened by a blow to the head. The town guard, who had pushed the gate two-thirds of the way open until it was blocked by János’ head, was staring down open-mouthed and with horror in his eyes. János looked down and saw that he was still half-naked, his arms and torso red and covered with angry blisters. His head was resting on the boiled corpse of a boy his own age.

János leapt to his feet and began to scream and run. He screamed and ran for many miles–and might have screamed and run forever–but just outside Hámor his voice ran out and he fell down a well some workers were digging, and he stayed down there for a day and a half until the workers (hung over from a festival no one remembers) dragged him out and dusted him off.

To the day of his death he never again ate pork (though his friends called him a Jew and a Turk), even on days when his own son János II would appear in the doorway, a freshly-killed suckling pig over his shoulders, in the dim light of dawn.

Image is public domain and I’ll attribute it as soon as I find the *!@?! attribution.

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