From his perch atop of the tractor’s rusty fender, Tobias watched in silence as more Priests arrived at the scene of the broken fence. They were gathered at the rear of the western pasture—where the interwoven barbed wire passed through a stand of mature hardwoods—and the thick morning fog was making it impossible to see farther than thirty feet in any direction. Every few minutes, another disembodied voice would sing out from the cottony abyss and one of those already present would guide the newcomer to their exact location amongst the trees. After a handful of the Priests had collected, Tobias’ father addressed the men from the seat of the tractor, looking down at their bleary-eyed faces from beneath the brim of his straw hat.
“So, do we have any idea how many got through?” he asked simply. Despite his years—well past the age when any lower Priest would have already retired and moved into town—Amos Fulbright’s voice still carried the familiar timbre of unquestionable authority.
One of the men milling around the front of the tractor, a barrel-chested youth named Seth, abruptly stopped his conversation with another man that Tobias couldn’t see through the fog and turned to look up. “Not yet Mr. Fulbright. Benjamin was checking the north pens and then heading this way. The south pens are all fine; I checked those myself.”
Frowning in thought, Amos asked, “Who had the moon-shift in the pastures last night?” Then, a victim of habit, he leaned to the side and spit over top of the wheel fender opposite his youngest son.
Tobias knew that it was a loaded question, and he unwittingly held his breath for the pregnant pause before any of the older men replied.
Speaking up for the first time, Tobias’ older brother Landon said, “Josiah was, Pop. But it’s not his fault; this stuff is thick as gravy out here.” A few of the Priests cloistered around the tractor with him murmured and nodded in agreement, though most still had an embarrassed look on their face.
“Fog’s been coming into Sweetwater since Mikkal’s day, Landon. And we’ve still got a job to do—even when it’s not easy to do.”
A man of few words, no one rose to dispute the oft-heard reprimand, though Tobias was almost certain that he saw Landon roll his eyes in the gloomy light. Going back as far as he could remember, his brother had always bristled when scolded in front of the lower Priests. Despite turning eighteen earlier that year—the age in which most Fulbright men began to take their Arch-Priestly responsibilities a little more seriously—Landon had continued to go through life as though he belonged to the monkish group of caretakers rather than, as he did, to the sacred farm’s leading family.
Sometimes, Tobias would overhear people from town, (and even some of the older Priests), remark to his father that it was just a phase, “like any other teenage boy,” and that it would eventually pass. Still, everyone in Sweetwater knew how patiently the Fulbrights had waited for their first born son, and so with his age getting harder to both hide and ignore, no one really questioned why his father took it so personal whenever Landon rebelled.
Just then, Benjamin’s gravelly voice—conjured from the depths of the fog like a Loon’s cry—broke the awkward silence. “Hello? Hello-o-o-o?”
Landon raised his gloved hands to his mouth and shouted in reply, “Over here, Ben! Keep coming this way!” If Amos noticed the truncating of Benjamin’s name—a violation of the most elementary of Priesthood rules—then he chose to ignore it, at least for the time being. Before long, Benjamin stumbled out of the fog and into the little group with Josiah in tow, sheepishly looking down at the wet, matted leaves beneath his feet.
“Well?” asked Amos without preamble.
Though out of breath, Benjamin did the talking as Josiah continued to make himself as small as possible while thrusting his hands deep into the bottoms of his trouser pockets. “Number Eight, Mr. Fulbright. He’s the only one not here.” A few of the Priests perked up at that bit of good news; at least they’d only be dealing with a lone escapee.
Amos was unmoved, however. “Number Eight, huh?” he asked, thinking to himself out loud as he wrung his calloused hands on the tractor’s steering wheel, “Yeah he’s gonna be a real dandy to fool with out there.” Raising his voice to the group, he asked, “You men know what tonight is, right?”
This time, everyone—including Tobias, however needlessly—nodded or mumbled affirmatively at the rhetorical question. Lifting his bony wrist in the haze, Amos continued, “It’s half-past seven now. That gives us less than ten hours before that boar gets to be a real problem; twelve ‘til he’s downright dangerous.” As his father paused—either for effect or to catch his breath, Tobias wasn’t sure—he felt a somber mood descend upon the group like a wet blanket. Most of the men below him were avoiding eye contact with one another, no doubt grateful for the fog that concealed their nervous expressions. And for good reason, Tobias thought to himself.
While no escape had ever occurred in the ten years of his lifetime, both Landon and Tobias’ other older sibling, his sister Naomi, had for years delighted in terrifying him with tales of the pig that had managed the rare feat during the age of their own youth. It was an event so titillating, in fact, that at the time it had even eclipsed the dropping of two atomic bombs a world away on a tiny island-nation called Japan.
In that instance, the fiendishly clever sow—a previous designee of the Number 3 moniker—happened upon a section of pasture fence where a large elm had fallen across in a storm, thereby creating an easy walking path over the specially braided barbed wire. At first no one had noticed the missing pig, complacency being the insidious thief of vigilance that it is, and as such she gained a sizeable head-start on the ensuing search party.
As the hours had turned into days, the thousand or so citizens of Sweetwater—the very same citizens who entrusted both the Fulbrights and the Priests to care for and secure the pigs on the farm property until they were needed—kept their children closer to home, with few, if any, daring to leave the house after dark. When the full moon had finally arrived, and with still no sign of the wily beast, the type of carnage that only a Chotgo pig was capable of had begun.
On that night, (according to Landon and Naomi, since no one else would tell him about it), in the glow of the silvery moon, the nervous townspeople, (shuttered timidly behind their locked doors), were forced to listen to the blood-curdling cries of the horses, cows, and other animals housed in the barns on the edge of town. Some of the more brazen Sweetwater men armed themselves with firearms—prepared to defend their wives and children should the beast decide to attack—despite the centuries-old rule prohibiting shooting the revered creatures with a gun.
A group of Priests, (still out patrolling the darkness for the absconded pig, and the only ones not forbidden to kill a Chotgo outside of Founder’s Forrest), had run out to the barns with their flashlights and lances, but Number 3 had already fled the grizzly scene.
At this point of the story, Landon usually lowered his voice conspiratorially, mindful of any adults overhearing him describe such a macabre sight as the Priests came upon to a mere child, even his own kid brother.
Like most Eurasian-strain pigs do, Number 3 had launched her ambush at a thunderous charge. With razor-sharp tusks that extended from her snout five times further than that of her genetic cousins however, each powerful flail of her massive head slashed and carved at the flesh of her helpless victims, eviscerating the domestic farm animal’s soft bellies.
Unsatisfied with the orgy of death already created, she had then gone to work with the steel nail-like canine teeth unique to the rare Chotgo breed. Each snap of her formidable jaws excavated large, paint can-sized hunks of flesh which were then promptly spit onto the floor in glistening piles. In a few instances, entire hoofed limbs were amputated, either neatly severed by her sharp teeth or savagely torn from her victim’s body with immutable force.
After surveying the carnage, the search party of Priests—most of whom had never seen the full extent of just what an escaped Chotgo was capable of on a full moon—had been found in front of the barn trembling with fear when Tobias’ father had arrived to take charge of the impromptu hunt.
“Landon,” Amos’ voice snapped Tobias from his reverie, transporting him back to the foggy meeting amidst the trees, “take a few of the guys back down to the barn and open up the Sacristy.”
Tobias saw Landon’s face flash with surprise. “Pop… the lances? Already? You just said yourself it’s only seven-thirty. We got the whole day to find him yet.” A year ago, he would never have dared to question their father’s orders in front of the Priests. He’s changed so much these days, Tobias noted to himself with a hint of nostalgic sadness.
At first, Amos didn’t reply. Rather, he looked down at his oldest son with the patience that only a parent could muster at such an urgent time. Then, when he did speak, he did so loud enough for the benefit of the entire group.
“If this had happened last week, sure, we’d leave the lances. For that matter, if it’d been only two or three days ago, we might just make a go of it with a mind to bring him back. But now? With every minute between this one and the rise of that full moon tonight, Number Eight is turning less and less pig, and more and more Chotgo. Some of you men here are old enough to remember the last time one got off the Holy Reserve and made it into Sweetwater.”
There was another awkward and embarrassed murmuring of agreement. Before Amos had the chance to continue however, everyone turned to face the sound of a vehicle slowly approaching them on the gravel perimeter road. Tobias looked up from his roost on the tractor fender to see orange-tinted headlights struggling to penetrate the misty fog. Before the car reached the little huddle of men, Landon spoke up and said, “That’ll be Mr. Grundy, Pop.”
Tobias heard his father sigh wearily. Similar to any other town, (however little contact they had with them), the people of Sweetwater had always chosen a municipal leader to help adjudicate disputes, allocate community resources, and look out for the town’s general well-being. Since his string of election victories more than a decade earlier however, Mayor Preston Grundy had made it a point to continuously stick his nose into the Sacred Reserve’s business under the guise of protecting the town from any more tragic and costly escapes due to Priestly negligence.
Separated from Sweetwater by an expanse of woods named Founder’s Forrest, for nearly three-hundred years the hallowed duty of the Priests was to care for and safeguard the pigs on the Sacred Reserve until they were used in the annual weeklong Founder’s Day festivities, particularly for everyone’s favorite event: “Mikkal’s Hunt.”
Technically speaking, the whole of the Reserve, Priests, and each one of the ten Chotgoriin Gakhai all fell under Amos Fulbright’s authority. Despite this, or in spite of it perhaps, Mayor Grundy never hesitated to remind anyone who would listen that part-and-parcel existed solely to serve the town; “humbly and obediently,” he’d make it a point to add. Most people harbored their suspicions that the urbane mayor simply disliked sharing any prominence or influence with what was—to him at least—little more than a glorified pig farmer.
Stretching back for as long as the town had stood, relations between the various mayors and Fulbright Arch-Priests had always ranged from familial to downright bitter enemies. Considering the conversations that he overheard from time to time, Tobias figured his father and Mayor Grundy’s to fall somewhere along the middle, if not slightly favoring the “bitter” end of the scale.
When it was still some fifty feet away from the group, the mayor’s brown Crosley rolled to a menacing stop. As the vapor swirled in front of the headlights, no one from the huddle of Priests made a move to approach the vehicle. After turning off the ignition, Mayor Grundy climbed out and stood beside the car as he tucked his generous waistline back into his trousers. Shooting Tobias’ father an impertinent glance, he then casually leaned against the door and busied himself by picking at a fingernail with a smug expression on his face.
“I’ll go talk to him, Pop,” said Landon, pushing his way through the group of Priests.
“No. It’s me he’s here to see. May as well get it over with.” replied Amos.
Grunting, he had to use the tractor’s steering wheel to pull himself up from the seat. As he climbed down, Landon took a step back to give him room, careful not to appear as though he were assisting him in sight of the mayor. “Let me at least come with you then. You’re always saying I need to step up, well there ain’t no better time than now.” Though his voice was barely above a whisper, Tobias could hear the determination.
Adjusting a buckle on his denim overalls while he thought it over, Amos said, “Alright. But you let me do the talking. The less we send him back to town with, the less he’s got to whip everyone up into a tizzy.” Turning to address the group again, now closer to eye level, he added, “the rest of you just hang tight here for a minute.”
Mayor Grundy allowed himself a victorious little grin when he saw Amos approaching. As the three men stood together on the gravel road, Tobias noted for the hundredth time not only how physically different his father and the mayor were, but how they even appeared to come from totally disparate backgrounds.
Whereas the mayor was broad and bulky, with deep creases in the puffy, exposed flesh of his neck, Tobias’ father was gangly in comparison, never one to over-indulge at the table. Both men had the tall stature common to families throughout Sweetwater, though Amos stood with a crook in his back that left him with a permanent hunch, (proof enough to Tobias that raising Chotgos wasn’t all that different from raising whatever animals put similar crooks into the backs of the other elderly Sweetwater farmers).
Likewise, the two men could not have been more dissimilar in dress. For the mayor, every day was a pageant; or as Tobias often heard his father remark, “a campaign day.” This morning he had on a slate colored suit with alligator skin boots, pressed and polished as usual. Often favoring a bolo tie over the cloth kind that Tobias sometimes saw other men wear, today’s selection was a turquoise and silver pendant that glinted in the rising sun like a distant treasure.
In contrast to the debonair mayor, Amos Fulbright was the picture of modesty and humility. His overalls—worn, stained, and faded—would still be mended and patched many more times before Tobias’ mother would succeed in convincing him to toss them out. Likewise, covering his legs up to his knees, there was still just as much mud and pig waste on his black rubber boots as there had ever been.
As the three men stood next to Mayor Grundy’s car talking, everyone left huddled at the tractor strained to eavesdrop on their conversation. Even Tobias, sitting high above the Priests on the fender as he was, still only managed to catch bits and pieces.
“Morning Amos,” he heard the mayor say, then, turning to his brother, “Landon.”
Both his father and brother muttered perfunctory replies before Amos said, “Word sure travels fast these days.”
The mayor chuckled proudly, “It does in fact, Amos. Well, important ones do anyway.”
Amos then went to explain what they knew so far, gesturing alternately between the broken fence and the collection of Priests. At one point, Tobias heard the mayor say, “…can’t have another night like last time…”
The three men were still talking—shifting back and forth between culpability and reassurances—when Landon suddenly got irate. Tobias didn’t hear what had been said beforehand, but his older brother’s voice shattered the tranquil forest scene like a thunderbolt, and he jabbed a threatening finger at Mayor Grundy.
“How dare you come out here telling us how to do our duties—” he bellowed, his breath scattering the fog around his face.
Amos rounded on his son with surprising quickness, grabbing both of his shoulders in his hands. “Landon! You forget yourself! Go over there and wait with the others or I’ll have you mucking pens until the frost.” For a moment, Tobias expected Landon to protest, (getting past their father wouldn’t pose much of a problem, he figured).
To everyone’s surprise though—the mayor included, to judge by his face—Landon abruptly stopped. Taking a deep breath while glaring at Mayor Grundy, he simply said, “Fine, Pop,” before turning on his heel and walking back towards Tobias and the Priests.
When he’d gone, Amos apologized on his behalf. “Sorry about that, Preston. He’s just a little on edge is all. This’ll be his first escape, and I dang sure wouldn’t want Number Eight to be my first.”
Regaining his composure as he unnecessarily adjusted his bolo tie, Mayor Grundy said, “Yes, well, perhaps I touched a nerve. No harm done I suppose.” Then, suddenly remembering why he was there, he resumed his superior air and said, “Besides, none of this should have happened in the first place.” Tilting his head to the side suspiciously, he asked, “How did the fence come to have a breach in it anyway? I don’t see any downed tree, and no Chotgo can go through those braids, no matter how big it is.”
“We ain’t sure yet, but something tore the fence up good back here. If it wasn’t a Chotgo, I don’t figure I wanna know what it was.”
Mayor Grundy laughed a belly-shaking guffaw and said with a hint of sarcasm, “You mean to tell me there is something in this world that scares Amos Fulbright?”
Amos just brushed it off, “There’s plenty that I’m scared of, and right now, tonight’s full moon is at the very top of my list.”
“Yours and mine both. And when I get back over to town, that boars going to be at the top of everyone else in Sweetwater’s list too. You need to find it, Amos. To-day.”
Tobias saw his father nod solemnly. “We will, Preston. But I don’t suppose I could get you to hold off on telling everyone else for a little while yet? Just until we have a better idea of which direction he went?”
The barely perceptible grin on the mayor’s face said it all, but he answered him all the same. “Sorry Amos, you know I can’t do that. Besides, the good people of Sweetwater have the right to know when their lives are in danger, especially on account of a few lazy Priests.”
“’Good people?’ You mean voters? There’s other ways to win elections than by fear, Preston. And the Priests aren’t lazy, you know better than that and so do they. Something went on out here last night, and I aim to find out what.”
Mayor Grundy looked as though he were about to reply, thought better of it, and settled with a perfunctory nod. Having said all there was to say so early on in the search, the two men exchanged phony pleasantries along with mutual assurances to “be in touch,” and parted. As Amos strolled back to the tractor with the ubiquitous hitch in his step, Mayor Grundy lowered himself down into his Crowley to the accompanying tune of squealing shock springs.
When Amos returned to the huddle of men, he laboriously climbed back into the driver’s seat without meeting Landon’s eyes. After getting settled in, he looked down to the upturned faces of the Priests, eager for news and guidance. Finding his oldest son at last, he said evenly, “Landon?”
Though Landon’s face still bore a hint of shame, he at least looked prepared to bear the consequences of his outburst. “Yeah, Pop?”
“Please get some lances from the Sacristy.”
This time around there was no argument. “Right. I’ll take a few of the guys now.”
While Landon turned on his heel and began rattling off the names of those to accompany him on the thirty-plus minute walk back to the barns, Amos looked over at Tobias still perched on the fender. As he pushed the engine starter, causing a giant black cloud of smoke to erupt from the vertical exhaust pipe, he smiled at Tobias and reassuringly squeezed his knee. Shouting over the noisy tractor, he said, “It’s gonna be alright, son,” and then put the shifter into gear.
Click here for Part: II
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