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Amos held the broken strand of fence wire up to his eyes, closely examining the severed end. “Sliced clean through,” he called over his shoulder in a raised voice. “They probably had the whole thing cut and opened up in just a few minutes. After that, heck—wasn’t nothing left to do but wait for that ol’ boar to sense it.” He dropped the loose end of wire to the ground and stood up with a grunt. “You know they can tell when the fence is weak, don’t ya? And a break,” he scoffed, “might as well be a darned dinner bell.”
Kicking through the forest undergrowth twenty yards away, Tobias nodded with detached interest. The pair was still waiting for Elijah’s small group of Priests to join them at the back of the pasture, the tractor ride having spared the father and son duo from what was fast becoming a humid and sweaty walk. Sweetwater’s other farmers may have the luxury of using a fleet of utility vehicles to navigate their property, (or even a modest stable of horses for that matter), but the Priests of the Sacred Reserve lived and worked under a more austere set of rules.
On the subject of transportation—and any added convenience therein—two such old laws settled the issue beyond the point of debate: “No more noise than necessary,” and, “Tend no other animals.” And, while the Mongolian livestock trader had not likely foreseen the advent of the internal combustion engine more than three-hundred years ago, the already-ornery pigs did certainly grow more restless when one was in the area.
Tobias used the toe of his boot to roll back a rotten piece of wood. Abruptly exposed to the late-morning sunlight, shiny black bugs scurried for cover as a fat earthworm quickly tucked itself beneath the dirt. Feeling guilty for disturbing their little forest neighborhood, he rolled the punky wood back to its original position and meandered through the undergrowth closer to his father.
Amos wore a grim expression as he surveyed the unbroken remainder of fence. Extending laterally, the wire fence strands formed two parallel rows of repeating “X’s,” (one over top of the other), as it ran through the trees just inside the pasture’s wood-line. Tobias knew that each x’s diagonal axis measured thirty inches in length exactly. It was the same time-honored length prescribed for the special lanceheads used by the hunters to combat and kill the rare Chotgo pigs; (though the original term, “tohoi,” was still used when referring to the specified measurement).
“I just don’t understand,” Amos was saying, thinking aloud more than anything, “why on earth would anyone want to go an’ do this?”
But a reply was neither expected nor given. It seemed every bit as strange to young Tobias as it was to his father. Why would anyone want to purposely set loose a Chotgo? he wondered.
“You know, Tobias, it was your own ancestor, Mikkal Fulbright, who erected the very first fence here at the Sacred Reserve. ‘Course, it was a lot smaller back then—they didn’t give them near as much room to wander as we do now.”
Tobias knew this story with great familiarity as well. Typically, whenever a Priest was found guilty of some minor infraction, all or part of the tale would be drug out from the dusty annals of Sweetwater history and orally delivered—again. The repetition was necessary of course, as you’d never find their peculiar customs recorded in any books or journals; “mouth to ear” is and always has been the only means of educating and preserving the town’s longstanding tradition.
The sound of distant chatter announced the impending arrival of Elijah’s group of Priests, rising above the birds singing and hopping from branch to branch high in the treetops. Tobias’s father just glanced up at the commotion and then resumed his lecture, leaning against an old ash tree beside the fence. “The Mongolian trader that first showed up in Savannah with the Chotgos only had them in the pens, and he didn’t hardly ever let them out—which was easy since he only had to manage the breeding pair…”
Mikkal Fulbright had been a young newlywed from the sleepy farm village of Runkle, Germany. Accounts vary that far back, but many people held that Mikkal was on the run from a local landholder’s agents, (a misunderstanding, they’d quickly add), while others said that no, he’d simply inherited a large sum of money from a previously unknown, but now deceased, relative. No matter the reason, Mikkal eventually managed to book passage for him and his new bride aboard a leaky ship departing the French coast, bound for the new world. Like most such voyages in those days however, the crossing had been long and arduous.
Alone in the middle of a vast and merciless sea, violent tempests buffeted the ship while disease and sickness ran rampant, ravaging passenger and crew alike. Nearly every day it seemed the deckhands were lowering some freshly deceased corpse over the side of the gunwales. The survivors would all gather on the top deck to mutter a somber prayer before the body—wrapped tightly in a bed-sheet—splashed into the water and then slipped beneath the sapphire waves.
Soon, owing to both the high mortality rate as well as the dizzying melting-pot of European immigrants, the remaining passengers all eyed each other with a growing suspicion—clearly God was displeased with some of those on board. By the time the lookout in the crow’s nest spotted the verdant coast of the Georgia Colony, (as it was called back then, Amos would remind his listener), two predominate factions of migrant groups had emerged: those who would ingratiate themselves to their new colonial hosts and neighbors, eager to adopt whatever fresh freedoms and frivolities that awaited them, and those that would prefer instead to keep their distance.
The group labeled as “traditionalists” by some, (and “heathens” by others), led by a former magistrate from the south district of Munich, decided that they would strike out west, deeper into the remote Indian territory. There they hoped to be able to resume some approximation of their previous way of life without the risk of being lured into the seductive trappings of this supposed “new world.” For a simple young farmer and newlywed who may or may not have been on the run from the law, it had been a fairly easy choice for Mikkal. Soon after the ship had limped into port, the small party of about thirty disillusioned settlers loaded some wagons with fresh provisions, hired a local Creek Indian as a guide, and then left the obviously-cursed new age colony behind.
It had been slow going in the beginning. The weather was unbearably hot and sticky, and the terrain, while mostly flat, was blanketed in dense, malevolent vegetation—much of which stung and scratched at their skin if they left the trail for any reason. Biting bugs were also a constant problem, and soon a majority of the pilgrims took to wearing a thick coating of mud upon any exposed flesh.
Their Creek guide, Stone Feather, had originally agreed to take the group to the westernmost edge of his tribe’s vast territory. Around the time the sandy low-country started to give way to short, rocky hills however, the caravan realized that they were woefully undersupplied if they hoped to start a new community in such an alien landscape. There was no other choice but to halt their trek in place and send some people back to the port colony for more provisions.
Mikkal, among the younger and more virile members of the group, offered to return to the Georgia Colony with a few of the other men. When the spartan detachment had finally arrived back at the port however, they learned that in their absence, Spanish raids from the south had created a shortage of any and all available food and materials. Dejected, the party had split up to search the port town for any merchants that might still have any inventory they could use.
It wasn’t until the sun had begun to set on the second day however that Mikkal spotted a squat, round tent set back in a little clearing to the north of the port. Unlike many of the other tents in the area, this dark maroon-and-gold colored hut had a flatter, slightly curved roof rather than the pointed sort that jutted into the sky.
Walking out to further investigate, at first Mikkal wasn’t sure exactly what the man was selling. There was an assortment of small crates and baskets piled on the ground, and inside a ring of stones, the remnants of a small cooking fire sat abandoned. Not seeing anybody around, he called out towards the tent, “Hello? Is anybody home?”
Hearing no reply, he wandered around to the backside of the tent. There, tucked into a little copse of trees was a pair of large, wooden framed cages. In addition to the heavy frame boards, narrow metal bars installed in a repeated “X” pattern made up the fronts and sides. Inside the cages, two of the biggest and meanest looking pigs that Mikkal had ever seen before eyed him with suspicion. If a single mature hog could help see a family through a long and bitter winter, Mikkal’s mind raced at the thought of how many mouths one of these titans would feed.
Nearly the size of a cow’s calf, both pigs had extremely dark, coarse looking hair, and—like the plumage of a Roman helmet—their shaggy black manes flowed down the ridgeline of their muscular necks before terminating just above the shoulders. From beneath flattened snouts, giant bone-white tusks protruded sinisterly like massive, hooked canine teeth. Perhaps most unnerving of all however, the twin pair of eyes currently seizing onto Mikkal burned with an intense ruby-red glow that did nothing to conceal their hate.
As he stood there transfixed by the ghastly visage mere feet away, inside the cages the two pigs began to emit a low, guttural growling noise that reminded Mikkal of rain falling on an empty barrel. Soon, thick globs of drool began to ooze out from behind pearly rows of razor-sharp looking teeth, hanging briefly from their jowls and then seeping down onto the straw at their cloven feet. Suddenly concerned for his safety, Mikkal’s eyes quickly darted between the horrifying beasts and the skinny metal bars making up the cages. There’s no way those will hold them in there, he thought to himself with growing panic.
Just then, he felt a light tapping on his shoulder. Gasping in surprise, Mikkal spun around to see an Oriental boy of about eight or nine years old dressed in homespun clothing and a little cap that scarcely covered his raven-black hair. He had an amiable look on his face and his thin lips were pulled back into a barely perceptible smile. Sidestepping any perfunctory greetings, the little boy pointed over to the cages tucked amongst the trees and half-inquired, half-demanded, “You buy.”
Mikkal was taken aback. Moments ago, he’d been so mortified of being eaten alive by the beasts that he’d abandoned any notion of trying to purchase one himself. Still, he quickly reasoned with himself, they had to return to the group with something; even if he wasn’t yet sure just what these animals were exactly. Over in the cages, the pair of pigs continued to snarl and growl at him, clicking their giant tusks together menacingly.
Suddenly from within the tent, an old man’s voice barked a rapid staccato of words in a lilting foreign tongue. The boy raised his own tiny voice and fired back a reply in the same language and then paused to wait. A few seconds later the tent flap opened with a flourish and a wrinkled man with snow-white hair emerged leaning shakily on a bamboo walking stick. Mikkal greeted him kindly, though it was unclear whether or not he understood him. The man had a short conversation with the boy before the youngster turned to Mikkal and said, “You can buy both, but not one.”
Mikkal scoffed involuntarily and said, “I’m not even sure I want one. What are they anyway?”
The boy turned to the old man and said something in their native tongue, gesturing emphatically between Mikkal and the cages with his hands. The old man answered the boy, who then turned back to Mikkal and replied simply, “Chotgoriin Gakhai.”
Visibly confused, Mikkal tried to repeat the words as they had sounded to him, “Chot… chotgo…”
“Chotgoriin Gakhai,” the boy repeated slowly, enunciating each syllable.
After a few additional attempts, Mikkal had gotten the pronunciation correct enough for the boy to continue. He went on to explain that he and his grandfather had traveled to the new world from Mongolia in search of fresh trade lands, following the many other immigrant and commerce ships across the ocean. The Chotgo, he explained in halting English, were a rare breed of pig that only lived in extremely small and isolated sounders deep in the Altai Mountains along Russia’s border. More than simply just being a food source, he translated, the Chotgo were a very special type of pig, bred by the gods themselves to bestow unworldly favor on but a select few. For those people that lived and dwelled amongst the fickle and frightening Chotgo, prosperity was always certain to follow: crops grew tall in the harshest and dreariest of weather; livestock became fattened off mere grasses and lichens; wells dug into the ground had no limits to their supply of fresh water; and on it went until young Mikkal became convinced that there was no possible way for him to return to the settler party without the terrifying pair of pigs.
When Mikkal explained that he wished to purchase the pair, the wrinkled little Mongolian had grinned wryly, but nodded his approval. Making a small gesture to follow him, the old man led Mikkal back through the tent flap with his grandson in tow.
Inside the darkened yurt, a collection of brass incense burners gave off a smoky perfumed aroma as thick candles guttered a flickering orange glow across the walls. The old man slowly hobbled over to a fluffy silken cushion on the floor and took a seat. Motioning to an opposing cushion, the man’s grandson said to Mikkal, “Sit. Please.”
Doing as he was bid, Mikkal lowered himself warily but stopped short of attempting to cross his legs as the man had done. Before speaking, the old Mongolian withdrew a long, slender pipe from a box beside the cushion. The boy carried over a flaming matchstick and touched it to the bowl of the pipe as his grandfather drew in several deep puffs. Exhaling a cloud of acrid blue smoke into the air, he offered the pipe to Mikkal who politely declined. Speaking to his grandson, he then paused contentedly to allow him to interpret.
“Number one rule: don’t let out of pens on full moon. Never.” He then held his hands out in a circular shape, seemingly uncertain if “full moon” could have multiple meanings.
Mikkal just nodded. That’s certainly an odd rule, he thought to himself.
“Number two: Never more than ten. Never.”
Mikkal cut-in, “I’m sorry, have you got some ink and paper? I want to make sure I get all of these—”
“No. No write, bad for the spirits,” the boy said firmly and without the need to consult his grandfather. Seeing the confusion on Mikkal’s face, he pointed at the side of his head. “Up here.”
Mikkal was about to protest, but the “rules” seemed mostly silly superstition anyway, and so he held his tongue. At the end of the day, as ferocious as they might initially seem, surely they were just pigs. He only hoped there weren’t too many more rules to cover.
As it turns out, there had been. Many, many more. Long after the sun had gone down, Mikkal and the two generations of Mongolian merchant had sat inside the yurt with the boy translating, (and often repeating several times), the many additional edicts governing the care of the Chotgos. When they had been discussing the exact size of the repeating “X” patterns for the pens and fences, the remaining members of the resupply party had finally located him.
Mikkal could hear the men calling to him from the pitch-dark clearing and went out of the smoky tent to meet them. After explaining everything that the he’d learned so far, the men had demanded to see the pigs in question. Leading them back to the yurt with lanterns glowing, an argument had ensued shortly after Stone Feather had laid his eyes on the monstrous creatures. “They are demon spirits,” he had said, “sent by the ancestors of the Creek’s many conquered enemies to torment us.” Leaving the other men to placate their guide before he offended the merchant, Mikkal went back inside the tent to negotiate an agreeable price.
Some of the wealthier members of the settler group had offered to contribute more than their fair share to the resupply expedition. Had they not, Sweetwater’s history—and Tobias’s own, he reasoned—might be drastically different. As it was, Mikkal’s stomach still threatened to upend its contents when the Mongolian trader demanded nearly a king’s ransom in Spanish gold dollars for the pair. Stepping back outside to confer with his partners, (who had by this time only succeeded in running Stone Feather off in fear and disgust), the men all agreed: kooky superstitions aside, this was a breeding pair of incredibly impressive—if not slightly terrifying—pigs. And, while only God could bestow blessings on their future community, they were in the market for all of the help they could get.
After reaching a price for both the pigs and the cages, the men had all spent the remainder of the night with the Mongolian merchant reciting the many necessary rules. For most of the re-supply party, it was simply fun to pass the time away with a memory game. Mikkal however, who harbored his own suspicions, had made it a point to remember each one exactly, as though they were carved onto stone tablets inside his mind.
It had been this small collection of men that would go on to form the very first Priests of Sweetwater; though, they hadn’t started out by calling themselves “Priests.” And back then, the “Sacred Reserve” was not much different than any other run-of-the-mill pig sty. Before that first winter frost came however, the desperate and scared people of the fledgling town would see fit to merge their old God with what would soon become their new. Incidentally, the very same people would demand that the Fulbright name be forever intrinsically entwined with the violent pigs.
Before Elijah’s group had even reached the broken fence, a lone Priest came crashing through the brush towards Tobias and his father, excitedly calling out for Amos from the backside of a leafy boxthorn. “Yeah! Over here,” Amos replied in a loud voice.
Only it wasn’t a member of Elijah’s group, but rather Seth, who had departed with Landon to search for any sign of Number 8’s trail. The worst place to begin the search would have been the forest itself, with its dense vegetation and many game trails. Instead, they were scouring the roads surrounding the area, looking for wherever the absconded boar might have crossed through the sandy gravel.
Doubling over with his hands on his knees, Seth sucked in greedy gulps of fresh air before he was able to speak. Still leaning against the tree, Amos just said, “Alright now son, catch your breath.”
“Yea…yes, sir.” In time, he finally managed to stand upright and deliver his message. Landon’s search party had found Number 8’s tracks. When Amos proclaimed that to be good news, Seth shook his head nervously.
“Not so, Mr. Fulbright,” he said, “we think he’s headed towards the western edge of Founder’s Forest, where it meets up with the Endless Swamp.”
That was bad news indeed. Even more troubling than the fact that residents did not enter into the swamplands to the west and south of town, in all its many generations, no Chotgo had ever managed to escape the community and make it to the outside world.
Amos was already walking for the tractor when he said, “Where exactly did you find his sign?”
“Just past Silver Spring, on the hermitage trail going south.”
Amos stopped in his tracks. “The hermit trail? How far from Milo’s place was it?” he asked, referring to the old recluse that dwelled in complete isolation at the edge of the swamp. Despite rarely being seen and even more seldomly spoken to, the people of Sweetwater adored their eccentric and secluded hermit—to them, isolation was a virtue vastly superior to conformity.
Seth wracked his brain, scratching the top of his sweaty brown hair, “Been a while since I been back that far, but maybe… anywhere from a quarter to half a mile, I guess.”
Amos climbed up the side of the tractor and took his seat behind the steering wheel. “Come on, Tobias,” he called firmly. Looking to the group of Priests now arriving with Elijah, he said, “Elijah, please get this fence mended up tight and then meet us on the hermit trail. Landon cut his tracks leading towards the swamp. He’s either going to turn east towards the town or wander off deeper into the swamp.”
Tobias knew that as bad as it would be for Number 8 to reach town on a full moon, letting him escape into the vast and foreboding swamp was equally unconscionable. On the matter of a Chotgo escaping the Sweetwater community, there was no equivocation: if it cost the life of each and every Priest, the pigs must never be allowed to escape into the outside world.
Elijah immediately recognized the stakes, “Sure thing Mr. Fulbright. We’ll have this mended in no time and then right hurry over.” He turned and barked a set of instructions to the other Priests, who in turn unloaded what supplies they had carried and got to work repairing the fence.
As Tobias’s father cranked the tractor to life, overhead, a flock of startled blackbirds sprang from the branches of a sweetgum tree. “Remember, Elijah,” Amos called over the noisy exhaust pipe, “a full tohoi—nothing more, nothing less,” to which Elijah gave a stiff nod in reply. Gripping the fender rim tightly as they sped towards Silver Spring and the hermit trail, all Tobias could think about was poor Milo, unknowingly caught between a determined Chotgo and his escape.
To be continued…?
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