The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming climate-themed novel Pigs by Johanna Stoberock. It’s printed here with permission as part of our commitment to Covering Climate Now.
The distance between now and when the pigs first arrived was impossible to calculate. For millions of years their meals were few and far between. There wasn’t much garbage to be had for most of those years, and what there was, was mostly emotional. They nibbled on broken hearts and exiled kings, but everything in households was mostly used and reused until it turned to dust, and what wasn’t used was buried close to home. Forget about clothes gone out of fashion. Forget about plastic. There wasn’t any excess. The pigs didn’t even realize they were hungry.
Somewhere along the way, though, things started changing. Who knows exactly what caused the change—what was it that prompted someone to start wrapping goods in paper? Maybe the age of exploration? Maybe the industrial revolution? Whatever it was, one day some moldy biscuit washed ashore, and then a bolt of cloth, and then furniture abandoned along the Oregon trail. When plastic was invented the stream turned into a river.
The pigs ate almost constantly now. Good thing they never got full. Sometimes their jaws ached from overuse, but they were ravenous, always.
The ocean was angry. They could see that as soon as they emerged from the wilderness above their hut. It was heaving and crashing and each time it hit the shore it felt as if the entire shoreline shook. The pigs were hungry, hungry to a frenzy. They pushed themselves against the fence over and over and over. Maybe it was the pigs shoving that made the earth feel like it was shaking, not the ocean. Or maybe it was a combination of the two. Assault from all sides. And the garbage. They’d never seen garbage like this before. It crowded onto the sand, twenty feet thick extending out into the water. From a distance, it looked like dirty foam on the water’s surface, but each step they took let them look more closely and soon the trash separated into pieces until they could only think of it in parts, part upon part upon part without end. The water smacked the shore and the garbage pulsed and throbbed and the pigs howled and Luisa and Andrew stepped into a storm of agitation and fury.
There were Styrofoam coolers. There were rusty cake pans. There were bottles and bottles of half-used nail polish. There were cushions with holes from cigarette burns. There were paper plates. There were out-of-date computers still filled with personal data. There were onesies and toddler’s outfits and little boy’s pants with grass-stained knees. There were after school art projects and hand-made sweaters and Tupperware containers without lids. There were old people and sick people and middle aged first wives. There were disabled war veterans. There were whole school buses full of children who crossed the border with nothing but knock off Hello Kitty backpacks and faces wet with tears. The refuse extended like a road into the sea. The water shrugged and shrugged and tried to get away, but no matter how much it tried to shoulder the discards onto shore, more kept coming: the harvest was endless but the storehouse of the island wasn’t big enough to hold it. The pigs threw themselves against the fence. They needed to eat, they were starving, they had work to do, but there was no one there to feed them.
There was something else, too. The smell. The air, just days before scented with thyme and lavender, with the bracing salt from the sea, and, most recently, the fragrance of roasting pig, smelled entirely rotten now. Molding chicken wings. Melon rind. Melted rubber. Even if the garbage hadn’t massed on top of everything beautiful, the smell would have made the beauty impossible to see.
“There’s got to be food here somewhere,” Luisa said. Everything was clearer now than it had ever been. “Look at all this waste. There’s probably enough buried in this trash to feed us for a year.”
“I’m not going down there,” Andrew said. “Look at what’s being thrown away now.”
Down at the ocean, a glacier nudged on shore, oozing water from its ice as if it were oozing tears.
© 2109 Johanna Stoberock, from the novel Pigs published by Red Hen Press. Reprinted with permission. Pigs debuts on Oct. 1, 2019.
Johanna Stoberock is the author of the novels Pigs (Forthcoming, Red Hen Press, September 2019) and City of Ghosts (W.W. Norton). Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Better: Culture & Lit, The Wilson Quarterly, Copper Nickel, Front Porch, and the 2014 Best of the Net Anthology. A 2012 Jack Straw Fellow and 2013 Artist Trust GAP awardee, Johanna has received residencies from the Corporation of Yaddo, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Millay Colony. She lives in Walla Walla, Washington with her husband and two children.