Picture a farm in the country, and that is exactly what this farm was like, appropriately picturesque. It had every detail one would expect, right where one would expect it, which was how the farmer and his wife intended it to be. The only thing not in its right place was a child.
The old man had wanted a boy to do chores and shoot deer in the corn field. The old woman had wanted a girl to do chores and dress up like a giant rubber doll. Somehow they had neither, and now, of course, they were old.
They did have their consolations. The farmer could drink whiskey instead of water and leave hacksaws and axes lying around unattended, and his wife had a piglet named Bebe. Bebe liked to follow the old woman around the yard, snuffling at her efficient thrashing skirts. Whenever the old woman went into the house, Bebe would wait for her on the porch for hours, grunting to herself and flicking ticklish black flies off her ears.
Bebe was a lovely pig. She had wide set brown eyes like watery bon bons. Her sparse hair was as white as poodle fur, or fresh cream. Her naked skin shone through, pink and scrubbed looking. She was inordinately fond of lettuce and had learned to dance on her hind legs like a chorus girl for scraps.
One day in June, when the air felt like being slapped by a boiled dishrag, the old woman was picking strawberries. Her church was hosting a potluck, and she had foolishly promised to bring a homemade pie. The toothy leaves wilted, heavy and sepia-toned with dust. Ant trails of sweat crawled inside her lace collared dress. Her own pulse beating in her skull distracted her. It was terribly still. She felt sick and dream-like, as if she were swimming in a mirage. Bebe sat beside her, stealing berries. She looked up and wrinkled her eloquent ski slope nose. The old woman often contemplated her buttocks and thought of crackling bacon—the best possible smell—but not now. Now, she stared into her dear dumb eyes and wished Bebe were her daughter. Then she would have someone to help her.
The old woman shook her head at herself. She did not have time for this nonsense. She grabbed the tin bucket and went inside. Bebe trotted behind her and squealed when the screen door swung shut. The old woman hulled the strawberries and hummed a song whose words she had forgotten. The work was monotonous, and not particularly fulfilling, like all her work. Her big knuckled hands were stained lipstick red, brighter than blood. As she rinsed them in the kitchen sink, she saw a face staring at her through the fluttering white curtains in the window.
The face was moony and pale, a child, a girl. It did not disappear, when she looked at it, but looked back blandly.
"Hello, how may I help you?" the old woman asked, startled, but still polite.
The girl did not answer.
Perhaps because she had never had any of her own, children made the old woman uncomfortable. She never knew when they might laugh, or cry, or scream, or smash a china tea cup. She stepped closer to the window. The child was naked. She could see her tiny flat pink nipples. She stepped back.
"Where are your parents?"
The girl blinked and did not answer. Her eyebrows and eyelashes were the same silvery blonde color as her skin and hair. It made her look oddly featureless and unfinished, like a child's drawing of a child. She appeared to be about eleven years old. The old woman stood there nonplussed, her hands dripping. She wondered if the child might be slow. What exactly was she expected to do in a situation like this?
She shooed the girl inside, not wanting anyone to see her standing like that on her porch. The girl hesitated at the threshold. She peed a little and bit her lip, as if about to cry, but followed when the old woman took hold of her small sticky hand.
The old woman buttoned the girl into one of her blouses. The girl did not lift her arms, so the old woman lifted them for her, sliding them through the sleeves. The ruffled cuffs hung down like paisley hooves, and the collar slipped off her shoulders. The old woman worried about the lack of underwear.
She laid newspaper down on the linoleum and set the girl in a chair at the kitchen table. She did not have any toys, so she gave her a piece of paper and a ballpoint pen to play with while she made some phone calls.
None of the neighbors had lost a child. No missing person reports had been filed at the police station in town. She hung up. The girl was chewing on the pen with vacant intensity. Black ink drooled down her weak chin. As the old woman roughly cleaned her off, she thought of the cardboard boxes of kittens that were sometimes left in the pasture ditches. Some of the kittens were always dead—half-eaten by their siblings by the time they were found. The others slinked through the barn, eyes glinting like distant headlights, killing baby rats, and refusing to be touched.
The girl gulped and cried, awful, guttural noises, straining to get away from the washcloth. She fell to the floor and ground her face against the old woman's shins. The old woman flushed with fury and embarrassment. Slug trails of snot smeared across the hem of her immaculate dove gray dress.
"Control yourself, girl," she snapped. She resisted the temptation to kick the child off. Her shirt rode up, and the old woman saw what she had failed to notice while she was dressing her—a tail, a curly tail, quivering and springing in time with her sobs. And the old woman knew.
The girl was hers, hers to keep. The poor thing could not help herself. She did not know any better. She would raise her up to be a fine young lady. After all, she had trained her to dance the can-can.
The old woman stroked her wispy hair and scratched her behind her ears, the way she knew Bebe liked. The girl went limp with pleasure and flopped on her back to show her belly. She craned her head towards the fingertips, tongue lolling.
"You like that girl, don't you? You like that."
During dinner that evening, the old man made no mention of the girl. He did, however, mention the strawberry chiffon pie.
"I thought this was for the church potluck," he said in between bites.
"It was, but this is a special occasion. Bebe is coming to live with us." His wife smiled tensely. He considered the name, the odd girl, the empty spot in the pig pen, and nodded methodically. He had seen many inexplicable things in his time and was not especially surprised by another.
Bebe was not a pretty child. Her eyes squinted, small and unfocused. Her clammy skin was misted with sweat. She reminded the farmer of a puffball mushroom appearing after a night of insistent rain. Soft, elderly down covered her cheeks. Her mouth hung open, and drooped at the corners, audibly breathing. She jerked her arms and legs like broken marionette and pushed her whole face into her plate to eat. Dollops of whipped cream and jam congealed in her colorless hair. He did not look forward to her coming to live with them in their hygienic, quiet house, but he was a stoic breed and did not mind. His wife would take care of it.
"Sounds good," he said, "someone to keep you company."
His wife smiled, a real smile, as rare as rubies. Surprised, he smiled back.
For a while, life was achingly sweet. It was still spring, a hopeful, opulent time on a farm. Starry potato flowers winked from the field. Bullfrogs and crickets filled the twilight with rushing music without melody. Nothing had to be slaughtered. And every night there was ice cold lemonade.
The old woman liked to cook for Bebe, and feed her by hand, watching her taste potato salad and tapioca pudding for the first time. She tied silk ribbons in her hair and sewed her a dozen dresses that looked like petit fours. The paper patterns she used were crisp and brittle with age. She had bought them, when she still thought she would have children of her own. They had to be scissor cut with care and delicately pinned into place like dead butterflies.
Bebe learned to use the powder room, dress herself, and clumsily wield a spoon and fork. The old woman was happy to see Bebe ate pork without a qualm. She took a certain dark satisfaction in serving her honey glazed ham cured from the sow that gave birth to her. She was her mother now. Even though Bebe never smiled or laughed like a normal girl, she continued to follow the old woman everywhere, gazing up at her, as if she wanted her autograph.
In the evenings, Bebe listened raptly to the radio, but her early attempts at speech were unsettling. She pitched too high or too low. She snorted distinctly inhuman sounds, unrecognizable as language. The old woman finally had to put a stop to it, whenever Bebe tried. Children were to be seen not heard.
Of course, there were other trials. The old woman had to lock the pantry. Bebe broke in and ate fistfuls of sugar from the bag, scattering it on floor, so the gritty crystals stuck to the bottoms of their feet. Bebe blew up like a zeppelin, bigger and bigger, until she seemed to float unsteadily on her dainty feet. She loved food, and the old woman had to bribe her with treats to behave. She smelled unpleasantly yeasty and spilled out of her clothes. It soon made the old woman queasy to look at her.
Bebe was not the help the old woman had wished for. Although she polished and mopped well enough, she could not be trusted to pick beans. None of them ended up in the basket. Weeding was also beyond her capabilities. She rooted in the mud, eating dandelion roots and worms, and had to be punished.
The old woman found that she frequently had to whip Bebe with a cracked leather belt. It was such a relief to feel her rage settle into calm gratification with each brisk stroke. For the first time, she experienced herself as powerful and in control, a complacent angel with a flaming sword, a mother who knows best. Her skin glowed. Her arms grew firm and strong. She had never felt better.
In the autumn when the birch trees lost their green, Bebe changed. She began to bleed, to develop secrecy and breasts. She disappeared into in her bedroom for days, and surreptitiously grinded up against fence posts, pillows, and doorframes, until her face went slack with bliss. Whenever she caught her, the old woman beat her until she could no longer cry, but she knew Bebe kept at it behind her back. Once, Bebe bit her on the hand. The jagged crescent wound wept pus and would not heal. The old woman became almost frightened of Bebe, which caused her to hit her, more and more often, without a reason.
After dessert one night, the old woman discovered Bebe and her husband on the sofa together. Her bulk was splayed across his skinny legs, and her arms were looped around his neck. She rubbed herself in his lap, grunting under her breath. His flaccid sun burnt face was the color of a cockscomb, even redder than usual. His expression was peculiarly fixed and strained. She grabbed Bebe by the hand.
"She needs to take a bath," she said. Her husband nodded and opened the newspaper, keeping his head down, not meeting her gaze. She dragged Bebe to the barn.
"If you are going to act like a pig, you are going to stay in the pig pen."
She shoved Bebe into the muck with the squealing pigs and latched the gate.
Weeks passed, and Bebe stayed in the pen. She did not seem to mind. She knelt in front of the trough with the other pigs and slept piled with them for warmth. Caked with shit, she no longer resembled a girl, although no one would mistake her for a pig either. The old woman waited with mounting irritation for her to show remorse, or despair in her circumstances. Bebe remained placid and unperturbed, content to lie in the sun for hours. She did not even swat the flies. The farmer and his wife said nothing regarding this turn of affairs, and soon it felt as if there had never been a child at their table.
One night, when the old woman was bringing the pigs their nighttime slop bucket, she heard a curious moan. She followed it into the barn and stumbled upon Bebe and the hired hand, a spotty boy with lank black hair. They gleamed in the swinging orange lantern light. His overalls were around his ankles. Bebe was on her hands and knees bucking back and forth with wild abandon. For the first time, the old woman saw her smile.
"What's for dinner?" the farmer asked the next night. The old woman laid a steaming platter of artfully overlapping cutlets of meat, garnished with sprigs of parsley and pearl onions, before him.
He considered the empty place in the pen, the fresh blood on the stump near the smoke shed, and nodded. The old woman raised a forkful to her lips, glistening with oil.
"Delicious," she said.