The pigs were coming. I could hear the sows grunting and the piglets squealing as they moved toward us through the underbrush. I listened for the raspy-throated growl of the boar that might be with them. My friend Billy Cronk, who had hunted razorbacks in the Texas scrub when he was stationed at Fort Hood, had given me some advice before my hog hunt. Dispatch the male first, he'd said. Otherwise, I might find myself knocked to the dirt by a two-hundred-pound killing machine. Trampled, disemboweled, or slashed to ribbons: there were plenty of ways a man could die at the tusks of a blood-mad boar.
I was lying on my stomach on the forest floor with my rifle barrel resting on the root of an ancient yellow birch. Somewhere below me, hidden in the bushes beneath the bluff, was my girlfriend, Stacey, also armed. It worried me that I couldn't see her in all her camouflage.
The first week of July had brought ninety-degree temperatures to the low hills and river floodplains of western Maine. The tree canopy overhead filtered the summer sun and filled the clearing with an emerald-tinted light, but the saw-toothed leaves did nothing to soften the heat. The incessant whine of mosquitoes in my ears was its own form of torture. Dripping with sweat, I felt a brief urge to strip naked and roll like a pig in the puddled mud below me.
The oppressive humidity, the tormenting bugs, the absurdity of the assignment itself — the whole scenario had the surreal quality of a drugged-out dream. Feral hogs didn't belong in Maine. But they had been multiplying by the millions down south and been pushing steadily northward for decades, and now their vanguard had finally crossed the state border from New Hampshire. I was a Maine game warden, and my assignment today was to stop the outriders in their tracks.
As the sun had risen behind me, streaks of light shafted through the trunks, and I could see yellow motes of pollen suspended in the dead air. The birds had started up their morning chorus: red-eyed vireos with their nonstop burble; a white-throated sparrow belting out his signature tune; and a single great-crested flycatcher that had alighted at the top of my birch and let out a shrieking whistle that made me jump inside my skin.
I glanced again to my right, but still couldn't see Stacey. The woman had a talent for melting into the forest that brought to mind the ghost stories Puritan settlers used to tell of Wampanoag warriors appearing and disappearing into the trees like woodland spirits; as if the Native Americans' superior bush craft were evidence of their allegiance with the devil. I used to think that I was a skilled hunter, but my remarkable girlfriend had forced me to admit otherwise. At age twenty-nine, I was finally man enough to admit a lot of unpleasant truths about myself.
Neither of us had ever shot a wild boar before, though. So in this respect, at least, we were at an equal disadvantage.
Stacey and I had been dating for two years, and living together for five months, and recently I'd begun thinking about engagement rings. Her parents, Charley and Ora Stevens, who had been like family to me even before I first set eyes on their younger daughter, had given me their implicit blessing. But how would Stacey respond when I actually got down on one knee with a jewelry box held out in my supplicant hands? She'd been engaged before, and it hadn't ended well.
But my worries about her ran deeper than whether or not she would accept my marriage proposal.
For one thing, she was having problems at work. Stacey was a biologist for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the same state agency where I was employed. She was IF&W's resident moose expert and increasingly frustrated by know-nothing officials who placed politics above science, usually at the expense of the defenseless animals she had devoted her life to studying. It was well-known in the commissioner's office that my girlfriend was not one to suffer fools.
She was also still haunted by the deaths of three coworkers in a helicopter crash over the winter. She wasn't sleeping more than five hours a night, and it showed in the dusky half-moons beneath her eyes. Before I asked her to marry me, I wanted to feel that she was back on the path to well-being.
Complicating our lives further was uncertainty around my own job. I'd just applied for a promotion to the rank of warden investigator — our version of a detective — and endured a battery of interviews. Everything seemed to have gone well, but some senior officers in the service still carried grudges against me for my youthful rebellions.
I was so lost in thought that I didn't even hear the pigs until they were almost upon us.
I clicked off the safety on my rifle. Then I peered around the birch, feeling the rough strips of paper on my cheek, and watched the shrub leaves begin to thrash. A sow appeared. She was cocoa brown and ridge backed with gray patches on her chin — utterly unlike any domestic pig I'd seen — and I estimated her weight at approximately one hundred pounds. She froze as she came out into the open and flared her floppy ears.
Pigs have an uncanny sense of smell, but I'd read that their eyesight is poor. I had no idea how good their hearing might be.
A moment later, the piglets bumbled out. I counted six of them, adorable little things. They had fawn-colored snouts but were otherwise striped with black and brown streaks that extended down the lengths of their bodies to their wispy tails.
For whatever reason, it hadn't occurred to me that I would have to kill the little squeakers, too. If I didn't, they would grow up to be forest-destroying, disease-carrying adults. The only baby mammal I had ever executed was a fawn whose back had been broken by a car. That had been an act of mercy. This, however, felt different. Borderline murderous.
A second sow, bigger than the first, pushed into the clearing behind the other pigs. Her prehensile nose twitched, and she turned her head into a patch of cinnamon ferns growing beside the wallow. She grunted excitedly as she began digging in the soft dirt. Who knew what pungent delicacy she had detected there.
I had read that feral hogs often traveled this way, in groups made up of females with their young. Sounders, these families were called. Mature boars tended to be solitary. So maybe there was no point waiting for a male that might not even be in the vicinity.
Better to wait a minute and be sure, I thought.
Stacey must not have shared my sense of caution. Before I could even aim down the aperture sight of my AR-15, two shots rang out and both sows dropped dead. The piglets scattered willy-nilly into the ferns. I despaired of having to chase after them.
The sulfurous smell of gunpowder hung in the air. Stacey arose from her place of ambush and glanced up at me. She rolled down her neck gaiter. "I wasn't sure you had a shot from your angle," she said by way of apology.
When hunting multiple animals, it is considered bad form not to give your partner an opportunity to shoot. Taking both sows was unlike the woman I knew. But as I said, Stacey hadn't been herself lately.
She took a step into the shallow, shit-brown water to examine the smaller of the dead sows. I could still hear the fading squeals of the piglets as they retreated into the broadleaf forest across the Knife Creek Trail. I grabbed a birch root and swung my legs over the edge of the bluff, intending to lower myself down into the hollowed-out space at the edge of the mud bath.
Suddenly there was a loud crack — as of a dried-out log being snapped in two.
A moment later, a huge dark shape came charging out of the bushes across the clearing. Sunlight flashed from the boar's tusks as it lowered its massive head. Stacey was still crouched near the smaller sow, and her center of gravity was low. It was the only thing that saved her from being bowled over. Her reflexes allowed her to swing her whole body aside, almost in the manner of a matador dodging a bull. But the awkwardness of the movement upset her balance, and down she went in the mire.
I let go of the root and began sliding down the incline.
As I did, the boar gave a guttural roar and thrashed his head at Stacey's kicking legs.
Still sliding, I brought the barrel of the AR-15 up in the crook of my right arm and fired. The bullet must have struck the boar in the ham because he pinwheeled around, searching for his invisible attacker.
I felt my legs slip out from under me when I hit the bottom. And I splashed, ass-first, into the mud.
Stacey couldn't bring her rifle up into a firing position, let alone chamber a round, so she kicked at the boar instead.
The giant pig slashed with his tusks again. This time, Stacey cried out.
There was no time to aim. From my seat in the mud, I pointed the barrel and squeezed the trigger.
The 5.56 mm round passed cleanly through the boar's enormous heart.
Stacey scrambled away, crablike, in the dirty water.
"God damn it! Son of a bitch!"
"Stace?" I threw my weight forward and began crawling toward her. "Are you all right?"
"I'm not sure." Her filthy hand went to her injured calf.
The blood made it look as if her fingers were bejeweled with rubies.
"How bad is it? Did he nick an artery?" "I don't think so." She pulled the neck gaiter over her head and clutched the leaf-patterned fabric against the wound.
The dead boar lay at her feet. I couldn't get over how enormous he was, his head especially, or how the muscles bulged beneath his bristly coat. Many of the black bears I'd seen in the Maine woods were smaller than this monster hog.
"I'll go get the first-aid kit," I said.
I gathered up my rifle, switched on the safety, and slung it over my shoulder. My water-filled boots sloshed as I ran down the path. I heard Stacey call from behind me, "Please don't call an ambulance!"
In her mind she was already humiliated by her uncharacteristic carelessness. It had been bad enough that I'd witnessed her almost getting killed.
It took me five minutes to return with the med kit. We'd recently been issued Combat Application Tourniquets — an ancient medical technology improved during the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and taught how to use them, primarily to save ourselves during a gunfight. Better to lose a limb than a life, we'd been told. I hoped to God I wouldn't need to use one on my girlfriend.
I found Stacey standing on the harder ground beside the wallow. She was leaning on her Winchester, using the bolt-action rifle as a cane for support. She'd lost her cap in the scuffle, and her long brown hair was dreadlocked with mud.
I was about to tell her she needed to stay off her bleeding leg when she let out a gasp. She straightened up as if she'd received a fierce electric shock. "Mike?"
"What is this?"
The second sow had torn up the ferns and hobblebushes to get at something buried in the soft ground. I saw fragile bones, some with shreds of flesh still on them: the broken skeleton of some unknown creature. The small skull had been crushed, either by the pig or by something else. What the heck was it?
I lowered myself onto one knee to inspect the mystery carcass. I reached out my gloved hand to brush aside the recently turned earth.
Suddenly Stacey hissed, "Don't touch it!"
That was when I glimpsed the grimy pink cloth beneath the bones.
"Mike," she said in a terrified voice I'd never before heard. "I think it's a baby."
A few weeks earlier, wardens in my district had gotten a memo to be on the lookout for feral swine. There had been recent sightings across the border, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. A plague seemed to be imminent.
Dutifully, I had posted signs at all of my trailheads, alerting hikers and mountain bikers to the possible presence of dangerous hogs in the area and providing a number to call if any were spotted. The poster showed a photograph of a wild boar looking appropriately ferocious: a creature you definitely didn't want to piss off.
Then, two days ago, a frightened hiker had reported hearing pigs on his way down the Knife Creek Trail in Birnam. I'd returned at dusk to search for signs. The path paralleled a burbling brook with a self-explanatory name: it appeared to have been cleaved from the glacial till with a blade.
Not a hundred yards from the parking lot and maybe fifty yards from the trail itself, I'd stumbled upon the first pool of mud. It had been dug out of a parcel of cattails where water seeped up from the earth and drained into Knife Creek. It was the kind of weedy depression where kids normally caught leopard frogs, only the pigs had eaten all the frogs, just as they had trampled all the cattails. The thicker muck along the edges was stamped with their delicate hoof marks, not unlike those of deer, except that the tracks were more rounded and splayed differently. The pigs had also rubbed the dried mud from their sides against a blighted beech tree. They had worn the bark smooth and left behind bristles that belonged to no mammal native to these woods.
Here was the definitive proof: wild boars had come to Maine at last.
"Technically, they're not wild," Stacey had said when I'd returned home with news of my discovery. "They're feral."
"What's the difference?"
"A feral animal is an animal living in the wild that's descended from a domesticated species."
Our house that night had felt as suffocating as if it had been boarded up for a decade. I pressed a bottle of cold beer to my forehead. "I thought our invaders were descended from Russian boars that got loose from a hunting preserve in New Hampshire."
"Yeah, but they've bred with domestic pigs since then," Stacey said. "Most of the feral swine in the country are descended from barnyard animals. There are something like five million of them, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture."
"Why does the word swine make me think of movies about Nazis?"
Stacey's eyes were jade green but uncharacteristically bloodshot from her recent bout of insomnia. "Because your imagination is sick and twisted, Mike Bowditch."
Yours would be, too, I'd thought, if you'd seen everything I'd seen. I was in a mood to have fun with her. "George Orwell cast pigs as villains in Animal Farm. He must have known something."
"Feral swine aren't villains, but what they do to the environment is incredibly destructive. They'll tear up whole forests and fields rooting around for food. They pollute streams by digging up wallows and shitting in them. They cause one and a half billion dollars in crop damage each year. Not to mention the cost of the diseases they're carrying."
I suspected disease (or the fear of it) was the real reason the U.S. Department of Agriculture had granted me and my fellow wardens a license to kill any porcine invaders we came across. The language in the memo to us had verged on the hysterical: "Feral swine have been known to carry several diseases and parasites, including hog cholera (classic swine fever), pseudorabies, brucellosis, tuberculosis, salmonellosis, anthrax, ticks, fleas, lice, and various worms. Feral swine are highly mobile, making it easy for them to spread disease quickly in Maine's wildlife and domestic livestock populations. Feral swine carry several diseases that can infect humans, including brucellosis, balantidiasis, leptospirosis, salmonellosis, toxoplasmosis, trichinosis, trichostrongylosis, sarcoptic mange, tuberculosis, tularemia, anthrax, rabies, and bubonic plague." I'd had to look up half of these arcane diseases, but I had been a history major at Colby College, and I knew that anytime you see a contemporary reference to the Black Death, you should run for the hills.
I had planned on hunting these pigs myself, but Stacey had invited herself along, playing hooky from departmental meetings back in the state capital that I'd understood to be important and where her presence had been mandated.
When we'd arrived at the trailhead, I noticed that some wise guy had vandalized my poster. He'd written I smell bacon in permanent marker across the laminated notice. The predawn air was already warm and asphyxiating, like a plastic bag pulled down over your head, and it was easy to imagine that we were headed off into a tropical jungle and not one of Robert Frost's quaint New England woods.
We couldn't possibly have imagined what lay buried ahead of us, waiting for the pigs to nose its bones to the surface.
* * *
Neither of us had sensitive stomachs — we'd seen too much gore in our jobs. But this was different. This was the stuff of nightmares.