Whistling Pigs by Amanda Anne Gibson

As I enter the garden through the gate in the white picket fence, I anticipate the beans hanging heavy with promise. This year, in addition to the standard green variety, I’ve planted a bean which ripens to the color of eggplant. I’m curious to see whether, after cooking, the bean remains purple. Just a day or so ago the beans looked almost ready to harvest, so I’m planning to serve them tonight with dinner. But, as I peek over the low boxwood hedge, I see that all three rows of dangling beans have been severed as if by a blunt clipper. A warm rush of indignation rises in my torso.

Stepping between the rows, I crouch to inspect the damage. The center stalks and all the flowers and beans are gone. I rock back on my heels. “Damn!” I yell, thinking of all of the work I put in. But what animal did this? The garden, which measures roughly sixteen by seventeen feet, is completely enclosed. Its restricted size dissuades even deer from jumping inside.

On the opposite side of the garden I find a hole excavated under the fence, the soil piled as if each particle has been carefully placed. Immediately the culprit becomes clear. I can just see him, his little claws scooping out the dirt, a monument to his industry. Until now we’ve co-existed with the groundhogs that live in their warren in the lower hillside.

The following day I discover that each of the ripening tomatoes has one large bite missing. None of the fruits have been knocked to the ground. I imagine the groundhog balancing on its hind quarters, holding the tomato in its paws, opening its mouth wide to take a single bite. Worse, this time the groundhog has gnawed a fence slat above the tunnel. That night I complain to my husband that the groundhog likely chewed the fence because he was too fat from his green bean dinner to fit through the tunnel.

* * *

Over subsequent summers I wage a losing war. When I discover holes close to our house I recall that groundhogs can tunnel under a home’s foundation. My husband and I discuss shooting the rodents with the shotgun we have from when he was a boy, but I know we’d never do so. The services of a wildlife relocation company prove too expensive. Desperate, we light poison bombs and drop them into the tunnel. The groundhogs remain undeterred. After my husband drives fence posts into the holes, I scout the area twice daily.

When my husband and I discuss getting a dog for our daughter, I recall what an acquaintance had told me while her sister’s hound darted around the yard. “That dog goes after everything – it even kills groundhogs,” Cheryl said, eyebrows raised. Incredulous, I noted that the dog couldn’t weigh more than fifty pounds. “Yup, I saw it with my own eyes,” Cheryl added. “Didn’t take long either.” I mentally place a check mark in the “yes” column.

* * *

We adopt Sadey, an adult black and white Border Collie mix. The dog chases our cat and the resident squirrels, and her presence deters the groundhogs. The summer crop sustains no damage, and the filled holes in the garden and near the house remain undisturbed.

One fall afternoon, Sadey scampers down the hill to the woods. Not wanting her to run off, I call her. I whistle and pause, then call again. I’m admiring the autumn sky when I hear an answering whistle, a clear, strong note, like a cowboy in a movie summoning his horse. It was so unlike my weak-toned, loopy trill laced with air. Did it come from our neighbor’s house? The sound was haunting, disembodied – too loud and too perfect to be human. As I stand, listening, Sadey’s ears appear at the crest of the hill, then her body. Loping along, she carries what appears to be a large brown feather duster. As she nears, I realize what she has. Stopping in front of me, she releases her prize at my feet. The groundhog’s puffy body deflates and folds upon itself, its sharp-clawed toes curled under its chin as if in supplication. Its body isn’t visibly marred or bloodied. Sadey eyes me, tail wagging vigorously. Despite the carnage, I feel the satisfaction of long-overdue justice. “Good dog!” I exclaim. Sadey spins in a circle.

* * *

The following spring I head to the garden to continue the pre-planting cleanup. Prone on the bluestone path waits the carcass of a small groundhog.

Sadey saunters in, giving her prize a cursory sniff. Exasperated, I retrieve a shovel to scoop up the corpse and pitch it into the woods. As I negotiate the body onto the shovel, I’m surprised by its heft. I walk holding the animal, its body stiff with rigor mortis, aloft in front of me. Struggling to keep the teetering carcass on the shovel, I taste the bitter cocktail of revulsion and pity.

* * *

Now mid-October, the trees are almost bare and color has bleached from the landscape along the power lines, though here and there late wildflowers show yellow and purple. Following the path, I push through knee-high broom-like clusters of what looks like heather. Milkweed pods offer their tiny, silk-tethered seeds to the wind. Sadey, as usual, runs ahead. As I climb the first of the steep hills that undulate along the power line right-of-way, sweat pricks my skin.

At the hill’s crest I hear a commotion in the brush. The dog has gotten into something. Turning down a path mowed through the scrub, I jog towards the noise. Rounding a bend, I see Sadey standing with her chest held high, body canted forward, ears alert. Supine before her lies a groundhog. “Sadey!” I call. Sadey barks, once, an excited, high-pitched note. The groundhog lifts its head and weakly jabs its front paws, like a felled boxer throwing punches with his last ounce of strength. Sadey grabs the animal by its rear end, tossing it side to side. The groundhog’s head snaps at the end of the swing, and that’s when I understand that eventually its neck will break. No wonder Sadey’s other victims were unmarked.

After tossing the fluffy package back and forth several times, Sadey releases it and the groundhog sinks to the ground. Sadey pants heavily but keeps her gaze on the rodent. My heart constricts; I hate to see animals suffer, even if I’ve declared war. “Sadey, come!” I call, but I know she won’t give up. I move closer. “Sadey, stop!” I command, half-heartedly. Sadey glances my way and then barks again, three frenzied bursts, gaze locked back on the groundhog.

Like a horror movie from which I can’t avert my eyes, I watch the dog repeat the cycle of tossing and releasing. How ironic that now I wish I could save the groundhog from the dog.

“You’re just torturing the poor thing!” I yell. I turn, my brain registering the ludicrousness of trying to reason with my dog. As I stride away, brushing past long canes of prickers arching into the path, I experience a surreal disconnect. I see myself, as if from a distance, hurrying forward. The juxtaposition of the profound and the absurd – the dog’s naked drive to kill, the groundhog’s pitiful struggle to survive, my regret over getting what I wished for – reduces me to helplessness. I can’t change what will come.

I push down the other side of the hill. It’s still but for the sizzle of electricity overhead. Inhaling the earthy odor of plants drying and returning to the earth, I try to coax inner calm. Just then, a high-pitched, pure whistle pierces the quiet, coming from the direction of the groundhog slaughter. Breathtakingly clear, it lasts several beats. I halt, wondering who else is out on the power lines. Maybe the landowner whose forest borders the right-of-way here? But the whistle was so loud, probably too loud for a person to make, I think. In the ten years I’ve walked this right-of-way, I’ve only encountered a single Baltimore Gas and Electric employee. And why would someone whistle? To call off the dog?

Holding still, I listen. Nothing, save for the electrical dance overhead. Just then the dog appears, ears flying, open-mouthed joy on her face as she races down the slope. That’s when it hits me. The whistle I heard was the same beautiful, ethereal whistle I’d heard when Sadey killed her first groundhog. At once it dawns: groundhogs must sound an alarm to warn of predators. But there’s something catching at my consciousness, something about the unearthly quality of the whistle that suggests something more. It’s like the whistle is both a goodbye and a hello, a semaphore raised in passage to the beyond. I almost want to cry at the beauty of hearing such a thing to bear witness.

My rapture is interrupted by Sadey, who hurtles by in a blaze of post-kill glory.

* * *

In coming days, I think about the whistle. An Internet search reveals that groundhogs do indeed sound an alarm to warn of danger. In fact, one of their monikers is whistle-pig. I learn that their burrows can be up to 66 feet long with multiple entrances and exits. The fact that strikes me most, however, is that groundhogs are solitary, only seeking each other out to mate. Even the young wean quickly.

I reflect on the two whistles, each surreally loud, insistent, and flawless, each issued just before death. If groundhogs are solitary, for whom do they raise an alarm? And if it is an alarm, why wait to sound it until just before death? I can’t help but believe that it’s as I originally thought, that the whistle is a marker, a signal of transition from the corporeal to whatever lies beyond.

I haven’t spotted our resident groundhogs in a long time. Like it or not, Sadey has performed her job. I wonder if, someday, knowing she’s ready to pass away, Sadey will slink away to the woods. I’ve heard of dogs doing just that, hunkering close to the earth to await death. I wonder what sound will mark Sadey’s passage, if it will be the whisper of the wind in the trees above, or maybe her own voice, barking in a farewell and a greeting.

Amanda Anne Gibson has transitioned to writing from a career as an environmental lawyer. Her work has appeared in Under the Gum Tree, Little Patuxent Review, The Sunlight Press, and The Common (online). She lives in Maryland with her husband and two children.

Issue Contents

Issue 14

From the Editor

Last chance

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