Spring 2008, Volume 4

Drury Award Winner

Fiction by Richard Short

…And there in the wood a piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose…
–Edward Lear–


Two men came out onto the freezing dawn, their footsteps breaking the stillness in this remote outback region of Northern Minnesota.  A thin sliver of smoke curled from the chimney of the log cabin and wafted into the trees while six inches of new snow clung to the pitched roof and lay across the open spaces on the forest floor.

The snow spread over the woodpile and the tool shed.  Scattered stumps here and there stood like motionless ghosts.  A cistern water pump in the center of the yard seemed a sentinel with its iron arm extended.  Icicles hung from its nose.  At the edge of the clearing, snow clung to scraggly little jack pines along with blue spruce and balsam fir.  The branches and lower limbs drooped under the weight until their tips touched the ground.  Any blemishes lay hidden beneath the white blanket. 

The first man, Bigjon, lifted his head and allowed the snowflakes to settle on his iron gray beard.  He was tall and broad, with huge arms and shoulders.  He wore a leather sheepskin-lined jacket over a plaid shirt with woolen pants tucked into scuffed boots.  Soft pigskin mittens with fur linings protected his hands.  His shoulder cradled a double bladed ax.  The other hand held a coil of rope.  A belted leather sheaf enclosed a razor-sharp buck knife.  He wore a lumberjack cap with turned up earflaps.  He had killed a man many years ago. 

Beyond the pump stood the tool shed, a wood-frame building with wide eves.  Beneath the eves hung a row of drying animal skins stretched on hand carved wooden forms.  There were pelts of beaver, muskrats, mink and a single wolverine skin.  Next to the skins hung a row of steel leg-hold traps of numerous sizes.  Behind the shed stood the combined barn, chicken house and pigpen.  It sheltered a team of mules, two pigs, a goat, a white spotted duck and some chickens.  

The other man was short, bareheaded, and wore a wolverine fur vest with skintight leggings.  Over this was a leather harness consisting of straps that buckled together and were adjusted to fit around his shoulders and thighs.  He seemed impervious to the cold and proceeded to perform a series of handsprings and summersaults in the snow.  All the while laughing and singing in a high-pitched off-key voice, “I lost my arm in the army…I used to work on the farrmy…Daisy Maysie lay in the haysie-”

“Come on now, Billy,” the tall man interjected.  “We have a lot of work to do today.”

Billy, instead of responding, flopped on his back and moving his arms and legs in an arc, proceeded to make the figure of an angel in the snow.  The big man lifted him up.

“No, no, no, I don’t want to go!” sang Billy as Bigjon carried him to the tool shed and hung him by the harness, high up on a wooden peg fastened to the wall.  He kicked the air and waved his arms.  Bigjon then packed a burlap gunnysack with some steel traps, the ax, a whetstone, a steel-bow Swedish crosscut saw, two iron wedges and the rope coil. Looking around the room he removed a heavy bearskin robe that was hanging on a peg and folded it into the top of the sack.  He unhooked Billy and set him on his feet.

Lifting the sack to his shoulder, and with Billy trotting at his heels, they entered the forest. A gray squirrel with a huge bushy tail bounded across the path in front of them.  “Squirrelly, squirrelly, squirrelly! Jump the squirrelly girlie,” Billy shouted, and started to chase the animal.  Around the trees and across a frozen pond they ran with Bigjon lumbering behind.  The squirrel decided to climb up a young Norway pine tree where it sat upright on a limb, its front legs bent in a fighter’s stance.  It chattered loudly and scolded the little man.  Bigjon caught Billy, tucked him under his arm, and carried him back to the trail.





The big man had been rescuing Billy for over forty years.  It started when nine-year-old Bigjon came home from school one day to be met with the sight of his drunken father hitting his mother. The boy screamed and tried to pull him away.  The violent, raging man turned on him. Bigjon was strong and more agile than the drunk and slipped out of his grasp.  He picked up the iron fireplace poker and swung it crashing down on the man’s head.  The blow not only parted his hair down the middle, it split his skull.  Brains and blood and cranial fluid mixed together in a purplish, swirling glob began to puddle on the cabin floor.  The County sheriff determined, after seeing the mother’s bruised and bloody face with one eye swollen shut and three front teeth missing, that the killing was justified.  The mother, however, seemed terrified and afraid to live with Bigjon after that, and so he was sent to the County orphanage.  “He didn’t have to kill my husband,” she whimpered with tears coursing down her cheeks.  This violent incident and his mother’s rejection haunted Bigjon’s memory and caused bad dreams.   

Billy, two years younger than Bigjon, had been in the orphanage since a baby.  Because of his size and hyper-activity, he was a target for bullies.  Some of the older boys made him the object of their rough games.      

If they begin to beat up on him, Billy would fall to the ground with his knees pulled up around his ears.

“Look, he lays there like a ball!” someone yelled.  And so, when they decided to play kickball or soccer, Billy became the ball.  In the wintertime, when they played hockey, he was the puck.   

     When Bigjon arrived he put a stop to this behavior. Although some of the older boys were bigger, there was something about Bigjon that made them back off.  When he put his arm around Billy and led the little boy away, no one challenged him.  In the three years that he lived at the orphanage, Bigjon never got into a single fistfight.  The two could not have been more different in temperament.  Bigjon was quiet, hardy ever saying a word.  Billy was a blabbermouth, never shutting up.  He was always talking and although the big kids stopped picking on him, the adults in charge tried to discipline him for loud talking and sassing, or laughing at mealtimes.  He had other bad behaviors, like chewing with his mouth open and scratching his butt.      

After three years Bigjon became restless with the boring routine at the orphanage and ran away.  He had grown to be over six foot tall and weighed two-hundred-pounds.  He decided to try to find work in the woods of Northern Minnesota as a lumberjack.  He hitched a ride north and because of his size and mature appearance he easily passed for eighteen or twenty.  The first place he inquired about a job, the camp foreman, a burly fellow called Swede, took one look at him and asked, “When can you start?” Bigjon said,”Now.”  He borrowed an ax and saw and the foreman told him to hop on a beat up old International Harvester bobcat.  They drove about three miles into the forest and Swede marked off a section where he would be felling trees.  He showed him how to cut them into eight-foot lengths and pile into cords four feet high.  It was important that the measurements be accurate because his pay depended on the number of cords cut and stacked.

He already knew the basics of woodsmanship and cutting down trees, like how to undercut with the ax so that the tree would fall exactly where it was aimed.  The first week went slowly as he became accustomed to the arduous work.  He learned by trial and error how to adjust for the wind and how to keep the saw blade from becoming pinched in the cut and breaking.  He reveled in the strenuous work and by the third week he was top producer in the camp.  He could easily cut and pile a double cord of pulpwood in a ten-hour day.  He kept to himself and said very little.  The other lumberjacks left him mostly alone.  After supper, he’d sit and quietly listen as grizzled old loggers spun sagas of Viking lore.  He found these stories of powerful gods and wizards and their epic battles exciting.  Bigjon worked in the camp for the next five years and was able to put a sizable amount of his pay in the bank.  However, he was never able to stop thinking about Billy.  He worried about him and had nightmares.

When he turned seventeen he decided to return to the orphanage to see what had happened to his friend.  He caught the Greyhound Bus and was outside the walls within a few hours.  Billy wasn’t there.  It seems that Billy’s behavior had gotten more hyper and aggressive when he turned thirteen so he had been sent off to the Fergus Falls Mental Institution for treatment.

“He snuck up right behind Miss Jacobson and grabbed her by her big old butt!” a skinny boy of about fourteen told Bigjon.

He caught the bus again and after he got to the hospital outside Fergus Falls, he was ushered to the visitor’s room by a uniformed orderly who indicated a slumped form sitting in a wooden chair by a dirty window.  It was Billy, but Bigjon had a hard time recognizing him.  He was still small but instead of his usually animated behavior, he sat rocking back and forth with his fingers interlocked, twiddling his thumbs.  His eyes stared out vacantly and a sliver of drool dribbled from his mouth and dripped onto his lap.  Bigjon touched his arm and said, “Billy, Billy, it’s me.”

“Abba Cadabba and kiss my kannaba,” said Billy. And made a babbling sound with his tongue.

“What happened, Billy?” Bigjon whispered.

“Holy shemoly and beef brascoli,” said Billy.

Bigjon stayed with him until visiting hours were over.  When he left he thought he could detect a glimmer of recognition in the empty, vacant eyes. 

“What happened to Billy?” Bigjon wanted to know.  He asked everybody he saw until he found one old man, Gus, who was willing to talk and make any sense.  Gus was like a trustee and had the run of the grounds.  He was from the Boston area and spoke with an accent.  They sat on a bench outside the hospital beside a flower garden where Gus had been pruning the roses. 

“I was there, right there in that very room,” he took a deep breath and looked at Bigjon.  “Yessir, I was there when they did it!”

“Who did what?”

“Dr. Freeman did it,” Gus paused. “Dr. Walter Freeman. It wasn’t only Billy he did it to either, he did it to other patients, one right after the other.”

“What did he do?”

“He cured them, that’s what he did.  When Billy came here he was acting wild.  Laughing, jumping, singing, and running around pinching and feeling up the women nurses,” Gus shook his head.  “But Dr. Freeman stopped that.  He cured them all.  He surely did.”

“But he’s so different,” said Bigjon.  “It’s like they took away his brains.”

“They tried other things first,” Gus replied. “They spun him around on chairs with rollers.  They put him in tubs of ice-cold water.  They strapped him down spread-eagled and gave him electric shocks.  Nothing worked to calm him down, not even after the operation,” he made a gesture towards his groin area.

“You mean they castrated him?”

“Sure did,” Gus shook his head.  “But nothing slowed him down.  And then Dr. Freeman came.”

“And did what?”

“Cured him, that’s what.  They laid old Billy out on the table. Dr. Freeman took a handkerchief with ether or something or other and put it over his mouth.  Then he took what looked just like an ice pick and poked it into Billy’s eye socket right above the eyeball.  One tap with a little hammer and it went in deep right up to the hilt.  Then he wiggled it back and forth a couple of times, like the windshield wiper on a Model T,” Gus gestured.  “And presto! Billy was cured.”        

“Who in hell is this Dr. Freeman?” Bigjon asked.  “How could they let him do this to Billy?”

“He’s the most famous doctor in the world.  He did the same operation on some real important bigwig’s daughter back in Boston.  She was acting crazy like Billy did.  It was written up in all of the papers.  I remember her name was Rosemary.”

The next day Bigjon talked the head nurse into letting him take Billy for a walk around the grounds.  He decided right then to get him out of there.  He bought two one-way tickets north and they caught the bus.  Through the years Bigjon kept Billy with him as he worked.  Although he had to watch him constantly he also taught him to be a good helper.  They were able to save enough to buy a homestead along with a hundred and sixty acres of timber.  Billy became stronger and slowly over time he became more animated.  He learned to prepare simple meals.  He could wash and clean himself and attend to his toilet needs.  He seldom had an accident any more.





Forty years later, on this chilly morning, Bigjon had a long day planned out for them.  First they would head north and follow the Tamarook River till they came to where it emptied into Potato   Lake.  There was a family of beavers living there that had built a dam across the river.  After setting the traps they would head out west into the State Forest Preserve where they would spend the rest of the day felling and trimming marked dead and diseased trees.  Later they would haul them out and cut them up into firewood.

Billy, running ahead, stopped and pointed to a spot on the opposite bank of the river.  “Piggy Wiggy! Piggy Wiggy! Woo woo piggy, piggy wiggy diggy!” he jumped up and down, danced around in circles and swung his arms.

There, on a hillock, outlined against the sky, stood a huge Northern Minnesota wild boar.  He looked, to Bigjon, to be about four-hundred-fifty-pounds of muscle and sinew with fourteen-inch curved tusks.  His body was covered with thick golden bristles.  The boar watched them for a moment, shook his head, then turned and disappeared.  Bigjon had heard of such animals before but this was the first time that he had actually seen one.

When they reached the lake, Bigjon took the rope and fastened one end to the back of Billy’s harness and started to tie the other around his own waist.  This was a safety measure because once before Billy had broken through a thin spot on the ice and almost drowned before Bigjon could pull him out.  A large snowshoe rabbit jumped out from behind a bush at just this moment and took off across the snow-covered ice.  Billy wheeled around to chase and the rope was jerked out of Bigjon’s hand.  Across the lake they headed, the loose rope trailing Billy and whipping back and forth like a snake.  Bigjon knew it was dangerous to be on the ice at this time of year and he worried as he tried unsuccessfully to grasp the rope.  He finally caught it and brought Billy’s wild run to a halt.  He looped the end around his waist securely and knotted it tight.

About halfway back to the shore he heard a loud crack that echoed across the lake and felt the ice sinking.  He cursed himself for not being more careful and in a panic fumbled to untie the knot that bound them both together, for he knew if he went under the freezing water he might pull Billy down also and they both would die.

Bigjon had watched and marveled at the aurora borealis many times before but the northern lights of Minnesota never showed anything like this display.  Flashing shafts of orange and purple cones of misty light were radiating and pulsing out from a brilliant, sparkling red center.  It appeared to Bigjon as bright as the sun but yet so soothing to the eyes that he could not stop looking, not even to blink.  He felt himself floating on a vaporous cloud and did not want to ever get off.  Then above him loomed the golden-bristled boar with long, curved tusks.  Around its head was an aura that cast a rosy glow.  It was the most beautiful sight that he had ever seen.  The pig lowered its haloed head and he was lifted across the tusks and carried up the bank and into a cave that was illuminated with what looked like a million sparkling stars.  A cozy, tender feeling of peace enveloped him.  He was then on the heavenly golden back covered with a warm and soft furry robe that kept out the cold and whistling wind.  They glided swiftly across an incredible white cushion with Billy running beside him, a steady hand upon his shoulder.





Bigjon awoke to a throbbing ache in his head.  He lay naked on his cot under a blanket.  The cabin was warm.  A fire glowed in the stove.  He sat up and rubbed his temple.  A big sore knot had risen there.  Billy stood by the table pouring something into a bowl.  “Did it really happen?” Bigjon blurted out. “Did the golden pig really save us?”

“Fuzzy wuzzy was a bear,” said Billy and handed him a bowl of warmed up venison stew.

Bigjon put the bowl to his lips and drank the liquid and began to gobble up the tender meat.  He thought that he had not tasted food this good in a long time. How long have I slept, he wondered.  He stood up and nearly toppled over.  His brain was swirling with questions.  He knew only one thing.  He had to go back to the scene.  He must find that cave.  That cave held the answers.  Although his legs were wobbly and he felt weak, he dressed hurriedly and hitched the mules to the wagon and got Billy bundled up and they started the journey at a fast clip.  Because of the width of the wagon it would be necessary to take a roundabout road that was considerably further.

What had happened?  These thoughts made his head spin.  Did a giant pig actually rescue them?  That was ridiculous.  It would surely have taken at least two big, strong men to pull him out of the lake.  And how did he get home without freezing to death?  It was indeed a miracle.  He remembered the lumberjack’s stories about the Norse God, Woden, and how he would sometimes shape shift into the form of a huge golden boar.  He had thought those stories were just tall tales.  He shivered, was he really saved by a God?  Bigjon was not a religious man but he had heard stories of a god appearing before people.  How about that guy back in Pennsylvania who spoke face to face with God and went on to establish a big church out there in Utah.  Brother Bigjon? Father Bigjon? He laughed.  Stranger thing have happened than being rescued from a lake, he thought.  Take Billy, look how he took care of himself while I was asleep.  He fed and watered the animals.  He built the fire and made the meals.  People can do what they want to.  Bigjon was so dizzy that he let the wagon wheel brush a tree as they turned a corner.  I think I’ll buy one of those little radios the next time we go to town and maybe get a used tractor. And how about a chain saw?   His heart was beating fast and he took deep breaths.  I might even go to that barn dance next month out at the Island Lake Tavern

They arrived at the edge of the lake.  This time Bigjon was careful to take the rope out of the wagon and tie Billy securely to a wheel.  He gingerly walked out on the ice and approached the place where he had broken through.  There was a narrow, forty-foot strip of cracked ice that had since frozen over.  At its end were signs that a heavy weight had been hauled out and dragged away.  There lay a pile of frozen clothing that had been cut apart.  His skinning knife was lying there beside it.  Off to the side lay the gunnysack with its trappings.  There were no cloven-hoofed tracks of a pig anywhere to be seen.  He looked toward the shoreline and gazed for a long time.  There was no cave, no den, no excavation, just the pristine whiteness of snow, snow, snow.  Bigjon lowered his head and stared down, intently reading the signs.  He blinked his eyes rapidly and almost choked.  There, pressed deeply but plainly visible under a thin skiff of new snow, were the small, familiar footprints of a big, big man.  

BIO:  Richard Short was born in the backwoods of Northern Minnesota in 1930. To supplement the family's meager income some of the jobs he worked at were: Lumberjack, farmer, beaver dam buster, weasel trapper, skunkskinner, deer poacher, log roller and bounty hunter. He was drafted into the US Army in 1951 and served in a tank battalion in Japan. After his discharge he came west to seek his fortune. One of the positions he held was, Talent coordinator at Mustang Molly's Bunny Ranch on the outskirts of a small town in Nevada. He finally settled in California and for a brief time he was Entertainment Director at Forest Lawn. He was married 45 years and has three children, seven grandchildren and four great-grand children.