Bigness Has No Name | Tessa Cheek | The Hypocrite Reader

Tessa Cheek

Bigness Has No Name

Photo by Tessa Cheek


No-name Nomnom

I’m barely awake at the kitchen table. Cody comes in already on the phone, saying, “Forty in cash, that’s fine. It’ll take ten minutes to get downtown to an ATM and then thirty to you, so let’s say an hour. Is that soon enough?” He sees me watching him. PIG, he mouths, eyebrows shooting all the way up.

An hour and a half later Cody pulls up to the millhouse with a piglet in the dog’s crate in the bed of his truck. The pig has shat and vomited and smells like the wind in some parts of Kansas. The pig has a sweet nose, though, just like a drawing of a pig snout. The pig is roughly the same size as our six-month-old puppy, but somehow lighter, just 25 pounds. The pig, copper-colored, with black belly spots. Yes, he has a sweet nose.

“Woof, the whole neighborhood is gonna complain about that smell,” I say.

“It’s one pig,” Cody says.

We stomp around the compound’s falling-down chicken house, tick grass tickling our knees, examining one of the stalls not in use by our friends’ three sheep, ten ducks, and sixteen chickens.

“This definitely used to be a pigpen,” says Cody. “Look how they’ve placed the pallets to keep the mud down.”

I think of the pig’s feet, sorry, hooves, and wonder if the pallet thing isn’t a bit mean, a bit ankle-breaky. Also, it’s looking like a lot of work to make the pigpen pen a pig and I have to teach a poetry class in two hours.

Cody grows testy, the way he does before he gets a good idea. “The dog run. We should put him in the dog run.”

The dog run: a chain-link enclosure running half the length of the 100-yard chicken house, overgrown with every thigh-high plant that overgrows the Virginia backwoods.

“But what about Nomnom’s shelter? What if it rains?” I ask.

“Do not name the pig.”

“Nomnom’s not a name, it’s a post-mortem description.”

“It’s a term of endearment.”

“Oh Nomnom, who’s a cute man?” I stick my fingers through the dog crate and the pig squeals away.

“Stop calling him Nomnom. That’s literally NameName in French.”

“Nomnom, do you like your name name? Do you? O, Nomnom. Sweet boy.” And on and on like that. Both of us very edgy and maximally annoying because, because, we are afraid of Nomnom’s knowing eyes. We are afraid of what we’ve just done here, what we’ve just committed to do.

“If he gets really smelly and people complain we’ll just harvest him early,” says Cody. “That’s what suckling pig is, after all.”

We regard the small pig, now pushing through the weeds of the dog run, oinking softly.

“Ooofta,” I say.

If I had to “process” no-name Nomnom today—this, our first day together—I could not.

Feed the Pig

The pig likes the dog run. He doesn’t like the rain. And it rains. It rains all May long. Cody leans a plywood board against the side of the chicken house and the pig hides under there. The rain doubles down. The mud rises. The lean-to falls.

“My god, did it fall on him? That would be too tragic.” I say that.

“I doubt it. I mean, he’s pretty fast,” is what Cody says.

Big Pig (not a name) is quick as hell. He kicks up his legs and runs circles when people watch him. Is he showing off? Is he “being cute”? Is he “self-conscious”? Our friends say when he gets bigger he’ll slow down, but the farmer who sold Cody the pig says that’s not the case. I watch Nomnom rip through the weeds and think of him at 200, 300 pounds. Will the chain link hold him? Will he stomp down the gravel lane, past Matt and Anna’s spot in the old farmhouse, across the lawn, up the stairs, and into our converted mill loft to take his revenge while we sleep? Surely, no matter how clever, he cannot work a lock and key with only hooves for hands. Anyhow, what would the revenge be for? We feed him well and he loves to eat. He eats all our compost. I watch him eat a fish like a noodle. Whole trout, long as my forearm, fresh from the crick. Astonishing. He snorts in his sleep and rolls in the mud under his newly reinforced piggy house.

“He likes to root and wallow,” says Cody. “Who woulda thunk.”

Happy pig! Jungle pig! He will have, says Cody, just one bad day.

If I had to send Big Pig to slaughter today, the day Cody built him a house that won’t blow down, it would seem nearly fair and I could do it.


Most people are not down. When I say, “We’re going to eat him,” their mouths stretch horizontally and their eyes stretch vertically. It’s a small crisis every time, every face. Sometimes they make a high-pitched noise to underline their discomfort. “Oooooooooh” or “eeeeeeee.” A keening vowel.

My family thinks it’s hilarious.

“I can just picture you two, the pup and your 200-pound pet pig all on the daybed watching the Netflix,” writes my uncle.

“Tell us about Yum,” writes my father. “I hear he is smarter than Babe.”


Meanwhile, the pig grows larger. He roots and toots and ignores his pig candy mystery feed mixed with corn, which gets wet in the rain and ferments. Then he eats that and falls over. He eats all our coffee grounds. I like to think he’s having one hell of a party in this life.

If I had to shoot Yum today I would do it. I think he would be both slightly drunk and very buzzed on caffeine. I think it would make my family respect my authority more. I think it would make me respect myself more.

He’s Sleeping

Sometimes when we walk out to the dam to go fishing, Big Pig does not come to greet us. We see only his russet butt sticking out the front of his piggy house. The boards of his lean-to are beginning to split and shred from where Big Pig scratches his broad back.

“Oh, he’s resting,” says Cody. “He’s a lazy pig.”

He thinks I don’t hear the tenderness in his voice, but I know that whenever Cody gets bored he finds another thing to take care of.


The Two Best Friends That Anyone Could Have

Our puppy, Sheila, a German Shepherd/Pyrenees/Appalachian Mongrel, has fallen in love with Big Pig. Her favorite thing about Big Pig is how little fear he shows when she lunges the fence. She also likes how he’ll rub his body against the chain link, offering a disgusting inner pig ear to lick and nibble. Back and forth, back and forth, on opposite sides of the fence they run—playing. At first, Big Pig was smaller than Sheila. Then they were the same size. Now he is a good twenty pounds heavier, his neck nearly as thick as her skull. They touch noses.

“What if today is the day we let Sheila in the pig run for a play?” I ask Cody. I am spread thin over grad school and pup and farm and friends and a novel that swims in my head all day like a second family. The prospect of the doggo spending all day rollicking in cross-species harmony appeals to me on levels moral, aesthetic, and pragmatic.

“Too cute,” Cody says. “Possibly dangerous.”

I agree with him.

Flip The Hand That Feeds You

Is Bigness on a suicide mission? Every time we fill his shallow water tin he pushes it around with his fat snout, snuffling, snuffling, till he gets a nostril under and then, whomp, flips the thing over.

“He’ll kill himself on a hot day,” says Matt. “Better make that pig a proper wallow.”

A wallow. The lean-to has kept the rain out of his original pit. A pig will not be denied his wallow.

So I go to Walmart and buy a ten-dollar baby pool. It’s the thinnest possible lime-green plastic. Redneck as hell. I pull two ratchet straps crossways in the pickup to hold it down on the highway, but even so it catches the air, bucks in the wind, fights to float, to fly. I keep checking that florid sail in my rearview mirror and arrive home nerve-racked.

Then the real work: a dozen trips back and forth 50 meters from the pump to the pen carrying five-gallon buckets of water.

What was that Zen koan? “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” Water is heavy—a weight that shifts, a shift you can feel in the bones of your spine and hands.

The baby pool baffles Bigness. He drinks from it deeply. He tries to flip it over. It’s too heavy, too heavy and too flimsy, both, like a passed-out person or a mattress. He ignores it.



The ducks sit on eggs for weeks, and when the eggs hatch, there are chickens inside. Anna presents the chicks to the roosting momma duck, Princess.

“Please,” she says.

Cody and I crouch nearby. The three of us squashed in the bird stall amid straw and feathers, barely breathing. Princess tastes the nearest butter-colored chick with her brown beak. She makes a ducky surprised sound. It’s not looking good until, all of a gesture, she rustles open her great glossy wing and scoops the two chicks up. Anna, Cody, and I, we all cry.

Meanwhile, the daddy ducks run round trying to rape anything with feathers. It’s alarming. They shove the lady ducks’ heads down into the bog water. They peck the feathers from the base of their long necks. They even try the chickens and are rebuffed, squawkily, by the stalwart, limping, majestically-feathered rooster, Mr. Stubbs.

The daddy ducks have also taken a great liking to Big Pig, who is a messy eater and spreads his corn and pellets and slop all around and near the chain-link fence. The daddy ducks and the whole flock of chickens, under the watchful yellow eyes of Mr. Stubbs, gather to dart their heads in and out of the diamond gaps in the fence.

A lackadaisical teenager, Big Pig seems not to mind his squabbling dinner guests. He often reclines on the edge of his baby pool, spilling water everywhere to make a proper wallow, and regards the bickering fowl with something very like amusement.

Then there is the day that Cody finds feathers in the pen. Then a chicken foot. A few hours later, the foot, too, is gone. How are they getting in? A narrow gap where the chain link meets the wavering boards of the chicken house. Are two chickens missing, including Anna’s very favorite—a fluffy, fancy, and clever bird named ‘Goldie’ who could jump up on her arm on command? Yes.

I remark on the pig’s hunt, slaughter and complete consumption of two chickens to a chatty, pregnant-looking man at our local recycling station. Secretly I’m pumping him for information and he knows it.

“That’s not normal,” he drawls.

Great Escape

One day while I’m at work, Cody goes into the run to feed and water the pig and the pig rushes the big gate—wide enough to drive a tractor through—which usually we close behind us, but lately there has been rain, which has made mud, and the mud pushes the gate out and ruts the earth and a cinder block falls over and gets in the way of closing the gate and anyway—the pig gets out.

Cody does what he does when Sheila chews through her leash, say, while friends from the city are coming up on mushrooms and we’re all wet from a dip below the dam and half a fishing pole has been lost to the river and now the calving cows surround us snorting, which is to say, he springs on her, a movement faster than decision, and catches her before all hell breaks loose. This, now, with the pig trotting toward the bog he’s eyed hungrily for months, is what Cody does: he leaps on the pig to manhandle that hog back into captivity.

But Bigness is not a 40-pound puppy. The pig weighs as much as Cody now and he will not be manhandled. He squeals and bucks. He is strong from carrying himself around. Stronger and faster than seems possible.

“He beat the shit out of me,” says Cody, who ended up holding Big Pig’s hoof and getting dragged through mud and gravel some 30 feet, all the while calling out, “Matt! Matt!”

Matt comes running from the henhouse and does what Cody did, jump the pig. Bigness promptly pitches Matt several feet into the bog. It goes on and on like this, the pig stopping between rounds to munch the good green goodness at the edge of the swamp. Matt takes a hoof to the chin, which leaves a big split. Cody, in shorts, gets rolled in poison ivy.

When the pig is full and the boys exhausted, they sort of walk at him with the gate wide open and he obliges, happy to go home after a big day. Cody takes a muddy selfie, posts it to social media. We rig up a system so as to dump food and water over or through the fence.

Big Pig, we’re officially afraid of you.

The Wet Season

It rains every day for weeks. Monsoon rains. The ditches bordering the pastures fill to the brim and overflow, they fill all the way down to the mill and make a moat. The barn thrums under the steamy rain. The pig is like a pig in mud.



Big Pig has eaten every plant in the pen but the burdock and a few shade weeds clumped in the roots of a poplar at the far end of the run. Each time he takes a step the clay mud sinks six inches and some gets pushed out through the chain link. The whole pen seems to have slid, glacially, toward the gate, toward the daddy ducks in their bog.

“The pig is limping.” One of us says it. Both of us know it’s true.

It’s the constant mud. His hooves have grown soft. He could have stepped on anything, a mostly-submerged cinder block or the side of his feed trough. But it was probably that old doggy choke chain buried under a layer of loam that did it. A slice to the sole of his left forehoof with a lesion deep inside. Packed with mud. With shit and mud. He can barely carry himself. He takes a knee. He takes a knee. He takes a knee.

Cody must fly away at four in the morning for work. He’ll be gone three days. The pig won’t eat. At least the rains have stopped and held. The ground begins to dry.

I ask everyone I know. Friends. Neighbors. Professors. Acquaintances. Old men by the side of the road. “Have you ever had a hog with a split hoof?”

“No,” say most of them.

“I don’t have room for that big a pet,” says the teenage boy at the co-op where we buy Big Pig’s feed.

“Yes,” says my neighbor’s country-ass friend, “and it’s bad news. You better get some antibiotics in there fast, and that’s just for y’all, if you’re planning to eat ’em. I seen him falling. He’s a goner.”

But I don’t want to give Big Pig antibiotics. That’s the whole damn point. Pigs in factory farms eat antibiotic-laced food every day—otherwise they couldn’t survive living shoulder to shoulder, knee deep in shit. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria grows with them and can end up in the meat we eat.

Matt tells me that back when he and Anna lived on a goat ranch outside Taos, New Mexico, they’d spray a cut hoof with iodine and that did the trick.

“Don’t know if it’s the same for hogs,” he says.

I’ve already decided to try.

The thing is, since the chicken massacre and great escape, I haven’t gone in the pen. Big Pig’s been a bit, well, ornery. When Cody goes in to change his water, Big Pig aggressively nibbles the hem of his shorts. Once, he bit Cody’s butt. Not hard, but not gently. When Cody slides out the gate, Big Pig rushes him and it takes a grown man’s knee to the jaw to hold that hog back. Big Pig has, in fact, bent the metal U that holds the gate shut. Now we have it all braced up with tree limbs and big rocks like some medieval wall at the edge of empire.

But there’s nothing for it. No time to wait. I get myself a bunch of kale and break down the barriers between us.

He doesn’t rush the gate. He is not well. I speak to him like I spoke to Sheila after we had her spayed, with high-pitched tenderness and guilt.

“Hello my big man, show momma where you’re hurt.”

Momma? How embarrassing. But when I rub his shoulder in dusty circles the pig leans into me like a big dog and, finally, with a snort-like sigh he rolls, adorably, onto his back for a belly scratch. He proffers his mangled hoof.

Gross, like a toe that’s festered too long in a boot. This pig has trench hoof. He does not like the spray bottle of castile soap and vinegar water I’ve brought to clean the thing out. He snorts and shudders, makes to rise. I pet him down. I say, “shhhhh” and “there, there, momma’s got you.”

He lets me administer this small pain, this healing. He trusts me.

Too Much

I tend to His Bigness every morning and every afternoon. Sing him sweet songs. I think he’s getting better, but I can’t tell. He hasn’t done his bulky dance in weeks. He’s developed a weird, gross abscess on his side—a bloody bubble the size of a shooter marble. It won’t go away. I want to tear the growth off in case a screw fly has drilled into him, but the prospect of flesh exploding into maggots…. So I just soak that part in iodine, too. We buy straw and spread it thickly, but nothing can be kept clean in a pigpen. I irrigate the split hoof and spray it with iodine. I gently wipe the growth. I pat the pig’s spotted belly. I scrub and scrub my orange-stained hands under the icy rush of the pump, but they won’t come clean.

I can’t write about Big Pig any more right now.


Cool it, Miss Piggy

Pig up and walking normally. Eating normally. Cody has devised a rudimentary feed machine: a thick plastic pipe wired up from the trough to the top of the fence at an angle so that the trough will self-fill and we don’t have to go out there every day. We still go out there every day, walking the dog, but we do not talk to the pig too much.

“Say hey to brother pig,” I sometimes tell Sheila when he lies by the fence, huffing. She sniffs his nose. He stares at us balefully. I pull her away.



The vineyard up the road where Cody has volunteered all summer gets to bottling, sends him home with vats and vats of grape skins, which he slops over the edge of the pen for the pig. The grape pressings, so red, stain the pig’s hooves, stain the dirt, red. The pig does nothing but stomp through these sweet-sour piles for weeks. When they ferment, he eats them, then sprawls all day in the fall sunshine. Happy again and hugely huge. As long as I am tall, almost, and three times as wide. Big Pig.

Though we are surrounded by farms, the nearest small-scale slaughterhouse is a state and three hours away. The prospect of cajoling Big Pig, who we think is about 300 pounds, up a makeshift-yet-sturdy ramp and into an as-yet-un-built enclosure in the back of Cody’s pickup feels laughable. So Cody researches home butchery. Before I leave for school in the morning he’s already at it. He’s crouched over his laptop, pen and pad in hand. The sound of a pop. He narrows his eyes, rewinds the video. The sound of a pop. He nods, writes something down.

“You don’t want to mess it up,” Cody says solemnly. “If you use the wrong kind of bullet, shards can get lodged in the meat. You have to use a small-gauge .22, right here—” He presses his right ring finger between his brows, measures two fingers up, rubs in a circle. “It’s very humane. Just knocks him out. The hard part is the stick. You have to slice open the right vein and right away, before he wakes up and freaks out and suffers.” Cody’s fingers move to his own neck and linger, as if he’s counting heartbeats.

I nod, mute and nauseous.

“If everything goes right, it’ll be just like he’s eating and then he falls asleep.”

“If everything goes right,” I say.


Cody says we’ll slaughter Big Pig as soon as it’s cold enough. Soon. But the heat stays and stays.

Very Very

My poetry professor puts me on to Alice Fulton. Alice Fulton puts me on to how pigs are slaughtered in the industry. I think the only thing I need or want to say about this is that industrial pig slaughter involves a chute that rips off the pig’s limbs while the pig is still alive.

“I think about all the pork I’ve ever eaten and how incredibly easy it was to eat,” I say to Cody during one of our late-night talks. “I mean, intellectually I know that industrial ag is cruel, but it’s never really hit home. It’s the banality of evil, for sure. For sure, for sure.”

“Right. Right,” Cody, sitting on the slovenly daybed by the wood-burning stove, is flushed and nodding. “And what we’re doing is right and yet everybody pretends like it’s evil, when, in fact, they’re the ones—”

“Exactly!” I’m pacing now, spliff in hand, verbose. “What we’re doing is hard, emotionally and physically hard, but it’s also right.”

I’m searching for a name for this feeling in me, a twisting, dynamic guilt, a pang in the gut. I’m babbling and I come out sounding holier than thou, which isn’t what I mean. I don’t feel holy about the prospect of home slaughter. No, not at all.

“If I can do it right, just exactly right, on the first try, and he doesn’t suffer,” Cody stares into the fire while he speaks, “then it will be the opposite of the banality of evil.”

“But it will still be, like, very emotional and intense,” I say, reaching for the words. “Acute.”


Funeral Party

Somehow, between town and country, our wires get crossed and our best city friend invites a bunch of strangers to our house for a pig roast on the last possible weekend we can slaughter the pig before the Christmas holidays.

They show up in shoes not made for mud, and ask over dinner the night before the Saturday slaughter, “So, like, when is the thing?”

“The thing?” we ask.

“Well, we wanna get a hike in tomorrow morning and then we can stop by the grocery store and grab some beer for the party, you know, the pig roast.” The woman who says this is a nurse and an outspoken, radical feminist. I’ve just met her and I like her, but now I’m annoyed.

“Um, I don’t know what you heard but the pig is still alive. As in, we still have to slaughter, clean, and butcher it,” I say.

“Right. It’s kind of a multi-day process,” says Cody.

“Oh, I thought there was going to be a big party tomorrow,” she says.

“Nope,” says Cody. “I think we’ll pretty much spend all day tomorrow just processing the animal.”

“But what if you, like, just cook the whole pig?” she asks. “Wouldn’t that be way more fun and easier?”

A tense silence.

“It’s a 300-pound pig,” Cody says carefully. “We’re going to feed ourselves and our neighbors for months off that animal.”

She exhales sharply and looks at the ceiling. “I was misinformed.”

False Start

Matt bangs on our door first thing in the morning. Cody leaps from bed. I sit up and lie back down. I’m terribly hungover.

Cody’s gone a second, then shouts down the hall, “Tessa, we need you, a bear got into the pen last night and the pig—he got out.”

I scrabble into last night’s clothes and out into the morning. Frost on the ground, a good sign for slaughter. Cody’s already walking back up the lane, muddy and sweating.

“We got him back in there but he’s all freaked out,” Cody says. “We can’t do it today.”

Apparently, they found the pig in Matt and Anna’s garden foamy-mouthed and steaming, chomping the last of their winter greens. He must have wanted to go home because he was an easy herd. Anna found corn in the bear scat by the chicken house. We’re lucky the bear didn’t maim the pig, I guess.

“We have to let him cool for a day,” I explain as I serve eggs and bacon to my guests. “Cody says there’s too much cortisol running through him right now, too much stress. It would ruin the meat.”


I wake up early and gather acorns for Big Pig’s last meal. Cody floats them in beer with a bit of slop. Cody borrows Matt’s antique .22. Cody climbs over the fence and I hand him the gun. I line up with our country neighbors and city friends to watch. The pig drops his nose into the slop and slurps. Cody lifts the narrow nose of the rifle and drops it. Lifts and drops. How can he do this with so many people watching? The minutes pass. Opportunities to take the shot arrive and pass. But mostly the pig moves too much. His head shakes while he roots for the acorns at the bottom of the pale. I feel nauseous and dizzy. The pig finishes his last meal and begins to put around.

“I need to get in there and calm him down,” I blurt. Over Cody’s protests, I climb the fence and pet my pig until he lies down.

“I can’t do it with you in here, it’s not safe,” Cody says.

The pig gets back up.

“I’ll go get some more food. Some treats,” I say. Even I can hear the strain in my voice.

“Okay,” says Cody, while I climb back over the fence. “But if I get a shot while you’re gone, I’m taking it.”

I run toward the house. “Of course,” I call, without turning back.

I round the corner of the barn and hear the shot. I freeze. Chicory grows by the barn. Glorious, periwinkle, star-shaped blooms, delicate but bold, on long, woody stems. The sound of hooves against a plastic baby pool. First frost clings to the narrow leaves. It’s time to dig that chicory up and do something with the root. The relief of silence. Chicory. I could dig it up and clean it off and add it to our coffee. Chicory isn’t an intoxicant. It’s bitter. It’s good for you.