Before the New Depression, before 9/11, before semicolons equalled eyes—Drake Bundy tended pigs beside Illinois Route 126. Drake's dad and grandad had been dairymen, but pasteurization laws and the cost of the associated equipment killed that option. So Drake chose pigs. Far less repulsive than sitting behind the wheel of a tractor for months on end. At least to him.
In 1958 when he made the switch, none of his neighbors minded. Back then his nearest neighbor was 60 acres away and shielded by a fragrant heirloom-rose garden. But in the waning moments of the 20th century, suburban neighbors sprang up 'round his pig enclosures—cheek to jowl in poorly crafted house-farm homes. They had no heirloom gardens or rows of crops to block the unfortunate gas-production of Drake's pigs because their builders had scraped and paved every living thing within their lot lines.
So Drake found it highly suspicious when the tornado siren wailed amidst popcorn clouds that salted a jay-blue sky. In October. And not on Testing Tuesday at 10:00 a.m. He lifted his mesh-backed DEKALB ball cap and slicked down the 27 strands of hair that covered his bald spot, wincing as he looked into the warm autumn sun. “Stupid computers. Mess up everything,” he muttered to the sow that tried to eat his coveralls.
And yet, the wind picked up. But the sky wasn't even close to grey-green or stacked with black thunderheads, so Drake kept on slopping. However, the pigs no longer jostled for position around the feeding troughs. Or wallowed in the pungent mud. Instead, they clustered in perfect circles: dead-center in each enclosure. In over thirty years of tending pigs he'd never seen anything like it. Again he slicked down his hair and winced at the sunny sky. Nothing.
He tried to scatter the pigs by shouting, shaking a bucket of feed, even kicking a couple sows. The pigs just snuggled into tighter circles. And then—WHAM! It sounded like the Burlington Northern Railroad sent a spur line right up his aspens. Gelatinous fecal-mud quivered around his boots as swirling shadows engulfed Drake's farm...
...yet the surrounding house farms remained awash in October sun.
Drake looked up and finally saw something. More than something. A massive grey-green eddy circled over his head and sent out a funnel cloud to suck him and his pigs up, up, and away. He floated—suspended in the center of the vortex and surrounded by his herd. A herd that was now embedded in the spiraling sides of the cloud. Oddly, it no longer sounded like the Burlington Northern in the funnel. It sounded more like a swinesque cantata with bovine undertones.
Yes, bovine. As he neared the top, Drake swore he heard the deep lowing of a cow. One cow—steer?—that moaned with so much force it vibrated his ribs. The pigs must have heard it too, because they squealed and kicked against the funnel current, like they were trying to swim back to land. The tornado condensed into a stovepipe, lifted, then swept out across the once-vast Wheatland Township.
With each bovine bellow, the cloud lost its grip on pigs. Nine porkers splattered onto the 13th green at Fox Bend Golf Course. Another dozen flattened trees at Morton Arboretum. Not even Soldier Field escaped the porcine rain. Fifteen carcasses pelted the 35 yard line and were later barbecued for the visiting Green Bay fans. All the while, Drake floated in the eye of the storm.
Over Lake Michigan, the tornado got enough lift to enter the stratosphere. And there, a whisper away from vacuous space, Drake saw the bovine in question. Only it wasn't a cow. It was an ox. And not just any ox. It was Babe...the legendary Blue Ox. Drake slapped his stubbly cheeks and rubbed his hair in an attempt to wake himself from this ridiculous dream. But it wasn't a dream. There stood Babe the Blue Ox with ants crawling all over him: ants in his slimy nostrils, ants pooling around his nobbly knees, ants hanging off his tail as it lifts for an ox-sized dump.
The funnel spewed Drake above the cloud. He landed on Babe's back and saw that the ox wasn't actually covered in ants, but in dairymen. 300 years worth of dairymen by the looks of their clothes. Some were using push-brooms to scrub Babe's coat. Others were using iron tongs to pull giant ticks out of Babe's skin. And at the base of Babe's tail stood Drake's dad, using hedge trimmers to cut out globs of poo matted in Babe's hair.
Drake ran to his dad, surprised he could. He wasn't even panting when he asked, “Dad! What are you doing here?”
“Dairyman's Purgatory,” Mr. Bundy replied while clipping.
“But Babe's an ox. Why are you here?”
Mr. Bundy paused, straightened up slowly, then said, “I know Babe's an ox, you daft beggar. Why'd you think I called it purgatory? Nothing worse for a dairyman than tending a draft animal. Nothing.”
“But you were a good dairyman. Why on earth would you go to purgatory? Is grandad here too?”
Mr. Bundy puffed his cheeks full of air, then slowly let it escape in that exasperated breath-sound he always made before belting Drake. “I was a fine dairyman. But you! You had to go and raise pigs—smelly beasts. You could have farmed corn for cattle feed. Or hay. Or learned to be a livestock vet. Something to do with cows.”
Mr. Bundy let the hedge trimmers fall out of his hands so that the tip poked Babe's rump. They both hit the deck before Babe's tail flicked up in response. Drake could barely breathe after the blow.
“And your grandad? Oh, he's in heaven alright. Look over there.” Mr. Bundy pointed to a lush rolling grassland with Jerseys, Guernseys, and Holsteins grazing and swishing silky tails. “See the Brown Swiss near the log there? That's your grandad's. He's probably taking a joyride on her tail right now. Loves to swing on the end like Tarzan, he does. Crazy loon.”
Drake had barely known his grandad, but he knew his dad always feared him. The change in tone made Drake dizzy. “So why are you in purgatory and grandad's in heaven? I don't get it.”
“Because I,” Mr. Bundy thumped his chest, “I was a dairyman. You,” Mr. Bundy shoved a calloused finger in Drake's chest, “You were a stinking pig farmer!”
“You mean I'm dead?” Drake sat down on Babe's rump and gripped handfuls of hair to steady himself.
“Well you're not walking the earth, at any rate.” Mr. Bundy retrieved his trimmer and set back to work. “Although, I wonder why you got sucked up the vortex instead of dying like the rest of us. What's your son do?”
“Drake Junior? He's at U of I studying Agribusiness. Why?”
Before Mr. Bundy could answer, Paul Bunyan himself strode over. He picked Drake up by his coveralls and raised him to eye-level. “Drake, I've got something to show you. Then I'm putting you to work. You're mine for at least the next two hundred years.” Paul Bunyan laughed.
Drake lost his hat to the gale-force laughter. Paul Bunyan raised his axe up so that Drake could see himself reflected in its polished-steel head. Then Paul Bunyan breathed on the axe. In the mist, Drake saw his son—Drake Bundy, Junior—signing the deed of the Bundy farm over to a developer and collecting $1.5 million in cash. Drake cried. Begged for another chance.
But it was too late. Plus Paul Bunyan was hungry. He swung the axe into the eye of the tornado. The stovepipe immediately dissolved. Centrifugal force spewed the pigs into space before gravity brought them back into the stratosphere. Re-entry friction roasted them to perfection. Paul Bunyan scooped up the bacon-bits before they splashed into the Pacific Ocean and invited the heavenly dairymen to join him for supper. The purgatorial dairymen ate ticks.
Except Drake. He found himself with his own set of hedge trimmers, tethered to the underside of Babe's tail.
Bio:When J. S. Graustein isn't writing, she fries bacon and plays Managing Editor at Folded Word Press. She fled Tornado Alley in 1995 to settle in a tectonically-stable region of California. She tolerates the 49ers now that Mike Singletary's in charge, but she'll go to her grave a Bears fan—in Brian Urlacher's jersey.