Pork Belly

Photo: Jonathan Borba, Pexels.com

Up close, the sow was huge. A hairy, brown behemoth, her freshly-washed trotters strapped to her chest, her lips slack enough to reveal giant molars that smelled faintly of toothpaste. The midwife heaved the pig’s head off the pillow, and Claudia put the daisy chain around its neck. They lowered the head together.

She could feel Kim watching from behind her. He thought the gesture was stupid. Even if the pig had been conscious, it was a pig.

‘But she’s giving us a wonderful gift,’ she’d told him as she packed protein bars and nappies into an overnight bag. ‘Why do you care if I offer her something?’

Kim looked up at the ceiling, as if appealing to a higher power for reason to prevail. ‘If it wasn’t in the hospital, it would be rolling around in its own filth.’

‘The flowers are a tradition,’ Claudia had lied. The procedure was new to this hospital—it was new everywhere. How could there be traditions already? But Kim had backed right off. If other couples offered symbolic gifts to their pigs, then it must be okay. He respected the desires of strangers, apparently. Just not hers.

‘Are you okay?’ the midwife asked.

Claudia nodded. She kissed the pig’s hairy brow and whispered in a cavernous ear: ‘Thank you.’

She expected her to blink, or snuffle. But maybe the animal couldn’t hear her over the rain sounds coming from the speakers hidden in the walls. Perhaps she was too heavily sedated.

Claudia cleared her throat. ‘Are you sure it’s safe? The tranquilliser.’

‘Don’t worry. It can’t cross the placenta.’ The midwife must have answered these questions a thousand times, but her voice remained gentle. Patient.

They’d first met ten months ago, when the midwife arrived at their house in an old Toyota. She’d been dressed in a leather jacket and open-toe shoes that showed off the vines tattooed on her foot. The second time they met was at the fertility clinic, where the midwife had been dressed more formally. But the damage was done—now Claudia saw her as a human being. Therefore, fallible. The more confident the midwife sounded, the more worried Claudia became. Someone in this room, she thought, should be anxious. For safety.

Her memories of that second meeting were patchy and stressful. On arrival at the clinic, she and Kim had found purity activists crowded around the entrance, chanting ‘Keep us human!’ and waving homemade signs: Eve = Adam’s rib, not Adam’s SPARE rib! What you reap is what you SOW!

Kim’s security biometrics had been emailed, but the clinic hadn’t uploaded them to the system properly. As Kim frantically tried to get the computer to recognise his face and let them in, one of the protesters threw a water balloon at Claudia, drenching her sundress with blood, before a security guard tackled him.

The clinic’s manager had been horrified. He knew Claudia was a lawyer. He immediately offered the services of their in-house counsellor while the staff took Claudia’s measurements and printed out new clothes for her. Instead of comforting Claudia, Kim apologised to everyone else for the inconvenience.

Claudia had acted like she wasn’t shaken. She kept it together until the shower was hissing at maximum volume, and then burst into tears. Once it was out of her system she did some breathing exercises and towelled off. By the time she was in the stirrups, a doctor retrieving her eggs via an ultrasound-guided needle, she’d been dry-eyed and numb.

The pig snored softly in the bed, its distended belly pulsing.

‘How about a caffeine hit?’ The midwife turned towards the coffee machine, which glowed in the corner like an alien spacecraft. ‘You take sugar, right?’

‘Not right now.’ Did parents usually have coffee during the birth? Like this was a date, or a business meeting? ‘But thank you.’

One wall of the birth suite was a holographic rainforest, birds flitting between the towering trees. The peaceful image clashed with the smell of disinfectant, and with the dark suit Kim was wearing. It was the same one from their wedding—he’d wanted to look good in the birth video, which was currently recording through the midwife’s eyeball implant.

Some of Claudia’s friends would have killed to have such an involved husband. ‘Harry was on his phone the whole time I was pushing,’ Freddie had said, rolling her eyes. She rolled her eyes a lot since the birth, as though showing off: she had the time for twins and mascara. ‘Honestly. I don’t know why he didn’t just stay home.’

‘You wouldn’t let me,’ Harold had called cheerfully from their immaculate galley-style kitchen. ‘And for the record, I was taking photos.’

‘Of my double chin!’ Freddie had pointed to the underside of her jaw, as though she actually had a double chin to photograph. ‘And posting them before I could vet them!’

Claudia had obediently reassured Freddie that she looked great, even after a… natural birth. She still couldn’t bring herself to say the word ‘vaginal’. Even thinking it made her wince.

She missed Freddie. They’d hardly spoken since Claudia told her about all this. In their rare conversations, it was clear they were both trying to sound more friendly than they felt.

It must be nice having a laid-back, double-chin-posting husband. For months, every discussion with Kim had been about the pregnancy. Whenever she tried to change the subject to soccer, or politics, he sighed and let her drag the conversation along the floor until she ran out of strength. The few times the midwife visited, Kim had so many questions for her that Claudia was too embarrassed to ask her own, feeling that they’d already used up so much of her time.

‘I’m just listening to baby’s heart.’ The midwife switched on a speaker on her belt and pressed a bulb to the pig’s navel. The words pork belly barged into Claudia’s mind and wouldn’t leave, like those Jehovah’s Witnesses last week.

The crackling from the machine became a galloping, gulping noise.

‘Beautiful,’ the midwife pronounced, switching off the machine.

‘It sounded fast,’ Claudia said. ‘Didn’t it sound fast?’

‘It’s normal for parents to feel nervous at this stage. But that’s a very happy baby. Time to bring the obstetrician in, I think.’ The midwife left the room so fast that the lavender-scented candles flickered and almost died.

The words went around and around in her head, like a sushi train. Pork belly, pork belly, pork belly

Suddenly Kim was there, squeezing Claudia’s hand. His mouth was crinkled in concern. Downturned at the edges and in the middle, like the letter M.

Claudia had grown fond of that expression, because everything else about him had changed. He’d slimmed down, donated his Hawaiian shirts and let his hair go sophisticatedly grey. He’d stopped following orders—which was fair enough, since he didn’t work for her anymore—but it meant that grimace was all she had left of the man she’d fallen in love with.

‘I’m fine, really.’ Claudia folded her arms over her stomach. ‘Excited.’

‘All the scans have been perfect,’ Kim reminded her.

This was technically true. But Claudia had found the first scan unsettling. The radiographer, a petite Asian woman with dangly earrings, had led them to an empty room and handed Claudia a pair of VR goggles. ‘Mum goes first,’ she’d said pleasantly.

Putting on the goggles had transported Claudia to a dark, wet chamber. The other occupant had been a floating baby, as tall as she was, bulging eyelids twitching in its huge head. The giant umbilical cord had swirled around her like an anaconda.

It had taken all Claudia’s self-control not to rip the goggles off. She’d agreed to participate in the second scan only to avoid feeling like a bad mother. She didn’t want to admit, even to herself, how disturbed she’d been by the sight of her own child.

During the second scan she’d noticed the other creature in the background—a pig foetus, head tucked, eyes closed. It had been implanted only to ensure the womb remained hospitable—its DNA had been tweaked so it would grow at one-third speed. Claudia mentioned it to Kim later, and he didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. He’d only seen his daughter.

‘This is the safest way.’ Kim was still talking, as though she’d criticised him. As though they were still arguing about this. Like she hadn’t spent months swallowing milk production pills, getting injected with ovarian stimulation hormones and buying expensive baby equipment. Like she hadn’t already given him exactly what he wanted, like always. ‘Three in every ten thousand vaginal births, someone dies. The baby, the mother or both. I’m sorry, but I can’t expose our daughter to—’

You don’t sound sorry. ‘I know,’ Claudia said instead. ‘I agree with you.’ She stroked one of his stubbly forearms under his suit jacket. He’d shaved them, to reduce the risk of passing on an infection to the child. When he’d proudly told the midwife this, she’d failed to stifle a laugh—a little yelp, like a dog whose tail had been stepped on. That was weeks ago. Kim had been too proud to let the hair grow back.

Claudia wished there was someone she could really talk to. Some middle ground between Freddie—who thought she was a monster—and her husband, her therapist and all those medical people who refused to acknowledge that there was anything strange about all this.

The obstetrician entered with an air of importance, like a leading man arriving on a sound stage. He wore glasses with old-fashioned Patrick-White frames, making Claudia wonder what kind of doctor doesn’t get laser eye surgery. They’d met him only once before, when they opted for the surrogacy. He’d explained the ‘very, very unlikely potential negative outcomes’ so quickly that Claudia had absorbed none of them. He’d given them an iPad to sign, nodded briskly, and vanished.

Now he shot a token smile at Claudia and Kim. ‘And how are we feeling?’ he almost shouted over the rainforest sounds.

Claudia and Kim exchanged a glance, each expecting the other to answer the question. Once upon a time, they had finished one another’s sentences. Now they hardly spoke at all.

‘Glad to hear it,’ said the doctor, as though one of them had replied. ‘Let’s meet this baby, shall we?’

He exchanged a look with the anaesthetist, who was poised behind the pig as silently as a puppeteer, and then he had a hushed conversation with the midwife. He made sweeping motions with his hands, like a politician making a speech. The midwife did lots of nodding, her smile now gone. It was a performance, Claudia realised, oddly relieved. There was a professional under all that cheer after all.

‘Will it hurt?’

The doctor turned around. ‘Pardon?’

‘Will it hurt?’ Claudia asked again.

Everyone in the room looked at her like she was an idiot.

‘Not me,’ she said hurriedly. ‘Her.’

‘No,’ the doctor said. ‘It’s a bit of a shock, being born, but it’s not painful. We’ll get her under the heat lamps quickly, and then you can breastfeed her while we do the vitamin K injection. She’ll hardly notice.’

Claudia clamped her mouth shut, letting everyone think she’d been asking about the baby. Because what kind of mother would care more about a pig than her own child? She must never, ever tell anyone she’d asked after the pig’s welfare. Nor that she’d named it in her head. Dixie.

That was the real wall between her and the others, Claudia realised. No-one else cared about the pig.

She could still hear Freddie’s voice: ‘You can’t be serious. You and Kim are using a pigcenta?’

Claudia had bristled. ‘It’s called interspecific pregnancy.’ And just like that, their roles were determined. She was the defence, Freddie was the prosecution. It was an argument, not a discussion.

One of the supposed benefits of this procedure was that she would be able to keep working right up until the birth. But she hadn’t wanted to feel like her best friend’s verandah was a courtroom. She’d wanted to be able to voice her own doubts, and now it seemed impossible.

‘But why?’ Freddie had said. ‘You’re only twenty-nine. Why go for something so unnatural?’

‘Jesus, Freddie. Antibiotics are unnatural. Anaesthetic is unnatural.’

By sounding so convincing she’d convinced herself, just like when she was talking to a jury. But now, looking at the pig on the bed, and the doctor at the sink scrubbing his hands all the way up to his elbows, she knew exactly how Freddie had felt. This was all wrong.

Pork belly. The Jehovah’s Witnesses had finally left when Kim arrived home. ‘We’re pregnant,’ he’d told them proudly. ‘Two months to go.’ The door-knockers looked at Claudia’s flat stomach. The smiles froze on their faces. Then they’d made excuses and fled, clutching their leaflets like shields to their chests.

Bright lights illuminated the pig. Her eyes rolled behind thick, veiny lids. The doctor said something to the anaesthetist, who quickly upped the sedative. The pig stilled.

A nurse cleaned its abdomen with antiseptic. The doctor unveiled the catheter, checking that the pig’s bladder had finished draining. Then he took the scalpel out from under the sterilisation ray and started palpating the pig’s belly with his other hand.

Claudia felt like the rain sounds were getting louder and louder. She wanted to ask if someone could turn it down, but she didn’t want to distract the doctor. Soon the noise seemed so loud that she thought he wouldn’t hear her in any case. It was like being in that steaming shower again, blood everywhere, no-one hearing her cry.

The scalpel drew a pale line across the pig’s gut. Claudia felt the sting of the blade, and clutched her own navel. Kim didn’t notice. He looked laser-focused, eager, with a grin that almost seemed hungry.

The incision was much longer than Claudia had expected. Thirty centimetres at least. The doctor pried the abdominal muscles apart and clamped them in place, revealing the slick purple sack of the uterus.

Claudia could feel her own blood pressure dropping. Stars sparkled at the edges of her eyes. No, she thought. I will not faint at my child’s birth.

The midwife reached for Claudia’s hand and squeezed it. The stars receded.

The doctor made a second incision. The uterus split like a cheap sausage, and a torrent of blood soaked the bed. A distant, cold part of Claudia’s brain wondered why the hospital didn’t use plastic sheets.

And then the baby appeared.

It wasn’t until she saw her daughter that Claudia realised what she’d been most afraid of. The terror had been buried so deep that she hadn’t even known it was under there, a hollow slowly sucking her foundations down into the dark. It was the fear, despite the scans, that a monster would be born. A creature with human hands and a snout, or trotters and a human face.

The baby girl had perfect toes, perfect fingers, perfect little nostrils, perfect scrunched up eyes. Her skin was purplish under a sheen of cheesy white vernix, but she was already opening her perfect little mouth to scream.

The midwife was beckoning. ‘Come on!’

Claudia floated over on a cloud of awe. The midwife lifted the baby out of the grisly crevasse and passed the little girl into her arms.

Claudia’s eyes filled with tears as she looked down at her daughter. She was smiling so hard her face hurt. She’d already forgotten the pig existed.

‘Hello.’ She stroked the baby’s hairless skull. Her voice broke. ‘I’m your mummy.’

‘She’s breathing. Thank God.’ Kim hugged Claudia, more tightly than he had in a year. Interspecific pregnancy had an increased risk of breathing difficulties. Kim hadn’t said anything, but Claudia knew he’d been worried about this.

‘Does Dad want to cut the cord?’ The doctor held out a wiry pair of scissors. The cord was thick and milky-coloured, more like a piece of medical tubing than anything natural. At some point someone had clamped it. Claudia hadn’t even noticed.

Kim looked to her for permission. Claudia’s heart throbbed with love for him, and for her beautiful daughter, and for everyone. The wall between them was gone. How could she have doubted that this would be anything other than wonderful?

‘Go on.’ She kissed him on his stubbly cheek. ‘It’s a tradition.’

Kim took the scissors and sliced through the cord. There was a little squirt of blood, and the baby was free. They all held each other, the baby crying, Kim and Claudia crying too. My family, Claudia thought. I have a family.

While Claudia exposed her breast and helped the baby find the nipple with her clumsy little lips, the doctor was examining the placenta. Satisfied, he gestured to the anaesthetist, who twisted a valve. The pig’s trotters stopped trembling. Its breathing slowed.

‘The heat lamp?’ Claudia spoke without taking her eyes off her daughter’s face. ‘Do you need…’

‘There’s no rush.’ She could hear the smile in the midwife’s voice. ‘She’s happy there for now.’

‘Thank you. So, so much.’ Claudia wanted to thank everyone. The midwife, the doctor, her amazing husband, her sublime daughter.

The rain sounds faded. The doctor shook Kim’s hand, beaming. The midwife blinked a few times, scrubbing back through the birth video stored on her implant, and then gave Claudia a thumbs-up.

Behind them, the pig’s carcass grew cold, forgotten.

***

Jack Heath is the author of Hangman. Pork Belly was first published in Aurealis #129, March 2020.