It was love at first sight, at least for Jenny. She knew she wasn't supposed to be in the barn without an adult, but the bales of hay were too tempting. Ole Jimbo the farm hand was the only one around, though, and he didn't care what she did, so it's not like it even counted…
She happened to be there when the sow delivered her latest litter of piglets. With her first squeals of labor, Ole Jimbo was up and over the rickety posts making up her pen and on his knees next to her. Jenny hung back, but slowly edged closer and closer, too curious to worry about getting caught if her father came in.
Ole Jimbo stayed mostly out of the way, simply moving each squirming piglet out of the way before the next one came. It seemed the sow was done, with seven new babies to her credit. Then, without warning, she let out a shriek and, after several minutes, a final piglet was born. Eight. A record for this particular pig. Father would be so pleased.
The farm hand reached for the last piglet but, just as fast, jerked his hands away. He crossed himself and backed out of the pen, leaving the creature where it had fallen from its mother. As soon as he was free from the barn, he rushed out and didn't look back.
Jenny stepped onto the lowest rung of the pen and peered over. The sow was grunting quietly as she cleaned her litter. All but one. The last one. Even its mother seemed to be staying away. It lay there, its sides barely moving. Was it sick? Maybe it just needed help.
Without hesitation, Jenny grabbed a nearby rag and jumped in—cautiously, wanting to prevent the suspicious grunts of the mother pig from becoming anything more than warning sounds. She gathered the tiny animal and bundled it in the cloth and settled on a bale of hay just outside the pen. Jenny wiped it down carefully, wishing her four-year-old hands weren't so clumsy, but the piglet was soon as clean as she could make it.
“Oh,” she said, surprised, for the now filthy, bloody cloth spread out on next to her on the hay. The piglet—a boy—was pale, nearly crystalline white. His skin was slowly taking on a slightly pinkish tone around his cheeks and ears, but the rest of him was the color of sugar.
She put a finger between his eyes and ran it lightly down the snout. The animal felt warm, but…
Jenny had grown up on this farm and had been around a lot of piglets. This one was different. Felt different. Instead of soft skin with a few baby fine hairs along its body, he was almost rough with a crumbly feeling. She looked at her fingers, expecting to see sand-like grains clinging to them, but they were clean. Well, as clean as they ever were.
She rubbed the snout a little harder and the creature opened its unusually round eyes and lifted its head a couple inches, meeting her eyes as his neck wavered. “Oh, you dear little baby boy,” she crooned. The piglet cuddled against her, warm, breathing softly. His eyes drooped, but the snout sucked, looking for his first meal.
“Jenny girl! Get away from that… thing,” Ole Jimbo hissed. She scooted away from the piglet, startled by the farm hand's arrival.
Her father strode into the barn seconds later, imposing both in height and demeanor. “This it?” he snarled. He motioned to a shovel on the wall behind Ole Jimbo. “Take care of it,” he said without waiting. “Can't have word getting out. Would ruin the reputation of this farm. We'll take care of the sow once the piglets are weaned. Won't take the chance she'll do this again.”
Father turned and was gone just as quickly. Jenny stared at Ole Jimbo, understanding immediately what her father wanted him to do. Tears flowed down her round cheeks and she ducked her head so no one would see. He was only a stupid piglet, and obviously a sick one, or they wouldn't have to kill him.
As if sensing the crackle of danger that suddenly webbed the barn, the other animals—mostly goats and chickens—grew silent. The piglet, his eyes open again, blinked and slowly, hoof-by-hoof, got to his feet.
Ole Jumbo reached for the shovel. Before she realized she'd done it, Jenny swaddled the piglet in the dirty cloth and hugged him to her chest. “No!”
“That thing be bad news, Jenny girl. Gotta do this…” Ole Jimbo's massive biceps and shoulders flexed under the straps of his denim overalls. “Just put the vile thing down and you go'wan outside and play. Don't want you seein' this.”
“No!” she cried again and ran, the animal tucked against her chest.
Jenny stopped running when she reached the fence that marked the edge of their property, surprised no one had caught her. Maybe the piglet wasn't such a bad thing after all. She pulled the cloth away from his face and rubbed his soft nose. “Don't worry. I'll take care of you.”
She heard the crunch of boots on the gravel driveway and ducked under the fence, hiding in the thick brush. The piglet whimpered, hungry. “We have to be very quiet,” she whispered. The piglet looked her in the eyes and nuzzled her chin, then sighed and fell asleep.
Ole Jimbo and her father had searched for her and the piglet for hours, finally giving up. She'd overheard her father say she wouldn't know nothing about taking care of it, and it would die anyway. Well, she'd show them!
Father hadn't said anything when she returned home, piglet free, for dinner that night. It seemed he'd decided not to trouble their mother with the news of her disobedience. Just as well; Mother was not always known to be understanding when it came to Jenny's childish outbursts. Apparently her older brothers and sisters had never acted in such a manner, instead behaving sensibly and doing as told. She found the entire lot of her seven siblings to be boring as dry crackers, and was perfectly content to be ignored by all of them and left to her own devices.
Especially since it meant she could care for the piglet without fear of being followed.
She'd hidden the animal in an unused shed along the fence line, one she'd discovered last summer and turned into a playhouse for herself. No one used it anymore, mostly because it was so far away from the new barn; at least no one would hear the occasional cries of the baby pig. However, the long disuse meant the small structure was falling apart, especially the roof. To keep the rapidly growing piglet dry from the occasional spring rain, she'd found an old umbrella and kept it open, even if it might mean bad luck. Maybe the bad luck piglet would cancel out the bad luck from the umbrella.
The floor was clean, though, aside from leaves and twigs that blew in during the storms. The piglet seemed to like nibbling on the twigs, so Jenny left them in a bucket she'd stolen from the barn. An old trough took up another side of the shed. Though the piglet was only using it for milk and water so far, Jenny knew he'd be needing slop soon enough. It would be a new challenge, gathering enough food to keep the piglet alive as he got bigger, but she'd promised him, promised to take care of him, and she'd simply eat less if that's what it took.
Her thievery had reached epic levels when she'd raided the house of its few unused rags and blankets, piling them under the umbrella so the piglet had a soft, protected nest. She hoped he was happy. She thought he might be; he greeted her with a waggle of his rump every time she came to visit.
As he grew, the piglet stayed sugar white, aside from his rosy pink cheeks and ears. The eyes, large rounds, almost button-like, were bright blue and alert whenever she came to see him. And he always smiled. Though his skin never did get soft, the crumbly texture was oddly pleasing to her hands. Jenny couldn't imagine why anyone wanted to kill such a fine, unusual pig. She finally decided to call him Sweetie.
Sweetie seemed to understand somehow, that he needed to stay here, away from the adults. Jenny was always careful when sneaking off to their hiding place, but the farm was busy this time of year, as the late spring crops ripened. One fine, warm morning as Jenny carted a basket of dandelion greens, shriveled carrots—that she'd tucked away in her napkin at dinner last night—and the heels of a loaf of bread, she came across Father and Ole Jimbo ambling up the road. Their voices carried on the dry air, and she ducked behind a blackberry bramble seconds before they came around the bend by the shed. Jenny held her breath as they passed within feet of her.
“You ever find where Jenny's hiding that sugar pig?” Father asked Ole Jimbo.
The farm hand shook his head, pausing to pull a rag from his overalls and wipe his brow. “Not yet. You sure the thing's still alive, sir?”
Father raised his eyes to the heavens and leaned against a nearby fence post. “That child would've been inconsolable if that vile creature had died under her care. Of all things for her to take to. A damn sugar pig. She's got it hidden around here somewhere. The child is only four, it's not like she can get very far.”
“I'll be keepin' a lookout still, then, sir.”
“A sugar pig, on this farm. I still can't believe it. Has anyone said anything? Did anyone else see it?”
“No, sir,” Ole Jimbo said. “And I surely woulda heard if word got out. Never thought I'd live ta see a sugar pig. Been twenty years or more since the last one was recorded.”
“And we all know what happened to the McDowell's farm shortly after it was born. The entire summer's crop burned to nothing more than ashes. Mrs. McDowell had a stillborn boy child, and never had another child after that. Then none of their crops would grow. They lost the farm three years later.”
Ole Jimbo nodded. “And the Andersons six years a'fore them. Whole property torn to shreds by a twister.”
Father started walking again. “And now us. Not like the war has left us much anyway, with most of our crops going to feed the troops, but now this. A sugar pig.”
Their voices became too faint to hear as they crossed the small stream cutting their property in two. Jenny looked toward the shed. Sweetie was a sugar pig. Because of his white coloring, she guessed. But why were they bad luck? And would something happen to their farm? Maybe she should hand Sweetie over to Ole Jimbo…
She opened the rickety door to the shed. Sweetie squealed softly and bumped her stomach with his snout. His eyes were round and so blue. She laughed as he knocked her over in his hurry to get at the basket of food she carried. How was it possible Sweetie was bad luck? Jenny vowed again to keep him safe, then they'd see he wasn't really unlucky.
She managed to do just that, until one morning when Sweetie was almost two months old.
Ole Jimbo was waiting for her. The wall of a man stood in front of the dilapidated shed, wearing a face as crossed as his arms. “Jenny girl, I know what you be hidin'. Can't have no sugar pigs on this land. You knows they poison.”
“No! You can't take him! You can't have Sweetie.” She dropped the basket of bread and milk and flung herself at the farm hand, tiny fists pounding his stomach. He let her beat him for a few minutes until he grabbed hold of her arms and held her at a distance.
“Just the way it's gotta be, Jenny girl. Now, I gotta take it with me. Can't have it 'round here. And you knows it. Promise I'll be kind to it. Won't feel no pain.”
He pulled the rickety door open. Jenny wiggled around the farm hand, blocking access to Sweetie's umbrella-filled shelter. “No! He's my friend. He's not bad.”
But her pleas weren't enough, and Ole Jimbo scooped the pig up like he weighed no more than when he was newly born. Sweetie squealed and flung himself about. Ole Jimbo was stronger than three oxen though, and he had control over the frantic piglet in seconds. There was sadness in the farm hand's eyes, compassion. But Jenny knew he'd do what Father had dictated.
“Jenny girl, you go'won home now. See your mamma. Don't think I went and forgot today's your birthday.”
“Jenny! Come down, darling,” her mother called, voice soft and melodic. The one childish tradition Mother embraced was each of their birthdays, doing what she could in these tough times to make the day special.
The little girl trudged down the stairs, knowing this was no happy birthday. Knowing that her birthday marked the end of Sweetie's short life.
With the war lasting many years beyond what most had expected, supplies were low, and even at the oft-naïve age of four—now five—she knew the realities of this thing happening on the side of the country still affected them. She had no expectations for a special dinner of any kind. It would be shriveled root vegetables, bread and cheese, and maybe some early peas or spinach if they were lucky.
Instead, in the center of the table sat a small cake, sparsely frosted with pale pink icing. Jenny reached a tentative finger toward it, unable to stop herself. “For me?” She'd never had cake before. It wasn't like they could get sugar these days.
Sugar… Sweetie. Ole Jimbo called him a sugar pig. But that didn't mean he was really made of…
She turned horrified eyes to her mother. “No!”
“Now, darling, might as well get some good out of it. Not like a farm with a sugar pig can survive otherwise. Those things are bad luck. Now, be a good girl and blow out the candle before it burns any further.”