Hoover Hawg of Eden, by August Williams
The house wasn’t the same anymore. Now the wind rattled impolitely at the windows, begging to let the dust in, a hollow replacement for the baby’s cries of hunger. Artie sat on the edge of his cot and listened to the plaintive howl, his bloodshot eyes fixed on the peeling wallpaper. He hugged his knees to his chest and tried to stop trembling.
In the other room, his mama stammered her plea: Arthur senior had to bring something home, anything to silence the spasms of her stomach. Artie bit his lip and closed his eyes, his mama’s soft and wrinkled face rising into his mind. She bore her Native American heritage proudly, though she rarely spoke of it. He heard her whisper, the desert will be kind enough to take me—it is full of my ancestors.
Artie dashed the tears from his face with a grimy sleeve and pushed himself off the cot. He ran past his parents, huddled over the dinner table, their hands entwined. He stopped long enough to grab his noose stick from against the side of the house and fled into the dust.
Eden, Texas, was a broken place, crippled by the Great Depression. Artie’s churning feet took him past ramshackle stores, their contents long removed, and houses battered by the dusty wind. He went out beyond the borders of his hometown. He went until his legs, starved of protein these long months, gave out under him and sent him rolling down a small dune.
He opened his eyes and sucked in his breath. His nose was inches away from a scaly snout and a pair of dark, quizzical eyes. It was a Hoover hawg—an armadillo. Artie fumbled for his noose, keeping his motions out of sight of the creature. It watched him with a cool satisfaction he found unnerving, a bit too human for what he was about to do.
Though his reflexes were slowed from starvation, he flicked out his hand and with it the rope. It swept around the hawg’s neck, tightening as it was designed to do. The beast thrashed, flipping over onto its shelled back, and flailed its long claws in the air. Almost sobbing with triumph, Artie pushed himself onto his feet and scooped up his prey. He brought it close to his face. His cracked lips moved in a single word: “Mama.”
“Yes?” the creature asked, its voice soft and musical and genderless.
Artie’s grip tightened on the hawg’s shell, though every instinct told him to toss it away. He blinked bleary eyes at the animal. “Didja just talk?”
He could have sworn the hawg smiled. “Everything talks when you listen.”
Artie had begun to tremble. He set the hawg down on the sand, hypnotically untangling the noose from around its neck. Then he stood, a wisp of life against a landscape eager to claim him. He wavered, but his gaze never left the creature, who for its part stood with its nose gently twitching.
“Come,” the hawg finally said, turning away to shuffle up the closest dune.
Artie hesitated. He put his palms to either side of his head against the headache forming. His lips pursed as he weighed his choices. He couldn’t take the hawg home to be eaten—even in his near-starvation, his respect for sentient life prevailed. But a promise of a journey further into the desert spoken by an armadillo seemed an encouragement to the ghastly Death hovering nearby.
By now, the hawg was three dunes away, its pace the same contented trundle. It looked back over its shoulder, and even at the distance, Artie saw its eyes twinkle with invitation.
He swallowed the dust and lifted his right foot to follow.
The first step changed everything. Instead of sand blistering his bare feet, sweet grass tickled his skin. Overhead stretched a violet sky shimmering with golden clouds. And the hawg, swelling to the size of Artie’s shack even as he watched, glittered like a cache of jewels.
It cuffed the grass with one set of claws and smiled again. “Welcome to creation, little love.”
Its voice carried clearly on the still air. Artie took a deep breath of flowers and musky earth and almost choked on how wonderful it tasted. He rushed forward and threw his arms as far as he could reach against the hawg’s shell. “I’m in Heaven, ain’t I?”
The hawg contemplated this, tilting its head with indecision, its eyes glowing with a secret. “As close as dear ones like you may be, yes.”
This pulled Artie up short as a boulder of realization hit him. “…Mama,” he managed.
“No, no,” the hawg soothed, curling its segmented tail around the boy, “your mother is fine, as fine as she can be. This is another place, another dream. Let me show you.”
Artie gasped as the tail squeezed him tight against the hawg’s body, holding him with all the comfort of his father’s arms, as the animal broke into a gallop. The little hills—the dunes, Artie realized with a start—rolled under them effortlessly. He stopped shaking and rested his arms over the tail, wondering why his face was hurting. Then he remembered he hadn’t smiled since the baby passed, and this made his cheeks warm with shame.
“To find happiness again is to honor those who have gone,” rumbled the hawg.
Then—splash! They dove into a river Artie barely had time to register, a merry bubbling affair as green as the sky was purple. The boy flailed; the hawg still held him tightly, and though bubbles escaped them both, there was no panic in the animal’s movements. It seemed to be breathing the water itself. With an unexplainable trust welling warmly in his chest, Artie took a chance and inhaled.
The river was sweet and cool in his lungs, and a strange power shimmered at his fingertips. He stared at his hands, then craned around to look at the hawg. It was smiling at him, treading water and keeping their position below the surface.
“I draw life from here,” it said, “realities and visions both.”
“Oh,” Artie said. A bubble formed at his lips and popped, tickling his eyelids.
The hawg shot towards the surface. They broke free without spluttering, a rebirth of sunlight and droplets. Paddling to the shore, the hawg pulled them both onto the bank and then released Artie. It reared up on its hind legs, tossing back its head, its midsection growing and growing. Artie took a step backwards, concern creasing his forehead.
The hawg’s mouth opened and countless tiny hawgs poured forth. Artie counted thirty before he had to stop, and it was well over twice that before the hawg belched one final infant and dropped back to all fours, its smile wider than ever.
“Creation, little love! It is exhilarating.” It took a shuddering breath, its whole body trembling with joy. “This is my purpose. I draw from creation. I birth. I build. I father the trees and I mother the creatures.”
Artie realized he wanted to cry.
“Dear one,” the hawg said, and came over to nuzzle at the top of his head, “it is a sacrifice I make with no hesitation, no grief. I am always reborn.”
Artie reached up and put his arms around the hawg. Its skin was pliant but reassuringly solid.
“Will I see ya ‘gain?” he mumbled into its neck.
The hawg drew back, its ever-present smile gentle now.
“Whenever you look,” it said.
The jeweled landscape faded to dust.
Artie stood with the hawg in his hands. He gazed into its face, and thought he saw a sparkle, one last time. A breeze rushed past his face, and both he and the animal shut their eyes. When he opened them again, he was holding an ordinary armadillo, placated by his grip but with no spark of knowing in its gaze.
Steeling his resolve, whispering a prayer of thanks, he started the walk home to his mama with supper in his palms.
(Thanks to Buzzfeed for the inspiration and image!)
The draft of this story has been posted solely for the purpose of critique and feedback, which may be used later in editing. This should not be considered a publication of a final work.