Pharmakeia

John Stark

 

“Someday we may all be part pig. Those of us who aren’t already there, anyway.”

The corner of my colleague’s mouth twitches. The joke always lands, and I can’t help but smile. Don’t let anyone tell you the sciences aren’t funny. Us scientists have always had a taste for dark humor.

Suidae, or “swine” in common parlance, are so like us. If I lay out the lungs of a pig and the lungs of a human side by side, what layman could guess which was which?

My colleague is discussing, of course, the near future when replacement human organs will be grown inside of pigs. The pig as a living home for new parts of us, thanks to the beautiful possibilities of science. Slip the human stem cells in and grow your own replacement liver. Oh, the pig is collateral, no doubt, but there must always be sacrifices when chasing immortality. When we look back through time, we will discover our greatest achievements will not be synthetic or man-made, but instead will come from the bellies of creatures as old as us.

These days, it seems, to turn human men into pigs is a too common a trick. Clichéd even, or so I hear. An old game, best left on abandoned Mediterranean islands composed of too many vowels. Best left in stories no one believes anymore and few people still bother to tell. When they do bother, the truth becomes twisted and I become a woman who changes, who in time bends and concedes to the men I once transformed. It is true that Aeaean enchantments are a thing of the past, but they were always science, whatever words were chanted, whatever the potion. Today they say the truth is that men can become pigs quite well enough on their own; no enchantment needed. So now the trick has become to turn pigs into men instead. Or at least, to cut the pigs up, pig-as-chimera, to aid in the creation of future man—and of course, the men like this new trick better.

I encourage the research, even if I don’t quite agree with the reversal. No matter the cliché, there’s something indulgent in watching man turn to swine, and I cannot resist revisiting the metamorphosis again and again. In today’s world, the best potions are pills. My irony requires that they be little pink pills, a pig stamped on the front. Cute, one might even say. I split the pile into sections, slip them into tiny plastic bags. Drop them off at predetermined locations. Wait for them to be collected by assigned distributors, sold and spread, usually on street corners or under dark trees in the local park. It took time to develop the perfect routes, to find the perfect carriers who are both efficient and amoral. It took time in the lab, trial and error, experiments and stainless steel tools. Purity is important. No matter how destructive their properties, the product itself must be perfect. Once they fall from their carefully carved molds, finished, they must still be tested—one pill from each batch. Science thrives on time. Time and the art of perfection.

Turning men into pigs is just a hobby. And like many hobbies, more real than my regular work.

It’s easy enough to find youth with self-destructive tendencies. Likewise, it isn’t too hard to find college students desperate for any job. They don’t ask questions. “Recreational,” I always instruct the distributors. “But of course, encourage caution. Tell them not to take more than one at a time.” I try to keep the homeless out of it. The effects are best served to those with a little undeserved ego. But if I lose track of the pills—no matter. A wild trip for anyone—something to remember.

Pills may look unnatural, yet most people would much rather swallow a mystery pill than eat a mystery flower. I always prefer to start with nature in my recipe, regardless. The datura stramonium flower, in particular. Beautiful, unfolding as they bloom like pleats on a skirt. Perilous to the skirt-chaser. Easy enough to keep in any greenhouse.

Its effects are swift. Photophobia. Delirium. It is when the mydriasis sets in that their eyes look most pig-like, the pupil broad and stretching, as if trying to blot out the iris. (Admittedly, an iris flower—or, as some say, our lady of sorrows—should probably not be eaten, due to the rather dull side effects of nausea and gastrointestinal distress.)

Of course, turning men into pigs is just a hobby. And like many hobbies, more real than my regular work. When a popular medical magazine published an article about my research on medication to combat hallucinogenic drugs, people had to tell me they had seen it before I thought to say anything. It is not so very difficult to learn how to combat something you have perfected creating. Naturally, the article didn’t include that detail.

After each large-scale pill incident, everyone always blames “the party,” as though it had a mind of its own, greater than each of the individuals involved. Everyone knows the masses are stupider together. The best time to send out a batch of pills is early in the semester. The stress is rising and everyone is starting to experiment a little. It’s almost too easy to get them circulating. Never trust a pill that is made to look good. In the aftermath, it is always better to just call the whole affair a fraternity prank. Boys will be boys, they say. If they don’t hallucinate themselves as pigs, that is. The emergency room fills up quickly, extra security brought in to keep them under control. People often forget common human decorum when they imagine themselves a pig. Pigs never mind walking through shit.

After a batch spread through the freshmen dorms one year, it was ultimately my research that brought many back from the brink. “Our very own Florence Nightingale,” they said to me, even though my work is more scientific than strictly medical. The nightingale, singing into the darkness. Yes, make me a bird if you like. Curved beak carefully pecking seeds and bugs from the ground. But a pig—a pig will eat anything, even its own. Sus scrofa domesticus: omnivore. Even mothers have been known, at times, to devour their own young shortly after giving birth. Such behavior has been dubbed “savaging.” But pig cannibalism is not half as troubling (to us, anyway) as the grim knowledge that they will happily add humans to their diet under the right conditions. If a pig eats a human and a human eats a pig, where does it end? At what point would it become simply ourselves we are consuming: human pig diets, pig human diets? Ashes to ashes, meats smoked and cured, bodies stuffed with preservatives and placed in air-tight coffins. The ouroboros is an easy joke, and what man doesn’t fear his own consumption?

My pills are not a magic spell. My pills are a mirror.

The tragedy of the pig is that we deem ourselves so much better. Why should a man not be a pig if he has found no way to elevate himself beyond the basic instincts of animals? Thousands of years under the presumption of “civilization” of growing wisdom and self-superiority. Why, then, does he fail again and again and again? Have thousands of years passed for us to live in our own putrid output? What does “civilized” mean, when we still consume our own without a second thought? If we will behave as animals, then we might as well become them, all over again. My pills are not a magic spell. My pills are a mirror.

What will the pill-consumers even remember, when everything has passed? What good is punishment, if forgotten? But it doesn’t matter what they remember. Whoever speaks the loudest, after their minds return to them, that is the story they will all absorb, and drink as fact from then on. Each retelling will carve a line further from truth, adding embellishment enough to make each person’s own tale still seem unique, and therefore decidedly real.

And if I stubbornly turn them into pigs again and again, will there ever be an end? Will the memory of their faces the last time—the feral abandonment, the confusion, the slow relief of comprehension, the weary gratitude, be enough? Will they warn their sons and, perhaps wisely, daughters, that some flowers steal their identity? And others return it?

On the edge of the mountain is my antidote. A snowdrop flower bows its head as if in prayer. The cure is an offering, one of the first hints of life to spring from the snow after winter.

Will I come to them in their old age, with a batch of snowdrops in hand, Galanthus nivalis, oh, “holy moly!” (as it was known to the lost Grecian men who first crawled at my feet)? Will I offer forgiveness, and gently place back pieces of that once-lost mind? These days, no flower is needed for the making of the new cure: Galantamine. How simple it has become to mold the elements to our will. Just add a little oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbon. So many possible combinations, but the right one can bring sanity back into a young fool’s eyes. Hush and take your medicine—so long as you can stomach the side effects.

Humans may have that simple power known as consciousness, but what is that without nous, without intelligentia? Grant me, if nothing else, understanding. It is with that understanding that I look into those frightened, delirious eyes, and see the truth of what they would be, even without me. So much the same.

To prepare for the feast that is to come, I raise a toast. To those that remember: may they be granted that same understanding. Forced to confront the reality of themselves, what is there to do except recoil?

 
 

Image credits (from top):
John Stark, Eternity is Rot, 2018, oil on wood panel, 122 x 180 cm.
John Stark, Circe, 2014, oil on wood panel, 60 x 50 cm.
johnstarkgallery.co.uk

 
 

This is part of ROT, a section of The Learned Pig exploring multispecies creativity through modest tales of collaboration and coexistence amidst world-ending violence and disorder. ROT is conceived and edited by Julia Cavicchi.

 
 

The Learned Pig

 
 

Erin Rogers

Erin Rogers’s work can often be found exploring the spaces between the physical page and digital media. She regularly writes in fusions of science and poetry. Her work has most recently appeared in ANMLY, A Bad Penny Review, and South Dakota Review. Her performance of her piece "Black Lagoon," for the &Now Festival of New Writing can be found online (for the morbidly curious). She received an MFA from the University of Utah.