WELCOME TO JOSEPH FOUCHÉ’S
DEAD PIG FARM
Everything had gone to shit since the Revolution. To all of the oppressed masses in every country of the world, I say this: abandon all thoughts of insurrection. That path leads only to pain, bankruptcy, exile and death. I was an exception. I was still alive.
With Paris still in the sport of guillotining men by the dozen, I retreated twelve miles north to eke out a meagre existence in a countryside shack more suitable for rodents than men. I had the brilliant idea of purchasing a stock of malnourished pigs, fattening them up quickly, and then selling them for double the price. Preposterous theory, in hindsight. Having lived most of my life in a city of some sort, I did not have nearly enough respect for the tribulations of swine herding. It was not my preferred career path, I promise you. “How the meek have fallen!” King Louis XVI might have said. You know, if we didn’t behead him.
My key mistake was thinking pigs could be fattened quickly. Or thinking that I was capable of constructing a secure pen. Or underestimating the brutal shitstorm that winter would be. Freezing temperatures were lethal for my sad stock of anorexic pigs. After two years of failure, I might as well have put a sign out in front of my shack that said, “Welcome to Joseph Fouché’s Dead Pig Farm.” Passersby from Paris could look out their carriage windows and say to each other, “Look honey, there lives the worst farmer in France.”
As I flailed around in the mud one morning, attempting to catch one of my fleeing piglets, my wife appeared by the gate. “Marguerite is still coughing,” she said.
“And I’ve got pigs to catch,” I said. I leapt once more across the pig sty. This time my fingers grazed the hindquarters of the piglet, but failed to grasp him. A face full of mud was my reward. When I surfaced, Bonne-Jeanne had already caught the piglet and barely got a speck of dirt on her.
“Need a hand?” she said. What a woman.
We took the pig into the shack for the operation. A crinkling fire did little to relieve the cold, and Marguerite wailed through a snot-filled nose. Bonne cuddled with her under our goatskin blanket while I kept the pig restrained. For a moment, I admired the sight of my red-headed wife and red-headed daughter holding one another. “When are you going to write Barras?” Bonne said, ruining the moment.
“I already did,” I said.
“That was months ago. He might have a new job for you.”
“Are we going to do this or not?” I said, gesturing to the soon-to-be-testicle-deprived piglet. With Marguerite pacified for a moment, Bonne helped me do the deed for three more pigs that day. For the rest of the evening, the three of us kept warm beneath the goatskin, cuddled up close to the fire, Bonne-Jeanne, Marguerite, and I, clinging to each other because we had nothing else to cling to.
My marriage to Bonne-Jeanne was entirely political. When the Revolution began, the field of politics suddenly became a viable option for a fisherman’s son like myself. Bonne’s father happened to be the head of a long dynasty of attorneys, and earning his support helped secure my election. That support came at a price, however: a union to his eldest daughter. She was too smart for her own good, he thought, and frankly, rather hideous. Not a pleasant combination as far as men of that time were concerned. She was broad in the beam, as my father would have said. Her jawline was too masculine, her nose too round, and her legs too short. Yet, Bonne never attempted to cover her flaws. “I learned long ago that beauty would never be a quality I could possess,” she told me, “so I thought to myself, good, one less thing to worry about.”
She recounted to me that she once overheard her father say, “No one will ever marry my little troll. It’ll be the nunnery for her.” That was how Bonne-Jeanne became a nun. All the better, she thought, for the nunnery was one of the few places a woman of her class could educate herself. She immersed herself in the pages of Machiavelli and Macbeth and could speak as knowledgeably as any scholar about history, politics or literature. I might be the worst farmer in France, but Bonne was the most clever farmer’s wife.
When I first met her at one of her father’s soirées, I made the mistake of offering her a compliment. “There are only two things I can not stand in a man,” she replied. “Lies, and their cousin, flattery.” She swallowed a pomegranate seed as if to punctuate the point.
When she asked who I was, I told her, “I’m the future ruler of France,” and stole one of the seeds from her palm.
“What did I say about lies?”
“That’s not a lie. It’s a promise,” I said. Oh yes, I promised her that. Even though my first attempt at mastering France during the Revolution had failed miserably and left me a penniless swineherd with a sty of dead pigs and a bucketful of dismembered testicles, Bonne still had faith in me, still stuck by me, even after Marguerite died.