Ghost Herds

Giselle Leeb

Illustration by Carly A-F

When the pig herd started galloping through my walls, I knew they were from the missing ghost population. I’d spent a lot of time studying pigs before I ended up in this three-metre by two-metre cell, and was familiar with their characteristics, both ancient and modern. The unique features of these ghost pigs fit neither.

Almost transparent, they thundered through one wall and out the other, their deft hooves kicking up the plush, grey carpet. I sat on my bed, my legs pulled up, and the room seemed to move, like when you’re in a train that’s waiting to leave the station and another goes past, and it feels like you’re moving forwards, but you’re really standing still and the other train is speeding past you.

I was surprised they didn’t have flayed carcasses, like the dead pigs of recent times. Aren’t ghosts often angry? Don’t they like to bare their scars symbolically?

But it’s doubtful these pigs – strictly speaking, wild boars – had experienced anything like their newly extinct descendants, the domestic pigs, who, all alike, were bred to be butchered, every bit of them chopped up or minced or made into pork chops, every bit used: the heart, the stomach, the brain, the trotters. Even the snout, for God’s sake. They were never free.

I’m confined to this luxury cell, like they were to their pens. Like them, I didn’t do anything to deserve it. Not that I remember, anyway.

But here were their long-dead ancestors making up for it, unafraid and free and on the move, as they would have been in the past when the world was larger. I wondered if they were taking revenge for their descendants’ ill treatment, but they galloped by without noticing me.

All I’ve got in my cell is my mind. I’ve read Sartre. I often have conversations with him, and what I find myself saying lately is: Sartre, your theory doesn’t work. Yes, I’m theoretically free to make – extremely limited – choices, but I didn’t have a good start. Unlike the Tarquins in here, I don’t have the necessary background, the self-assured mental equipment, to exercise my freedom. If I had, would I have ended up here in the first place?

I discovered the ghost population of extinct pigs, conjectured to have lived in the Pleistocene, when still a young child. I’m proud to say that despite my family background, I was an avid reader. Libraries were always free. My long-running fantasy was to bring the ghost herds back to life. I waved a little wand I’d carved from a stick and imagined them taking form, their bones flying back out of the earth, solid flesh packing onto them, long, coarse bristles coating it, tusks extending as they galloped off.

It didn’t work, of course. My first taste of disillusionment. But I did give up eating bacon.

The pigs’ existence was solely surmised from the DNA of modern pigs, rather than through fossils or ancient DNA. They fascinated me because they were intangible and forever just out of reach, like so many things we imagine. Leaves falling off the trees around a distant house, for instance.

The boars roamed the forests of Africa and Asia and tired old Europe – long before it was tired – snuffling and rooting about. They liked to root, just like modern pigs, and they unearthed food and grew their tusks long and strong, as happy as Larry.

So when the herd first came through my walls, I felt a little sick from the illusory motion. And scared. Lonely as I am, I didn’t want them to stay. I was worried they’d mix me up with the Tarquins. Plenty of ex-rich Tarquins here.

I’m not a Tarquin, and I didn’t eat bacon from an early age, but is that enough to put me on the side of the pigs? I hope so.

It’s always dim and grey in here. I can’t tell if it’s morning, noon, or night. They control the light coming in through the horizontal window slit high above my bed, like they control everything. I don’t know what’s going on outside. How long has it been? I haven’t really got a clue. When I first arrived, I scratched little lines on the wall, one for each day, but they made me cut my nails, just shorter than their natural edges where they bed in over the fingertips. Our nails are made of keratin, the same material as hooves, a trait we share with pigs and cows and horses.

While I slept, they left me a small tin of grey paint, in the exact matching shade, with instructions to cover the marks. It felt like that time my parents made me paint over the height chart I started behind my bedroom door after seeing one at a Tarquin’s house, the only time I was allowed such a visit. I was at a posh school then, on a scholarship.

‘Not for the likes of us,’ my mother said.

Once I’d erased the lines, the cell was pure grey again. Clean too. Everything in here is clean as. They can’t stand dirt. I surmise: I’ve never seen them. Sometimes, I’d like a few breadcrumbs, sticky rings from a wine glass, the smell of fag ash and someone’s sweat, besides my own.

I used to run my hands over the walls, imagining I was touching somebody, but they are so smooth there’s no purchase, and it didn’t help.

So here I am, in this grey cube. Strictly speaking, a cuboid, but I like to call it a cube after the species cubes we learnt about at school. I was always so fond of the popular diagram.

Each cube was a different colour and size. The entire human population of 7.5 billion people fitted into a cube with sides of 1.2 kilometres. It was placed above the cubes for domesticated meat animals, pets, insects, and the smallest cube, the wild animals.

Despite not fitting in with the Tarquins, I loved the lessons. I was as clever as any of them. I sat in my eco class and pretended the cubes were jumbled up in a giant sugar bowl that belonged to God. The concept of God was just about still around then for me. Sorry, Sartre. I imagined God delicately lifting the compact cubes of dying species with a pair of tongs, dropping them into his tea, and watching them slowly dissolve for his amusement.

This was all shortly before I was kicked out of school. Thank God, I’ve always had a strong imagination, my one big advantage in life. They’ve never been able to take that away from me.

But, try as I might, I’m having trouble imagining colour lately. The only colours I can picture are those of the leaves on the trees around the little house I started seeing about the same time as the ghost herds appeared. I’d got used to everything being grey until I saw those leaves. After that, I longed to see colour in everything, but my imagination seems to finally be letting me down.

I have to close my eyes to see the house. From the outside, it’s small with weathered grey stone. The roof slopes down on both sides. It stands at the end of a curved country lane, surrounded by trees heavy with rich autumn leaves. It’s misty and rainy and everything except the leaves is grey, but that just makes the oranges, yellows and reds even more sumptuous. I can almost taste them.

A leaf or two is always twirling down through the soft, dusky mist. But when I try to imagine the sun shining, nothing happens.

I’ve been in here too long.

Still, my cell is much better than expected. The only time they interfere is when they unroll the video screen on the wall above my bed each day at what I guess is dinner time, and I can see the Tarquins eating alone in their identical grey cells. Otherwise, they let me read and write, do whatever I like. Traditional punishment is out of fashion. I gather – I haven’t spoken to anybody for about a million years.

I bet it’s getting quite nice outside by now, not like when I went in. It was pretty choked up then: roads, roads, cars, hardly any wild animals left.

Perhaps there are a few more wild animals now?

I work out in the consistently dim light, what I estimate to be, three times a day. I asked for, and got, a personal trainer. It has instructions for various exercises, and they left some weights while I slept. I wear soft, grey pants and a sleeveless shirt. My muscles are taut and strong. I savour the feel of the smooth iron in my hands, pretend it’s skin, but it’s too cold.

Between exercise and eating, I empty my cell with my imagination. Imagination is a great tool when there’s endless time for everything. I sit on the floor and cross my legs on the soft, grey carpet and close my eyes.

Strangely, this is never the time when the ghost herds visit. They come when I’m not trying to imagine them – whenever they feel like it – which convinces me that they are real.

So I close my eyes and imagine stripping away the fat, synthetic carpet fibres under my arse, I peel the grey paint off the walls, always silky smooth, always fresh. It’s like I’m trying to get through them, but I can’t do it, no matter how hard I try.

After a time, I lie back and open my eyes and stare up at the flat, grey ceiling. I don’t know how it stays so spotless because no one ever comes in here.

Of course, my cell doesn’t have a light fitting, but I picture a lampshade above me, like the one I had in my old house. I shrink at that part. Though, if I’m feeling strong, I make myself go on. The shade was made of pigskin. I bought it second-hand and didn’t realise at first. Even then, although I didn’t eat meat, I wasn’t bothered. There were still plenty of pigs about and I thought their skins would go to waste otherwise, and it was a bit like wearing leather shoes, so…

I’m glad the ghost herds don’t seem to notice me.

I do penance by replacing the skin with a synthetic fabric printed with wild boars capering round its circumference, symbolic sprigs in their teeth, their tusks long and boisterously grown, unlike the trimmed tusks of domestic pigs. My imaginary lampshade boars live a good life, a life just for themselves. They don’t have to worry about being used for their bodies.

By the time I arrived here, pig farming had come to an end. Even the Tarquins couldn’t stop that. When I see their grey faces at dinner, I imagine them in former times, fat and hearty, stuffing themselves with the last of the porkers – they always got what they wanted. Sad, really sad. By then, even they knew about the habits and loves of pigs.

Nobody likes the world to change, and some of us have less choice – admit it, Sartre. But the world changes for everyone. Some just have the means to hang onto their preferred version of it for longer.

Strangely, it was the Tarquins’ belated compassion that extinguished the pigs’ lineage altogether. During the switch to soy, a fashion for keeping pigs as pets, instead of eating them, swept through the upper echelons of society. But they soon got bored, and the domestic pig died out. The wild boar, of course, was long gone.

The substitute bacon tasted good though, really good. Almost like the real thing.

When the guilt becomes too much, I imagine away my bed: modest, but comfortable, and heated in – what I take to be – winter, with a synthetic mattress and soft duvet. No feathers, of course.

I move onto the small grey metal cupboard. All smooth curves; I can’t see any seams. Impossible to prise off the wall – I’ve tried. My grey pencils are in there, and a stack of paper that seems to replenish itself, along with a couple of books on animal habits, in black and white.

I end with fantasising about removing the basin and self-cleaning toilet in the right-hand corner opposite my bed, with an extractor fan above them for when I go. Even my crap looks grey – I’ve checked.

I only ever get as far as stripping my cell bare. I give up then and type in the instruction for a soy bar on the electronic panel, then open the food flap. I can eat whatever I like: if I can type it, they have it.

I try to keep to a routine and space out mealtimes, with dinner and the odd snack between – hard because I don’t know what time of day it is. The food is also grey, but it tastes and smells how you’d expect it to: dark chocolate, mashed potato, broccoli. I’ve found that if I eat with my eyes closed, savouring the aromas, I can forget what it looks like. Practising this has greatly enhanced my sense of smell. I wonder if I have come anywhere near to approximating the acute sense of smell pigs share with dogs: two thousand times that of a human. Imagine the enjoyment!

Impossible. I don’t have the right olfactory receptors.

My muscles are still strong, but I’ve noticed a few wrinkles. I continue to work out three times a day; I can set my own schedule. In a way, Sartre was right: I am making choices. But they are tiny, and they don’t include going outside.

Was Sartre a lonely man? Was that it, despite having Simone and friends to philosophise with?

I would, I think, be happy to have a bit more human contact than watching the Tarquins on the video screen at dinner time. A table and chair fold out from the wall and, even if I’m not hungry, I sit down and eat something, just to see their muffled smirks.

I try not to respond, but once you’ve been inside for as long as I have, you can’t help yourself, whatever your resentments. Sometimes, when I smirk back, I find my hand stroking my elbow and start in surprise.

Why don’t they let us speak to each other?

The ghost herd is soundless. They seem to be going faster now as they pass through. I’ve started to stamp my feet along. ‘Gallop, gallop,’ I say. At times, I try to squeal and grunt, but hearing my voice makes me even more lonely. I’m not sure if I get it right either – I was never very good at impersonating pigs.

I wish I could go with them, wherever they are going.

The pigs in the herd don’t look identical. They have quirks: a scar from a tusk wound, a malformed hoof, a bit of shit dangling from an arsehole. But they stick together. The thing about being in a herd is that you are never alone.

They don’t smell of anything though, and I wish they did. After they leave, I long for smell, so I type in more food orders. Then I close my eyes and inhale the aroma of freshly ground grey coffee, or freshly cooked grey spinach and soy, and imagine the smells of the barnyard.

Did I ever really know what a pig smells like? I’m not sure. Too late now. I can remember burying my nose in the neck of a horse. The scent of horse is unforgettable, warm and—

I can’t think of things like that for too long in here.

Despite being alone, this place, I often think – and I have plenty of time – is a very odd sort of prison: every luxury, except that there are no visitors and they don’t say when I’ll be let out. I know that people in solitary go nuts. So why am I still sane?

I’m not completely alone, I suppose. I see the Tarquins, albeit from afar.

After the food, I try to jimmy the temperature mechanism, but it has a hard, smooth shell and I can’t get inside it, so I’m always comfortable. What I’d give to shiver or burn, to feel wet rain and an icy-fresh spring breeze.

I give up and lie on my bed and imagine the house. Maybe in time I’ll be able to walk down that road and see what’s inside it. The leaves on the trees around it rustle in the wind. Sometimes, I feel as though those leaves are speaking to me, that they contain a message.

The ghost herd is definitely speeding up. When they galloped through the other day, the motion sickness increased and I thought of that train. But are they moving backwards or forwards? I know I’m standing still.

All I can think about is joining them. Am I the same as the Tarquins, wanting what I can’t have?

I’ve cut down the weights to twice a day. I have the urge to shove open the ceiling, blow the lid off this cell, before it’s too late. But, even if I stand on my bed and stretch up, I can’t reach it.

Yesterday, as the herds thundered through, there was a baby boar, a straggler. He galloped past valiantly, as fast as he could, but he was left behind. I yelled at him to hurry, to catch up, but what I say makes no difference. I wanted him to live. I forgot he’d died long ago. I was left alone with the echoes of my grey and rasping voice.

And the road to that house is changing; it’s starting to curve round it. The house and the trees look the same: try as I might to make the sun shine, to dry the rain from the leaves, I can’t. Like with the scratches I made in my cell, I have no effect.

I smile, thinking of my former self scratching on the wall. What difference could counting time make to anything?

If my cell didn’t stay warm and the food keep coming, I might think they’d abandoned me altogether. Did I ever expect to end up here? No one does. I smile openly at the Tarquins at dinner time. Do they still qualify as Tarquins now they’ve been in this luxury shithole for as long as I have?

The skin on my arms is creased over my slack muscles and I’m struggling to lift the weights. Today – tonight? – that imaginary train sped past so fast that the boars were a blur and my head spun. They have full right of way, as it probably should have been all along. I thought I heard the faint clatter of hooves after they’d gone.

Have I finally been left behind?

But the herd left a blade of grass, churned up by a nimble hoof as they exited the right-hand wall. It was green! I laughed out loud and it sounded so strange.

The grass disappeared before I could pick it up, but later, when I imagined the house, I saw small hoof prints passing under a magnificent old oak tree growing close to it. Tiny, baby hooves. I knew they were made by the straggler. It was still misty, but the leaves were so dazzling, it seemed as if the dew coating them gleamed with hints of mysterious colours.

I felt tenderly towards the Tarquins at dinner. Whatever they did, I must be in here for the same reason they are. Things I could have done to avoid my fate – plenty. In retrospect. But you don’t see into the future, only the past.

There’s nothing left for me here, except the house and the trees and the leaves. I still wonder what the message in the leaves is, but I know now that it’s not for me.

I lie on my back in the centre of my cell and close my eyes. I can see the house with the bright leaves so clearly. It’s early autumn, but the grass is turning lush and green. Everything is bursting into full colour. Under the trees, snuffling in the fallen leaves, is the little straggler, grown big now.

When I open my eyes, my cell is still grey, but I know that something has changed. Thank you, Sartre. You were right after all. This is all I need.

A cacophony of galloping hooves breaks over my eardrums and I close my eyes again. I feel as if the walls of my cell are dissolving and I’m right there under the oak tree, lying on my back in the grass. The mist licks against my exposed skin, moist and welcome, sending delicious shivers the length of my body. I inhale the smell of wet grass and the sweet rot of leaf mulch as I run my hands over the dewy ground.

I’m deeply grateful.

The straggler is surrounded by the herd now. They look so real as they root among the trees, pushing their snouts deep into the dark soil softened by rain. I know its truffles they’re after. It’s got to be.

I wish I was really there, but I’m happy for them. The road has completed its curve and circles the house, sealing it off. The herd is free to do as they please; no one can touch them.

I was never going to reach it, anyway.

The wind is coming up and I watch the leaves fluttering down in colourful clouds. Slow down, I want to say, but I can’t because they are so beautiful, and I don’t want to interfere. That Keats poem I hid inside my shirt at school so they wouldn’t tease me – so long ago now it seems – comes to mind: ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’.

But now the leaves rustle with a flurried fury as they rush off the branches. Slow down, I want to say again. There’s no hurry.

I can hear the drip, drip of trees shedding old rain and mist and dew, shaking through to themselves, and then, when the leaves are lightened, the wind blows in strong and carries them away. I feel that wind on my skin as the leaves break from their slender stems and detach from the tree. A ray of sunlight is pushing through the clouds as I let myself drift down. ∎

Giselle Leeb’s debut short story collection, Mammals, I Think We Are Called, is published by Salt (Oct 22). Her stories have appeared in Best British Short Stories 2017 (Salt), Black Static, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Unsung Stories, The Shadow Booth, and other publications. She has been placed and shortlisted in competitions including the Ambit, Bridport and Mslexia prizes, and had two stories longlisted for Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year. She is a Word Factory Apprentice Award winner and an assistant editor at Reckoning Journal. She grew up in South Africa and lives in Nottingham. You can find her at and on Twitter @gisellekleeb

Carly A-F is a freelance illustrator from the UK creating dramatic, colourful art for posters, books, games and more. They are inspired by nature, science, myth and magic. See their work at

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