The Whirligig
SOFIE HARSHA



The girl holds the blue ribbon up for her mother to see and it quivers unmistakably, obviously. Like a tiny bird just found, dying in the corner of the attic. This is all to say: The little girl’s hands are shaking and the blue 1st place ribbon shakes along with them. Her mother sees the shaking ribbon and tells her that Benny the Pig did wonderfully and so did she. Everything is well. There is nothing we can do for the tiny dying bird in the corner of the attic.

“Benny wasn’t his best, mom. I’m sorry.”

“He was great. What are you talking about?”

“I don’t know. He just seemed off.”

They both look at the pig, Benny. He decides to lie down near a black plastic pole of the blue 4-H tent. Its cover flaps ecstatically in the wind. The girl drops her blue ribbon onto the puddled ground. Benny the Pig huffs and rolls over. The air smells like wet cement. Smoke and rain.

“Oh hunny, now it’s soiled,” her mother says, and picks up the blue ribbon from the mud. She pulls her shirt down over her bare back as she crouches. She doesn’t want any of the men to see her large tan underwear creeping up her back, but as she rises and looks around she sees there are no men under the tent anymore. Everyone has walked away, toward the rest of the county fair, with their families, with their wives. They’ve all won prizes for each other by now. Put all the ducks in a row. Threw ping pong balls into little fish bowls, went home with goldfish pets they’d barely get a chance to name before they died. 

“Mom. Who says ‘soiled’?”

The girl’s mother frowns. It’s a good question. Who does say “soiled”? 

“Come on hunny, let’s go have some fun.”

“Where?” the girl asks.

“At the fair, dummy. We’re at a fair. Tons of fun to be had.”

“What about Benny?”

“Benny can wait here.”

Benny the Pig stands and sniffs the ground, remembering himself.

“We can’t leave Benny.”

*   *   *

The man running the Whirligig looks tired in the cosmic sense. He holds his thumb on the button and waits the expected seven times round, watching everyone scream, their mouths open as if hungry. A little boy is being crushed by his parents as they spin together. Centrifugal motion. Turning, weighty bodies. The little boy wails like a baby just out of utero, with eyes for the first time--overrun by the blinking lights and mid-May wind. This is all to say: The little boy does not like the ride, the feeling is new to him. The girl’s mother reassures her again that Benny will be safe where he is and they step in line. The girl watches the ride and the screaming boy, her fists tight around nothing. Everything is okay. There is nothing we can do about the baby out of utero.
*   *  *

Benny the Pig does not understand anything anymore. It’s not because he’s a pig. It’s because things have been weird lately. As he walks around the 4-H tent sniffing and huffing at forgotten footprints, he silently makes a list of everything weird, starting with the most recent weirdness and moving backward. 

Right now he is alone. He has just been left alone. He has never been alone, or at least doesn’t remember ever being alone before. He watches feet and partial legs pass by and recognizes none of them. All the ankles are dirt-dusted and look as if they are going everywhere and nowhere all at once, but in a grotesque timeless rhythm. They are going everywhere and nowhere, all together but not together at all.

The small girl that feeds him mush and leaves keeps prancing him princelike in front of illiterate obese crowds as if his first belief is not that humility is the warm core of everything that is holding God together, the scorched center of everything that keeps him good and sane.

The small girl doesn’t seem to have anything better to do than prance him around princelike and it worries him.

The taller woman worries him too. Two nights ago she came into his quarters smelling of something foreign, wet, chemical. With cracked lips she asked him questions for which he had all the answers. 

But she hadn’t been ready to hear. Why overwhelm her more than she already overwhelmed herself?

Benny, she asked, will I always be alone? Will I die alone? Where do I go from here? Was there at anytime anywhere to go? Somewhere in particular I was headed? Where did I go wrong? Am I fat? Benny, am I too much for the world? Am I too little? What makes people beautiful and good? Am I beautiful and good? Was it when I had my daughter? Was it when I walked alone on that beach and the bearded wolf clawed at me for too many minutes, almost killing me? Was it the recurring nightmare about sinking sand? What was it Benny? Why am I alone? Will I die alone? Am I useful in any way? Benny? Benny, the only difference between men and women is the ways in which they hurt each other. Benny? I need the world to need me to continue on. 

He’d made a decision he still stands by. Not to tell her that he is fairly certain the world does not care about continuing on and who continues on with it. The world is both a train on the tracks and one that has just skidded off, killing everyone inside. To be beautiful and good is to be alive on a train, to be dead beside it. To be alone is never a question. The world needs no one and everyone. 

Even a pig gets confused sometimes.

Six nights ago the sky remained a deep blue until morning. It was the color of tired blue eyes in half-light, sockets in shadow. Magnificent and subdued. He had never seen anything like it, and it made him uncomfortable. 

Maybe the universe had been having a funeral. Maybe it was for him. Maybe he died six nights ago. Maybe he is dead right now and that is why he is alone, sniffing wet dirt.

Come to think of it the small girl worries him most of all. Seven mornings ago, she offered him a tiny burning thing. She held it between her lips as if she didn’t know whether to kiss or eat it. After she pulled it from her mouth he was smothered in grey air—a weightless fog. Weightless, but heavy with unnamed smell. In her hand she grasped a small object that glowed unnaturally when touched. She seemed distracted by it, as if she were waiting for it to transform into something else. It was clear she wanted something large from it, but he didn’t know what. 

The girl asked him why people don’t love each other in general anymore and why when they communicate it’s as if it never happened, as if it were some invisible correspondence, as if the conversations she has, without her knowledge, are clandestine and soulless meetings, without meaning—as if she’s having a four-course dinner with ghosts. As if the meanings of words disappear the moment a word is uttered, as if the meanings of words are as arbitrary as the letters that represent them, as if it’s possible for the meaning of the word, say, “love” to get lost in vents, under doorjambs, in a small pile to be swept up in the kitchen. 

He’d had no idea what she was talking about and had been too focused on how a tiny thing could burn so slowly, especially between lips, to try and answer her. (He kept thinking she might burn her lips!) If he could answer her now he might say something using words about how sometimes you don’t need words at all. How all the things she loves and wants were there before she could name them. And how if she named the things she loves and wants something different than what she had already learned to name them, they’d still be the same. How it doesn’t matter what you name things or even if you say their names aloud, it just matters that they’re there. How love cannot be swept up, will never be swept up. How nothing that glows like the little thing in her hand glows will ever know how to love, so if that’s the something large she wants from it, it might be more useful buried in mud.

And maybe that’s why now, under this loud and windy tent nosing clumped dirt and trying not to step on ants, Benny the Pig feels alone. But he isn’t sure what kind of lonely it is. If he really is the only single thing in the whole world that knows love exists without words, that knows love exists on its own terms—if he’s only one that knows, then love wouldn’t even have a name at all. Right? 

He wishes he could tell the small girl. He wishes he could tell everyone.

But he’d need words to tell it and he can’t use words even if he tried. He’s a pig. He knows that. That’s probably why things have been so weird lately. If someone, anyone asked him…maybe even God—yes, if God asked him why things have been so weird lately, Benny would tell Him it’s because no one has words anymore, that they used them up until they were cheap and ugly and useless and finished. And when God asks him, what about silence? Will that work? Benny will say, No, God, no, you don’t understand. Everyone stopped trusting silence a long time ago. 

Why? God will ask, and just like every other time God has asked Benny the Pig why, Benny won’t know what to tell Him.

*  *  *

Nobody asked her if she wanted to go on the ride. Her mother just sort of forced it upon her, kind of like she forces church upon her every Sunday. Mom, I want to sleep, she says, and then her mom tears her covers off as if she will never have a choice again, ever in her whole life. Everything is already answered for her, always. And she doesn’t even know if she believes in God. Why should she?

The ride feels like the morning after a bad dream and she really hates that Benny is alone under the tent, probably being stolen by someone awful who thinks they need a pig in order to be the best awful version of themselves. Her mother is large. Larger than anyone ever bargained for and her mother’s weight is hurting her as they spin against gravity and motion on the Whirligig. The man running it looks like he’s already dead, and she wonders if he’s the one who checked if the ride was in working order. If someone dead put together a ride at a fair would it be in working order, or could it fail at any moment, and everyone go flying? Everything is just screws, right? And nails? Screws and nails don’t exist to dead people. What do screws and nails matter to dead people, even if they’re the difference between life and death? Death doesn’t matter to dead people. 

The ride could definitely kill everyone who is alive, including her.

If her father were still around he’d tell her that anything could kill everyone. Anything can kill any single solitary person and anything could kill everyone. Like a meteor, or a bad case of a certain strand of the Asiatic flu no one knew existed, or a car crash. A car crash could kill a few people, or just one. A train crash could kill many, or just one, if it was some fluke crash. 

It’s possible all deaths are flukes. She heard of a boy who flew off of this very ride once. He lived for two and half months in the county hospital until they said they couldn’t do anything for him and took him off the ventilators. Then he died. Her mother said it was the worst thing she’s ever heard about health insurance and she still doesn’t know what her mother meant by that. She thinks about asking her now, but her mother is screaming and happy. Her mother has a look on her face she’s never seen. If she’d known before today that something like the Whirligig could make her mother smile and scream and laugh and scream like this, she’d have used the rest of her money from working at the nursing home to have the ride set up in their backyard. She would’ve maybe even let the dead guy run it. 

But she’d used the rest of her money to buy Mark a lifetime pass to the ski hill. He just laughed and said that it was a weird gift for summer and now he isn’t answering her texts. She asked him to come today to see her show Benny but he hadn’t come and hadn’t said anything. She wonders if he’s dead, and imagines ways he could have died. She thinks that him being dead would be worse than being ignored, but just barely. Then she asks God to forgive her for thinking that and begs Him not to use the Whirligig to punish her for her sins. 

Even though she’s on the ride she feels like the one thing at the fair that isn’t moving. Blurs of color swarm and bend around her like frantic electrons, reds and yellows and greens, and she wonders if she isn’t the tiny immovable center of something large, chaotic, and uncontrollable. 

She feels sick until the dead man stops the ride. 

*   *   *

The tent is empty when they return to it. The girl’s mother goes to the middle of the tent and puts her hands on her hips. She looks out to the field beyond the tent and sighs. The girl sits in one of the empty metal chairs and begins to cry. The chair is cold. Behind the cattle building the sun is setting, as if it doesn’t want to be around to see what happens next. This is all to say: Benny the Pig is gone and the girl and her mother don’t know what to do. Everything is not well. There might not be anything we can do.

“I told you we shouldn’t have left Benny, mom. Who the fuck leaves a pig alone at a fair?” The girl says amidst tears.

“Watch your language,” her mother says, pivoting in her spot in the middle of the tent. She frowns. It’s a good question. Who the fuck does leave a pig alone at a fair?

The girl rises. “I’m gonna go find him.”

“We should go see if they have a PA system.”

“You do whatever you want. I’m going to go find him.” The girl runs toward the cattle building and hopes that Benny the Pig knows one of the cows or that he wandered in there because he was hungry and is now making friends. As she runs, her phone drops out of her pocket into a puddle filled with cow dung. The phone quickly gets enveloped in shit and mud. 

“Not without me, you’re not,” her mother says weakly. She tries to catch up with her daughter but tires quickly. 

“Text me if you find him, I’ll see about the PA!” she calls into the wind. Her daughter doesn’t hear.

*   *   *

He’d asked to take a smoke break two hours ago and finally Jacko came to relieve him. He doesn’t understand why he can’t smoke and operate the stupid ride at the same time, but he’s tired of asking and just wants his quiet smoke. The other guys smoke around back of the Hot Dog Shack because they like the way it smells, but he likes to smoke here, leaning against the building where they keep the horses and cows. They all make fun of him for it, but horses and cows don’t say a damn thing or give him shit about anything, and they sure as hell don’t sell jacked hot dogs for jacked up prices. 

He doesn’t mind the smell of the cattle building. He’s smelled worse. One time a kid pissed his pants on the ride and he had to clean it up. That smelled worse than horse shit. Kid piss is awful. 

It’s not a bad job though, considering. It makes him a bit sick, all the screaming and the whirling and the spinning. He rode the ride once. Only once. He didn’t much care for it. Watching it is worse.

He likes to watch the field change color as the sun changes, or a storm sets in. Some people watch the sky. He watches the ground. Grass and dirt is just as changeable. He saw a show once about the way your brain tricks you into seeing a color one way in one light and then another way in a different light. Something about the amount of light cast on a thing, or something. He imagines the colors of both the grass and the sky work like that, but for some reason people think the sky is more magical or something.

There’s a pig in the field tonight. He couldn’t tell at first what it was. Thought it might be a dead body. But that’s because his aunt has been watching all those crime shows. From far away he thinks everything is a dead body now. He figured out it was a pig because the pig’s tail caught the evening light in such a way. 

Those curly cue tails are too much for him. When it caught the light, he almost laughed aloud.

*   *   *

Benny the Pig thought he might feel better if he got some fresh air but now that he's out here he realizes that air isn’t even that much fresher in an open field. He may have to go further. 

But maybe it’s just that it’s not possible to run away from what’s bothering him. He’s learned that lesson before, but it’s probably one of those lessons he’s destined to keep relearning.

He tries to make his mind silent and looks at the sky. If he can think of an answer for God regarding silence, maybe God will stop all of time for one entire minute so that everyone—past, present, future—can enjoy it together.

*   *   *

The dead man who operates the Whirligig is leaning against the cattle building. His jeans have so many holes and are separated in so many places it’s as if they are cutting themselves into washrags on their own. The man’s eyelids droop like melting wax. 

The girl talks to him because her mother wouldn’t want her to.

“You run the Whirligig.”

“That I do,” the man says and seems to smile, though his face doesn’t change. As if a person can simply feel someone smile, from inside. 

“Can I have a smoke?” she asks.

“Nope.”

The girl is surprised. “…Okay.”

“You’ve been crying,” the man says.

“How can you tell?”

He raises his eyebrows. “Want me to list off the signs?”

“…Okay.”

The man laughs and holds his pointer finger up. “1. Eyes red 2. Face swollen 3. General demeanor 4. I saw you run past me crying five minutes ago.”

“Oh.”

“Why were you crying?”

The girl puts her hands in her pockets and tries to lean against the building too, but it feels awkward. Not right.

“I lost my pig, Benny. Benny the Pig,” the girl says.

The man laughs again, and starts to walk away.

“Where are you going?” 

“Come here.”

The girl becomes scared. She looks around for her mother. It is suddenly dark. She wonders if it’s been dark this whole time and she’s only now noticing it. 

Without having fully made a decision, she starts to follow the man. As she walks, she can’t tell what is grass and what is patches of dirt. She really wants to keep on the grass but doesn’t know why it’s important.

“Where are we going?”

“Just follow me.”

They walk in silence. As more and more space forms between them and the fair, the moon, round and grey, seems to grow larger and larger. The girl wonders when the moon will stop growing and if the dead man who runs the Whirligig is going to kill her. 

The dead man stops. The moon stops growing.

The dead man points down. “Is this Benny the Pig?”

The girl peers around the dead man’s shoulder. She lets out a sound she’s frequently embarrassed by—a mixture of a laugh, a giggle, and a scream. But out here in the field she doesn’t care. 

“Benny!” 

Benny the Pig huffs. He’s lying on the ground as if he’s been sleeping. He’s looking at the moon. 

“Benny, get up!” The girl gets on her knees and wraps her arms around Benny the Pig’s neck. She tries to lift him.

Benny remains on the ground.

“Maybe he just wants to lay here for a while,” the dead man says. 

The girl ignores him. She uses all her strength to try and lift Benny the Pig. He sniffs her shirt and remains on the ground.

“You should just lay down with him, look at the stars,” the dead man says.

The girl looks back to the fair, neon in the distance. “My mom will be looking for us.” She reaches into her pocket for her phone. There is nothing there. “I can’t find my phone,” she says emptily. “Do you have a phone?”

“Hell no. Hate those things. I’ll go find your mom. I remember her. Big lady?”

“…Yeah…but don’t leave.”

“Gotta get back to work, kid.”

“Please don’t leave. Just sit down.”

“What?”

The girl surprises herself. “Yes. Sit down. Lay down. Please. Lay down with us.”

“I’m not no pig, girl. You can’t tell me what to do,” the man says, but kneels as he says it.

“You’re right, we should all look at the stars,” the girl says.

“I never said we,” the man says, “I said you should.” 

The dead man coughs as he lies down.

“Thank you for staying,” the girl says after some time.

“Be quiet,” the dead man says. “You’re supposed to be quiet when you’re looking at the stars.”

Benny the Pig huffs and sighs a long sigh.

*   *   *

For the next minute the only noise the world makes is crickets and a distant car horn. 

Benny the Pig thinks God is giving the minute of silence to him, and to the girl and the dead man, as they all lie there underneath stars. He doesn’t even mind the horn because it’s a friendly horn, as if someone in a car has just seen a long-separated friend in the street but can’t stop to say hello until they find a safe place to turn around. They press the horn, but softly, lovingly, because they need it to say, Stay there, friend. Stay right there until I come back.









SOFIE HARSHA, an amateur writer, musician, artist, comedienne, and screenwriter, lives in Duluth, Minnesota. For work, she teaches, and sometimes designs T-shirts for her family, pro bono. Her fiction is found at paperdarts.org and forthcoming in Carve Magazine. Her art and music is found here and here. Sofie is joining UNCW's MFA program, Fall 2016.











The Adirondack Review
SUMMER 2016