Published in Overland Issue 222.5 Autumn fiction Uncategorized Discomfort example Alex Cothren 1. Imagine a young woman wearing a t-shirt that reads Voice of the Voiceless. ‘I’m Pat,’ she says. ‘The one who wrote.’ 2. Imagine this woman hugging you. The hug takes you by surprise – you have never met this Pat in person – and you flinch in her arms. ‘When was the last time you were hugged?’ she asks. 3. Imagine crying into this strange woman’s hair. It is her smell that breaks you down: clean, soapy, scented with a fragrance you cannot recognize after three years of concrete and urine and male fetor. ‘I’m sorry,’ you say. ‘Me too,’ she whispers. 4. Imagine watching a compound of brutalist buildings and barbed-wire fencing recede into the distance. You watch this occur in the passenger-side mirror, your breath slowly uncoiling the knot in your chest. ‘How do you feel?’ asks Pat. ‘Like I’ll be chased.’ ‘I got you some guava juice.’ You try to remember what guava is and whether you like it or not. 5. Imagine an empty blacktop highway. It disappears beneath you at a giddy speed, yet the green corn fields on either side never change. ‘Are you working for Selina?’ you ask. She snorts. There is a wry smile on her face. ‘That’s Voice for the Voiceless,’ she says. ‘Finish your juice.’ 7. Imagine a blue sign decorated with yellow corncobs. You are now leaving Iowa. ‘Why your letter on that address?’ you ask. The words come out jumbled. Your head feels strange, heavy. The cornfields whizzing past are beginning to granulate, forming into bleary dots like a television screen viewed up close. ‘I’m going to be sick,’ you say. ‘It’s the movement,’ she says. Her hand is on your hand. ‘You’re not used to it. Close your eyes.’ So you do, and in that dark and weightless space you discover – like a passage at the rear of a cave – a more complete darkness to tumble into. 8. Imagine a man in an ill-fitting pink suit. He is wearing a plastic pig-snout. ‘You have to plead,’ he squeals. ‘This is insanity.’ 9. Imagine waking to a comfortable bed. King-size, with an old-fashioned iron-wrought headstand, and a down quilt, full pillows, cool sheets. The sensation of comfort is so overwhelming, so unexpected, that it shocks you into weeping once again. 10. Imagine that you are in a small, bare room. Other than the bed and a wicker rattan, there are no furnishings. In the far wall, a single window: its gauze curtains are drawn and glowing with suppressed daylight. You have no idea where you are. 11. Imagine a barn painted a luminous brick red, with white trim on its doors and loft windows. You are looking out the window, onto a small plot of green pasture in which the barn sits at the centre. In the eastern corner, pigs are wallowing in a mud pit. You can hear their grunting carry softly in the still air. Next to the pit, Pat is on her knees, one arm outstretched towards the pigs, a microphone in her hand. 12. Imagine a smooth brass doorknob that turns easily, and a wooden door that opens out into a hallway. Crossing the threshold gives you such a burst of ecstasy that you repeat the process several times: the closed door, the turning handle, the opened door, the exit. 13. Imagine following the smell of coffee down a shadowy hallway and out into a bright, open kitchen. It is in the farmhouse style; there is an apron-front sink, a range stove, open shelving on the walls. A tall man with long brown hair is sitting at a breakfast table, a laptop and steaming mug before him. ‘Mark,’ he says, looking up and smiling. ‘I was beginning to worry that you’d died in there. I’m John. And this is John Dillinger.’ There is an enormous black pig sitting at his feet. 14. Imagine the taste of dark, rich coffee. Your veins begin to sing after just a few sips. It is nearly three years since you last had a coffee; it had been watery, tasteless, and you had found a mangled cockroach at the bottom of your styrofoam cup. Receiving anything other than ‘roach-roast’ – you discovered later – required bribing the kitchen staff with contraband you had no way of acquiring. ‘Lucky you’re such a skinny dude,’ says John. ‘I don’t know how Pat and I would have got you in last night otherwise. There was no waking you.’ ‘The last thing I remember, we were leaving Iowa,’ you say. ‘Where are we now?’ ‘You know, when JD here was brought to us, he slept for two days straight. They found him stumbling alongside the highway, covered in blood and sores, exhausted, delirious. We’re certain he escaped from a production facility not far from here. He hasn’t made a single sound since he arrived, but you can tell he went through hell. You can see it in his eyes.’ You are, in fact, looking into this JD’s eyes. Like the eyes of all pigs, there is a mysterious, opaque intelligence there that you find both thrilling and unnerving, like jumping into water of an unknown depth. ‘John,’ you ask, ‘what is Pat doing?’ 15. Imagine a white square floating in the dark. It takes your eyes a moment to adjust to the gloom of the barn, but eventually you make out Pat, wearing bulky headphones and sitting before a bright computer screen. ‘That’s a pleasure grunt,’ she says to herself. ‘That’s a pleasure grunt if I’ve ever heard one.’ 16. Imagine being embraced by Pat once again. ‘You poor thing,’ she says. ‘I’m so sorry this happened to you. I can’t imagine how hard it’s been.’ ‘Thank you for picking me up,’ you say. ‘But how did you know I was being released early?’ ‘Pig is experiencing hunger example,’ says someone behind you. 17. Imagine a pink sow standing in the slanted light of the open barn door. The white bristles on her back glow in the light like filaments. Her mouth opens. ‘Pig is experiencing hunger example,’ she says. The voice is female, crisp, and faintly robotic in its diction. This pig is looking directly at you. 18. Imagine a wet, choking sound that turns out to be Pat struggling to contain her laughter. Her skin has gone cherry-red. ‘I’m sorry,’ she says, ‘but that was perfect.’ John appears in the doorway. ‘Did he jump?’ he asks. ‘Did he totally freak?’ 19. Imagine hearing a lot of techno-scientific terms you do not understand: bioacoustics, analogue mapping, artificial neural networks, spectrograms and oscillograms, tonal quality parameters … ‘A vocal response is analysed using linear prediction coding,’ says Pat, ‘and then it’s tested for classification using a non-parametric discriminant function analysis.’ ‘Right,’ you say. Pat sighs. ‘Here. Touch this.’ 20. Imagine running your fingers over the firm ribbing of a pig’s throat. It pulses and swallows beneath your touch. ‘This?’ you ask. Embedded near the bottom of the throat is a hard, flat, spherical object, roughly the dimensions of a pea. ‘Pig is experiencing discomfort example,’ says the pig. ‘Shush now,’ says Pat. 21. Imagine a computer screen, blank, save for a number of phrases: #1 Pig is experiencing pleasure: Pig is experiencing pleasure example #2 Pig is experiencing discomfort: Pig is experiencing discomfort example #3 Pig is experiencing hunger: Pig is experiencing hunger example #4 Pig is experiencing surprise: Pig is experiencing surprise example 21. And so on. Twenty in total. ‘When an active pig vocalises,’ says Pat, speaking slowly, ‘the devices will run the vocalisation through our database of recordings, select the appropriate matching phrase, and transmit the phrase through its micro-speaker.’ ‘And who wrote the phrases?’ you ask. ‘No one,’ she says. ‘These are just stopgaps. No one has written the phrases yet because I was hoping that that would be your job.’ 22. Imagine a small, white envelope with Mark Jacobson written on it. How strange it had been to see your name – for nearly three years you had been 119862. You are not a criminal, read the letter. You are an icon. 23. Imagine the crunch and smack of two dozen feeding pigs. You are watching them eat out of a wooden trough in the lee of the barn. ‘Ready?’ asks Pat. ‘I think so,’ you say. Pat clicks a small metal device the size of a key chain. Instantly, a tangle of words explodes from the vicinity of the trough, endless reiterations of the phrase ‘pig is experiencing pleasure example’ clashing and colliding, occasionally weaving themselves into harmony. You find it impossible to follow the thread of each polite male and female voice back to its owner’s mouth. ‘This is hallucinogenic,’ you say. ‘You’re a genius.’ ‘I tell her that every day,’ says John. Pat is blushing. ‘I’m not a genius,’ she says. ‘I just spotted a possibility quicker than anybody else.’ ‘I know I was away for a while,’ you say, ‘but this seems pretty revolutionary to me. How did you develop it?’ ‘At the time, I was doing a PhD on pig vocalisation as a welfare indicator, working on a device that would recognize the squeals of distressed farm pigs and alert a monitoring system.’ ‘Working for the enemy, basically,’ says John, and he winks at you. The pigs are dispersing now; one sniffs at your leg with its warm, wet snout. ‘I had good intentions,’ says Pat. ‘But yes, I was deluded. I hadn’t yet figured out that ameliorating evil was the same as condoning it.’ ‘If you make something a little better,’ says John, ‘that just gives people the right to care about it a little less.’ ‘Luckily, I met this guy,’ says Pat, taking John’s hand in hers, ‘and he showed me the truth. It’s also lucky that he’s such a geek, because it was his friends who gave me the idea for this and some other stuff.’ ‘I know hardcore tech guys who have been experimenting with advances in voice-user interfaces for a while now,’ says John. ‘They’ve all got these things embedded in their throats, though mainly just for hands-free gaming. None of them ever spotted the crossover potential like Pat. She is a genius.’ ‘What does the university think about this?’ you ask. ‘Probably not much,’ says Pat, ‘considering I disappeared with thousands of dollars of equipment, and years of animal language research and data.’ ‘This is stolen?’ ‘I prefer liberated,’ says Pat. ‘They weren’t using it right.’ ‘Breakfast?’ asks John. 24. Imagine a plate of food: thick bread with marmalade, tofu omelette with grilled mushrooms and asparagus, a mound of parfait covered in fresh berries. It is only with a conscious effort at civility that you choose to use a knife and fork, rather than shovelling it all into your mouth indiscriminately. ‘I imagine the right food was hard to come by in there,’ says John, as he ladles more parfait onto your plate. ‘I came close to eating bars of soap on more than one occasion,’ you say. ‘I would have starved if this guard, Isaac, hadn’t taken pity on me.’ ‘Next time,’ says Pat, reaching for the bread, ‘you need to get yourself arrested in San Francisco.’ 25. Remember the thin, fetid mattress you lay on as hunger gnashed in your gut. A voice had whispered your name in the dark. Through the bars of your cell there came a hand, and in the hand, a packet of Ritz crackers. 26. Imagine your hands in hot, soapy water. You are, against Pat and John’s protestations, washing the dishes. Pat is clearing the table behind you, and she moves a chair to pick up a fallen spear of asparagus. The chair is missing a plastic nub on one metal leg and it grates sharply on the wooden floor. There are a thousand pigs squealing in the room. Their wild cries are rising and falling discordantly, a nightmare carousel of tortured swine. Your muscles all clench like you have bitten down on a live wire. ‘Are you okay?’ asks Pat. There is blood rising in the water, the soapsuds frothing pink. 27. Imagine that you wake in the late afternoon, the glowing curtains the colour of honey. Your bandaged hand is throbbing where you had closed it on a paring knife. You are in bed. Slowly, you arch your back up and then you let your body drop onto the mattress. There is a soft squeak from the springs. A chorus of pigs complain softly in your ear and a convulsion glides through your body like an eel. 28. Remember the assortment of run-down beds at the Westonville Motel. With each shift of your weight, not matter how subtle, their rusted springs had screeched and sent you into agonies. ‘You have tried all the rooms,’ said the receptionist. ‘And at the Westonville, every room is the same.’ For three months you slept on the threadbare carpet, cockroaches traversing you in the night. 29. Remember the creaking of your cell door as it slid open every morning and closed every night. ‘Can the doors not be oiled?’ you would cry out, after your convulsions had ceased. 30. Imagine a pale, pink sunset. The three of you are out on the back porch, enjoying the warm air. ‘Probably any sound with a similar frequency to squealing trips your brain,’ says Pat. ‘This is common with PTSD, but I’ve never heard it happening quite like this.’ ‘When did this start?’ asks John. ‘During my last assignment,’ you say. ‘Westonville Farm. I had decided that that would be it for me.’ ‘If this isn’t for you, we would totally understand,’ says John. ‘You have sacrificed so much already,’ says Pat. ‘No would blame you for wanting to go home.’ ‘What home?’ you ask. 31. Remember the strain in your sister’s voice when you called her at home in Berkeley. ‘Sure I want to see you,’ she said. ‘I’d just prefer it if you stayed in a motel. It’s the kids. Les says they’re at an impressionable age.’ And that was before. 32. Remember your mother’s new Tudor house in the Tampa suburbs. ‘The truth is, your father bored me,’ she said. Her new partner, Louis, taught medieval history at Florida State. He drank Bordeaux wine in the evenings and recited old ballads, and when drunk enough, argued with you. ‘By saving them, wouldn’t you be simultaneously condemning them to extinction?’ he asked. ‘I’m tired of every night turning ugly,’ your mother told you. ‘Maybe you’re too sensitive to stay here.’ And that was before. 33. Remember the hulking, helmeted man dressed in orange and pastel green. He was writhing around on an immaculate green field, holding his knee. ‘That’s our season cooked,’ said your father. His new, small, sad apartment in Orlando: without your mother’s books and paintings and exotic knick-knacks, he had barely enough to fill it. A 1973 Miami Dolphins pennant on one wall, a Hustler calendar on the other: two bosomy women slopped in mud leering at you your entire stay. When the two the policemen took you away, your father had a face like he had expected this all along. 34. Imagine the scent of lavender. This, you now realize, is Pat’s perfume. ‘I’m staying,’ you say. They smile at you, the pink sunset flaring in their eyes. 35. Imagine running your hand over the stiff bristles of a pig’s back. You are sitting on the back porch with John and JD, listening to the birdsong of morning. ‘You know, the first time I met Pat she was a chicken,’ says John. ‘I was working for PETA, touring around with these virtual reality machines that I’d helped develop.’ ‘I, Chicken,’ you say. ‘That’s the one. When I first laid eyes on her, she was being hung upside down and the knife was coming at her throat. She was trembling when I took the goggles off her. I asked if perhaps she would like to go deeper.’ Pat is sitting in a small vegetable patch on the far side of the property. She is cooing at a trio of pigs who have gathered on the other side of the patch’s chicken-wire fence. ‘Do you ever feel guilty about introducing her to this life?’ ‘Oh, I didn’t turn Pat into an activist. I might have given her some new perspective, sure, but she didn’t commit until she saw your footage.’ John is looking at you, but his eyes are as inscrutable as JD’s. ‘You made Pat an activist, not me. You and Dan Collins.’ 36. Imagine a faux-leather belt with a thick metal buckle. After excusing yourself to your room, you undo this belt and lay it out on the bed. You put your mouth close to the buckle and whisper: ‘did you get that?’ 37. Remember the rusted pickup, dark smoke issuing from its bonnet. Dan Collins stood beside it, waving his arms. You pulled off the highway, lowering your window. ‘Trouble?’ you asked. 38. Imagine a piglet’s genitalia disappearing in the flash of a knife. In the rush there has been some error in technique; a vein has been punctured, dark blood fanning out. You and Pat are watching this on the computer monitor out in the barn. ‘See how he just tosses it aside?’ asks Pat. ‘Like he can’t even hear it squealing.’ The sound is muted, but as it was you who shot this footage, you know very well what that squealing sounded like. The shot moves away from the man with the knife, and it closes in on the piglet, which is convulsing in an expanding pool of blood. ‘Leave it, Kyle,’ says a voice off-camera. ‘It’s cooked.’ ‘Imagine if that piglet could look into the camera right now and say what it was feeling,’ says Pat. ‘Imagine the impact that would have.’ 39. Imagine that you are trying to imagine what you would say after being castrated without anaesthesia, after being cut open and left to bleed out. ‘Why me?’ you ask. ‘Yeah, that’s good,’ says Pat. ‘Simple and effective, but I think you can go deeper.’ ‘No, I mean, why have you given this job to me? Why not just write the phrases yourself?’ On screen, the camera is panning down a line of filthy sows jammed into their farrowing crates. ‘John and I don’t have any first-hand experience of how they’re treated in those places,’ she says. ‘And we’re not going to risk getting that experience now, what with the laws that have come in these last four years.’ ‘But why not find someone else who does? You could have contacted the Voiceless offices, or Mercy, or Liberation. They would get you in touch with somebody.’ A pig is gnawing on a steel bar, its eyes vacant. There is foamy blood in its mouth. ‘They’re not interested in our ideas,’ says Pat. ‘All the big organisations have gotten super PR-sensitive since the van thing.’ A pig bites at another pig’s abscessed rump. ‘Let’s watch the Collins footage,’ you say. 40. Remember the run-down brick house. There was plastic sheeting over the front window and weeds springing from the cracks in the foundation. The skeleton of a pickup brooded on the front lawn. ‘I appreciate it, Kyle,’ said Dan Collins, and he shut your pickup’s passenger-side door. On a metal mailbox, 88 Temple was scrawled in fading red paint. 88 Temple Street. Westonville. Blackett County, Iowa. 41. Imagine an enormous bald man stepping on a sow’s face. He holds a black rod. There is a crackle: a spark of electric-blue flickers at the end of the rod, which is held up against the sow’s vagina. The sow squeals. Her eyes roll wildly, the pupils and irises darting back into her skull like fish into coral, leaving the demonic sclera to glisten. Off-camera, men laugh. Floating somewhere above the picture, you can hear your own, shallow, forced laughter, as you tried to disguise your anger. ‘You want me to fuck you with it?’ asks Dan Collins. ‘Is that what you’re saying?’ In goes the rod. Pat stands up and walks out of the barn. 42. Imagine the buzz of cicadas in the dimming light. You are standing outside the barn with Pat. She is trembling with anger. ‘I can’t watch that anymore,’ she says. ‘When John first showed me, my world fell apart.’ ‘He is an evil man,’ you say. ‘One of the worst I’ve ever known. He got what he deserved, don’t you think?’ She looks away. ‘He’s not evil, he’s pathetic,’ she says. ‘And it’s not about what he deserves; it’s about what he doesn’t understand. It’s about what he fails to imagine. It’s about what most people watching that video fail to imagine. This is the challenge for our movement: if showing has failed, how do you make people feel? How do you make them imagine?’ ‘In that case,’ you say, moving around to face her once again, ‘what do you think about what happened later on, in the van?’ ‘What happened in the van, happened in the van,’ she says. 43. Remember the young man in his ill-fitting suit. ‘I have been appointed by the state,’ he said. ‘I don’t think I need you,’ you said. ‘I think I will be given another lawyer. A paid one. No offense. ‘None taken,’ he said, opening his briefcase. ‘We also assumed that you would be receiving another lawyer. Normally, this is what happens for people like you. It appears, however, that the organisations that normally pay for the defence of people such as yourself do not, in this particular case, want to be seen as defending your actions. They are distancing themselves. So I have been appointed by the state.’ ‘Well. What should I do?’ ‘Plead.’ ‘I don’t want to plead,’ you said. ‘I am innocent.’ ‘You have to plead,’ he said. ‘This is Iowa.’ 44. Imagine lying in the gloomy barn, trying to imagine what it would feel like to have your uterus prolapse. 45. Imagine the hot water of the shower. Your turn the cold water completely off, and try to imagine your skin scalding and peeling from your body. 46. Imagine the dusty air beneath the bed. You lie there at night and try to imagine that you are trapped. Which is not difficult. 47. Remember Isaac, the pale-faced guard who would slip you crackers or fruit at night. ‘The warden?’ he asked. ‘Who do you plan to squeal on?’ 48. Imagine holding a black rod. ‘This does not seem right,’ you say. You are in the barn with John. A teenage sow regards you sleepily from its straw bed. ‘It’s on the lowest setting,’ says John. ‘It will more annoy her than anything else.’ You touch the rod to the pig’s back, and there is a thin pop and a white spark. ‘I don’t like it,’ says the pig, and it scrambles out the barn door. ‘What do you think?’ asks John. ‘It’s flat,’ you say. ‘It’s a little flat,’ he says. ‘You can go deeper. Think of all the shit you’ve seen.’ 49. Remember the acrid stench that seemed to combust the lining of your lungs. At a facility in Arkansas, they had a kept a separate pen for the sows too sick or injured to waste further feed on. This was the same pen they shovelled the excess shit into, when the underground tanks overflowed. On your first day, you watched a sow drown in the watery faeces. ‘Why are you standing over there, Tyler?’ the manager had asked you. ‘There’s shit to shovel.’ That had been your first assignment, over a decade ago now. 50. Remember the long showers, the water as hot as it could get. Still you could not wash off the shit-stench, and eventually the shit-stench became you, and eventually you could not smell it all. 51. Remember the sick boar being hung by a chain attached to a front loader. When it had finally stopped writhing, a thick black stream of faecal matter dropped out of its carcass. Off-camera, men laughed. 52. Imagine a cluster of dark clouds touched with pink. ‘How did today feel?’ asks Pat, handing you your chai. You spent the day in the barn, watching a series of grainy videos, a cold mist settling over your heart. ‘I don’t know,’ you say. ‘I’m finding it hard to imagine any phrase that can express pain better than a squeal.’ ‘Remember that any phrase is better than a squeal,’ she says. ‘Squealing has failed.’ ‘Then maybe you don’t need me.’ ‘We need you,’ says Pat, and she squeezes your hand. ‘You’re our guy.’ 53. Remember the two men with neat haircuts, dressed in black suits and ties. ‘Three years later, you remember a name?’ asked one of the men. ‘I did not realise that this was how memory worked.’ You handed them the letter. Inspired by your bravery, read the letter, we push forward with your methods. ‘Look at the return address,’ you said. The return address was 88 Temple Street. Westonville. Blackett County, Iowa. We will be waiting for you when you get out. 54. Imagine the coarse texture of a meal sack in your hands. You are pouring potato peels into the trough, as the pigs gather around. ‘I like it.’ ‘I like it.’ ‘I like it.’ Pat is watching with her arms crossed. ‘I want joy,’ she says. ‘This is not joy. You need to go deeper.’ 55. Imagine scratching behind JD’s floppy ears. ‘What joy,’ he says. John looks up from his laptop. ‘Saying the word ‘joy’ is not the same as expressing joy,’ he says. ‘I’m trying,’ you say. ‘I know, I know. You just need to go deeper.’ 56. Imagine hearing an unfamiliar female voice as you walk down the hallway in the morning. ‘I have to admit,’ says this voice, ‘I’m a little nervous.’ A beautiful redheaded woman is sitting at the table with Pat and John. ‘Oh wow,’ she says, standing up and offering you her hand. ‘I’m Layla. This is such an honour.’ ‘Layla is here to practice her embedding,’ says Pat. Layla has your face on her t-shirt. 57. Remember the sharp knock at the door of your Westonville motel room. Selina had come in, wearing the country girl outfit she used when visiting employees in the field: checked shirt, blue jeans, faux-leather boots. ‘It’s happening,’ she said. ‘Please don’t sit on the bed,’ you said. ‘It squeaks.’ 58. Imagine a device that looks like a large label-maker. Layla is holding it up against the throat of a young, brown-spotted boar. ‘Lower,’ says Pat. ‘Perfect.’ There is a near-inaudible click. ‘That hurts’ says the boar. ‘Cute,’ says Layla. ‘A little flat, though.’ On her wrist, a small tattoo: LXXXVIII. 59. Remember Sam Roberts, a short, earnest man who you gave advice to before his first assignment. ‘They gave him one year,’ said Selina, ‘and he was lucky to get only that. He didn’t apply under a false name, and we didn’t put his footage online, just showed it to the police. Otherwise it would have been worse.’ ‘What does this mean?’ you asked. ‘We’re pulling you,’ she said. ‘We’re pulling everyone in the heartland.’ 60. Imagine the sound of a car engine fading in the distance. You are sitting on the porch when Pat and John come up from the driveway. ‘I think she likes you,’ says John. ‘What is going on?’ you ask. ‘He really doesn’t know,’ says Pat. ‘Well,’ says John, ‘show him.’ 61. Remember the sallow light of the Westonville motel parking lot. ‘What will you do now?’ asked Selina. ‘Get drunk,’ you said. ‘Then visit family, I guess. Apparently my parents got divorced.’ ‘You’ll forget about this Dan Collins guy, won’t you?’ ‘Who?’ ‘Seriously,’ she said. ‘Don’t upload anything.’ 62. Imagine an image of the same t-shirt Layla wore. A white stencil-cut picture of your face, and below it, in scrawled, red text: 88 Temple. At the top of the computer screen: Voiceofthevoiceless.com ‘I’m a cult?’ you ask. ‘You’re an icon,’ says Pat. ‘Why?’ ‘The van,’ she says. ‘What else? You broke down the fourth wall. You inspired a lot of people to push harder with their methods. You inspired me.’ ‘Pat,’ you say, ‘do you know who was responsible for the van?’ ‘Didn’t you go to jail?’ she asks, and she winks. ‘Is there something you’re not telling me?’ you ask. ‘Yes. The project goes live in one week. You need to start pushing deeper.’ 63. Remember the pure white light of the motel bar fridge, the green and amber bottles tinkling. You worked your way through them, and then tried to find sleep in the dizzy cradle of drunkenness. You got up and opened your laptop, the bright screen smearing in your vision. ‘Is that what you’re saying?’ asked Dan Collins. You tried to edit the video down, but you were too drunk, too drained. So you uploaded the entire drive of your recorder, a week’s worth of raw footage. As it played online, you fell asleep. ‘I appreciate it, Kyle,’ said Dan Collins. As the passenger door opened, the camera in your belt continued to record, and it caught, for a fleeting moment, the image of an address on a mailbox: 88 Temple. 64. Imagine the warm sun on your back as you cross the yard in the morning. The pigs are wallowing in the mud pit, and you sit in the shade of an oak tree and observe them. The phrase ‘pig experiencing pleasure example’ rises occasionally above the slap and squelch of the mud. The words seem unnecessary; the pigs’ pleasure is evident in the lustre with which they roll their awkward bodies about, coating themselves from head to tail. Pat and John are watching you from the porch. 65. Imagine that you are trying to imagine the relief of cool mud on your hot body. You begin to undress. 66. Imagine mud covering your bare back and chest. ‘Pig is surprised example,’ says a large boar, which backs out of the pit once you start rolling about. You lie in the sun, and as the mud begins to cake, you consider how you feel. 67. Imagine that you wake in a dark and mysterious space. You are lying on a cold floor. You attempt to rise, but find that you cannot; you hit your head on something hard. Groping around, you make out the dimensions of a cage, a structure of smooth, metal bars. There are gaps to put your arms and legs through, and there is space enough within to turn your body over, but otherwise you are stuck. You shout for help, and this is when the squealing begins. ‘You’re going to burn,’ says Pat. 68. Imagine Pat looming over you. ‘Wake up, Mark,’ she says. ‘You’re going to burn out here.’ Your skin itches. The pigs have retreated to the shade of the tree; it is they who observe you now. 69. Imagine a peach sunset. ‘That was pretty amazing watching you out there today,’ says Pat. ‘You were getting deep.’ ‘I think I’ll sleep out in the barn tonight,’ you say. ‘That’s our guy,’ says John. 70. Imagine the smell of straw and the musty heat of animal bodies. ‘If you’re listening,’ you say into the darkness, ‘give me the time I need to earn their trust.’ You have been at the farm one month now. 71. Remember the black, circular object the dimensions of a casino chip. ‘Your belt is the best place for this,’ said one of the suited men. ‘But I guess you already know that.’ ‘You have one month to get what we need,’ said the other. ‘And you will be tracked.’ 72. Imagine a mouthful of carrot-tops. ‘This is not necessary,’ says Pat, laughing. ‘John made chickpea pancakes for breakfast.’ You are on your knees before the trough. ‘Mark is experiencing pleasure example,’ you say, and you wink. ‘Pigs don’t wink,’ whispers Pat. 73. Imagine the smell of grass, the blades tickling your cheeks. You push your nose deeper, into the damp earth, and you leave it there. With your eyes closed you try and rebuild the world through the shapes of scents. 74. Imagine your knees getting sore as you scrabble after a trio of piglets. They jump at you, and leap away, eyes bright. There is a bubbling inside you that wants to turn into laughter, but you try grunting instead. 75. Imagine rolling in mud again. You feel accepted by the others now. You copy their technique, and later, you sit with them in the shade. In the small, obsidian mirrors of their eyes, your face could be anything. 76. Remember a small room with scuffed white walls and a long mirror. After picking you up from your father’s, they had left you alone in there for some time to consider your reflection. ‘What do you know about Dan Collins?’ you were asked. 77. Imagine John crossing the yard with a black rod in his hand. You are huddled with the other pigs beneath the tree. He looks down upon you. ‘We go live in two days,’ he says. ‘If we’re going to get the words, we need to get them now.’ You nod, and when the shock hits your body, you do not forget to squeal. 78. Remember the picture of a black van. On its side, in pink spray-paint, the words: This is what the pig was saying. ‘There was some kind of electronic device installed in there,’ said one of the men in the immaculate black suits, ‘and every time this Dan Collins guy raised his voice to call for help, it triggered the sound of pig squeals. You know anyone capable of rigging up something like that?’ 79. Imagine being dragged into the barn by your shirt collar. ‘Imagine you’re helpless,’ says John. 80. Remember your face in the long mirror, framed between two dark suits. ‘I’ve been in Florida for a month,’ you said. ‘He says they jumped him right outside his house,’ said one of the men. ‘Chloroformed him.’ ‘I was in Florida,’ you said. ‘So how did they know where he lived?’ 81. Imagine a rectangular cage at the back of the barn. Smooth metal bars. ‘You should get in,’ says John. ‘It’ll be good inspiration.’ ‘I’m not sure about this,’ you say. ‘Shush,’ he whispers. ‘Pigs don’t talk.’ 82. Remember the passive face of an elderly man. ‘I’m excellent at reading judges,’ said your lawyer. ‘I’m confident you’ll get the minimum.’ ‘I’m giving you the maximum,’ said the judge. ‘Six years.’ 83. Imagine Pat sitting down in a pile of straw next to your cage. ‘You cannot imagine how disappointed I am,’ she says. In her hand, a black, circular object the dimensions of a casino chip. 84. Remember the hand holding a packet of Ritz crackers through the bars of your cell. On the wrist, a small tattoo: LXXXVIII. 85. Imagine a syringe filled with a colourless liquid. ‘We thought we would give you a chance,’ says John, as he taps the syringe. ‘We thought maybe you were playing them, not playing us.’ ‘Maybe I was,’ you say. ‘Please,’ says Pat, ‘we bugged your recorder just after we scrambled your GPS.’ 86. Imagine a small prick in your neck. ‘You were an icon,’ says Pat. ‘You were an inspiration.’ ‘I still can be,’ you say. ‘I want to write the words, be involved in the project.’ ‘That project is old news,’ says John. ‘We just let you play with it so we could watch you.’ ‘We’ve got something new for you,’ says Pat. 87. Remember the pig staring forlorn through metal bars rusted the colour of orange lichen. You can be my voice read the poster. Selina entered the small room, wearing a dark business suit. ‘So Mark Jacobson,’ she said, sitting down on the other side of a plywood desk, ‘what makes you want to take this line of work?’ ‘I want to be the voice of the voiceless,’ you said. 88. Imagine a long straight highway. You wake up in a ditch, and start stumbling along, your head sore, your neck stiff. After an hour or so, a mauve sedan slows down alongside you. It contains a family, the parents up front, the two children in the back. The father looks at you warily. ‘Are you okay out here?’ he asks. ‘Squeal,’ you squeal, and the sound of your own voice drops you to your knees. Alex Cothren Alexander Cothren was born in Washington State, USA, and now lives in Adelaide, Australia. 'Discomfort example' is his third published work. On Twitter he is @cothren_alex More by Alex Cothren Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. Related articles & Essays First published in Overland Issue 228 24 March 202324 March 2023 War Conga line to Armageddon: the rush to get us into a war with China Ben Brooker It shouldn’t need spelling out that Australia could not win a war with China in any sense that matters, even with the backing of the US and its allies. At best, such a victory would be a Pyrrhic one. At worst, we would be so utterly humiliated as to not even know what kind of defeat had been inflicted upon us. First published in Overland Issue 228 23 March 2023 Trans rights Why gender essentialism is a white supremacist ideology Maddison Stoff The idea that these neo-Nazis are just ‘cosplayers’, rather than the local version of an international and decades-long attempt by numerous lone wolves and paramilitary groups to seize control of multiple countries, is too dangerous to seriously contemplate. The better question might be: why do so many anti-trans rights activists, who often see themselves as left-wing or self-describe as feminists, tolerate or downplay the presence of Nazis in their circles? And, just as importantly, why do neo-Nazis show up to support them?