I was worried. Only four pigs had turned up to be fed and they were noticeably subdued. Now dusk had slipped into darkness and there was still no sign of the missing pig despite repeated rattling of the pig bucket and the excited pre-dinner squeals of the others.
I have often before had similar anxious moments but always before the pig in question has reappeared. Usually they have been with the cows, grazing with them or basking in the sunshine, and occasionally falling into a deep sleep which even the dinner bell doesn't at first penetrate. The relationship isn't exactly one of mutual admiration but the cows are usually pretty tolerant of the pigs' company. Sometimes I have seen a cow butt one of the more irritating or persistent pigs out of the way - a brief squeal of annoyance from the pig before it resumes doing exactly what it was doing in exactly the same place as before. Pigs can be very single-minded at times.
But for a pig to not turn up for dinner is serious.
Despite extensive searching both then and the day after, there was no pig. I knew from talking to neighbours that it had been in the field with the others at dusk about half an hour before I discovered it missing. The most obvious option, that it had sqeezed under the gate and disappeared into the surrounding maize fields was, for various reasons, highly unlikely. The possibility of pig-napping at dusk was, in the absence of said pig, an idea favoured by some and given a remote credence by circumstances.
But it was neither of these.
I found him, very dead, up against the feed ring. How could I not have noticed before?
But until then I had been looking for a live pig that would make a noise, or a pig that was no longer in the field. But this pig was dead because it had chosen the wrong place to have an argument with a cow. Sandwiched against a metal feedring is an unforgiving place to be.
The other little pigs came across to where I was standing and to my astonishment they nuzzled the dead pig all over, making small squeaky grunts as they did so, and remaining very subdued. It obviously wasn't the first time they had done it. They were reluctant to leave him and when I dragged him down to the gate on a piece of polythene they followed alongside. And there they stayed, nuzzling him from time to time until he was taken away.
So a sad and unexpected loss of life - but also the finding of a catharsis in an empathy I hadn't expected.