Courtney Shillings was a pig doctor. Unlike most full-blooded Vanut people, he’d never had the desire to explore the world beyond the horizon. No, Courtney was perfectly content watching the waves lap at the shores of the same island, day in, day out. Even as stories of the distant war found their way to him, through the mouths of travellers and traders, he was steadfast in his choice.
“You have a strong arm,” his sister would say, a babe on her hip and the other children playing nearby. “They could use muscle like yours. Why won’t you go?”
And he would state, simply, “There would be no one to look after the pigs.”
The life of their island revolved around the pigs. Crops were grown to feed them until they were due for slaughter, and some were kept on as working animals, breeders, or even pets. Their hide made clothing or armour, their bones tools, their blood and flesh sustenance for the people.
Courtney, however, hadn’t always been a doctor. As a boy he had helped plough the fields of the homestead, and later became apprentice to a butcher where he enjoyed learning the anatomy of local livestock - from the inside out. When the current butcher could no longer resist the call of the sea and left for the lands beyond the waves, Courtney took his place. It was not until his sister’s prize breeding sow had birthing complications that his steady hand and amassed knowledge were applied to medicine.
“Uncle, come quick! Betsy needs help and she’ll die if we wait!” one of his nephews pleaded, after bursting into his room in the wee hours of the morning. Groggy, but compliant, Courtney grumbled and immediately came. The sow in question appeared in obvious distress. Weakened, she lay in the centre of an indoor sty with her side heaving. Courtney’s sister Marion hovered worriedly nearby, her knees muddied and her arms slick to the elbow from manually examining the creature’s cervix. Another of her children stood nearby with a pail of gently steaming water and several cloths.
“They won’t come,” Marion informed him. “She began later than we expected and still has not dilated. The doctor won’t make it before dawn, and I am afraid that it will be too late by then…”
Courtney kneeled beside Betsy and carried out his own examinations. He had been raised with pigs, as they all had, but he had a butcher’s insight and a steady hand. He didn’t think twice about what had to be done. Orders were barked at the nephew who had summoned him to retrieve a specific set of knives from the Butcher’s shop as he thoroughly washed his hands and forearms. The other child scurried away to bring the herbs that his mother also demanded.
“I can’t promise she will live,” Courtney sighed, placing a comforting hand on the pig’s neck as he knelt beside her. “But perhaps I can save the piglets.”
Marion nodded her understanding past a lump in her throat. She had hand-reared Betsy, and the animal had been a part of her life for almost a decade now, but there was no denial in her response. They waited in silence for the children to return, and then Courtney got to work.
As the sun rose upon the island, Betsy took her last breath.
The butcher’s bloodied hands rested gently on the creature’s flank as she passed. The sty was quieter now than it had been that night, despite the world awakening outdoors. Seven of the eight piglets had been saved but the stress and loss of blood had been too much for Betsy. He sighed as he rose, his eyes and limbs heavy, and turned to leave. Marion mouthed a thank you to him as he passed her standing in the doorway, her eyes gleaming with withheld tears. He patted her shoulder and summoned a comforting smile. As he stepped outside into the crisp morning air, drawing a deep breath into his lungs, Courtney Shillings made a decision.
Over the following weeks, the butcher’s shop grew to include a pig surgery. Within just a few months Courtney found himself in high demand; the other doctor on the island was old, and his knowledge generalised across both livestock and people, but nobody knew pigs better than Courtney. Many came to know him as simply the Pig Doctor. He saved lives more often than he lost them, his simple practicality and gentle nature well-suited to the work, and he was content.
But then the war came.