If Ms. Piglet had a flaw, it was that she had never suffered — at least not much. While it was true that her father had died young, he had left the family well-provided for, and Ms. Piglet had been given ample opportunity to say goodbye and was warmly cared for during the most acute period of her grief. It might also be mentioned that, as a result of the amount of time she spent on her studies, she had not been popular in high school.
But for those difficulties, Ms. Piglet had lived what you might call a charmed life and for this she was grateful. Still, as a deep-thinking female, she herself wondered whether the ease with which she lived might have left her a little wanting — in what way she could not exactly say, but it was ever her goal to make the most out of life.
Being an animal of action, she began to volunteer at a homeless shelter in the urban center near where she lived. Each Friday she descended from her family home on the hill, with its views of the sea and mountains beyond, to the lowest point in the city. She passed urine-soaked sidewalks and animals bundled in blankets and cardboard, and found her way into a shabby building that smelled of old food and unwashed bodies.
One day while at the shelter, Ms. Piglet found herself in face to face with an animal so like herself that she nearly jumped when their eyes met. Ms. Piglet looked around to see if anyone else had noticed the resemblance, but it seemed that no one had. Ms. Piglet was overcome by an unfamiliar feeling of self-consciousness, and a certain prickling fear. Not that the female in front of her seemed dangerous — not at all. It was just that when she looked into the worn-but-pretty face, there was something in it that Ms. Piglet couldn’t quite put her finger on, like a premonition.
She asked this animal, as always and in order to steady herself, what her name was and reached out to take her hoof before proceeding with the medical examination. The answer was Ms. Pigeot, which made Ms. Piglet wonder, when she saw it written in the chart, if somehow she were somehow being made the victim of a joke. Still, no one else seemed to think it strange, so she went ahead with the examination as if it were like any other.
Ms. Pigeot reported that she was a native French speaker, originally from Algeria. Her story was a sad one. She was born to a poor family that sent her away to Paris when she was very young, ostensibly to live with a Parisian family as a servant, but really to become a prostitute. Ms. Pigeot lived in a dormitory with other young prostitutes, and was only allowed to leave — and then under strict supervision — during the early evenings and into the night.
Rights to her person had eventually been purchased by an American who installed her in his home in this city, where she had now been living for well over 10 years. Looking at Ms. Pigeot’s documents, Ms. Piglet was startled to see that they shared a birthday. She mentioned that fact to Ms. Pigeot, who received the information as if it were no surprise at all.
Ms. Pigeot’s American had insisted that she take drugs with him, and this had eventually created a dependency that she could not shake. Despite the drugs, which kept her bound to the American, she was content to live in a home with a private room and eat well. She was let out on her own, which allowed her to explore the beautiful city. The American dressed her in pretty clothes, and so she seemed to lack for nothing. But when she got older, he tired of her and put her out of his home. It was a challenge because she had never lived on her own, but then she found the shelter and now, between her work as a prostitute and the free room and board, she enjoyed her independence and was surviving well.
The problem was, she had developed a cough. It was an ugly thing that hurt her chest and was bad for business because, when a fit took her, it often ended in a green, or even bloody, discharge. She wanted to know: Could Ms. Piglet help?
Ms. Piglet took notes and listened to Ms. Pigeot’s story with even more than her usual attentiveness, but inside she felt an ever-growing sense of dismay. While Ms. Pigeot resembled her in every way, the resemblance was tempered by rotted teeth, rough and wrinkled skin, and a posture that, though she carried herself well, belied the pain she was in. Her eyes glinted with the kind of light reserved for those approaching death, while a faint odor of decay rose her body like an invisible mist. A physical examination revealed the knobby tumors of advanced and untreated cancer along the exterior walls of her chest.
Ms. Pigeot was dying and Ms. Piglet knew it; she felt uncharacteristically lost and unsure of herself. Ms. Pigeot, despite poverty, exploitation, and drug addiction, had managed to hold onto life with an appealing one foot in front of the other spirit, much like Ms. Piglet’s own approach. It was disconcerting to see that, in Ms. Pigeot’s case, a positive attitude had been far from enough to ensure what reasonable animals would call a positive outcome.
It was so disconcerting that, after Ms. Pigeot left with the promise of an appointment and a treatment plan the following week, Ms. Piglet told the center director that she must take a break and get some fresh air. She took only a few steps out of the building and onto the stained and smelly sidewalk before she was forced to turn a corner into an alleyway, where, amidst trash cans and broken bottles, she found a dirty brick wall to lean against for support.
The world around her collapsed into itself, and everything looked shiny. It seemed impossible to get enough air. She turned her head, this way and that, seeking oxygen, yet finding only despair. When she realized that she was clawing at her own throat, she took control of herself, and began to relax her muscles and count the length of each inhale and exhale. Soon enough the world stood still again, and she began to feel that she was getting adequate oxygen, yet still she was shaking.
On her way home and into the night, all Ms. Piglet could think of was the unfair life and death of Ms. Pigeot. Ms. Pigeot, who had suffered so much, seemed unaware that she was dying. Her focus was on how to sustain herself, which was of course natural in any animal. Ms. Piglet’s sense of justice was outraged, and after a sleepless night, she was absolutely sure that she must change course.
She surprised her family, a group of very generous and reasonable animals, by insisting that Ms. Pigeot must be brought home to their house on the hill to die with every possible comfort and even some well-deserved luxury. Because Ms. Piglet was so very earnest, and because she had never before proposed anything unreasonable, her family nervously agreed to it.
At first Ms. Pigeot was herself reluctant. She had friends in the center of the city, and felt that she would miss them. As well, she’d never had much luck with the people who, as she said, brought her in. She nervously agreed to the arrangement only after Ms. Piglet, this time without consulting her family, said Ms. Pigeot’s friends would be welcome to visit. Ms. Piglet emphasized, too, that the city center was not so far that Ms. Pigeot could not venture back whenever she desired. And so Ms. Pigeot was installed in the guest suite on the ground floor of Ms. Piglet’s home on the hill.
Ms. Pigeot’s decline was rapid, and, after a visit or two, there was really not much question of her heading back to the center. As for friends, a few did come, but as Ms. Pigeot’s health worsened, those animals felt less and less comfortable. Nobody wanted to acknowledge what was happening, least of all, it seemed, Ms. Pigeot.
Ms. Piglet did speak of it, and often, to her husband who, it must be admitted, began to feel alarmed. There was nothing definite about Ms. Pigeot herself, who stayed in her room and who was always as pleasant as her strength allowed. She received the children, who were gentle with her, as her main entertainment, and they never seemed the worse for a visit to the guest suite. Yet Mr. Piglet was worried; he had never seen his wife so feverish in her affect, and he did not like it.
Ms. Piglet was preoccupied with the fact that Ms. Pigeot, no matter how sick she got, never seemed to want to acknowledge the truth of her situation. Ms. Piglet felt that an honest life required an honest death, and Ms. Pigeot was not conforming to this notion. Ultimately, and with her husband’s encouragement, Ms. Piglet resolved to speak plainly with Ms. Pigeot on the difficult topic of her death.
“Ms. Pigeot,” said Ms. Piglet one day after having brought tea to the guest suite, “I must frankly speak to you about something we have never discussed, but which I think is of fundamental importance to you. May I?”
“Why, Ms. Piglet, of course you may speak of anything you’d like, and especially you may do so with me, after how kind you’ve been. Perhaps I may spare you some discomfort by speaking plainly first?” Surprised, Ms. Piglet nodded her consent, and Ms. Piglet continued.
“You may wish to speak to me of my own death, which cannot be too far off. I have not spoken of it, myself, because, even as a very young child, death was always close by me, standing watch and waiting. The fact that I have lived this long is the biggest surprise, save for the fact that you have taken me in that I may die in luxury and comfort.”
Ms. Piglet, meeting Ms. Pigeot’s eyes, understood then that she had been selfish and misguided. She had underestimated Ms. Pigeot and had, as well, acted from an impulse to be correct and thorough rather than sensitive and understanding. Ms. Piglet quickly fought back unnecessary shame and merely said, “My dear Ms. Pigeot, you are a remarkable woman and I am ever grateful that we have this time together.” She was deeply inspired by the beauty of Ms. Pigeot’s dignity and strength.
As a result, and knowing that Ms. Pigeot’s death was drawing near, Ms. Piglet took a leave of absence from her work, and resigned from her volunteer position at the shelter. She told her family that it would be temporary, but necessary, that she spend as much time as possible with Ms. Pigeot before her death. Her family was uneasy, but trusted Ms. Piglet’s judgment and accepted her decision.
The house became still and quiet. Everyone could see and feel that the shadows had deepened and the air had thickened. Even the pleasant little breezes that usually enlivened Ms. Piglet’s home on the hill seemed to suspend themselves. Ms. Pigeot and Ms. Piglet spent hours together in the rooms on the ground floor that, despite opening onto the garden and sea, smelled increasingly of death.
Every day, fresh flowers were brought to Ms. Pigeot’s bedside, and every day, her sheets were changed. Candles were lit, and a lively little fire was maintained no matter what the weather. The two occasionally listened to music or watched a film. Sometimes, Ms. Piglet simply held Ms. Pigeot’s hoof with hers, while at others, they spoke to each other so softly and intimately that not a word could be overhead. Ms. Piglet took to sharing Ms. Pigeot’s bed, and discreetly warmed her friend, now constantly cold and shaking, with her own naked body.
For a time, it seemed that this state of affairs, which was so tiring for the family in general and increasingly frustrating for Mr. Piglet, who missed his wife, would continue indefinitely. Ms. Pigeot, despite her grave morbidity, did not worsen. She held steady right at the edge, and everyone in the household trembled there with her.
And so it was that, after having missed his wife at dinner the evening before, and feeling that he had not spent quality time with her for what seemed like days, Mr. Piglet felt compelled to visit the guest suite and demand a little attention. He had not been there for weeks, and almost felt himself banned — though his wife had never even hinted so much.
When he knocked, no one answered. And when he creaked the door open, it was obvious something had changed. No candles were lit, and the fire was cold. The room was dim, almost foreboding. Mr. Piglet whispered his wife’s name, but no one answered. Proceeding cautiously, he entered the room. Approaching the bed, he saw two shapes draped in a clean white sheet. Pulling it back, he found his wife wrapped around Ms. Pigeot’s completely still and wasted body. He recognized the position because it was how, for so many years, she had wrapped herself around him.
Slowly he stretched out his hoof to shake her awake and found her skin was unnaturally cold. Turning her with difficulty, he saw that the lower half of her body was a strange, unnatural bluish color. His only thought was to save her and so, howling, he called for the help that quickly came to the house on the hill. Reflecting later, he understood that his cry for help had been, although necessary, quite irrelevant.