When the wife of the squire’s pig-keeper gave birth to her twelfth and last child the handiwork of Satan was all too evident. The bristled pink baby girl had slipped squealing into this sinful world with a short, fat snout and nostrils like twin caverns.
Indeed, so much did the unfortunate creature resemble a pig, her father then fled the village in shame and his wife was drowned as a witch.
Thanks to the kindness of the villagers, who tossed her the occasional kitchen scrap, the child survived infancy. By the time she was five she had replaced her absent father as the squire’s pig-keeper. She had a way with them, which wasn’t surprising, the villagers said.
They called her Snout. She didn’t expect favours and was not disappointed when she received curses and blows. After all, life was nasty, brutish and short for all mankind as well as pigs. She was no less happy than the villagers who spurned her and far more contented with her lot than the reclusive squire who had never been seen beyond his castle walls and whose wife was reputed to have a tongue like a rapier.
Understandably, Snout spent most of her time alone in the forest. From time to time a stranger would pass by; a soldier stained in blood, a peddler clanging iron pans or a hooded leper ringing his mournful bell. She never approached anyone, knowing that one glimpse of her would send men mad. The pigs, on the other hand, cared nothing for beauty. They were too clever. At night, she snuggled down between their soft flanks and was content.
And so her twelfth spring came. One morning, she lifted her head from her leaf-litter pillow and felt something was different. She could hear something.
At first, it was as faint as the stream that trickled nearby. It rustled with the breeze as sweet as summer rain, as mellow as rich butter, pure and piercing as a star in a velvet sky, as free as a skylark, softer than a lamb’s first fleece. Louder it grew. Nearer it came, filling her head, rooting her to the ground. She was listening to music for the first time in her life.
Into the clearing limped a small band of women. They were dirty and bedraggled, their habits and wimples in rags. But they were singing. Snout could not believe such a heavenly sound could come from the mouths of people. All she had ever heard from such mouths before were curses and raucous laughter.
She ducked behind an oak tree. The women stopped by the ruins of an old manor house deserted many years before. Its tumble-down walls were toadstool-damp and smothered in ivy. But it boasted a roof of sorts and the skeletal remains of a tower from which a single rook cawed in greeting.
The chanting stopped. The women looked to each other and silently crossed themselves and Snout knew they had decided to make this place their home.
A routine was quickly established. The chanting began before dawn. Hidden in the trees, Snout listened in rapture. Then the women ate a breakfast as frugal as her own and then set about their tasks. They toiled all day, clearing, building, planting and sowing, without stopping, always praying or singing, until the sun slipped behind the tower. Only then did they stop and take another simple meal before retiring. When it rained they sheltered and stitched and wove, telling stories, and of course, singing.
How Snout ached to join them but she knew she would not be welcome even if she could summon the courage. But she watched and waited and once they slept, exhausted by their labours, she slipped away and tried to coax from her throat the sound that slipped with such ease from theirs. At first, all she could produce was a croak as rough as a hog’s bristle, but slowly it softened to sweet honey, rich and pure. And when the women prayed, she prayed. And when they sang, she sang so that they thought the forest echoed their sounds with more sweetness than they themselves could manage. But she never approached them. She was in too much awe.
Until one morning, one of the sisters came across her when she had strayed from the others in search of succulent forest mushroom. When she saw Snout she shrieked and scattering her basket of mushrooms, ran back to the others claiming that she had seen the devil himself, his giant nostrils aflame, and his eyes blazing with evil. The ladies crossed themselves to ward off the evil that had come amongst them.
For the first time in her life Snout fell asleep sobbing with loneliness. Even the kind faces of her pigs could not console her. The next day she moved deeper into the forest where she could no longer hear the sound that pierced her heart.
She was away for many weeks during which the pigs rooted out all the goodness from the earth and became as empty in the bellies as Snout was of love and consolation. She cared nothing for her discomfort, but she could not let her beloved animals starve. She picked up her hazel switch and guided her pigs back towards the women.
The moment the newly mended tower emerged above the trees, she knew something was wrong. At first, with a thump of her heart, she thought the women had gone, so silent was their dwelling. But then she saw them huddled disconsolately by the gates like the fallen stones they worked so hard to clear. But there was no singing. The music had gone.
Terror seized her but curiosity made her bold. She hoisted the plumpest of the newest litter under her arm and advanced towards them. .
The woman stared in horror as the dirt-streaked apparition of a human pig with its squealing child cradled in her arms emerged from the scrub. ‘The sound. The beautiful sound,’ she said. ‘Where has it gone?’
The women were too stunned to run away. One thin voice struggled from the mouth of the oldest of the women who seemed to be in charge. She did not cry out when she saw Snout, although the mushroom-gathering girl had the decency to look ashamed. ‘We have lost our voices,’ the old woman croaked. ‘Because of our sins.’
'Sins?' asked Snout.
‘We fled our last convent because of the plague. We did not attend to the needs of our sick sisters. We ran like cowards and we were saved. We thought we were so clever. We sang in praise of our cleverness. And our singing was beautiful. We knew it. It puffed us up. But our music was nothing but selfishness and self-congratulation. God watched us as we built a temple to our pride and cowardice and now He has punished us. Now when we want to praise him, we have no voice.’
‘I shall sing for you,’ said Snout, with a simple dignity that would not disgrace the most high of ladies. The nuns could only watch with open mouths as the ugly pig-child began to sing. Even the litter-runt in her arms was stilled. As the sweet sound rose through the trees to the clear sky, the old woman lowered herself to the ground on creaking knees. ‘Thank God. This is a miracle. St Anthony has sent his daughter to us.’
‘Saint Anthony, Mother?’ queried the youngest and least clever of the women.
‘Do you not know your book of Saints, Sister Boniface? The pig is sacred to Saint Anthony. He has come to save us.’ And immediately she felt her singing voice return to her, deep and mellow. It joined that of Snout. One by one, the others took up the sweet melody, their faces glowing in joy and thankfulness.
And so, the years passed. The convent of Saint Anthony flourished. It became famous for its music, especially the wonderfully pure voice of Sister Antonia. Rumour had it that she was a great beauty, but modesty made her cover her face. She was well-liked by the people who lived scattered about the forest and in the village that lay nearby in the shadow of the squire’s castle. She was a familiar sight in her grey robes, with her canvas bags of forest plants with which she tended the sick and prepared the dead for burial.
One day, Sister Antonia set out one sharp autumn morning when the leaves hung crisp and frost-tipped from the trees in order to lay out the body of the old squire who had departed this mortal earth the day before.
She was ushered into his chamber at the very top of the tallest tower by his widow who barked out strict orders that the leather mask which was still tied to his grey face was not to be removed. Antonia nodded meekly and the widow left her to her task.
Perhaps, the mask became detached by accident. God moves in a mysterious way. However it happened, before long, Antonia was face to face with the squire who was her father. A lesser mortal might have been stung with bitterness and hatred when she saw the familiar short, fat snout and cavernous nostrils but she merely smiled and continued her task.