Aphelion Issue 277, Volume 26
October 2022
 
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The Taxidermist

by David Flynn





The deer had begun to smell by time he had it on his table. Leaves stuck to the wound, brown with dried blood. Eight points on the rack, a young buck maybe 200 pounds. The head flopped to the side without neck muscles alert to hold it erect.

"Damn bastard bolted the first shot I had on him," the hunter said. He was a first time customer, with a beard and camouflage outfit that looked new. "We had to track him most of a morning."

The man was excited. His address was in a rich suburb. First time hunting maybe. He left a deposit with his credit card.

When the taxidermist was alone in the dark of his workshop he looked the deer in the eyes, round black spheres still full of sight. He placed his lips next to the mouth and sucked in the stinking air. Charles dropped to his knees before the buck and prayed.

"I apologize to you for the man who has taken the life from you. Really, I do not know why he stalked you and killed you. I do not understand why they do those things for fun, but I want you to know that I respect your death. I will prepare your meat, so that your death means life for creatures still living, his family. I also must remove your head so that the hunter can keep a reminder of you in his house. That is their way. Perhaps you can watch them and understand. I cannot, although I take money from them so my family may live. Please forgive me. Please be happy among the dead spirits, which are all around us. Know that I envy you, traveling to a land where I too will travel later on."

Charles rose from his knees. He turned for his tools, a skinning knife, a butcher's blade, and a hacksaw.

The workshop door opened and it was his son. Luke was twelve and hated to help. The father made him, so that he might know more than television and shopping malls. He stood by the table in silence, a thin boy with the same black hair as Charles. In a few years, when Luke grew big and muscular, he would make him leave the school and serve as his apprentice, even if the son did not want to.

They hardly said a word as Charles first measured the buck's head for the form around which he later would place the hide and horns. This deer was average; a #24 form would do. He kept a supply of black glass eyes in a drawer.

Then, the boy holding the body, Charles cut the hide across the shoulder with his skinning knife. Luke held the head while he had to strain, even with a blade he kept sharp as a point. His tools also had spirits, ones he prayed to so they would not feel alone. His ancestors believed every object had a spirit. Though Charles was Native American, his father had not known what nation.

When the hide was cut in a circle at the top of the shoulder, he made a slice up the back of the neck, splitting into a Y before the two stems of horn. Blood seeped from the cuts still, and below that lay the gauze of tissue and muscle and meat that covered the frame of the skeleton.

Now he had to take the skin from the ears, the most difficult part. With a scalpel, he severed each ear, and then ran his fingers between the hide and the cartilage below.

When he had the two ears ready, next came the eyes. Charles stuck his thumb deep into the jelly of the ball, and cut as far back into the socket as he could. That too came apart from the skull. Then the nostrils, slicing deep as he could inside, and the lips, his hand far into the hot mouth.

"Please forgive me these intimacies," he prayed aloud. His son's face, pale and bumpy, could not be read, but the father knew he thought he was crazy.

When Charles was finished with the detail, the hide stripped from the body with a tearing sound, and he was left with a thick sheet of hair and hide and blood. With his broad-bladed butcher's knife, he scraped the inside clean of grizzle and fat and flesh. With Luke holding the hide, he attached it to a sloping board and covered the hide with salt. Liquids would drain and the hide would dry. This he would repeat a second time hours later, until the skin was ready for the tanner. Years before, Charles' father had taught him the old way, making his own forms from wood and excelsior, tanning the skins himself. Now, the commercial plants made the hard parts easier.

"You must be very strong for the next step," he said.

"It is good exercise," Luke said his first words of the morning in the dark workshop. "I want to play basketball this year."

And Charles smiled, because the boy was confident. Maybe he would make a fine man, because the father would mold him as he wished. If there was a war, the boy would fight the war. If there was no war, Luke must let no man bother him, but would raise a family, love the solid and the spirit world both. If only he could move the boy away from the city. The white mother, too, loved things, and so Charles worked many jobs. If only he could take Luke from the school, where the other children corrupted him, and make him his apprentice now, but the law said he could not.

"Hold the head with all your strength," Charles said, sternly, because the father must be stern. His face, too, was hard to read, as had his father's, and what he thought or felt did not change his expression.

The boy did as told, while Charles positioned his hacksaw below the horns. He sawed through the skull and brain. The blade came out the other side of the head, and he lifted the antlers. Blood flowed onto the table. Again, he scraped the underside, this time powdering the horns with borax. The points the male was so proud of, his manhood, he placed on a shelf to dry.

The boy helped him clean the table, which was sticky with the blood of hundreds of creatures, deer and bird and fish. The carcass he likewise skinned, slitting the hide first underneath from the anus to the shoulder. The hunter had not mentioned the body hide, but it would insult the deer if it should go to waste. With the hacksaw, he removed the four legs, and then cut off the meat in chunks with his butcher's knife. The boy placed the unused pieces in garbage bags, and helped him take the meat to the freezer on their back porch. The businessman would have almost a hundred pounds of venison.

Leaving the door of the workshop always was a shock for Charles. The dark, odor-filled workroom felt as if he was deep in the woods, deep in time. Outside stood the neighbors' fences and houses crowded in each direction, a suburb. His house, a brick ranch style, was the same as theirs. Inside, the workshop seemed silent, in which god and all spirits of all creatures and things lived. Outside, the noise of the streets, the barking dogs, and the wind chimes brought him back to twenty-first century, which he hated.

His wife was still asleep, though it was nearly noon. She worked as waitress at an all-night cafe. Charles looked down at her on the bed, covered with dirty coverlets, and decided not to wake her. She was a fake blonde, a woman he had regretted marrying. The house was never clean; they argued constantly. She encouraged Luke in his modern ways.

Instead, he and the boy ate canned soup they heated.

"Two boys got into a fight on the school bus yesterday," Luke remarked, just to say something. Father and son had been eating across the table without a word.

"You must learn to fight too," he said. Every word he told the boy must be a lesson. "Soon you will have to prove yourself, or the bigger boys will not respect you."

His wife walked from the bedroom. She began making coffee at the counter without a word.

Before dawn two weeks later the deer's skin was returned from the tanner, ready to reassemble. A box waited in his workshop with the form, and he had chosen the eyes, but there was something about the blackness, a Saturday, and the forecast for cool, gray weather, that made Charles restless. He stood in front of the table, knowing he could use the hammer, the needle, the glue, and the papier mache, and be finished with the deer's head by noon. A strong call from the spirit world made him stop.

When Luke walked in the workshop door, he told the boy, "Today will be a good day to hunt. I feel it."

The boy protested about meeting his friends, but the father would not be disobeyed. When he closed his eyes, his hands on the horns, he could feel the spirit of a waiting deer so immense there could be no refusal.

In the dark, the two traveled along the interstate in the black truck, so old it leaned to the right, a collection of dents and scrapes. An hour west of the city Charles pulled off and in another thirty minutes parked on a mud road deep into the forest, his favorite area for deer. The boy was mad and hardly spoke, but standing by the truck, struggling into their camouflage coveralls, orange vests, and rubber boots, Charles could hear the spirit world shouting at him. This was a sacred day, one the boy would remember always. Today he would learn the spirit of the deer, and be changed.

The forest surrounded them for a hundred miles. Instead of city or highway was a wilderness, and in those trees stood a deer with many points on its horns. Charles could feel the spirit between them. Could sense the buck looking up in that startled way, knowing his death had arrived. Today their souls would join, and the deer would become part of the spirit world.

"When we are through, can we stop at McDonald's?" Luke asked.

"No, we will not," the father said, fighting anger.

They had never killed a deer together, and hiking through the woods for a rustle of the leaves, for prints in the mud, for fresh pellets of dung tired Luke. The boy believes we will hunt without result, Charlie thought, and said, "This day we will meet your personal deer, and when you have taken its spirit into you, you will be strong like the deer. The deer will lead you into manhood."

He wanted to take his only son back in time, not forward into computers and jobs in offices. His son must love the silence as he did, and so the boy must learn patience this morning: cool, dawning, fresh.

They hiked into the woods without a trail, straight into the trees. The first hour Charles looked for a twelve-point buck he had seen the year before, a head among the leaves, but had not hunted. Deer remained in the same area year after year, like people, so the buck would still be there. Shots sounded from other hunters far away. Though he searched the ground, littered with leaves or needles, he found little track, the deer pellets, the hooved indentation in the mud from which he could tell size and sex, and when the deer stood or ran. The boy grew tired, carrying his rifle on his shoulder, and walked slowly.

"Now we must still hunt," Charles said. The good time for deer, sunrise, was gone. "I will find a place for you and a separate place for me. We will remain silent, for in silence is the spirit of the deer. You must let yourself stop thinking. Then you will find him. When you do, aim at the chest, where the heart is. Try to honor the deer with one shot. Shout and I will come if we need to track him while he dies. If my deer comes to me first, you will hear a shot, and I will call to you. I have had dreams; I feel the spirit of my deer and your deer in these woods. Today will be a big day."

"I don't know why I have to do these stupid things," was all the boy said. He almost cried, like a child, and then looked at his father defiantly. "This is boring."

Luke turned his head away and did not believe, the father knew. The boy could not sense spirit, because his head was full of objects to buy. Charles wanted to forget objects, and find a world of all spirit.

In time, they walked onto a small ridge. Behind was the rise of a hill and below, after a drop of ten feet, stretched a ledge of tree and leaf.

"Here is where you will still hunt," Charles broke the silence.

He took a square of tarpaulin from his pack and laid it on the ground while Luke stood in irritation.

"To hunt the deer in an honorable way you must not be a child. You must not make noise. You must sit in the same place, for hours maybe. You must open your mind to spirit. Patience and calm must be your way. Then, your deer will come, because the spirit world will send him. I will still hunt on the other side of the hill, also waiting for my deer, also patient and calm."

"I hate you," Luke said. "My friends think you're crazy."

"I give you no choice."

And the father, hurting and angry both, waited for the son to sit against a tree trunk, as told. Luke did, a heavy weight, and then would not look at him again. The father grabbed his son's rifle and pushed it across his legs, in the proper way.

Then, so mad he could not keep the spirit himself, Charles walked around the hill to the far side, a ledge also immersed in tree and leaf, also dark and still, without even the stirring of a wind. There he threw down his tarpaulin on a similar overlook. He sat against a trunk, and tried to lose the anger that controlled him.

This day he could not lose the world. Though the spirit was strong, the anger was stronger. His mind, rather than emptying so the spirit could enter, remained filled with rage about his son. The boy was lost to America. He was too old to learn. His only son was the same as his wife, his neighborhood, and his city. The world of matter was too powerful, even for the spirit world. Such thoughts came and with them the curdling sharpness that ruined everything.

The ledge was cold, and when Charles realized that he too was cold, an hour had gone by. He should have checked the boy, but had not moved. Deer roamed around them. He could feel their bodies. Now he stretched his legs, asleep because he had not moved them, and changed the rifle from one hand to the other. He rose stiffly. Charles walked over the hill through the trees toward his son's still hunt.

"Luke," he said, but there was no answer.

When he came to the spot, the tarpaulin still covered the dead leaves, but his son was gone. The rage came again, full and red. Anger howled like a wind in his head. The boy no doubt had returned to the truck, sat there bored with the heater on and the radio playing that music. The boy was not a hunter, and would never be a hunter. He had no son, and would never have a son.

Charles returned to his still hunt on the other side of the hill. He sat on his tarpaulin, rifle across his legs. The boy could wait in the truck all day. He deserved punishment, and would be punished when they returned to their house. He would beat the boy. Meanwhile Charles would hunt.

Immediately he felt the spirit of the deer.

He was the buck Charles knew would come. The buck was meant for the son, but it had come to him as more worthy.

Above the roar of the anger, above the sickness in his stomach, came the spirit of the deer. Charles rose to his feet slowly. He must not make any noise. He stood with the rifle raised almost to his eyes. For minutes, he remained still. Only the moan of the wind in the tree branches spoke to him. The feeling, stronger and stronger, of the deer filled the trees. Then, the sound of steps on the leaves, slow, tentative, alert.

They came from behind him, down on the ledge. Charles turned with no haste. When he faced the steps, he aimed his rifle into the trees. He emptied his mind, and did not see with his eyes. His mind and the mind of the deer joined, a union between them. Then, between the trunks of the trees, among needles and leaves on the branches, the black eye of the deer.

Charles did not will it, but his finger moved and the rifle exploded. Instead of the deer, came a human scream.

Just one scream, but Charles went numb with death. He did not move, wanting the time to stop, but the seconds continued and with them the thought: I have killed my son.

Instead of running to the body, he knelt on the ground. He clasped him fingers together in prayer, and tried to pray the boy alive. The spirit world remained hard. Charles prayed with all the might a human could have, but the spirit world was empty. He prayed forever, but in a few minutes knew prayer did no good.

He stood, rifle still in his hands. Even as a child, Charles did not cry, no matter how hard his father, an alcoholic, tried to make him cry with his belt or a piece of wood, he refused to cry. His face showed nothing now, but inside he was insane. He walked through the leaves and the tree trunks to the boy's side.

Luke looked up at the tall trees, a red circle of meat on his chest. The bullet had entered cleanly, through the heart. A good shot. The boy's face showed nothing.

Charles stood above his son, staring at every detail. He knelt, and placed his ear at the boy's nose. No breath came. His fingers touched the vein of the boy's neck, but no pulse throbbed. Luke was all body now, his spirit in the air where human senses could not find him.

In time, Charles lifted the body, and draped him over his shoulder. It was the only way he could carry the weight. In the truck, he placed him on the seat, and drove from the woods with no hurry. He would never drive nor walk with hurry again, because time was without purpose. He felt hatred roaring inside him toward the spirit world, and hatred that roared back, but he had much to do. At his house, he parked without remembering the road there.

The father carried his son's body into his workshop. No other human had seen him. The white mother was asleep, and then would leave for her waitress job. His numbness left and a great need filled him. Charles moved with madness. He laid the boy on the table, face up, and removed his clothes. The shirt was sticky with blood.

He placed his mouth near the mouth of the boy. He drew out the breath. Then he dropped to his knees before the corpse.

"I apologize for taking your life, my son. May I draw your spirit into me, so that we may be one. Though this deed was not of my doing, but that of the spirit world whom I have angered with my life, I ask your forgiveness for my deed. May you be in peace with the spirits around you. May I travel to your world soon."

Very soon. For how could he live with this deed on the Earth.

"I love you more than the world, but I was not a good father. I let you lose your soul. May I be a better father in your death. Please forgive me."

Charles gathered his tools. He held the skinning knife, and went cold. His son's black eyes stared at the ceiling, shiny with insight.

He made the first cut above the boy's shoulder, the knife slicing through the skin in a complete circle. Then he cut his neck in a Y shape onto the skull. Blood covered his hands and his face as he wiped his tears.

Crying, Charles took the scalpel and removed the boy's ears, then ran his fingers between the cartilage and the skin. He stuck his thumb deep into the jelly of the eyes, and cut far back into the sockets, crying. He had to stop, hysterical for a moment, but then calmed his spirit to match the boy's spirit. The nostrils and the lips he carved out as well.

Luke's skin tore from the muscle with jerks and yanks in pieces, the black hair intact. With the broad-bladed knife, he scraped the inside of grizzle and fat and flesh. He attached the hide to the sloping board and covered it with salt. This time he himself would do the tanning: salting, degreasing, and fleshing as his ancestors had done, and as he had done when he began as a taxidermist. Salt and alum for the acid soak. He must remember how.

Then the body hide, and cutting off the arms and legs with his hacksaw.

I will be a horror to all ages, he thought. My father will not know me in the spirit world.

The skins mounted on boards, drying in the salt, he began building a wooden frame. With no manufactured forms, he would have to make his son's body the old way, the way his father taught him. A bag of excelsior had remained forgotten in a cabinet for years. Charles stayed up all night, making the wooden form. He was not satisfied with the shape, but he could not stop.

And it was a day later, for he had not slept, that his wife entered the workshop. Charles sat on the floor among the dried blood, the chips of wood, and the trash. His eyes stared wide at the air. He did not hear the entry of his wife nor her screams. As he had without stop, he called to his dead ancestors.

"Speak to me, for I am nothing," he begged. "Please show yourself to me. Tell me how I may cleanse myself of this death. Tell me how I may live as the deer."

But they were silent.


THE END


2015 David Flynn

Bio: David Flynn’s literary publications total more than one hundred and seventy.  His background includes reporter for a daily newspaper, editor of a commercial magazine, and teacher.His writing blog, where he posts a new story and poem every month, is at http://writing-flynn.blogspot.com.  His web site is at http://www.davidflynnbooks.com. His last Aphelion appearance was If Pants Had Brains in our May 2015 issue.

E-mail: David Flynn

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