I did not want to walk. The day was dull. But imperative or impulsion pushed me out, onto the road. Whether to turn left, or to turn right, I did not know. Left, to the north, had once been a favoured path, but I could hear the weather beating hard on the corner there, and turned then to the right. I took the sheltered way.
In the cold air the shapes of the island, hillshapes, streamsshapes, rockshapes appeared bared to me, undiluted. My thoughts that day were clear and hard as those shapes. Marred only by a waking dream that had not left me at dawn. There were but two bounds to my being. One hard, sheeny, as if carved of same landscape. The other, the dreamscape. At the hilt of the road sheep were being moved along, a collie at their heels. The owner was following. On seeing him a nervy grin repeated across my face. I stood away to the side until the sheep passed and then stepped into the road to join him. The boy stopped.
Hello. How a things? How a things? These your sheep? Half of them. They’re some good-looking sheep. Ah, they’re alright, surviving, like. And you? How are you?
Alright. Surviving, like.
The conversation rhythmed unperturbed as if written already. We had only to mime the words. This was the way of provincial greeting, I remembered. I bent to the dog, reached close and saw then its manky eye. Wary, I jumped back. He mumbled to it, a tongue not mine, snapped his fingers and the dog came to him. It stretched its neck up close along the length of the boy’s outside leg meeting his index finger there, finger that fell meeting and stroking the short fur on the upperjaw, the muzzle.
You’ll be down t’ pub after?
We were sat on low stools at a low table.
What’ll you have?
To invite an outsider to drink with him meant only one thing.
To then invite another to join in, meant something quite else. The latter, blue eyes, sallow skin, (a trait of these people) was not a man I knew. The heavy hands sunk around his glass were stained yellow, darker at the knuckles, the calluses and the edges of the nails, by the yellow-black peat of the land. Elsewhere those hands would have told that the man was employed by the tannery. Here there was no tannery, no tanners. But his hands were familiar to my eyes and talk came round to the skins as only it could.
But not before talk of the weather, of the crossing, of the closing school and the omen that conjured. Unrejuvenated the isle would drift in a time warp to whither thus. Stuff the last souls with their last breath. Hang a placard round their necks: Here once a community stood.
Talk came round to the skins as only it could. In these parts the art of the taxidermist was called upon for many both elaborate and day-to-day tasks. Elsewhere taxidermy, the arranging of the skin, had been spruced up to the status of art form, a clamour for caged coloured birds midflutter on the mantelpieces of the most avant-garde establishments. Or other such flippancies. Here it was not the case. Here, the price of wool so low, one would do better stuffing a sheep, we laughed, try and earn a pound, the price of wool so low, and barely twenty on a lamb, we’d do better stuffing it… that or preserve the sheepskins whole, to clothe the parquet floors others had.
The boy had aged.
I had not noticed on speaking to him that first time after so long, how he had aged. Seeing him on the road we were both as we had been then. Now I saw the pock-marks scrawling over his face, the sandstone cheeks, the falling hair. But, before that I saw his eyes and I saw his gaze. His eyes I saw black as the peat of the land, black as the black-brown rivers there. I saw the landscape inscribed now upon him. I saw the freeness that had once flickered in his gaze extinguished, stamped out, shuttered beneath a hardened soul. Not a breath of it in his eyes. Those words once: Aye I’ll be away from here soon, stood in the mists, distant as our shared past. The snatch of possibility that had drawn him to my lips, me to his bed, snuffed.
He spoke of his own sheep, skinned them himself, he said. As he told, he took to his feet and in a generous bow leant over the table, to then commence a strange charade. It would be a lie to say I was ignorant, his right hand held in a fist like that, thumping across his hooked left arm. As I watched this motion, I too came to see the sheep held there, its forelegs hung over the crook of the left arm, the skin thrusting off with the pummels of the right. A sheep still-warm its skin loosening at the legs, the belly, the nape of the neck…. With a yank he had pulled it off, then held it to the air, as a trophy. The body fallen to the ground beside the table. He sat down again, silenced, elated by the act. Turned to his pint.
During the incident, a mere few minutes, a make-believe sheep, the dog had risen, come to the table, and there slunk, circling, its forelegs and head low, its nose rising and falling to echo the man’s rhythm. When he finished the dog started to bark, to sniff the ground and bark and we were obliged to turn to it. From him some words, that language unknown, then taking it by its throat – Oi, Shut up! We’ll have that one stuffed too. While we’re at it.
This was not unknown to me, this sort of act familiar as if I had left the place yesterday. It was ingrained, the gesture branded early-on into the body-memories of the men there, as was their manhood. Or, so I thought, and this thought started to weigh upon the evening, and drew my focus away from the words of the conversation itself. What did it mean? I was sure I was correct to think thus, but what did I mean by it?
By now the men had let the narrative have its way, channelling through them, as they merely opened their mouths, loosed their tongues, detail bounded after detail and my silence went unnoticed, or provided the necessary canvas? Or witness?
My brooding led me, through clouds of pipe smoke and the clatter of beer and conversation to these men’s childhood. Although separated in age by a span of years, they were, one could say, of a generation. Born before the times that were now. Less affected, shall we say, by outside influences. Ways of being were picked up at the early stages, at the very earliest, as with all of us, through an effort of mimicry. A few central gestures were honed in upon and these deciphered to fit every occasion. This gesture was not, as I had thought, ingrained in them as their manhood. As I watched in my mind’s eye that heavy forearm still fisting through the air, I understood it was their manhood. The gesture barely had to be altered to shape the steely stance of a man at fight, the swagger of a man on the prowl. A man’s pride, virility, charm, each was contained within the mutations of this one gesture: with this a man could love, he could skin a sheep, he could even kill a man.
I thought this and felt for a moment I had understood something vast about mankind. I thought this and turned my ear again to the low table. The two men were paused, silent. I wondered if they too had partaken of this instant of illumination, had I been thinking aloud? Were they too contemplating the just simplicity of the revelation? But no. When they began to speak, placing one voice on top of another, as if they spoke of just one voice, and I had to look from one to the other to see who indeed was speaking and yes, they both were. I became aware that the subject was another. They had it seemed, been awaiting my attention so that they might broach the topic further. Before them their glasses were half drunk, before me stood another.
I have perhaps inferred, in these parts the art of taxidermy was woven with another. Both arts I felt well-suited to a woman’s eye, a woman’s touch, a woman’s capacity to empathise, literally: to suffer in another body. Strange then that these people looked upon me, once one of their own, with mistrust. Mother she could, nurse she could, weave, and mend, and sew she could. But, offer composure, respect and a certain semblance of what a skin had in life, give it back its soul. They doubted. So long I had been there, so long had they doubted, distrusted and discussed, that I no longer remembered, had there been a death, or was one awaited?
To put the facts down as they stood. A taxidermist had been called out. I had, after so many years, returned. And because the taxidermist carried a pair of breasts, manicured nails and the prefix Ms, there had been upset. Or so it seemed.
I sensed now, however, that the upset was not in fact one of mere gender. It was because the usual fellow had not been sent. He had, I ventured to explain again, moved south. It was me, now, the taxidermist in the region. Me who dealt with, deaths, dogs, sheepskins…
There was no choice, too late to alter the circumstances. I had the following day, to turn up at a cottage on the Western shores. To prepare the body there lain for the wake, which would begin at noon.
When I asked his name, none was spoke.
What was the cause of death, I asked, and none was given.
Is there family, I asked and this time heads nodded, all of the heads.
And when I turned to one and, are you family, I said, he looked down and did not speak.
The Priest has been? Again I tried.
With this they left me, stealing out of the room in single file, a fog near falling, the door closed upon me and I came to the table on which he was lain.
The body was unclean. It was lain untidy on the table, slopped to one side, as if it had fallen there. The sex I noticed was falling to the table too, in so natural a gesture I was a moment disturbed. But the practice was my own, I reminded myself, it was a spiritual and artistic one and I had simply to carry out the rites. His jaw was half-open, his eyes wide, the sex fallen, the knuckles ripped, as if emerging from a fight but now bloodless. I noticed yellow bruising at the nape of the neck.
Then I perceived a strange thing, strange indeed on a human cadaver: an incision ran around each ankle joint and rose up the inside leg, to meet the anus. Likewise, I noted, at the wrists, and from wrists to underarms. What blood had been drawn had now flowed on, been wiped away, and along the incisions the skin was peeling back, curling at the edges. Beneath it a thin membrane. Same caul, slip of soul, I knew all too well from dealing with animals. I then saw, drawn along the length of the body, from throat to bladder, a line, as if another incision were to be made there.
Upon this unwieldy body these lines, unexpected, were rather beautiful. The work of an artist or a surgeon, or one might suppose, the hand of a taxidermist. Methodical, diagrammatic, inimitably precise, and more than pleasing to my eye, one who sought the art of precision when dealing with skins.
Only then did I take in the room. It was so unremarkable, I did remark it. A range, a chair placed to either side. A screed floor, a dresser dressed with the customary dainty cups and saucers. A tallow candle in the cailleach, the alcove reserved for the elderly matriarch in such homes, put paid to flies. On the dresser I found a shroud, a white piece of cloth cut open at the neck and stitched at the sides, beside it bulked a white sheet, to drape over the table.
I came to touch the body.
Touching that body was like sliding my hands across stone, there was no give in the flesh, rolling though it was. I pelted my thumbs, strong, into the swathes of flesh clumping across the back, thumped them into the skin. No colour rose to meet my thumbs, no thumbmarks bruised that body. There was no blood circulating to meet my touch. For this reason you can be strong when working on a dead body. Still I took my fists then to the body, as if searching for some response, some sign of life? My knuckles smacked hard on the skin, I only knackered my hands.
I gave in, and took some oil from my valise, a Frankincense blend that would clean and bring colour and warmth to the skin, and rubbed it over the parts of the body I was able to reach slumped across the table so. My fingers trailed through the thick dimples at the stomach, lingered on the silver lines of stretchmarks skittering up between hip and paunch. Again I was touched by the unexpected beauty of the body. But my time was not my own, not to trail, nor linger. I had a delicate task before me.
As a taxidermist I knew well to dissimilate signs of injury, many a time had I scraped a preferred pet off the tarmac to return it to its original form, as it was alive. These are not dark arts, but simple tricks, a needle and thread, a comb, boiling water, wax. A hand at patchwork would suffice.
I repaired the skin where I could, pressing it back over the tears and sewing the folds together with a simple cross-stitch to ensure it held. The skin felt loose on the body, and it gave easily to my sewing, overlapping and tucking in the severed edges until I finished with a neat tack. Looking on the body the man was as though sewn into his skin, stuffed even, or trussed.
Then, as I had habit (perhaps I had grander notions of my artistic future than I readily admitted to myself at the time) I etched my initials into a flap of skin. None would see it once he were clothed, yet the mark was necessary, much like an artist signs his work. I was wont to do so on animal pelts, and could not desist on this occasion. A mere fistful of stitches, pulled and knotted to secure. My handywork would go with him to the grave.
I could find no picture of the man in the heyday of his life on which to mirror my creation. None, and there was no one I could ask. I had heard enough to know I would not query the death, simply put the nameless figure to rest.
My skill was one that seeked to bring a flash of life to a body, a whimsical nuance that allowed the mourners to commune with the soul of the man. What adjustment could I make to this body I knew so little of? An erroneous amendment could be disastrous. Was his a frown furrowing across the forehead, a lopsided smile? Should I leave the thick growth of hair across the jaw? Tweak the monobrow? Brush his hair back or reveal the balding?
Although the men of these parts were hardened fellows, this one, I was sure, was not. He had not the hands nor neck of a labourer, not the sallow skin and clear eyes of the natives. I sensed he was an outsider. I would render him so. Trim his beard, manicure his eyebrows, and force a gentle smile between his cheeks, none too elaborate.
I manoeuvred the body once more, that I might so prepare the face. Having done so I rubbed it with a light oil, that would not stain the sheet I was to dress him in, nor shine too much, but allow me to press his countenance into a suitable expression.
I had only to dress him, and to lay him on the cloth. Before I clothed him, I looked once more upon these enigmatic incisions on the body. I hoped despite the stiffness, his weight would help me balance and loosen the body to bring it to the appropriate resting position. I brought the cloth to the table and laid it best I could across, letting it ruche where it came into contact with the man’s body. I then took the shroud and drew it over his head. This was not an easy task as the head was fallen, the neck sloping to the table. Once I had the shroud over the head, I pulled it over the parts of the body bared to the air. I gave the right shoulder a smart push, hoping it would fall to lie on the sheet. The shoulders did not release, curled tight together as they had been left. I did manage to drag part of the cloth further under the body, to part cover the table. Again I took the shoulder, the hand and wrist, the elbow, dragging the arm in jerking circling movements in an attempt to release the shoulderblade. I have seen elderly men in parks circling their shoulders thus, and yet in this case they didn’t give. Eventually there was a slight release and I heaved the shoulder away from the neck to lie against the cloth. I pulled the shroud over the body, tiring now, and used the remainder of my strength to yank the cloth underneath the body and over the table. Pressed the face into position. I stood back from my design and satisfied as I could hope to be, packed my small valise.
A woman came in after. She made a sign for me to be on my way. She was dressed in black, her head covered and her eyes did not rise to meet mine. She took a brush to the floor and I saw outside the door she had prepared hot water and soap, a scrubbing brush. Seeing the scrubbing brush I thought about how on death we attempt to wash a person of all traces of life, remove from their soul and skin any fleck of dust that might have burdened them. This was why I took such pride in my own method: I liked to furnish a corpse with a flicker of the real, acknowledge the minutiae that might have tarnished the body and the mind in its lifetime. For this reason too I signed my initials. Death was not a godly, but a human endeavour, and taxidermy too, was unmistakably human, whatever one’s pretensions.
I left the cottage. A fog had fallen thick. I could see no one but felt presences close. Were they those preparing to wake? The air too was close, and my being had shifted towards its other bound. The waking dream of the previous day was close upon me and the shapes of the landscape were losing form, sort of blowing, although it was still. I recognised my way, not from the way I had come, but from the dream itself. This I didn’t question. But I pushed aside the uncomfortable sensation stirring in my gut. Had I collaborated in something? I’m doing my job. I’m just doing my job, I said, under my breath. Unnerved in the dream powdered landscape.
To the west I saw a silhouette against the last light. It was the boy. The no-longer-a-boy. Hands clamped behind his back, striding along the top of the hill. I was relieved to see such a clear form, as if cut out from the pastel mist. I could just hear his nasal notes directing the dog, muted by the distance. He must have seen me, for he took several steps down the hill to approach. I was desperate to get on. He was too far away. He shouted something. It was lost to the air. Perturbed I could only half smile and nod my head in semblance of understanding. As he descended his arms swung open and in his stature I saw the gesture that had absorbed me the night before. Seeing that, my mind fumbled, resisting a link with the body I had just lain out. I had not the courage to rethink. I did stop a moment to watch the dog gather the sheep and bring them to him. Then I went on.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Olivia Heal is a writer. She lives in Norfolk. She was shortlisted for the White Review Short Story Prize 2013