Belly Deep in White Clover

Prairie Fire - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - BAR­BARA BLACK

86

HE SAW THE EN­TRY POINT OF THE BUL­LET through the chest, into the heart re­gion, a small jolt when life nar­rowed to a pin­point, then van­ished. For a sec­ond, he felt the im­pact on his own body. It was a ju­ve­nile male por­cu­pine, about three months old, likely al­ready for­ag­ing on its own with the mother nearby. He had never done a por­cu­pine mount and he wasn’t go­ing to start now. He picked up his mag­ni­fy­ing glass. There were blowfly eggs em­bed­ded in the wound. He tweez­ered them out. And a .22 long ri­fle bul­let.

Taxidermy was a dead art. Th­ese days you could buy pre­formed id­iot polyurethane forms straight out of a cat­a­logue. Made ev­ery an­i­mal look the same. He glanced over at his sand­pipers with their slen­der beaks, posed in ar­ti­fi­cial salt pools fac­ing a wave­less sea. He still con­structed his own ar­ma­tures and recre­ated each an­i­mal’s physique with ex­cel­sior and clay. But no one was in­ter­ested in taxidermy any­more. His com­mis­sions had dwin­dled to restora­tions of moth­e­aten martens and herons and time-con­sum­ing dio­ra­mas of im­pos­si­ble species com­bi­na­tions for an ec­cen­tric col­lec­tor named Brack­dale who’d bought seven­teen lots of taxi­der­mied spec­i­mens from the now de­funct Tweedsmuir Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory. He had been me­thod­i­cally re­mold­ing a cougar’s nose from this col­lec­tion when some lo­cal, with a sharp rap on the door, dropped the por­cu­pine at his back doorstep. Prob­a­bly shot by those idiots who charge through the woods like mer­ce­nar­ies, slaugh­ter­ing an­i­mals for fun. Way back when, he would have dis­posed of it in the woods, but in­stead he car­ried it gin­gerly, with gloves, bagged it and laid it out whole in the mam­mal freezer.

His name was Johns. No one knew why it was plu­ral. He’d lived alone out here in the Bulk­ley-Nechako for thirty-one years. He was him­self a bit por­cu­pine-like: hunched, prickly, soli­tary, noc­tur­nal. Hardly any­body in the val­ley knew him any­more, and the few who did kept their dis­tance. His last friend, Bjørn (“Bull­dog”) Torske, a renowned trap­per in the area, died eleven years ago of sep­ticemia. Johns be­lieved in the idea of will and knew the con­se­quences of the loss of it, which his friend had suf­fered the last years of his life. You had to stick with some­thing to keep go­ing.

Johns was seventy-nine now, and passed the time with taxidermy, eat­ing, sleep­ing and read­ing model train mag­a­zines from the six­ties. In the past he’d lis­tened to the ra­dio, and later to a few old al­bums. Fa­mous steam and diesel lo­co­mo­tives: Au­dio Fidelity, The Sounds of a Van­ish­ing Era. Or Ten­nessee Ernie Ford sing­ing “Shenan­doah,” which sounded to him like a yearn­ing that lasts clear into eter­nity. Then one day, mu­sic felt un­nec­es­sary to liv­ing. He stopped lis­ten­ing to it al­to­gether, pre­fer­ring the nat­u­ral melody of place and time. He stopped hunt­ing, too. Kill or be killed—he was no longer afraid of the lat­ter prospect. He had been fixed in the sights of a black bear sow more than once.

The day af­ter some­one dropped off the ju­ve­nile quarry, an adult por­cu­pine ap­peared at the back gate. The mother, he thought. She sat star­ing at Johns’s house. As night fell she be­came a sil­hou­ette, like a small dusk-lit statue in an over­grown gar­den. He stood at the win­dow watch­ing her while he rolled a cig­a­rette. He didn’t smoke any­more, just kept the cig­a­rettes in his pocket or left them dot­ted around the house, ran­dom white scats that marked his thoughts. The por­cu­pine ap­peared the next evening, too, and the next. A vigil. Fe­males have only one off­spring per year. He didn’t be­lieve in feed­ing wild an­i­mals, but he kept leav­ing her a bit of left­over corn­cob and she ate it all. If an an­i­mal can mourn, he thought, that means it can feel some kind of af­fec­tion. He wasn’t sure.

The fourth evening, she was there again. He went out in his blue work cov­er­alls. With an out­stretched hand he ap­proached her with an­other cob. They were placid an­i­mals un­less pro­voked. She re­garded him with her shiny brown-black eyes and moved for­ward to ac­cept it, her paws soft and tex­tured. As she gnawed the ker­nels with her square red teeth she made a squeaky child­like sound. The noise sur­prised him. It was some­what en­dear­ing. When fin­ished, she

placed the cob on the ground, wad­dled away a few feet, and turned as if beck­on­ing him to fol­low her, which he did, his hunched fig­ure a larger ver­sion of her own. They crossed the thresh­old be­tween his prop­erty line and the dis­tant woods.

Past the old well she led him with her lop­ing walk, past the rusty trac­tor skele­ton and the dis­in­te­grated smoke­house into taller grass that led to the spruce grove up the hill. Sweep­ing along the for­est floor, the por­cu­pine seemed to know ex­actly where she was go­ing: a stand of red alders along Tak­leult Creek and, more specif­i­cally, one fes­tooned with catkins that looked as if it could hardly sup­port her weight. Johns stood watch­ing her shimmy up. It was just past dusk and the warm air poured down resinous from the lodge­pole pines. The drought had weak­ened them, brought the bark bee­tles that would eat them from the in­side out. Johns was con­ver­sant in the val­ley’s flora and fauna, but he sensed there was an en­tire lan­guage to it that was be­yond him. He pulled out his tobacco pouch and filled a cig­a­rette pa­per, rolled it, ran it across his tongue, then un­der­neath his nose. Put it in his pocket. The pine resin put him in mind of his old friend Bjørn and his house tucked into a sun-dot­ted pine grove. Bjørn, blast­ing out his front door the day he showed Johns his new dog, Jake, the husky-bor­der col­lie cross. Bjørn had built it a dog­house, a minia­ture Nor­we­gian farm­house, painted red. The day Johns had stopped us­ing a gun was the day he had to shoot Bjørn’s beloved old or­phaned dog.

He went home, puz­zled as to what the por­cu­pine’s pur­pose had been in lead­ing him to her perch. He didn’t mind the walk, though. It’d been a long time since he’d wan­dered be­yond his own nine acres.

Sup­per was steak and canned peas. He sat at the table in his beaver-skin chair while the stars made bright pin­pricks in the darkness above his roof. A north­ern saw-whet owl called es­ca­lat­ing stac­cato pitches that sounded like notes from a small wooden flute. He spent the re­main­ing night hours work­ing on a tim­ber wolf restora­tion, re­plac­ing the in­cor­rect eyes and soft­en­ing the decades-old face by moist­en­ing the lips and ap­ply­ing putty so the mouth could be more re­laxed and nat­u­ral. The old boy looked more him­self by the hour.

Only once the first glint of sun made the lamp re­dun­dant did Johns head for bed. Up with the sun­set, down with the dawn. Past moose and big horn sheep—mounted heads, his prized saw-whet owl and the red-throated loon, he rein­serted him­self into the im­print of his body on the sheets.

Morn­ing sun now lit up Miligit Peak, as pink as new skin. It was some­thing nei­ther Johns nor his new mam­mal com­pan­ion saw of­ten, be­ing the noc­tur­nal types. But, un­fail­ingly, whether ro­dents or hu­mans were there to wit­ness, day­break came with its ef­fu­sion of bird calls, rov­ing bees and sum­mer’s blood-seek­ing flies. They slept, Johns and the por­cu­pine, one in a tree, the other in a bed frame made from a tree, both deny­ing the day’s bright pres­ence.

Johns be­gan to look for­ward to evenings with her—the por­cu­pine. Ly­dia, he had started call­ing her. He had never named an an­i­mal. Some­times she came down to the gate, and once when he’d left his back door ajar she’d wan­dered into his mud­room and chewed one of his boots. Salt was her drug. On other oc­ca­sions he had to seek her out. If they started early and there was still enough light, he brought along a small art book and sketched her. It was easy. She didn’t move very fast. Then again, nei­ther did he.

One Sun­day evening, about a month af­ter Ly­dia started vis­it­ing, he stepped out­side. There was a weight to the night air on th­ese midJuly days. It seemed a layer of heat a few feet above the ground did not dis­si­pate but lay sus­pended there day af­ter day. He in­haled and let the sky draw him up­wards. His spine stretched, restor­ing a lit­tle of his height and with it, a clean­ness in his soul.

To­day Ly­dia wasn’t at the gate, or tum­bling down through the grass to greet him. He walked up Slee­man’s Hill where he’d seen her lin­ger­ing be­fore. Fire haz­ard was high and you could feel it in the parched trees. The for­est was rest­lessly alive. He fol­lowed her trail of de­barked trees from pre­vi­ous win­ters. There was a site lit­tered with nipped twigs. He looked high up into her favoured pine but she wasn’t there. Not tonight. He headed west over the hill to where the lit­tle light re­main­ing il­lu­mi­nated the meadow.

Johns fi­nally lo­cated her for­ag­ing on an open slope, belly-deep in white clover and wild grass. The cas­cade of blon­der hairs on her back showed up in the dusk light. He moved within three hun­dred feet of her, squat­ting down in the grass. Out of cu­rios­ity he sam­pled a clover flower him­self. Sweet, a hint of licorice and nec­tar. It was eat­ing of the very land­scape in which you lived, moved, defe­cated, died. He imag­ined that to her, he was more a smell or a pres­ence, since her eyes wouldn’t be all that good. Given his poor hy­giene, he sup­posed he made a dis­tinct im­pres­sion. As if read­ing his thoughts, Ly­dia lifted

her head. Her nos­trils ex­panded. His scent must have slipped down to the hol­low where she was feed­ing. He didn’t al­ways seek to be right up next to her; he didn’t be­lieve in do­mes­ti­cat­ing wildlife. But on sev­eral closer oc­ca­sions, they had made direct eye con­tact. In taxidermy if you didn’t get the eye con­tact right it was fail­ure. The eyes are where the feel­ing of life re­sides.

Be­fore hard darkness fell, he said good­bye to Ly­dia and de­scended back to the house, his shadow track­ing him in moon­light.

The only good thing about the col­lec­tor’s com­mis­sion was the money. As soon as he’d cinched the deal he’d or­dered a dou­ble bed made from red oak, which would be de­liv­ered on the tenth of Au­gust. In the mean­time he cursed the ab­sur­dity of the pro­ject. An ot­ter, for ex­am­ple, would never en­counter a rat­tlesnake. He had tried to tell the old bug­ger they were from dif­fer­ent habi­tats. But Brack­dale only said, “You’ve got a free hand. Coy­otes and skunks play­ing poker if you like, herons wear­ing ki­monos, just none of that go­daw­ful sci­en­tific stuff.” What Johns hated about this fan­tasy taxidermy was it took away the an­i­mal’s own story. Taxidermy’s real call­ing was to honour it.

In the com­pany of rear­ing griz­zlies and graz­ing mule deer, amidst the si­lent ar­ti­fi­cial tongues of the bob­cat, the fox and the badger, he worked on the com­mis­sion till dawn, in­ter­mit­tently swear­ing.

Once there’d been a few home­steads dot­ting th­ese mead­ows and val­leys, old houses and out-build­ings whose crum­bling frames had long ago col­lapsed back into the land. The por­cu­pines, and there had al­ways been por­cu­pines, had chewed ev­ery last fence post, salty axe han­dle, gun butt, and moul­der­ing leather boot, ren­der­ing them back to their tim­ber and an­i­mal ori­gins. Peo­ple were gen­er­ally not thank­ful for this service.

Back of Johns’s place to the south was the de­nuded ridge, which put him in mind of a dam­aged hide that would grow back only patchily and un­beau­ti­ful if at all. His friend Bjørn had had a small tim­ber li­cence. But even he was against whole­sale clearcuts. In the last few years, with the des­ig­na­tion of more and larger cut­blocks, most of the orig­i­nal val­ley folks had de­fected. An­i­mals too. Log­ging left iso­lated habi­tats here and there. The pa­per push­ers tried to link th­ese with so-called “cor­ri­dors.” Bjørn had called them “damn crit­ter chutes.” Be­sides the eye­sores, in heavy rains de­bris tor­rents charged down the

logged slopes clog­ging the gully be­low with wood waste and muck. The land had to wait for suc­ces­sion growth to put it­self back to­gether. Johns likely wouldn’t be around to see that. As for the un­touched ar­eas, they still held a cer­tain beauty.

End of July. A cloudy night, the hori­zon orange from a dis­tant for­est fire, an odour of ash and wood dust as­sault­ing the nos­trils. Un­seen scent trails streaked over the ground. Routes criss­crossed, over­lapped, cir­cled back, be­tray­ing those who had made them. Ly­dia and Johns had ven­tured deeper into the woods tonight, fur­ther than they’d ever gone. She seemed ag­i­tated or ex­cited, he was not sure which. Johns had stopped to ad­just his boot­laces and lost track of her so had headed back home to­ward the meadow where it was easier to see in the low light.

Maybe she was head­ing away from the woodsmoke. The bee­tled pines were an ideal fuel. Could keep a fire go­ing for days. In the east, the molten colour glowed steadily, like an un­re­solved sun­set. Johns had walked for a few min­utes when he no­ticed some­thing in the air flow­ing down from the hill. A stink. A dan­ger bomb. Like onion body odour. He knew what it was. He raced back up the hill wav­ing his arms like a cat­tle herder with crazed shouts of “Hep! Huh!” which were an­swered by an un­godly shriek.

Af­ter a fran­tic charge through the trees, he reached Ly­dia. Some an­i­mal had am­bushed her. She lay on the ground un­der a spruce, her neck bro­ken and a few slashes to her face. Quills ev­ery­where. Fisher. This was their method. Tree the por­cu­pine and cause a fall, then eat the whole an­i­mal, leav­ing only a hide. Johns had mounted a few fish­ers. They had re­tractable claws. The an­i­mal had taken one swipe into Ly­dia’s belly be­fore Johns had scared it off. He knelt be­side her. The fisher screamed far-off in the woods like a young girl be­ing mur­dered mer­ci­lessly. He tasted the tang of blood in his own mouth. Some vis­cera had spilled out of Ly­dia’s chest. He lifted and care­fully folded it back in. She was still warm. In her eyes, noth­ing. He slid his jacket un­der her back as best he could and sat cradling her, let­ting the odd quill pierce his arms. The trees were still; the air hung thick and sooty and for the first time in weeks the night did not feel alive.

Un­der threat of darkness, he car­ried her home.

Against his usual prac­tice, he put on Ernie Ford. “Oh, Shenan­doah.” Where the fur was torn, he su­tured up Ly­dia’s belly, then re­moved her hide. He couldn’t bear to dis­pose of her. With­out

fur, her body looked like an in­fant ca­daver, vul­ner­a­ble and new. He put her in the spec­i­men freezer, pre­served in al­co­hol. Next to the ju­ve­nile por­cu­pine, which may or may not have been hers. He took a hand-rolled cig­a­rette out of his cov­er­alls, ran it slowly back and forth un­der his nose and put it down on the counter.

She had al­ready dis­charged sev­eral hun­dred quills in the at­tack. He re­moved over two hun­dred more from the hide, plac­ing them in an old jar on the win­dowsill for safe­keep­ing. He washed and dried the hide. He took par­tic­u­lar care brush­ing out her thick fur. Out of habit, he started his usual ar­ma­ture from wrapped ex­cel­sior. But he changed his mind. He wanted the body to be pli­able. Wire joints for her legs and a soft filler for her body. A “soft” mount, it was called. Only her head would re­quire a hard mould. The paws would be filled with clay. He went through the trays of spare glass eyes. Birds: stan­dard pupil, large pupil, pin­point pupil, two-colour blended. Rep­tiles: (not many). Mam­mals: oval pupil; round pupil; slit pupil. Only one suit­able pair, small, dark and shiny like poke­weed berries, twelve mil­lime­tres, which he put aside.

He made her soft and mal­leable. He slept ev­ery day in the motedanc­ing room, with her belly curled into his. On his left hand he wore a long leather work glove. He stroked her fur, care­ful not to press down too hard, but risked be­ing quilled. All th­ese years, his hands had never traced the down on a woman’s cheek nor played in the thicket be­tween her legs. In­stead he had touched only the cold spheres of glass eyes, the brit­tle scales on the legs of avian ca­su­al­ties, the pelts of tro­phy kills.

It was still sum­mer. Day length was two hours shorter than in mid-July, but plenty long at fif­teen hours, which the trees al­ready knew.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.