Belly Deep in White Clover
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.