Mary Kuryla’s stories have appeared in The Greensboro Review, Pleiades, The Brooklyn Review, RES Magazine, The Pushcart Prize XXIII: Best of the Small Presses and several have been adapted into films that premiered at the Sundance and Toronto International Film Festivals.
Log Book – Jim Shirtrun, licensed taxidermist.
Job# 385, Black Bear Mount
Onaway, Michigan. August 22, 1932
Identification: American Black Bear, Ursus americanus. Weight: 600+, mature male.
Hunter: Simpson Willis. Client: Mr. Harry Wade.
Received: Intact. Mount: Standing.
Such a tragedy to squander the heart. Not only the heart, all the organs. These here may be past refrigeration. Refrigeration is past refrigeration in this swelter.
Don’t go using the Log for your reflections, Jim.
Skull measures: 20”. Cheek to cheek: 7”. Eye to nose: 7 ¾”.
A shot straight to the heart. Goading a bear to rise up and expose the chest can cost the hunter a lot of hound. Only hound that will survive a cornered bear is an obedient one, like my Old Lu. Except when she wasn’t. My lantern lit up the first snowflakes sifting down last winter through the pine screen as I made out the white blaze on Old Lu’s chest (Time: approx. 5 P.M., Date: 1/25/1932). I cupped the blaze with my hand as I scolded her for jumping her pen. Her tail slapped the ground. Knowing she’d done wrong did little to deter her from mouthing a corner of the box of chocolates under my arm. I sent her back home. She trotted along the river rock out of view. Further ahead the solitary light in Lottie Ulrich’s cottage window shone through the pines. I was rushing things and I knew it. Her husband E.Z. had been gone less than half a year. Not that anything about his death sat right with me, except the fact that it left his wife free. Since I first met Lottie Ulrich I’ve wanted that woman. Beneath the silent swing of bats overhead my courage waned – until Old Lu hurtled out of the dark, chopping barks at me. Damn if that dog didn’t spook those chocolates out of my hand.
Lottie must have heard the commotion for she now called from her door, “Is that you?”
I made myself known – what choice had I now?
She raised her eyes to the sky and said, “All at once it’s winter, Mr. Shirtrun, but must we accept it? It does not seem right!”
“You set for wood?”
She smiled and said, “I have a good fire burning. Come in. Get warm.”
Old Lu’s ears flapped as she shook off snowflakes, just one more artless gesture that makes the dog what it is. Clearly Lottie was only being polite. “I reckon we’re not the only ones caught off guard. Might sight a woodchuck before it beds down for winter.”
“You’ll need a gun for that,” she said.
I gestured over my shoulder as if the rifle lay on the ground behind me. I blush to recall the deception now.
“Is that what you dropped? Silly me,” she said. “I fancied a box of sweets.”
Her laughter floated down as I turned from her door that I’d unaccountably denied myself entry and hooked Old Lu by the collar, dragging her from the chocolates special ordered from Marley’s Candy Makers in Detroit that she’d come after – the one unexpected stunt of that hound’s life. The brittle and leafless branches met me with open arms.
Note: Bear sustained acute injuries to the snout as if from blunt instrument. A lateral cut through the septum doubles the channels, exposing 3” contusion along one ridge.
Nevertheless the incisors are intact – in spite of separating Willis from his leg last week (Time: approx. 2 P.M., Date: 8/17/1932). The bear latched onto Willis above the knee, severing femur from pelvis as it dragged him twice around Crooked Lake. How every resident near its shore didn’t hear the cries, I’ll never know.
“Reckon I nodded off with my fishing line in the water,” Willis said. “Next I know my leg’s meat in a bear’s maw.”
Willis had fallen asleep, head propped on a creel of pike in that moored rowboat with a slow leak. He’s lucky the bear didn’t haul off with his skull.
His rescuers tied a tourniquet on Willis and hauled him all the way up from Crooked Lake to my own front porch. Doc Divish was out of town, they said.
“What do you want me to do?”
Willis was slung over Bic O’Hare’s back and he was moaning. “Boy’s losing blood all over.”
Didn’t need O’Hare to tell me. My porch was run red with it in spite of the tourniquet.
“You’re County Coroner,” O’Hare said.
“My commerce is with the dead.”
“Give him a minute he will be.” O’Hare looked at his boss Mr. Wade. The gentleman was dabbing a hanky at the blood flecking the arm of his white seersucker suit.
Mr. Wade caught my eye. “I don’t hear your hounds, Jim.”
Willis slid off O’Hare’s back and hit the planks with a howl. O’Hare would need help to get him inside.
Mr. Wade pushed his Panama hat back on his forehead, and the sunlight lit his pale eyes. “Bic can get him on your table,” Wade said. “Come round back with me a minute. That’s where you keep them, isn’t it?”
He knew it was. A season hadn’t passed without Mr. Wade asking to hire my hounds for the Huron Outing and Sporting Club.
The dogs were having no quarter with Mr. Wade and they were good hounds that knew. When he stepped up to pat the brown bitch, Old Lu backed against the rear fence.
“No hounds south of the U.P. better at treeing bear than yours.”
“All right. Once I attend to Willis.”
He grabbed my arm and said, “I want that bear.”
“The hounds don’t run without me,” I said.
I hotfooted it back to the boy. Though I could have used O’Hare’s help to restrain Willis, O’Hare claimed he knew where another doctor could be found and shoved off.
“I’m dozing in the boat,” Willis said, blood from his wound soaking my supply of cotton batting, “the lake mirroring up that pine with the roosting eagle, like he’s in the water only it’s clouds, when I feel something run across my ear, a thick fish. Yeah, a fish. I open my eyes. Nothing but fur and sun. And stink! Sulfur, uh, and that tells me, uh, bear. It’s a bear! I reach for my rifle in the boat bottom. Damn thing is waterlogged. Got no action out of it. The bear freezes, ah, from the gun or the fact that it didn’t fire? You tell me. I ripped my rifle into the nose. Bear blood spraying up the barrel at me. I reckon it took the sight of blood to make it start acting like a bear again.”
“What other behavior would a bear have?” I said.
“The boy’s in shock,” said Doc Divish, who’d shown up by then to attend to Willis. “Rig up a gurney, Jim. It’s a long way to Cheboygan.”
“Hospital?” said Willis. “Can’t you just stick the leg back in the whateveritis joint?”
When Divish didn’t answer, Willis started shouting, “The bear attacked me, attacked me!”
Had Willis not been so intent on stating the obvious, I might have heard Wade making off with my hounds.
August 23, 1932
Size of skull dictates non-standard method of cutting around the eyes before turning the face. Make fast the fleshing beam. Reinforce base to counter skull’s excessive weight.
Order: Borax, 2 lb. boxes.
Not enough to even dust my hands. The slime at the bottom of the jaw stretches between my fingers in thin strands. Ringing the mouth should be a slippery affair.
Go steady, old man, else you’ll nick skin. Slow those little cuts into muscle. Ease on down to bone. Might be this pace is what has set you to brooding, little musings cut loose from under your own hide.
Note: Pelt damage significant starting at torso. Tears in legs will require stitching.
Lacrosse conveyed the dead bear in his wagon to my door. (Time: 11 A.M., Date: 8/19/1932) They’d pig tied and pinned the bear beneath a hemp net. Mr. Wade would have parted with a small fortune to hire Lacrosse and his horse and wagon. Ojibwa are not known to facilitate the transportation of an animal in a state of what they call “the crossroads.”
The bear had split open Old Lu’s gut. They said she’d limped off into the scrub, entrails dragging the soil with her. Wrapped up in a woolen blanket and stored in the rear of Mr. Wade’s automobile, but there was little point keeping warm a dog already gone cold. Mandy and Brake Dog both hobbled out of the automobile. However, the other four did not appear injured as they raced to the watering hole, and it was a spell before they slaked their thirst.
“Dogs did fine,” Mr. Wade said as he set his soft leather boot on the bottom porch step. He removed his hat as Bic O’Hare carried Old Lu up the steps and lay her down like she might just be sleeping. Her scabbed tongue stuck out from beneath the pink woolen.
“They would have done better if you’d left me to run ’em.”
“You wouldn’t have run them, Jim.”
“That’s what I mean.”
Mandy thrust her snout into my hand. She whimpered. A gash long as a summer snake scored her hind leg.
“You took my dogs without my permission, Mr. Wade. I believe that’s called stealing. Your attorney friend Mr. Martin would know the correct term.”
“Don’t fuss, Jim. Look at what a fine trophy your hounds brought in.”
Wounds gaped on the forelegs where the dogs had brought the bear down.
Special instructions: Bear’s mouth wired open in a snarl. Claws bared in attack.
Client has requested that mount “instill terror and awe in all who gaze upon its natural superiority.”
Diameter of paws: 8”.
Order: half dozen bird’s beak scalpels.
Those that don’t snap easy.
Work on the paw is a pain in the neck. The wrist bone won’t oblige the drill. There’s more brawn than art to hooking into a pad this thick. But if anything instills terror, it’s bared claws. No violence without it.
Note: Leave a flap of skin to hide the wrist seams. Not like you need reminding. But remember.
Sunday, August 25, 1932
Order: ‘True Profile’ natural veined glass eyes, pinpoint pupil. Museum work quality. 11/16” round.
As I am obliged to refrain from labor on this our Lord’s Day, Van Dyke’s catalogue keeps me occupied. Of course the eyes will not arrive in time. Best send them directly to Mr. Wade at his Detroit residence; a city boy ought to be able to pop in a couple of eyes.
“It presents in the eyes,” E.Z. Ulrich’s widow told me the day before yesterday as she stood in the shade of the felled oak that still greens (Time: 4 P. M., Date: 8/23/1932). Digging a hole for Old Lu had taken the good part of the day. As I read a prayer over the mound, Lottie bowed her head. The sight of her deep brown hair caused me to lose my place more than once in the Book.
“You rest in peace, Old Lu,” she said, “no funning.” Then she lifted the shovel right out of my hands and slapped the flat head at the fresh dirt. She looked up. “Invite me in for tea?”
I hesitated but only on account of the piece of chocolate candy, which I’d planned to set on the grave. A sentimental gesture to Old Lu’s sweet tooth.
“Please do, Lottie,” I said.
The bear’s hind legs hung off the workbench beside the head. Covering them would only draw attention, so I escorted her past my work area at the southern end of the room that also serves as parlor.
“I am talking about a man’s spirit,” she called after me as I went to put on the kettle. “How it presents in the eyes.”
Well I knew. While in her husband’s company, I had often had to avert mine. No fear revealing too much feeling now. Her husband was dead. His widow sat in my parlor wearing a yellow summer dress. She was prepared now for courting. With a rush of shame at my winter failure, I set the piece of chocolate candy on a high shelf.
Teacups rattled in their saucers as I set the tray between us. Lottie reached for hers, our fingers touched. I jerked my hand away, fool.
She raised her face to me but her eyes looked past me. She said, “I have long carried a feeling that begs revealing, Jim.”
She’d never called me by my given name. Tea scorched my throat as I gulped.
“No, I am ashamed,” she said. “You will scorn me for what I have to say.”
I knocked her teacup grabbing for her hand. “Scorn you?” I said. “Never, Lottie Ulrich. I can spare you. It’s for me to put into words what has remained unspoken between us.”
She folded over her skirt to retrieve the cup still wobbling around the wood floor. Straightening, she set it back on the tray and said, “I am talking about E.Z.”
I must have looked like a dumb animal. After a moment she withdrew her hand. Pink surged up her neck. She coughed. “Jim,” she said, “are you aware that E.Z. was given to falling into a state of coma? I expect he entered this state for the purpose of letting his spirit roam. Though we didn’t know it. Not at first.”
She rose and plodded over to the wildcat mount stored on the linen table. She’d shot the cat last year while out hunting with E.Z. If Van Dykes had managed to send the correct pair of eyes, it would be in her house, not occupying so much of mine. Postured mid-leap, ears laid back, tail swung to one side, the cat’s lips spread into a snarl of mute papier mache. But she passed by the cat to halt before the bear’s head.
“E.Z.’s spirit was partial to traveling in the wild things of our woods,” she said.
“Have you been conferring with Lacrosse?” I said.
“Ojibwa don’t give import to spirit doubles. This is strictly my own observation of events.” She patted the bear’s cheek.
She must have taken my silence as acquiescence. She rushed to me, dropping to her knees, saying, “When the good Doctor Divish declared him dead at the clubhouse, I fear E.Z. had simply succumbed to one of these dormant states.”
I made out freckles dotting her cheeks. Such revelations of the skin. Would she mind if I counted them?
“Don’t you see, Jim? E.Z. might have been buried alive!”
“Lottie, you said yourself that Divish declared him dead. The doctor testified as much to the court. For godssakes, Lottie, I felt E.Z. myself. There was no pulse – ”
Using my knee as leverage, she eased back to her feet and walked like the dead herself to the dining table sufficient for a single man to take his meals. Her touch still working down through the weave of my trousers.
“We were eating supper,” she said, “when it came, like big hands pushing him off his plate. It would take big hands to dislodge E.Z.’s from his plate. The chair bucked. E.Z. keeled onto the floor. I thought it was my cooking. Don’t laugh, Jim. It’s dispatched lesser men.”
If she smiled, it went fast. “Like a husk,” she went on, “E.Z.’s body lay on the floor beside the table where we’d been eating supper. I felt his chest. His chest did not rise. A glass over his nose yielded no sign of breath. His body there but not cold, just big and heavy. E.Z. was not resident. Minutes on end beneath the table. Get help, I told myself. But I was afraid to – how can I put it? If I left E.Z., whatever had left him might not return. Not even to his supper.”
On the wall above her head the tail feathers of a pheasant I’d mounted pitched with tension. Beside it the black-rimmed ears of a stuffed hare in winter coat harked to the slightest movement. Not a ripple from the Northern pike over the fireplace. On the bench the bear’s hind legs hung on her next word. The wild cat on the linen table stared, not through eyes in want of glass, but through portals.
Snap! Lottie snapped her fingers a second time, snap! “He was back,” she said. “But not like you picture. His eyes, they . . . his eyes,” she said, “they opened. Was he . . . had he . . . what did it matter? E.Z. was back.”
Her own face was a grimace.
“Thorns and burrs,” she said. “His feet pierced with them. I poked and poked like a doubting Thomas into his red and tender soles. Who can believe without touching? He flinched as I picked at the thorn tip that had embedded into his palm, thorns and burrs of the land. E.Z. had got them running on all fours on the east side of Crooked Lake. Torn toes seeping blood. He said it came of chasing a buck.”
She drew the chair from the dining table and dropped into it. “But he’d gone no further than the floor beneath the table where we supped together.” She looked square at me.
“As a medical man,” I said, “I am confused by your report of a coma state.”
“You mean when his spirit loosed from his body?”
I nodded without agreeing.
“Eyes blank,” she said, “arms and legs like this.” She thrust her limbs out like a wooden dolly. But neither the calf muscles where the dress inched up, nor the long bones of her naked arms, nor the arch of her neck, nor the soft hairs curling at its nape bore the slightest resemblance to wood. These pieces of her flesh shocked my lust.
Her feet thudded to the floor. “The first time it happened – ” She must have read the look on my face. “You heard right, Jim. That was not the first E.Z. suffered. One night the year before there had been no waking him. Course, there’s often no waking a man who likes drink. But he’d not had a nip. I sought out the good Doctor Divish, but he sent Nanny Furze in his stead. After examination, she announced E.Z. dead and assisted in preparing the body. Clip, shave, sponge,” Lottie said, “we washed the body down. But while Nanny Furze fetched the undertaker, the spirit returned to E.Z.’s body. Not gently, apocalyptically, the air blown into his chest as by some great bellows.”
I found myself before the bear. The hind legs slung over the bench, the halved torso, the stacked arms, the upturned paws, the unattached pelt and scrambled bones and teeth. The likelihood of wresting order out of the thing made me dizzy.
I turned back to Lottie.
Her hand jumped to her throat. “You’re taking this awful seriously.”
“It’s a cheerful subject,” I said when I found my voice, the ghost of my own.
“But it is! Because E.Z. recovered.” She looked up at me, her smile lopsided. “That time. But after Divish pronounced E.Z. dead in the clubhouse, he was embalmed and buried. If he wasn’t dead then, that killed him, sure enough.”
“Why tell me?”
“E.Z.’s spirit released into the world when he collapsed in the clubhouse. At this very moment his spirit could be trapped inside some animal. He might be trying to communicate to us.”
She’d come to tell me her husband was still here. Employing fantastic tales was a funny way of discouraging a man. “Madam,” I said, “you would do well to remember that the moment the first cave dweller painted a bear on his wall, he severed our species from the rest of the animal kingdom. I welcome this divide. If you prefer to keep your husband prowling about, that is your business.” I went to the door.
“You said it, Jim. Prowling is precisely what he’s doing, outside my house, day and night. I’m rattled enough to leave Onaway altogether. The club has first dibs on the house. Would you speak to Mr. Wade for me?” She passed out the door and took the steps down to the path, where she stopped and looked back at me. “What’s to keep me here?”
I prefer to cut out my eyes after I invert the head, but this won’t suit a standing display.
Locate brain and eye hook.
August 26, 1932
Mannequin complete. Box the bones.
With the exception of the head, the black bear has been put together so why does it seem to be coming undone? The mannequin took some doing – more wire, wool, and wooing than I like. The thing rises up taller than me now with a predatory thrust in the shoulders. But the moment I turn my back, its claws fold and knuckle over one by one.
The taxidermist is confronted by such dissonances at times. Redo what looked so well yesterday with some slight alteration to the form, the gesture, the action, the stance, and the whole beast downright collapses the next. Much depends upon where one is standing. Seeing it from different angles, while keeping in mind the place it will hold in a gentleman’s estate, the years it will endure the scrutiny of its onlookers. Taxidermy is entering another point of view, not the least the very animal of whose life one is in the occupation of immortalizing. The key lies in returning again and again to the instant in time one is endeavoring to capture. Yet no matter how well one charms the moment into the pose, the beast retains its story. A good mount will expose this paradox.
“You got the wrong paw on, Shirtrun,” Lacrosse said when he came nosing round my shop this morning. “Wrong paw on the wrong arm.”
He stared up at the bear that stood on a wood base now with arms bent at the elbows and claws bared in attack.
“Thumbs should be on the inside, but you have got those rippers facing out.”
Lacrosse was right, of course. The paws were on the wrong arms. I’d gone so far as to sew them. What possessed me? It may be a sideline – there’s no growth in taxidermy – but I know my way around a stuffed animal. Fortunately Lacrosse holds his tongue, unless there’s more advantage in not.
“You sure you know how to put the whole thing together?” Lacrosse said, lifting the lid off a bucket and sniffing its contents. “Innards.”
“Boiled down,” I said, “the organs could make a fine restorative for Simpson Willis.”
Lacrosse slammed the lid back on the bucket.
“I should think your people would approve of Simpson revitalizing himself on the meat of his assailant,” I said.
“I do not know what my people approve,” he said.
“That so? Telling Lottie Ulrich that a spirit can free itself from the shackles of its human flesh for the purpose of traveling inside an animal has falsely encouraged her hopes and inflamed her imagination.”
“Whose imagination, Lottie’s or yours?” Lacrosse made a face. “I do not believe such crap. She did not hear of it from me. We speak of other things, I and Lottie Ulrich.”
Lacrosse watched as I set the bucket on a shelf. He brought his hand to his nose and rubbed. “Simpson was not where he claimed to be when the black bear attacked.”
“You saying he wasn’t in the boat?”
He nodded. “Thought you would like to know.”
That’s how it went with Lacrosse. Everything, even information, was an act of barter. Surprising you with what you did not know you wanted but now must have.
After a moment he said, “Perhaps the bear’s innards have spoiled already. I do not object. I will dry out the gallbladder in hot cleansing sun. It cannot be crushed for smoking otherwise. Not me, I will not smoke. It is for a lady it is my intention to ravish.”
“She does not yet admit how she feels for me. The bear’s gallbladder will address that.”
He took the bucket back down. We stared into the organs piled and fetid, trying to make out the gallbladder. Lacrosse jabbed his finger at a black egg shape.
August 27, 1932
Wires inserted to secure the pelt. Hide paste applied. The seams can now be sealed with a simple baseball stitch.
Bear mounted and standing.
I circle the mount, scrutinizing each stitch. What am I, an amateur? An amateur clutters his mind with doubts about intention, while the rest of us set to work.
If Lacrosse’s report was true, then where was Simpson Willis when the bear attacked? The fragrance rising from the bucket was no bouquet. With weather so humid, the organs were best delivered to Willis.
The trail that connects my house to Lottie’s winds round to the northernmost point of the Huron Outing and Sporting Club’s boundary, where Nanny Furze’s cabin squats in a forest clearing wrought of fire. The skeletal pines show no sign of green’s renewal. Built of logs laid haphazard atop each other, the cabin’s grounds were strewn with dross when I arrived. The ravens quarreled in the branches overhead as I knocked, the ill-fitted door rattling the stanchions.
Willis’ foster mother Nanny Furze stared out at me, hair fine as spider’s silk drawn across the crown of her child-sized head. Her eyes dropped to the bucket I carried.
“Organs for soup, ma’am,” I said.
“Them’s what belongs to the bear that done this to Simpson?” With a hand too big for a peculiarly dainty wrist, she swatted the lid off the bucket.
Willis was recovering on a burlap cot, the wood supports flimsy as fawn’s legs. No telling if he’d ever again walk right. He sat up beside a window in the waning summer light, his ear stuck to the wireless until the song wound down.
“When I told Mr. Wade I’d spotted such a grand bear,” Willis said, his voice queer, as if the wireless spoke through him, “he offered me a sum no thinking man could refuse. I set to bringing it in. Here’s the thing. When next I come upon it, the bear sashayed up to me, as like it had news to put in my ear and placed its monster appendage on my shoulder. I struck back. It covered its nose and gaped at me, like I hurt its feelings. It just kept taking it, offended-like, as I struck with my rifle. Thinking of Mr. Wade’s sum, I cocked the rifle. The bear reared up, claws were out now.”
“This wasn’t at the lake,” I said.
“No.” He looked at me. “I come upon it outside the house of Lottie Ulrich.”
That hit me harder than a run-over dog.
“At her bedroom window,” he went on.
“The bear was at her bedroom window?”
“I was.” He pointed from his eye to the window beside him. “Looking in,” he said.
“Panties.” He winked at me. ” You know how her fanny shimmies under shifts?”
My mouth went as dumb as my mind.
“She don’t wear them. Brassiere neither,” he said. “Quit acting like you don’t see, Mr. Shirtrun.”
I shot up from the chair. My foot knocked a support, collapsing the cot and tumbling Willis onto his injured leg.
Nanny Furze skittered over at his howls. “Look what you done,” she scolded.
“By accident,” I said, backing to the door.
“Weren’t no accident,” Willis shouted. “You see what you’re at. Just won’t say it.”
The mount does not go well.
How the hell is it supposed to go? A thing’s more than its parts.
Go back to bed, Jim.
I’d like to make one thing clear, first. Every man in Onaway, Michigan, is intent upon making love to Lottie Ulrich now she’s a widow. But I was the one she sought out the night E.Z died. Without so much as a lantern, Lottie stood on my porch, toeing the floor with her boot, hair untethered down her back (Time: 11 P.M, Date: 8/1/1931). I figured the walls of her house could not contain her grief. I was wrong. She did not yet know what grief had in store for her.
“He has not come home,” she said. “I come looking for him.”
“E.Z. is dead,” I said. “They asked me to embalm his body not six hours ago.”
She declared that she knew something was amiss and so had taken the path to me. Her skirts gathered her up as she fell to the ground in a faint. So light did she feel in my arms she might have been a bird, all hollow bones. The hounds sprawled across the porch on account of the heat did not even look up as I carried her indoors. Her head dropped over her chest, and the fine brown hair caught the candlelight. I guided her head back against the chair rest. One of her boots had fallen off. Must have been E.Z.’s boots on account of the size. I cupped the small heel of her stocking foot in the palm of my hand, brought my nose to the arch and inhaled. Her foot jerked and struck my cheek, but she was still unconscious. I buried my face in her skirts, picturing her thighs shifting beneath. Pushing deeper into her warmth, feeling the heat of my own breath, I drew back. Her full lips opened and she whimpered, as from a dream. I rose and took the salts from the shelf and waved under each nostril. Her eyes opened dead black, the dilated pupils eclipsing the irises’ blue.
“Lottie,” I said, “Mr. Martin and Mr. Wade assured me they had your permission.”
“I reckon. You would not have embalmed him otherwise.”
“Yes,” I said, screwing the cap on the salts. “That is right.”
Each and every seam snipped open and examined for pelt instability. Pelt nailed at junctures in order to ensure adhesion to the form. Seams sewn and re-sewn – this time with double-linen thread and large needle.
Don’t care for the look of it. I like touching it less. In the course of my duties as coroner, the flesh of a man has never given me as much bother as this bear.
A small grey spider spun down from the ear as I inspected the wound on the back of E.Z.’s head (Time: 3 P.M., Date: 8/1/1931). The sharp edge of bone was indicative of fracture at the occipital lobe. “What is the cause of this?”
“Heart attack. E.Z.’s head struck the sink as he went,” Mr. Wade said, his eyes fastening on the other men crowding the airless kitchen of the Huron clubhouse.
“Anyone disagree with Mr. Wade’s explanation?” I said.
Willis coughed and dropped the rag he’d been using to mop blood pooled above E.Z.’s tufted black hair. He rose, passing Attorney Martin and Bic O’Hare as he went through the door, footsteps thudding along the plank porch. No one else made a sound.
“What’s Willis doing here?” I said.
“We called upon Simpson to identify the body before we put it in the ground,” said Martin. “Don’t want anyone saying we don’t observe the process.”
I checked the pulse at the radial artery.
“Doc Divish already came by and declared him dead,” said O’Hare.
“I’m going to request an investigation, Mr. Wade. It’s my duty as coroner.”
“We didn’t call you here as coroner. We called you as a friend,” he said. “Embalm him.”
“You have Lottie Ulrich’s permission?”
Martin sniffed. “It is irrelevant, as Mr. Wade is saving the widow the costs of cleaning after her husband by taking full responsibility for the interment.”
The dead man’s eyes were still open, as if to catch a last look at her. I placed my fingers on the lids and brought them over the eyes. With the release of the hasp on my embalming kit, O’Hare knocked dirty plates and empty bottles aside to make room on the table. Mr. Wade and Mr. Martin cleared out by the time I unfolded my apron and hung it round my neck, O’Hare, too. On the boards beside the body I set the tubing and jar of embalming fluid. Snipping along the buttons on his shirt with scissors, I peeled the garment from the body. Rigor mortis had not set in. I adjusted the head to align with the neck and checked flaccidity of the mouth. Drawing back the lower lip, I took up needle and suture string and threaded the needle through the jaw below the gums then on up to the nostril and through the septum, drawing the needle back down into the mouth in order to tie the two ends of the suture. The lips could have been worked over the teeth to achieve a more pleasing aspect, but what was pleasing about this business? The mouth was sewn shut.
A fishing bucket lined with pondweed and desiccated polliwogs would do the trick. When I turned back to the body with the bucket, the eyes had come open again. Cotton under the lids would better secure them. With a one-inch scalpel, I made the incision in the artery at the ankle for the embalming tube and another incision at the thigh for the drainage tube. As the blood drained through the tube into the bucket, I decided against aspirating the thoracic cavity. Removing organs would interfere with future autopsy. Packing gauze in the anus might be sufficient to avoid seepage, but I’d thoroughly washed my hands at the sink by the time the body was drained. Small black commas wiggled now in the full bucket. The fluids had brought the polliwogs back to life.
August 29, 1932
Black bear mount: completed.
Note: Copy notations into a clean Log Book, unencumbered by your reflections (better held up in these pages than let loose out there).
Fold or re-stitch the hide, comb or ruffle the fur, the gunshot wound still shows. Though a clean shot to the heart is generally desirable, in the case of a standing mount it is not.
But Lottie Ulrich shoots for the heart.
“You have something to say to me about my hounds?”
Mr. Wade stood beside Lacrosse’s wagon, where the dead bear was trussed up on the floor (Time: 11:30 A.M., Date: 8/19/1932). Though the gentleman had asked me to inspect the bear for damage, I would not until we settled the matter of the dogs.
“Little thanks to you that we brought in our trophy,” he said. “Do you think I liked helping myself to your dogs?”
“You owe me an apology, mister.”
Mr. Wade leaned over and snapped off a tiger lily blooming at the mouth of the trail to Lottie’s house. “Pretty gardens,” he said, “cultivated like a gentleman’s estate, ordered and subdued right to the edge of these inhospitable woods. Must require constant attention. You understand that, Mr. Shirtrun. I’ve seen it in your work. Tell you what. Mount this bear. Show what you know and in turn I’ll show it off to my friends in the courts. They tell me your name comes up now and again for the Chief Medical Examiner position. Any friend of mine is a friend of theirs.”
When I did not respond, he said, “As Chief Medical Examiner your status will be such that the Huron Outing and Sporting Club will welcome you as a member. You’ll be invited to the club, unlike E.Z. Ulrich. His widow would admire that, don’t you agree?”
“Don’t know as I want the job, Mr. Wade,” I said. “Taxidermy may be a sideline, but I take pride in my work. By the looks of it, you let the dogs have their way with the bear. I can’t perform miracles.”
“For you to decide.” Wade signaled to Bic O’Hare to take off the ropes.
Before inspecting the bear, I requested Mr. Wade’s rifle as precaution.
“The thing’s dead,” he said.
“You check the pulse?”
Mr. Wade blinked once then extended his rifle to me.
Strips of black blood crusted the hide of the hulking bear. Its dense coat appeared lustrous from a summer gobbling blueberries, grubs, honey; no sign of mange or parasites. Rigor mortis seemed in evidence as the body showed little muscular flaccidity from the jostling of the ropes. I placed my hand on the head.
As my thumb rounded the eye socket, I heard the snap of dry twigs. The widow was coming off the path. She stopped and bobbed a curtsy at us, approaching now with lady-like dignity in spite of her tracking boots.
“Hello, stranger,” she said, striding up to the bear. She shot me a brief smile.
Lottie’s skin shone with perspiration. Her blush-colored shift hugged her high breasts. Let the others do the looking. The bear required my attention.
Mr. Wade cleared his throat in that way gentlemen do for speechifying. “In the right hands, this bear will inspire awe and terror in all who gaze upon it. Normally I’d haul the carcass with me to Detroit for mounting but I’m inclined to give it to Mr. Shirtrun. His hands are capable enough, Mrs. Ulrich?”
Lottie’s eyes were on the bear.
When I looked back, the bear’s lids were open. It blinked once then shifted its golden blacks to mine, the rims filling with water. I’d only before seen such pity in the eyes of a man.
“Fall back,” someone shouted. “It’s alive!”
The bear’s chest was ballooning. One heavy clawed paw rose above my head in autonomic response.
The rifle turned to slack rope. The thing lifted out of my hands. A gunshot. The bear’s arms flung wide. Eyes flashing heavenward before it lurched forward to suspend atop its legs.
“All right, Jim?” she said, lowering the rifle.
A shot straight to the heart.
August 30, 1932
I crouched before Lottie, a dumb animal. Down the barrel of her rifle she squinted at me. Let go the trigger, I said, and I woke up.
Job # 385, Black Bear Mount.
Amendment to Log – Hunter: Lottie Ulrich.
Prepare the bear for shipping. Fix that area of the heart.
Word has gotten around, neighbors stopping in to view the mount before it is crated and transported. The women fan themselves with such savagery they will surely conjure rain. An error, I have made another error. The bear’s feet have stiffened on the flat surface it was prepared on. Now instead of the toes grasping the presentation base of layered shale as in life, it poses flat-footed. It could careen right off the rock. A wonder it doesn’t. Might as well be chasing my tail as playing taxidermist. No time to fix it. A sizeable crate constructed at Onaway Lumber waits on the wagon behind the house. Mr. Wade’s men have devised a means of shouldering it out. The bear tilts. Folks back away. One mover grunts. It settles on his back.
“Funny look in the eyes,” Lottie says.
In the tumult, she’s come up alongside me. I assume she’s referring to the bear’s expression while it had lived. “You saw it, too? When the creature came conscious in Lacrosse’s wagon,” I say, “its eyes held pity. You were right, Lottie. It was not a bear.”
She is shaking her head.
“Or not only a bear. It was E.Z.,” I say.
The movers have managed to lower the mount into the wagon. Their faces flare as they inch it along the bottom of the crate. Lottie and I have followed as far as the rear porch. “He tried to come to you,” I say. “The bear came to your home, Lottie. I believe he meant to protect you.”
“Why, Jim Shirtrun,” she says, “that talk about E.Z.’s spirit traveling in a critter is hogwash. You said yourself that we long ago severed our ties with animal kind.”
“Yet we yearn for that lost connection.”
“If I listen to you,” she says, “I have to worry I shot my husband!”
“You no more shot your husband, than I have been laboring on my rival.”
She grins. “A bear is your rival?”
“E.Z. – ”
“Yes,” she says, “yes, I know. But E.Z. is dead.”
“On my account, Lottie. I embalmed him and I did it without your permission.”
Light flashes from the grill of Mr. Wade’s automobile as it pulls off the road into my driveway. As we stand side by side watching it approach, I pick up the scent of cocoa on her breath from an earlier cup of hot chocolate. She has known all along.
“Mr. Wade is pleased with your taxidermic arts,” she says.
“Wade’s been calling on you?”
“The longer I reside in the home with the best view of Crooked Lake, I feel the houses that encircle me will keep closing in. Mr. Wade has pledged to protect me.” She looks up and says, “Apparently I need his protection? Mr. Shirtrun?”
Mount in place, the men have nailed the sides of the crate. The lid is coming down. Here is my chance to declare myself to Lottie.
“Did he know the purpose for his spirit’s release?”
Lottie draws a lock of hair behind her ear. “E.Z.? He couldn’t put up with it, that’s all. Said his love for me split him in two. He did not understand the purpose of his spirit’s journeys, but he claimed the running brought relief.” She crosses her eyes and sticks out her tongue at me.
She is astonishing. No wonder I bungled the courtship. Civilized feelings were not required. Every last layer of human decency must be shed in order to possess this woman.
As Mr. Wade’s automobile winds to the back of the house, the hounds light after it, leaping off the walls of their pen. He pulls beside the wagon. The stockier of the hired movers approaches, asking him to sign off on the shipment.
“Hold up,” says Mr. Wade, vaulting from his automobile and pushing past the man. “The bear will enjoy a privileged place in my home. Mind if I have a look?” He instructs the fellow to lift the lid off the box.
“Stand the thing up,” he says.
“I’ll do it,” I say and take the steps down from the porch.
The stockier man assists me. Once we set down the base, the bear towers over us, twice our size. Winds knocking through the branches gust against the bear. It slides off the presentation base and lands face down on the ground. The bang detaches an arm. Partially on its side now, the bear’s remaining paw claws the dirt as one ear presses to the ground as if listening for insects skittering behind bark.
From the pen the hounds howl, bodies braced and snouts turned up to the black clouds. Their lament carries quickly through the woods. In no time, the neighboring dogs send back their own complaint. From every degree of separation their ululations seem to register some imminent awakening.
Raising up the bear, I prop it against my shoulder.
“I don’t want it,” Mr. Wade says. “The taxidermy is no good.”
“On the contrary, Mr. Wade, this is good taxidermy,” I say. “Best I’ve done.”
“It’s coming apart! You’ve ruined a perfectly good specimen.”
“The bear is just being a bear,” I say, patting its cheek.
Wade shakes his head at the bear and me. “Excuse me.” He hustles up to Lottie, who stands quite still on the porch, and offers his arm. “Permit me to take you away from this, Mrs. Ulrich.”
Lottie’s feet drop down on each wood plank as if the steps hung over a deep gorge. At the last she looks at me. She says, “Jim?”
I let go the bear and leap at Wade’s blind side, getting him by the waist, shouldering him to the ground.
“Of all the crazy stunts!” Wade manages to stay on his feet, clamping his hands on my arms and wrenching down. I hang onto one leg, trying to knee it out from under him. The guy’s a fucking tree. I bite. Seersucker rips pretty easily. The sweet metal taste of blood clogs my throat.
Wade screams. He draws back a boot and lays the heel in my mouth. I punch him in the ankle, and he stumbles but comes back with a double kick to my eye then makes a dash for his automobile. I rise up to my hands and knees and give a good shake. Spring after him, running into the tires’ dust as his automobile surges forward. Maybe I hear someone calling my name but I keep running, heart pumping in rhythm with all around. It’s a trail of dust now, no automobile in sight. Into the woods along deer trails I run, running even after the trails run out. Any minute I will come clear of the woods and out onto the road to head off Wade. Air speeds across my face. I dodge a rock, leap a stump, slip over wet river rock, scare a quail. I keep running, Lottie, because around the next corner a polecat’s stench lingers in the pine needles, a fledging flutters, a drowse of honey, the scent of urine, blackberries, it flashes up, all so beautiful and smells so good and look, squirrel!