Emily loomed over the frozen carcass of the preserved red fox. She gazed into the animal’s extinguished brown eyes, imagining the realistic result and pose that would honor this specimen. She envisioned an erect bushy tail and a nose in the air, investigative by nature. "Sher-fox Holmes,” she muttered to herself under her breath. And with this initial narrative in mind, she sketched the rest of the scene on a piece of paper. She would need a houndstooth detective’s cap and a curved wooden pipe to complete it. With the eagerness of a child picking up a crayon and placing it to a blank piece of paper, she gently lifted her metal scalpel from the desk and made her first incision, pushing the tip of her knife through the front of the pad of the foot. She then ran the knife up the back of the leg to the armpit, and began to peel the skin back from around the leg, keeping tension to make certain the muscle peeled away completely. Accompanied by the audible ripping of skin from muscle, she took extra caution to preserve the feet in the hide, leaving only the skeletal digits visible after. She was careful to skin the feet patiently and gently, cautious to preserve the animal and restore it to the regality of its life-like state. Pushing the sharp edge into the paw again, she mad another smooth cut up the backside of the leg to directly under the animal’s tail, ripping the skin away again. She repeated the process for the other legs. Gently cradling the fox’s frozen tail, she made a long cut underneath, removed the skin until she was able to reach in and find the tail bone and pull it out, again careful not to rush. She wiped sweat from her forehead with her gloved hand, after successfully keeping the tail intact.
Her chest began to hurt with a lingering guilt of a time she was learning the art of taxidermy with her father. It was her first time attempting to skin a squirrel, and its fragile brittle fur fell apart as she recklessly yanked its tailbone. Her father scolded her, “Emily, you must take care when you remove the skin, or you damage the pelt,” reminding her of duty of a taxidermist to preserve the memory and honor of the animal. She was contrite, realizing the monetary value lost in the destruction of this delicate fur, and knowing this generational trade made up a considerable part of her family’s income.
Like Mary Shelley’s doctor, obsessed with the art of reanimation, this tedious task of taking apart was a means to restore and create. Taxidermy was practiced by the male side of her family for three generations, and it wasn’t until this year that an innate feeling of urgency began her monomaniacal obsession with mastering the skill. Even now, she could still recall all the family secrets and techniques. Next, she covered the nose with paper towel to prevent bleeding onto the hide. She skinned the rest of the fox, taking caution at the ears, as she cut away at the cartilage. An accomplished smile appeared on her face, as she observed the now skinless package of muscle and viscera laid on the table.
The next task was to remove the eyes, which always made her feel uneasy. She always believed the phrase, “the eyes are the window to the soul”, and as she performed more preservative works, she saw the emptiness, knowing at one time these eyes perceived all that composes this being’s experience. Her own eyes betrayed her in the middle of her craft, as they became out of focus, and a few tears clung to her lashes. In a moment in her mind’s eye, she saw a beautiful young woman with brunette hair, with her eyes closed, laying in a casket. “That is why we prefer the appearance of sleep in viewing our departed loved ones,” she thought. The terror of the void just behind the eye lids disturbed her greatly. She relied on her other senses to bring her out of pensive state. Focusing on the tangible flesh in front of her, she made performed the necessary surgery. She was happy to be rid of the empty lifeless orbs, and would replace them with beautiful glass of a striking brown hazel color that complemented the red pelt.
She recalled a time with her father at the supply store, in the midst of his project to preserve a moose he hunted and killed mid-October. The giant bull provided food for them all that winter, and her father was so proud of his kill, his assertion of power in besting this creature in its own habitat, that he mounted it as well. “Which eyes should we choose, Emily,?” he would ask for her expertise in capturing the soul of the creature. She chose the deep warm brown with a copper ring around the pupil.
Emily never understood the obsession with a hunting trophy. Her motivation was always to preserve and dignify the life of the creature, what she considered was a more ethical approach. She received her subjects as donations from strangers or rescue centers, often dying a premature death of natural or traumatic causes. It was as if their death was a temporary state. She enjoyed celebrating life and creating caricatures, displaying a whimsical exaggerated version of the animal. Inspired by Walter Potter, and eccentric English taxidermist who created dioramas of married kittens, a monkey riding a goat, or a classroom of pupil rabbits, she appreciated the absolute mockery of death. Her artistic motif was a personification of animals, to stage them in their real natural state. Of her favorite creations, there were The Great Cat-sby, a handsome yellow tabby cat in a suit, holding a champagne glass. Much like Jay Gatsby, the street cat rose from rags to riches, before being donated to Emily by a nice mourning family. There was also A-Mouse in Wonderland, exhibiting a small white mouse in a blue dress with a white apron, and associated props of “eat me” biscuits and “drink me” bottles. Another favorite piece was Edgar Allan Toad, her most time consuming work, because she had to extend her skill set to amphibians and birds, in which a large brown American Toad, sits crouched over a desk, a small pen in his webbed hand, and a baby black raven is perched above him.
She picked up the fox’s red hide, a mixture of brown, orange, and rusty red, and washed it with dish soap and hot water, removing all blood, dirt, and imperfections from the earth. She stretched it over wooden boards, securing it with metal pins, and dried it with a hair dryer. With gloved hands, she grabbed the other remains and using double bags, disposed of them in the dumpster outside her apartment. Afterwards, she removed her gloves, sanitized her desk, and grabbed the clay model form, ready to begin manipulating its pose. She then drilled holes in the mounting board for the legs of the mold, and secured them, before fitting the skin to the mold, envisioning the fox on his haunches, one arm extended to hold the pipe. Then, she prepared a needle and thread and proceeded to sew the mouth shut from the inside of the skin, prudent that it wouldn’t be lopsided upon completion. As she began to stretch the hide to fit it to the mold, she placed pins, and began to cut the wire for the tail and ears, wrapping it in cotton.
Two loud knocks at the door jolted her from her seat at her desk. She wondered if it was just the delivery of items for her next project frozen in the freezer. Glancing at the partially completed mount, she felt self-conscious of her art in process, and the possibility of an unsolicited guest at the door. She closed the door to her workspace, leaving it slightly ajar and crossed the main room in her apartment to the entryway. Another three loud knocks banged on the wood, as she quickly glimpsed at the clock and noticed it was already half past six in the evening. It had long been dark, as it was a week before Thanksgiving. She stumbled awkwardly to the door, simultaneously opening it in an agitated manner, realizing it was her friend, and immediately feeling embarrassed for her impolite response.
“Oh, hello Lena,” Emily nervously stammered. Lena was standing in the doorway shivering, and holding a pan covered in foil.
“Hi Emily, I hope you are doing well. I thought I might stop by and bring you something warm to eat, and see how you have been. I hadn’t heard from you in the past few days.” Emily tracked her memory of when Lena last reached out and if she responded. She had been so encompassed in this current project, ever since she received the delivery of the fox’s corpse two days ago.
“I apologize, I’ve been busy with a project,” she responded. Lena looked at her with concern, the look Emily despised, one of pity.
“What kind of project?” Lena asked with genuine curiosity, as she scanned the room. “I know there are many different ways to process grief,” she said, as Emily’s body tightened. She didn’t even hesitate to bring up the subject.
“Oh, just some crafting, to keep my hands and mind busy,” Emily replied.
“I’d love to see your work,” Lena said, as she started to cross the room toward the door that had been left ajar. Emily tried to slow her down with modesty.
“It’s nothing, Lena, just childish drawings and—,” Emily was unable to finish as Lena opened the door, revealing here secret workshop. Lena’s expression changed from and excited and inquisitive nature to one of small horror and disgust, which she immediately tried to conceal. Her gaze stopped on the unfinished form with the fox’s pelt dangling over it. The smell of a tannery and the recently disposed carcass filled the room.
“Crafting?” asked Lena. Lena had always been a cherished friend to Emily, because she wasn’t judgmental and a strong consistent presence in her life. She met Lena through their mutual friend. The delicate brown haired woman with her eyes closed flashed in Emily’s mind again, interrupted by Lena bluntly asking, “Emily, what is this?”
“Taxidermy,” Emily responded precisely. “My family has done it for generations, and my father taught me how to do it in my childhood. I never cared for it, but recently wanted to remember it again.”
Lena looked perplexed, but accepting. She surveyed the room more, until she found the collection of finished projects and smirked. “This is so curiously morbid, Emily. I see maybe this is a response to her passing.” Both women looked at each other in silence, awaiting for the other person to break the tension, like a leaf falling on the water, and the subsequent ripples triggering and aftershock of feelings of guilt, regret, and indescribable sadness of loss. Why did Lena drop the leaf?
“Anyways, Emily, I just wanted to bring you supper and invite you to our family Thanksgiving. I hope that you can take a break from your projects, and find time to come over. I miss you, and I’m here for you,” Lena stated like a prepared speech. She slowly backed out of the room and back towards the door, with a quick ‘goodbye’, as she left.
Lena’s exit was blurred in Emily’s nebulous reality. She thought she would certainly join her family, and appreciated the invitation. The movement of the air brushing the sublime pelt of the fox caught her attention, and pulled her back to the palpable setting of her work room. She felt compelled to complete her work, to preserve this fox into a state of perpetual livelihood, erasing any evidence of its mortality.