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"Western Taxidermy"
by Barbara Howard

"Western Taxidermy" appears in the 2012 short story collection Western Taxidermy and is reprinted here with the permission of Barb Howard and NeWest Press.

Deirdre's mother opened the door when I arrived at the baby celebration. She reminded me of a monkey: short, with stringy limbs, close-set eyes, a wide, smiling mouth. Although, unlike a monkey, her face didn't have much expression. Too taut. Too shiny. Details you wouldn't notice if you weren't a taxidermist. But even with my training, at first glance I never would have guessed she was a grandmother. Primate, yes. Grandmother, yes.

She took my gift bag and set it down on the wicker bench with the other presents. "How very kind of you," she said, still smiling even though my bag, a reused wine sac closed with a piece of masking tape, stood out, in a bad way, from all the sunny floral-design bags spilling over with pastel paper and ribbon. She spent a few moments adjusting all the bags on the bench in order, it seemed, to camouflage mine under the tassels and tissues of others. Then she escorted me across the foyer and into the living room, where there was a bar. Not some impromptu card table with a Styrofoam cooler on top. This was a permanent bar with a sink and coasters and pink cocktail napkins and several bottles of white wine lined up and ready for consumption.

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I wondered if Deirdre's mother was a bit loony. That would explain her peculiar looks and that non-stop smile. Everyone's got a loony somewhere in their family, I thought as she poured me a white wine, and hurrah for those families that let them out of the closet. She poured herself a diet pop.

Bob, Deirdre's husband, doesn't drink alcohol either. At least, I've never smelled booze on him. He is a sober hunter. I can sometimes tell if a hunter was drunk in the field. Ragged cuts, wet cape, broken antlers. Admittedly, with the increasing number of hunters who don't know a thing about field care, it's getting harder to tell who was drunk and who is just ignorant.

"Cheers," Deirdre's mother said, holding her glass up to me.

"Cheers," I said and downed the wine right away so I wouldn't have to carry the glass around with me. I'm practical that way.

Deirdre's mother steered me, bordering on a push really, towards a cluster of women near the fireplace.

They were talking about back fat. I stood close to them, pretending to admire the river rock mantel—which would have been a perfect location for a 360° pheasant mount—so I could hear what they were talking about.

"It's just so horrible," one woman was saying, "to think that it's there, behind you, where everyone but you can see it."

"I'm Kay," I interrupted. "I heard you talking about back fat. In taxidermy we peel back the skin and use a deflesher to scrape the fat. Maybe that's what you need."

"Maybe," she said, dabbing at her mouth with her pink napkin, even though she hadn't eaten anything.

The rest of the women were silent.

I shook all their hands, taking care not to squeeze too tightly on the fingers with big rings. I didn't want to hurt these women. They hadn't done anything to me.

I saw Deirdre on the other side of the room. Her mother had moved in beside her and they were talking closely. I waved. I had indirectly met Deirdre before; it was the first time Bob came to my shop. They had seen my business sign and Bob decided to stop in for a look. Deirdre never even got out of the car, but she was memorable. Her hair was done like a lion's pelt. It was the same at the baby celebration, maybe even a bit lighter, more of an anemic lion. I know quite a bit about hair and I can tell you, there wasn't a natural pelt at the party. Some of the hair in the room was positively alien. Deirdre's mother's, for instance. She had black hair. Completely black, not a hint of reflection or variation. Trust me, there is no creature on this planet with natural hair that black. At a taxidermy competition, you would never see hair like that on a blue ribbon mount.

Deirdre wore a high-necked sweater that clung to her big boobs. Not stupidly big boobs, like the woman with the cocktail laugh who was setting out lamb appetizers and relocating the gifts to the coffee table. No, Deirdre's boobs were within the realm of recessive genetic possibility. One look at those breasts and you knew that Bob, her husband, must be a breast man. Which was news to me. He told me he was a leg man. I was wearing shorts, cutoffs, at the time. I do have good coltish legs.

Deirdre's boobs didn't seem to have that hard-looking bloat from breast-feeding, or those long dog-nipples that you sometimes see on female animals. I've always hated it when someone brings a postpartum animal into my shop. They are usually roadkill, since hunting seasons avoid nursing times. But accidents happen, or laws are broken, and the babies left behind don't have a chance. Bob would never bring down a nursing mother. He told me so.

I excused myself from the silent back fat women and crossed the room to chat with Deirdre. First I had to mingle my way through a small satellite group that surrounded her. Her mother had disappeared.

"Kay Holmes," I said, holding out my hand.

"Nice to meet you," said the first woman whose hand I shook. "We're just talking about cosmoplast. Did you know it comes from foreskin stem cells?"

"Deirdre's just had an injection and she looks fantastic," the next woman said.

"I've been meaning to get some cosmoplast," I said. "In taxidermy, wrinkles can be a real issue. You only want them where they're supposed to be, like on old animals and anuses."

"No doubt," the first women said.

"My dad, my mentor, said we can never get too comfortable in our trade. We need to keep learning so we can keep earning," I added, but the woman had turned her back to me, leaving me a clear line to Deirdre.

Deirdre was wearing suede pants with a beautiful nap. Brand new, judging from the lack of wear. Rurban acreage people like Deirdre like to do their own version of western wear. Cropped jackets with fringe, three-quarter sleeve form-fit shirts, tight leather pants, miniature platinum horseshoes on their ears, maybe two on each ear. I call it "western shrink wrap" and refuse to participate. In honour of the baby celebration, I was wearing a khaki-coloured blouse, even though I hate the slippery material, and I had pressed my jeans.

"Here's Kay. She's a taxidermist," Deirdre said, by way of introducing me as I budged into her inner circle. "Isn't that wild?"

"I couldn't stand it. All those poor animals," one woman said.

"I'm a vegetarian," another one said. "Except for salmon. You're supposed to eat salmon."

"Kay's a great friend of Bob's," Deirdre said. "A great, great friend."

"Congratulations on the baby," I said. "Is she around?"

"Down there." Deirdre pointed towards a wide hallway with several doorways on each side. Sort of like a shopping mall.

I hadn't been to a baby shower in a decade. Not since high school, when Holly Tompkins got pregnant in Grade 12 and her mother cried and served devilled eggs for the duration of the party. I live a pretty isolated life in my shop; most of my clients are middle-aged males, and I've never really done the female group thing. Just not a herd animal, I guess. The only reason I was invited to this shower was because I had called to leave a message for Bob to say that his bear would be ready by the weekend. Deirdre answered his cell phone and, since Bob had mentioned that he was going to be a father, I said congratulations. Deirdre said come over that afternoon, there was a party at her house, for her and the baby. They weren't calling it a shower; it was a baby celebration. Even though I live forty-five minutes away, she said I was like a neighbour, I must come, I was such a good friend of Bob's. He was always talking about me, she said. He'd love to know that she and I had finally spent some time together.

I bet he would. And I bet Deirdre would love to make a hillbilly of me at her celebration. So I spent the morning doing up a few invoices on the computer, put together a gift, and took the afternoon off. I could even justify it as client appreciation. Deirdre's husband Bob is my favourite. He always prepares his animals properly in the field, always pays on time, in cash, and always pays me a compliment. For instance, when I work in my shop, which is attached to my house, I wear a short canvas apron over my clothes. Bob says he likes the way the apron sits snug around my hips and waist. He calls it my French maid taxidermy outfit.

As I walked down the hall looking for the baby, I passed various bedrooms and a den, and then a massive bathroom where Deirdre's mother was applying a topcoat of creamy red lipstick.

"I suppose you're wondering where your work is," she said, turning my way. "Wonder where he puts it all?"

"Oh no," I said. "Not at all. I was looking for the baby."

"Well, I guess Bob won't be hunting much now that he and Deirdre have a baby."

"I know lots of men who keep hunting once they have children. Some bring their kids along."

"Perhaps," Deirdre's mother said slowly, "I'm not making myself clear. Bob is devoted to Deirdre."

Under other circumstances, I might have laughed. But even though Deirdre's mother's facial features were in the exact same position as when she had opened the front door for me, still smiling, not a wrinkle or furrow in sight, something about her eyes made her seem predatory. Good hunters have warned me: stay away from overprotective mothers. I thought it best to simply respond to her with a small nod of my head that meant absolutely nothing.

"You're not convinced," she said. "The trophy room is downstairs. You must see it. I'll take you there. We can pick up the baby on our way back."

The trophy room was a mess. I could make out a desk, beautiful quarter-cut oak, covered in magazines and papers and dead computer equipment. On top of everything was the bull elk—head and shoulders—I had mounted for Bob two years ago. On the floor, mixed in with a pair of heavy winter boots, was the moose mount from the year he got his moose tag, and the little pronghorn he had caught stateside. The pronghorn was my first project for him—a pedestal mount. Everything I had done for Bob, five hunting seasons' worth of work, was junked in this room.

"That Bob," Deirdre's mother said, putting her hands on her hips. "Tut, tut. He should take better care of your work."

I blew dust off the forehead of the pronghorn. The way Bob treated my work was a surprise to me. He was always praising my taxidermy, as he should, because I am good at it. My father and grandfather ran Western Taxidermy before I inherited it. I have all their skill, and then some.

Deirdre's mother was watching me. Her smile might have been real. She was good at this sort of thing. She knew she had caught me off guard.

"Doesn't matter to me," I said. "As long as I get paid. Maybe Bob just likes the hunt."

On the way back from the trophy room, Deirdre's mother turned through the doorway of a pink bedroom where a sulky teenage girl sat reading a beauty magazine. The crib, containing a baby, was beside her. I looked into the crib and discovered that the baby was nice and fat, with a bit of acne on her forehead. Not unlike the teenage girl.

"This is Megan. One of the guests' daughters," Roxanna said. "Charging us an outrageous eight bucks an hour to sit with the baby."

Megan continued to read the magazine. Deirdre's mother picked up the baby and kissed her, leaving a red lipstick smear on the baby's cheek. Then she pulled the baby up to her shoulder. I got a look at Deirdre's mother's hands. They were thick and liver-spotted with beautifully painted nails. I do a bit of painting myself. Oil paint and a traditional brush for noses, gums, that sort of thing. Airbrushing for the interiors of ears. So I know fine work. But what most fascinated me, especially from my professional point of view, was the way Deirdre's mother's old painted hands were juxtaposed with her smooth face. She was like a taxidermy novelty piece. A jackalope.

When Deirdre's mother and the baby and I came into the living room, the woman with the stupidly big breasts called for everyone to sit around the coffee table. Deirdre sat down in a high-backed chair. I sat a few seats down from her. Deirdre's mother sat next to me.

"Any trips lately?" one of the women asked her.

"Oh yes," Deirdre's mother said. "A safari to South Africa."

She handed me the baby. Then she stood up, held her arms in the air and slowly twirled once to show the other women her monkey body. I adjusted the baby in my arms, tried to get the knack of holding the bundle and rocking to and fro to keep the baby from whimpering, while Deirdre's mother went on talking. "I went with Dr. Mentos' group again. We saw the big five."

"Were you hunting?" I asked because I knew the big five: leopard, cheetah, Cape buffalo, elephant, and white rhino. Years ago, when my dad did taxidermy, hunters went to Africa to try and bag them all. My job was to make bottle openers out of claws.

"Oh God, no. It was a surgery safari. My third, actually. This year I had a breast lift and a bit of lipo, and then went and saw the animals with the rest of the women. Next year Deirdre is going to come with me."

The baby's perfect little fingers reached out of the blanket. The women on either side of me were oohing over the baby and whispering to each other about the gifts they had brought. Store-bought layette sets and leather booties and pink jean jackets and a teeny charm bracelet with coordinating earrings. Nothing like I had brought. I knew that I should be passing the baby around but I didn't. I wanted to hug her and let her know that I liked her, nothing was her fault, she had never done anything to embarrass me. The present I had brought was really for her mother.

After opening all the other gifts, Deirdre peeled off the masking tape and reached her hand into the wine bag I had brought. She pulled out my offering and her white smile sagged. I had prepared a gopher. I had run over it a few weeks ago when I backed my truck out of my garage. Its bones were crushed, but its exterior was relatively unmarred. I tossed it in the freezer. When Deirdre invited me to the celebration, I thawed the gopher in the microwave, turned it inside out, scraped it clean, and stuffed it the old-fashioned way, with cotton batting. Then I posed it to stand on its back legs, the cute way gophers do sometimes when they stand near their homes. I finished up the details: nails, nose, eyes, teeth to give it a cute, inquisitive look. Sure, it was no Robert Bateman, but it was pretty good given my time constraints.

"Did you make this?" Deirdre asked.

Everyone, including Deirdre, kept looking at the gopher instead of at me.

"Sure. It's more of a knick-knack than a plaything," I said.

Deirdre flattened the wine bag on the table and then, using only her thumb and index finger, set the gopher on the bag. She didn't pass it around the circle of women. Someone reached over the back of my chair and plucked the baby from my arms. The celebration was over.

Book Cover Back at my shop, I've got a lot of work to do. Verna Harding caught a tyee on the West Coast that her husband wants mounted for a Christmas present. It was catch and release, so I have to construct the whole fish based on a photo and measurements. I hate doing fish. Then there's McCullough's mule deer to finish. Lovely buck. Except that McCullough kept it in his freezer for half a year before bringing it to me. The freezer burn caused me no end of alignment problems.

And then there's Bob's bear. I've done a particularly realistic job on that bear. The tanned skin was easy to work with. I took great care to set the facial features properly and turn out a high-quality felt-backed rug for him. But I've decided to make a few alterations. Forget realism for Bob. I'm going to pull the bear's head skin over the armature until it looks ready to tear. I'm going to give it thick, curly eyelashes and unnaturally streaked hair and neon white teeth and maybe even a set of saline teats. Then my work will get displayed in his living room.

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