Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett Read Online (FREE)
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How we slice the skin:
Carefully, that’s a given. Cutting with precision sounds like the same thing, but it’s not. Consider the following: you’ve pared the flesh from a mango for a bowl of fruit salad. Have you done it thoughtfully, preserving the sweet yellow flesh, or have you done it with the clinical detachment of a surgeon?
There’s gotta be some tenderness. There’s gotta be some love.
Our father said this as he slid his knife into the coat of a white-tailed buck. It was unusual. He never let us close to the table while he worked.
You’ve gotta want it. He pointed to the throat, tapping lightly with a fingertip. Start below the cape, here. Like you’re unzipping a jacket.
Milo and I crowded at either side of the metal table as our father gently opened the body, his hands blue-gloved and steady, as if delivering a baby. We were nine and ten and treated the shop with its creatures like our personal toy store. Other kids had stuffed animals; we had preserved skinks and mounted bass and antlers coated with Varathane.
Gimme a little elbow room, guys.
We each stepped back half a foot, then moved in close a few seconds later. The buck was large, but I’d seen bigger. The deer had already been drained of its blood and lay limp, limbs sprawled like a dismantled puppet. It was a nine-pointer and the man who’d brought it to the shop was a regular, someone our father had over for beers in our living room.
Why the whole deer? This wasn’t just a mount—the entire animal would be processed: chest, rump, legs. I couldn’t imagine why someone would keep the whole thing as a trophy; most hunters left the remains to rot out in the woods after their field prep.
Our father’s eyes were bright with excitement. It was a new challenge for him, a way to put creativity into his work. He hummed under his breath. It made me want to sing too.
Inside was cool with the constant hum of central air, but still humid enough to draw sweat over my lip. The sign in front of the shop was just as big and yellow as it had been when our grandfather ran the place: MORTON’S TAXIDERMY (& MORE). The marquee promoted sales, whatever was in excess that week: pig ears, deer antlers, rabbit pelts.
Our father didn’t look at us while he spoke, just kept his voice at a low buzz that zinged in my brain. If it’s not done with some kind of feeling, the customers can tell. It won’t look real.
Buckets sat at our feet for any leftover innards the customers hadn’t disposed of already, white plastic tubs that had at one point housed pickles soaked in yellow brine. Some entrails we saved, some we didn’t, but we always made sure the floor stayed clean. The smell of bleach saturated my cloud of dark hair, even when my mother braided it out of the way.