The Taxidermist and how I Developed Separation Anxiety
My mother was my dad’s first love.
Taxidermy was his second.
I remember the quaint cottage we lived in when I was little. I remember the two-car garage out in our prickly backyard with a sign hanging on the door that read “Mike’s Home Taxidermy.” I guess the shop is so distinct in my mind because I helped Dad paint it the coral pink I picked out at Home Depot. I also helped pick out the neon “open” sign, and, next to that, my mom had nailed a small plaque that said “You gut them, we stuff them!” I think she found that amusing at one point, but that was before we learned of the horrible games the devil plays. That was before I discovered the coldness of Hell.
When my mom got a job as a nurse at our local hospital, Dad quit his vet position and opened his shop. He was so happy. I remember the first time a package came in the mail – a small kitten by the name of Boots – and he led me by my small hand into the garage where he showed me the tools of the trade. It was hard to be revolted by something Dad was so passionate about; his smile warmed my heart as he told me how Boots’s owners would be less sad now that they could see him every day. I understood; I had a cat, too.
My friends all thought that Dad’s job was disgustingly horrifying. I remember that kids I didn’t even know would show up at my birthday parties just to get a glimpse at the stuffed carcasses drying in the shop’s windows or to just get a whiff of the chemicals that were never quite masked by the copious amount of air fresheners my mom would hang around the garage. I would have probably been appalled by Dad’s business, too, had I not grown up helping him remove dogs from the freezer or begging him to let me paint the eyes. It was just a business, and if Dad was happy, I was happy.
My mom was not happy.
We would get boxes via FedEx and UPS constantly. I learned quickly which ones I had to be careful with because they contained chemicals and which ones I had to take to the shop immediately because they contained smelly carcasses. My mom hated that smell. She would make me haul away the boxes of death because she couldn’t stand to touch them. I didn’t really mind. If I got permission to go to the shop, that meant that I also had permission to enter it and spend some brief time with Dad, always busy and elbow-deep in plaster, fur, and sinew. My mom would never let me stay too long (she was worried, I think, by how fascinated I was by Dad’s work), and I would have barely enough time to plant a kiss on his cheek, tell him when dinner would be ready, and pass him a scalpel before my mom was calling me to “get my butt in the house.” Whatever. I loved Dad.
And Dad loved my mom.
It was obvious by the way he came downstairs after a long shower and held her by her hips. The love radiated from his body as he planted delicate kisses on her neck. He would even come inside sometimes with a sculpture of a flower or heart that he made from spare materials, and he would whisper “I love you” into her ear until I thought there was no way she could not return the sentiments. But she rarely did. She was drawing away from him, pushing him away with her slender fingers, and always grimacing as she picked flecks of muscle from Dad’s beard. She was so upset.
She expressed her distress to me at times, I think because she had no one else to talk to. On her days off, she would sit at our dining room table staring out the bay window at the garage and buzzing neon sign. She barely noticed my presence when I came home from school.
“He spends so much time in that damn shop,” she would say with tears in her eyes. “I don’t know why. He has you. He has me. And yet, he would rather be playing with dead bodies in that fucked-up garage rather than playing dollies with you in your dollhouse. How is that fair?” I didn’t understand. I loved Dad. Dad loved me, and he loved my mom.
“It’s okay, Mom,” I would say, giving her my best hug. My hands could barely touch when I put them around her torso.
“No. No it’s not. I wish . . . Oh God, I wish I saw it before. He loves the dead more than he loves the living.” She said this quite a few times to me, always in hushed whispers that caused panic to beat frantically against my chest.
I should have seen it, too. I should have seen the signs and listened to my mom rather than ignoring them out of blind love for my parents. I know I was just a child, but I should have known. Called the cops. Anything to prevent the horror that followed.
There was a distinct, Christmas night in December that I think marked the dreadful change. I remember it so well because it was the first time my mom had smiled in months. I recall that I was tearing into my presents (I got a few Barbies and a mini television for my room), before my mom started to cry. And then her tears turned into peals of anger.
“It’s Christmas! It’s Christmas, and he’s in that damn shop again! My God, what do we have to do to get his attention?” I had seen my mom cry quite a bit in the months before that day, but the utterly defeated waterfalls that etched canyons into her once beautiful face caused tears to well up in my eyes as well. I think my quiet sobs of confusion are what did her in.
“Oh, hush, darling, hush. I’ll get him. Don’t cry, please, I’ll bring him back.” With that, she left me in front of the tree to reclaim Dad. As soon as she left, I wiped away my tears and played with my Barbie dolls, pretending that they were all one, happy family that never cried and always were together. I remember that because I was alone for hours with them in the living room, wishing that my mom would come back and Dad would kiss me after opening the clay cat I made him.
Neither of them really came back.
When they entered the house after the sky had turned dark, my chest tightened and I withdrew into myself. There was a distinct feeling of wrongness, of a terrible transformation that my young brain couldn’t quite place. My mom was smiling and wringing a red towel in her tiny fingers. Her smile was fake, even I knew that at such a young age, but it was just so nice to see her happy no matter how forced it was. And then there was Dad. I didn’t remember this until much, much later in my life, and the memory hit me like a meteor marking the end of the world. That Christmas night (oh holy night), he kissed my forehead goodnight without a word and with the biggest frown I had ever seen. He was covered head to toe in fresh, sticky blood.
I didn’t draw the connections. My childish, innocent mind would not let me. In the months that followed, I saw Dad maybe once or twice, always frowning, always covered in blood. My mom moved about in a charade, a puppet acting out a tragedy with a grin carved indelibly in its face. I could tell she was trying to keep me safe, and for that I can never hate her. But she would sit at the dining room table long after she thought I went to sleep, and she would mutter disjointedly to herself: “Lonely. So lonely. Why? Why death? Why death over life? Why love death?” There was only so much that I could take of her depressive thoughts, and I would run back into my room and hide under my covers until morning, wishing that Dad would come out of his shop to love my mom again.
When I couldn’t sleep, I would turn on my television situated at the foot of my bed. I would watch cartoons, mostly, but I watched the news as well because that is what Dad used to do before he locked himself away in his shop. I don’t know why I continued to watch the news after the first story of a woman’s missing dog scared me so much that I jumped into bed with my mom, but I think that it brought with it a sense of familiarity. Sure, the endless reports of stolen pets swelled to terrifying proportions (an “epidemic of psychotic thefts”), but when I saw the people on TV crying over their lost animals, I immediately thought of Dad. It didn’t even matter that he was covered in blood, because the thought of his presence alone was enough to comfort an increasingly lonely child.
But the fear sometimes spilled over. I yelled at my mom when she tried to let the cat out one night, and I actually bit her when she insisted the cat would be fine. I was grounded after that. I was grounded for even longer when I tried to break into my Dad’s locked shop through a low window, and my mom had to carry me away kicking and shrieking threats. But my mom was really mad when I told her how much I missed Dad. She would purse her lips and grip indents into my shoulders as she would say, softly, “Sorry, sweety, but he loves death much more than life.”
Death. So much death. It seemed to surround me, to nurture my growing body with sickly teats. I was consumed even though I wasn’t allowed to go into the shop anymore and even though we no longer received packages from clients, only chemicals and plaster. Sure, I wondered why my mom and Dad spent so much time in the garage, but I wasn’t allowed to go outside, either. There was something about the news reports of missing children surrounded by so much blood that made my mom scared for me. Nothing made sense anymore. My mom smiled too much, Dad was always too red, and there were too many alerts flashing across my new television. I retreated. I stopped going to school. No one cared.
I even thought Dad stopped caring. He was absent from the dinner table five nights in a row when I finally asked my mom when he was going to come out of the shop.
“Who knows?” she said, flat and emotionless. She still wore that plastered smile. “He has so many friends in that garage. So many. Not alone. Loves it there. He loves.” I didn’t understand my mother’s words anymore, so I just excused myself from the table and cried myself to sleep in my locked room.
I could have probably gone years without knowing. I had turned a blind eye, put a cement wall in my mind blocking reason from the truth. But I was still a child at that point. I was still carelessly brave and understandably concerned about the most minute detail. So when my cat didn’t come home one night (and Dad hadn’t come home in over nine), I rushed to the shop in tears. I needed my mom. I needed Dad.
The neon sign no longer droned melodies in the night. My mom had removed her whimsical sign. The air fresheners, forever stale, no longer shadowed the sour-sweet smell of decay. The door, which I tried while shouting for my parents, was locked. It had never been locked before.
With the sense of something gravely amiss returning like receiving your stuffed pet in the mail, I tried the windows. They were sealed shut with dust and flecks of unidentifiable organic substances, but that was nothing a large rock couldn’t handle. I knew that I was going to be grounded as soon as I heard the shattering of glass, but the silence that followed gave me just enough courage to hoist my small body through the window.
I wish I had never entered the shop.
The first thing that hit me was the smell. We hadn’t acquired an animal in weeks, and yet, the crimson aroma of decomposition hung like toxic fumes in the air. I was so used to putrefaction, but my stomach rejected the smell almost instantly upon hitting the floor. Emptying it didn’t help at all.
The next thing I noticed caused my body to be hammered by icy chills. My guts protested again when my brain registered that the homemade lampshade in the corner was supported by a leg. A human leg. There was a sculpture of a tree made from human arms, the blossoms glossy eyeballs. Heads were mounted in expressions of indelible agony next to the stuffed animals Dad had hung up once upon a time. They were eyeless, but they saw into my soul and condemned me to hell. I might’ve screamed. I might’ve just threw up again.
Two figures stirred in the dim light cast by the leg. One was groaning and stirring feebly against the wall in a puddle of blood and feces. I didn’t recognize it at first due to its mangled appearance; it lacked eyes, and its limbs were bent at impossible angles held stiff with dried plaster and clay. It looked like a sculpture of a contortionist in the middle of an act, only this one moaned and cried weakly at me. The rattle of the chains begged me to help. I did scream at this point,
especially when I realized that my mom was holding a gun to my head.
When adrenaline pumps nerve through your veins, time does slow. You remember every detail of an agonizing moment, from the way it smells to the way your body sways to avoid a bullet. I took five steps forward. I tucked my head into my right shoulder. I grabbed the gun from my mom with minimal effort. She was still smiling, and, this time, it wasn’t fake; it was utterly elevated. I shouted curses at her. I threw a piece of glass at her face. I bit her. She just continued to smile, and then she laughed. It was cold. Mechanical. The type of crazy chuckle that freezes the blood in your body.
“Kill me. He loves death.”
I saw that as a taunt. I would later see it as a plea. But I still knew how to pull the trigger and that, when pieces of fresh brain painted the grotesque sculptures a lovely coral pink, my mom was dead. Dad, chained to the wall still, had passed away just moments before soaked completely in death.
The adrenaline wore off then. The next few hours (days? weeks?) were filled with the emptiness in my heart and the feel of plaster in my hands. I’ve had therapists ask me if I remember the sound of sirens and the shouting of the policemen. Of course I didn’t. They’ve asked me if I remember that they wouldn’t touch me because I tried to attack them with the gun. Again, nothing. They’ve asked me if I had somehow preserved the warmth of my parents’ bodies in the plaster I slapped methodically and delicately on their deceased limbs. That is one thing I do remember; yes, they’re bodies were still warm because I had kept them so by lying next to them every minute until my rescue. Some days, it’s as if I can still feel their heat radiated through my heart when I try to sleep. I’ve worried therapists before by saying that it’s comforting.
But that was when I was young. I am an adult now, with an adult life. I am married to a wonderful man who holds me at night if I wake up screaming. He’s knows that I have powerful demons, but he is too precious to me to deserve the truth. I love him so much.
And he loves me too, I think. I know that we were both devastated when our first child was born without a breath in her little lungs, but I think my husband was more distressed when he saw the baby in her crib with glossy, painted blue eyes. He screamed at me. He threatened me. I didn’t care, but then he tried to leave.
But he doesn’t understand that people do not leave me. Besides, it’s much easier to repair fractured marriage with a baseball bat to the skull and a tub of plaster.
In fact, I’m thinking of painting his eyes blue to match my father’s and the baby’s and everyone else’s who have tried to escape my undying love.