Movement of Skin

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Fay Bouman


Small tentacles of light were spreading through the dim Nevada sky, promising the rise of the sun. Temperatures had fallen during the night and tiny droplets hung from the desert grass, quivering in the breeze. Lawrence bent down and cut the stem of a young saguaro cactus, carefully avoiding the thorns. He used a scalpel to slice the flesh and opened his mouth to the soft, sweet pulp. Transparent clumps dripped down his beard onto his overalls and he wiped them away with the back of his hand. His eyes remained open, following a cactus wren as it dipped and arched through the reddening clouds and perched on a thin, gray branch. Lawrence smiled. Perhaps this was one of Eleanor’s relatives.

Eleanor had been found outside of Amargosa Valley two days earlier. She had crushed her skull against Lawrence’s windshield. Her beak had been broken and pinkish blood had splattered her feathers. Now she lay, wrapped in paper towels, in an icebox in the back of Lawrence’s van. He had carefully filled her nostrils and throat with tissues, and laid her next to the paper bag labeled: Marcy—Ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis). Found April 22nd, 1997, Carson City, NV.

The sun had climbed above the distant mountains and was now looming over the miles of sand and rock. Shadows lay still under the cottonwood grove where Lawrence had camped. The black remains of his fire were scattered over the earth.

Lawrence slapped a blanket against the van, sending dirt scurrying to the ground. He folded it, meticulously matching the edges and placed it on the front seat. His eyes searched the ground and when he was satisfied that nothing of his remained, he hoisted himself into the driver’s seat.

The engine screamed as the gears slipped. The noise reverberated off the silence of the desert and mounds of dust followed the van as it made its way to the main road. Lawrence turned east onto I-80. 126 miles to Salt Lake City, read the signpost.

Lawrence slipped on his dark aviator glasses and pulled down the sun visor. His window was open and the hot air whipped through his long brown hair. He knew he needed a haircut, but he had promised himself he’d wait until Lincoln, Nebraska—right before the competition. He picked up the pamphlet and scanned the words he’d memorized by heart: “1997 World Taxidermy Championship: Where animals exhibit their beauty in death, as well as in life.”

Small jars lined the interior walls of Lawrence’s van. Skinned squirrel carcasses and dehaired kittens floated in pickling compound, bouncing and bumping against the glass. Lawrence had removed the back seats and large ice coolers stood in rows along the floor of the van, leaving just enough space in between to stand. Buckets filled with bleach and acidic tannin compound served as tables for boxes labeled: Glass Eyes; Clay; Airbrushes; Knives; Miscellaneous.

Lawrence had placed in the top five during the past nineteen years of competitions. Last year he had walked away with the championship. His winning piece had been entitled, “Shrill Little Voices.” Inside a lush mahogany frame, he had carefully glued silk rose petals. Within each rose he had placed the heads of premature kittens—their glass eyes bulging forth and contrasting with the delicate beauty of the petals. The panel had called him a genius and applauded his work for a full three minutes. He wanted that feeling again, but he was still lacking a piece. He needed to find something special, something unheard of.

Lawrence threw the pamphlet onto the passenger seat next to a faded pink monkey. The doll’s arms were carefully pinned open by the seat belt and a large plastic grin covered most of its face. A small glass reliquary filled with mammal hearts was lodged inside its fake fur chest. Lawrence had named it Napoleon. He didn’t normally work with dolls, but this one had been special. This one had reminded him of his cat, Rosy—they shared the same wide ears and bright eyes.

Rosy had been shot in the head when he was ten, and had crawled home with blood streaked behind her. Lawrence had covered her with tears, soaking her fur long after her eyes had glazed over. Finally, in the early morning dew with red-crusted fingers, he had laid her to rest on the bottom rack of his father’s meat freezer—preserving her for when he was ready.

Lawrence had spent most of the next year in the Arkansas University Library. His mother had left when he was two and his father was rarely sober—allowing him the freedom to do as he pleased. After school, he would hurry to the library where Mrs. Windon would grant him free reign of the facilities. It was clear that she took pity on him. Lawrence had been born with a limp that looked more pathetic than it was. He had learned to cope with his forward lean and slightly curved right foot, which lagged behind at times.

Lawrence had grown to like the smell of old paper and molding bindings. He read and re-read every book on taxidermy, taking notes and drawing diagrams. In the afternoons, he would scurry from the building with a pocketknife in hand, searching for cold mice and rats in the neighboring barns—ready to practice his newfound knowledge.

On September 19th, 1964, three years after Rosy’s death, Lawrence returned to his cat. It was a cold evening, with the first signs of winter sparkling beneath his feet. He tiptoed to the shed and shivered as he heard the whir of the freezer. Lawrence sifted through the packages of Stew Meat, Ground Beef, Venison, and Chicken Necks. Finally, in the corner of the bottom rack, he found Rosy. Broken teeth jutted out from her open mouth and white crystals encased her fur. Each hair follicle stood like a dagger, pointing at him, blaming him for his prior ignorance. Puffs of white smoke rose where his tears fell, sizzling upon the ice. Lawrence bent to reach for her, but the ice cut him like a claw ripping through flesh and he jumped back. Lawrence reached again, this time allowing the ice to pierce his skin. He watched as the daggers broke away, revealing the shape he had once known. He pulled Rosy near to him and closed his eyes—remembering. How could he have been so stupid, how could he have left her with no coverings, with no preparations, for so long?

Lawrence carried Rosy back to the house. And in his haste and with his limp, he dropped her on the stone steps of the front porch. Rosy shattered. Her body broke into millions of crystals—dancing and bouncing along the cold surface.

A violent shiver ran through Lawrence’s body, despite the heat. He shook his hands and ran them through his hair, untangling the knots at the ends. He reached over and pulled Napoleon out from behind the seatbelt. Lawrence brushed the soft fur against his cheeks and forehead, and kissed the wide smile. He laid the doll next to him and ran his fingers along its body, petting it with tender strokes.

The engine droned and Lawrence stopped only for gas, food, and the occasional beetle or bird that found its way onto his windshield. Smoldering dogs were common along the road, but Lawrence showed them no mercy. He hated them. He hated their ferocious indifference towards other creatures, and he despised their odor. Once he found a slightly compressed squirrel that he managed to scrap from the boiling asphalt. He quickly skinned it and placed the fur in the cooler labeled: Fur. He wrapped the remaining muscles and tiny bones in paper and stored it away, next to Eleanor and Marcy.

Twice-baked beans, bread, and vanilla wafers had become Lawrence’s main staple. Occasionally, however, in larger, more equipped gas stations, he would indulge his cravings. After inspecting the aisles, Lawrence would return to the counter, arms laden with snacks and salads and the occasional candy bar. He would unload and quickly limp back to the glass fridges for chocolate milk and water. Overly enthusiastic clerks would sometimes attempt small talk or comment on the amount of food. They would laugh nervously when he didn’t answer and focus their attention on bagging.

After eleven hours, Lawrence pulled into a rest area outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming. He stretched his calves on a tire of the van. The sun was lowering in the west, but the heat remained. He methodically dropped to do push-ups in the irrigated lawn and after the warm up, he headed for the roadside. He ran along the ditches, avoiding the dust and fumes from the passing traffic.

As he skirted past cacti and sharp rocks, Lawrence’s eyes remained fixed on the dry expanse beneath him. His dark pupils darted from side to side, absorbing everything—looking for signs of life. Beads of sweat dripped from his nose and elbows, spilling onto the dust. Lawrence felt the first signs of desperation crawling up through his body. He had to find something, anything; he had to win.

Lawrence’s legs began to move more quickly and soon he could feel his heart in his fingertips, pumping blood, banging on his brain.

He tripped.

A small, bundle of cloth sent him sprawling along the sand. In pain and embarrassment, he picked himself up from the ground and limped to the perpetrator of his fall. Between two small cholla bushes, lay a bundle, slightly larger than a football. The dark blue cloth was faded and torn. Lawrence picked it up and weighed it in his hands. After making sure he was alone, he began to unravel the cloth. His hands were shaking and his breath came in short bursts.

 

Lawrence sat in the back of his windowless van, staring down at the bundle. He sat cross-legged, cradling what was left of a baby girl, rocking her ever so slightly. How could it be, how could someone discard a creature so beautiful? Lawrence had never held a child, and no woman had ever asked him for one. No woman had ever even approached him, and he pretended to understand why. In a society of normal, he was the un-normal. He lived in a van filled with creatures that few found beauty in. But how boring would it be, if everything were the same? He decided to name the baby Rosy.

Lawrence stopped at a grocery store outside of Macon, Missouri. He bought ice, bread, cheese, and a small dress. He found a hardware store and restocked his boxes of epoxy, wax, and polyurethane foam. He drove four miles out of the city and pulled in behind an old factory. Soybean fields spread out around him, lush and green, promising the summer’s harvest.

Lawrence lifted Rosy from behind the seatbelt she and Napoleon shared. He laid her facedown on his blanket and prepared the knives. The sun glinted from the steel, and sweat dripped from his nose. With a shaking hand, Lawrence began the carcass-casting procedure. He inserted the scalpel at the top of her hairless head and pulled it down her back, splitting off into her legs. He pulled the pale skin to the sides, cutting the hardened connecting tissues as he went. When he was finished, he placed the skin in the bucket of acidic tannin compound. Lawrence wrapped the remaining muscles and bones in the blue cloth she had come in. He dug a hole next to the van and gently placed the blood-soaked bundle in the earth. He covered it with dirt and placed a buttercup on top. He bent and kissed the mound and returned to the van.

After two hours, Rosy’s new skin was ready. It had grown thin and rubbery and Lawrence smiled as he began to sew her back together—from her tiny feet up. He used nude, waxed thread and a thin needle, placing the holes as close together as possible. Lawrence left a small opening in the top of her cranium and used a funnel to pour polyurethane foam into the empty folds of skin. Her feet were the first to come back to life, then her legs. Her stomach came next, bulging out from its tiny frame. Soon her fingers rounded, becoming proportionate with her pudgy arms and finally her head took shape, blowing up like a small balloon. Lawrence was careful not to spill, and he waited, holding her by the open flaps at the top of her head.

After the polyurethane foam was dry and Lawrence finished the sewing, he held Rosy’s supple arm and smiled at his work. He raised the hand and wagged it from side to side. He waved back at her and laughed for the first time in many years.

Lawrence found two green eyes in his box of glass eyes. He lifted Rosy’s eyelids and carefully glued in the glass balls. He used clay to prop open the lids. Lawrence sifted through the box labeled Miscellaneous and found small teeth and fingernails. Then he glued long strands of horsehair to Rosy’s head and lathered her skin in linseed oil. Finally, Lawrence used his airbrush to add color and makeup to Rosy’s small face. He took the pink-checkered dress from the front seat and marveled at his work. Rosy was absolutely stunning—his best work ever, by far.

As promised, Lawrence stopped in Lincoln, Nebraska for his haircut. He left Rosy and Napoleon in the car and returned forty minutes later, carrying a handful of his own hair. He added it to Rosy’s head and delicately ran a comb through her new locks. He stopped at Goodwill on his way out of town and bought a pair of white lace socks and shoes for Rosy. He also found a doll purse that matched her dress and he glued it to her right hand.

On July 1st, Lawrence turned off the ignition outside the Springfield Convention Center. His palms were sweating and he wiped them on his pants. He unbuckled his seatbelt and leaned over to unbuckle Rosy’s. He took her into his arms, caressing her soft skin and delicate hair. A tear fell from his cheek and he held Rosy in front of him. He smoothed her dress and parted her hair. They were ready. Lawrence kissed Napoleon once more and shoved the pamphlet into his back pocket.

It was exactly 1 p.m. and Lawrence was sweating inside his blazer. In the crook of his arm sat Rosy—staring straight ahead with her fixed green eyes. Lawrence was next in line. He noticed no one around him. It was only him and Rosy, rearing to win the first prize.

It was his turn. Lawrence stepped in front of the panel. He delicately sat Rosy down on the table before the judges. Then he stepped back and smiled, proud of his creation. He wiped his sweat away with a yellow napkin. He continued to smile.

pencil

“I was born and raised in the backwoods of West Virginia, home-schooled until the urge to meet people came along, whereupon I attended a Quaker boarding school outside of Philadelphia. After traveling around the Pacific for seven months upon completion of high school, I attended one year at Pacific University in Oregon, then finished my education with a BA in Writing for Publication, Performance and Media from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. Once again the travel bug kicked in and I traveled around the world with my parents and finally came back to the states to settle down in Charleston, SC, where I now reside. Writing has been at the top of my list for many years and for some reason dark stories always seem to emerge from me, though there is nothing dark or depressing about my life at all. Writing has become a way for me to explore different ideas and now I would like to share those ideas with you.” E-mail: faybouman[at]hotmail.com