The crunching of the tires on the caliche gave way to the quiet of the open spaces, as I stopped my hand-me-down Plymouth and put it into reverse. I turned the motor off. I was parked in front of a faded green, plain rectangle of a house with a large sign that said, “Taxidermy.”
It was another clear, dry West Texas morning. There was no traffic on the highway. Scrubby mesquite trees grew up to the edge of the house. I could hear a mourning dove calling nearby. No one was in sight.
I would rather have not gone through with this, but I didn’t see that I had any choice. I had to find some way to start making a living…after all I would be a senior in high school next year. Maybe some good could come out of the mail order classes Jimmy had talked me into taking. Well, it wasn’t just that I had been talked into it. I had also thought that maybe I could redeem myself a little with my father, who was so disappointed that I didn’t want to be a hunter like him. I thought that, with taxidermy, I might be able to salvage something for the sake of the animals killed by others, and Dad liked what I was able to do with my new skills.
This Taxidermy place still seemed unfamiliar even though I had already been here once before. I had wanted to see if the taxidermist would pay me to do some work for him, off and on. So on the previous visit I had brought some birds I had already stuffed in order to show him the quality of my work. Then yesterday the taxidermist had called to say that he had an owl he wanted me to mount for one of his clients. He had seemed very concerned to know if I thought I could do a good job, since he didn’t want to disappoint his client.
I got out of my car and opened the screen door whose stretching, “squeak” announced that he had a visitor. I said, “Hello?” He came into the room from somewhere in the back. “It’s back here,” he said and turned to go back through the same door through which he had just entered. I followed him into a non-descript and dusty work area with tables and boxes and shelves in no particular order or design that I could see. I could tell that it was just like when I saw him the last time—he was all business and he acted rather put out about the situation of having to deal with me at all, even though he was the one who had decided to let me do some work for him.
I looked around the room but I couldn’t find any sign of the owl he wanted me to stuff. There was nothing lying on the table or even bundled up in paper or in a sack or anything. He moved his squat, trunky body over to a corner in which there was a box covered with a thin sheet of wood. He motioned for me to come over. I stood beside him, curious to see what this was all about. As he reached for the board I saw that his hands had the look of someone who had a physical job that was always done indoors—they had sort of a pudgy hardness.
He removed the board from the box and inside the box looking up at me was a very alive and beautiful white owl! His bright eyes were intense with both alarm and defiance. The box was higher than his head and too small for him to open his wings. He sat still trying to understand the nature of his circumstances now that the top was off and now that he could see the room and the two people looking down on him.
I was completely dumbfounded, astonished, and confused. It was alive! What am I doing here looking at a live owl? I couldn’t move or say anything and I couldn’t focus on what he was saying, which was something about “…good condition…simple…tight…” Then it got quiet and I looked up to see that he was looking at me like he was expecting me to do something. I had no idea what he was expecting or why and I guess he could tell because his expression changed to frustration and forced patience. He began again more slowly. I heard it a little better this time, but I still couldn’t make sense of it. He said, “It’s simple, you just pick him up and hold him around his chest and hold tight. It doesn’t take very long.”
I thought, “Why does he want me to pick this owl up? And of course I would hold him tight. I wouldn’t want him to get loose in here and where is the owl I am supposed to stuff and why are we still talking about this live one?” I just stood there uncomprehending and looking back and forth between him and the owl.
With rising irritation he moved me out of the way and bent down to the box and came up holding the owl. His right hand held the owl around the chest and the left was covering the owl’s back. At first the owl did not resist. But then it started to struggle, to try to move and it extended a wing. Then the wing returned part way to where it was and then it stopped moving. About this time the owl’s head began to sink down and it finally dawned on me what the man was doing…he was killing the owl right in front of me. He was squeezing his chest so tight the owl couldn’t breathe. By the time the owl had realized the problem it was in, it was already too late to even put up much of a fight. His head sank lower and lower as the man watched dispassionately until the owl’s head fell completely limp.
He laid the owl back into the box, picked the box up, and gruffly handed it to me and said, “Here’s your owl. He wants this mounted in a flying position. Be sure to do a good job. This client is important to me. Do you think you can finish this in a week or two?”
All I could do was nod. I took the box out to my car and started driving home. I had so much anger and sadness in me at the same time that I could hardly stay focused enough to drive home. I couldn’t believe what an awful and obscene thing had just happened. He had killed this beautiful creature just so it could be stuffed and mounted on someone’s wall! He just squeezed this life out with his bare hands as casually as turning off a light.
It was all I could do to resist thinking about the owl’s eyes looking up at me. I had a job to do. I had to do the best work I could for the sake of the owl—certainly not for the man—to make up for its totally unnecessary death. By the time I got home I still felt sick in the pit of my stomach.
I parked outside our garage. I raised the wooden garage door and cleared our work table in the back. I got the owl out of the car and laid him on the table. His head flopped over. I couldn’t afford to waste time. If I allowed him to begin to deteriorate there would be problems with his feathers falling out in patches. I couldn’t put him in the refrigerator or anything.
The garage at least was a familiar place. It always smelled of wood, sawdust, old metal, paint, turpentine, and fishing gear all blended together in a dusty, dank room with little light. I put on the denim workshop apron my mother had made for me and tied the ties behind my back. I got out my tools: a scalpel, the slender silver metal tool with a brain spoon on one end and an eye hook on the other, the bone snips, and the bone scrapper. There were a few other less specialized things like forceps, a measuring tape, and paper and pen.
I stretched his wings out and measured them from tip to tip. Although he had a youthful look, he was a full adult size with a wing span of about four and a half feet. I also measured him from head to tip of tail and I recorded my measurements. I was amazed at how white he was. I had never seen anything like it. Maybe he was an albino. He certainly had the look of a great horned owl. “He would have been considered a sacred animal by the Indians, “I thought as I adjusted his feathers.
I turned him over onto his back. His eyes were glazing over. I felt along his chest and found where the peak of his breast bone was, and I moved his feathers around until I had cleared the natural opening along this ridge where the feathers don’t grow. The thin skin showed the dark muscle below and was still loose and slid from side to side. I picked up my scalpel and sent my thoughts to the owl that I was sorry and that I would do what I could to do a good job. I reminded myself that it was all over for the owl now. I just had to work my way through this so I could be done with the whole affair. I started the incision.
I cut through his skin from the breast bone to the tail. Nearly all of his body would have to be removed through this small incision. I then carefully skinned the tissue-paper-thin skin back from the muscles along the front and around as far as I could reach to the back. After cutting off the tail, the legs at the “knee,” and the wings at the end of the humerus bone, I skinned the owl down to the base of his skull. Then I had to sever his head from his body so that the bulk of his body could then be removed through the incision I had made. I measured the dimensions of the body before throwing it away. Throwing his mutilated body away was such a sorry thing to have to do, but there was nothing else to be done with it.
I then cut a slit in the back of his head and skinned this around as close as I could to the edge of his beak. All the brains, the eyes, and tongue, in addition to the facial muscles, had to be removed. Slits were cut on the underside of his wings and all muscle removed from these wing bones. Flesh was also scraped from the leg bones that had bee left attached to the skin. Flesh was removed from the base of the tail. In the end there was nothing left but just a few bones, the skin, and feathers—the things so prized by this “client.”
I got out my box of 20 Mule Team Borax because for chemical reasons I never understood, this was the skin preservative of choice. I rubbed the Borax into the skin in all areas it was exposed and over the bones and inside the skull cavity. The skin was beginning to feel dry, crinkly, and powdery to the touch although it was still pliant. The owl looked less and less like what he was originally and he was becoming more like an inanimate thing that had no connection at all to the living.
In the next several days I received the glass owl eyes I had ordered. I whittled a tongue out of wood and coated it with red paraffin. Then I began the process of reconstruction.
I wadded up some packing excelsior. I packed it tight and tied it with a string until the general dimensions of the body and neck were duplicated. I sharpened both ends of some long wire I had purchased for the purpose. I pushed the wire into the middle of the soles of his feet. Each time as I did this the talons curled inward toward the wire like he was still trying to stop the pain of the whole process. I pushed the wire up along the tight area of the shin and past the bones that remained above the shin. Then I tied the wires to the bones. Then working with the skin until I had exposed the eye sockets, I inserted some cotton into each socket and fit the glass eyes against the cotton, repositioning everything when the skin was returned to its normal place.
I pushed a long wire through the false body length-wise and out its neck. This wire and excelsior body was inserted through the ventral slit of the skin and the false neck was moved into its place in the skin, and the wire was pushed on through the skull to protrude out the top beyond the feathers. The leg wires were inserted into the “body” and anchored. Similar wires were inserted and tied to the bones of the wings. One was arranged so it could serve as the hook. The wing wires were anchored.
At this stage I had to fight the feeling that the whole thing was hopeless. It looked like such a mess that it was hard to believe that anything could be made out of it anywhere near to what was needed. Proceeding on faith that somehow it would finally resolve itself into something worthwhile, I adjusted the skin to get a general fit over the body as best I could and began bending the wires at appropriate places to begin to move it toward the pose I had in mind—a gliding pose with wings outstretched like it should have been allowed to do from the beginning—to silently glide through the twilight and into the night.
The incisions were sewed up, final adjustments made to the positions of each body part, all protruding ends of wire were cut off, and I hung it on a nail in the garage using the hook I had made under the left wing. I stepped back to see how it looked. I was satisfied. It looked like a white owl gliding into the night. It had been a beautiful creature. I would have liked to have felt good about my handiwork, but there was nothing good to feel about this situation.
When the opportunity came to return the owl to the taxidermist, I carefully laid it in the back seat of my car and drove out of town. I pulled into the taxidermist’s parking area for what I intended to be the last time. I took the owl out and carefully checked that all the feathers were white and clean and still looked just right. I went to the door, braced myself, opened the door, and entered.
He apparently had seen me coming and was waiting for me. “Let’s see how it looks,” he said. He hung it on the wall. Its body lay horizontal to the ground but with a slight turn so that the legs were visible— partially flexed with the talons half open. The left wing lay flush against the wall. The right wing continued the curve begun by the left wing so that the right wing extended out into the room while the head was turned downward and to the right as it searched for its prey on the ground below. A great banking glide, a slight change in direction, a move to check out an area where his keen eyesight had caught the hint of movement in the moonlight.
After briefly looking at the owl, the taxidermist said, “Why do you have him looking down? He should be looking straight ahead…”
I said, “I thought that was the most logical way for him to look since he would be hunting by looking at the ground.”
“Well that is wrong. He needs to look straight ahead. That is what the client wants him to do. You need to fix it.”
I thought, “whatever.” I went over and rotated the skull on the wire a little so it was looking straight ahead, but as soon as I let go, it rotated right back to the way I had originally posed it. I tried again and the same thing happened.
“I don’t know why it is not staying put,” I said.
He said, “Here let me do that.” But he couldn’t make it stay either. Now he was really getting angry. “This will not do at all—you have ruined it. My client will not be at all happy. It is supposed to be looking forward.”
At first I couldn’t figure out why the head kept rotating back, but then I said, “Maybe I left some Borax in his skull and the weight of that will prevent it from staying in the forward-looking position. I have never had that happen before.”
“You what!" I can’t believe you didn’t make sure you had taken care of this.”
He was really beginning to get on my nerves. I said, “Well that is what I did. I did the best I could and I don’t see a problem with the way it is, anyway.”
He glared around at me and threw his hands up and brusquely went to the old metal desk and opened a box and came back to me with $25. Thrusting the bills at me he said, “Here’s the pay I said I would give you.” Obviously he thought I didn’t deserve any pay at all and if it wasn’t for the goodness of his heart, I would have received nothing.
I said, “Ok, thanks,” took his money, and stole one last look at my owl as I walked out of that place. I was happy to be done with it.
He never asked me to do any more work for him, which robbed me of my having a chance to refuse it, but I at least knew I had no intention of working for him again or anyone else like him.
I returned to my quest to find some way to start earning a living. I continued going to school and growing into adulthood. I never mounted another animal the rest of my life, and I never forgot the look of the owl when our eyes met and the way we were both caught up in the grip of circumstances.
Well, that is finally done. It is good to get that all onto paper. I look out the window at the trees flashing by. I try to catch a focus on the slender branches as they pass by—the dark silhouettes of winter. Before very long my train will be going into the tunnel. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of a lone hawk sitting in the upper branches of these trees. Never an owl.
I’m not very happy with this story. There just doesn’t seem to be any way I can wrap it up in a satisfactory package. There really does not seem to be any socially redeeming qualities and that just happens to be the way the events unfolded.
It has bothered me all these years…how many years has it been? I guess about 48 years. I’ll soon be turning 65. Maybe before long I can get off this treadmill of having to work. I never did find a job I particularly liked.
It’s weird how much sleep I lost last night. I would have to think of that owl at 3:30 in the morning! I couldn’t let go of it. My mind insisted on thinking about it. I know I will crater this afternoon and my work is as busy now as ever.
The monotonous drone of the train shifted lower and I feel the pressure against my back. The receding trees out the window are being replaced by cement embankments. We are coming to the tunnel.
I rearranged myself to face more forward, pulling my coat into a more comfortable position. The head of the man next to me is slumped down. His closed eyes are getting very little out of the book he is holding loosely in his lap.
I close my eyes as well. Nothing to see in the tunnel. Scenes of the owl story begin to flash in front of me. I wish it could be a better story. I watch the blackness before my eyes. I guess I could do dreamwork on the past. Real life is like a dream too, or so they say. Reworking reality to go the way I want…I never heard of that. I rather like that idea. I settle further back on the seat.
I am walking up to the taxidermist place. I imagine the look and feel of the walk to the door. The sound of the screen door. I go inside. Here he is showing me the owl in the box. At this point I plant my hands firmly on the man’s chest and push him hard to the back of the room. He falls down on his butt. He starts to struggle up to come back at me, but I quickly materialize a gun at my side. I whip it out and point it at him. I demand that he stay right where he is without moving. I replace the wooden cover over the box, so the owl will not be frightened or get out of the box.
Leaving the jerk sitting on the floor of his crappy house I walk out with the owl in the box and put it beside me in the car. We drive out to my special place in the country. It is a very appropriate and isolated part of West Texas. It is full of mesquite trees, prickly pear, and rattlesnakes. It is a good place to be alone. I stop the car at the end of the path. The tire tracks can no longer be distinguished from the dry, red earth.
I take the box with the owl in it with me and begin to walk. I have been here many times before looking for arrowheads. I have found many here. I can feel the way this place fairly reeks with history, really old history. I climb toward the top of the peak.
We are up on the top now. The windswept rocks showing no sign of the many times it has been used as a place of power, a place where young men came for their vision quest.
It is very silent as it can only be in the far removed places. I take in the view that can be seen for miles around in all directions. I know this is a good place.
I stoop down and remove the cover of the box and carefully lift the owl out. I stand and raise him above my head and release him to fly. He flies noiselessly away, going straight away. His great white wings slowly and powerfully building speed. Then he begins to turn and to glide. He glides and then flaps his wings a little and then glides again. I catch a glimpse of his wings outstretched as he banks for a turn. His back toward me. A white symbol of purity, natural harmony, the soul, and the mysterious places in life.
I see, as I turn to keep him in view, that he is flying in a large circle around me. And then as he reaches the western direction a final time, he changes back to flying straight away, flying straight toward where the sun had just disappeared below the horizon. His shape becomes just a white spot against the rose and purple-violet of the sunset, and then he becomes just a small grey spot, smaller and smaller until there is no longer any way to distinguish him from the darkening Texas twilight.