This won an award. Even if my English teacher last year didn’t think so, at least the judge reading it thought it was good.
The disfigured shapes twist and turn, talking to one another, laughing at him, staring with vacant eyes. But the taxidermist is already asleep, his lips curving into a tiny smile. The shadow-animals grow and curve around the walls and ceiling as, outside, the wind claws at the rafters, the tiles on the roof. The largest animal is pushing against the window, peering through the gaps in the curtain. She can see the wilderness, and her lion-paws scrape against the window pane. The taxidermist rolls over in his sleep, uttering a low moan. The animals fill his dreams as well.
In the morning, when the winds have calmed and the shadow-animals have diminished, the taxidermist wakes once again. He partakes in his small breakfast, sips habitually at the bland tea and eyes his artworks, lined up against the back wall of the room that doubles as his bedroom and workshop. The glassy eyes of the animals already mounted meet his gaze. He can remember those leering shadows from the night before, though in his mind they comfort him. They are his friends.
His meal consumed, the plates washed and stacked, he makes his way over to the animals. He strokes the thin fur on the badger’s paw, carefully dusts the beak of the duck, peers into the solid eyes of deer and caresses the lion’s muzzle. Then he turns to the unfinished piece on the work bench. The owl’s delicately spread feathers point towards the heavens, in anticipation of flight. The taxidermist’s calloused, practiced hands reach for the needle and thread. He gently sews the plumes together over the light wood of the model, delicately arranging the feathers so that the stitches cannot be seen. Then he picks up his paintbrush and delivers a few careful strokes of paint – a combination of Naples yellow and raw umber – to the owl’s beak. The animal is finished but for one aspect. The dark eye-sockets still stand out blank against the pelt of feathers. The taxidermist reaches for his jar of eyes. The glass objects stare out in many different directions, taking in the workshop, the animals, the blank sockets in the owl’s tawny face. Two are carefully picked and installed with a touch of white glue. After a moment’s adjustment, the taxidermist steps back. The owl stares now as the other animals do. But this is not another to add to his collection. It is to be collected in the afternoon. A tinge of sadness touches the taxidermist’s heart. He strokes the sturdy feathers on the owl’s head, checks to see whether the paint on the beak is dry, then sits down in his chair and leafs through an old book. His fingers find a well-read page, marked with coffee-stains and fingerprints. He reads aloud the words that he has already committed to memory. He reads them to the owl.
At dusk from the island in the river, I’ll wait for the moon to rise, then take wing and glide to meet him. We will not speak, but hooded against the frost, soar above the alder flats, searching with tawny eyes…
That evening, in the bitter twilight, a vehicle comes. It splutters down the frosty road, knocking down tree branches and flattening grasses. It reverses into the narrow driveway of the taxidermist’s secluded house and the boot flies open. Large, greasy men climb out and drop unceremoniously a garbage bag on the front doorstep. They ring the doorbell three times. The taxidermist comes, with the precious owl clutched to his chest. Reluctantly, he gives it over to the men, and they kick the garbage bag towards him. The vehicle throws up a few handfuls of snow in its wake. The taxidermist opens the bag and peers inside. He lifts the carcass out with shaking hands, laying it on his workbench – now empty – as his eyes grow wider. The blank, dead eyes of the enormous bear stare back at him. Its cold claws scrape at his clothing. With reverence, he lays it on his workbench. He will begin in the morning. When darkness falls, there is a new shadow adorning the wall.
Before daylight comes again, the house is plunged into commotion. Another vehicle roars up the dirt track. With cries of anguish, the protesters rush into the taxidermist’s house. They screech when they see the bear carcass, the glassy eyes of the badger and the deer. They knock the animals over one by one, and the lion’s muzzle cracks as it hits the floorboards. The taxidermist is run out of the house. He sits on a small patch of ground, his night clothes wrapped around him, his eyes still clouded with sleep, as the first flames grow like vines out of the windows. Soon the house is wreathed in gold, the smoke forming a billowing tornado into the clouds above. Tears bud in the taxidermist’s eyes as he watches the foundations slowly crumble until, like dominoes, they topple onto one another and the house becomes nothing more than a pile of wood. And in amongst the sounds of crashing beams, of splintering wood and combustion, the haunting, thunderous roar of a lion is sent out into the cold night. It disrupts the birds in nearby trees and sends the protesters, in a melee, back to their vehicle. The taxidermist is left alone in the winter night, his only possession the smouldering ruins in front of him.
Slowly, he takes a piece of paper from his pocket. It is a page, ripped, from an old book. He reads the words aloud, sending them like a message into the night.
“… And when the morning climbs, we’ll part without a sound. Fulfilled, floating homeward as the cold world awakens.”
(Poetry written by John Haines, excerpts from If The Owl Calls Again)