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Author's note: This is my entry for Cornconic's Random Title writing contest. The category I chose was 'Items/Objects'.



Carl Albert Wouters, my grandfather, passed away on April 23, 2021. He had the misfortune of catching Covid-19 while being old. Instead of going peacefully at home surrounded by loved ones, he went fitfully in a cold hospital in the midst of total strangers. Would I have been there if I'd gotten a call? Maybe. I hadn't seen him in years – I grew up, life happened. Even so, I could have been his only chance to see a familiar face at the end. Lord knows his kids wouldn't have bothered.

Grandpa was always the first to speak his mind, so it's weird to me that he raised such passive-aggressive kids. Maybe that was Grandma's doing. She died when I was 11, just old enough to pick up on some of the family drama. Grandpa claimed that Grandma had wanted to be buried, but his children overruled him, having her cremated. After the memorial, my mom, her brothers, and their spouses declined to see Grandpa ever again. The only explanation I could get was from my dad, who said Grandpa had a history of making people “uncomfortable.”

Knowing that his kids didn't give a damn, Grandpa had designated me executor of his estate. I won't sugarcoat it, it was stressful. Pro-tip: don't take the funeral home's word for it that “everything” is “pre-paid” or even “prepared.” The phone calls, the obituary, the arrangements, the bills... In a very short time I met a whole lot of people I hope to never see again. It was a nice surprise, though, to learn that Grandpa wasn't completely friendless. I guess even grumpy old men find their people through hobbies and shared interests. His friends told me he liked movies, he liked to play cribbage, and that he was an artist.

Nobody said what kind of artist. I suppose when you're in your in-crowd you don't think to specify something like that, but the fact that not one of at least six able-bodied, sound-minded old “artists” thought to give me a heads up about the basement... well, it strikes me as deliberate. Though, I guess I didn't ask either. Shame on me.

It was taxidermy; that's what I'm getting at. I descended a creaky wooden staircase expecting to see some mystical gallery of paintings or sculptures. Instead I encountered a veritable hoard of taxidermy, of all species, shapes and sizes, staring lifelessly in all directions. It gave me instant chills and the feeling that I was standing in a room full of corpses. Nope, not today. Stifling a gag, I turned around and went right back upstairs.

My first instinct was to ignore it and let an estate sale company deal with the collection, to pass it off to someone with a stronger stomach. I tried to put it out of my mind, but then came the “interested parties”. About two weeks after the funeral, Grandpa's hobbyist friends began to call. Some of them asked about one or two works for their personal collections. There were a lot of sweet, intimate stories about collaboration, inspiration, and dedication. Those stories helped, a little, to demystify the morbid congregation of animals in the basement, and to some extent, the man himself. From the sound of it, Grandpa took pride in bringing some element of life back to something lifeless, and in creating something that was more than the sum of its parts. I can relate to that, even if his chosen medium was borderline revolting.

Like I said, the stories were sweet, but it was something else that finally motivated me to go back to the basement. The other type of call I received was the kind that mentioned money. A few of Grandpa's acquaintances were art dealers or vendors. They told me that taxidermy is an expensive hobby, but Grandpa had the kind of talent that could reap returns on the investment. Their chief argument was that most estate sale companies (at least around here) are just nosy folks with no expertise trying to make a quick buck at the expense of grieving families. My family wasn't exactly grieving, but I'd be kicking myself for eternity if I knew I'd let a small fortune go for pennies.

So, I decided to make a weekend project out of cataloging the “art”. The largest rooms on the main floor were the family room and the dining room. I spent some time clearing space in both to stage the taxidermy collection. I probably moved more furniture than I needed to. The excuse I gave myself was that I wanted it to be “perfect”, but I was just putting off the inevitable. I grabbed a box and rounded up smaller valuables to bring home with me. In the dining room I came across framed sepia portraits of my grandparents and their children. I allowed myself to procrastinate a bit longer by studying them. My memory of Grandma's face was understandably fuzzy, and I'm sure I'd never seen a photo of her when she was young. She was very pretty, with an ambiguous smile and her dark hair perfectly permed. The portrait of Grandpa was handsome, too. I decided to hang the two photos in the living room. If needed, they could break up the background of the many, many photos I was about to take.

After being photographed, the pieces would be sorted by size and by, well, whether they were “normal” or “quirky”. I expected a lot of “normal” ones, just animals looking startled, but not startled too badly to strike a pose. Until recently that's how I assumed all taxidermy looked. The conversations with Grandpa's friends were the first clues that I was in for some other weirdness altogether. “Personified rodents” are a thing; you dress up mice and squirrels and whatever else in little doll clothes and give them props. Sometimes they came in full dioramas. That sounded insane to me, but I tried to reserve judgment until I saw for myself. I hoped that the weirder ones were hiding in the back. I needed to build up some tolerance first.

The basement lights snapped on with the flick of a switch. I descended the first couple stairs and inched my gaze around the corner. I'm not exaggerating when I say the whole floor was packed tight with taxidermy. There was barely room to move. It was like looking down on a rain forest from a helicopter. A canopy of antlers and feathered wings dominated my field of view while fuzzy ears and glittering eyes peeked out from below. I focused on breathing as I made my way to the bottom. At least I was alone – if I needed to dash upstairs and puke, there was no one to witness my shame.

I started with a pheasant near the foot of the stairs. As with most things, getting started was the hardest part. Once I picked it up my brain seemed to accept that it was an object, not an actual bird. It was dusty. I gently brushed some dust from the feathers and found myself petting the pheasant. I started to think, hey, maybe this won't be that bad. And then I made the mistake of looking it in the eyes. The cold, unblinking quality of the glass eyes felt wrong compared to the soft, authentic feathers against my fingertips. How much of this object used to be a bird? I shook myself back to the present and carried the pheasant upstairs. One down.

It was slow work. I started with any birds that were accessible. They were generally small enough to carry upstairs by hand, and the fewer wings in the way, the more I could see what I was dealing with. If there were no birds within reach, I'd look for a small mammal. When space allowed, I pushed larger mounts toward the walls. It satisfied the logical side of my brain and felt like tangible progress. Eventually though, I turned around and saw two deer and a bobcat glaring at me from the corner as if closing in on prey. I actually recoiled. I might expect a taxidermy bobcat to have a hungry expression, but the deer? Do live deer ever look angry? Was that the effect Grandpa was going for, or was I reading too much into it? I averted my eyes. Going forward I made sure the perimeter animals faced the walls.

A few hours in, I had cleared a path to the door of the workroom. I entered the room and looked around. This room was less cluttered, mercifully, and contained mostly tools, as well as some unfinished forms. White and gray, largely featureless, polyurethane and clay sculptures struck me as far less threatening than the finished pieces. They were still surreal, though. Many of them were shoulder mounts without ears, horns or antlers attached. They were probably deer, but a few of them seemed different, or wrong. Goats, maybe? Was that a horse? Do people want to taxidermy their horses? I suppose someone must...

It calmed my nerves for a few minutes to see some of the inner workings of the process. There was artistry here, and care. It wasn't some barbaric ritual of taking a dead thing and turning it into a dummy. I found an apron on a table and picked it up, as if to prove it to myself. Of course it wasn't bloodstained – it displayed signs of clay and glue and paint.

And then I looked down to the table where the apron had been. There was fur. That was cat fur. That was the skin of a house cat. That used to be a cat. It had empty eye-holes. I bolted upstairs for a bathroom break.

On Sunday I came across the “personified rodents.” Encased in shadow boxes stacked against the wall were dioramas depicting iconic movie scenes, starring mice, chipmunks, voles, and shrews. Maybe the previous day's work and a good night's sleep had abated the absurdity. They were pretty cute. I guess rodents are the creepiest when they're skittering across your floor. Standing stone still and dressed up as icons of the silver screen, these long-dead creatures may as well have been Barbie dolls.

One by one, I hauled them upstairs, examined them, and snapped their photographs. The rodents were uncannily expressive. I wouldn't have thought you could get such emotion from beady glass eyes. In a few early works, such as “Mouse-Dracula” and “Chipmunk-In-Wonderland,” it was evident that Grandpa made the clothes himself. The shapes and colors were there, but the miniature movie stars looked like they were dressed for Halloween. The majority of the dioramas had been collaborations with a lovely old woman, Marcia, whose doll clothes were the best in the county, so she told me on the phone. “Vole-Casablanca” and “Shrew-lett O'Hara” were practically museum-quality.

The largest and most interesting piece was a depiction of Frankenstein. Where most of the dioramas had printed movie stills for backgrounds, this one had a custom matte painting. Rather than a faithful recreation of a single scene, the piece combined the drama of “It's alive!” with the poignant moment Boris Karloff raises his arms toward the sunlight. On the left, several mice cower in revulsion at the spectacle before them. Next to them, a hunchbacked chipmunk looked to be turning a valve with all his might. In the center stood a rat, the kind that comes to mind when you think of a “lab rat”, in a white coat with its arms outstretched in triumph. To the right, standing alone, was the monster.

It was the first squirrel I'd seen in the collection, at least, it was mostly squirrel. I couldn't tell you the differences between squirrel paws, mouse paws, rat paws or any other rodent paws, but anyone would notice the monster's four paws did not match each other. The “hands” raised toward the sun were different sizes, and the bare “feet” were different colors, one brown and one gray. To drive the point home that this was indeed Frankenstein's Monster, there was no bushy tail peeking from behind the creature's black coat. Instead, a rat's tail curled meekly around its feet. Grandpa had even sculpted the flat-topped skull and jutting brow, features that looked bizarre on a tiny rodent face.

When I'd gotten through about 75% of the basement, I decided to tackle an area in the back that had been freaking me out for a while. It wasn't obvious at first, but as I cleared the clutter I noticed... I guess a “pack” of wolves. There were five full wolf mounts gathered around a corner. Most of the mounts in the basement had been faced in random directions. It was as if someone had shoved together every piece they could find haphazardly. These wolves, though, were arranged as if they had something cornered. If there was something there, I couldn't see it without moving the wolves.

I got a grip on one of the wolves in the middle of the “pack” and pulled, dragging it out of the way. And then I looked. And then I stumbled backward, falling flat on my ass.

That was a fucking person.

Everything I had seen up to this point was harmless. Gross, and occasionally spooky as shit, but harmless. Now, burning itself, herself, into my retinas, was a woman. She looked relatively young. Dark curls of hair rested on her shoulders, coated in dust. She sat with her back to the wall, drawing her knees up to her chest. There were seams visible on the skin giving her an appearance similar to a ball-jointed doll. Vacant glass eyes stared unblinkingly forward. Her expression seemed to be at war with itself, somewhere between contentment and contempt.

I fled the house, absolutely horrified. I must have puked, somewhere. I don't even remember the drive home. My mind was so busy, so full of questions, and all in the wrong order. Why? Where did he get the parts? When? How can human skin be preserved like that? Am I going to prison? Who do I tell? What do I do with it? And why, in God's name, was her ankle chained to the wall?



Written by Rika8484
Content is available under CC BY-SA

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