It wasn’t until she got the bill for the squirrel’s autopsy that Elin started having doubts. She stood in the pristine vet’s office, surrounded by people picking up their Pekinese and yowling cats, holding a bill which stated the procedure (autopsy, squirrel), the conclusion (death by natural causes, electrocution), and a payment due of two hundred dollars. Her first thought upon seeing the bill was the absurdity of calling electrocution a natural death. The squirrel hadn’t been struck by lightning or died of old age; it had made the mistake of completing the circuit between two power lines. A natural death simply meant that Elin or someone else had not killed the squirrel; that frying squirrels was not her idea of a good time.
She might have called the whole thing off, but she’d already invested so much in the project––hiking out to retrieve the squirrel’s body, going to the trouble of finding someone who would conduct the autopsy, and lining up a respected taxidermist. More important than the time or effort was the fact that presenting her husband with this taxidermy squirrel was the only way she could think to save her marriage.
When she met Kurt, they were in college and living in Colorado. He was “nerdy hot,” meaning he skied and hiked, liked foreign films that induced cathartic depression, and knew how to slice vegetables without taking off a finger. They’d go on hikes, totally at peace walking in silence, or lie on a blanket on the quad, cool grass against their backs and the sun on their faces.
Kurt was a biology major, always finding interesting volunteer opportunities with professors. He and Elin had once spent spring break gathering spiders for an exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Though she was majoring in education, she spent most of her time on campus in the photo lab developing pictures she’d taken of her home state’s vast expanses, its open plains and distant, imposing peaks. She’d always thought of the swath of mountain over twelve thousand feet lacking in life, but walking slowly across the alpine tundra in search of spiders, Kurt changed what she saw by showing her how to look closer. He taught her the names for the small hardy plants and mosses that had adapted to the harsh conditions, the lack of moisture, the ever-present sun and wind—an environment born equally of scarcity and abundance. Focusing her lens on Kurt crouched down, then bringing it in closer, to his large fingers delicately guiding a spider into a jar, the mountains and sky vast behind him and the air so thin you appreciated the fact that it was there at all, was the exact moment she thought, “I would be content if this was it.”
Two years later, standing in a swamp in south Florida, the air so thick she could probably chew it like gum, she was decidedly not content.
Kurt had woken her at sunrise without his usual kiss. “I’m leaving in ten,” he grunted. He was dressed in stained cargo pants, a long-sleeve shirt under a t-shirt, and clunky hiking boots. Other men in town wore clothing meant for the beach––board shorts and tank tops that showed off lean, tanned limbs––but Kurt still dressed like they were in the mountains. Even if he adapted clothing-wise, the beard and shaggy hair would have marked him as different from the mostly smooth shaven, sun-bleached men she encountered on the stairs of their apartment building.
They’d spent the evening watching what felt like the hundredth subtitled Mongolian movie of their relationship and, as usual, she’d fallen asleep after ten minutes. She dreamt of a frozen wasteland and actually missed the cool emptiness when she woke to find herself back in Florida, where the only sounds in the house were the air conditioner in its pitched battle with humidity, and Kurt’s snores softened by the distance to the bedroom. Their months in Florida could be measured by the space between them in bed, first arms touching rather than spooning, then inches apart, then a foot and, finally, her waking to find herself alone in the darkened family room.
Groggy in the passenger seat of the car, she glanced over at Kurt whose eyes stayed fixed on the slowly lightening route to the wildlife refuge, the sun leaking out from the horizon. She wondered why she’d thought going with him on one of his bird watching trips would smooth out what had become rough between them. Given the night before and the morning’s waking, she doubted she had the energy to feign enthusiasm for spotting wood storks in bug-infested marshland. She probably could have managed for a whooping crane migration, their golden crests gleaming, or a flock of flamingos the color of the rising sun, but not wood storks.
They got out of the car and started walking along the low dike separating the brackish water of the marsh from the fresh water of the thin canal. The first wood stork sighting confirmed her concern. The skin of its head had the appearance of wet cement, gray and silty. Its long thick beak was menacing as it stabbed into the water in search of bugs or snails. This was one threatened species that would not be getting a personalized license plate as a fundraiser. The longer she stood swatting at mosquitoes on the thin strip of land between their breeding centers, the less she felt like she was on solid ground with her husband.
They’d moved to Florida when Kurt received an offer to become a naturalist with the south Florida chapter of the Audubon Society. It had sounded so idyllic. They would live near the coast for the first time in their lives, and Kurt would spend his days exploring and sharing his interest in the natural world with school groups and clubs. All Kurt told her about the society’s namesake was that he was an explorer known for his beautiful paintings of the birds of America, many of whom he had been the first person to document. Kurt had shown her some of the paintings online, and she was charmed by the images of delicately sketched and colored birds sitting in trees or shown in flight.
It wasn’t until later, when she visited the Audubon Society Center, that she learned how John James Audubon had accomplished his masterwork. The Center was a circa-1950 building, the lobby full of dioramas of native wildlife, stuffed and posed in examples of their natural habitat. When she expressed to Kurt her doubts that the man who had shown such reverence for the birds he had painted would appreciate the macabre displays, Kurt laughed and explained that Audubon had traversed the United States shooting birds from the sky and then carefully arranging them in simulated flight before getting out his paper and pencils. Taking in her horrified expression, Kurt laughed again, and said Elin should appreciate what she had that Audubon didn’t—a camera.
“Come on, let’s keep moving,” Kurt called from up ahead on the trail. He didn’t wait to see if she was following.
When she pictured their life in Florida, she imagined time spent on white sand beaches or on boats skimming across the ocean. She would learn how to work in careful contrast, the blue of water played against the blue of open sky. Instead, they spent most of their time in tree-enclosed spaces: canoeing thin, slow-moving rivers with tea dark waters, walking sandy forest paths, or wading through swamps. The lighting was always too dim or dappled for photographing, the shadows too present. That part of Kurt she loved in Colorado, which led him to explore every peak and clear alpine lake, was the part she loathed when they spent Saturdays in the muddy and bug-bitten claustrophobia of dense, humid Florida forests.
“Wait.” Kurt grabbed her arm to keep her from moving forward, the first time he’d touched her in days. “Look.” He pointed ahead to where a gator, the largest she’d ever seen, lay across the path, the just risen sun creating a sheen on the elaborate, scale-like pattern of its skin. “Wow, that’s an amazing sight,” Kurt said, crouching to watch the gator in repose.
She wanted to touch the back of his neck, the point where hair became skin, a place she had rested her hand more times than she could remember. But she kept her hand at her side, afraid any movement would send the gator’s gaze towards them or, worse, that Kurt would brush away her questing fingers. She thought about asking if they should turn around given that their path was so thoroughly and frighteningly blocked, but she doubted Kurt had considered anything but moving forward. Perhaps it had been inevitable that she’d find another, non-Kurt path to the openness of beach and ocean.
When they arrived in Florida it had been impossible to find a school that considered her education degree and out-of-state teaching certificate qualification enough for a classroom position. After two jobless months, she’d about given up on finding anything when she’d happened upon a microbrewery opening a few miles from their apartment. The craft beer movement, which had been going strong in Colorado since the nineties, was just hitting Florida two decades later. When she’d answered the “Help Wanted” sign, the owner, Chad, hired her on the spot after learning she could tell the difference between an IPA and an ESB. According to him, this knowledge made her one of the most qualified people in the state.
The microbrewery was airy and light-filled with folks coming in straight off their boats or surfboards. The other female bartender would come from the beach, the straps of her bikini peeking out from under her tank top. In her high-necked blouses and pants, remnants of her teacher wardrobe, Elin felt overly clothed when she first started. Just as the passage of time at home could be measured by the widening gap in sleeping positions, her time at the brewery could be told by the diminishing fabric of her outfits.
Chad was the perfect beachside manager, closing the brewery when they were light on customers and taping a “gone surfing” sign to the front door. He was deeply tan. His sun-aided smile lines and blonde highlighted hair made him look both older and younger than his actual age of thirty-two. She’d always plan to just go home when the bar closed unexpectedly, but Chad persuaded her to join. She brought her camera, and for weeks was content watching from the beach, taking pictures of her co-workers’ distant forms amid the rise and curl of the waves. But she wanted to get closer, capture more, the details of their movements. Soon, she was spending what little money she made on waterproof camera gear, and paddling out on a board borrowed from Chad.
He said she couldn’t be a mere bystander, and took it upon himself to teach her how to do more than just float. His lessons involved a lot of hand-to-skin instruction, guiding her legs and arms into the correct position. Before long, she was surfing with Chad when Kurt thought she was at work; Chad didn’t say much, but seemed content just to keep her silent, thoughtful company.
They were in such a state of contemplation, lying on a towel in the sand watching the setting sun pink the sky, when Kurt happened upon them. Elin didn’t see him until he was almost standing on top of them. He simply said, “Your dinner is cold,” setting the take-out he had brought on the sand before heading back up the beach.
When she’d arrived home after hastily leaving Chad, she found Kurt in the kitchen methodically pouring beer down the sink drain.
“What the hell are you doing,” she said, reaching for a half emptied growler.
“I’m sick of this poorly-brewed crap,” he said, pulling the bottle back and emptying the rest of its contents.
She took a step back. “Kurt, we were just hanging out on the beach. We were overstaffed, so Chad and I went for a walk.”
“Just hanging out,” he said, dropping the bottles one by one into the recycling bin he’d brought in from the back porch. She had felt an odd surge of affection that Kurt would plan a wanton destruction of beer, but think to bring the recycling bin in first.
“Honey,” she reached out and put a hand on his arm, “Nothing happened. We’re just friends.”
He shrugged off her hand and left the room, quickly returning with a folder she recognized as one from her desk. He splayed it open and let the contents fall onto the kitchen floor: Chad surfing, his form partially obscured by a wave. Chad walking, the surf swirled around his ankles. Chad leaning over, stroking wax onto his board.
Kurt hadn’t given her the chance to explain, just left her standing, a hundred accusations gathered around her feet.
Thinking about that night, she almost stepped on the dead squirrel. She let out a surprised yelp, and jumped back. She and Kurt had left the dike and were crossing an open space with power lines strung overhead. The squirrel was near one of the poles holding up the swags of wire.
“What’s wrong?” Kurt asked, hurrying back to where she stood.
She thought about answering with a dramatic “everything,” but settled on pointing down and simply saying, “Squirrel.”
Kurt crouched for a closer look. “Must have gotten electrocuted trying to cross the wires.” He looked up. “They usually have protections from that sort of thing built in but these are way out here and don’t look like they’re well maintained.”
Hearing his teaching tone, which had once charmed and later infuriated her, was like being greeted by an old friend.
“You know an electrocuted squirrel once shut down the NASDAQ for over an hour?” he said, using a stick to turn the squirrel over. It was remarkably unblemished for an animal that had a town’s worth of electricity running through it.
“We could stuff him and name him Sparky.” He looked up at her with a smile, and then shook it off. “But I guess I shouldn’t joke about that. You’ll start on again about how hypocritical it is to work for an organization named after a man famous for killing birds.”
He handed her the cheap digital camera he kept with his binoculars. “I guess you didn’t think to bring your camera,” he said. “You can use mine. Capture his image the humane way.”
He walked off down the path without looking back. She turned the camera on, but no matter how she pressed the buttons, the animal lying dead in the grass wouldn’t come into focus.
Later that day, when Kurt headed to a co-worker’s house for a barbecue, not even asking if she’d like to come, she had a moment of inspiration, or perhaps psychosis. She took her camera gear and headed back out to the wildlife refuge to find the squirrel.
Which is how she found herself, two weeks later, picking up an autopsied squirrel at the vet’s office. She took Sparky out to her car and carefully placed him in a cooler in the trunk before starting the forty-five minute drive to the taxidermist.
She’d found the taxidermist on Craigslist, where the ad read, “Beautifully mounted hunting trophies. Show your skill…and your kill.” The only person she’d mentioned her plan to was the other female bartender at work, not because she particularly felt like sharing, but because she wanted someone to know where to send the cops if she went missing. She was expecting to pull up to a barn with scythes hanging on the walls, or a moonshine still in the front yard, but instead found a pleasant yellow and white ranch-style home with a profusion of marigolds planted in neat beds. She was greeted at the front door by a man who introduced himself as “Sammy” and who looked like a Florida-biker version of Santa––khaki pants and a Hawaiian shirt replacing the ubiquitous red, and tattoos brightening the skin of his arms in solid sleeves.
“Please come in and let me show you some of our work.” He waved her into the living room, clearly a professional showroom. On beige walls with white wainscoting hung a veritable menagerie of dead and stuffed animals. A rabbit was captured mid-hop on a shelf by the door. At least six stag heads were present in the room, their chins tilted slightly up so you imagined they might trumpet a call across the forest at any moment. Birds of prey soared from the ceiling, the feathers of their wings fanned beautifully.
“You should really give the Audubon Center a call,” she said, continuing to look around. “Their displays could use some updating.”
“Well, thank you for the recommendation,” he said. “Why don’t you have a seat and we can talk about what you’d like your piece to say.”
She didn’t want to tell him that somehow this dead squirrel needed to say, “Sorry I went paparazzi on my boss, and though I didn’t actually sleep with him, I thought about it on pretty much an hourly basis.” Instead she said, “Oh, it’s just an anniversary present for my husband. A bit of a gag-gift.” She regretted her choice of words immediately and hoped she hadn’t somehow insulted Sammy’s profession.
“Have you heard of the alt-taxidermy movement?” he asked.
“It really takes taxidermy out of the realm of trophies and into the realm of art. It captures the essence of the animal and not merely its form. Alt––alternative––taxidermy has become very popular in cities like New York and San Francisco. I hear celebrities like Johnny Depp and Cher are big collectors.” He leaned forward, looking intently at Elin. “You seem like an open-minded young woman. Would you allow me to make your squirrel into a work of art?”
“It wouldn’t be something silly, like riding a bicycle or eating a hamburger or something like that?” Elin asked.
He waved a hand dismissively, “Oh, nothing cheesy like that. This would simply have a bit more personality than the somber, traditional arrangement.”
Elin agreed. It was not like she had any particular pose preference. It was the act of getting the squirrel stuffed, not the actual stuffed squirrel that was meant to say something, though the more strained days that accumulated between her and Kurt, the less certain she was about what she was trying to say.
The squirrel was ready to pick up after a week. When she was, again, led into the front display room, Sammy looked both nervous and excited. He led her to a pedestal in the corner, where Sparky was standing on his hind legs, his small mouth contorted into a smile, and his front legs held up and outstretched. His tiny, desiccated heart was cradled in his hands.
Somehow, the taxidermist had captured exactly what she wanted to say, but in the worst possible way. Here was the stuffed, obscene embodiment of her apology. She couldn’t give this to Kurt, and not just because it was deeply, profoundly disturbing. The offering of the heart, taken out of the realm of metaphor, made it into a joke, ridiculous.
She handed Sammy the check, ignoring his disappointment in her lack of enthusiasm. He put the squirrel in a glossy white box and carried it out to the car for her, carefully placing it on the floor by the passenger seat. “I hope your husband appreciates his gift,” he said.
Listening to the squirrel rattling in the box, she wanted to turn the car around and ask the taxidermist to open up the squirrel’s chest, stuff the heart back in, and stitch it closed. He could follow the existing lines, the large black thread zigzagging up the squirrel’s front, obviously meant to emphasize where the heart had once resided.
Elin spent the whole next day preparing for her talk with Kurt. She thought about leaving Sparky out of it and had even gone so far as to rearrange the closet so she could put Sparky in the back corner of the highest shelf. A year from now, when she and Kurt had reconciled without the squirrel’s help, she would take him out, set his grotesque form on the table, and tell Kurt the crazy story about the time she’d thought she could apologize with a stuffed squirrel.
But, no matter how much she struggled mentally, she couldn’t come up with a better plan. She set Sparky on the coffee table, creepy-toothed grin and heart facing the door Kurt would walk through that evening. Looking at the animal, she saw that, though it told a story, it didn’t tell the whole story––the story of what had gone wrong.
She went to the office and found her camera, scanning through the pictures she had taken the day she recovered the squirrel. She’d taken a picture of the path, the rough gravel between the smooth ripples of the canal on either side. There were pictures of the gator, which still hadn’t moved, its prehistoric-looking mass taking up a large section of trail. Finally, there were the pictures of the squirrel and the power lines that had been its undoing. She had captured every angle, every detail, the tail outstretched in the grass, the paws curled in front, the smallness of the squirrel against the expanse of field and power lines, the large and the small––the sadness and the beauty of a lost life.
Elin spent the rest of the afternoon printing the pictures. When she had a stack complete, she laid them on the floor, starting at the front door and making a path of that day. Kurt would walk in and follow it, see as she had seen––her vision, not his this time.
She waited for the door to open, standing behind her offering. Kurt would study each photo, each step she had taken to find what had died and bring it back for him, a squirrel no longer curled and forgotten in the grass. He would look up and see Sparky sitting before her, something akin to resurrection.