The Animals They Used to Be

The Animals They Used to Be

August 03, 2021 1 Comment

 

 

 

The first time, he thought they’d be like chicken bones—pliable, splintering when he bent them between his fingers—but they weren’t. Bendiness resulted from cooking, he guessed, from heat, and made a note to find out for sure. Later, after he’d had time to research in the public library, he’d scribbled Collagen under the question, Why does baking make bones easy to break? This information wasn’t relevant, really—his mother hadn’t been baked, her bones wouldn’t be like a dinner chicken’s—it was just to satisfy a curiosity, one of the many that inflated his mind, that he’d scratched in the lined pages of his notebook for later: Why that smell? Skin stained? Supposed to be stiff? 

The second one he found was either a large squirrel or a small possum, but it had reached the point where it was difficult to tell. Its form was covered in flies he kicked away, which made him wonder whether flies experienced smell differently than people, wonder if they were attracted to the smell that made him nauseated because the odor reaching their nostrils—Do flies have nostrils?—was different somehow than what he experienced. He didn’t know how to research this question, so it remained officially unanswered in his notes. 

With his Boy Scout knife he stripped the skin from its back, dug the meat out until he saw bone. It wasn’t like the skin that slips smoothly from baked chicken; this skin didn’t want to be divided from the meat. He gripped the fur for leverage, worked his fingers—safe inside the tight purple gardening gloves he’d found in the garage—underneath and between the layers, carving his way across its body with the blade. The meat itself, once he reached it, was darker than he’d expected—not meat, he thought, not really. Meat was something to be eaten, something cooked, something that pulled apart into delicious slivers and made his stomach rumble. There must be some other name for meat that wasn’t meant for eating, and he made a note to find out. They’d eaten a lot of chicken back when his mom cooked, and it was those tiny delicious strands of dark meat on the leg, the sweeter and more tender bits, that this not meat in his gloved hands resembled in color; he cringed at the flash of an impulse to tear this apart with his teeth, chalked it up to some reflex of memory and tried to forget, refocusing his gaze on the fur and other parts that reminded him how far this thing in his hands was from food. 

When he started, he hadn’t really known the bones were his goal. He disassembled each animal slowly, stripping the fur and skin, cutting into the gut to scoop out the intestines—at first averting his eyes until curiosity became overpowering—eventually making his way to the natural end point. The bones, he knew from a childhood obsession with dinosaurs, from the illustrated books his mother took him to check out of the library, would be there forever; or, almost forever—as forever as it mattered. Eventually, if he needed to, he could go to her grave and dig her up and find her still there. Or find whether she was there at all. He hadn’t seen them put her in the ground; she’d been hidden in that box that left their sight on its ride from the church to the graveyard across town, so how else could he ever know for sure? He realized the childishness of this worry that gripped him—of course she was there; logically, he knew she was there—but still, he couldn’t stop agonizing over it. 

So he extracted the bones, put them in the yellow porcelain serving bowl he’d taken from the kitchen cabinet, the one with the chip in it from a day when he’d been mad at his mom and mad about his chores and slammed the dishes together too hard to make some point he couldn’t remember now. When he held the bowl filled with his collection of bones, he thought about how his dad’s face would scrunch up if he ever heard the clink as each dropped from his gloved fingers to bounce around the glass bottom, the little bones new to air and still slimy with blood so he couldn’t yet see their whiteness. 

He wished he could unsee the eyes. He’d turned an animal over to show its face, but it wasn’t really a face anymore; bugs had eaten past the fur and skin of the cheek, baring the animal’s teeth in a way that reminded him of Two-Face, always almost smiling. And the eyes, they’d been moving in a way he couldn’t comprehend, a way eyes didn’t move—at least, his brain registered the eyes themselves as moving until he focused in and found the worms, writhing. Larva, he wrote, and then later: Larva Larvae. The eyes made him gag, then later when he couldn’t keep them out of his head, made him cry; he somehow couldn’t disentangle the sunken feeling those eyes had given him from the shock he’d felt that same morning when he’d gone into his dad’s office to rummage through the desk in search of a pencil sharpener, found the picture from when his mother was in the paper for winning the town fair’s baking competition—this cutout, which used to sit on the mantle where he could see it every day, had been the last image to go as his father had slowly stripped the house of her, something he did for both of them, he explained, to try to give them a bit of peace—the frame turned face down in the drawer. He’d slipped the frame under the front of his shirt to sneak it to his room, hid it in his closet so he could look at her any time. 

And the truth was that for weeks now, ever since this discovery, it had been this image from the newspaper that came to mind whenever he thought of her. Not her grey-blue eyes that matched his, not the way she’d looked waving him off to school or sitting at the kitchen table for dinner or laughing at some story he told, but the specific way she’d looked that moment when the photographer had snapped the picture—Newspaper Mom, black ink memorialized. He worried this always-smile face was replacing his dimensional, real-life mom in his memories, that the newspaper version of her would—or worse, already had—become default so that even in his dreams—where she had not gotten cancer, where she still tapped on his door to wake him for school, where he could walk into the living room and find her sitting on the floor among a pile of freshly washed socks he would now happily help her pair—it was this mom with the newspaper face who turned to meet him, jolted him awake in the midst of a cold sweat to cling to his mattress wondering if he was going to throw up. And since he’d found the animal with the writhing eyes it had gotten even worse: in his most recent dream, her storm-cloud eyes had been filled with larvae too. 

The third one was something he dug up. Almost all the skin was gone, the last bits thin and flaky like the wings of the dried-up bugs he sometimes found en masse between the glass of his bedroom window and the screen. Decomposition, he wrote. How long? He’d wondered if it was short enough that she now looked this way too. He figured the casket would protect her for a while, though he’d have to study wood too if he wanted to know the specifics of how long. The casket he’d thought of, but the chemical mixture pumped inside her he’d forgotten about until, in the midst of a library research binge, he’d found an old mortician’s educational handbook filled with procedures and chemical names. He hadn’t before thought of her preserved, and his stomach churned at the idea of her pickled from the inside, of her filled with some liquid, anonymous to him because its chemical name was too convoluted to stick in his brain; now he thought of her body as a water bed, the liquid sloshing under her skin, wondered if only her insides were preserved or if the chemical affected her outside too, whether her skin would decompose, if it would wrinkle like a prune or become brittle and flake off. The only way to stop his head spinning with these thoughts—which came one after another so forcefully they felt like they might knock him over—was to keep going, to replace these thoughts with different thoughts, to hope that whatever he found next was more palatable than where his head was stuck now. 

So he kept collecting bones, slipped them from the animals’ bodies into the bowl, smearing globules of blood everywhere—on the other previously clean bones, his gloves, the area where he sat on the ground, mostly remembering to wipe his gloves on the grass but sometimes forgetting and using his jeans instead. When he was done with the extraction, he carried the bowl to the spigot on the side of his house and rinsed them, hands bare to rub the bones clean; despite repeated washing, red-brown stained the raw chip in the yellow bowl. He stowed his collection in the undergrowth of a tree in the backyard, was somehow comforted knowing they were close, that he could look out his window and see the tree marking their place. Sometimes, when his spinning thoughts became unbearable, he snuck out of the house at night, sat under the light from the moon and dumped his bones out, thinking distantly of dinosaurs as his brain puzzled out their shapes, and built them back into approximations of the animals they used to be.

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Rae Stringfield (she/her) is a writer, freelance editorial consultant, and PhD student. She lives with her dog Gavin in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

 

 

 

Photo by Blanca Paloma Sánchez on Unsplash



1 Response

Mary Ann Presman
Mary Ann Presman

August 22, 2021

The very specific details of this story make it all the more haunting.

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