The deer head on my wall is smirking at me. I sit here at my computer, trying to ignore its glassy stare, but some inexorable compulsion forces me to cast occasional fleeting glances at it. I have often considered disposing of it, but it was my first deer and I feel that the sentimental value is worth the psychological irritation of a smirking dear head with glassy eyes.
I had it stuffed by a fellow named Jacques, a French trapper from Canada who settled in our small town and opened a taxidermy shop. Little did I know that he was not a mere taxidermist, but also an Impressionist. He believed that his work should express some meaningful feelings, thus, my deer head expresses a high level of smugness, despite that I won our great game of hide-and-seek-and-shoot. When I saw the finished project I asked what the smirk was for, and Jacques said:
“My boy, this deer head is so magnifique, so superbe, I feel it is the lord of all mounted deer heads, and so it expresses a certain gallant triumph, as to say, we deer have souls too, and though you kill us and consume our bodies, we have won, for we are now prancing in the meadows of paradise…”
So basically, I got a deer head with a supercilious smirk of triumph.
Jacques had a small shop, where his various finished works were on display. The first time I walked in, I came face-to-face with a stuffed housecat that lay draped over a tree limb, the very picture of laziness. The taxidermist came hurrying out from the back, wiping his grimy hands on a bloodstained apron.
“Welcome, young man, to the humble shop of Jacques Verchères!”
“This piece,” he said, waving his hands at the cat, “is one of my favorites. I found the poor creature by the side of the road one day, still fresh enough that I could give it a good home here. Now it rests on a tree limb, representing comfort and contentment.”
“It’s just a cat.”
“No, no! Of course not, my boy. Everything has something to say, if you have the eye to see it.” He tapped his temple with one finger. “The mind of an artist will bring out what the subject has to say.”
“Can you do a deer head?” I asked, not so sure about this artist stuff. Were all taxidermists like this, I wondered?
“Of course, I can do any creature great or small. Just bring it to me fresh so I can preserve the fur.” Jacques gave me a huge grin, showing two or three metal teeth. “Do you have it here?”
“No, back at home. I just shot it yesterday and—”
Jacques swept his hat off his head and held it over his heart, gaze turned toward the ceiling. “Bless the poor creature,” he said, before covering his atrocious hat hair once again and looking at me. “So, you will bring it in very soon, yes?”
“Yeah.” I pondered finding a different taxidermist, but this fellow did seem to do quality work, even if he was a bit odd.
“I charge fifty dollars for the first deer head. After that it is more, but I like to give discounts to my new customers.”
“I don’t have quite fifty dollars,” I said. “I was wondering if you needed any help around your shop. Could I work in exchange for it?”
“Hmmm.” Jacques drew out the sound for at least ten seconds, stroking his moustache and looking me up and down. “Do you have a strong stomach?”
“Iron,” I replied. “I once ate three pepperoni sticks with a fever over 102 degrees, and I didn’t throw up.”
“Hmmm. Impressive, yes. Well, come back here tomorrow about this same time, and bring your deer head. I will put you to work and take care of the poor beast for you in return. Help me for three afternoons and I will give it to you free of charge.”
“That sounds great.”
He extended his hand, still covered with a significant layer of blood and the hair of whatever unfortunate creature he had most recently been working on. I swallowed hard and shook his hand.
“It is a deal,” he said.
The next day after school I walked through town to the taxidermist’s shop with a bloody deer head in my little brother’s wagon. I didn’t think to cover it, so I got some interesting looks along the way.
When I got there, I thought Jacques was about to kiss the deer, with how lovingly he lifted it out of the wagon and cradled it in his arms.
“Out back there’s a pile of rotting animal bits,” he told me. “I need them bagged up so I can take them to the hills and dump them. I have heavy duty bags in the cupboard over there.”
Three minutes into the job I was regretting telling Jacques about my iron stomach. At first the stench was dizzying, but I breathed only as much as I had to and went on with my work. But soon the sparse breathing made me even more dizzy, and I started choking from the smell.
I wondered if such work was worth saving fifty dollars, but only for a short time. I’d been through worse things for money, like that time Stretch bet me ten dollars I wouldn’t take a bite of warm raw deer liver. (That was not worth ten dollars, I decided afterward.)
Once I got all the animal bits bagged up, I could barely distinguish smells. I kept sniffing my shirt, trying to determine if I’d been permeated with the smell already, or if there was still hope that Mom would let me in the house when I got home.
Jacques leaned out the back door. “Done already? Fantastic, come in and help me funnel flesh-eating beetles into a glass case so they can devour the meat off some bones I want to display.”
Okay, this is such a delightful job…
I went home smelling of formaldehyde, blood, and rotten meat. Soon as I walked in the door I heard a mad scramble and exclamations of consternation in the living room. Several of my siblings and my mother came rushing around the corner.
They stopped short and plugged their noses, eyes watering.
“Matt!” Mom said, sounding so much like a cartoon character that I didn’t know whether to cringe or burst out laughing. “What on earth is that smell?”
“Don’t be smart with me!”
“It’s actually a combination of odors, Mom. That sharp one is formaldehyde. The kinda metallic one—”
“I don’t care what the individual odors are, just take that hideous smell outside and fix it!”
“How? I need a bath…”
“There’s a hose and a kiddie pool in the shed.”
“Use that stuff we clean out the gutters with.”
I went out, and returned to the house half an hour later, soaked, freezing cold, and missing at least two layers of skin. I changed into warm clothes and crawled into bed. I couldn’t even think about eating dinner.
I survived the next two days, though just barely and Mom made me sleep in a tent because the smell didn’t come off as easily. I was already missing enough skin, thank you.
At last I finished the third afternoon of work for Jacques and he promised my deer head would be ready in about three weeks. I hadn’t known it would take so long, and was expecting to bring home the magnificent finished trophy to show my family what all the stink was about—I hadn’t even told them yet that I’d gotten my first deer.
I waited in tense anticipation for the next three weeks and then I dropped by Jacques’ shop after school exactly three weeks later.
“It is not quite done yet,” he said.
“Can I see it?”
He looked like I’d just asked him to strip naked and dance ballet. “No, no, certainly not! You do not ask to see an artist’s work before it is finished!”
I went home distracted from obsessive thoughts of my deer head for the first time in over three weeks. All evening I was chuckling at the image of Jacques doing ballet (the image of him stripping naked, however, was not actually one that I wanted to think about.)
At last I walked in the doors of the taxidermy shop and Jacques gave me a huge grin. “Yes, my boy, your deer head is done.”
He took me into the back and gestured at the finished piece of art. At first glance it looked perfect. And then I noticed the slight curl of the lips…
“It’s smirking,” I said.