"You cannot play chess if you are kind-hearted" - French Proverb
In total, there were seven mounted heads at the Makin' Bacon Café. Three deer (two doe, one buck), a fox, a chipmunk a rabbit and a black bear hovered over the tables of tourists like spies – as though at any moment they might start speaking to each other or drool onto the plates of burnt hash and soggy oatmeal below.
Most people took little notice of them. What was a dead animal hanging from a wall when there was a dead animal on a plate? Now that was something!
But the boy noticed the hanging heads the first time his parents dragged him by his bony shoulder into the joint. By his third visit, he was desperately determined to sit under the fox. Foxes were clever. But his father, oblivious to the gigantic head, took a seat, once again, under the bear.
The threesome ordered their food and looked through yesterday's photographs: the fishing store with its array of shiny tackle and feather rigs and then the candids taken at the bustling mall. The boy had enjoyed the food court best.
"Can I sit over there?" the boy asked the wiry waitress, pointing to the empty booth under the fox, when she brought him his bowl of hard-boiled eggs.
His parents dug into their corned beef hash topped with two eggs over medium.
The waitress leaned in close to the boy and smiled wide. She was missing her left canine tooth.
"You have a seat anywhere you'd like, Honey."
The boy looked to his parents for approval.
"I don't care for this," his mother said, shoving the half-eaten plate of food towards the waitress. "I'll try the Endless Plate of Pancakes instead."
"We're gonna be here a while," said the boy's father. "Go on," he brought his hand up in a shooing motion as though he were swatting a fly. The boy understood the signal, grabbed his chessboard, slingshot and bowl of hardboiled eggs and moved to the empty table under the fox. Once seated, he gnawed at an egg, taking care not to let any of the yolk make its way into his mouth.
“The usual, Nora?” asked the waitress.
Nora nodded. She began every morning with a cup of coffee in town. She could have just as easily made it at home, but her time at the diner would be the only human interaction she’d get all day.
“He likes what you’ve done,” said the waitress, handing Nora the hot mug.
Nora watched the boy admire her handiwork. He probably thought the fox’s eyes were real. He probably assumed the fox’s brain was still tucked cozily inside its head.
The boy stared up at the animal, taking stock of its auburn and white fur. Its teeth were gnarled and he wondered if it was growling at whomever it was that killed him. He wanted to touch the pelt, but he couldn't reach his hands high enough. He wished the fox would magically come to life and play chess with him. The boy was tired of playing by himself because he always won. Likewise, he always lost. Each and every time.
The boy set up the black and white pieces just as they had been this morning before he had to stop abruptly to get in the car. White had captured two pawns. Black, a pawn and a bishop. The boy zipped up his hoodie all the way, concealing his "shop till you drop" shirt - a freebie with purchase at yesterday's outing.
"Hard to play a decoy when you're playing yourself." a meaty woman in a flannel button-down said.
The boy looked at her.
"Want a real opponent?" she asked.
"You play?" he said, putting the egg back in the bowl and then smelling his fingers to confirm that they did indeed smell like egg.
"It's been a while," she said, taking a seat across from him.
The boy looked over at his parents wanting to make sure it was okay that this stranger sat down with him, but they had their faces buried in their breakfast. He hoped some sort of protective parental instinct would kick in if this woman was, in fact, dangerous.
"Skittles," he said.
"No, it's the word for a casual game of chess. No clocks."
"Oh, yes. Skittles. You set up your side first and I'll follow."
The boy arranged his black pieces in record time, then helped the woman with hers. He badly wanted to be playing against the fox instead of this woman.
"You go first," she said.
He moved his pawn and she did the same. After five moves the boy had taken her knight and queen. Woodpusher, he thought. He wondered, if he had said that out loud, whether she would even recognize it as an insult. He could have beaten her right away, she was such a weak player, but instead, he wanted the game to last as long as possible. No one ever played chess with him.
"Too unnecessarily complicated," his father would say.
At least now, the boy got to try out a bunch of moves he had been studying: Alekhine's Gun and the mysterious rock move, which she obviously fell for.
When he couldn't prolong the game any further, he went in for the kill. This was his favorite part.
"Checkmate," he said.
The woman feigned being stabbed in the chest. She held onto her heart and fell backwards across the booth. She made more noise than she had meant to and the waitress came running over.
"Are you all right, Nora? Should I call an ambulance?"
"Sorry. I'm fine," she said, removing her hands from her chest.
The waitress gave Nora that look she often received falling somewhere between pity and annoyance.
The boy looked up at the fox.
"You like him?" Nora asked.
The boy nodded.
"I named him Eddie after a boy I used to have a crush on."
He looked over at his parents, hoping their sixth sense would kick in right about now.
"I name all the animals I stuff," she said.
"What do you mean, stuff?"
"Well, they don't just freeze in time on their own. There's a whole science to it. I never kill any animals; they all make their way to me. Some roadkill, others through hunt, some I just happen to find at the end of their life and I preserve them, so they can live on."
"But how do you do it?"
"It's a whole process. Complicated. Like chess."
"Can I see?"
No one had ever asked to see Nora's workshop. Sure, they all were kind to her when she offered her practice heads to the diner, but it was more in a "Oh, that's quaint, Nora" kind of way. Other people did pay for her work, sometimes. But no one in town took her work seriously.
The boy's parents finished their meal and headed towards the front door, walking right past the boy.
"Mom!" the boy shouted.
"Oh," said the mother. "I had a feeling I had forgotten something, but I thought maybe it was my sweater." She cackled. He hated when she cackled.
"This is Nora. She stuffs the animals," said the boy.
"What animals?" asked his mother.
"The ones all around here," said the boy, motioning to the seven heads affixed to the diner's walls.
"We have to get going. Tina's Tinies opens at ten o'clock sharp!" said his mother.
"Can I see how she does it?" asked the boy.
His mother shifted her purse to her other hip, revealing the salt and peppershakers she had pilfered from the table. "Chops off their heads and dips them in varnish I suppose. Now let's go!"
The mother looked at Nora. They had a similar build. The waitress passed by with an Endless Plate of Sausage: “I’d trust Nora with my three cats. I can’t say that about most people.”
"Well, I suppose it might be nice for us to get a break just for a few hours. We've been cooped up together in that camper for so long." She looked at Nora. "A person needs a break from all the demands of a child. We’ll meet you back here at three. You don't mind taking him." It was more of a statement than a question.
"Not at all," said Nora, although as soon as the words escaped her mouth she was nervous about being responsible for something living; she was used to caring for the dead.
It wasn't far to Nora's home. They turned off of the main road and took a left at the fork that led to a dirt road that went up, up, up. The boy’s calves ached. The slingshot dug into the skin behind his back pocket each time he took a step.
"You doing alright?" Nora asked. She had no idea how long a child could walk before tiring out. "We're almost there."
The cabin sat isolated at the top of the road, surrounded by trees. There was a large porch, and a towering pile of wood formed a pyramid to the right of the front door.
"Come in. That's my bedroom and a kitchen to the right, but to the left is where I do my work."
They entered the house and were greeted by an iron beast of a stove. And more piles of wood.
"That's my heater, for the winter," Nora explained. "When the snow comes, that wood there keeps me alive."
The boy wondered about all the things that kept him alive. Wood wasn't one of them.
The rumble of a fridge motor greeted them as they paused at the door to her workspace. Nora flipped on the lights. It smelled like chemicals and trash. The boy held his nose.
"That's the maceration. It's one of the worst smells in taxidermy. That’s a walk-in refrigerator where I keep the animals till they're ready to come out and play. They were convinced I was a survivalist when I had them install it. They're right, I guess in a way. I mean, everyone needs a job to survive!" She patted the boy on the back a little too hard and he stumbled forward.
He followed her past the fridge to a large room with a huge table taking up most of the space. The walls were lined with shelves populated by tools and cans and gloves haphazardly placed.
"I get sent animals from all over. Mostly from museums and zoos but sometimes by individuals, usually hunters. These are all of the tools I use."
The boy looked at the tool collection in wonder. This was more fun than Monday’s visit to the candy shop. His parents had purchased extra large jawbreakers. But he preferred the small ones. He could fit the whole thing in his mouth.
"You've got your gimlets, wires and bone cutters over here. And here are the brushes. Not for your hair," She grabbed a brush and brought it to her own head of hair without making contact. "And here are the scalpels and knives."
The boy’s eyes widened.
"You're like a surgeon!"
"No, I'm not healing anyone. Ah, here's what I've been working on," She held up the woodchuck. "I named him Chuck. Not too clever of me. Want to name him something else? Anything you want."
"Chuck is fine," said the boy.
"I had to extract the muscles and brain. I used wire to put him in a nice pose. Some people like to pose them as though they were cartoon characters." She hated the kitsch assignments. Just last week she'd set up a squirrel wedding. The rodent bride held a bouquet of baby's breath. Nora couldn't afford to be too picky, but the boy didn't have to know that. He could think she had integrity. She tossed some lace she hadn't cleared up onto the floor so the boy wouldn't see.
"That's what you want in the end,” Nora said, “to recreate the jizz."
"The stuff that makes them look their most natural. I want to bring out the best in these animals so I create an illusion. Sometimes the end result is better than the original. Here, want to varnish Chuck's nose?"
She handed the boy a paintbrush and motioned for him to dip it in the can.
"What does this do?" he asked.
"Makes the nose look wet. Makes it more real."
The boy took the brush and dipped. It was like painting in art class. He hated art class, but he liked this. This felt important. He brought the brush to the tip of the woodchuck's nose and blotted.
"That's good! Why you're a natural!"
The boy smiled and admired the stiff animal, now with a wet nose. She was right. Chuck did look more alive.
Nora showed him some other animals, all in various stages of preservation: two raccoons, an owl, a family of ducks.
"I'm weaving a nest for this scene. I find nest building difficult with ten fingers. I don't know how these birds do it with only a beak." She put her hands behind her back and picked up a twig in her mouth and tried to place it on the half built nest. The boy smiled and did the same. He giggled as he flapped his faux wings and awkwardly placed more sprigs on the nest. He had never tried being a duck before.
"Want to remove a brain?" Nora asked. The boy eagerly nodded.
By the end of the afternoon the boy had thawed a hawk, filed artificial claws on a rabbit and debrained a robin.
"You're very dexterous," Nora complimented. "You lose it with age, you know."
The boy stared at the brain in the bowl in front of him.
"It's shaped like an egg," he said.
"That's the optic lobe," said Nora. The boy didn't know what that meant, but he nodded as though he did.
When it was time to go home, Nora didn't make the boy clean anything up. She led him out the door, out of the woods and back to the diner, where his parents were sitting in their same bear booth, unwrapping their miniatures. When his mother saw him she looked surprised.
"Oh, you! Want a doughnut?"
The boy was excited for this treat, but his enthusiasm waned when she handed him a miniature plastic chocolate glazed doughnut the size of his pinky fingernail.
"Isn't that the cutest?" His mother and father were now in hysterics looking down on a miniature feast. Nora wasn't sure how to deposit the boy and stood awkwardly by the table. To make the moment disappear, the boy imagined lining up all of his parents’ miniatures and shooting them, one after another, with his slingshot. He’d been told he was an excellent shot.
"Are we supposed to pay her?" the boy's mother whispered to his father, who shook his head.
"Well, goodbye," said Nora to the boy. "Have a nice rest of your trip." She winked farewell to her bear head.
The boy and his parents gathered their things and left the diner. Nora was sad to see the boy go.
That night, Nora sat in her bed with a cup of Earl Grey. She didn’t own a TV. She sat drinking her cup of tea and studying the fleur de lis on her comforter. Who had come up with that design? And why had it appealed to her?
She stared at an individual fleur de lis until it started to shift and lurch – the two side figures hunched over as though they were throwing up, bound to the tall middle figure by a tight belt. She had the sudden urge to cut the blanket to pieces.
It had taken both hands to steady the bird. At first it tried clumsily to flee and the boy had to grip harder until the bird’s feathers became damp from the boy’s clammy palms.
His parents couldn’t be bothered to give him the keys to retrieve the chess board out of the car. There was nothing to pass the time, so he had grabbed the slingshot and gone outside instead.
They wouldn’t know if he left the grounds. They were busy watching TV and drinking beer out of mugs shaped like Oak trees.
The bird’s beak was agape. How did such a delicate creature exist? Why couldn’t its flesh just bruise like the boy’s own flesh? Did the bird’s skin look dimpled when naked, like a Thanksgiving turkey?
There was a faint knock at the door.
Who would possibly be up in the woods at this hour? Nora listened again. And again she heard the delicate knock. She imagined deer antlers scraping her front door. It had been ages since an animal had come to visit her. It was as though they could smell the death and decay inside her studio and they steered clear.
She got out of bed and put on her robe before opening the door.
The boy stood there in his pajamas and sweater, zipper open, exposing a chest covered in rocket ships. He lifted his hands presenting her with a stunned male blue jay, a full crest of feathers on its head.
"Where did you get this?"
"It flew into my window tonight. I thought you could stuff it."
"But it isn't dead."
"I think it will be." The boy regretted not helping the bird die on the way over.
She looked at the bird. It was shivering from shock. Its legs buckled in her palm. It opened and closed its eyes slowly.
"Sometimes they just react to the blow. Sometimes they come out of it and recover."
"Oh," said the boy disappointed.
They stood there observing the bird for quite some time. The bird looked at her and then at him. It began moving rather erratically, trying one last time to spring loose from Nora's fleshy palm before succumbing to death.
Nora wiped away a tear.
"It is dead?" the boy asked.
"Now can we stuff it?"
“Come back tomorrow.” She’d have a plan then.
“But I leave tomorrow!”
"It won't be high quality in one night."
"I don't care. Can we stuff it?" He begged.
Nora’s studio was cold. She placed some wood in her furnace and took out the toolbox labeled "small animals." The bird lay limp on the table. Its floppy neck made the boy shudder. She examined it from all sides. There was blood on the back of its head.
"You said it flew into a window," Nora sounded angry.
"Yes," said the boy.
"But it has blood on the back of its head like something was thrown at it."
The boy simply shrugged.
Nora placed latex gloves on her hands. The boy liked the smell. He placed gloves on his own hands. The rubber was flaccid where his short fingers ended. Using a scalpel, she cut into the bird at the nape of the neck, where the blood was. There was no time to have the boy apprentice. And anyway, he didn't ask to help. She peeled back the skin. Once the skin was separated from the body, she dipped it into a bowl of epoxy. This is not long enough, she thought. But she didn't care. She wanted to be done with this creepy four foot six killer. She gathered a mannequin made of wood and wool and wire. It had been intended for a finch but she'd have to make it work. She stretched the skin over the faux body. Some of it sagged at the belly. The shape was off. The boy wouldn't notice. She dove her hand into a box of clay eyes and purposely picked two mismatched ones. This boy didn't deserve her precision. She wrapped the bird’s claws around a thick branch that looked like a magic wand. She shoved the bird onto the branch and then into the boy's chest.
"Here. Take it and go home."
The boy grasped the bird. It didn't look right, but it was his. He removed his gloves and left her studio without thanking her, heading back into the cold night.
Nora had second thoughts when she got back into bed. What if the boy got lost in the woods? What if he came across unsavory people on the road? But instead of going out to find him, she clenched her fleur de lis in her hands and counted backwards from one hundred until she fell asleep.
Outside, the boy was cold. He held on to his branch as he walked down the hill. He sniffed his left hand, searching for the latex smell. He lifted up the bird; its skin sagged further off of the body with each step he took. His accuracy had surprised him when he threw the rock at the bird. He hadn't expected to hit it so hard. When he saw it was a blue jay he was excited and then regretted that it wasn't something larger – a squirrel or an eagle.
Nora was no artist. What she handed him was more of a collage; a bird cobbled together in clunky pieces. He could probably have done it better himself. He imaged working on a turtle, then a swallow. He fantasized about making his own fox seem lifelike and then plunking marble eyes in a deer’s eye sockets. The tools he had stolen, a scalpel, bone cutter and a knife, knocked against his body as he walked. Stupid woodpusher.