The Taxidermist's Daughter
by Josiah Upton
The sun rose in the distance, glimmering as it crept over the treeline of abundant northern red oaks. On the wind, Jo could smell the faint aroma of berry shrubs. She quickly bounded through the forest, following the scent, feeling an immense freedom that she could never find at home. In these woods, she didn't have to ache or worry. She didn't have to fear that man.
The scent led her to a low clearing in the forest. A small stream flowed through it, creating a soft babbling as water passed over rock and stone. Jo knelt down, lapping up the cool water with her tongue, before continuing her hunt for food.
But the wind changed, and so did the scent that it carried. She not only smelled berries, but something else, foul and foreign. She heard a crack in the distance, causing her ear to twitch. Looking up, she noticed something among the trees that didn't belong. A tall creature, one that did not live in these woods, standing on its hind legs, pointing a long stick in her direction. Jo's muscles twitched to take her away from this place, away from this strange predator. A loud gunshot echoed through the woods.
She opened her eyes, the voice pulling her out of a world that was not real, out of a time long past. The room she now stood in was dark and musty, its walls lined with mounted animal heads, fishes and birds. There was even a large black bear in the corner, standing with its front paws up in the air. Frozen in time forever. She was no longer running through the woods, but standing alone in her father's taxidermy shop. She could smell the aroma of whiskey and stale cigarette smoke creep up behind her.
“Josephine?” her father said, the syllables of her name tumbling out from his lips in a slur. “What are you doing in here?”
Jo removed her hand from the large whitetail buck mounted before her. Its glassy, prosthetic eyes stared out over the room, destined to never see or move or breathe ever again. She wanted to press her left hand back onto his soft hide, to escape inside of his free world again. To experience his life, from the moment he was born, to the moment it ended when that hunter tagged him in the heart.
But her father didn't like it when she did that. In fact, he hated it. He couldn't understand his daughter's fascination with dead animals, or why she claimed she could “feel” their life when she placed her left hand on them. This had only caused problems for him. It caused him to get angry, and to drink. It had ruined his life.
Jo wasn't allowed in this room after business hours.
“I'm sorry, Daddy,” she said, turning away from the mounted buck. Her father stood in the doorway, a half-empty bottle in his hand. His eyes were red and puffy. She wasn't sure if he had been crying or not, but he probably was. She had to tread lightly tonight, or it would be another nightmare all over again. “I'll go make us some supper now.”
He eyed her for a moment longer in the darkness, causing tense chills to run up her spine, before shaking his head as he walked back into the house, taking a long swig from his whiskey. Jo took one last look at the proud buck, before quickly leaving to make supper.
She busied herself in the kitchen, mashing potatoes and stirring up a brown gravy. The main course was deer fillets, which she did her best to only handle with her right hand. She couldn't risk touching the meat with her left, and getting lost in the animal's now extinct world. Supper would never get done, and that would make her father angry.
The deer fillets were a gift from the Ecker family, given by the youngest son James a few days ago, when he dropped off a 300 pound buck carcass. James sat next to Jo in her English class. They rarely talked, but Jo often found herself smiling at him, staring when he wasn't looking. He was quiet, but handsome and polite. He wrote poems about the thrill and beauty of the hunt, and when he read them in class, all of her attention was on him, as if it were only the two of them in the room.
When he stopped by with the buck carcass, he smiled at her. He said all the Ecker men would be out again that weekend, and suggested that Jo and her father join them. The thought of being out in the woods with James gave Jo a prickling sensation on her skin.
She dropped the fillets in the skillet, and they sizzled on the black, cast-iron surface. “Hey, Daddy?” she called over her shoulder.
“Yeah,” he said from the kitchen table, his glazed eyes still on the glowing TV screen across from him.
“Bill Ecker and his sons are going up to Preston County this weekend to hunt some more deer.” She used the tongs to rearrange the meat, heat rising up into her face as she pushed brown hair out of her eyes. “James said maybe we could come along with them. Wouldn't that be fun?”
“No,” her father said, almost instantly. “There's still a lot of work to do in the shop, and bear season is just around the corner. I'm expecting at least three of those this year, so I gotta play catch up, just to make time for them.”
Jo grabbed one fillet with the tongs, turning it over. “Well, maybe just I could go with them. I'm sixteen, Daddy, I can handle myself. And you've known the Eckers forever. I'm sure you can trust them to look out for me.”
“I have known the Eckers forever, and that's why I don't trust them,” he said, his voice raising. Jo's body tensed up, causing the tongs to click against the skillet. “The Ecker boys are good at two things: baggin' bucks, and gettin' girls pregnant. And I know you got your eye on that boy James, I ain't stupid. He's the only one who's not a father yet, so he's about due. I reckon I know what's on his mind, and what's on yours. He'll probably get you to share a tent with him.”
“Daddy!” Jo said, turning away from the stove, her face red.
“Hush!” he yelled, his grip tightening around the neck of his whiskey bottle. This is what it looked like, just before he snapped. This is how it started the week before. If Jo had any amount of defiance or attitude in her posture, she now tried her best to kill it, and to appear meek and submissive. She turned back to the stove.
“I already got you to take care of,” he continued behind her, bitterness in his tone. “I can't take care of any bastard baby you happen to have as well. I ain't.”
His words pierced her chest, hollowing a cavity inside her. She remembered the days, long ago, when her father wasn't like this. When he used to love her. When he used to hold her close, her arms around his neck, as he sang a sweet song to her. They would do everything together: baseball, hunting, fishing. She knew it was typical father-son things, but she didn't mind. All that mattered was that he was her daddy, and she was his little girl. She wished she could turn the tide, erase the past. Could things ever be like they used to?
“Well,” Jo said quietly, “even if it's not this weekend, you and I should go on a hunt again. We hadn't done that since...”
She stopped, wishing she could take back those words. She feared where she had led this conversation, and what the repercussions would be. She stood by the stove, silent and still, waiting for her father's response.
“Since before your mama left,” he said. He didn't speak loudly, but in a low growl. This seemed worse than yelling. It was like a tense wolf in the wild, just before it pounced on its prey. Jo knew that if she didn't change course immediately, it would be another night of hell.
She quickly placed a deer fillet on a plate, and set it at the table in front of her father. As her arm stretched out, her sleeve pulled back, revealing the dark bruise on her wrist, the aftermath of last week's explosion. She pulled the sleeve back over it, and sat down across from him. “Let's just eat,” she said. “Okay?”
She began devouring at a hurried pace, wishing this meal was over already. But her father wasn't touching his food, or even looking at it. He just stared at her, contempt in his eyes. He took one long drink of his whiskey, and slammed the bottle down on the table. “Where were you, Josephine?”
She stopped chewing, swallowed loudly, and wiped her mouth with a napkin. “What do you mean, Daddy?”
“You know what I mean,” he sneered, leaning forward. “The day before your mama left. That morning. Where – were – you?”
Jo looked down at the floor, she couldn't meet her father's eyes. She already knew what was coming, there was no stopping this now. There was only ever one answer to his question. Only one. And it was the truth, it always had been, but he never believed her. Maybe it would better if she just lied, and stopped all of this. But she never did, and she never could.
She closed her eyes. “You know where I was. I was at school that day.”
“Bullshit!” he screamed, throwing his whiskey bottle across the kitchen. She flinched as it shattered on the musty hardwood floor. “Don't lie to me, girl! I want the truth! You were hiding in this house somewhere, wasn't you?!”
“No, Daddy!” she cried. “I was at school! I promise! Even the teachers said I was there!”
“Then how could you have known?” he asked, standing up from his chair. She shrank down in her seat as he towered over her menacingly. “How could you have possibly known what was happening within these walls, if you weren't here somewhere?”
She shook her head, tears hanging on her eyelids. She didn't want to say it. It was the honest-to-God truth, but she didn't want to say it. She wished she never had. “Daddy, please...”
“You tell me,” he said, coming within inches of her face, his liquored breath invading her nostrils. She whimpered, shaking in her seat. “You tell me, one more time, how you found out what happened that day. Say it.”
“Say it. Say his damn name. One. More. Time.”
She trembled, shaking her head violently, before finally letting the name escape from her mouth. “Sherbert.”
Many years before, Jo received an orange tabby kitten for her tenth birthday, which she named after her favorite ice cream flavor. Her father insisted that it should actually be pronounced Sherbet, but Jo thought Sherbert was cuter.
Sherbert was mostly an indoors cat. He could often be found lounging on top of the refrigerator, or curled up in Jo's lap while she read books. He would also take naps during business hours in the taxidermy shop, lying in between a stuffed turkey and a mounted largemouth bass. He'd sleep so soundly that new customers thought he was one of the displays, until he moved and scared them half to death.
But Sherbert didn't use a litter box, he had to be let outside. He would meow loudly and incessantly, until someone opened the backdoor for him, and was so afraid of the deep woods butting up against Jo's backyard that he would instantly holler to be let back in when he had done his business.
One day, when Sherbert was a few years old, Jo came home from school and couldn't find him. She looked all over the house, up and down the street, she asked the neighbors – he was nowhere to be found. But when she searched the backyard, she noticed a fluffy orange tail poking out from behind a large northern red oak trunk. On the other side laid Sherbert's lifeless body, his orange coat stained with blood. The tabby had gotten into a tussle with a wild animal, and lost.
Jo had seen dead animals her whole life, but this was different. Sherbert was not just any cat, but her cat. Her friend, her reading buddy. When no one else believed her, she would whisper stories into his twitching ear, adventures she experienced when she placed her left hand on the deceased skin of a grey wolf, or a black-eyed raccoon. He wouldn't laugh at her, or judge her. He would just listen quietly, purring in her lap.
She wiped the tears from her eyes, and placed her left palm on the cat's soft fur. She wanted to see his life through his eyes, to experience his short time on this earth, and to share one last good-bye with her fluffy friend.
But she soon wished she hadn't. As she journeyed through Sherbert's days, seeing her household from a feline perspective, she witnessed other things that she never knew of – particularly a red-headed woman who would come over to the house, always at times when Jo and her mother weren't there.
She recognized this woman to be Holly Wilkins, a wife and mother of four who lived down the street. Through Sherbert's eyes, Jo witnessed this woman spending a lot of time with her father. Speaking closely, wrapping her arms around his neck. Kissing him on the lips. Undressing as they retreated back to her parent's bedroom. This seemed to go on for most of the cat's short life.
On the morning of the day that he died, Sherbert felt an immense urge to urinate. The cat trotted up and down the hardwood floors, looking for someone to let him outside, until he sniffed out Jo's father down the hall. He nudged his little whiskered face through the cracked bedroom door, and what Jo witnessed through his eyes horrified her. It was her naked father, in bed with a naked Holly Wilkins, doing things that grownups did in R-rated movies. Doing things that her father was only supposed to do with her mother.
Sherbert meowed, quietly at first. But once he realized he was being ignored, he grew louder and louder, and more annoying, until Jo's father groaned and jumped out of his defiled marriage bed. He grabbed the cat by the scruff of its neck, muttering cuss words under his breath, and tossed it out the back door.
Sherbert did his business, and called to be let back in, but nobody answered. The time passed, and Jo felt Sherbert's body being drawn to the deep woods behind the house, the fabled curiosity of cats beckoning him to overcome his fear of the wild. But he didn't make it far into the woods, before he came across another feline, one that clearly didn't have a home. The two went at it, until Sherbert's neck was punctured by the feral cat's sharp teeth. He gave one last swipe at his opponent's face, causing it to flee, before he collapsed on the ground. Jo felt Sherbert's blood escape his body, taking his life with it, before everything faded to black.
When Jo removed her hand from the dead pet's fur, it was dark outside. She looked down, and saw that her shirt was soaked with tears. She heard the back door open behind her, and hoped desperately that it was her mother.
But then she heard her father's voice. The voice that had welcomed her into the world, that told her sweet things, and offered words of wisdom and thoughtful correction over the years. It was also the voice that lied to her mother when he said he would be forever faithful, the voice that said those dirty things to Holly Wilkins when he thought no one else could hear.
“Josephine?” he called out to her, chilling her to the bones. At that moment, she wanted to take off into the woods, and never return. “What are you doing? You've been out here for hours. It's suppertime.”
“Sherbert's dead,” she said over her shoulder, her voice shaking. She wiped her nose. “He was... He must have been attacked by a wild animal, or something.”
“Oh,” he said, coming up close behind her. “I'm so sorry, Babygirl.”
“It's your fault,” she whispered, stroking the cat's fur with her right hand. “You left him outside.”
“Well,” her father said. “I suppose I did put him outside this morning, and I guess I forgot to bring him back in. I'm sorry.”
“It's your fault!” she screamed, standing up and wheeling around towards him. When she saw his face, all she could think about was what he had done that morning. What he had been doing for years. She began to slam her fists on his chest, crying.
“Baby,” he said as he tried to restrain her. “It's just a cat. We'll...”
“No!” she screamed, fighting his grip. “NO!”
The backdoor opened again. “What's going on out here?” her mother called from the porch. “What happened?”
Jo broke away from him, pointing a sharp finger at him as she called out to her mother. “Daddy's been fooling around with that tramp, Holly Wilkins!”
Bewilderment took over his face. His glance shifted back and forth between his daughter and his wife, whose eyebrows were so raised that they were nearly on the roof at that point. He didn't know how Jo could've possibly found out, or how he should respond. “Babygirl, what are you talking about?”
“Don't lie to us, Daddy,” Jo said, fighting back more tears. “She came over this morning, and you two went to the bedroom, and you... you...” She shook her head, unwilling to describe what she had witnessed through her dead cat's eyes. “And then, you put Sherbert outside, and you didn't let him back in, and now he's dead!”
“Tom?” her mother said softly, making her way from the porch into the backyard. “Why is our daughter saying these things?”
“I – I...” he muttered, struggling with his words. It wasn't looking good for him. He was losing his deniability, and he didn't have the slightest idea how. He turned back to his daughter. “Weren't you in school this morning?”
“Yeah,” Jo said, arms crossed. “Yeah, I was.”
“Then how could you...” He paused, closing his eyes. “You say that you saw this happen this morning, but how could you if you were at school?”
“I didn't see it happen,” she stated reluctantly, realizing it was going to be difficult explaining how she knew all this. “Well, not while it was happening, anyway.”
“Baby, what does that even mean?” he asked, hands on his hips.
She looked down at her cat's lifeless body. “It was Sherbert. He saw it all. He saw what you and Holly were doing, just before you put him outside to die. And after school, when I put my hand on him, I saw it.”
“Tom,” her mother said as she stepped closer, her voice quivering. Tears collected in her eyes, threatening to come down. “Have you been...”
“Kelly,” he sighed, looking up into the evening sky. “Our daughter is speaking crazy right now. She's talking to a dead cat, saying she can communicate with him. Live his life, or see what he saw. It's ridiculous.” He turned back to Jo. “You know, at first this little act of yours was cute. But now it's starting to get old, young lady. Maybe we oughta have you...”
“This is not about Jo!” her mother screamed, regaining his attention. “This about you, and Holly Wilkins. Now, are you, or are you not, having an affair with her?”
“Kelly,” he said again, but that was all he could manage. His face told the truth for him. The two stared at each other for a while in the darkness, the silent tension growing more and more unbearable.
And then, she shook her head, and slapped her husband hard across the face. “I knew it. I knew things weren't over between you and her.”
“I don't want to hear it, Tom. And I don't ever want to see your face again. Ever.” She stormed back into the house, and locked herself in her bedroom. That was the last Jo ever saw of her mother.
The next morning, she was gone, leaving only a note for her daughter. It said how much she loved her, how much she would miss her. But she couldn't live in that house anymore, and explained that Jo had to stay with her father for a while, at least until the end of the school year, before Jo could come to live with her. She said she hoped to be with her again someday soon.
Four years passed, and that day never came. Jo never heard from her mother again, and now doubted that she ever would. And Holly Wilkins must have confessed to her husband what was going on, because Jo's father came home one day with bruises all over his face, clearly from a vicious brawl, and the Wilkins family moved a week later.
It was a small West Virginia town, and everyone soon knew what had happened. Occasionally Jo would catch customers in the shop, whispering to each other, pointing at her father. And with each day that passed, he became more bitter, blaming her for the love of his life leaving him. Blaming her for his ruined reputation, and the rumors that circulated about his strange daughter who spoke with dead animals.
He started drinking a little, and then it was a lot, until it was all he did. Until he became the broken and hateful man that now stood across from her in the dark kitchen.
“Sherbert,” he said drunkenly, shaking his head. “You still believe a dead cat showed you what was happening inside this house, and told you what me and Mrs. Wilkins were doing together. But I say, you're lying, or you're crazy. Or both. You were here that day, somewhere inside this house. And then you told your mama, and now she's gone.”
“Daddy...” Jo began.
“I should have had a son,” he said, rubbing his temples with his fingers. “That's what I really wanted. A son. But I had you, and you ruined everything. I should have had a son. You...” he said, looking up at her, his moist eyes reflecting the light from the TV. “You should have never been born.”
And then he turned and left the room. No more screaming, no unspoken threats of violence. Despite what she thought was sure to happen, Jo's father didn't lay an angry hand upon her. And yet, she still felt utterly broken and abused by his words. They seemed to hurt more than any physical pain he could have have inflicted that night. Before, it was just her fears and suspicions, but now it was severely clear that he not only didn't love her, but actually hated her, to the point of wishing her existence undone.
She sat in silence, alone and breaking, these words and feelings tearing her to pieces. She needed her mother there, to hold her. She wished she had kept her mouth shut about what Sherbert showed her that day. She wished she didn't have this grotesque, unexplainable ability.
Like her father, she too was convinced she should have never been born.
Jo stood up from the table and left the kitchen. She couldn't spend another second in this reality. She needed to escape, long enough until the pain disappeared. And if she returned and it was still there, she would leave again. Over and over again.
She opened the door connecting the house to the taxidermy shop, slipping in silently and closing it behind her. Once inside, she scanned the motionless creatures that surrounded her, looking for the perfect escape. In reality, she felt that these dead beasts were her only friends in life, her only companions. She had connected with all of them over the years, living their lives one palm-press at a time.
But tonight, not just any adventure would do. The intense pain and despair she felt made her want to fly far away, and never look back. She needed to soar, and she knew just how to do it.
Her father kept a real bald eagle feather hidden in a box under the shop's floorboards. It was illegal to have, and if the authorities found out, he could face a huge fine, even prison time. It was a secret, and he only showed it to people he could trust, which at one point included his daughter. However, it had long been forgotten over the years since Jo's mother left, and she wasn't even sure it was still there.
But when she quietly lifted up the floorboard in the corner of the room, and reached her hand down inside, her fingers found the old oak box. She pulled it out, and, making sure the door to the shop was still closed, opened the box, her eyes falling upon the long, dark feather. She had only seen it twice before, and had never held it in her left palm. She wasn't sure what she would experience. But whatever it was, it had to be a thousand times better than the life she was running from. She closed her eyes, and grasped the feather in her left hand.
Jo was suddenly several feet off the ground, soaring above a vast expanse of green treetops. The wind howled as air flowed over her outstretched wings, her body gliding freely across the sky. Nothing could touch her, nothing could harm her. She had never felt so free in her life.
The trees fell away, opening up to a large grassy plain. Through the eagle's stunning vision, Jo spotted a small hare hopping through the vegetation. The eagle's body pitched forward, and Jo felt unparalleled exhilaration as she dove towards the prey, reaching speeds she never thought possible. The hare sensed the danger, and began to flee, but she was closing in fast.
But just before her talons grasped the hare's fur, her vision went blindingly white, pain shaking through her entire body. Was that the end of the eagle's life? Killed just before the catch? No, this wasn't something from the eagle's lost world, but from Jo's very own. Her experience had been cut short by the force of her father's closed fist across her face, causing the feather to fall out of her hand. She was back in the nightmare of her reality.
“You're not supposed to be in here,” he said quietly, raising his fist up again. Jo tried to protect herself with her arms, but the second strike connected with her face anyway. Pain exploded through her. This was far worse than anything she had experienced before. She dared to look up at her father, and there was a piercing emptiness in his eyes, as if he didn't view Jo as his own daughter, as his own flesh and blood. As if she wasn't even a person. He had murder in his eyes.
His body tensed to deal another blow, and she quickly scrambled up from the ground, barely escaping her father's wrath. She ran for the door, but his fingers grasped her shirt, and pulled her back the other way. She collided with the work table in the middle of the shop, knocking over a small case containing glass eyes. They fell everywhere, hundreds of pupils strewn across the floor and table. All of them watching, all of them witnessing the brutality.
“You shouldn't be in here,” her father said again, his voice and his footsteps and his liquored stench approaching her slowly from behind. Her only friends, the mounted animals lining the walls, looked on in silence, unable to help her. They couldn't stop their own deaths, and now they couldn't stop hers. This was going to continue until she was as dead as they were. She had to end this.
Just before he came down upon her, the carved antler handle of a large knife caught Jo's attention. It was her father's favorite tool. She grabbed it, and turned to face her attacker. The weight of his body fell onto the point, the blade plunging into his chest. A sharp breath escaped his mouth, his face contorted with shock as he looked down at the deep wound. Blood streamed out from around the knife blade, covering the antler handle and staining his daughter's shirt. His eyes met hers for what seemed like an eternity, the life draining from them, before he fell to the floor.
She knelt down to examine her father's body, breaths coming fast. The long knife was deep inside his chest, up to the blood-stained handle. Like the glass eyes that surrounded him on the floor, his were glazed and unmoving, staring off into nothing.
He would never hurt her again, whether with his words or his hands. But he would also never hold her again, never comfort her. He would never be able to fix what he had so violently destroyed. Whatever foolish hope Jo ever had of getting back the man who once loved her was gone.
At first there was silence. Jo's mouth was wide open with horror, no sound escaping it. And then, she found her voice. The cries echoed throughout the taxidermy shop and into the house, like they had when she was baby. But no loving parent would come in to answer her, to soothe her. She was all alone.
Still sobbing, Jo closed her eyes, and prepared to place her left palm on his cooling skin. She had never done this with a human body before. She almost did at a funeral, when her great-granny died, but her mother stopped her, saying that it would be disrespectful. And in truth, she was afraid to do it now, afraid of what she might see. All of her father's life would be opened up to her, every thought and emotion and deed. Animals don't carry secrets, but a person's life can be built entirely upon them.
She had to do it, though, before he was buried in the ground forever. She wanted to know if there was any amount of affection left inside of this monster before he died. She needed to know if, even by some small shred, she was still his little girl while his heart was still beating. If he felt any remorse for the things he had done. She had to know.
But when she placed her palm on his face, nothing happened. No life experiences, no visions. She didn't even get the slightest hint of a memory from him. Something was wrong. She moved her palm to different parts of his body, and the result was the same everywhere. She only felt the deadness of his flesh as warmth fled from it.
“No,” she whispered quietly. “No!”
She collapsed over his body. It was in that moment she realized she couldn't communicate with dead humans, but only animals. Her father's life was now forever a closed door to her.
Her soaked eyes moved to the knife in his chest, calling her hand to it. Maybe she could escape again, and this time, never return. Go to where all the creatures lining the walls had gone before her, to where her father was now. Maybe she could escape in death.
The only thing that stopped Jo was the thought of her mother. She was out there, somewhere. Perhaps she was thinking about her daughter. Perhaps there was someone in the world who still loved her, who wanted her alive. Someone who was happy she existed. It seemed unlikely, given her mother's long absence, but it was something for Jo. The tiniest light in her dark and strange world. She decided she could hold on, just for a little bit longer.
Jo gave her father one last look before rising to her feet, and retrieved the phone from the shop's display counter, her bloody fingers staining its tan surface. She dialed the three digits, clearing her throat as she waited for the answer. A small, distant voice crackled into her ear.
“Yes,” she answered. “I've just killed my father.”
The voice began to ask more questions, but Jo hung up the phone. She stepped over the man's body, past the work table, and to the far wall. The eagle feather was calling to her, one last time. One last chance to glide on the wind, high above and far away from this place. One last escape, before she was locked away in the padded cell that surely awaited her.
She knelt down, closing her eyes as she placed the feather in her left palm. When she opened them again, she was soaring through the bright blue sky. There was no danger, no sorrow, no pain. She headed straight for the beautiful sunrise. She was free.