Fiction: Taxidermy Soul
By Robert Pettus
The traffic wasn’t moving a bit, so we decided to park on the street and hoof it the remaining two blocks. We walked the cracked, dampening sidewalk with a purpose. This was a party street – directly bordering the University of Cincinnati campus. The street-side was littered with beers boxes, beer cans, shattered glass, rotting food. The smell of freshly-lit bud wafted throughout the area as if naturally present in the local flora. I liked the scent, but I can’t handle smoking the stuff – makes me far too paranoid. It was early Saturday afternoon – maybe one o’clock.
Not long after abandoning our protective, maroon Toyota Scion, the previously drizzling, light rain morphed quickly into a downpour. As if the rain were acid, I shielded myself with my green windbreaker jacket. We headed for safety, ducking into a nearby restaurant: Billy’s Kitchen and Pub. It was a local establishment, catering mostly to the college kids inhabiting the surrounding neighborhood.
We sat down, waiting out the weather. I snagged a beer: a black IPA christened Hop Head Nebula, from a local brewery called Darkness. The rain subsided abruptly; I had to drain the last half of my booze in a single gulp. We trotted back out to the street.
We made it to the convention center in only a couple of minutes. Though not frequented by students, it was nonetheless still dirty as hell. Stinky as shit, too – literal shit. There were stables housing – I’m assuming – horses and other farm animals, their pungency permeating the parking lot. It smelled like a zoo.
“Watch your step,” I said to my wife, Mary, pointing at the asphalt of the parking lot, “Someone left a dirty diaper there.”
“What the fuck!” responded Mary’s friend, Whitney, “Who the hell does that? Trashy assholes! Have some self-respect!”
We made it to the doors of the convention center. We were going to an Oddities and Curiosities Expo. My wife was a librarian; they were paying her to go, so she could gather up some good ideas for Halloween library programming. She handed Whitney and I our tickets before walking through the revolving, glass doors.
The place was packed. Totally swarmed. There were six or seven rows of booths, each one displaying some alleged oddity for sale. Most of the booths were filled with either taxidermy, mounted animals, or childish, though morbid works by local artists. Many of the artistic works depicted some pretty fucked up shit, such as imagery glorifying serial killers. John Wayne Gacy and Ed Gein were especially popular.
“I need a fucking beer, or maybe two,” I said.
“Okay,” said Mary, “Whitney and I have to go to the bathroom, anyway. I’ll meet you back here by the creepy tee-shirts in ten.”
The beer queue was obnoxiously lengthy, but it moved quickly enough. I noticed, while standing in line, that the expo featured a Freak Show. A fucking Freak Show! I didn’t know those were still a thing that existed. Were they even legal? Though I was interested to see what in the hell that could possibly entail, the line for it was entirely too long – wrapping like a creeping serpent around nearly the entire circumference of the interior of the massive building.
I twisted open my lukewarm, $8.00, 16oz. Budweiser, walking back toward the bathrooms to meet up with Mary and Whitney. In my periphery, I noticed at one of the taxidermy booths a towering, exotic figure. Unable to see it by looking straight-ahead, I craned my neck toward the ceiling. It was a taxidermy giraffe. A fucking giraffe! I had to see that. Mary and Whitney wouldn’t be looking too hard for me, anyway – I was sure of that.
There was a crowd encircling the mounted beast. People stared skyward in awe. It was pretty amazing, I couldn’t deny that. Where in the hell did they get a mounted giraffe? That couldn’t be legal – there was no way. Curiosity filled my mind. I took a healthy swig of my beer. I wondered how old the giraffe was. To my mind, it had to be old – like nineteenth century old. I imagined Earnest Hemingway, or maybe Teddy Roosevelt – or perhaps some fictional combination of both – tramping through the Kalahari bush. He would aim his prized 12-guage Scott – Hemingway’s beloved firearm; the one he blew his brains out with – at the towering, gangly myth, and pull the trigger. He would trot over excitedly, feeling as if he’d just slain a dragon. He would have it mounted. He would later die. His precious trophy would, somehow, wind up at the Oddities and Curiosities Expo in Cincinnati, Ohio.
That probably wasn’t the case, though – I knew that. Giraffe were still legally hunted in some countries – South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia. This gargantuan soul may have been killed only recently. He certainly didn’t look old.
I stared up to his face. He looked thoughtful; he looked sad. He had this pensive, crooked half-grin. It looked similar to the one my late grandfather used to display when he felt uncomfortable, or shy. I did that too, sometimes. Maybe I was doing it, then – back at the giraffe. His jet-black eyes and lengthy butterfly lashes seemed almost as if to be made-up, but I knew they weren’t. His nostrils were forced eternally ajar, as if continuously inhaling each of the many scents swarming the expo – beer, hot dogs, pretzels, mustard, body odor. His big ears were also pulled into an opened, alert position, spread symmetrically in relation to his towering twin ossicones – stretched dueling into the atmosphere of the room like those on the Willis Tower, in Chicago.
I threw my first beer into a nearby recycling bin. I twisted open the second, still staring up at this majestic, frozen dinosaur. The crowd had cleared. Momentarily, it was only me and the giraffe at the booth. The sales guy wasn’t even there.
The giraffe blinked. It blinked! So did I – in subconscious response – multiple times, amazed. The fucking thing blinked! I kept staring. It blinked again! It twitched its ear, and then – as if communicating its dissatisfaction with the mugginess of the building – it fucking sneezed! I fell back, horrified. I looked around. I was sweating; I felt weak. The room was spinning. There was still no one at the booth. No one saw it! I had to find the sales person.
He came back a couple of minutes later:
“Hey!” I said, “What’s the deal with this giraffe!”
“Five thousand bucks and it can be yours!” said the salesman jovially.
“Where did you get it?”
“I killed it! In Africa! No, I’m just joking; I’m not much of a hunter. I found it at an antiques shop – figured I could sell it for a good price. That’s all”
“This thing fucking blinked at me!” I shrieked, pointing upward in trembling terror. I clearly wasn’t joking.
The salesman stared at me uneasily and then backed away. He left. He knew he wouldn’t make any sales to my crazy ass. I looked back to the giraffe. We were again alone. The fucker smiled. It grinned wide, as if laughing at my fearful anxiety. Its neck moving slowly, like a predatory python, it twisted itself into an unnatural, awkward position, now at eye-level with me. The giraffe smiled again. It looked at me. It spoke:
“Help.” It said with deadpan simplicity.
I fell to the ground and covered my face with my arms, screaming and shaking.
“What’s wrong, what’s wrong?” It was my wife. She and Whitney had found me. Wrenching free my arms, she looked me right in the face:
“What happened? What’s wrong?”
I pointed back to the giraffe, which had stealthily returned to its natural mounted position:
“That fucking thing is alive! It’s alive!”
Mary turned to look at the taxidermy figure: “It sure looks lifelike, doesn’t it? Whoever stuffed it must have done a really good job! Very strange that it’s here, though – and a bit sad. Why do people feel the need to hunt beautiful animals like that? And look at the price! As if anyone would ever pay five grand for that thing!”
The salesman, now also returned, was glaring silently at Mary.
“No! I said, “It’s really alive! That thing blinked at me! It asked me for help!”
“You’re not okay,” said my wife, “You’re having one of your episodes.” She turned to Whitney, whispering: “We need to get him out of here.”
“Right!” she responded, “Let’s go!”
They ushered me toward the exit. I was babbling only vaguely intelligible mumblings about the giraffe, and what it had done. It was alive, I knew it.
Before leaving the building, I turned one last time, to get a final look. The giraffe, mounted as if should be, looked as stoic as ever. Frozen in time. I looked for the salesman. I saw him. We made eye contact. He grinned. It was a menacing, knowing grin.
Robert Pettus is an English as a Second Language teacher at the University of Cincinnati. Previously, he taught for four years in a combination of rural Thailand and Moscow, Russia. He was most recently accepted for publication at Yellow Mama, Apocalypse-Confidential, Mystery Tribune, Blood Moon Rising, and The Green Shoes Sanctuary.
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