Hybrid Taxidermy

Eric Vrooman

During the first half of the hurricane, they barbecued duck on the cinderblock patio, the house shielding them from western winds. They watched a transformer explode, shingles fly, and trees—not just saplings but full-grown live oaks, crape-myrtles, and magnolias—touch the ground with their leafy hands. It was Marlene’s idea to go into town.

She waded through waist-deep water in a yellow slicker. “The owners must have cleaned out the register, everything—even the penny dish. No liquor either, except a pint of root beer schnapps,” she said, patting her pocket.

The door to Miss Joy’s Groceries, Meat, Hardware, and Live Bait Shop looked like it had been gnawed by a beaver—Marlene’s work. She handled a crowbar too well to be fully trusted. Some night Wyatt would tell her something he shouldn’t, like how he half-owned the mini-storage facility in Wallsboro or the whereabouts of an old toaster stuffed with two grand in twenties. But since she arrived, his life had been remade. She fixed the satellite dish, played strip mini-golf, and whistled Sinatra songs. And she taught him new, quicker ways to do everything. He shaved in the shower now, used a floodlight for frog gigging, and emptied the whole pack of bacon into the skillet at once.

It wasn’t always about the cash and liquor, though. The store’s owner, Miss Joy, could take a half-smushed chipmunk and a raccoon full of buckshot, some fiberfill and thread, and turn it into a chip-rac that looked more menacing than death-metal album covers. Plus, Miss Joy’s taxidermy lasted. Marlene lived only in the present, satisfying cravings as they arose. She hadn’t thought to steal milk, trash bags, or batteries. She hadn’t thought about preparations for the future or the needs of the spirit. Wyatt hoped Miss Joy’s taxidermy would help Marlene appreciate stillness and beauty. How one was necessary for the other.

Wyatt did a backflip out of the canoe called “Old Ironsides” that the dogs normally slept under. He’d meant to show Marlene how a professional salvage expert worked, but the water in the parking lot wasn’t as deep as he thought, and he thunked his head on the pavement. He took water down both pipes. Not good.

The floodwaters swayed and swirled as if seeking a drain. Wyatt couldn’t keep his balance with the flippers, so he started swimming. In his hand, he carried his best approximation of an oyster diver’s sack—a piece of orange construction fencing tied together with shoelaces. He had the tur-cock on his brain: a snapping turtle’s head sewn onto a peacock’s body.

When he reached the ice machine tethered to Miss Joy’s front porch, Wyatt checked to see if Marlene was watching. She stood in a shopping cart, legs wide, sleeves rolled up and crowbar slipped through a belt loop, examining a lit cigarette as if it were a miracle of creation. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe she did appreciate beauty—the neon coil of fire, restrained by the tightness of the roll. Then again, it was hard to tell through the scuba goggles if she was really studying the cigarette. She could down shots of whiskey without changing expression. Maybe she had that far-off look now.

Wyatt half-walked, half-swam to the taxidermy room, pushing aside bottles of motor oil and bags of pork rinds. Something—a fish maybe—curled around his calf like a cat’s tail. There was no outlet for the floodwater, so it bucked and sloshed against the walls. A swatch of the roof had torn off, giving the room wintery light, and storm clouds rippled along the water’s surface. Wyatt swayed like a hula dancer to keep from falling. Up on the highest shelf, in a glass box, sat Miss Joy’s prized possession, still and solid as river rock.

The colorful patterns on the peacock tail feathers resembled eyes, but any predator could tell they were for show. With the snapping turtle’s head, however, this creature wouldn’t have to run or fly or burrow. Its mottled green-gray scales, beady eyes, thick wrinkled wisdom, and hole-puncher snout would scare off snarling predators. Nowhere in nature had Wyatt seen such a combination of beauty and ugliness. The ugliness gave the tur-cock strength and the strength, in turn, made it more beautiful.

Before he put it into the orange construction bag, Wyatt wondered if he was stealing it or simply preserving it for Miss Joy. The tur-cock wasn’t for sale. Every time he made an offer—even a good one, like a lifetime supply of shovelhead catfish—Miss Joy would store it in her office for a week, a month, or sometimes more. Yet surely she would have taken it with her if she loved it as he did. Now it could be swept away by the water or destroyed by mold. As an indicator of his worthiness, he wouldn’t take anything else from the store, not even a cream soda or a stick of pepper jerky. With a bathtub full of clean water, a camp stove, and enough canned goods to fill a pickup bed, he and Marlene and the dogs could get by. And if his conscience started acting up, he could pretend he was only hosting the tur-cock, like a traveling museum exhibit.

The glass box didn’t quite fit in his sack. It required both hands to keep it above water, so he back-floated on the return trip. It would sit atop the mantel, he decided, a reminder of how the anxiety of a bird and the slow pulse of turtle could be fused. A symbol of what he and Marlene had together—she, who loved the explosions and flashes of color on the 4th, and he who watched the gunpowder clouds float through the night sky like a school of gray jellyfish.

Maybe it was the thrill of ownership, but Wyatt felt as if he were being lifted out of the water by the tur-cock with each flippered kick. He imagined the grawwwking sound the tur-cock would make if it truly could fly and pluck animals from the sea.

“Nice,” Marlene said. As Wyatt held the canoe in place, she paced atop a dumpster and appraised Miss Joy’s creation, face to face. “Very nice.” The tur-cock’s eyes carried some of the fire from her cigarette, and Marlene’s yellow slicker caught the wind like wings.

“It’s like a combination of the two of us,” he said.

“I’m the turtle?”

“No, no, the peacock.”

She tapped the glass box with her crowbar. “Males are the preeners in nature. That’s a male peacock.”

Wyatt felt pressed to share with her something that would compensate for this oversight. Something that would compensate for all that she’d given him. Did she know that turtles had been around for over 200 million years, or that some of the earliest ones had ears and grew to be over ten feet long? He considered telling her about the money stored in the toaster, but that didn’t feel like enough either.

All around him, the hurricane waters coursed between trees, under cars, through fences. A gas station awning leaned against the Presbyterian church, a johnboat was lodged between two historic brick buildings, and the diner looked like a submarine cresting the ocean’s surface. He could see the tur-cock’s failings now, too. The turtle head didn’t really offer the peacock protection. It would be too slow to fend off attacks. It wouldn’t even be able to appreciate the peacock’s tail without straining its neck.

“It is beautiful, in its own way,” Marlene said, filling the silence.

Did she find beauty in stillness and steadiness, the turtle qualities he possessed? Maybe she secretly appreciated all the things he did around the house, like lining the trash cans, slow-cooking ribs, and putting spare rolls of toilet paper under the sink. Or his ability to sit on a dock for hours, watching the reflection of the water flicker on the underside of magnolia leaves. Maybe the tur-cock wouldn’t survive in nature, but he and Marlene would—two people, not sewn together, but with complementary strengths.

With the corner of her mouth, Marlene grabbed her bangs, a snapping motion, showing a glimpse of tongue. “How much do you think it’s worth?”

Wyatt could feel the westerly winds pick up, a sign of the hurricane’s return. All around him, everything was in motion, everything except the tur-cock. He was suddenly tired. He couldn’t imagine playing strip mini-golf, not with all that needed to be done: fixing the busted shed window, helping his neighbors saw trees and clear debris, finding new fishing holes—ones that hadn’t gargled salt water. He’d built on high land, prepared as best he could, but now he was stuck, stuck in a town that couldn’t swim, float, or fly.

If a new creature were to evolve, a hybrid able to thrive in the future, it would come from Marlene, not him. He imagined it flying above: the bright yellow wings, crowbar hands, fiery eyes, smoky breath. The echo of its grawwwking sound off water. All movement, strength, and beauty.

Wyatt wouldn’t return the tur-cock to Miss Joy. Not if the dogs lowered their chins to the floor and growled at it. Not if the rains continued or a drought followed. Not even if Miss Joy sent the cops over to his place. The tightly rolled center of him sensed that the tur-cock would be leaving with Marlene, and quick.

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