The Elk and the Lily

I have moved through most of my life feeling fairly confident that I have a much stronger constitution than the average bear.  In fact, many of the hallmarks of stereotypical “female responses,” just don’t apply to me.  I don’t cry at movies, I hate chick flicks, I don’t coo at the sight of babies, “feel good” anything makes me want to puke, I dread bridal and baby showers, and hugs, 9 times out of 10 cause me to feel assaultive.  To date, I have been impervious to fits of hysteria or crying jags.  My profession exposes me to subject matter that would drive most people to drink, but it rarely causes a spike in my pulse.  For the most part, the only things that really cause my hair to stand on end are spiders and bad manners. Perhaps, I was born without a “sensitivity chip.”  Suffice it to say that very little gets under my skin…this was true until my Beloved gave me an introduction to the world of taxidermy.  Yes, taxidermy.

Hunting is a way of life on The Ranch.  My Beloved is an avid and accomplished hunter.  Almost all of his close friends are rifle toting, camo-wearing, relentless terminators of game.  They all possess the rarified, albeit fiendish ability to “skin” just about anything.  NOT seeing a buck hanging from a gamble in the barnyard during hunting season on The Ranch, would be one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  You could be certain that the End was near.

Not being a hunter myself, I never really thought much about what happens to the ill-fated buck after it’s demise.  I figured it would be butchered and that is about it.  I never considered the possibility of any portion of its remains making a post mortem encore appearance on my living room wall.  That was until an unseasonably warm Spring day a few months ago…

Even in retrospect, I still believe there was nothing I could do to prepare myself for what was to come.  I certainly would be the last person to suspect that an afternoon in the Napa Valley would send me into paroxysms.  To be sure, I did feel a twinge of suspicion when My Beloved loaded a rather dubious, lumpy, semi-frozen mass wrapped in a garbage bag, into the trunk. He had also informed me that we were “stopping off to see a guy about the elk.” The elk? For some reason, witnessing that scene and hearing those words had no forshadowing effect on me.  How was I to know that we were going to stop off for a visit with Jeffrey Dahmer?

As we drove up the gravel road to get to “the guy’s” place, I have to admit, it looked harmless enough.  It had all of the trappings of a genteel wine country farm. Large well kept lawns, pleasant looking house, a barn, and even a yellow Lab.  What I know now is that behind that facade lurked Joseph Mengele and a jackal.  When we parked ,we were met by My Beloved’s dear friend “B,” who was there for the same purpose.  “B” is also a Wranglers and boots kind of guy. He demonstrates his commitment to the sport of hunting not only by abandoning civilization for most of the year, but also by adorning the sides of his truck with permanent, strategically placed, terrain appropriate, camouflage appliques, which are intended to help him “get the drop” on any game that hasn’t fled at the sound of his truck’s thundering diesel engine that “clack clack clacks” its way around the 5th largest city in the Bay Area. Any questions about his devotion to the sport would be assuaged by looking no further than his personalized license plate, which although intended to inform passersby of his intentions, may more accurately describe his mental state. (OUTHNTN)

We made our way down a narrow path to the entrance of the barn.  As we crossed it’s threshold I was immediately and completely overwhelmed.  I am not sure which hit me first, the sound of Lynrd Skynrd playing in the background, the corpse like countenance of “the guy,” or the rank, vaguely  funeral parlor stench that permeated the area, but every fiber of my being ordered me, with an authoritarian German accent, to run for my life.  (It should be noted that as I write this and revisit the memory, I have dry heaved at least 3 times.)  Trying to maintain some semblance of dignity, I managed to stifle the screams that so desperately wanted to leave my body, and wrench my mouth into a quasi smile of acknowledgement in the general direction of “the guy.”  I felt dizzy. I was confused.  I was convinced that the walls were closing in on me.  I knew that if any one of the carcasses touched me, I would immediately fall dead.

Heads, heads, everywhere there were heads!  A vomitous, petrified herd of decapitated game heads surrounded me from every angle.  As My Beloved and “B” enthusiastically chatted away with “the guy” over the condition of the “antlers and capes” they brought, I could feel dozens of beady, lifeless, prosthetic eyes peering at me from various points on the barn walls and work benches.  Although “the guy” was clearly a master at his craft, as he was able to restore these animals in death to an artistic interpretation of their former majesty, in my head I could not stop shouting that this place was unholy and should be burned.  I had to get out!  My beloved, seeing my greenish pallor as I escaped to the car, quickly wrapped up his business with Dr. Death and we were on our way.

It was in this macabre chamber of all things dead and reeking, I found my limit.  My hubris had led me to believe that I had seen it all and that nothing could get to me.  For heaven’s sake I had braved an autopsy for work, while maintaining my sense of humor and singular focus on what was for lunch.  The sight of dead, petrified animals was my kryptonite.  I don’t have any idea whether it was the mere fact that there were dead animals all around me, or if it is the bizarre art of taxidermy itself that was my undoing that afternoon.  I am a carnivore to the core, so I am by no means a flighty, evangelical PETA sympathizer, but if anything was going to make me a turncoat, an afternoon at the taxidermist would have been the perfect catalyst.  Maybe it is because I was raised in a house where meats were never eaten from the bone, and any remnant of skin, gristle, or fat on any meat served would have rendered it unfit for consumption. Perhaps my world was too sanitary and comfortably removed from the dark reality of what happens to animals after they are killed for their meat.  Whatever the genesis of my squeamishness toward taxidermy, I can say with absolute certainty, I am not a fan.

Fast forward to 2 weeks ago, when I woke up to find the following scene on the island in my kitchen:

No, the lovely lily was not part of a makeshift memorial to the fallen elk.  It was a treasure from My Beloved’s Mom’s garden that she brought the night before. “B” stopped by at an ungodly hour  the next morning to drop this hideous trophy off for My Beloved.  Clearly amnesic, about the violent revulsion I had displayed a couple months prior at the taxidermist, My Beloved saw fit to just leave the elk head on  the island.  Gee, thanks.  It is now discretely stored in our spare bedroom, shrouded in a sheet, so that I don’t have to lay eyes on it.  When I do have to venture into that room, I hold my breath with the fervor of an Olympic diver in order to spare my olfactory organs the pain of ingesting even the slightest whiff of the (real or imaginary) putrid smell of death.

In the end, I can’t say that I disapprove of hunting or taxidermy in general.  I just try and avoid it like the plague.  I didn’t have the same reaction to such ghoulish subject matter when visiting the catacombs in Paris, as demonstrated by the grin you see on my face:

No green pallor as I entered “The Empire of the Dead.”  My Beloved and I walked the narrow corridors surrounded by thousands of human skulls and bones.  I didn’t flinch or feel faint once.  Is it a humans v. animals thing?  Who knows.  Maybe if I had been to a taxidermist shop it Paris I would feel differently.  C’est possible!  I think it would be safe to say that it’s just the power of Paris.


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