What is that dead deer thinking about, and why is he hanging there?

  • Diane Sylvain

Ten points. That's what my hunter friends would have noticed. They would have coveted the owner of those 10 points, would have risen early in the autumn morning chill, crept toward him silently as the sun warmed their backs, until they heard the echo of his hooves in the distance, caught a flash of brown, felt a jump in the pit of their stomachs, raised their arms, taken a breath, drawn a bead, squeezed the trigger.

But I am not a hunter, and so have been walking beneath the deer for two days, at the inn where I'm staying, without seeing him. This morning I noticed him, though, and now I am staring at him, and he, from his knotty-pine-wall perch, is staring back at me. His lips -- do deer have lips? -- are pressed in a flat line. "What is that look on his face?" I wonder, that look that is now his perpetual, eternal look. Then I think: "This must be how he looked when it happened." Must be the expression he wore when his ears pricked to the rustle in the bushes, his eyes blinked from the glint of sun off the distant barrel, his ears buzzed with the rifle's blunt boom-crack, his nose twitched to the whiff of oily smoke, and he knew, somehow, knew what was happening, what was coming in the next instant. He looks pissed. That seems right to me. The only choice left to him was his attitude, and he chose disdain. I admire this deer.

I let my gaze drift around the room, and notice a trio of his fellow trophies -- elk, deer, mountain goat -- staring at me from the opposing wall. The mountain goat seems to be grinning. Did he sense that he was destined for an immortality of this sort, perpetually bemusing random tourists like me?

The eloquent silence of these beasts moves me to consider taxidermy: the art of deliberate desiccation, of preserving death. How extraordinary that the actual rinds of these animals, the very fur, nose, horns, mouths that once formed their living parts, have been transformed into these artistic displays, these representations of the animals themselves.

To become one's own memorial is a not a privilege we humans normally extend to each other. The objectification is too visible, too tactile, too death-before-us-here-and-now. We need distance. Reminders of our deceased must be softened, muffled, abstracted: stone tablets, photographs, names and dates in a bible. When I remember my father, I picture the woodcut my sister found in Germany and brought home 40 years ago: a chiseled face, nose wrinkling, eyes gleaming, cheeks bulging with jokes to be told, that uncannily captured my father's essence; a proper vessel to hold memories that could never be contained in something as concrete, as literal, as the figures on these walls. We relegate taxidermy to anonymous beasts.

But there are exceptions. The ancient Egyptians mummified their pharaohs, not for display, but because they believed the original body would be needed in the next world. It was we, their modern descendants, who, lacking any emotional or cultural bonds to them, yanked the mummies out of their secret chambers in the Pyramids and placed them in museums. From there, of course, they escaped to movie screens, where they could take their revenge on us for disturbing their rest.

More recently, when Lenin died, the heirs to his revolution, in their ideological fervor, placed his embalmed body in a glass sarcophagus to provide the masses with an undying source of inspiration. Decades after that revolution was buried, however, Lenin's body remains on display, the guest who stayed too long at the party. This year, the Russian people are voting on whether Lenin should finally be interred like the system he created. A large majority favors doing so. Lenin wouldn't be surprised. He never liked democracy.

And when Trigger the Wonder Horse died in 1965, Roy Rogers could not bear to plant his faithful steed in the ground. Over Dale's objections, Roy stuffed and mounted him in a valiant pose, rearing up on his hind feet. For the next 45 years, Trigger faithfully guarded the entrance to the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum, until it closed last year, and he was sold to a television station in Nebraska.
One is relieved to learn that Dale outlived Roy.

Andy Seiple, a freelance writer from Seattle, is pursing an MFA in nonfiction writing at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts.

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