I do not advertise as a taxidermist, but each year I take a little work, mostly local. Occasionally, a downstater will get lucky and shoot a trophy whitetail on the opener, and for the right price I will mount the buck’s head, usually a ten-point or better. My reputation has spread these past few years, and so I can choose and charge what I want. Plus I always agree to work on an animal I’ve never held, dead or alive, or a freak of nature, like the pure white skunk that was caught in a neighbor’s trap, the eyes oversized and deep blue.
A black bear is the only animal I refuse to touch with the knife, no matter how much money I am offered. They are not rare in these parts, and if you have connections there are private dumps in the U.P. where the bears are easily killed. Most evenings they wade out from the dark woods and move slowly through the avenues of junked cars in the high grass. Although my father never shot a bear with a rifle, he often watched them close up through the scope. Five straight years he arranged to hunt at the same dump, and for a few days before he arrived the owner would empty pails of rotten fish and meat by the blind. “Smells something awful,” the guy would boast over the phone, his guarantee that the bears would be there in the half light, and they always were, my father confirmed, they always were, repeating it as though he were ashamed by such certainty, by the bears’ intractable greed for garbage. He never explained more than that why he passed the easy shots every single time. And I figured he’d pass again the first time he invited me to go with him. He was given a loner, a VW Beetle while the station wagon was in the shop, and right before pulling out of the yard he said, “What the hell. Let’s at least give them a chance,” and he went back into the house for his compound bow and quiver of arrows, and left the rifle right there on the kitchen table.
I was fourteen and I remember how we drove down a long dirt road to its dead end, a cloud of dust continuing past into the tall weeds. Already in camouflage we both got out of the car, and I watched my father stop and lean close up to the side mirror, uncap his small tin of cream and began to smear black streaks across his cheeks and forehead. “You won’t be with me in the blind,” he explained. “I’ve got a spot for you to watch from. You’ll see fine from there, and it’s safer.” He paused, then he said, “Take these,” and swung me the binoculars by the cracked leather strap. I hung them around my neck while he strapped on his holster and pistol, and we started walking in.
I was surprised how close the dump was from where we’d parked. It looked like a dried-up swamp, the low land curving in a half circle around the perimeter of trees, the maples deep orange and yellow at the far edge, the sumac blood red. The clearing was not large, an acre at most. I expected the ground to be soft, but it wasn’t when we stepped down and circled the pile of old refrigerators and washing machines and electric stoves, the white enamel rusted in small circles wherever a bullet had passed through.
The odor of fish hung thick in the air. “That’s ripe,” my father said, as he might while checking tomatoes in the garden. But it was more than ripe, here in the late fall, the nights already cold and heavy with frost. I thought about dump pickers who scavenged for a harvest of old bottles and inkwells and the porcelain heads of dolls in places just like this. But I couldn’t imagine anyone digging in this stink for treasures, as I couldn’t imagine why my father hunted every year over piles of entrails and fish heads. It was illegal to bait an area, and because he’d never in his life poached anything, I figured that explained why he could never bring himself to squeeze the trigger. Or maybe just breathing this awful air made him sick of the woods after a few hours, crouched and staring, and one time in so sudden and dense a snow that the bears came in and were gone without him ever seeing them, like ghosts. He’d come close, he said, but in the end he never fired, as he did at every other prey he’d ever hunted.
Halfway across he stopped and pointed toward a stand of birch trees about fifty yards distant. “The blind’s in there,” he said. “You’ll see it better from the junkers.”
And I did, the sun setting behind me as I looked out the windshield of a 1949 Studebaker after my father slammed down the hood. “Look at that,” he said smiling, showing me the dipstick through the open window. “She didn’t die from lack of oil.”
And the seats too were still in decent shape, no broken springs poking through the gray upholstery. I imagined driving the car, the knee-high grass folding under the flaking chrome bumper on the zigzag of a final ride. But when I tried the steering wheel, it wouldn’t budge, the tires buried to the hubcaps.
“Keep both doors locked and don’t get out. If you have to pee, go right on the floor. I’ll come get you just after dark when it’s time to leave.” Then he took the pistol from his holster, and, handle first, gave me the gun. A .32 caliber, too small to ever kill a bear, but it was loaded, and I took careful aim with the safety on as my father walked away, covering him until he reached the blind, believing at that moment no shot was out of range.
But accuracy is at least half luck as the light changes and your eyes strain too hard to make out shapes that aren’t even there. Vision, as my dad said, it’ll always adjust some, but still plays tricks enough to turn the mind toward other things. He’s right, like jumping back to that first evening I plowed the garden under by myself, and stopped on the last row by the fence-line to place a few rotten pumpkins on the flat tops of the posts. Then, from the seat of the tractor, I reached out and fired point blank on my way back to the barn, the orange seeds and pulp exploding in a halo under the full moon.
And that’s what I was thinking when that single bear, lumbering on all fours, angled in front of me, the momentum of her hind end carrying her whole body sideways toward the blind. I rolled down the window to listen, but hearing nothing after a few minutes, I opened the door and got slowly out. And, both elbows steadied on the hood, I focused, not on the path of the bear, but to the left where my father was standing at full draw, the satellite razor head catching a shred of light the instant he released. I shifted the binoculars as though I could follow the flight of the arrow, the landscape made crazy through the tinted blue lenses by the sudden leap.
Out of the high cover the bear charged into view, heading directly towards me, her enormous bulk low to the ground, and her head in a kind of slow motion lolling from side to side. My father told me later that he heard the door slam, the noise he speculated might have brought the bear stumbling to the driver’s side where she lifted on her hind feet, her undersides moist and shiny with blood. The bright yellow fletching of the arrow stuck out above her breastbone like a star, dead center at the base of the throat, the jugular and windpipe severed.
Unlike a 30.30 or .06, it’s the cutting of the razor tip that kills, not the impact. What I know now is that she would have died right there from loss of blood and no air, but when she stared in, narrow-eyed, her hot breath rising, I fired six times at her face until she turned away into the open space of the field and collapsed for good.
The aluminum arrow shaft pointed straight up, and it seemed only seconds passed before the sky pulsed alive with millions of stars, and my father at full draw as he straddled the steamy hulk.
“Good Christ Almighty,” he said. “What have we done? Tell me that you’re okay?”
“Yes,” I said. “I am,” and when he aimed heavenward and drove a second arrow deep into the belly of the sky, I pointed at the constellation of the bears glowing brighter and brighter above us. “Ursus,” I said, but he just put down his bow, and, without looking up, said, “Well this one’s dead.”
What I believe now is that each night establishes its own trajectory, and gazing north above the hills, I offered my father no help, nor did he ask until he stood up, stiff-legged, his forearms covered in blood. “Get the towel from my bag,” he said. I did, but instead of wiping his hands he wrapped it around the arrow, and, using the full force of his legs and back, he wrenched it out, the bear’s head lifting momentarily off the ground, as if she were attempting to sit up, and for that second or two I imagined this entire escapade was nothing more than some wild-weird dream I’d suddenly awakened from.
It took a long time to drag her back to the car, my father wheezing, always forcing himself a few steps too far before a rest, his palms rope burned and blistered. I stayed a ways in front, carrying the bow and binoculars and empty pistol. But after about a half hour he yelled, “Get rid of that stuff and bring back the gloves from the trunk. And a can of beer from the cooler.”
He lit a cigarette, and as I left I could hear him coughing real bad, coughing and spitting. I stopped and looked back from the edge of the dump. The night was bright and quiet, and although it had turned cold, I could feel the sweat on my back. I reached under the layers of clothes and pulled my T-shirt a couple of times away from my skin. “Good,” he said after I got back, and before putting on his gloves he squeezed the ice-cold can between his hands, and then took only a few quick sips before launching it like a grenade into the dump. “Now, let’s get her out,” he said.
And together we did, the rope lengthened and tied around his waist, hands on his hips, almost casual except for the strain on those thick legs, farmer’s legs for dragging a wagon load of hay a few inches in the field to the trailer hitch of the tractor. While my legs were thin and long like a sprinter’s, like my mother’s he had once said. To run ahead in the night for cans of beer and gloves, I thought, and for the quick distance my father sometimes needed from me to think things through and make sure what he was teaching me was exactly what I needed to learn.
Getting her up and lashed on top of the VW was easier than I’d expected. She seemed to slide backwards up the smooth roundness of the hood. I pushed on the shoulders, and my father, stretching from the rear bumper, locked her huge back paws under his armpits and, leaning back, he hauled her over the windshield to the roof, a filmy streak of blood coating the glass. The Volkswagen was yellow and she seemed big enough to crush it in a bear hug. We stood back and watched a minute, then cut four lengths of rope and tied her down in that ridiculous pose. I was exhausted and needed sleep, and drifting off I imagined I was inside her belly as my father started driving toward the main road, craving a hamburger, he said, someplace well lighted where the bear would be safe in the parking lot while we chowed down. He was attracted, he said, to the scent of a particular all-night diner, and where the waitresses always asked if he’d had any luck, and him spinning halfway around this time on the counter stool to point out the window, and me nodding beside him, nodding real slow over the spread menu like someone pleased with our spoils, like someone with an appetite after a full day of hunting.
The car broke down on the long deserted stretch through the Hiawatha National Forest, the radio mostly static. I woke up hot in the sleeping bag draped around me, the red cotton lining patterned with deer. I asked my father the time and he said, “About 2:00 AM.” He had just come from the rear of the car.
“What’s the matter?”
“We started losing pressure a few miles back. There’s no power, no traction. Must have labored too hard under this load.”
He knew engines, but hated the foreign jobs. “Piece of crap,” he said, “but what do you expect with the motor in the ass end?” I was back there with him this time as he reached in without a light, the way he had reached into the entrails of the bear, and when he pulled his hands out they were covered in oil. “Can’t drive it,” he said. “We’re stuck here until someone comes by.”
But nobody did, and every now and then he would pump up the Coleman lantern until the mantle glowed bright white inside the glass. Then he’d place it on the side of the road like a flare and walk off into the blackness. The lantern threw a lot of light into the pines, and it made the blood smear on the windshield seem even darker. I got out once and noticed for the first time that the bear’s eyes were wide open, glassy from the bite of the wind.
“I’ll close them,” my father said, and, startled from behind, I just nodded as he dragged both thumbs slowly downward before the two of us climbed without another word back into the car.
“You bait or get him with dogs?” the wrecker driver asked. “Hell, he’s bigger than the damn car!”
In the daylight I could see that the entire front of the VW was smeared slick with blood. “Didn’t clean him out too good though,” the guy continued. “We got a hose you can use at the station. Shove the nozzle right down his throat and rinse him out good before the meat goes bad.”
“It’s a her,” I said. “A female.” He was missing half of his middle finger on the right hand, the stub stained dark with nicotine.
“That a fact? Then we’ll do her from the other end,” he said, and flicked his unfinished cigarette at the bear and began manhandling the chains and harness and yanked back a lever that released the main cable from the spool on the wrecker. Then, grunting some, he took off his greasy baseball cap and crawled part way under the VW, his pants low under his fat stomach, and his legs spread wide enough on the gravel for an easy kick to the balls. I might even have taken a step closer, but probably not. “Ain’t much to hook onto,” the guy yelled back, but he came right out and the car went up easy on its rear wheels, the bear sliding back a bit on the roof.
The three of us rode together in the cab, with me squeezed in the middle. There was one of those sleazy crime magazines on the floor, a half-naked woman gagged and tied by her wrists and ankles to the bedposts. Seeing it, my father wedged the magazine under the seat with the heel of his boot, and the guy, shifting into third and staring into the side and rearview mirrors, smiled and shook his head as if in disbelief, and then pulled out with the emergency flashers pulsing down those miles of empty road.
“It’s your lucky day,” the guy started up. “We’ve got a VW wreck at the station. Had to tow it back on a flatbed. A disaster right to the rear seat, but the engine’s untouched. Two people killed. Take it from me you can’t hardly sell parts from a car like that. Superstition about robbing the dead. The dead!” He laughed and shook his head again, and paused to let that sink in. “You don’t believe in that shit, do you?”
“I don’t,” I said too quickly, but my father, eyes closed and head tilted back against the rear window, asked, “How does anyone know one way or another?”
“I know,” the guy snapped. “Sure as shit I know,” and for several minutes after that he went dead silent.
My father said later that the guy was full of it, a big talker, and a blowhard, the worst kind of coward. But there was something frightening about the way he punched the radio buttons with that half finger and talked on and on about how he got people’s attention “right now” when he flipped them the stubby bird.
At the station we helped him push the VW, the bear still on top, into the service bay. The customer bell rang as a car pulled away from the gas pumps out front, and the young gas attendant waving a five-dollar bill stepped from the sunlight and asked my father, “How much you want for the claws?”
“They’re not for sale,” my father answered. But I knew they were a good five hours later when the tow guy handed us the bill. He had written DEATH PARTS for everything he had stripped from the wreck. And knowing we couldn’t pay, he sent the car back up on the lift as if to keep it out of reach, the bear on top rising in grotesque ascension into the darkness bunched under the roof.
“Now, let’s talk turkey,” the guy said, followed by his sermon of harsh facts. He looked mean now. “I’ll take a hundred-fifty bucks and the bear.”
While they dickered I walked outside and sat down on the concrete abutment at the base of the Texaco sign. Toward what there was of a town hung a blinking yellow light, suspended and swinging a little from a wire across the road. Just that single color, and beyond, the huge white numbers on the water tower: Pop. 412. I could hear the air brakes of a transport trailer slowing for the light, and then shifting through his gears and moving at a pretty good clip by the time he passed me. I ducked my head from the sudden draft and noise, and I could smell the dirty cattle for a long time after the truck was out of sight.
When I started back my father was at the pumps, washing blood from the windshield of the VW, and behind him, the silhouette of the bear hanging by her neck, the rope fastened to one runner of the lift. The guy and the attendant were already spreading her claws, spreading them and laughing as she swayed, her toes no more than a few inches off the ground.
“Maybe they’d take the binoculars,” I suggested. “Or the bow.”
My father exhausted from no sleep, said, “Maybe,” but climbed into the VW instead and said, “Let’s go home,” and tested the car’s top end down that long straightaway, as if he were driving a hotrod. But he slowed after maybe half a mile, sensing, I guess, the danger of traveling at high speeds in such a small car. “Death parts,” he whispered to himself, then put the headlights on at mid-afternoon, and pulled close to the right shoulder of the road whenever another vehicle passed, heading the other way.
“Death Parts” from Twenty Stories: New and Selected by Jack Driscoll. Used with permission of the publisher, Pushcart Press. Copyright © 2022 by Jack Driscoll.