By Twilight Stray
We piled into the back seat of my Dad’s car, the air conditioner and friendship fighting off any claustrophobia that threatened. They would offer grapes and lean against me while we zoomed around turns, games for children. We hadn’t known each other when it was time for those kinds of things, so we make up for it now.
The herds of cars were parked like shining cows, all facing the same direction on he field, crushing grass underfoot as their engines lowed and rumbled. Walking in, my nostrils flared as I scented the small horses at the pony rides- one diminutive pony, a bit larger that a miniature horse was trotting in a circle with an equally small boy on his back flicking at the reigns. His steed was nonplussed. There were booths- blinding white tents and the promise of veracity.
The first thing to hit me was the smell of tanned leather, feathers, bone. It was heady in the summer heat- my sunglasses weren’t helping much so I ducked into the first tent. An emaciated woman in aviator glasses held a young grackle that was missing feathers from around its eyes. It clutched to her sinewy wrist and fluttered like a burnt handkerchief. I wanted to reach out to it, hold it, set it free- anything really, but it didn’t look at me, and nether did the woman. She chewed tobacco and watched the soccer moms barter over necklaces and rings they wouldn’t end up buying.
Each booth was similar- the same dreamcatchers on every pole, the same images of horses and eagles and wolves and crying native women tattooed on the sun burnt arms of patrons and sellers alike, mirroring the images on the tie-dye t-shits hung on the racks, some of which displayed stolen art. All the dreamcatchers looked the same to me.
The smell of burning sage was overwhelming in the heat- a cleansing holocaust in the summer sun. It was different from the sage I know- my small wands burnt on the deck out back on cool fall evenings. My long hair sticks to my back, tangled and damp, but protection none the less. I’ve always hid behind my hair.
There was a black man wearing boots and a cowboy hat, an empty medicine pouch against his collared shirt. Small children were breathily fluting random notes on bamboo pipes decorated in bright yarn, mixing with the sounds of tape-recorded birds singing. We found a lone bison in a small corral backed up to the truck that had brought him there, signs proclaiming the great respect held for the sacred bison- not buffalo, but bison, and declaring that he did not need shade as bison were hardier then their domestic cousins. I peered through the square bars of the fence to read further about how the thin rope around the fence should not be crossed- this was a wild bison, not a pet, and was not used to humans. I couldn’t smell him over the sage and sweat and dry dead things.
Moving on, I passed more coyote faces staring out from the opaque sides of Tupperware bins, and fox faces ranging from white-gray to a charcoal black like old clothing. Bobcat faces hung in bunches, six dollars each, a metal ring stretching through their eye sockets. I winter a larger tent, rows and rows of badgers and every colored fox in ling strips, like socks hanging from their crushed noses. This tent has far more furs than the ones before it, and I turn to my right where inevitably, wolf pelts hang like larger foxes, larger empty socks like Christmas stockings waiting to be filled. These would never be filled again.
Most are white and “arctic wolf”, slightly larger than their southern cousins, longer nose and different eyes- remember “Never Cry Wolf?” runs through my head. I hold a paw, comfort, for me or it I don’t know. I know that they are much bigger on real wolves. I know how they look when splayed to walk on snow. Here they are dried down small to the size most people image them to be- no different than a golden retriever or husky. These are white though, except between the toes where they are the old red color of berries. Blood, dirt, or something else- it’s hard to know.
The pelts are again long and shapeless, but their fur is thick. I think of how I draw those kinds of pelts, how I’m learning the fur patterns and the direction the hair moves. Something I can feel sometimes, but need to learn to draw. I look to the pot-bellied man smoking a cigarette behind the table. I ask where the wolves came from, but I already know the answer. “Alaska,” he says, not unkindly. “Arial hunting” shoots through my mind like visions of snow and exploding rib cages and frenzied running. The chase without the dance, without the predator-prey communication. Killing with ease from far away.
I’m quiet, shifty, smelling everything around me, as I walk hotly through the tents, taking off and putting on my sunglasses. I’m not angry- calm in fact. My friend tells me I look like a hot, sad doggie, and I say I’m fine and laugh a bit, saying at least I’m not skinned and hanging from my nose on a hook. It’s the kind of acrid statement I would have made in the past, that I should be too mature for, but I don’t feel it at the moment.
I still imagine different scenarios- the man asking me if I’m a wolf-lover between puffs on his bent cigarette. I see myself looking at him and he pausing, as I intone softly, laughing around the corner of my mouth, saying he says it like a curse or insult. He repeats it, and I smile sadly, and say I’m not a wolf-lover. I’m just a wolf. But the thoughts are fleeting, overdramatic, and I’m distracted by a jewelry tent, the sound of drumming and voices singing.
It’s a few Spanish men and boys, one thirteen year-old drumming a bit, trying out different rhythms while the men sing a few bars, mainly to themselves. My fiends
and I walk some more, stopping beneath a tree to eat lime snow-cones. I’m not hungry- there is a deep cramp below my belly, and I don’t want anything. I don’t normally get menstrual cramps, but these hurt badly- not causing me so much pain as slight bewilderment at them being there at all.
I look in my purse at the few pictures I bought from some of the vendors- pieces of art that can’t be faked. One is a woman summoning a red smokestack of animals. The other is the silhouette of wolves, three running against a blue sky. The last is a white wolf looking out on a clearing, and it makes me think of Home, even if I could have drawn the wolf better myself. I look at the tree I’m leaning against, where a cicada shell sits next to a chrysalis which sits next to a white moth, all in a line like a science-classroom illustration, ants creating a moving backdrop against the dark scarred bark of the tree. We walk some more, passing the same shops and lingering a bit longer to make final purchases, and make our way out. I take one last look at the coyote faces in the Tupperware bin, and I do not buy one.
I’ve always had an interesting relationship with dead things. When I was younger, I always had a good sense of righteous indignation towards my mothers friends who wore fur collars, and a sense of grief and sickness over the fur coat that hung in the downstairs closet. Then as time went on there was a sense of reclamation, where parts of pelts, wings, feathers all gave me a sense of authenticity. I always looked at road kill. I wanted to be desensitized to this- I wanted to be able to take what I could use from dead things that no longer needed them. Not trophies, but something I could use as reference, art, or just to be near me. And it still leaves me torn. Part of me wants a collection of animal parts, a menagerie of my own like the natural history museums I love so much. Desensitize, I say as I take the wings of a dead bird. I’m making use of what would be wasted, I tell myself. And it’s true.
But I think it more comes down to wanting animals near me. A sense of grief, tempered with a need for contact. Perhaps I gather echoes around me- the closest thing I can get to knowing something. Perhaps I try to desensitize because I didn’t know them- they weren’t beloved pets or neighborhood animals I watched grow. But perhaps the need to gather, and my former anger all come from the same place. A place where I need to mourn that I never knew them, that I couldn’t do something for them in life. Perhaps I just need animals around me, in a perfect world living ones. But it’s not a perfect world. For now, having run the gambit of seeking dead things and shunning them, I can take and hold what comes to me, and bury what I can.
I had found a dead swallow a few weeks ago, and had scavenged the wings from it. I messed up when it came to the tail, scattering feathers like any common house cat kill. After burying its body in the fenced-in backyard of my Dad’s townhouse, I figured I’d come back for the skull later, after the bugs and weather had done their work. I’d thought about it since- how I didn’t really need a small sparrow skull, and dead things not only should be buried, but buried with honor. Today I went out with the intention of digging it up and relocating it to the woods out back, outside of fences. All I found was the brain case, waiting for me on top of the clay-like soil, still damp from morning and recent rains. That’s all I needed. We are or brains. So I took it out back, and plunged my thumb into the wet loam, planting the small skull like a seed. Dead things are better when buried.
By Twilight Stray