You come back to Iowa as a man. No call for a ride from the airport. No special request for a certain meal, chicken manicotti or crab cakes with broccoli. No wincing when your father grips your pale hand like a fish with a loose hook in its jaw, hanging by an inch of flesh, a millimeter steel barb. When you hug me I can smell things on your clothes, something vanilla, something coconut; California and a girl. I ask about her. Jennifer.

      You say you and Jenny are great, are happy. And I know you aren’t lying because happy people always stay away. For months or years, past weddings and funerals, the birth of people whose role model they should’ve been, cousins who now will one day become juvenile delinquents and adult film stars. Four years is long enough. Four years on the west coast and I wonder how exactly the hours work from time zone to time zone, if we regained a bit of you in the overlap.

      “Here hun. Give me your coat.”

      “Thanks ma.”

      You squirm under my hands when I pull the thing off. And I can see why. You’re skin and bone underneath, too hollow in the chest and stomach. I wonder if you’ve become a vegan. I don’t ask.

      “Here,” I grab your wrist, “Come look at your room!”

      You let me guide you through the house slowly like one of those dogs from a shelter. The ones who are scared of things like 800 page encyclopedia Britannica’s and glitter coated twirling batons because of “past abuse by previous owner.” I think you must have forgotten the floor plan of this old house because you shuffle behind me like I’m giving a tour. But it’s probably just the new carpet, the wood paneled walls your father put in last October, the extra bit of clutter in the hallways from Christmas time, the musty smell of the boxes we haven’t taken out to the garage yet. Like everything else your room has changed too.

      In truth I’ve cleaned it a dozen times. Rearranged books and put trophies up in different corners; a range of bed sheets plaid, striped, and plain white. And yet, I’ve dirtied it a dozen times more. Tossed those books on the floor, stuffed the trophies beneath your bed, spread out the sheets on the floor and made separate piles of each. I use it as an excuse to spend time in here alone, to think about you when John isn’t around or doesn’t want to talk about it. Last month I started adding in some of our art work, not any of the big stuff, just some smaller pieces we thought you might like, the more sophisticated stuff.

      You wait a few feet behind me at the door, but I make you open it first anyway, let you walk in alone. I stand in the hallway. You frenetically, twitch your head angle by angle, degree by degree, like those hundred sprinklers they have on lawns out west. On your lawn out west. Then, you look in wide sweeps, corner to corner to corner and back. From ceiling to floor, window to window, and then to me. You stop there. You’re pale faced and quiet like you’ve just seen the ghost of something you locked in the sock drawer the day before graduation, something you didn’t want to remember.

      I walk into the room now. You try to slide out past me, tripping over the stuffed fisher I use as a door stop in here. And for a moment I think you might just scream or cry or any of those things which are nothing like what my son has ever been. You don’t though. Instead, you just sit on the ground for a moment with your arms folded over your knees. I sit down too.

      “We just started this last summer Jim” I stroke your head, the diminishing hairs at the front and back.

      “You know lots of people do this” I say pointing at Martes Pinnanti, John and my second project, the one we did after our beagle Roscoe who I’ve yet to show you under the dining room table.  I stroke at the fisher’s back, the thick hair of the tail, the curve of each ear. I grab your hand to do the same, but you pull away. Standing up you walk into the hallway. I hear the bathroom door slam and wonder what you’ll do when you see Erethizon dorsatum, the porcupine your father stuffed over Halloween. The one he brought out for the kids to touch during trick or treat, but only after making them rub their hands with sanitizer, not wanting the remnants of Gobstoppers and Charleston Chews stuck to the museum grade quills or the uncharacteristically large snout. The tiny Frankensteins and endless Princesses had loved it. Right now I don’t think you feel the same.

      “Is everything all right dear?” John yells from in front of the TV.

      “Yeah! I’m just showing Jim his room.”

      “Well does he like it? What about the fisher? Did he see how I raised the fur to make it look real fierce?”

      “He didn’t really say much. I’m sure he noticed it though.”

      “Good. Well bring him in here when you’re done. I want to show him Roscoe and the raccoon family. He’ll get a kick out of that.”

      “I’m sure he will dear.”

      The volume goes up again on the TV and I creep back down the hallway to your room. I shut the door behind me and lie on the carpet. The fisher looks at my face. Its glass eyes gleaming yellow in the dim light overhead. I want to apologize to you now. I want to tear that lifeless thing open, all of them open. Rip out the stuffing from every past-dead animal and spool it into thread. Burn it from both ends above your old bed with me on the mattress and you on the floor. I want you to tell me again about how you see whole worlds under the bed in fireball wrappers and abandoned Nerf darts you shot at your cousins on some distant Christmas morning. One of the mornings before you grew too much for Iowa, before you could only fit into California. I stay there on my back for awhile, waiting. The door doesn’t open, you don’t come back in.

      I knock on the bathroom door when I leave your room.

      “We’re eating soon hun.”

      “Okay. I’ll be out in a minute.”

      You sound calm now, like you’ve gotten yourself together. I wipe clumps of eye-liner from below my lashes; try to shake off the smell of the thing in your room, of everything left in our house.

      At the table you loosen up with your father over a casserole, green beans, and a vat of mashed potatoes. I’ve roasted a duck, but I decide not to bring it out. There are already three in the dining room, one for each day Jon and I spent out at the lake this summer. Your father is talking to you now about long deceased New York Times best-selling authors and the Iowa City NPR station, which I don’t think he’s listened to in years. I stay quiet and try not to watch you eat. I want to though, just to see you clear your plate in approval. To see you look up at me and say something charming about the smoothness of the potatoes, the way the lightness of the casserole defies physics. I just look past you instead. I look at the 10 point buck on the wall, at the paw of the small black bear visible through the open door of the guest bedroom, at the kitchen window beside you where I can see the reflection of the pot-belly pig we keep by the fridge as a joke, and at the otter on an oak shelf behind your head. Its face is sharp, its fur smooth and polished. The mouth slightly open as if to make a noise, to remind us of the sound of living things.

      And I have to look at you. Frozen at the table now as your father tells you about how much he’s missed just talking like this, just being together. There’s a milk-ring forming beside your hand and your lips barely move as you breathe. The light hanging above us catches your eyes, turning them glassy yellow. Your dark hair gleams across your skull like the polished dresser in your room where I hid the fisher before locking the door. Your mouth is closed, not wanting to say anything at all right now, not wanting to remind us in any way of how you were. Not how you were at science fairs in seventh grade or the way you would always cram yourself into the middle seat of the pick-up. Not a single bit of you on the couch with pneumonia the year my mother died. Not a hint of the summer I taught you to knead dough for the loaves I made our neighbors. You won’t touch any of those things for us. Not tonight. And even in this moment everything about you is permanent and everlasting. You are my only exhibition. A thing to be touched by steady hands and filled up with the stuffing of things only I could ever know about you. Those things you left behind at the edge of the Pacific when you boarded the plane to Des Moines. And that is what I see in you now. Moments and moments stuffed down deep inside. Preserved there. A spent childhood. And I am still your mother, a taxidermist.  And you are still my son, a boy in the skin of a man.

Damian Caudill is an undergraduate English major at Ohio University in Athens. His previous work has been published by
The 2nd Hand, Glossolalia, Zygote in my Coffee, The Envoy, Sphere, and Candygram.


With roots in Tennessee, West Virginia, and now, southeastern Ohio, I've often found myself face to face with a variety of taxidermied animals. They
appear in the living-rooms of my friend's homes, or bolted to the walls of empty steak houses, occasionally on dust covered back shelves of flea market stands, and almost anywhere else that a posthumously stuffed and very exactly posed creature seems appropriate to the decorum. I've always been interested in how people react to these oddly preserved animals and what they make of those who collect them for hobby or sentimental value. In Stuffing,  I saw the opportunity to create a narrative amongst the mixed feelings of the son toward these creatures he hadn't expected to find in his former home, and the melancholy of the mother who similarly finds herself surrounded by an unfamiliar version of her own son.



Copyright 2009