Sunday Stories: “The Silent And The Taxidermist”


The Silent And The Taxidermist
by Ryan Harbert

Two rabbits tangoed on a miniature dance floor. Their glass eyes reflected a single, naked light bulb burning like a make-believe asteroid overhead. Wires straightened the rabbits’ spines, locking them upright in human posture. Stuffing filled the hollow cavities of their bodies. They embraced each other on a movie-set diorama made of plastic and Styrofoam, saturated with the smell of wet paint. An orchestra of tuxedo-wearing mice played in silent 4/4 time just behind the dance floor. Sparrows in flat caps and bowties framed the dancing rabbits in toy cameras. Their movie set rested on a workbench in a basement with blackout curtains over all the windows. A girl named Lexis sat at the bench, brushing a coat of gloss onto a bullfrog. She talked to herself, listening to her words twist alongside the animals stuck in eternal freeze-frame.

“Won’t be much longer,” she said. “We’ll finally have a director.”

Lexis propped up her feet and turned the frog over in the light. “I shouldn’t have made him a frog,” she said. “He looks like he’s staring at the sky. A director’s got to watch his actors so they’re always in their places.”

Her train of thought was interrupted by the doorbell. The sound startled her. It must have been years since she’d heard it, maybe since her sister died. Part of her wished she could have gone her whole life without hearing it again. She set the frog down, groped for the naked light bulb, and switched it off. Then she hauled herself upstairs the way Joan of Arc must have approached autumn bonfires.

The door opened to reveal a hulking old man peering into her face. Long gray hairs drooped like neglected houseplants about his head. He mumbled his equally drooping lips in the style of a fish that’s been dragged out of the ocean and into a strange, waterless world. A sign quivered in his palsy-stricken hands reading, “IM LOST.”

“Birds of a feather,” Lexis said. “Who are you?” 

The old man pushed her aside like a bad thought. Lexis cried out in protest but immediately caught the terrified look in his eyes. He wandered into the living room, recoiling at the unfamiliar shapes of the chair, the sofa, the television. The rising and falling of his chest indicated a near panic attack. He turned in circles, clutching at his stubbly cheeks. His lips continued to move, but no sound came out. Lexis approached him cautiously.

“You’re confused, aren’t you?” she asked. “I mean, medically confused. Are you looking for your house? Do you know where you live?”

The old man ran his fingers through his hair. He stood over six feet tall, even with his spine crooking forward at the shoulders. A dirty bathrobe swung from his frame like a tarp nailed to a fence post. Blue hospital slippers made scraping noises across the carpet, serving as the only audible cues that he existed.

“I see talking isn’t your strong suit,” Lexis said. “Do you have a name? Anything you can tell me about yourself?”

The old man held up his sign again.

“Let’s try a different approach,” Lexis said. “I’m Lexis, like the car, only more egotistic.” 

She waited for a response, but the old man just blinked.

“There’s an ‘I’ in it instead of a ‘U’. Get it?”

Still no reply.

“You sure know how to make a girl feel comfortable, Mr. Lost. Are you mute?”

The old man mugged and mimed his way through a short fit, looking like he wanted to catch something and couldn’t. He gestured to the outside world, wrung his hands, and threw out expressions of despair. 

“Easy, big guy,” Lexis said. “Why don’t you sit down and relax? Then we’ll see about getting you out of my house.” 

She gestured to a chair with a mothy smell to it, like furniture sitting for decades in a sunless antique store. The room was filled with stuffed animals posed like the ones in the basement. The old man’s bottom lip quivered at a fox in an overcoat pulling a raccoon on a sled. A hawk handed out newspapers to imaginary passersby, the same date forever preserved on its front page. Ferrets and hedgehogs in wool jerseys and leather helmets played football on the coffee table, leaving little room for actual coffee. Lexis realized the old man must have felt like he had walked into a living nightmare. Animals were people and people were bathrobes that never talked. She took a seat on the sofa and frowned sympathetically at him. Behind her hung a set of curtains just barely cracked to peek out at the neighborhood. 

“Sorry about the animals,” Lexis said. “I’m a taxidermist.”

The old man locked eyes with a milkman cat that carried a bottle in its paw. Lexis wondered what a confused knot must have been tangling in his brain. In a weird way, she felt embarrassed. It was like having someone walk into her bedroom to find the bed unmade and clothes tossed on the floor, with dirty drinking glasses clustered on the nightstand. She needed time to prepare for something like this, time to make a house that was a real house and not a taxidermy showroom. But maybe the old man didn’t understand what he saw. The foxes, the birds, the rodents: maybe they were all anthropomorphic hallucinations that he simply accepted because he had no other choice. Lexis felt the tension melt from her shoulders. This was someone, whoever he was, who couldn’t judge her.

“You probably don’t meet too many female, twenty-seven-year-old taxidermists, do you?” she asked with a smirk. “Or maybe you do, and we just don’t tell you. We keep it a secret so you won’t think we’re weird. You know, cleaning out dead things? Turning them into something new? Making them last forever? Not a lot of people are into that.”

The old man moved on from the stuffed cat and now seemed tormented by invisible specters swirling about the room. Lexis followed the movements of his head, half expecting to see the monsters that terrified him. She saw only the same house she had seen every day for the past five years, the house she knew down to the nails in the floorboards, the house that had been sealed tight since her sister died. 

“You know, I expected my first visitor to be a little more talkative,” she said. “I’m used to hearing my own voice. I want to hear something else for a change.”

The old man shook his head and fumbled with the sash on his bathrobe. It was threadbare in spots where the terrycloth had worn away from constant, compulsive tugging. In that moment, it dawned on Lexis that he hadn’t looked directly at her since he first held up his sign on her doorstep. It was like she didn’t exist.

She saddened. “Can you hear me?”

Her visitor pulled on his sallow cheeks. He was calming down at least. Lexis wondered if his invisible monsters had flitted back to the belfries from which they came—unless her house had been the monster all along, and the old man was finally coming to grips with spending the rest of his life in its belly.

“I guess it doesn’t matter.” Then, with renewed enthusiasm, “You just reminded me of something. When I was in art school, I tried making a silent movie. That might seem par for the course to you, but most people are used to characters actually saying things. The movie was about a girl who wakes up one day and suddenly can’t hear or speak—maybe like you. She spends most of the movie trying to reach out to people, to find someone who can understand her, but everyone just looks at her like she’s diseased and hurries off. She eventually finds all these butterflies in a field, kills the things, strings them together to make a necklace, and gives them to her sister. Her sister thinks it’s disgusting, so she drops the necklace on the floor and walks away. The last shot of the movie was supposed to be a close-up of the butterflies and the sound—the sound—of her sister’s footsteps. The only problem was I didn’t know any actors. I tried using puppets, but it wasn’t the same.”

The clock ticked. A water faucet dripped in the kitchen, a hand grenade in the silence. The roar of a car tried to muscle its way through the windows. Lexis stared down at her feet, then licked her lips.

“I don’t know why I just told you that,” she said. “You probably want me to take you home now. Believe me, Mr. Lost, I wish I knew where it was.”

She watched the old man, who continued to fiddle with his bathrobe. Her words bounced off him like pebbles against a tree trunk. Lexis picked at her cuticles. She felt defenseless without a stuffed rabbit or frog in her hands.

“I like movies,” she said. “You want to know why? They’re the furthest things from real life. If movies shot for realism, you know what they’d be? They’d be a director hiding all the shoes in the world.”

The old man still didn’t look at her. He was gaping at a framed photo on the wall of Lexis and her sister pressed shoulder to shoulder. The Eiffel Tower stood in the background. Lexis and her sister both had French mustaches drawn on their fingers, which they held beneath their noses. Lexis felt the blood rush to her face. The old sense of embarrassment flooded back.

“Shoes,” she almost shouted, “are what take you places. And before you get smart with me, I’m being symbolic. I know you don’t need shoes to drive cars or fly airplanes. I’m just saying, in your day-to-day life, shoes are how you get from A to B. But you don’t want your actors going anywhere when you’re making a movie. No one wants to watch Audrey Hepburn be a twentysomething, then a thirtysomething, then a fortysomething shopping for pearl chokers in New York. She’s a character, and characters don’t go anywhere outside the script. That’s not real life, though. People always go places, no matter how hard you try to convince them to stay. That’s why all the directors in Hollywood, if they shot for realism, would just film themselves hiding everyone’s shoes. I guess it wouldn’t sell tickets, though.”

She contemplated the crack between the curtains. A jogger passed by. Lexis ducked her head out of sight. She didn’t recognize him. Then again, she didn’t recognize anyone in this neighborhood. 

“See that?” she asked. “Going somewhere. That’s what people do. Stick that guy in a movie, and he’d never go anywhere again. Movies are safe like that. They have marks for people to stand on. If someone leaves the mark, the director yells, ‘Cut!’ and he makes everything right again. It must be nice to be a director.”

She stopped. She shot a look at the old man as though he had walked in on her stripping down to her underwear. As usual, he ignored her and poked timidly at a badger’s claws. Lexis breathed a sigh of relief.

“I wonder where you come from. Maybe you live in one of those monasteries where everyone has to take a vow of silence and wear a robe. But more than likely you just came from the nursing home. Nursing homes are a little like movies. They have marks you’re not supposed to leave. But you found your way here anyway.”

She stood up and crossed the room. The old man roused as she came toward him. Instead of looking at her, he smoothed a few strands of his iron-gray hair, as though attempting to make himself presentable. A gravy stain soiled the left side of his robe. Lexis softened, noticing how thin and feeble his ankles looked above his slippers. 

“I guess you don’t want me to judge you either,” she said. “You don’t have to worry about that. This house was made for things like you. You’re among friends.”

She went over to the picture hanging on the wall, the one with her sister in Paris, and carved a line in the layer of dust on its frame.

“She lived there—in Paris, I mean. It’s what she always wanted: bright lights, big city, new people to meet every day. And then she died there, stabbed by someone she didn’t even know. She went away and never came back. But even if she had come back, would it really have been her? Would she have been the same sister I grew up with? No. There would have been too much of Paris in her. When people go away, Mr. Lost, they never really come home again. Sure, shells of them do, but they’re filled with different stuff than when they left. Then you have to figure out where you fit in all that stuffing. You end up reshaping yourself around the person they’ve become. So in a way, every time someone leaves, you never really come back either.”

Lexis turned from the picture with a sniffle. She strained a smile at the old man, who had taken to petting the milkman cat. His lips crooned words that maybe only the cat could hear.

“I think that’s why I haven’t called anyone to pick you up,” Lexis said. “I’m afraid part of me will go with you and never come back.”

It gradually became clear to the old man that the cat he was petting, whose glossy black fur rippled under his palm, was dead. He stroked it, and it never arched its back to meet his touch or rubbed its triangle ears against his arm. Its eyes expressed nothing when it looked at him: no love, no warmth, no recognition. It just stood there in its faded milkman outfit, never moving and never changing. It was lightyears away from life. The old man frowned and let his hand slide from its back. The illusion had been broken. He didn’t want to pet it anymore.

Lexis passed her sleeve over her eyes. “But I guess it’s selfish of me to keep you here. Maybe this house wasn’t made for you after all. Sometimes I’m not even sure it was made for me. Can you do me a favor? Can you look at something? As soon as I finish with a project, I’ll take you home. But I just need you to see it before you go. I need somebody to finally see my movie set.”

Lexis descended to her basement workshop, leaving the old man to become disillusioned by her taxidermy projects, to discover that the hedgehogs weren’t really football players, and the raccoon and fox weren’t really friends on a winter adventure. Hopefully he wouldn’t get up and wander into the neighborhood. For all its eccentricities, Lexis felt her house was a controlled environment. The neighborhood, by comparison, was unsafe.

Lexis resumed her work on the diorama. After another layer of gloss, the frog sat in its finished director’s chair. A thimble bullhorn rested in front of its mouth. Lexis set it across from the dancing rabbits to complete the movie set. She sighed contentedly and jumped to her feet.

“Hey, Lost!” she said, but a loud pop interrupted her. Standing up, she struck her head on the naked light bulb hanging over the movie set. The glass burst, and a spark dropped onto the dance floor where the rabbits tangoed. It immediately met the glue fumes and paint that hung there. A trail of smoke snaked its way into the darkened basement. Lexis swore and touched the back of her head. She couldn’t see the flickering coal until it was too late.

It took only a minute for the model to go up in flames. Lexis felt her heart bottom out as a wave of fire washed across the dance floor and attacked the orchestra mice. At the same time the sparrows at their cameras ignited like tinder bundles, their feathers morphing into dark, squirming leeches. Orange light flooded the glass eyes of the dancing rabbits. Lexis grabbed a nearby towel and beat helplessly at the flames. The wet paint soaked into it. In a matter of seconds, it was on fire too. Lexis flung the towel aside before it could scald her. Hot air swelled up and blew her hair back. The dramatic colors of Armageddon turned the basement into a nightmare of smoke and destruction, erasing everything she had built, everything she had frozen in time. Lexis screamed as her workbench lit up like driftwood.

She dove into the blaze, grabbing whatever was salvageable. Her hands blistered, and the ends of her hair sent out a burning smell. She recovered an orchestra mouse, the dancing rabbits, and the director frog. Everything else curled and yawned into a blackened mass. Lexis scrambled up the stairs, casting a final, agonized glance at the flaking skeleton that used to be her movie set.

Smoke filled the house, choking and blinding her. Lexis pushed through, wrapping her animals in her arms. The hallways became a labyrinth in the suffocating haze. Her sense of smell was overwhelmed by the stink of burning carpet. She could hear nothing but the crackle and roar of searing tongues licking up the drywall. It was only through muscle memory that she navigated her way to the door. She spilled onto the street and collapsed. Her lungs ached to breathe fresh air. The fire stampeded through the house, tearing down siding and taking bites out of the roof. Flames beat against the windows, blasting them open with jagged shrieks. Lexis stood in the yard and counted her animals. She froze. She counted again.

Her eyes inched toward the door.

Not a single bathrobe dawdled out of it. A scan of the neighborhood showed no sign of gravy stains meandering around. In fact, the lawns and driveways stood frighteningly empty. Normally Lexis wanted things this way, but now…

Lexis looked back at the house. The curtains in the living room swept open. The old man’s face appeared between them, staring straight at her. Lexis gasped. She took a running step toward the door. With the loudest snap she had ever heard, a burning rafter collapsed and blocked the entrance. A wall of fire leaped out with a violence that stopped Lexis in her tracks. She stumbled back, blinking at the molten plaster raining down from the ceiling.

She panicked. The old man in the window disappeared. The glass burst and he still didn’t emerge. Lexis raced across the lawn, examining the house from all sides. She pricked her ears for the sound of sirens, scanned the neighborhood for anyone who could help. There was no one, not even the jogger who had run by earlier. She paced in circles. Why had she answered the doorbell? Why hadn’t she called someone to take the old man away?

The house traded its last shrieks for a groan. The second floor collapsed into a swarm of fireflies born from some monstrous hallucination. Lexis dropped to her knees, eyes wide and glassy. She clutched her stuffed animals to her chest, no longer seeking to protect but to be protected. She was a child who woke up at midnight to find the house deserted and lonely, who now cradled a toy bunny for the warmth of its imaginary love. 

Sirens finally wailed in the distance. It only took the firefighters ten minutes to put out the blaze. They draped a Mylar blanket around Lexis’ shoulders and cupped an oxygen mask over her nose and mouth. Still holding her animals, she wandered into the soggy, smoking wreckage of her house. The living room floor had partially caved in, dropping the chair and sofa into the destroyed basement. The picture of her trip to Paris had bubbled in the heat, but was otherwise intact. Her taxidermy projects were another story. Stooping, Lexis reached into a pile of burnt wood and felt something soft brush her fingers. She pulled it out and dusted off the ashes. Tears washed clean tracks down her soot-covered cheeks. It was one of the old man’s slippers, all blue and ragged and forever carrying the indentation of his foot. Lexis clasped it to her chest and dropped her animals. All her shoe-hiding spots were gone.




Ryan Harbert graduated with a BA in English from Kent State University. His work has appeared in Umbrella Factory Magazine, Steam Ticket, and Hidden Peak Press. His hobbies include running, video games, binging Korean dramas on Netflix, and playing with his cat Sailor Mewn.

Image source: Max Letek/Unsplash

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