[Non-Fiction] Self as Taxidermy, 1-5
- Me: Still
on a couch before a sun-washed sill, where one full, jointed arm of my Christmas cactus has landed on my bookshelf with a thud soft as an echo. I google “Christmas cactus losing limbs” on my cell and read this is a symptom of root-boundedness. The cactus is cramped. But it’s too cold outside to repot it. (Or maybe that’s just an excuse.) I’ll wait until winter’s over, transplant it to a larger pot, replace it in its slant of light.
I’m always trying to bring the desert in—looking for echoes of a sunlit sky that glared like a camera lens. Like one snapped shutter could still the world. But the light that slinks through my window is a scar, trying to pull itself into something it used to be.
My mom is always listening for echoes, listening past voices that are too close and out of focus. When we speak, she reminds me of our past lives, of who we used to be. She says we knew each other before I was born. We’re souls growing older in different bodies. The arbitrariness of who mothers who, who’s wearing which skin.
beneath the weight of a body, in a room flushed with red light from the tank where this man—a Virginia transplant whose stay in Nebraska was brief as a storm—tried to grow shrooms. His wrists—their vertical rows of rose-colored eyelets and the long scars that rose in between—showed if you split your seams you could be laced back in, those twenty-one grams of soul secured like the tongue of a shoe.
The soul is not twenty-one grams. A man named Duncan MacDougall tried to weigh the soul by weighing six patients at the moment of death. One of these patients lost twenty-one grams and Dr. MacDougall hypothesized that this was the weight of the soul. But this result was discredited. In reality, the soul has no measurable weight. Still, I understand MacDougall’s urge to explain its heaviness.
They say alcoholism is a spiritual disease. I don’t know what that means, but twenty-one was the year I could legally entertain my addiction. I stopped at every liquor store I passed. Bought a bottle of wine because I could. I’d already tried AA twice by then and both times slept with the man who’d brought me there. One of these men was Joe, a meth addict ten years sober, who’d offered to buy me vodka on the way out of a meeting. He didn’t drink with me. The edges of too many nights are blurry.
During those same teenage years, my mother brought me to her spiritual groups, where a woman who claimed she was an alien told me my soul was chaos. She said: “You need to stand in the eye of your storm.” The eye, encircled by storm walls. Everything momentarily still.
- Me, still
in this damned body, worrying my skin loose. Without four walls of my own, setting my body anywhere is suddenly taxing. With wine, I can turn any surface to a bed.
In my friend Mark’s living room, we set a box of chardonnay on his coffee table, where Mark glues Swarovski crystals and Barbie clothes to the coats of rats he’s stuffed. He keeps rodents in his freezer in a Ziploc bag, beside the Digiorno and the Tito’s. In evenings, he takes one out to peel its skin like an orange, its core just gradient hues of pink.
Since fall, my body’s begun to bloat around me. This is from the wine, I think. Press a finger to my shin, then lift. You’ll see: my skin will hold your shape for a slow, swelling moment.
I have to remember it’s my self-compressed into this skin; Come back into your body. This distance is reckless. Count the wounds you don’t remember getting: fractured elbow, sprained elbow, dog-bite scars on your face. You aren’t looking at your eyes in the mirror anymore, afraid you’ll see them yellowing.
Mark calls his taxidermy art and has business cards. Because I am not art, he taxidermied a rat to resemble me. It sits at a little doll desk, with a wine glass and a little doll pen, poised over paper, glued to its little rat claw. I think of it as she, and I will set her on my own desk for company. But I don’t have a desk or a safe place to lay.
Each rodent has its own place on Mark’s shelves, each dressed in doll clothes and props to fit the personality he’s given it, each living its own still life.
- I’m still
blurring the edges. My nails have begun to shred the way teeth disintegrate in dreams. I wedge what’s left of one fingernail under the cap of a Coors Lite can and pull. The can doesn’t open, but the nail shreds into another weak layer. I know those teeth-crumbling dreams represent a feeling of a loss of control. I think my shredding nails are about my liver, as is the ache in my abdomen. There’s something about this I find gratifying. I’m not sure if I’ve been moving toward this or working against it, but here it is. A body starting to break down.
on the night-black grass, I watched Mike skin a raccoon beneath the pepper tree. It was a huge thing that didn’t want to die; he shot it three times with a .22, whacked it sidelong with a shovel, and when it lifted its head slowly from the sidewalk, with a terrible guttural screech and strange, mechanical movements like an animatronic movie-creature, Mike finally pressed the blade of the shovel into its throat with a heavy boot until it stopped struggling. He peeled its skin, cutting carefully at the joints to remove it in one piece. He left the skin on the driveway for a month, then gave it to his sister. She made it into a purse. Filled it with her things, her wallet bulging against the purse’s side when she lifted it, the furry fabric shifting as though the purse was alive.
Lalie Ryan lives in the Pacific Northwest with her dog Jolene. She writes poetry and creative non-fiction and teaches writing to undergraduates.