3960 words, short story
Taxidermist in the Underworld
Louis is working in the basement of the museum when the Devil takes him.
“Boy,” says the Devil, and Louis looks up from his diorama. A normal-seeming man with a disturbingly full head of hair, and very red lips, neither young nor old.
“Surely you’re not speaking to me,” Louis says. He’s on the Nile, crafting a landscape out of papier-mâché and paint. Each blade of grass is lined in bronze, and each scale of the crocodile’s back is polished to a gleam.
“Boy-O,” says the Devil, more formally. “I need a stuffer.”
“A stuffer?” Louis shudders. He’s busy positioning the tiny legs of an extinct lizard.
“A stuffer,” says the Devil. “A veritable stuffer.”
Louis looks up, exasperated. “That won’t be me. I’m the head taxidermist here at the museum. I’m employed. You should place an advertisement,” he says. “You might find someone new to the art, a student. Try the hat shops. There ought to be someone with experience in avians. If you’ll excuse me, sir.”
The Devil leans forward. “It’s you I want, Boy-O,” he insists. “You’re coming with me to hell.”
Louis makes a sound, but they’re in the basement where no one can hear him. Though the table’s covered with toxic powders, arsenical soap, and small blades, none of them are of any use. The Devil simply leans forward, pries open Louis’ mouth, and climbs into his skin. The Devil becomes an armature for the flesh that has belonged to Louis his entire life, and then Louis is stuck, pinched against his own ribcage.
“Here we go now,” says the Devil, using Louis’ voice. “Pack up a nice valise, there, there. I’ll return you to life among the living once we’ve gotten this sorted, Boy-O, but hell’s chock-full of pretty little ghosts, and they’re going to waste.”
“But, what about Carl?” Louis cries, from deep within himself. He’s being forced to share his vocal cords with the Devil, and the Devil’s voice booms.
“You can leave Carl a note,” says the Devil, and so Louis cribs out a message to his lover: Wait for me, I had to leave town, I won’t be gone long, I’ll explain, it’s something about my soul.
But it isn’t about Louis’ soul. It’s about the Devil’s whimsy.
One cannot fill a ghost with sawdust and stuff it until it stands. It will sag and bulge, and after a short time, one will have not a proper mount, but an abomination akin to Frederick’s Lion, eyes incorrectly aligned, teeth pushed out like falling fences.
Ghosts are the prettiest things in hell, and in that way, they’re like songbirds, but when it comes to skinning and reassembling them, they’re invertebrates. Louis knows that truth, here in his frenzy, attempting to stretch and gentle ghosts onto their forms. No. They refuse him. They collapse, puncture, snag, and tear.
It’s nothing Louis could have known coming in, but they’re boneless and as such, impossible. Were he allowed to embalm them, or to wet mount, yes, but not traditional taxidermy. The specimens refuse.
He tries clay, a heavy, old-fashioned mounting method, but the skin of ghosts is weightless and the clay shows through. He tries a wire armature, wrapped in wads of cotton, but the structure of the ghost, being rhetorical, refuses to commit to the wire, and just as he gets it stitched into position, it shudders and dissolves, leaving him covered in dust, a needle stabbed into his own thumb and out again the other side.
He sits for a moment, head in his hands, trying to calm himself, counting the hours in the waking world. How many years are passing above him as he sits here, trying to stuff spirits with sawdust? There will be Carl, and Carl will be missing him. Carl will be trimming his mustache shorter, and Carl will find someone new to love. Carl will walk with a swagger and then with a stick, and then Carl will die, and Louis will still be down here in hell, trying to preserve ghosts.
“I simply don’t know what to do with this,” he says to the curator, and the Devil’s eyes glow a sickly greenish-orange.
“I want a collection for my trophy room,” says the Devil. “Stuff my ghosts. That’s what you’re here for, and you’re not going back until you’ve done it, Boy-O.”
“I could stuff a demon,” says Louis, but it’s a faint hope. The Devil will not give him a demon. The Devil only wants ghosts. The Devil has a roomful of tattered old things, and these are the things he wants mounted, properly and in a dignified fashion.
“Lifelike poses,” says the Devil, and Louis moans.
One cannot stretch the skin of a ghost over a papier-mâché armature, unless one wishes the ghost to dissolve into the Sunday funnies, or whatever the equivalent is here. The ghost will become one with the paper, and the taxidermist will be left raking his own skin with his fingernails, attempting to disengage the ghost from the machine.
There have, of course, been taxidermists in hell before. The ceiling of hell is decorated with a frozen flock of dodos, and when Louis mentions that dodos notably lacked the power of flight, the Devil says, “The taxidermists here are low rent. As you can see, I needed someone of a higher caliber.”
“Where are the good dead taxidermists?” asks Louis.
“The other place,” says the Devil bitterly. “Or so I imagine. There’s a collector up there too, who claims them, no matter their sins.”
Louis considers for a moment the taxidermy of angels, and feels some relief that at least he doesn’t have to do that. Though that would be like birds, and he started his career as a milliner. At least birds have skeletons. Presumably angels do too.
“What exactly is in that collection?” he asks the Devil.
“Old souls, mostly,” says the Devil, and shrugs. “There’s a trophy room up there full of curiosities. I saw it once. Too brightly lit. You could see the seams, for all they pretend that art gets one closer to god. They have a couple of nicely done cherubim, though. I wouldn’t mind a cherub, Boy-O, but they never come down here. Best I can get is a hecatoncheir, and you’ve seen what a mess my previous stuffer made with that.”
Louis looks at the hundred-handed man and feels deep pity for the poor taxidermist who had to skin him. Still, even a hecatoncheir has bones. Louis feels more pity for himself.
Before him, a ghost collapses into a globule, and Louis puts his head down on the desk.
One may stitch up the skin of a ghost and then, using a paper straw, gently, gently inflate the ghost with helium.
“That is not stuffed,” says the Devil. “That is a balloon.”
The ghost in question, sad-eyed and buoyant, bobs over the heads of hell, tied to a string, before eventually leaking and drooping, bent at the waist, a pitiful excuse for a trophy.
Louis sits on the floor of hell, and hugs his knees. Carl will be at supper in white tie. Carl will be drinking champagne with Oscar Wilde. Carl will be happy to be rid of a troublesome lover whose fingernails smell of formalin. He will eat soft-poached eggs and open his beautiful eyes every morning upon the face of someone other than Louis.
Above Louis, the ghost wobbles and shrivels, emitting a hiss of escaping air. None of these ghosts are pretty. This ghost has bulging eyes and pinned-back ears. It was employed scaring vulnerable people to death, but some spiritualist eventually delivered a message to a murderer for it, and then it was appeased, exhausted and able to fade. There’s a small metal plaque still to be affixed beneath it. The Devil’s collection is diverse, but the ghosts are all like limp pieces of bridal veil left among moths.
Louis looks enviously at the workings of hell, at the way the bony demons move, their spines and chitins, their tusks. He miserably fills a ghost with cotton balls, and watches it soak them. He fills another with smoke, carefully sealing its entrances and exits, but the smoke trickles out through the ghost’s tear ducts, and the ghost looks mournfully at Louis.
Louis looks back. “You’re not alive,” he says. “You haven’t been in centuries.”
He adjusts the goo of the eyeball, trying to stabilize it with wheat paste. He thinks of Carl’s blue eyes, and of what Carl will look like when Carl is dead.
One may attempt to wet mount a ghost in a fashion wherein the ghost is encased in a vat, and the liquid suspending the ghost is tears. One cannot predict the behavior of the ghost once mounted in such a fashion, however, vatted in the liquid of the vale. One can predict that one will continue to cry. One is, after all, in hell.
The ghost’s fingers drift against the glass, pressing and then releasing. The ghost somersaults, disintegrating in the saline, falling to pieces and filtering down to the bottom of the vessel. The Devil shakes his head.
“That’s not what I’m looking for,” says the Devil. “That looks like algae. I want a whimsy. I want my collection to look playful, Boy-O.”
Louis looks at the Devil. The Devil smiles at him.
“Whimsies?” says Louis.
This has now become the personal hell of Louis. Of course it has. Personal hells are the Devil’s specialty. Louis is a builder of precise dioramas for museum displays. He’d never put a mouse in a hat, nor a lizard in a gown. He would not force a bird to wear a breastplate. All he wants is to make the natural world unnaturally precious. His time in millinery was horrible, watching women leave the shop with birds perched out of context above their eyebrows. Now things are worse. Ghosts do not belong on walls.
He misses Carl. He funnels another tear from his eye and drains it into the vessel, where the remains of the dismal ghost sift downward like coffee grounds.
He pins a ribbon on the head of a ghost, and attempts to hold it up in an excitable pose. This ghost was a Roman senator. It looks wan, and when Louis picks it up, the ghost makes him sneeze. He tries to fill it with hot air, but it catches fire, and floats up toward the dodos. Things end in conflagration, and Louis prostrates himself on the floor of hell and weeps. All around him, demons douse dodos in kerosene. He prays for salvation, pitifully and without hope, as he tries to go to sleep.
When Louis opens his eyes, his toes burning at some infernal flame, his skin parched, Carl is kneeling beside him, all blue-eyed calm, white suit, and lilac corsage.
“Louis,” says Carl, and shakes him. “Step lively. I’ve come to take you home.”
Louis sits halfway up, panicked with relief, and then becomes convinced that Carl is a ghost. Louis grabs Carl’s hand, and feels it in its glove, the softness of the moleskin. He looks around for The Devil. The Devil isn’t visible.
“Carl?” he says.
“Of course,” says Carl. “Did you think I’d let you sell your soul?”
“I didn’t sell my soul,” says Louis, despairing. “I don’t believe in souls. I don’t believe in Satan. I don’t believe in God. Carl, you know who I am. I believe in science. How did I end up in the underworld? How did you?”
“It was a fuss to get here,” Carl says. “There’s no train to this part of hell anymore.”
Louis looks at him, bewildered. When has Carl ever been to hell? To Louis’ knowledge, he’s never even been to church.
“The Devil has a pneumatic tube,” Louis says. “Not that that helps me. I have to taxidermy all these ghosts, and you don’t know what I’m going through.”
Carl picks up a limp ghost, and dandles it on his arm. The ghost unfurls like a shirt.
“What’s the difficulty, here, Louis?” says Carl. “This seems like it could be posed.”
Louis looks at the ghost, unrumpled, smooth and peaceful. The ghost seems soothed by Carl. Carl runs a hand over Louis’ forehead and Louis feels the same. His mind twinges with suspicion, however.
“How’d you get here, Carl?” says Louis. “How’d you know where I was?”
“I took a carriage with some white horses,” says Carl, and shrugs. “It came to my building.”
Louis touches Carl’s cheek and it feels cool. He looks into Carl’s eyes and Carl looks like his love. Carl moves to kiss him, and Louis finds himself lurching forward with a desperate hunger, and then wonders if he has become the Devil, if he is trying to dive into the divine, to become the armature that makes Carl move. He leans back.
Carl kisses him anyway. He tastes like mint. “Don’t worry, Louis,” Carl says. “I’m here now.”
Louis lets Carl help him to his feet, feeling their burnt bottoms crisp. His fingers are like claws and they snag on Carl’s suit. He nearly sobs.
“What did you sell to get here, Carl?”
“Try to calm down, Louis, dear. They just let me in,” says Carl, and Louis looks at him for a moment, trying not to wonder.
One must ask a ghost’s permission before one uses the knives and flenses. One must inquire as to the ghost’s preferred method. If one does not, a ghost may convert into a pool of impossible ideas, or mutate into a lady’s chiffon burnoose. One must steam and press the ghost, and then pat the ghost into position. One must pet the ghost and pose it, and one must not disregard the ghost’s opinions, or one will risk ghost venom dribbled from tentacles, as well as luminous toxins, barbs, and boneless slither. No one wants to insult a ghost. One should have known that much.
Carl strokes the cheek of the newly mounted ghost, the papier-mâché invisible beneath its skin. Louis hammers in the plaque. “Fever Haint,” it reads. “Virginia.” The ghost raises a hand to its mouth, and screams a pale yellow silence, its body dissolving into tendrils.
“This is lovely work,” says Carl, as Louis assesses the heap of half-skinned ghosts before him. Carl has a glow about him, a hygiene that is the antithesis of hell.
Carl may be something other than Carl.
Louis mounts the ghost of a wooly mammoth. He cannot fathom why there was ever a wooly mammoth in hell, but it is a wooly mammoth hybridized to an amoeba, and as such, it drifts about the room, its fur and temper turned to plasma, and it has to be coaxed by Carl to allow sawdust into its seams. Elsewhere, Louis has taxidermied a jellyfish ghost ship found unanchored in the Atlantic and filled with bodies. Each of these bodies required its own negotiation. He has taxidermied the ghost remains of the goddess Echidna, though he was unable to tell what exactly she was until Carl shook out the moths from her folds. Part snake, part woman, a flesh eater and mother of gods, until thousands of years of underworld took her from amongst the cannibals and drew her into a hunger strike.
“A perfectly stunning drakaina, yes you are,” says Carl, stroking Echidna’s dragon tail, and Louis looks up at him, and feels anxious. Carl has not historically possessed knowledge of mythology, nor of anything, in truth, beyond cocktails and cravats. Carl has always been beautiful beyond his other skills. Louis, he now realizes, has underestimated his beloved.
It is Carl who has touched up the paint on the faces of the ghosts, Carl who has sculpted the ghost dioramas, Carl who has patiently leaned in and dabbed at sagging specters. It is Carl who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the levels of hell, Carl who periodically takes a sip of a fizzing drink a demon brought him.
It is Carl who is an honored guest in the underworld.
It is Carl who now makes Louis anxious. His beauty has long seemed unholy, but at home there was no reason to wonder.
“Have you been here before, Carl?”
“To hell?” asks Carl, and smiles. “Of course, Louis. Everyone who’s anyone has been to hell.”
Louis hesitates. “Do you happen to be from here?”
“Not at all,” says Carl, and Louis thinks of how he’s never met Carl’s family. He hadn’t expected to meet them, of course. He knew one day Carl would marry, and then, perhaps, at a tremendous Southern wedding, he might sit beside Carl’s mother and toast her with a julep. Does Carl have parents at all?
“You’ve spent time here, then? Why didn’t you ever tell me?” Louis has a piece of a tremendous lizard in his hands now, just the foot, as he attempts fruitlessly to position its tiny forearms and gigantic haunches. Draped over one shoulder, he’s got a limp philosopher, and over the other a three-headed dog.
“I didn’t think you needed to know,” says Carl, calmly. “Hell was my Thursday evening for a time.”
“Was this Oscar?” asks Louis, forlorn. “Did Oscar introduce you to him?”
“Oscar doesn’t know the Devil,” says Carl. “Oscar goes the other way. The Devil and I go way back, Louis. We’ve known each other for years.”
The Devil strolls into the room, looking pleasant, despite the bat wings that flutter about his shoulders.
“Carl!” he says, and opens his arms. “We’ve missed you down here. You’re looking well.”
“As are you,” says Carl, and they embrace with the certainty of every set of old lovers since the beginning of time.
Louis watches, despair rising like water in a basement, covering over his memorabilia, drowning the steamer trunks of his ancestors, moldering his heirlooms. He silently laments as the Devil and Carl hold one another, leaning back to look into each other’s faces. He thinks about how the Devil always calls him Boy-O.
“I can’t believe you never told me,” he says to Carl, and Carl shrugs.
“Almost no one knows everything about anyone else,” he says. “Even the people they love. There are lacunae, and there are lies: these are the basic ones.”
The Devil nods in solidarity.
But Louis imagined he knew Carl. He’s spent his career removing the inner workings of animals, and filling them up with other things. If anyone knows everything about a creature, it is Louis. He now knows the soft machinery of all the ghosts in hell, and yet Carl is a mystery.
“I’m sure you understand why I had to bring you down here,” says the Devil. “Carl stopped returning my telegrams.”
“We didn’t end well, the Devil and I,” says Carl.
“No one does with me,” says the Devil, with some regret. “I tried to apologize, but I’d gone too far.”
Louis stitches up the belly of the last ghost with fierce, tugging stitches. He looks up at Carl, who is petting the Devil’s cheek.
“Who are you?” Louis asks his lover. “Who even are you?”
The ghost Louis is holding begins to disintegrate, and Louis strokes its seams. “Stay,” he says. He hammers its plaque in. “Swamp Nightmare,” it reads. “Louisiana.”
Carl is glowing more brilliantly. He’s a blue-eyed carnival. A variety of demons come to observe. Louis can see their little pitchers of accelerants. He readies himself to defend Carl, though all he has is a needle and thread.
“No,” the Devil intercedes with his minions. “Not Carl. Carl isn’t for the flames today.”
“I don’t mind, if it makes you feel better,” says Carl. “Flames have never bothered me.”
“I needn’t see you burn again, dear one,” says the Devil, and sighs. “Once was enough.” The demons back away, disappointed. The air smells of burnt feathers.
“How is your collection coming?” the Devil asks Carl, tentatively. “I think of it sometimes. I think of your seraph and your little flock of ophanim in particular. All those beautiful eyes spinning on their wheels.”
One may, when falling in with God, miss the point. God, after all, would not, by common reckoning, be comfortable reclined across a bed in a small and tidy flat, drinking strong tea. God may not possess a navel, but that would be less than troubling, if one were a taxidermist and used to the beautiful oddities of nature. God may make love like an angel. God may make a man scream in disbelief. God may startle the Devil into saying ‘darling’ and ‘dearest.’
The Devil and Carl go off into one of the back rooms of hell, and Louis waits. When Carl emerges, he’s wiping tears from his face, and when the Devil emerges, he is smiling bravely, abandoned again in the Underworld.
“Boy-O,” says the Devil. “Looks like Carl wants you up there.”
Louis looks around at the perfectly mounted hydra ghost, at the jellied mold of Dante, labeled simply “Cartographer,” at the feathered phoenix ignitus interruptus.
“Does this mean I’m dying?” asks Louis. He’s only 28. At the museum he was in the middle of the Nile, and next, it would have been wild game, a particularly nice and nearly intact lion skin acquired from a dowager.
“Dying isn’t such an awful thing,” says Carl, comforting him.
“Dying is just a pneumatic tube,” says the Devil. “One goes up, one down.”
“Does this mean I’m dead?” asks Louis.
“You’re in demand,” says Carl. “Look at your work.”
Louis looks down at his stomach instead, checking for a seam. There is none. “Am I an angel?”
“You’ll be the official taxidermist. There are privileges to your position,” says Carl. “I’m offering you your dream job, Louis.”
Job Description: All things bright and beautiful may be the aim of the collection, but one may, when falling in with God, never realize that one is being interviewed. God, all Alpha and Omega, all open-armed and bare-chested in one’s bed, may never be discovered to be a collector on hiatus from his curation. Nature contains the tentacle and the thorn, the tusk, the membrane, the perfect dusty fish scales of butterfly wings. Nature contains the kissed, the loved and the employed, the insects. Heaven’s inhabitants may only be examples of everything that has ever existed on Earth. A taxidermist in heaven must stitch and stuff, smooth and arrange. Sometimes he may return to the bed of the curator, and stay there a century, drifting in a sea of feathered reckoning. Then will he return to the eternal skinning and sewing of souls. Compensation commensurate to experience.
Louis takes a moment.
“What if you die?” Louis says, and then points at the Devil. “What if he does?”
“Then you preserve Carl and put Carl in the collection,” says the Devil. “Or me, for that matter. One day. You never know. I prefer a barbed wire armature.”
“I like papier-mâché,” says Carl, “though if it’s available you might be better served by making an armature of spun glass.”
“If you’re kind, you’ll bring me up to the higher place for display, Boy-O, when I go,” says the Devil, and then he passes Louis his valise, and kisses him on the cheek in the prickly way one kisses the lover of one’s love.
A little scrap of ghost hangs out of the bag, and Louis tucks it in. If it is so ambitious, it deserves to ascend. He follows Carl into the pneumatic capsule, and then, with shocking speed, the great winds of heaven pull them up, and up, from beneath the skin of the Earth and into the vault of the sky.
Maria Dahvana Headley is the author of the upcoming young adult skyship novel Magonia from HarperCollins, the dark fantasy/alt-history novel Queen of Kings, the internationally bestselling memoir The Year of Yes, and The End of the Sentence, a novella co-written with Kat Howard, from Subterranean. With Neil Gaiman, she is the New York Times-bestselling co-editor of the monster anthology Unnatural Creatures, benefitting 826DC. Her Nebula and Shirley Jackson award-nominated short fiction has recently appeared on Tor.com, and in The Toast, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Apex, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, Subterranean Online, Glitter & Mayhem and Jurassic London's The Lowest Heaven and The Book of the Dead, and will soon appear in Uncanny, Shimmer, and more. It's anthologized in the 2013 and 2014 editions of Rich Horton's The Year's Best Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Paula Guran's 2013 The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, in The Year's Best Weird Volume 1, ed. Laird Barron, and in Wastelands, Vol 2, among others. She grew up in rural Idaho on a survivalist sled-dog ranch, spent part of her 20's as a pirate negotiator and ship marketer in the maritime industry, and now lives in Brooklyn in an apartment shared with a seven-foot-long stuffed crocodile.