Camp Dearly Departed

The skin wasn’t perfect, by any means, but it was free.

The edges of the hide were tougher than they should have been and Mortimer Dixie had already identified a dozen puncture marks. The buck had met the front end of a pickup about a week ago and the driver, who had always fancied the idea of hunting but had never actually gone, did a hack job on skinning the beast. It was only after he’d let the hide sit, inside exposed, for a few days that he decided he didn’t have it in him to finish the job. Naturally, it ended up on Mort’s doorstep. He was known to keep dead things so consequently, dead things were given to him: possums scraped off the sides of the road, bags of rats pinched in half by traps, dogs and cats euthanized once their bowels failed and their hips gave out. All of them, hundreds throughout the years, had found their way to Mort from the hands of those no longer willing to carry them. Still, a buck was a treat to taxidermy and even more so to enchant.

The pungent smell of the hide clung to the stagnant air, but Mort found it wasn’t entirely unpleasant, especially when the clove, lemongrass solution rubbed on the doorway and window sills drove away any curious houseflies. He pressed his thick glasses onto the bridge of his small nose as he hunched over his work table, a single Edison bulb dangling overhead. What remained of his dark hair was slicked back. A Smokey-the-Bear campaign hat rested on his back and tucked into his khaki shorts was an old safari shirt with a small, evergreen emblem embroidered on the pocket. His bare legs were tucked under his stool and his white, grass-stained sneakers were perched on one of the stool’s support bars. With great care, Mort pulled the deer cape taunt on the fleshing beam and, with short, quick flicks, cut away at the inside of the hide. Each slice cleaned the edges and thinned the skin, leaving behind a white, soft velvet under his finger tips. His head tilted to match the rotation of work and his pink tongue popped out of the corner of his mouth as he dragged the knife across the particularly thick chin skin. It was imperative not to puncture the hide. Even the best mend was just that. Magic works most consistently under controlled environments. Holes let the magic leak out and overtime, if any were left untreated, this is would be for nothing more than a tacky piece of decor.

If the crafting room hadn’t had leather-working supplies, he would have had to put off the project until the end of the week. His first needle had snapped as he punchered the dry hide, but at the bottom of a cupboard, under the diamond stitching chisels, the bevelers and the hammers, he’d fished out another. His ever revolving arm spun clear, plastic circles and the small holes melted into the fur as he tugged his stitches taunt. Hide mended, the ears were next. Always tricky for him. He pressed his thumb between the skin and cartilage, and pulled. The crunching noise when the two materials popped apart was just like biting into an apple on a midsummer afternoon. An apple sounded pretty great, right about now. Not the lunchbox apples they gave out in the mess hall, though -those were a genetically modified joke- but a real apple. A red delicious with pale, mealy insides and a star formation of seeds in its belly. The blandness of the apple hardly mattered: he was after the sensation of driving teeth into skin.

Prep work aside, Mort draped the hide over the prepared foam mannequin. The chin sat well, the ears lined up, and it would have been pristine save for an excess flap dangling far off the right side of the shoulder. He could fold it behind the mount- no one would know- but if his father had taught him anything, it was to work well even when the effort went unappreciated. The advice had oame from experience. His father hadn’t made much money as a simple factory sorcerer enchanting countless sleeping bags to roll themselves up, but he was present as a father and instilled in his son a love for mother nature. Every summer in the woods, after hiking the trails and setting up the tent, Mort would smile as the red glow of the fire bloomed across the packed dirt of the campsite. With a wave of his father’s hand, the coals rattled, the flames crackled and spat, and the campfire spoke. It’s curled lips told ghost stories about escaped asylum patients and creatures in the dark until the flames retreated into the edges of the brittle, blackened wood. They’d make s’mores after that.

Most of Mort’s work had gone equally unappreciated, but as was life. The hunting knife caught on the drier parts of the hide in a sudden jut. With a jerk, he hit a stride and it glided through the flesh like scissors through Christmas paper. Satisfied with the hide’s condition, he painted a thin coat of adhesive solution onto the foam mannequin. The glue was mixed with belladonna berry juice, mashed mandrake root and a few ounces of the buck’s blood. Either plant would have worked by itself, in fact it was recommended. While the industry was split as to which plant performed better, it was universally agreed by necromancers that mixing the two could nullify magic effects under most circumstances. Of course, most circumstances are not all and his mentor had spent years perfecting this particular proportion to both amplify complementing effects and compensate for individual deficiencies.

Mort pulled the loose form over the foam mount and the shapeless fur gained identity. Hands gripping each side, he stretched until his knuckles touched before smoothing the hide in line on the form. Next came stitching the spine and pinning the eyes while his pink tongue stretched outward yet again. The monotonous detail work calmed him and his hands found comfort in routine. The repetition always bothered his mentor. He was a man of showmanship and had met the practice before it had become largely irrelevant. Long ago, necromancy had been the strong arm of the world. War, labor, communication: all had been done with a touch of the dead. While the public was openly disapproving of the practice, its creations were ignored in the name of practicality and begrudgingly allowed to lurk in the forgotten bowels of the city and the dark nightmares of war. The invention of photography changed that. As pictures from civil war battlefields circulated back home, the mothers and fathers and wives and children of the fallen did not appreciate the sight of their loved ones walking on rotting legs. What started as an outcry was legislated in ink. Necromancy was exiled to the realm of irrelevancy.

It happened slowly. Necromancy wasn’t exclusive to animating sentient beings: animals had plenty of practical usages for the military and post-colonial America. Horses that never fatigued, pigeons that tapped out morse codes, and traveling freak shows with minimal overhead were steady streams of consumption with limitless supply. That was, until mechanical wonders marched onto the scene and one by one, each stream dried out. Museums were his mentor’s specialty throughout the seventies and eighties, but anthropological finds and modern art were increasingly favored by guests over stuffed beasts. His mentor retired at the end of an era and Mort, who had dreamed of memorializing nature in marble halls and glass display cases, now maintained the practice only as a hobby. With his thumb, he smoothed the clay under the eyelid shaping it into a friendly, bright arch. The eyes were what counted most. If they looked dead, the rest of this was meaningless.

It was unnerving to look at the mount at this stage: not quite dead but certainly not alive. He had seen living deer many times while camping. His father and he had watched their gentle, spry beauty emerge hesitantly from the trees. Despite his practice, Mort had never killed anything: he couldn’t bring himself to see the light drain from the eyes of something so pure. In a way, taxidermy was his response to the vandalism of death. And necromancy? Well, that was something else entirely. If Mort had just been taxidermying, he would have had to wait at least two weeks for the adhesive to dry. Necromancy removed that barrier. The next part would sap the moisture out of the glue within minutes. Going against the grain, Mortimer ran his hands up the neck of the beast and breathed deeply. He stood that way awhile, breathing and feeling and focusing on the fur with his eyes closed. The magic buzzed in his core, radiated outward into his shoulders and arms until it finally tingled under his nails.

Then Mortimer spoke the ancient words passed down to him by his mentor and the mentor before him. The Edison bulb flickered in clicking blips. A green cloud seeped from his fingertips with a sizzle and hiss. As he spoke, the white skin began to heat up and buzz. His voice deepened to a brassy bellow as the smoke swirled around his sharp cheekbones illuminating them in a ghastly glow. The fur trembled with forbidden sentience. The hide was scorching now, hot as an iron, and a burn crawled across his palms but he did not dare move them. His voice rose in volume and intensity. The green smoke pressed up against the ceiling. Blisters bubbled up on his palms, swelling seizing until they popped.

The deer let out a wretched squeal.

Mort stumbled backward, gasping, and the mount thrashed violently against the wooden placard.  Its muscles may have been foam, but the hide didn’t know that. The blisters melted into his palms leaving behind new, pink flesh. Small magic; negligible cost. As the buck calmed, Mort brought out a folded paper from his breast pocket. The edges were worn-thin and the writing had faded with time, but it was still legible. He articulated the commands and the mount snapped to attention. What he would give for his campers to listen half as well! Speech finished, Mort checked his watch, ripped the buck mount off its bar and rushed out of the Arts and Crafts room.

Children’s voices hung in the balmy air as he followed the back dirt roads of the campgrounds. Sweat beaded up in his mustache. The sun beat down on his pale skin. He creaked opened the lodge’s backdoor, lurked through the hallways and stepped into the yellow glow of the entrance foyer. Lining its fake wood-paneling were dozens of mounted beasts: deer, moose, mountain lions, wolves, large-mouth bass, and a few jackalopes on boards the size of postcards. A bear skin rug sprawled out in front of the fireplace. Here and there, tie-dye shirts were draped across furry shoulders and friendship bracelets dangled from antlers. Hanging between mounts were yarn dream catchers, faded God’s eyes and small dioramas of stuffed mice on various escapades. On the left, Sacagawea extended her paw extended westward while furry Lewis and Clark followed with journals. On the right, a line of miners holding matchstick pickaxes marched up a papier-mâché mountain trail. The entire room teamed with frozen vivacity.

In an upper corner was an open space with a screw already in place and a ladder propped underneath. Mort climbed slowly, whispering quiet assurances to the buck. It snapped to the wall with a grunt and after flicking its ear, stiffened into inactivity. After descending, Mort stepped back and tilted his head deciding if the mount needed another adjustment. The front door of the lodge squeaked.

“Director,” said a freckled-nosed faun barely out of high school. “They’re here.”

Mort put his hat on and waved to open the doors. As he folded the ladder, the campers filed in like baby ducklings. They stared at the stuffed-splendor with bright eyes and bushy tails. 

Mort pushed his glasses up on his nose and smiled as his hands found his bony hips. “Well, would you look at you? You’re a bunch of bonafide adventurers, aren’t chya?” The children giggled. “Okay, explorers, I need you to help me out here.” Mort clapped his hands and the eyes of the mounted beasts flashed. “If you’re ready to hunt for bigfoot, I want to hear you scream.” The children screamed and the spark in the eyes of the beast grew to a glow.

“What about making s’mores?” Louder screaming, and the beasts shuddered.

 “Can you give me you best animal roar?” The children yelled and waved their arms with delighted fervor. Energy at an all time high, the mounted beasts shook out their fur as if waking from a deep slumber.

“I’ve got a real treat for you,” said Mort as an expression somewhere between awe and disgust twisted the campers’ faces.

Mort snapped his fingers and the large-mouth bass jerked to face its audience. After a round of gasps, the bass sang, “buh duh duh dum.” The mounted beasts swayed back and forth keeping time while the bear skin rug flopped its legs with jubilence. A few campers stepped back, a few stepped forward, but most froze in place, like deer in headlights. As the beasts swayed, the words of the camp pamphlet came to life in smooth, barbershop tones through dog lips and deer mouths. The newer camp counselors winced at the display, but the seasoned leaders joined in and sang-screamed the camp’s song. The melody split into an a capella delight as their voices rose in volume and glee and the swaying shifted into alternating bobbing and weaving. Mort’s smile grew to an open grin. He pushed his glasses up on his nose as the children behind him continued to stare in stupefied silence.

Life, in all its shades, was swell.

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