Like a River Loves the Sky

My best friend NPW has been collecting dogs from the side of the highway. He drives miles and miles each day with one eye to the shoulder, on the lookout for heaps of dark fur. Into black trash bags the blood-matted bodies go, and into the big plastic cooler he “liberated” from a summer hunting cabin up North; and then, after a rattling ride in the back of his rusted truck, the dogs end up in our basement, where NPW separates them from their skins. I love dogs, though I’m too allergic to ever have one. When I was a little girl, I wanted to grow up to be a Welsh Corgi, and in fact I do resemble one, with a long pudgy trunk and very short legs, and like a Corgi I’m at my best when given small jobs to do—fetching newspapers and so on. If NPW were a dog, he would be a Catahoula Cur, alert and intense, bred for hunting wild boar.

NPW: “Okay, Adriana. Explain the difference between a deer and a dog.”

Me: Ungulates versus canines. Hooves versus paws. Fruit and nuts versus kibble and bits.

NPW: “I mean emotionally.”

We stand in the kitchen, which stands above the basement, where I imagine the dogs live dead in various stages: whole, partially-skinned, fully skinned, stuffed. NPW claims he’s not taxidermying these dogs, he’s doing something else, something new, but he’s a professional taxidermist and so what else could he be doing? There are many things I’ll miss when he moves out next month, but walking around over a dark pit of dismembered animals is not one of them. We’ve been friends for over two decades, since we were eight, and every few years or so we have a terrible fight; our version of renewing our vows. Maybe this, about the dogs, will be our anniversary blowout. I hope so. I’m mad at him for other reasons I can’t in good conscience fight about.

“A deer is a deer unto itself,” I say. “But somebody loved those dogs. Stroked their fur. Kissed their noses. Called for them, searched for them, cried when they didn’t come home.”

NPW folds his tattooed arms. “So being a receptacle for human love, in life, should change the way we treat an animal’s body after death?”

“Dogs aren’t a receptacle,” I say. “They love back! Deer don’t love at all.”

“Define love outside of human terms,” he says, and that’s an argument I can’t win, so I leave the room.

That night I’m a fallen apple and I love a deer. My body unrounds sweet with brown rot and ants swarm heart-like in my hollows, soft pieces of me chewed away in chitin jaws even as another mouth descends to meet around me. Deer-soft lips, yellow doorway teeth, a dark tonguing down a closed wet valley, and I love without movement or desire, an eternal surrendered swallow. When I wake there are dried leaves in my bed and two live ants. Looking in the mirror, I find a blade of grass stuck to my cheek with what looks like tear tracks but tastes like cider.

In the kitchen NPW eats eggs, a huge plateful, he’s trying to put on muscle. From the basement wafts a smell like incense and wax. He glances up when I come in and watches as I fork a bite of egg from the pan on the stove. Unsalted. He’s a monster.

“Are you going to show me what you’re doing down there?” I ask.

He says, “Not yet.”

A faint, plaintive bark sounds from somewhere close, almost as if it’s beneath our feet. Speaking loudly, covering the sound, NPW says, “Should we go see your mom today?”

So much for my anger. “Yes.”

My mother lost her mind to early-onset Alzheimers and lives in a nursing home in Rochester, an hour and a half from Minneapolis, and I don’t have a car. We climb into NPW’s truck and I ignore the cooler in back, and the box of heavy-duty trash bags in my passenger-side footwell. It’s hot for May, at least I think it is—the seasons aren’t reliable like they used to be. I fiddle with the A/C while NPW bickers affectionately on the phone with his girlfriend Robby, finalizing details of his move. She’s long badgered him to come up North and live with her, an argument they’ve had for comfort rather than conclusion, because both knew he’d do it eventually; it was a question of when, and the answer was me. He was reluctant to leave me alone, what with my mother, and my tendency to waste entire afternoons crying at the kitchen table. But then he got offered a job teaching taxidermy at a folk school up there, a studio thrown in to sweeten the deal, a start date of June first. His dream job, how could he say no? I don’t blame him; but I do blame him.

“Love to Adriana!” Robby shouts, her normally mellow voice distilled through the speaker as a high metallic yap. I’m trying not to resent her, but I’m not trying very hard, and I don’t say anything back. After a moment, NPW shakes his head at me and hangs up the phone.

There’s a protest on the bridge as we head out of the city. NPW’s driving about three miles an hour, and he rolls down his window and lets in a jet of warm air as we pass a group of our friends, all visibly sweating. They’re a tattooed mass of black cutoffs and work boots, and they reach listlessly through the window to fistbump NPW and to call in to me, asking where I’ve been, why haven’t they seen me. Work, I say, so much work.

It’s not untrue, I have been working a lot, saving money to live in our bottom-floor duplex alone until I can find a roommate I like as much as NPW, or half as much. My job is not ideal for someone in my state of mind, however: I work for a removal service/antique store that empties the houses of the recently deceased, selling what we can and disposing of the rest. I used to love my job, wading through the material evidence of someone else’s memories, but since I cleaned out my own childhood home after my father died and my mother was moved out, it’s taken on new resonance for me.

The traffic dissipates, 52 opening up beneath a toothy blue sky, and NPW gestures to the backpack slumped by my feet. “Grab us a couple apples,” he says, and I do, polishing mine on my shirt as he takes an enormous bite of his own. The sound is aural texture, a perfect crunch and cleave with juice filling in the cracks, and I remember being eaten by a deer, the love I felt, inhuman and absent of goals. I eat my apple in a dual mind, chewing and chewed, but without the human hierarchy of consumption; one is no better than the other, no power anywhere. NPW hurls his core out the window and shouts after it, “Make a tree!”

The nursing home is dependably grim. My mother doesn’t know us at all today and is mostly sleeping, so NPW and I sit quietly in chairs by her bed for a few hours, holding onto her. Her hand is light as a wasp’s nest, papery and hollow-boned. She’s one of the youngest people here but one of the farthest gone. NPW talks to her whenever she rouses enough to mutter something to us, but I don’t have the energy today and I just listen. “Which is it?” she says very clearly. “The bridge or the music?” And NPW says, “Definitely the music.”

Her shared room is divided by a curtain, and the old man on the other side murmurs constantly, a drone like wheat in the wind, while the sunny window warms the sterile room by gold degrees. I doze off and I’m a river who loves the sky. My body is a movement of a million eyes carried forward in arms of rock and earth, a gaze the sky lays down upon; I move relentlessly beneath it while I hold it very still, in my love I shine its own bright face back up in iterations, I give the sky itself repeatedly, a love of intrinsic reflection, constant unchangeable change. The man on the other side of the curtain raises his voice and I jolt awake. NPW is nowhere to be seen, and inexplicably my dress is dripping wet, and the sleeve of my mother’s robe soaked to the elbow where my hand had been resting on her wrist. I go into the adjacent bathroom and take off my dress to dry it beneath the electric hand-dryer, and when I go back into the room NPW is there again with two styrofoam cups of coffee and a nurse is examining my mother’s sleeve with some dismay.

“I spilled water,” I say.

“I can see that,” she says.

I have no siblings. NPW is the only person left from my childhood who knew my parents as they were, how my father got excited about thunderstorms and my mother always laughed at ducks. He remembers the layout of my teenage bedroom and what the inside of our family Volvo smelled like (melted crayons and potato chips). I remember his parents too, which is easy because they’re still alive, the bastards, and send him menacing prayer-cards in the mail every month, and rarer still I remember when he was a ten-year-old girl with waist-length hair and a gloriously bad attitude. He used to hack apart our Barbies and create many-limbed plastic monsters with too many breasts, and look at him now, famous for taxidermy. He started with mice caught in Dumptruck, the disgusting Milwaukee punkhouse he lived in off and on for most of his early twenties, and his business is still called Dumptruck Mouse; a name I’ve almost gotten over hating. For his house mice he’d sew perfect tiny costumes and arrange them in concert dioramas: studded leather jackets for Ramones mice, flamboyant purple suits for Prince, and once a perfect feathered swan dress for a Bjork mouse. That one got him $250 and an interview on a local cable show.

Family’s a rigid category, unchangeable except by strict law. You can marry in, you can adopt, but outside of that there’s no way to officially become someone’s cousin, say, or someone’s sister. Robby, who has become NPW’s new chosen family, is more legitimate than I could ever be although I’ve known him so much longer, and why? Because of sex. The lack of sex precludes any ritualizing of a friendship, meaning unlike with lovers, there’s no way to ceremonially bind a friend to you, to promise a connection even through arguments or time or the death of memory.

On the drive back, NPW sees a dog. I see it too, a brown furry mound too small to be a deer, too large to be a raccoon, and as he slows the truck down he says, “Sorry, Adriana.”

“You’re not,” I say, but I climb out with him, into the heat of the sun on the side of the roaring road.

There’s a smear of blood on the pavement, still glistening wet, and I know from previous forays with NPW that wet blood means fresh meat, an animal not yet beginning to rot, and edible if that’s what you’re going for. To take a deer you need a deer tag, same as hunting, but I’m pretty sure dogs are just illegal. NPW’s moving fast and furtive, perching the cooler on the edge of his truck bed and popping the lid, then pulling on a dirty apron and a pair of yellow kitchen gloves. The dog is lying on its side, eyes closed, mouth open. Its tongue is perfect, lolling. It’s some kind of lab mix, that sweet doofy face and compact body, a young dog, barely out of puppyhood. I can’t help but tear up.

“Nobody is going to buy these,” I say, tearfully.

“I know,” says NPW. He eases a trash bag around the body and squats to lift it into his arms.

“What do you mean, you know?” I say. “Why would you do this if you know you can’t sell them?”

“I’m trying some weird new shit,” he says. “Can we leave it at that for now?”

I watch him heft the dog into the cooler, gently. He’s strong, has always been strong, but now it’s starting to show on his body, his arms thickening with muscle, his shoulders getting broader. He’s growing up; an absurd thing to say about a twenty-nine-year-old, but there it is. I feel like a child in contrast, static and sullen. How can I see every shade of who he’s ever been, and still not understand him? At least not enough to keep him.

“You’re strange, NPW,” I say.

He looks over his shoulder at me, grinning. “This is news to you?”

“Hits me fresh sometimes.”

The dog’s in the cooler, the truck’s hatch is secured. “Boom,” says NPW. We get back in the truck.

I’m a stone, I love a forest fire. My body is forged solid and unthinking from the old blood of the earth, it is unaware of having a body at all and the fire is all body, younger than breath, all dance, a descendant of creative heat. Once I was gripped so tight I formed to the shape of the hot palm that held me, a love of conversion, an ancient love that burned and cooled and bakes again in the crackle of flame, a touch recalling transformation deeper than the present, but present. In the morning my sheets are scorched, my hair singed white at the tips. As I’m making breakfast I hear what sounds like muffled barking from beneath my feet, and a thread of melody as if NPW is singing, or chanting. The smell of incense lingers.

At work I’m distracted, packing books in with the silverware and marking a stack of warped and moldy records as for-sale, when clearly they are trash. I weep over an unopened bottle of cognac and my boss sends me back to the store, where I unroll rug after rug in the backroom for a young couple who buy a rocking chair instead. It’s a wonderful rocking chair—I found it in the dusty attic of somebody’s aunt’s house, and spent some time in it myself, rocking, waiting guiltily to be discovered and made to return to work.

NPW is in the basement when I get home, and I make a casserole with wild rice Robby sent us from up North. Northern wild rice is the most beautiful food a person can eat, I think; it grows in water and tastes like tea steeped in rain, garnet-dark and shiny, grains like jewels until it’s cooked down and splits open pale. It was sacred to the Ojibwe and it’s sacred to me. Minnesota’s lakes are in it, and in the lakes, the sky. I love it like cupped palms. NPW comes upstairs and spends a long time washing his hands at the sink, then fills a bowl and sits across from me at the table. He takes a few big bites and then puts down his spoon.

“What do birds mean to you?” he says. “Metaphorically speaking.”

“I’m really not in the mood,” I say. Then, after he waits patiently, “I don’t know. The usual. Freedom, and the lack thereof.”

“Cats?”

I think. “Aloof self-regard. Pleasure-seeking but self-satisfying.”

“Dogs?”

I flick a grain of wild rice at him. “Everyone knows what dogs mean.”

“Humor me.”

“Loyalty,” I say. “Friendship. Devotion.”

“Okay, right,” he says, and picks up his spoon again. “This is really good, by the way.”

“N,” I say. “Do you remember when we saw that forest fire from the plane, when we went to visit my aunt?”

“Over Idaho?” He gives it a second, then says, “What about it?”

“I was thinking about what my mom told us,” I say. “How fire releases certain seeds, so trees can reproduce and keep growing after a burn. I can’t remember which trees.”

“Want me to look it up?” NPW says, reaching for his phone.

“Not really,” I say.

“Lodgepole,” he reads. “Jackpine. Eucalyptus.” He looks up. “The Adriana of the Northern Plains.”

“Oh jesus,” I say.

“Forest fires open the canopy to sunlight,” he reads. “This allows new growth on the forest floor.”

At the end of the month, I help him load up his truck and a rented trailer. Everything he owns fits in one trip, barely. He takes all his taxidermy equipment and I’m afraid to ask what he’s done with the dogs. When we hug goodbye, he holds me for a long, long time, even though he’ll only be six hours away and says he’ll visit often. I put my cheek against the rough canvas of his jacket and can feel the quick up-down of his chest; he’s trying not to cry, which sets me off, and when we break away his collar is wet with my tears. I want to tell him I’m sorry, sorry for being a brat, sorry that I’m mad at him for leaving, sorry that what should be a joyful new beginning for him is tainted with my sadness.

“Drive safe,” I say.

“You know me,” he says.

The house is empty without him. As night falls the silence gets bigger and grows arms and reaches for me, and I climb into bed early. A streetlamp glows orange through the branches of the mulberry tree outside my window, and now and again a car passes, lighting up the room with that time-lapse strobing quality. I drift off. I’m a mayfly that loves the moon: for the few brief nights that I’m alive, I swim in silver. If I had a voice I’d howl.

There is a howling. A low crooning rising. A yap, a faint whine, a huff of breath from a panting, toothy mouth. One full-body shake of fur and I’m suddenly awake, scared rigid in my bed and aware of a presence. My door is tightly closed, but in my doorway several sets of eyes are glinting at me. Wet noses point in my direction. Then, one by one, the dogs pad in.

There are five of them, perfectly whole, their coats shining and translucent, their shimmering faces curious and eager. My fear is gone as quickly as it came. They sniff around the perimeter of my room, tasting the air with their tongues, tails wagging, and then they come to a stop at the foot of my bed. One of them lets out a soft, whuffing bark, and I recognize the young lab mix I watched NPW pick up on the way back from the hospital, sleek and unhurt. Tentatively, I pat the bed, and the lab wastes no time, it leaps onto my quilt and turns once, twice, before settling itself nose to tail. The other four curl up on the floor around my bed, stretching and yawning as they get comfortable, and I recognize a gift when I meet one. These are NPW’s creations, protection from my lonely nights. The lab lets out a contented sigh, and though it’s weightless, making no dent in my blanket, it gives off a living warmth. The dogs glow like a lullaby, and in their midst, an animal among other animals, an animal who knows the love of rocks and rivers and apples and world, I fall asleep.

Emma Törzs

Emma Törzs is a writer, teacher, and chronic waitress based in Minneapolis. Her short fiction has been published in journals such as Ploughshares, the Threepenny Review, and Narrative, and honored with a 2015 O. Henry Prize and a 2015 Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. She’s grateful to the Loft Literary Center, the Jerome Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, the MRAC, the MSAB, and Norwescon for financial support through the years, and she was lucky to be part of the Clarion West class of 2017.

One Response to “Like a River Loves the Sky”

  1. TaxiderMe

    As a rogue taxidermist who often picks up roadkill, I enjoyed this story very much!

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