Speaking of fish, let’s talk about squirrels for a minute.
—–warning—–this story is pretty gross———————————
I found the squirrel a block away from the house. Lying in the sun, dead.
“A squirrel!” I said, leaning over my bike to look at it. “Maybe even fresh!” The squirrel looked recent, almost lively. Kimber pulled her bike around to look at it too. “I have to take this back to the house!” I said. I’d been looking for a good squirrel for days. I’d never skinned an animal and tanned its hide, and Sam had said that if I found a squirrel, he’d teach me the fine art of DIY taxidermy. I’d seen quite a few in the road, but none as three-dimensional as this. I picked the squirrel up by its tail and biked it back to the house, holding it out at arm’s length. A woman walked by on the sidewalk as I passed, and I looked away, not wanting to see her reaction. Some weird white kid, riding a bicycle with a dead squirrel- really? Back at the house I threw it in half a dozen plastic bags and added a little blue masking tape. Tossed it in the freezer on top of the dumpstered strawberries. Got back on my bike and met back up with Kimber, cringing a little inside. Now that I had a squirrel, I would actually have to skin it. And I was about equal parts excited to learn how to tan hides as I was grossed out by the idea of actually touching the thing.
I called Sam and we agreed to meet up the next afternoon for a nice anti-civ evening of down-home rodent skinning. Sam even had a squirrel too, found mere minutes after it was hit in the road. There would be fresh pelts for everyone, a veritable stockpile of tiny furs.
We got started late. First we had to drive to the army surplus store in Asheboro. Not because we needed anything for the squirrel, but because it’s the biggest army surplus store in the southeast, and Sarah was driving there anyway. The place is a sort of a metal bunker, with a bombed-out helicopter parked in front. This place puts the surplus in army surplus. Huge bins of shrunken wool sweaters, patched with zig-zag machine stitch, some with holes or weird stains. Mis-matched winter gloves, boxes of exercise shorts with stretched-out waistbands. The casings from giant artillery shells, piles of stringy camouflage netting. Faded canvas backpacks and scuffed leather belt pouches, stacked clumsily on low shelves, priced at random. Mysterious uniform jackets with fancy brass buttons, faded squares where the patches have been ripped off. All of it a sort of dull green, blending together into a dusty, serene landscape that stretches back into the infinity of the metal bunker. There is new stuff too- plastic canteens and camp stoves and hulking cast-iron dutch-ovens that come with their own steel tripods for hanging over back-country campfires, all manner of lengths of rope and string and metal ring, cheap plastic compasses and shiny buck-knives. As I walked the aisles I meditated on the two extremes of camp cookware that seemed to exist side by side- pendulous cast-iron and cheap, Alzheimer’s-inducing aluminum.
Sam was in heaven. “It’s like going to the mall!” he said, up to his armpits in a bin of wool shirts. Sam only wears army surplus clothes, and dyes them different colors to break the monotony. He pulled out a few with weird stains, a pair of gore-tex pants with the seat blown out. Sarah was an aisle over, shoving tiny sailor hats onto her head. I, meanwhile, had found a sort of gold mine in the aisle opposite Sam- a giant metal bin piled high with the most amazing clothes anyone had seen this side of 1994, all of them tattered or stained and smelling of yesteryear’s stale dryer sheets. Bright teal sweatshirts, pleated shorts, cold war “support the troops” t-shirts, translucent exercise wear and high-waisted stone-wash jeans with the stomach darts we all remember. And best of all, at the very top of the pile- a stonewash denim jacket that fit me, pretty much perfectly.
“Sweet!” I pulled it on over my T-shirt and checked myself out in the dressing-room mirror, right next to the mannequin wearing a respirator, balaclava and flame-retardant cover-all. Hey, I thought, looking at the stonewash jacket, anything that made me look more like Bruce Springsteen was a-ok with me.
I handed over my three dollars for the jacket at the old register, flanked on both sides by racks of inflammatory bumper stickers- “support our troops, I’m a redneck, fuck you, no trespassing, I’ll shoot you” seemed to be the combined sentiment. I tried to find one for my bike, but none of them seemed to fit. I also bought a bright red hanky with a cowboy on it, although what that had to do with the military, I couldn’t quite figure out. Sam met me outside with a whole bagful of woolen stuff, plus two ammunition boxes. Sarah got a sailor hat.
Back at Sam’s house, it was finally time for some anti-civ crafting, aka skinning roadkill. I’d pulled my little furred friend out to thaw, and since it was dark outside (goddam changing of the seasons!) we settled in Sam’s cold, unfinished basement, where old newspaper lined a spot at the foot of the stairs. On the newspaper was a dark, squirrel-shaped stain.
“Kathy’s squirrel skin,” said Sam, looking down at the spot. “she never finished it.”
“Ugh!” I said, “Gross! It just got left here, on the newspaper? Sick!” There was also a dark beaver-shaped shadow hanging from a wooden post, covered in mold.
“Ah, the beaver,” said Sam, disappointed. “it molded.”
Sam dropped his bag onto the paper, and kicked a stained rag to the side, which had stuck to the concrete floor. He unfolded a couple of buck-knives and handed me one with a hook on the back of the blade, like a seam-ripper for sewing.
“I call it the ‘unzipper’,” he said.
“Can we get some fresh newspaper, at least?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah,” nodded Sam. “That’s proly a good idea.”
Our workspace freshly papered, Sam handed me a pair of yellow latex gloves, the dishwashing kind. He was fine with using his bare hands on the squirrel, but I was squeamish, and figured the gloves would make the whole process a little easier for me to handle. I mean, I had gutted plenty of fish before, but never, really, a furry animal…
I unrolled my half-dozen grocery bags and lifted out my very dead, half-frozen squirrel. Sam had his out already, on its back on the newspaper, little paws splayed out to the side. The two squirrels looked almost perfect, lying there, as if they had just fallen from a tree, or merely died of a broken heart. Unless, of course, you looked at their faces. Or what was left of their faces.
“Oh, god!” I said, trying not to look at Sam’s squirrel’s face.
“I know,” said Sam, with respectful sobriety. “It’s really bad.”
Sam took his knife and showed me how to make ‘bracelets’ around the tiny wrists and ankles, cutting through the fur so that the skin can be removed in one piece, like a sort of jacket. He then showed me how to make a cut in the breastbone and use the ‘unzipper’ on the back of the knife to open up the front of the squirrel. After making that cut, he showed me how to begin peeling the skin away from the body, cutting gently with my knife in the place were the hide met muscle, cleaning the skin as I went. I did all of these things, and was pleasantly surprised to find that my revulsion was slowly replaced with a gentle curiosity, clearing my head of the horrors of death and enabling me to disassemble the animal as if it were a sort of transistor radio.
As I worked, I thought of our sick, gore-obsessed culture, and how TV and movies were probably the reason I had so many bad associations with blood and guts in the first place. I mean, blood and guts are really just a part of life. Death, and dead bodies, are really just a part of life. Many of us eat dead bodies every day- dead pigs, dead chickens, dead cows. Dead animals that often live terrible, sick, tortured lives, just so we can buy them in neat plastic-wrapped pieces under the clean, bright lights of a grocery store. We are completely removed from the gore and brutality involved in the production of the food we eat, and instead death has become a sort of kitschy, Halloween freakshow- existing only in movies and on the evening news, sometimes in places as far away as Iraq, sometimes as close as a gunman opening fire on a college in the next state over. We have no clean, healthy places for blood and guts in our culture- only sick, twisted and secret ones.
The more I pulled the squirrel’s skin from its body, the closer I felt to this little animal. It had, I assumed, lived a bright, cheerful life, gathering acorns and skittering amongst the oak trees, making stores in the branches, somehow removed from the trash of the city below. A sort of pure urban rodent, kept wholesome in its canopy of deciduous leaves. Its fur was soft and shimmering, its little legs were strongly muscled. Surely, I thought, preservation at the hands of a novice, yet well-meaning taxidermist was a much better fate for this little squirrel than the traditional, and much less graceful, decomposition on filthy blacktop.
The basement grew silent as we worked, and I felt a sort of contentment settle over me, as if I were sewing a hat by hand or embroidering a shirt for a friend. The most primitive of crafts! Dead animals, free for the taking, on the highway shoulders and eternal cul-de-sacs of America! Nature’s fabric store!
Sam finished skinning his squirrel long before me (Sam has, apparently, skinned many a rodent in his time), and began slicing the meat off in sections, making a little pile on the newspaper. Sam eats his squirrels, and pure as I think of them to be, I stop short of eating any animal that calls the city its home. Even if you live in the trees, even if you only eat acorns- you’re still in the city, and the city is a dirty, dirty place, at least as far as environmental contaminants go. So I watch Sam cut away the thick muscle (there is, after all, more meat on this animal than you would think) and I live vicariously through him, missing the opportunity to get my squirrel-eating primitivist-scout badge. He’ll put the meat in a bowl of water to soak, and later he might fry it up in a pan. (When Lark was here visiting this summer, they apparently made a squirrel pot-pie, if you can believe it.)
After I finished skinning my squirrel, Sam pulled a greasy 40 bottle from the basement floor and, after wiping it with a crumpled rag, handed it to me.
“What do I do with this?” I asked.
Sam handed me a dull, double-handled knife by way of explanation, and began slicing the meat off my squirrel.
“That’s a fleshing knife,” he said. “You stretch the skin over the bottle with one hand, fur side down, and scrape the bits of membrane off the skin with the other, using the knife. That 40 bottle works pretty well, its what we used before, for Kathy’s squirrel.”
At which point I realized that the 40 bottle had been down here, on the basement floor, since that black squirrel-shaped stain had actually sported fur. And that it hadn’t been cleaned, not once.
I put some newspaper in my lap and used my legs to hold the bottle, gripping the neck awkwardly with one hand, the knife in the other, the squirrel stretched over the bottle. Tiny bits of flesh still clung to the skin around the edges, which I scraped off with the knife and flicked onto the newspaper.
“Meat boogers! Gross!” I said, my stomach turning a little. I scraped as hard as I could with the dull, curving knife, but the skin just slipped around the greasy bottle, and bits of membrane still clung to its outer side. I readjusted my position, frustrated. I worried about the fur getting dirty.
“You have to press pretty hard,” said Sam. I pressed harder, and instead of pulling the membrane off, the knife tore a tiny hole in the skin. And a hairless patch appeared on the other side, presumably from all the rubbing. And the edges were starting to look sick and ragged, sort of stretched out and balding. The skin was turning from a nice squirrel’s coat into a haggard bit of fur not fit for a homebum’s mitten.
“Good enough,” I said, dropping the bottle. Sam showed me how to fold the squirrel skin, wet-side in, “along its squirrely symmetry”, and I put it in my backpack, along with the eight squirrel feet Sam had broken off for me- four from my squirrel and four from his. A bone stuck from one, a bit of muscle from another.
“Those parts will dry out,” said Sam, “and you can just snap them off.” Ahh, taxidermy.
I did love the feet, tho. They were sort of my favorite part of the squirrels. Tiny paw-pads, little claws, soft golden fur. Adorable! What to do with them? I would have plenty of time to figure that out after they dried, assuming my friend’s dog didn’t eat them first. For now Sam sent me home with my squirrel parts, and instructions of the next step of processing. I was to crack an egg, said Sam, and rub it all over the inside of the skin, leaving it to soak in overnight. And in the morning, if you can believe it, I was to actually touch the wet, eggy thing, pulling it and rubbing it until it was completely dry- which might take up to five hours.
I got on my bike and biked back to my friend’s, where I spread the skin out on the kitchen counter and rubbed it with a nice organic egg. It now, officially, looked like the sickest thing in the world. Wet and covered in egg yolk, lying dead on a piece of newspaper. I took some pictures and they turned out absolutely disgusting- glistening white with bits of red, all of it floating in egg- and for this reason, I will not post them here, or anywhere. I promise. Satisfied that the skin was doing what it needed to do, I went to bed, after putting it in the laundry room away from the dog.
In the morning I wiped off the extra egg, and as soon as I gripped the wet, sticky skin in my fingers, I realized that there was no way in the world I would be able to stretch that thing in my hands all day. I was absolutely disgusted by it. And thankfully, I didn’t have to. The hair, for some reason neither Sam or I could figure out, was now falling off in chunks, and if I were to touch it anymore, I would have completely ruined it. So I shrugged my shoulders and tacked it to a board I found in the garage, leaving it in the laundry room to dry, stiff and un-pliable. Oh well. I could still hang it on my wall somewhere, someday, and tell people that it was the first animal I ever skinned. And its fur would still be soft and lustrous, ugly bald spot or no. And I still had my feet. All eight of them.