Ben Dugan had barely started on his third helping of stew when the bull elk mounted above his television opened its hairy muzzle and began to speak. Two spoonfuls later, Ben set his dinner down and muted the evening news to listen. Even in the shock of the moment it made a funny kind of sense. The head on the wall and the meat in Ben’s bowl had once belonged to the same animal. The conversation was brief, mostly one-sided, but the massive ungulate proved both sensitive and articulate. Ben was moved by the fair and well-considered points it raised.
On Monday Ben went to work, but was unusually quiet about his big hunting trip. Samuels, who could not spare the time for a decent hunt that year (his wife being ready to pop with a third rugrat), pressed him with questions.
“Oh,” Ben said, “It was a hell of a beautiful spot. Hell of a beautiful animal.” His distracted air was impossible to miss. So was the king-size bandage plastered over his left wrist and lower arm.
“You fall out of your tree stand?” Samuels asked. “Get sliced by a broadhead?”
Ben shook his head slowly, vaguely, eyes focused far away.
“Hell of a beautiful shot I made, though.”
“Have you thought about what we discussed?” the elk inquired when Ben came in the door on Monday evening. Its tone was gentle, but a note of urgency lay under it.
“Can we talk later?” Ben asked. “My stomach’s bothering me. I’ve been shitting all day and I need to go again. Bad.”
“Nonsense,” tutted the elk. “The worst thing you can do is tax your valves. What you need is a good supper. Then we’ll talk.”
Ben paused at the bathroom door, distrusting the rumble in his bowels but admitting it might only be hunger. The elk’s kind voice reassured him that it wanted the best for both of them. He could not show ingratitude to something that not only fed him but also kept him company.
After dinner, Ben was in the mood for conversation again. Intestinal doubt no longer troubled him. In fact, he was hardly conscious of any feeling below his ribcage. “The truth is,” he told the elk, “I was hoping the thrill of the hunt would last a little longer.”
The elk nodded, its wooden mounting board thumping gently against the wall. “Nietzsche said that every man hunts his own ideal. He was speaking metaphorically, I believe, but the principle stands that we pursue the thing we ourselves most wish to become. That is why a hunter takes such care to stalk his prey, consuming what he can and making trophies of what he cannot.” In truth, Nietzsche never said anything of the kind, but Ben had no basis to doubt the word of an animal who now made up a substantial portion of his own body weight.
“I wish I could see things the way you do,” Ben said.
“That’s easy enough,” the elk replied.
Nodding, Ben wiped the gravy off his knife. He drew a long breath in through his nose and let it out. He pulled the bandage off the scored flesh of his forearm, his failure of the night before, and tried again.
There were several possible reasons that Ben had heard the elk’s voice at all.
First: Recent ecological changes had made a hard foraging season for the larger Rocky Mountain mammals. Sustained drought had driven elk, mule deer and whitetails deep into the cover of dark timber, where grasses were as scarce as anywhere but alternatives abounded, mainly roots and fungi of indeterminate composition. Specimens familiar to more learned species as substantially (but insidiously) toxic, including the distinctive red toadstool caps of amanita muscaria, may have entered the diet of any animal grazing the upper treelines of certain wooded slopes.
Second: These conditions also made tracking and prompt recovery of large game considerably more difficult. Fresh kills tended to sit longer than usual in elevated daytime temperatures prior to slaughter, packing and freezing.
Third: Ben had treated himself to the high-priced hunting trip as a means of coping with the recent failure of his marriage, and to diminish the assets for which he might be held liable in a pending alimony situation. Certainly the adventure had been worth the expense, yet given the cost of acquiring and transporting the majestic carcass a thousand miles home and the limited surplus he was willing to give away to friends, he would face an almost exclusive diet of the elk’s uniquely lean and flavorful meat for some months to come. Not that he minded, especially living on his own with no domestic sensibilities to offend.
Finally: For generations the Dugan family had been loyal clients of Slizek Brothers Big Game and Barbecue of Glen Flora, Texas, for all business related to taxidermy and processing of hunted meats. This had continued to the present day, despite the evident decline of the operation. The younger Slizek brother had been dead for years while the elder insisted on running the business in defiance of his advanced age. Before the start of the season the old man had attended a family reunion in the Florida Everglades where to his general infirmity he may well have added chance exposure to the highly poisonous manchineel trees of the region. It is noteworthy that old Mr. Slizek died shortly after processing Ben Dugan’s 257-pound meat order. He had personally overseen the loading of the packed coolers and the head mount into Ben’s truck, but was in his grave on the night Ben first heard the voice of the antlered beast, never knowing the curious insight that bowl after bowl of its potentially compromised meat would visit upon Ben in the coming weeks.
There were other factors hardly worth exhausting here. Any one might have supported the events that followed, yet somehow no combination of them seemed to account for everything.
On Thursday, Ben wore long sleeves to work. That made it impossible for Samuels to tell without awkward questioning whether the clumsy cuts had healed up all right. The shirt also hid a new incision, following the seam between the ulna bone and the flexor digitorum profundusas cleanly as an amateur could manage with a steak knife. Haphazard networks of gauze and butterfly bandages held the oozing fissure mostly shut.
Samuels and several others in the office, including Culpepper the department supervisor, took quiet notice of the difficulty Ben seemed to have in completing his morning reports. One arm was almost no use at all. He entered data with his right hand while the left sat on his lap. Every few seconds he would flop the dead-looking left appendage onto the TAB or spacebar, unable to extend a single finger or close a fist. Once the key had been successfully pressed the hand dropped once more into his lap.
Samuels meant to catch Ben at lunch to let him know that Culpepper had seen and that he might want to apply himself a bit more or else take some sick time, but someone in the break room said Ben had left early for an appointment. Samuels felt relief, taking it to mean Ben was seeing a doctor.
In fact, Ben had found the only taxidermy supply shop within a hundred miles, located at the ragged end of a semi-defunct airport access road clear across town. The trip was a pain, doubly so because Ben would fight afternoon traffic all the way back After a thorough discussion of his project with the grizzled proprietor (who seemed unfazed by the idea), he arrived home with all the appropriate materials.
“That’s looking much better than before,” said the elk. It did its best to be patient and encouraging, even though the usual supper hour had come and gone. They were both hungry. Ben muttered appreciation through the row of fine needles held between his lips. He was putting tolerably straight sutures of coarse black thread down the back of his right calf. He had begun his evening’s work by picking all the corn flakes from the cavity in his forearm, replacing the improvised filling with clean sawdust and a sturdy cardboard form to bolster the limb into something like its proper shape. Stubborn bits of cereal grit lodged against the inside of the skin, little irritants he would learn to live with. Over the pricked and bruised flesh of a mostly-dead left hand he had stretched an old batting glove purchased for the company softball picnic. The smooth taut leather made his fingers handsome again. Ben had realized his mistake in choosing to start with an arm. It made him that much more clumsy and slow with the fiddly details.
“Hadn’t you better check the oven?” sang the elk. Keeping the two of them fed was the main hindrance to Ben’s work. He expected the elk to pitch in and help with that eventually; so far it had only worked itself a tiny bit loose from the wall. Ben had never witnessed a birth but he figured they mostly began slow and gathered momentum as they went along. The process had started as a bulge in the animal's right shoulder where it met the backboard against the wall and inch by inch Ben had watched a foreleg emerge until it protruded all the way to the elbow joint. Soon the first hoof would be free and the rest could follow without trouble. Ben vaguely recalled severing that foreleg with a bow saw when he first quartered his kill. He was impressed by its restored soundness. Both Ben and the elk were conscious that theirs was an unprecedented and untested relationship. They bore with one another as each mastered the new skills required to make it possible.
Ben set down his tools and favoring the sewn leg so as not to burst a seam right away, he limped into the kitchen where a rich roasting aroma made his mouth water. He had taken care to season the large hunk of meat and cook it correctly, avoiding dryness and leaving plenty of good blood. It was too good a cut simply to brown with onions, as he had done the night before. He set the steaming joint on a platter to rest before slicing. The sight of it made the hollow in his calf ache with one part nostalgia, one part nerve trauma.
Walking with the heaped platter back to the living room, he slipped off-balance and twisted his ankle. The pop of thread through pink skin was more startling than painful. Sawdust piffed onto the floor, leaking as if from a cracked hourglass. Ben's heart sank. He cursed.
“Never mind,” said the elk in a consoling whisper. “If it’s spoiled, wrap it in something tougher. There’s that old raincoat you never use and don’t you still have all that canvas in the garage?”
Ben believed he did. Months ago he had stuffed the rolled sheets into a crack between the door and the floor, sealing the garage as airtight as he could. Luckily he had lost his car keys that night. Once he sobered up enough to abandon the idea, he had put the half dozen pieces of canvas away on a high shelf. They were bound to be musty, but with a little airing out they would suit him fine.
Ben suppressed his frustration. Remembering his manners, he hobbled across the floor with the platter held out before him. He speared the first piece of meat with a grill fork and offered it to the elk who, with a queer twist of its facial muscles, appeared to smile.
On another Monday Ben walked into the office at 9:26 a.m. instead of his usual prompt 9:00. He had stopped on the way in to visit the plumbing and bathroom section of a local hardware store and had lost time weighing his options. The tardiness might have passed unnoticed, except Culpepper was waiting at his desk.
“Dugan,” said the supervisor in a tone as sour as his face. “I’m beginning to think we put too much on your plate. You look like hell. I want you to hand the Armitage file over to someone you trust. Unless you’d like me to.”
Ben regarded Culpepper with nearly-focused eyes and shrugged. The effect was hampered by the slack burlap holding his left arm on at the shoulder. “Not a problem,” he said. “Whatever you think is best. I’ll hand it off.” Moving like a poorly patched marionette, he heaved his arm up on the desk and shoved his torso forward to drag the Armitage folder from his inbox tray.
“Another thing,” Culpepper said, his permanent scowl deepening, “I know it’s a new casual age with text messages and so on but you’ve got to bring this typing up to par. Your last two project reports are illegible.” He held up a printed page half-crushed in his fist and read with evident disgust. “‘Herlp me boss man, gottu gottu make ye meats more sweets?’ If I find out you’re on something, Dugan, well… let's just hope I don’t.”
“Nothing to worry about,” was Ben’s cryptic reply. “I’m going organic.” With the bulging file hugged under his burlap shoulder, he pushed off the desk with his good arm and sauntered away in search of coffee. Culpepper watched him go, speechless. Ben’s knees buckled and kicked with every step, as if he had rented his legs for the week and had not yet broken them in. The right thigh compressed into lopsided shapes under enveloping cloth, porous and soiled like an old mail sack. Little toots of air blatted between the seams as he walked. A dark stain spread across the seat of his pants. It smelled not of urine or blood or excrement, but of turpentine.
Samuels found Ben a while later, trying to climb into his car with numb, uncooperative legs. It had been simple enough to track him, thanks to a thin trail of oily sawdust he left across the office floor, up the stairwell and into the shaded cavern of the parking structure. Fifty feet from the car, a load of papers had fallen and scattered. The documents had already picked up tire marks from passing vehicles.
“Dugan!” cried Samuels. “They sent me to look for you. Should I tell them to hold the meeting?”
Ben did not seem to hear, but his face brightened. “Oh!” he said. “Samuels. Hell of a beautiful thing running into you. Culpepper says it’s yours now. Armitage file.” He waved a hand at the mess of dropped and spoiled papers. A gloved fingertip splitand a rivulet of fine sand ran out.
“For God’s sake, Dugan,” Samuels pleaded, “go get yourself looked at.”
“What,” Ben said, “over this?” He swung defiantly into the driver’s seat. “Nothing wrong with me that good lean protein and some well-packed cedar shavings won’t fix. More flexible for the articulated joints, you know.”
Samuels glanced at the plastic hardware store sacks in the backseat, filled with rubber hose and putty guns and toilet stopper valves. His guts made a sickly turn. “Got some plumbing to do?” he asked without really wanting to know.
“Oh yeah,” Ben said, too chipper. “Big job. Thanks for helping me out.” He pulled the car door shut, then listed sharply against the window as his left buttock collapsed. Samuels watched the car vanish down the exit ramp into the gentle flow of late morning traffic. Then he started gathering the Armitage file.
Pots and pans clattered to the floor. It sounded like all of them. Dinner was to be kidneys, actually just one for starters, with wild rice and plenty of shallot gravy. Ben found a plastic pint bottle in the recycling that he felt sure would serve in its place. The bottle had once held low-fat milk. While he fitted the proper tubing and adhesives, he called into the kitchen.
“Do you want some help with the stove?”
The elk peered in at him, balancing a skillet on its massive antlers. “No, you’re busy already. I can manage. I thought the pilot went out and it spooked me, that’s all.” Ever since the animal had fully exited the wall, keeping house had been easier. Walking freely around their small living space, the use of its body restored, it was eager to do its share. “When you’re finished there, why don’t you hoist yourself up and practice awhile?” The elk had probably meant to say relax,not practice, but Ben did not miss the chiding note in its voice. It was impatient for Ben to finish. If they were ever to experience the world through each other’s eyes, really live it, Ben would need as much practice in his new role as the elk needed in the kitchen. Maybe then it could start tidying up the crumbling piles of manure that littered the house like fresh-baked landmines.
Ben hauled himself off the floor with a long piece of nylon mooring line and a chandelier hook he’d found in the garage. It was not the most sophisticated pulley system, but it saved him another trip to the store. The loops of heavy-gauge wire bit into his armpits, not comfortable at all, but soon he felt serene prickles of numbness. He had thought about looking for some kind of harness, the type medical suppliers had for putting old folks in bathtubs, but too much comfort was a needless luxury. Ben was a trophy, on display not to enjoy himself but to be admired by others. The wires would do.
His eyes were heavy and he slept through dinner. Afterward the elk sat on its haunches, looking up at him, and told him stories of Wapiti the First Elk, and of Wapiti's firstborn son who hung upon a great lodge wall for the sins of others. The talk soothed Ben. He saw how happy the elk was in its old body again, and if he could not save the whole world from sin he reckoned that was comfort enough.
Ben decided to take Friday off. He was not up to driving. He felt in his proper place up on the wall, with the elk passing through now and then to gobble up the mail that fell through the slot, pausing sometimes to give him affectionate nuzzles under his chin. Ben resolved that if he felt better on Monday he would take the bus to work, although he did not care much for that idea. Strange people took the bus.
By Tuesday, Culpepper was at the end of his rope. The Armitage account had grown six angry heads in the form of new board members with a predictably fragmented agenda. Samuels had worked himself nearly to death and was still drowning under daily lists of new demands. Every board member, old and new, had rung Culpepper’s direct extension over the weekend screaming for something to be done. The best thing for it was to add the ousted point man back to the team. Storming up on Dugan’s desk, the supervisor felt sure someone must be playing an old-fashioned college prank on him.
In Dugan’s chair sat a mannequin and a pretty shoddy one. It was streaked in filth, full of seams and cobbled from a dozen different materials. Various foul odors, most of them chemical but some offensively biological, mingled in combinations not easily identified. The dummy's left sleeve hung empty, spilling piles of what looked like old cat litter through the shredded remains of a leather glove.
Culpepper caught Samuels, literally by the collar as he passed by on some errand, and pointed out the cloth mockery seated at the blinking computer. “Samuels,” he muttered, “I’d just like to know if you can explain--”
The figure in Dugan’s chair, who was in fact Dugan, startled them by lurching forward over the desk. A green substance trickled off his chin, pooling on the faux wood grain and pattering over the cut-rate industrial carpet. Dugan’s right forearm began mashing the keyboard rhythmically. On the monitor screen, an open spreadsheet vomited stacks of gibberish in reply.
The way Samuels heard it later in the break room, one of the accounting interns had recognized Dugan lying in a tangled heap at the bus station that morning. Hoping to make a good impression, they had offered the shambling man a ride to work, brought him inside and propped him at his desk. None of the interns, when questioned later, would own up.
Dugan swiveled his head, sensing observers nearby. Samuels gasped at the diagonal scar down his right temple, inexpertly stitched and pink with brewing infection. Tufts of stuffing, dirty cotton batting or possibly wet newspaper, poked through gaps in the sutures. His jaw hung without sinew to close it, mouth agape. Dugan looked like a cheap haunted house prop, except for one bright green eye spared from alteration. Though vacant of any expression, that eye was all too tragically human.
“Benny,” Samuels whispered.
“Dugan,” Culpepper fumed, “I’d say it’s time we had another talk. First of all--”
Discolored effluent hissed through a tube that poked from under Dugan’s Oxford shirt and disappeared into a burbling receptacle at his feet, possibly an old kerosene can. This proved the limit for Culpepper, who was on the verge of venting his full frustration when an urgent page came over the intercom. Armitage was on the line once more. With no time to bring what remained of Dugan up to speed, Culpepper and Samuels raced away toward an empty conference room to assess the latest catastrophe.
When the two men had gone, the Dugan-thing went on filling sheet after sheet with random characters until some overloaded algorithm zeroed out and the smoldering hard drive powered itself down. By the time Culpepper returned from the conference call to deal seriously with Dugan, his chair was empty. Nobody saw him go, but clearly he had left for the day.
Despite the familiar comforts of home, Ben was not easy in his mind. He hung motionless in his place on the wall, even after the house filled with smoke and the shriek of alarms brought strangers. There was nothing left to say. The door crashed in under heavy-booted kicks, allowing a cool breeze from outside to play across his brow. Uniformed shapes rushed into the room, some with guns drawn and others with axes. A few of them retched, adding to the mess on the floor which the elk had never bothered cleaning up. One responder fell to his knees before throwing up.
Ben shut his good eye against the garish red lights flashing in the front window. He heard his nice pans being kicked and scattered, the crash as three firemen and two police pulled the entire oven from the wall trying to dislodge something wedged in it. He did not see the blackened remains of the elk’s neck and head brought through and photographed as evidence. He heard bullish voices yelling into telephones and radios about hazardous waste, crucified remains, possible arson, signs of cult activity. How let down they would be once his woodland companion had a chance to explain the true nature of the dreary experiment.
Ben still had the capacity for one substantial feeling, which was disappointment. Despite all of the elk’s encouragement and lofty talk, Ben felt that he, not it, had made the more sincere effort. Seeing the world as a fellow creature saw it had sounded like a fine idea. In practice it was nothing but a lot of hassle, and typical of his life’s endeavors to date, the spiritual payoff was no great shakes.
Hailing from the pine country of East Texas, Lyman Graves is an amateur scholar of occult principles best viewed through lenses of stark mundanity and ecological perversion. His story "When the Owls Call" recently appeared in Grotesque Quarterly Magazine. He lives alone, coexisting with the odd urban pest.