Eleanor analyzed the child as she plucked away at the threads. Stab, weave knot, pull. Stab, weave, knot, pull. Perfect precision.
Her mother, Iza, brought her here three months ago after her father, Jer-ome (Iza put furious, consistent emphasis on “ome,” enough so that Eleanor wondered if this was indeed how his name was pronounced) disappeared. And Iza, having watched an episode of Immortalized on AMC, got an itch of inspiration and hauled her daughter, Mickala, from their Elmont home to Eleanor’s studio downtown.
“I know how kids looked at people who go to therapy,” Iza had explained, “and I’m not letting her-“ she quieted, “be that kid.” Eleanor stared at Iza skeptically. Sable eyes. Rich, freckled skin. Flowery accent. Eleanor tapped her fingertips together. Spanish? No. Italian.
“That kid…” Eleanor trailed off, clipping a thumbnail nail between her teeth.
“I’ve never had a child take my class before,” she finally began, eyeing the girl. Mickala was lighter-skinned than her mother. Classically Italian nose. An adamant pout. Rampant ringlets that formed brown webs over her eyes.
Sensing her gaze, Mickala turned and flashed Eleanor a toothless grin. Eleanor’s eyes widened. Mickala’s mouth was a palate of raw reds and bloody tooth-holes. All of her teeth were gone.
“She pulled them all out. A nervous tick,” Iza stuttered, rubbing the gooseflesh on her arms.
Eleanor’s gaze remained fixed on the girl’s mouth as Iza spoke. Empty. Longing. Sepulchral like a Venus fly trap.
“My,” Eleanor said, “that must have been quite the visit for the tooth fairy.”
“Nope!” Mickala trumpeted, reaching one fat hand down the neck of her shirt only for it to resurface with a fist full of fishing line and strange white beads. Oh god, her teeth. She was wearing her teeth.
“Mrs. Rigsby, I-“
“It’s fine,” interrupted Eleanor, “we’ll just see how she fares, alright?”
Iza nodded, surprised, then clapped her hands together excitedly. But Eleanor paid her no mind. She was paralyzed by Mickala’s terrible, wonderful smile.
After a minute she sucked her teeth and nodded her head decidedly. And that, in a nutshell, was the day Mickala, six and a half years old, became the youngest enrolled student in Eleanor Rigsby’s taxidermy class at the community center in downtown New York City.
They stuffed mice. White mice. Eleanor had a policy about this; she didn’t want to see hide nor tail of an animal not from her own shop. Why? Disease, she’d say. Protocol, she’d say. But, of course, these reasons were hogwash. It was the tears that caused Eleanor the greatest fear, and stuffing one’s own pet was sure to bring them. Eleanor had owned six cats in her lifetime, and, despite having become one of the most renowned taxidermists in New York, she buried each one in a dirt hole.
“Why?” asked Mickala one evening after the shop was closed up. Mickala often stayed later to “discuss her feelings” (as Iza would put it), but oftentimes Eleanor would just ask the child to explain her ineffable artwork. Today, Mickala had stuffed two white mice. She hung one upside-down by its back paw from a television antennae, its mouth agape, paws outstretched to catch the ground. The other mouse attempted to climb up the antennae (presumably to save the first), clutching the wire with all paws save for one, which held a tiny handheld mirror. All Mickala would say was “it can’t climb up unless it lets go of the mirror, and the second can’t come down unless he lets go of the cliff.”
“You mean the antennae?”
“Yeah, but it’s a cliff”
“Oh.” Eleanor rubbed her chapped lips together.
“Well,” Eleanor thought aloud in response to Mickala’s question, “that’s part of the beauty of pets. Half the joy comes from the fact that there’s some inevitable end. You appreciate them more. But these mice are different. The exact opposite, almost. In their death you come to know them, come to love them the way you couldn’t when they were alive.”
Mickala slid her tongue across two halfway-descended front teeth. She was not a very smart girl, but she didn’t have to be, thought Eleanor. The notion of the well-rounded child was a terrible lie, and what Mickala produced, well, that much seemed honest. It was indeed Mickala’s lack of sense that drew Eleanor to her in the first place. She knew that she would never have mentored Mickala had her bloody mouth not signaled her otherwise. Had she not worn a necklace of her teeth. A senseless girl. But what great artist keeps all his wits?
“Okay,” Mickala said, continuing to clean her scalpels.
Eleanor sighed. She didn’t simply envy Mickala’s positioning of the mice, rather, she envied how adeptly she constructed them. Mickala’s perfect mimicry of a mouse’s skeleton, how she so fluidly stripped hide from flesh like the peel falling from a ripened tangerine. The ears, the tail- neither posed a challenge to her practiced fingers. She, unlike Eleanor, had the strange capability of breathing life back into death. Effortlessly. Flawlessly. A petite surgeon with a grin only halfway grown-in.
“I don’t know about investing in a seven year old, Elaine”
“She’s prolific. I’ve been her mentor for a year now and can personally attest to Mickala Gessati’s talent. She sees-“ Eleanor’s practiced lines were thrown off by the man, Antonio Fargo, reaching out to touch one of Mickala’s mice. “She sees only artistic opportunity in the dead. She can hardly keep her hands off her tools for even a moment. Her techniques are almost on par with my own,” Eleanor falsely beamed. The truth was that Mickala had well-exceeded her mentor.
“Prolific, huh?” he scanned the room, “then why do I only see three pieces here?”
Eleanor was ready for this question. “Two of her pieces are on display at New Museum of Contemporary Art, while one of her more… muted pieces is on display at the American Museum of Natural History. The rest she took home.”
“Ah,” he said. “Then perhaps it would be better to see the artist at her home as opposed to your studio?”
Eleanor pursed her lips.
The meeting was scheduled for next week for when Mickala arrived home from school. On that day, Eleanor and Antonio lounged on Iza’s floral couch while they waited for Mickala to arrive.
Twenty minutes after the scheduled time, they heard a car door slamming followed by Iza’s shrill voice screaming unintelligible Italian. By the time she opened the door, all semblance of manners was dropped. Iza screamed and threw a lump of fur onto the carpet that vaguely resembled an animal.
“You did this,” Iza screeched, “this is how your lessons paid off.”
On the floor laid a crumpled bird with an enormous, furry head. The two guests stared in awe.
“That was her class pet,” Iza hissed at Eleanor, “they might not even let her go back to school.”
Antonio Fargo did not mind Iza. He had heard many hissing women in his life and they were no different than geese guarding their turf. “Good god,” he whispered, stooping to the ground, “is that a guinea pig head?”
“Yes,” Iza snapped, tears welling in her eyes, “it-“ she cast an unsure glance at Mickala, “died this morning and Mickala smuggled it out and-“ she broke down crying.
“Did you kill it?” Eleanor rounded to Mickala, her eyes steely.
“No!” Mickala wept in response, “I didn’t kill either of them. I loved them,” she sent Eleanor a meaningful look and wiped her eyes.
“This,” interrupted Antonio, scooping the mutant into his hands and cradling it against his breast, “is something I’d invest in.”
Iza’s eyes grew wide and angry like a bull a second before it charged.
“Like hell you can.” She flew towards Antonio before he could react (geese tend not to swoop unless approached) and grabbed up the animal in her hands, promptly throwing it into the trash bin.
Eleanor gasped and froze. Antonio, on the other hand, was not afraid of geese or women and so spoke his feelings:
“You just threw away something priceless. Do you hear me? Your daughter is an artist and you’ve perhaps just destroyed the most valuable thing she’s ever produced.” He approached the trash bin, but Iza guarded it like a hound. Teeth bared, lips pulled back like the bloody rim of an exposed wound.
“She’s not your artist-“ she spat, “anymore. This taxidermy thing? Yeah, it’s over. Leave. Now. Both of you,” she eyed Eleanor. After a moment of hesitation, Antonio stormed out.
“You’re making a terrible mistake,” Eleanor whispered to Iza as she followed Antonio out, “Mickala is a prodigy.”
“There are art prodigies. Math prodigies. Music prodigies. There’s no such thing as a goddamn prodigy in taxidermy, Eleanor. This is just death in a pretty face”
Eleanor sighed and shook her head.
She did not touch scalpels again. She sometimes studied. Sometimes practiced her mathematics, her art, her music. “A well-rounded child,” said her teachers to Iza’s delight. She retired her string of teeth and in turn grew a full, white smile.
But somewhere deep beneath her bed hid the past. Amidst other forgotten things, one white mouse scurried up an antennae holding a tiny handheld mirror. The other had since fallen from its perch, and now lay crumpled on the floor of the cardboard box in which the two were housed. Mouth agape, paws outstretched, its small body was weighed down by a tangle of fishing line and 20 perfect baby teeth.