1. I stare into the eye cave of a twelve-point bull elk. His skull is bleached; but the antlers shine the smooth brown of a season spent in the sun and wind. I’m drawn into the emptiness, into the white shadow bone casts inside bone. I try not to think of the process it takes to get here—the ripping, tearing of flesh. The release: muscle detaching, fascia breaking. The clearing of brain matter, eyes bulging, popping. The scattering of bloody entrails on fresh snow. I breach into imagination here. I have no idea under what conditions this elk died. But, I conjure a cloudy November morning. The wind has fallen off suddenly after howling all night. A shot rings out. His heart is pierced clean through. The white skull is mounted to a wall painted white, and I wonder what it means, this vacancy. I am bound to it, somehow.
2. My brother texts me a picture of a mountain lion skin stretched and hung on the wall of a diner where he eats lunch. The head is intact, but I can’t see the face. It is pointed the other direction. I envision the lion with teeth bared as it lunges onto prey. If I let myself, the image goes too far—I imagine a heavy weight landing on me as I run through the woods. I’m at the one spot where I always feel the hair on my arms stand up as if someone or something is watching me. I feel teeth sink into the back of my neck. A brief, final flash of being dragged into the bushes. Blackness. Or bright white. I don’t yet know what the end of the world looks like.
3. I want to understand my memories as once-sentient beings, the way I understand myself through stark, naked portraits of my own body and form. This urge has nothing to do with animals, those dead or alive or kept in the netherworld of taxidermy—except, I too am animal in my desire, heat. I look at the empty skull, knowing nothing of its memories, its body, its death—only what it tells me of my own, and how often I fall into the vacancy of my own head.
4. I listen to the near silent sound of the river parting its lips for a boulder under the moving water. Small ripples blemish the surface, like wrinkles in the bedsheet the morning after. I have no desire to pull it smooth. I only want to lay here in the raw light and listen to the bees. Somewhere across the way a locust’s wings drown out the sound of a plane. The rock beneath me is still nightcool. All around is evidence of the burning—charred trees, both standing and fallen, cross over each other on the hot ground. The path is blacker now than before. The land holds its trauma close to the chest. But, the understory is starting to bloom its way back from the dead-- hidden gems, flowers crack open, unleashed from under the ash. The grass is new, waist-high in the place that burned. It bends to the wind and rises lightly on the breeze, a resurrection all its own.
5. The elk on the wall is death as artifact. It makes me think of memories I haven’t returned to in a long, long time. I wonder what it is about the bleached skull that takes me through a tunnel, my own eye cave, to where I have not let myself go. I am interested in how I play taxidermist to my own memories, the inventory I keep in tangible, frozen forms on the shelf, the mantel of my mind, things that once lived, but now do not.
6. The way the wind blows, occasionally billowing the curtains in the bedroom upstairs, makes me think of Faulkner—not a specific story, but a type. The dog lays dying in her crate on the front porch. The appointment, to have her put down, is in less than an hour. Until then, the wind brings the afternoon. A thick cloud of sadness approaches on the breeze. Time’s marching brings the inevitable. The petals of a peony in a glass jar pile onto the table, scatter on the breeze from the screen door. A magpie lands on a rock in the sun across the yard. A fly buzzes incessantly against the windowpane—its last hours. I hear ghost noises: Isabelle in her crate. Her paws clicking across the floor. Her bark wafting in from outside. Each time I pull in the driveway, I think I will see her there, waiting for me. But, she is gone.
7. The ironic thing, where the meaning lies, is eye contact the hunter makes with the animal before shooting it. Here, studying the mount on the wall, I run my finger through where the eye used to be, lightly trace round and round the socket with my index finger.
8. In the car, driving west over the mountains, I blast Joan Osborne on repeat. “If God had a face, what would it look like and would you want to see?" I’m in fifth grade, on a bus with one headphone. The other one rests in my best friend’s ear. We wonder then, what if God was one of us.
9. To kill a buck and mount it to the wall, a hunter must first make sure not to ruin the face or the neck with the shot. What follows is both intuitive and disturbing. A knife. Decapitation. Skin and muscle pulled free. The brain and eyes and ears plucked away, the skull scraped clean and dried. I’ve never seen it done, but the sounds in my imagination haunt me. There is a sense inside me that this tearing away of all the extra is necessary to clean the slate, make the meaning of this head hung to the wall.
10. The lit swimming pool watermarks the ceiling with golden ripples. I’m stunned by light, but I keep going. A cold, red sunset burns out the day as I swim lap after lap in the indoor pool, trying to forget what the strawberry blonde boy wanted from me on the couch in his dorm. My laps solidify the memory—sixteen strokes, then flip. I am buried in life, and always returning. Each time I push off from the wall, I push him off me.
11. There’s a painted sign on the wall at the lodge where I’m staying—“Home is where your story begins.” I want to argue with it, because like the elk, my story begins in the woods at the dawning of the world. Or maybe with the moon as it sets, an orange ball reflected in the lake, taken between the mountains like a lover. Or at the foot of the bed in an old hotel room, where I lose my virginity to a boy from Wisconsin as the credits to a movie I can no longer recall roll up the screen. A pedestal tv with an adjustable antenna. Home, for a long, long time is just a place I want to leave.
12. It’s warm in the room where I sit watching lightning through the window. I’m waiting for rain. Flies buzz, bumping the pane. They are waiting on death, I suppose, or the morning after, when they will be vacuumed from the sill. They love the light the way a moth loves the flame. My memories, too, will become still and hard—unless I write them. Writing is the way I choose to keep what has happened to me. Like a dead fox, stuffed to make it seem as if it trots back toward its young left in the den, these are my memories, gaining speed. This is orchestrated motion—a leg bent to look as if it is stepping, a little leap over a swollen stream. Are memories, the ones here, orchestrated as well? Do I decide how to play them back to myself? Or is this an emptying of my skull that I might somehow become an artifact on the wall? If God had a face, what would it look like and would you want to see?
13. I am one of three drunk girls in a parking garage in the downtown of a southern city gone quiet beneath the night sounds of crickets and cicadas. A sweet May breeze clacks the magnolia leaves together. We are loud, laughing at nothing, trying to find our way back to the car. I don’t remember who is planning to drive. The floor we are on is empty of vehicles, but in one of the middle spaces, there is a tiny construction site, a few items covered with a clear tarp held down by broken bricks. Underneath the tarp is a pile of thirty or so fluorescent lightbulbs. I’m not sure who does it first, but the smash and tinkle of glass echoes across the hard space. Soon, all of us join in, javelin the bulbs into the concrete wall twenty feet away. It is satisfying, this gratuitous destruction. Our cavalier drunkenness. Our youth. Not one thinks of the mercury released, evaporating, to circle the earth in an invisible thread of heavy metal vapor that may never truly be gone. We break every last one before we head out, heedless, into the night.
14. I stare at the mount, counting and recounting the bull’s points, I have the feeling of being outside my body, observing myself, as though through my camera lens. I am still, so still, as if I myself have undergone a moment with the taxidermist. I am real but remembered. I look back on the shape of myself as if it is passed, living dead. What do eyes say about the soul? Or, no eyes at all? The skull on the wall is a terrain emptied of memory. Perhaps that is what will make it immortal.
-- Anna Oberg is a professional photographer based in Estes Park, Colorado. When she’s not arranging family portraits with the perfect view of Long’s Peak as backdrop, she focuses on writing tiny memories and small stories. She has been published in Mud Season Review, Pidgeonholes, Causeway Lit, The Maine Review, decomp Journal, The Festival Review, and Split Rock Review, among others.