Bone Stems and Fur Roses

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In the six years I spent tracking David Addley, it never occurred to me that he didn’t exist. It was only after I stared him in the face in a split-level in Waukesha after more than a half decade of lapping up his posts that I was ready to admit the man I admired wasn’t there, and wouldn’t be mine. I was acutely aware of all the time I’d given up being enchanted by this guy, and it kinda made me wanna bawl, right into the pink lemonade he’d given me, but I couldn’t. At some point in the hunt I’d outgrown the ability to cry with ease. Maybe I didn’t exist anymore either. I certainly felt unreal in that moment, dead and false as any of our kills, my blood drained and my flesh rearranged into a ludicrous, fantastical shape.

We met on a forum in 2005. It catered to young people with a very specific set of interests. I still feel embarrassed talking about it. Nothing that pervy, I promise. We didn’t break any laws as a general rule, either. Well, some of us hunted off season on property that wasn’t ours. But we never did ecological harm. We always followed a strict code of ethics. And when it comes down to it, doesn’t everyone have blood on their hands in some way? Doesn’t life require that you stare down some precious living thing or another, and determine that despite that other being’s splendor, your own continued existence must take priority?

We justified ourselves like that. David was the best at it. His justifications rang out clear like a big copper bell. His arguments came to us, harmonious and clean and reverberating, old as civilization, compelling and somber as a summons to church. We trusted his judgement because he was the oldest among us and he wrote the best. He took the fuzzy, scrambled ideas that twisted up inside us and drew them out, into calm, straight lines.

David said that all men had the urge to kill inside them. That if we didn’t feed it, we’d be overcome by life’s other great urge, the urge to be destroyed and to die. That blood, slick on our hands, was supposed to feel good. That the sight of a fresh animal skin draped over a log while a fire crackled and danced its light over the spilt innards was the greatest beauty our eyes would ever witness. That chasing a kill and feasting hungrily on its flesh was nature’s ultimate reward.

David claimed that such urges kept our ancestors alive, their families fatted and comfortable. The hunger for another being’s death underlied all of mankind’s great accomplishments. He believed that bloodlust was the earliest of all human motivations, predating trophies and gods and applause and marital bonds, and that to follow its call was to follow your truest self. And since David believed it, we believed it too.

In case you are wondering, we didn’t kill people. Not any of us. Not ever. It would be missing the point entirely. David said that we were to feed ourselves on the offal of our kills, and drape ourselves in the thick hides of the beasts we had bested. He did not believe killing a man yielded any worthwhile goods. A human’s fatty face, like a hairless hog’s, could not be mounted or dressed up in any appealing way. To kill a man was to waste our energies. It went against David’s whole ethos. And thus, it offended our whole community as well.

David was mysterious, but no unusually so. We all used avatars that broadcasted our primal selves, not the shorn heads and loose bodies we were forced to inhabit in our real lives, away from the forums. My avatar was a Komodo dragon, the colors of its scales iridescent and warm-looking, thanks to a bit of rudimentary Photoshop. The only other guy I knew in real life, Michael, lurked behind the face of a shark. He felled a tree and used the wood to carve his own pale, smooth shark mask. Then he blotted out the lights of his parent’s garage with towels and set the mask on a work bench with a lightbulb hanging over it. A photo of this served as his profile picture from 2006–2012.

David took a more understated approach. His avatar was a simple, low resolution image of a wolf’s paw print in mud, a few flecks of snow dotting the earth around it. This remained his profile picture for over a decade. He had been on the forum since 2004, when it was first established. Legend had it David built the site himself, after his first kill. But he never took credit for it. His authority came from our respect for his words.

I found the forum in 2005, after I discovered a dying tabby outside of my stepdad’s house. It was small and felt like a bundle of twigs in my hands. It mewled on the pavement as I crouched beside it, the back wheel of my bike spinning madly in the September cornfield wind. As it died, I was crying, but I didn’t only feel bad. I also felt superhuman. Powerful. I was aware of how much control over that small animal’s life I truly had, and the awareness scared me, but the feeling did not.

Later that night I sat in the loft of my stepdad’s garage with the kitten’s body in my lap and a box cutter in my hand. What a simpleton I was! I was about to make a huge mess of things, sinew and guts all over the hardwood. Thankfully, my stepdad’s laptop was in front of me at the time. I searched for animal skinning and mounting, not even knowing to use those words, but I found David anyway, and David found me.

“Congratulations!” He typed in his introductory forum post. “You have discovered the joy of your first body harvest! If you feel sick or even a bit guilty, please know that it’s normal! Many of us have to spend a good while unlearning the notion that our urges are shameful.

“The first stage of overcoming this self-hate is realizing you are not alone. All of us feel that tingle as life bleeds out before us. You are not the only one who wants to cleave the carapace open and see what lingering signs of life still await inside. You are not bad. You’re just curious. And powerful. And insightful. And creative.

“You don’t have to stay here, but regardless, I welcome you. I invite you to poke around a bit. Read some posts. You will find some of it interesting, I’m sure. There’s no pressure to contribute, take as long as you like — some of our most valued community members spent months or even years as quiet lurkers. All of us here know the value of a slow, stealthy hunt!

“My hope is that after you’ve taken some time and studied our ways, you’ll decide this is a place where you’d like to spend time regularly. Please know that this is a club with no dues and no rules, only an evolving set of democratic ethics we all love to talk about. If you feel moved to speak, please contribute, please do. We would all love to hear about your latest kills and the fine creations you have crafted with the bodies.

“But even if you don’t feel comfortable sharing right now, I want you to know you are part of something that matters. Your urges are as old as time. They are not vile or harmful. They definitely are not inhuman. We all share those feelings here. And this is a safe and hospitable place for every hunter, mounter, and scavenger that happens upon it. Your deeds are beautiful. Your creations are gorgeous. Your power is extraordinary. We all understand. You’re so welcome here.”

The post was intended for any new visitor, but as I read it I felt personally addressed by David himself. I knew that no matter how old the post was, and no matter how many people had already responded to it with gratitude, it had been crafted specifically for me. Fate had led me to that cat, its moment of death, and this forum. David was a lighthouse of reason and love, blinking across an interminable darkness, leading me to safety’s shores.

I posted a reply.

“Found a cat,” I said. “It was dying. Now it’s dead. I felt bad for it I promise. I did not kill it, I swear. But when it died it flattened out and something changed in the air. I felt like I was seeing something very important. I felt like I was chosen. I’m only 12, but I know I’m a man now. I can just tell things are different. I’ve never seen anybody die before.”

David replied within an hour. That was really impressive by 2005 standards.

“Welcome to the family Dakota!” he said. “While we generally discourage the hunting of pet animals, it’s clear from your post that the animal’s death was pure happenstance. I’m sure the kitten appreciated you holding and comforting it as it passed. And now you have discovered the thrall of death! Please don’t be scared. You don’t need to hedge or explain. We get it. You’re part of a very wonderful legacy.”

And then David told me how to preserve the body, and how to find the right tools to take the hide off. It was messy. I ruined a few of my stepdad’s old hunting knives. But I ended up with my inaugural trophy, about half of the cat’s hide, which I stitched together into a kind of tiny orange rose.

Fur roses are one of my favorite ways to salvage a small hide to this very day. I made one for my sister when her gerbil died. Sometimes I catch her playing with it at her desk, thumbing over its soft edges while she contemplates her math homework. I figure she has a bit of the hunter spirit inside her, too. That brings me some solace. I will need a new community now that I know David is not real.

My next kill was a rabbit in the woods at my grandpa’s house. My hands shook as I clutched its wheezing body to my chest. I mounted its fur on a foam body and gave it antlers. It wore little teddy bear sized spectacles and held the cat’s fur rose. When David saw the photos, he said I had a preternatural talent. A tarp in my grandpa’s garage kept it hidden all summer until I went home.

By then I had made other friends on the forum, like Devon, and Christopher, and Michael. Mostly we just traded pictures of our handiwork and restated David’s beliefs amongst ourselves. I met Michael in person, so I know that he’s real. But the rest? They could just have been David using pseudonyms. I’ll never know now.

My next kill was a lizard. I made its skin into a tiny coin purse. Then I bashed in the skull of a pigeon. Not much of it was salvageable. Then some mice, then a raccoon, then a possum. I worked my way up to a deer, then a hawk. I wanted to make a huge, deer skeleton angel, with massive hawk wings, and a halo of antlers and fur. The image haunted me every night, beckoned me.

With each kill and each creation, David got increasingly proud of me. I fell in love with him, then, in the spring of 2006. His creations were fantastical, massive cobbling-togethers of fish scales and buffalo hides and dozens of beady squirrel eyes in shapes seeming alien and primordial. He told me that I had that kind of potential. My abdomen ached for him and my hands imagined the ripples of his body as I hunched over my carcasses, stripping meat from bone. He loved the smell of bleach as it whitened the skeletons. I did too. We were meant to be together.

I found his Myspace easily. I knew he lived in Wisconsin, after all, and I knew his name. He was vague and mysterious, but he wasn’t hiding. At least, I didn’t think that he was. His profile picture on Myspace was a black square with his initials in purple Helvetica. The background was slate gray and the text white. The song “Your Woman” by White Town played, and I was enchanted.

I kept digging and found other records of David Addley, on other forums. One was a gaming site run by AOL. On there, my beloved David shared screen caps from his favorite computer games. First person shooters, of course. A hunter’s spirit never is sated.

He also contributed to a fanfiction page about the Hannibal Lecter books. I wasn’t surprised. His writing, as always, was crisp yet imaginary. Reading his words was like being swallowed up by an oil slick. In his stories, Hannibal stopped killing men, and feasted on buffalo brains. I bought some hog brains at the deli and cooked them in private. It stunk up the house. My stepdad was perplexed.

My search continued. I found photos of David from a high school year book, uploaded to a private storage account. It was easy for me to guess his password. In the photos he had an angular, handsome face and thick eyebrows. His hair was almost as dark and smooth as mine. I wondered if he was part Native like me. I imagined us recreating the world together somehow, chasing the coddled white man from the plains where I lived.

I built a shed in the woods and kept knives there. I dragged the better part of a cow’s body there, under the cover of darkness. The cow had been old. It had trouble standing. I told myself my actions were a kindness, that David would excuse it easily in his beautiful, effortless prose. And finally my bone sculpture had proper hooves. The spotty hide hung off its back like a cape.

David went away to college. He kept a personal blog with obscure details. I found out where he’d gone (Eau Claire), found the dorm, and found images of it on Google Maps. I stared at the window that I knew held him. I imagined walking past it with a fur rose on a bone stem, or a whole bouquet of fur roses, all for him. I told my mom I wanted to take AP classes to prepare me for college. I told her I wanted to go out of state.

The campus had a webcam. I spent hours with my eyes glued to it. I had learned from his blog that David was studying chemistry, medical history, and bioethics. David said a man had to always consider the history and the ethics of what he was doing, so none of that surprised me. I scoured the course catalogue and figured out which sections he was likely enrolled in, and when they were, and where. Then I watched webcams outside the relevant buildings, desperate for a murky shadow of his petite, yet muscle-dense frame, and his shock of dark hair.

Meanwhile, on the forums, our friendship had taken deep root.

“What’s your dream kill?” he asked me.

“An anaconda,” I told him. “I wanna wrap my whole sculpture in it. Like the angel of bone is being defeated by the original snake from the garden of Eden.”

David said I came from the original men, so it made sense I wanted to kill one of the original evils. He was always flattering my lineage. It made the blood in my groin thump. I asked him what his dream kill was.

“I like killing mammals, as you know. They’re closer to us. It feels more warlike and competitive. Especially if the animal is bright and very social. I think I’d like to kill an orca whale.”

“That would really be something!” I typed. “But it seems kind of impossible, and aren’t they legally protected?”

“I think it may not ever happen,” David wrote, “but a man does not stop at possible things. A true hunter lusts for all kinds of blood and bodies, and is as blessed and sustained by the impossible desires as he is by the ones that are met.”

And then, I’ll never forget it, he private messaged me a quote. “Ah but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

I needed to run my hands along my own skinned scrap of heaven. So I decided to track David down for real.

I went to a summer basketball camp at Eau Claire that year. My mom was perplexed. Kody doesn’t like basketball! I did my best to feign interest and talent and she ponied up the money. A man learns how to use his body to hunt down what he wants. I knew that if David chanced to see me there, sweating on the basketball court while he was walking to class, he would feel what I felt. But it didn’t happen.

That winter, David studied abroad in Canada. He killed a beaver and scavenged the carcass of a moose. I joined the ski club at my high school so I could head up to Vancouver. I thought, once I was there, I could sneak on a train headed east, where David was. But our chaperones were too diligent. I went back home after flailing my way down a few bunny hills.

I killed a fox. David went on spring break to Florida and offed an alligator. He turned the skin into a pair of boots. I asked him for his address so I could mail him the foxtail, but he said no. A man deserves only that which he can track and claim himself, he said. This seemed to be a provocation.

By then I was a high school senior, and David Addley had graduated. On the forum we all congratulated him and asked him what came next. He eluded to an internship at a hospital in the city. At first I thought this meant Madison. But then I found a medical science program in Waukesha that seemed more David’s speed.

Michael was getting wise. He came over to help me pluck feathers from a barn owl and saw an address on my computer. Google Maps street view, a little green split level house with a sandy stoop.

“Kody,” he said. “Don’t do anything that will embarrass us.”

By “us” he meant the community, the forum of hunters and our communal sense of right and wrong. But by then, there was an “us” I found immensely more meaningful. I was so certain David and I were meant to be together. I wanted to give him my whole bone angel sculpture, and prostrate myself at his feet. We were the two most primal, liberated men society had seen in eons. We would save the world from its childish fascinations with impotent toys. Together the ground would be watered with fresh blood, and beautiful arrangements of corpses would decorate the horizon.

I turned eighteen. Graduated. Got a car for $800 from an old woman at a gas station. My mom and stepdad couldn’t say anything. I loaded the back of the sedan up with the long, elegant mobile of bones and antlers and feathers and fur, filled up my tank, and went off to Wisconsin. “Your Woman” played from a cassette in my stereo.

The drive was long but I never tired. I felt electrified, and as powerful as that day I first held the dying cat. I was a man on the greatest hunt of my life, and I salivated at the thought of the flesh I would soon be feasting upon.

Tracking David had been hard, when I was first starting out. I was so young and unskilled then. But at eighteen I knew how to code and how to track down IPs and home addresses. I had even figured out the number to David’s cell phone. It appeared to be a dumbphone, cheap and disposable. That struck me as strange, but perhaps David was covering his bases.

The house, legally, belonged to a Diana Perdue, who I quickly Googled and found to be a 49-year-old woman with whitish blonde hair. I figured she was the landlord and rented the place out to David. I had also figured out, by then, that David was probably a pseudonym. That was fine. A man so honestly revolutionary had to protect himself. None of my friends at school knew what I was into, either.

So when I walked up the stairs to the front door, my phone dialing David’s number, I was prepared for a surprise. I figured he would have a different name, and might look different from what his social media profiles projected. That didn’t bother me. As long as he had the brilliant mind and the hunter’s spirit dwelling within him, I would be fine.

What I didn’t expect was a fifteen year old girl.

Abby Perdue was home alone like always. She was knobby kneed and freckled, with a round body and a pudgy face. Her hair was long and strawberry blonde, but brushed back and chaotically arranged in a way that was not pretty or feminine. She knew who I was when she answered the door. Unlike David, I posted the occasional picture of myself to the forum.

She stood in the doorway and gave me a hollow look.

“Go around back,” she whispered in a low voice. It was husky beyond her years, and I wondered if she smoked.

We sat at a picnic table and drank raspberry iced tea from plastic glasses with smiley faces on them. Abby wore a black and grey plaid shirt and cargo shorts. Her nails were quick-bitten and she kept flinging her hair back with an impatient hand.

“Fifteen?” I stammered. “But that means when you started the forum you were-”

“Eight.” She nodded with a shocking sternness, and folded her hands. “You already know by now, I’m intelligent.”

“But those first posts-” I fumbled, “about the raccoon you killed, and the geckos! About how you discovered the primal lust inside you, was it all fake?”

She shook her head. “Of course not.”

“And hunting in Canada?”

She tilted her head. “I did kill a beaver in Canada. But I was there for my aunt’s wedding. Not college, obviously.”

“And Florida?”

“Disney World trip with Diana,” she said. “My mom.”

“You killed an alligator?”

Abby smiled. It was not cute or girlish or youthful in the least. “Any other questions?”

We sat there until the sun went below the trees and Diana’s Subaru pulled in the driveway. At that moment, Abby stood, smoothed her shirt and pulled it down as far as it would go, and told me it was time to leave.

We walked out to the front yard together. Diana Purdue gave me a frazzled hello. She was wearing pale pink hospital scrubs.

“Mom,” Abby said, her voice still low and businesslike. “This is Dakota. He’s one of my friends from the Call of Duty forum.”

Diana sized me up with a look of exhaustion, then pushed happiness into her face. “Hi! I’m Ab’s mom. Nice to meet you Dakota.”

She seemed to have lost the capacity to be disturbed or concerned by Abby’s actions. I shook her limp hand in my own and wondered how much the woman knew. There were bones in the back yard, but that was barely the tip of Abby’s massive, frigid iceberg.

But I never found out. Abby said, “Dakota was just leaving, he’s on his way to college in Eau Claire,” and took my arm in hers and delivered me to my rust bucket car in one swift, forceful motion.

And as Abby’s mom called out, “Oh, okay! It was nice meeting you!” and went into the house, her daughter jabbed an elbow in the small of my back and whispered the word, “Disappear.”

And I obeyed. Because I loved David. Because hunters look out for each other. Because we still shared an ancient, lusty spirit that would call us to kill and skin and roast innards and feast for the rest of our days, even if an accident of space and time would force us to do it alone.

I still talk to David sometimes. He is still witty and masterful, and his mounts are still marvels of dark vision and skill. Oddly, my feelings for him have not really changed. I still ache to watch him slit a doe’s throat and stand at his side while he cleans a hide and strips off fresh cuts of meat. And he still compliments my handiwork, and treats me as his protégé, certain that one day my ability will surpass his.

This winter I am destined for Saskatchewan, where I will kill a moose. I will do it for David because he cannot yet. And there in the forest I will build the most fearsome taxidermied beast my mind can conjure, and suspend it from the branches and light a fire beneath it. I will paint myself in blood and eat liver in the starlight, bellowing in the man’s voice my ancestors gave me. And perhaps if I do everything right, my David’s spirit will breathe life into the beast, freeing him of his small, young body, and unleashing him on the world in the form that his frightening spirit deserves.

— — –

This story was written as a submission for The First Line’s winter issue. The first line of the story was provided by the editors.

Originally published at erikadprice.tumblr.com.

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