His hands moved nimbly over the bird’s outstretched wing. He could feel the heat of the lamp to his left and see the dark mass of his shadow falling to the right side of the table. The ache in his back started at the base of his spine and climbed up each vertebra until it sat on his shoulders, curving him forward like a hunchback. His eyes never left the project in front of him.
Specks of dust had fallen on the animal’s inky black feathers and its head lay limply to one side. The man stared adamantly at his work, fixing a primary feather that had nearly torn from the wing. He pinched it between thumb and forefinger, guiding it back into place until it lay flat. There was nothing left beneath the bird’s skin but cotton and pins.
The basement was kept cold and dark. A large freezer lined one wall and the ascending stairs loomed just beside it. Even with the limited space, he had packed the walls with as many shelves as he could, stocked with trays of tools, pins, glass beads, jars of feathers, and a few more too cloudy to view their contents. One shelf in front of his workbench displayed a yellowed skull, its size and distinct jaw suggesting a housecat.
He lifted the bird in his hands. Lines reached outwards from the corners of his dark eyes as he squinted at his work from every angle. The soft feathers brushed across his palms. His touch was gentle as he set it down and reached for the handkerchief beside him.
A light rapping on the front door drew him away from the project. He pushed the stool back with a scrape of wood against concrete and made his way up the aging stairs. The hall upstairs was bare—nothing but peeling wallpaper where pictures of him and his wife had once hung. Grace had passed away nearly a decade ago. Their only son now lived in Chicago. He hadn’t heard from him in five Christmases.
Grace had wrinkled her nose at his hobby, shunning the animals he brought home to the basement. She wanted his craft out of sight in her home. Even now, he kept the rest of the house free of any mounts. His hands reached up to flatten the wisps of hair still clinging to his scalp before gripping the doorknob.
“Mornin’ Mrs. Peterson,” he said with a cough. “Or should I say afternoon?” He squinted against the sudden glare of sunlight at the woman wringing her hands on his doorstep. She was a young woman, still in her mid-thirties. Her coat was cinched at her waist and her hair was swept back from her face with a colored band. Jack could see her eyes slip past his into the hall.
“I have good ol’ Marley right here.”
He let her hold the door open as he moved halfway down the hall. He returned with a small white terrier cradled in his arms. The dog’s eyes were round and dark, and stared unblinking from his embrace. He handed him to the woman gently.
“I hope you like him.”
She seemed reluctant to carry the dog at first, but her face softened as her fingertips met his soft, clean coat. She pulled him to her chest.
“Thank you, Jack. He looks wonderful. Really . . . it’s uncanny.”
“Well, he was already there. He just needed a little work.” There were no signs of the impact Marley had with the bumper of the neighbor’s Buick. Jack had made sure of that.
“If my memory is any good, I’d say you already paid me,” he said.
“And I’d say you have an excellent memory.”
Her voice was light and playful, and left a space of silence after it that Jack could feel.
“All right then, you have a nice day now.”
“You too, Jack. Take care.”
He held the door and watched as she turned down his front steps. When she reached the footpath, he shuffled his feet and let out a small cough. “Claire,” he called.
Claire paused and turned with her arms still wrapped gently around the terrier. Jack could see the wide blue of her eyes from this distance.
“Would you like to come in and have some lunch?”
The older man watched as her mouth dropped in a small O of surprise. “No . . . Thank you, Jack, but I really have to be going,” she said after a moment’s pause. Apology shimmered in her eyes before she turned away.
Jack let the front door shut slowly. Through the small square window set in the wood, he could see her open the passenger side of her car and place Marley in the seat for the drive up the road. In less than a minute, she was gone.
He stood on the other side of the door until he started to feel foolish. Then he returned to the basement to finish mounting the common raven he had found by the pond the day before.
Fall 2017 Flash Fiction Contest Winner