Tiny Little Teeth

The little bell above the door dinged as Jani, Uncle Brian, and Joseph entered the Bluegrass Pillow Company. Nan was behind the counter, sitting on a stool and reading a magazine.

“Well, it’s about time,” she said.

“We had to stop for bait,” Uncle Brian said.

Nan waved a hand as she stood, shuffling to a wicker basket that sat next to a low metal table. Jani could hear her wheeze as she moved, the air pushed thin through straining lungs.

“Come on back here and help me wing these birds,” she said. The wicker basket was full of waterfowl, their wings jutting over the sides at odd angles, pale bellies pressed against one another, necks lolling.

Jani walked behind the counter and grabbed one of the birds off the pile. It was a male coot.

“We’ll see you in a couple of hours, January,” Uncle Brian said. “Treat Nan good.”

“I will. Catch lots of fish,” Jani said. Joseph grinned and waved before he and his father headed back out, the bell tinkling behind them.

Jani was down at the cabin for the weekend with Uncle Brian and Joseph, his youngest son. They knew where to turn in because the cabin was right off of State Rt. 1193 between the ‘NO PASSING’ sign and the ‘DEER CROSSING’ sign. The trees were thick and green and pushed up against the asphalt, a solid wall of trunks and leaves.

Jani had been down to the cabin every few years since she was small. Uncle Brian brought down a cousin or two to Laurel County each year to fish and hunt and help their grandmother at the Bluegrass Pillow Company, someone to help her out with the never ending stream of waterfowl brought to her by the locals, most of which were family themselves.

Jani had enjoyed hunting immensely as a child. She loved the stillness of it, the muffled anxiety of the long waits, the thrilling crack of a bullet as it bit through the November air. She loved taking the birds to the Bluegrass Pillow Company where they would be feathered, gutted. Their feathers sat out to dry in huge rooms for months and months before they were finally stuffed into pillows and sold. The company didn’t make much, but the family was always ready and willing to collect the fowl from local hunters, take their feathers and give the animals back, gutted and cleaned, ready for eating.

“All right,” Nan said. She pressed her foot against a lever on the floor and a circular saw whirred to life. The saw was positioned under the table between two metal barriers that stuck out in a V from the small opening where the saw poked through. The bird was to be placed there, its wing through the slot, its body held back by the metal V. Jani was then to pull the wing down over the saw, severing it from the bird’s body. She got quickly to work.

“Careful there,” Nan said. She worked behind Jani, yanking off any large feathers and discarding them. When they were finished, Jani carried the basket to the back of the room to the de-feathering station.

Jani had learned how to de-feather the birds just under ten years ago, when she was five. It wasn’t easy to do, even with the strange contraption her grandmother had in her shop. It had a series of thick, spinning rubber blades that Nan would run the bird under to pull the feathers off. It was much quicker than doing it by hand. Made the work less tedious. It took Jani a while to get it right—she had more than one duck head pop off in her hand, the body flung back at her after spinning around the column of rubber slats. If done correctly, the rubber blades would shoot the feathers back into a small room where they would sit in the dark for nearly a year to dry before being stuffed into pillows.

Things had been slow for the last few years and most of the family desperately wanted Jani’s grandmother to shut the place down. She was getting up there, they said. She needed to take a rest, they said. But Nan wouldn’t hear it.

Jani was older now, in high school, and the idea of helping her grandmother gut, feather and deliver dead birds was no longer as enticing as it once was. Her sister, Cadence, had been the last to go help Nan of the two sisters, about two years ago. She was a few years older than Jani, ready to head to college somewhere along the Pacific, somewhere cold and northern, somewhere far from the blue hills of Kentucky.

When Jani had entered Cadance’s room a few days ago to beg her to go with her to the cabin, Cadence scoffed.

“No way am I going back to that place,” she said. Cadence didn’t turn from her vanity to look at Jani as she prodded the false lashes that clung to the tissue-paper skin of her eyelids with a pinky finger, her pink lips puckering into a soft ‘O.’ “You’re on your own.”

Jani moved out of her sister’s room and back down the hall, pressing a palm against her door as she closed it so as not to make a sound.

From her spot near the back, Jani could see nearly everything in the shop as she worked. It was low-ceilinged with wood paneling and a pale yellow tiled floor. The counter was low and long, surfaced with the same yellow tile. There were baskets of birds by the door, more by the side of the counter. It looked like Nan was behind schedule.

All along the walls of the shop were animals. Deer heads with necks curved up and out, antlers nearly scraping the ceiling, crouching raccoons with their black paws scrunched beneath them, pheasants with their copper bellies pressed to the paneling, wings unfurled in perpetual flight. There was a bobcat on top of a tall file cabinet, its black lips peeled back in a snarl, long white teeth glistening in the fluorescent flicker of the ceiling strip. A group of thrushes sat next to the cash register, their long tails down, chests puffed. A woodpecker perched on the side of a bookshelf, thick beak poised above the composite wood, a shock of red at the back of his head.

Jani followed the line of animals, her eyes falling on a low table by the door to the feather room. There was a fox on top of it, its head low and neck long, yellow eyes wide. A line of black ran down its arched back and to the puff of its tail, out toward the tuft of white at the end. Its chest was a gray-white, legs and feet black, as if it were wearing stockings. Its mouth was opened slightly, and inside Jani thought she could see the pink of a pointed tongue.

“Watch what you do there,” Nan said. She was at the table behind Jani, gutting the birds. She reached into the cavity of their bodies, pulling out tendrils of pink, sacks of paleish gray slick with blood. She would scoop the entrails into a hole cut at the back of the table where they dropped into a black bin. She would then reach up and turn on the little shower above the table, rinse out the inside of the birds, stack them on the counter.

Jani looked to the pile of birds beside her. It had been a few hours, and there were only a few Canada geese left to be de-feathered. Jani finished up her last few birds and brought them over. Nan was smiling over her glasses.

“I see you looking at Rusty over there,” she said, nodding to the wall.

“What?” Jani said.

“That old fox Terrence brought me a week or so ago. Said he caught him sniffing around his hens. Like out of a children’s book.”

“And he stuffed it himself?” Jani said. She looked back over at the fox. Nan coughed.

“Sure did. He’s a regular expert now, ain’t he?”

Terrence had stuffed all the animals in The Bluegrass Pillow Company. He was a skilled hunter and one of Jani’s distant cousins.

“The fox looks good,” Jani said.

“I want you to take him with you when you deliver these birds,” Nan said. She reached inside a mallard Jani had feathered a little while earlier. Jani watched as her hand drew out of the cavity, bright with blood.

“You want me to take it?”

“Yes. I’ve got too many critters in here and I’ve been looking to get rid of a few. Crowds up the place too much. Just last week I had Patty and Jeff take one of the old coons off the back table. They tell me it’s up on their mantle now.”

Jani looked at the fox. It wasn’t nailed to a platform like some of the other animals. Its legs stretched under it as if it were mid-stride. As if it were stalking something.

“Okay,” Jani said. She tried not to look at the fox as she gathered the birds into a basket, all clean and gutted and fresh. Nan wiped her hands on a long apron she wore, streaks of red following her palms.

“I suppose you best get a move on. The geese are all Richard’s, the two mallards are Juliet’s, the three coots are Jed’s, and the one merganser is Robby’s. You understand?” Nan sat heavily onto her stool by the counter and hacked into a tissue. Jani waited for her to catch her breath.

“Yes,” she said. She avoided looking at the fox.

“See if you can’t find old Rusty a home. If you can’t, just bring him on back. Sure I can get Todd to take him when he comes by Monday.” Nan opened her magazine and wheezed into her palm.

Jani grabbed her basket of fowl and hurried by the table, snatching the fox under her arm as she left. It smelled faintly of dust and something sharper, a kind of sour musk. She shoved the door open with her hip, the bell tinkled weakly behind her.

She found her wagon up against the side of the building, black handle propped against the wall. She laid down the tarp Nan had set by the door and dumped the birds in, their bodies thudding against one another. She didn’t bother to spread them out or separate them by breed. She put the fox with them, trying not to let the waterfowl’s bodies get too close to its bristling fur. She looked at its mouth. Its lips were thin and black, shining with faux-saliva. Its teeth were small and white and pointed. She could see the little pink tongue through the slats of them. She turned and started down the gravel drive, wagon bumping behind her.

The road was long and winding, hills lifting and dipping in her wake. With no sidewalks to speak of, there was no way to walk along the road without being fully in it—on multiple occasions Jani had to scurry out of the way of an oncoming truck or car, scooting the wagon quickly behind her. They would wave at her, smile, ignore her. A few times they honked.

She hadn’t walked these streets in a few years, but she remembered the lay of the land pretty well. She and her mother and Cadence only lived an hour or so north and Jani would sometimes make it out that far with friends on weekends when they drove along the winding country roads, looking for a place to go. She would let the wind whip at her hair and watch the trees whir by, blurred slicks of brown and green that flashed along the road. She would squint into the trees for the cabin, for Nan’s. But even when she knew she was close to the cabin and Nan’s pillow company, even when she and her friends flew down the road with the ‘NO PASSING’ and ‘DEER CROSSING’ signs, she could never pick those familiar places out of the tangle of trees. They never quite managed to peek through.

The closest house to the Bluegrass Pillow Company was Jed’s. He was set up on the little curve of a hill, a few old barns and a lake dotting what could be seen of his land. Jani made her way up his drive, grunting as she dragged the wagon’s stiff wheels through the dirt.

There was a man sitting on the porch, sagging out over his white plastic chair. He had on a blue t-shirt and jeans. As Jani got closer, she could see his gut poking out from the bottom of the fabric, white and taut, dark hairs sticking out from beneath where she assumed his bellybutton would be, traveling downward in a thin V.

She stopped by the porch. He was looking at her. The corners of his eyes crinkled, like he was smiling, but his lips curved down.

“I have some—”she looked over her shoulder into the wagon“—Coots. For Jed. Is he here?”

“Who’s deliverin’?”

“The Bluegrass Pillow Company. Nan, my grandma, told me to come here,” she said. She tried to look over the man’s shoulder, into the house. She didn’t recognize him, which felt strange. She knew almost everyone in these hills.

“Oh yes,” the man said. He drew out the words long in his mouth, worked them around with his tongue. She could see his lower lip glistening with spittle. “Jed has been expecting them ones.”

Jani reached into her wagon and held out the coots. The man didn’t move.

“Why don’t you just place ‘em on the step there, hunny?” he said. She did so. She felt odd, laying them on the wood like that. They shouldn’t sit in the sun too long.

She looked back into her wagon. “Sir, would you like a fox?”

“A what now?”

“A fox. My cousin stuffed this one recently and my Nan wants to get rid of it. Do you have room for it?”

“A fox?”

“It’s stuffed. Dead. Do you want it?”

The man scrunched his face into a red twist of shining flesh. His eyes almost slit shut as he thought. He made a sound low and deep in his throat.

“No,” he said, “no. I expect I don’t.”

Jani looked back at the fox. It grinned up at her with twinkling yellow eyes.

“Okay. Ask Jed, too. If he wants it, tell him to call Nan. Or to call Brian. Nan’s son?”

The man nodded. Jani started to head back down the drive.

“Well. Thank you,” she said. The man made a sound in his throat again and kept on nodding.

When she knocked at Juliet’s, a young boy answered. He hollered over his shoulder for his mother, and Juliet appeared. She hugged Jani and asked her how she was, told her than it had been a while. She took the birds gratefully. Juliet offered Jani a tip, but she refused. Juliet asked her to come in for some tea, but Jani said she should really get going. She asked Juliet about the fox. Juliet craned her neck to get a good look over Jani’s shoulder.

“You say Terrence stuffed it?” she said. Jani nodded.

“Pretty recently.”

“Looks all right.”

“You want it, then?”

“No. I shouldn’t,” Juliet said. She shook her head. She sighed. “I don’t think Howard would like it at all. No.”

Juliet told Jani she should get home. That it was liable to get dark soon, it getting later in the season and all that. Jani thanked her and moved on. Jani bumped back down the driveway with her wagon, a bit lighter now.

The sun was hovering low above the treetops. Jani sat down near the tree line and ate the turkey and cheddar sandwich Nan had given her before she left. She hadn’t realized how long it had taken to ready the birds at Nan’s, how long she’d been walking. The houses didn’t seem so far apart, at least not in Uncle Brian’s truck. Her sneakers pinched her feet. She shivered. She wished she’d remembered to bring a water bottle.

Jani stood and continued on. She looked back at the wagon. The bird carcasses jiggled and bunched as they bumped down the road. The fox stared at her, mouth parted, ears perked.

“You’re no good for me,” she said to it, and turned around.

She headed to Richard’s next. Getting the geese out of the wagon would be a big relief. She huffed as she struggled through the thick grass of a field that butted up against Richard’s home, taking a shortcut.

Jani was almost across the field. Sweat itched at her hairline despite the chill in the air. She held her jacket against her chest in a tight fist.

She could see a figure outlined against the trees. She squinted. There was a patch of tilled earth just to her right, leaves and rocks dotting its dark surface. A doe raised her head to look in Jani’s direction as she struggled by. Jani slowed and the doe froze. It turned and leapt over the five-foot fence surrounding the patch of land, disappearing silently into the tree line.

“Who’s that, now?”

Jani stopped. The wagon touched the backs of her legs. The figure moved toward her, weaving some in the grass. He held a hand to his eyes even though the sun had sunk below the trees, dimming the field a soft blue.

“Is that little January?”

Jani was clutching the handle of the wagon behind her. She looked to the trees for the doe. Nothing stirred amidst the tangled branches.

“Why, it is,” he said. He stopped in front of her. “It’s me, Terrence.”

“Hi,” she said. She couldn’t make out the details of his face too well. The field had darkened quickly. The crickets were loud and full in her ears, pulsing in the darkness.

“You don’t remember me?” He laughed. He slapped a hand on his knee. “Well, I remember you. You was just a little bean last I saw you. Or maybe it wasn’t so long ago. You’ve just sprouted up since then, is that it?”

“I guess so,” Jani said. She looked over her shoulder at the wagon. She knew she needed to get them to their respective homes. She needed to get back to Nan’s.

“You got an older sister called Cadence. Don’t you?” Terrence said. Jani nodded. Terrence laughed again. He rocked a bit and held his chest.

“Woo! I haven’t thought on her in some time. Last I saw that girl, she was a bit older than you are now. Real leggy, just like you. Boy,” he said. He shook his head. “I can still taste her on me sometimes. On the insides of my lips, real sweet and lingering. Like she went and spread sugar all up and down my gums.”

Jani looked at Terrence through the gloom. His hair was long and twisted. Thin strands stuck down past his shoulders. A black T-shirt with the sleeves cut off hung from his body. Jani could picture the concave slope of his chest beneath it, sinking back toward his spine.

“What you think about that? You sweet as honey too, string bean?” he said. Jani clutched the wagon handle and she looked over her shoulder again.

“I need to deliver these birds for Nan.”

Terrence looked up and over her shoulder. She thought she could see him squinting.

“What’s that?” He moved around to the wagon and leaned down. “What you got with that? That my fox?”

“Nan wanted me to take it.”

“Did she now?” he smiled. He leaned close to her. She could feel his breath hot on her neck. He smelled like cigarettes and something musky, tangy. Something sharp and spicy that burnt her nose. He touched the fox’s stiff ear, his fingers brushing her bare arm as he reached past.

Jani could picture his hands, ridged and sharp as claws, digging at her stomach. She could see him reaching up inside her, just like Nan did with the birds. She could see him pulling at the thick, red cables of her, digging them out, preserving her skin with chemicals, stretching it over a polyurethane replica of herself, sticking glass eyes into her head with clay. Unblinking, paralyzed.

She moved away and tugged the wagon behind her. He leaned up and grabbed her arm.

“Where you off to in such a hurry, honeybee?”

“Uncle Brian is waiting for me in the truck up on the hill. At Richard Spenlow’s.”

“That so?” he said. He grinned wide, white teeth flashing against the dim of the field. “A shame. We was just getting to talking.”

She pulled her arm away and started to huff through the field. She could hear his dry laugh mingle with the screech of the crickets.

“You take good care of that fox, now.”

Jani didn’t look back as she continued across. She could see Richard’s house along the hill. After breathing heavily into the dark for a few minutes, she looked back. The field was empty, the grass tall and still.

When she reached the top of the hill, the dark was becoming more complete. She knocked on the door.

A girl of about four or five answered. She peeked from behind the doorframe.

“Is Richard here?” Jani said.

“Daddy’s not here no more,” the girl said. Jani let the handle of the wagon fall against the wooden porch with a clang.

“He won’t be back any time soon?”

“He’s not here,” the girl said. Jani looked into her wagon.

“I have some geese for him. Do you want them?”

The girl stared at her from behind the door. Her eyes were wide, and dark blonde hair fell down her cheeks in thick ropes.

“I’m just going to leave them on the porch,” Jani said. The girl nodded. “Do you want this fox?”

The girl’s eyes shifted from Jani to her cart. Her brow furrowed as she stared at the stiff animal. She shut the door.

Jani set the birds in a stack and walked back out towards the road. She looked to the field. The doe was back, standing in the grass, watching. Her ears swiveled toward Jani, full and white.

At Robby’s, no one was home. The windows were dark and still. She knocked a few times, but the sound seemed to die within the wood, blunt and muffled. She sat on the doorstep. The fox stared at her. She rested her chin on a balled fist and squinted at it. Its eyes looked wilder in the dark, bright and yellow and glinting. She could hear an owl in the woods. The clicking and snapping of twigs in the trees. Her back went rigid.

She stood up and listened. She struggled to keep her breathing low. The wind blew and she thought she could hear the crunch of tires on the road, the scuff of shoes on gravel. She thought she could smell Terrence on the early November breeze, all hot sweat and stale cigarettes. She hurried down the drive. The wagon bit at her shoes and she yelped, letting it fall to the asphalt behind her. The fox tumbled out onto its side, grinned up at her.

Nan’s was about a mile or so off. She started down the road, hurrying, breathing hard, keeping to the tree line. She did not look back at the fox in the road, didn’t stop to get the wagon. She picked up speed, and as she ran, she struggled to hear through the crickets and the wind, struggled to make sense of the scurrying and shuffling in the trees, tried to decide what was coming through the dark to sink its claws into her.

At The Bluegrass Pillow Company, Uncle Brian and Joseph sat on the tailgate, waiting.

“Where in the hell did you get off to?” Uncle Brian said. He stood up and walked toward her. “Jesus, you’re sweating all over.”

“I got turned around,” she said. She leaned on her knees to catch her breath.

Nan walked out.

“Where’s the wagon?” she said.

“I lost it,” Jani said. She wiped a strand of hair from her forehead.

“Lost it? It’s going to be much harder for you and your cousins to lug all those birds around without it. You best go and find it.”

“Tomorrow,” Uncle Brian said. “It’s dark.”

“What’d you do with that old fox?” Nan said.

“Jed took it,” Jani said. Nan nodded.

“Good,” she said, “good.”

Back at the cabin, Uncle Brian and Joseph showed Jani the haul. They’d caught bluegills and rainbow trout. Uncle Brian thought he’d fix some up for dinner.

Jani and Joseph waited on the porch while Uncle Brian worked inside. Jani was in a rocking chair and Joseph sat with his legs dangling off towards the grass.

Jani closed her eyes to the cool evening. She pictured the fox out on the road, on its side in the dark. She pictured its stiff legs, its sneering jaws. She wondered who would find it, if anyone would pick it up. She wondered if they’d toss it into the woods, kick it off into the ditch on the side of the road. She pictured it amidst the dark trees, yellow eyes flashing, wide and patient in the gloom.  

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