Cast of Wonders 224: Welcome to Willoughby’s
Welcome to Willoughby’s
by Michael Reid
You ever been to Upsilon Orionis? As far as asteroid belts go, that one’s pretty weird. Someone dragged every last asteroid in that system right up close to the star then built a temple to a different sun god on each one. How about Beta Pictoris? That solar system isn’t even properly formed yet and there’s already a golf course in its asteroid belt. It has fairways and sand traps and everything, with each and every hole on a different rock. So you could say I’ve seen a lot of weird stuff in asteroid belts. But the taxidermist was definitely the weirdest of them all.
When I was given the delivery for HD 189726, I didn’t think much of it. Who’s ever heard of HD 189726? But, whatever the package was–I don’t ask what’s inside the boxes, I just deliver them–someone in HD 189726 must have wanted it pretty badly. I mean, they could have had a drone deliver it for a tenth what I charge, but apparently someone wanted the extra security. This particular package had a transponder code and a set of coordinates on it, so I punched them in and Translated.
I knew something was up as soon as I came out of Translation. There was nothing on the pickup but asteroids: no sign of any planets anywhere in the system. In fact, there was no sign of any kind of habitation at all. Kind of a boring place to live, if you ask me. Still, I scanned for the transponder signal and, sure enough, there it was.
With the price of real estate on planets these days, lots of people in the more populated systems choose to live on asteroids. Except no one lives on an asteroid–too vulnerable. You hollow them out and live inside, shielded from cosmic rays and micrometeorites and all that crap. So imagine my surprise when, as I coasted in toward the drop-off, I saw an actual building stuck to the surface of this big grey rock.
Now, when I say ‘building’, you probably imagine some sleek space-proof jobbie in titanium and reinforced glass. But it wasn’t like that. The building on this asteroid was made of bricks, old red-brown bricks, like ones made from actual Earth clay. It had kind of a pinched look, like it had been pried out from between two other buildings after a long squeeze. The front of it was all windows, with wobbly old glass in them, made cloudy by cosmic rays. There was an actual front door that, if you opened it, would have let in a whole lot of hard vacuum. A big sign hung over the door read, in hand-painted gold letters, “Willoughby’s Taxidermy, est. 1843”.
The whole setup seemed a little off to me. But I’d come all this way, so I might as well make the delivery, right? I docked in a gleaming modern parking garage in the belly of the asteroid, complete with atmosphere and fake gravity–the works. I got the package and rode up to the shop in this cramped little cage elevator so old and rickety you half expected a guy in a uniform to press the buttons for you.
When the cage bumped to a stop at the top and the door creaked open, I’ll admit I might have peed a little. A huge brown bear loomed over me, claws bared and slavering jaws open. Did I figure out within six milliseconds that it was stuffed? Yes I did. Was that too late to stop the signal racing down my spine, telling my bladder to squeeze out a few drops? Yes it was.
Next to the big slavering bear was a smaller, cuter one. It sat plumply on a tree stump, wearing a monocle and a burgundy smoking jacket, concentrating on a backgammon board. Across the board, a crow in a matching jacket sat on a branch, also staring at the board.
“Welcome to Willoughby’s,” said an old man in a leather apron, emerging from among the wildlife. He wiped his hands on a rag stained with splotches of red and brown, then offered me a gnarled hand. To shake, I mean–it was still attached to his arm. I tucked the package under my arm and shook with my free hand. For an old guy, he had quite the grip.
“Thanks,” I said, looking around to get the lay of the place. It was lit by greasy oil lamps that gave off the kind of stink you really didn’t want to think about for too long while standing in a taxidermist’s. The walls, floor, and banks of shelves were all made of heavily varnished wood that glowed orange in the lamplight. Everything that could have been upholstered in leather had been. Even the taxidermist himself looked leathery, with puckered, toffee-coloured skin and rheumy eyes. Definitely not a partaker of anti-aging serums.
“I have a package for you,” I said, handing him the box. How had I not noticed before that the box was head-sized and surprisingly heavy?
“Ah, wonderful,” he said, taking the box waving his ident over my reader. Transaction complete, right? Time to hit the road, so to speak. Except–taxidermist on an asteroid. Too weird to just drop-and-fly, right?
“Mind if I look around a bit before I go?” I asked.
“Not at all,” he said. He stood back and ushered me into the store. “Is there anything in particular you’re looking for?”
“Me?” I asked, as if there was anyone else in the shop. “No,” I said, “nothing in particular.” Did people usually visit with shopping lists?
The taxidermist gave me the wan smile of the aficionado who realizes he is speaking to a neophyte. “Very good sir,” he said, shifting into salesman mode. “Perhaps I might show you around then?”
“I can’t stay too long,” I said, thinking of all the other packages spoiling in my hold.
“Of course, sir,” he said. “The short tour, then.”
He took me around the shop. It was cramped, but immaculate, with nary a hair nor a feather out of place. It was packed floor to ceiling with animals rendered into statues, like a taxidermied Noah’s ark. The guy had two or more of every imaginable animal, plus assorted spare body parts. You had to watch how you moved or risk dominoing his menagerie. I stooped to inspect a petrified snake and just about impaled myself on a pair of moose antlers when I stood up again.
He started by showing me the tame stuff: tacky tchotchkes like rabbit-paw keychains and elephant-foot umbrella stands, wall-mounted deer heads and lacquered fish on plaques. It was all classy enough, I guess, at least as much as any non-consensually mummified critter can be called “classy.”
But the deeper you went into the shop, the more exotic his creations got. I saw a door knocker made out of the head of a St. Bernard. It clutched a big metal ring eternally between its yellow fangs. In one elaborate diorama, cigar-chomping squirrels cheered on two of their own in a cage fight. In another, a hyena, a flamingo, and an armadillo lounged on cushions around a hookah, sucking blearily on its pipes.
“This is all your work?” I asked the old man.
“The vast majority, sir” said the taxidermist. “Some of it I inherited.”
“Where’d you get all the animals?” I hadn’t noticed any flocks of flamingos plying the hard vacuum around the asteroid.
“Here and there,” he said, a little evasively. “Most of them I import from the planets.”
We turned a corner and I found myself face to face with a trio of owls, the pupils of their glass eyes maximally dilated and fixed on me as if on prey. I screamed a little.
“You live here alone?” I asked, trying to cover my embarrassment.
“Since my wife died,” said the taxidermist.
“Thank you sir. It was a long time ago.”
“Doesn’t it creep you out, though? Living alone with all of these dead things?”
“Not at all.” He stroked the fur of a beaver on the shelf beside him. It would never finish chewing through the tree branch gripped in its little paws.
“They’re almost like pets to me.”
“Is there really enough call for this kind of thing these days to keep you in business?” I asked.
“You’d be surprised,” he said. “Holograms are all well and good, but aficionados prefer the tactility of the real thing. And there’s the status, of course.”
“Still, I’m amazed that all these aficionados can find you out here. What the blazes made you set up shop alone in this godforsaken system?” I asked, then hastily added “No offense.”
“It’s a fair question,” said the taxidermist. “The shop originally opened in 1843, on Earth. It did excellent business there for more than two hundred years, under the proprietorship of the original Mr. Willoughby and a succession of his heirs.” He took a cloth from his apron and used it to polish the glossy hide of a huge black salamander. The salamander’s head was bigger than mine. “But tastes change, I suppose.”
“Nowadays,” he continued a little acidly, “planetbound people are so accustomed to their sterile holograms, their fungus steaks, their longevity treatments. Taxidermy seems ghoulish to them. I find that there’s a greater appreciation for my craft out here in the void.”
As we pushed deeper into the shop, the cutesy anthropomorphized animals started to give way to more natural poses. One shelf held six sand cranes, posed in a sequence showing take-off from a standstill. The attention to detail was impressive: the bend in the knees as the bird prepared to jump, the wing feathers curving slightly as they caught the air.
Some of the creations looked like they were intended for museums or veterinary schools. There was a pregnant sow caught in the act of giving birth, her and the piglet both sawed in half down the middle, all of their organs meticulously stained and preserved. It was a little bit beautiful and a little bit barfy.
At the very back of the store, a red velvet curtain hung across a doorway.
“What’s back there?” I asked.
“Ah,” said the taxidermist, his rheumy eyes glistening, “that’s the special collector’s area. For connoisseurs.”
“Mind if I have a look?”
“Perhaps” he said, stepping between me and the curtain, “it would be better if you did not. I could show you–”
“Come on,” I said. “I came all this way to deliver your head-in-a-box or whatever that was, but I’m not good enough to look behind your curtain?”
Another wan smile. “Not at all, sir,” he said. “It’s just that I sense you are rather new to taxidermy. You might find the collector’s area a little… difficult to appreciate.”
I tried to think of anything more difficult to appreciate than a bisected sow with half a baby still stuck in her hooha.
“Who says I wouldn’t appreciate it?”
“It is really for the connoisseur of taxidermy,” he said.
“I may not be a connoisseur, but I still like a good–” I looked around for an example “–a good petrified Dalmatian licking its nuts.”
He gave me an appraising look. “Discerning as your taste may be,” he said, “I’m not sure that the special collector’s–”
“Aw hell,” I said, pushing past him and through the red curtain.
Right away, I kind of wished I hadn’t.
“Freaky” didn’t even touch the stuff behind the red curtain. My hand scrabbled unconsciously for my stunner, only to realize with a sinking feeling that I’d left it in my ship.
What should I call them? “Specimens?” The word seemed to fit, given that they were all in bell jars. Huge, man-sized bell jars. Man-sized, woman-sized, whole-family-sized. Right in front of me, a dark-skinned man sat buck naked on a stool, a cello clamped between his legs, preserving what I suppose you might call his modesty. His right hand held a bow to the cello’s strings and the fingers of his left hand were pressed to its black fingerboard. His eyes were closed. His whole face was contorted in what looked like ecstasy.
The taxidermist followed me through the curtain, saw me standing there staring gap-mouthed at the jarred cellist.
“I did try to warn you,” he said.
“Fatal stroke during the greatest performance of his life,” the taxidermist said, coming to stand next to me and admire his handiwork. “Terrible shame.”
Behind the red curtain, there was none of the folksy oil-lamps-and-heavy-varnish charm of the rest of the store. Everything was austere, metal, and modern. The walls and floor were black. Each bell jar sat on a black pedestal, illuminated by pot lights. And there were lots of jars.
Behind the cellist, in her own jar, a plump old woman in a flowery housedress hefted a small white dog, her face scrunched in delight as the dog licked it.
“What is this?” I stammered.
“That’s my wife, sir,” said the taxidermist. “And our dog.”
“Your–you collect dead people?”
“Well,” he said with his first genuine smile, “the live ones made such messes of the jars.”
“My apologies, sir. A joke in poor taste.”
“This can’t be real,” I said.
“Of course it’s real,” he insisted. “There are no fakes at Willoughby’s Taxidermy.”
“These are real actual dead people?”
“Sir, I did warn you that the special collection might be more than you could appreciate.”
“But they’re people!”
“They aren’t anymore,” he said. “And they all volunteered.”
“Your own wife volunteered to be stuffed?”
“She rather insisted on it.”
I ventured a little further into the room, my hand still unconsciously kneading the air where my stunner ought to have been. The next jar was much larger and wider than the others. It held a plaid loveseat that looked two hundred years old. All scrunched up at one end of the loveseat, a wizened old man held a wizened old woman in his arms, squeezing her tightly as though he feared it might be their last embrace. I orbited the jar, trying to absorb what I was seeing. They were preserved in spectacular detail, down to the blue veins on the backs of their hands and the pinched skin at the corners of their eyes. It was such an intimate moment I almost felt like I was intruding.
“These two volunteered for this?”
“I’d hardly have taken them if they hadn’t. This is no chop shop.”
“But, in fairness, you do pickle people in your asteroid hideaway.”
“And, in fairness, you still haven’t gone running for your ship.”
“I’m considering it,” I said, but I kept looking. I passed a man frozen in the act of flipping an omelet, a woman whose face was caught forever in a mid-sneeze rictus, and a little girl just beginning to catapult over the handlebars of a bicycle that had hit a rock. In each case, every minute kinetic detail had been captured. You could see the striations in the flexed arm of the omelet-tossing man, the pressure behind the eyes of the sneezing woman, the horror of realization on the face of the crashing girl.
“Some of them are just children,” I said to the taxidermist, who was lagging several jars behind me. “Did they die of natural causes?”
“Even the little girl?”
“An undiagnosed heart valve defect.”
In another jar, a shot putter pivoted on one foot, all of his muscles firing in a terrific blast of force as the ball rocketed past his ear. He was entirely nude, in the oldest Olympic tradition, and so well built that he made me blush. He looked like he might leap off the pedestal at any moment.
“Well, you’re good at what you do,” I admitted.
“Thank you, sir.”
“How did they all get here?”
“I began the collection back on Earth,” he said, “starting with anatomical models for medical schools. Out here, I rely on walk-ins.”
“Visitors to the shop.”
“Who visits your shop and chooses to leave without their skin?” I noticed for the first time that the room had only the one exit and that the taxidermist was between it and me.
“That’s not how it works. I implant willing donors with an ident chip. When the donor dies, the chip is picked up by routine post-mortem scans, identifying the body as my property, to be shipped here at my expense.”
“And the box I just brought you?”
“Possibly better that you not ask, under the circumstances.”
“Why would anyone agree to this?”
“Most don’t,” he admitted. “But a few–a very few–can imagine the potentialities. And I offer a modest honorarium, to be paid immediately or to accumulate interest and be paid to the next of kin.”
He rattled off a number large enough to make me whistle. I noticed there were no prices on his merchandise.
“Call me a philistine,” I said, “but I don’t see these ‘potentialities.’”
“Perhaps, sir, if you go just a little bit farther back…”
A little farther back, I found something that made my breath catch. It stood only knee-high. It had six legs, blue-green skin and a broad, flat head like a horseshoe crab. There were holes around the edge of its head, but I couldn’t have said whether they were eyes, nostrils, or something else entirely. It didn’t have anything you might call a face, but it was wearing clothes. Then again, so were the bear and the crow.
“I never figured out the little fellow’s name,” said the taxidermist. “Nor the name of its species. It didn’t seem to understand either concept. But when I asked where it came from, it pointed to the constellation Cygnus, so I call it a Cygnid.”
“This is an alien? A genuine intelligent alien?”
“Indeed. It flew the most remarkable little ship.”
This was big. In all the hundreds of years of human spacefaring civilization, after colonizing hundreds of worlds across two arms of the Galaxy, no one had ever reported definite evidence of extraterrestrial civilization. There were endless planets with fish and bugs and that kind of thing–one planet even had slime molds a kilometer deep over most of its surface–but no one had ever found anything even as smart as a dog. Millions of people had been looking for intelligent aliens for centuries without finding a thing; this guy had apparently not only discovered intelligent aliens, he’d stuffed them.
“Did you report this?” I asked. “This is like the discovery of a lifetime.”
“If it is,” he said, frowning, “then it’s not my discovery. The Cygnid found me. It stopped in here unexpectedly one day, just as you did. It came back several times with friends. They bought quite a few of my best pieces, actually.”
“Animals or humans?” I asked.
“A little of both.”
“You sold taxidermied humans to crab-headed aliens?”
“They’re some of my best customers. They didn’t have spendable currency, of course, but the things they could trade were of incalculable value.” He pointed even farther back into the room, where I found a whole mummified zoo of miniature exotica: tiny feathered canines, sleek web-winged fishbirds, fist-sized fluttery things that I was pretty sure were insects but whose flat heads made me wonder if they were cousins of the blue crab-headed thing.
“I’m gobsmacked,” I said, stooping to peer into one jar after another. But, for a moment, as I scrutinized the feathered dog-thing, I started to wonder. How hard would it have been for him to fake this stuff?
“And if I asked for a DNA sample to prove that these things were really what you say they are?”
“Then I would have to disappoint you. As far as I could tell, they didn’t have DNA. But I do still have their insides frozen in the–”
“It’s fine,” I said. “Good enough. So have you never reported your findings?”
“I’m just a taxidermist, sir,” he said, stopping by a bell jar that housed a very pregnant woman in a stirrup chair. She clenched the chair tightly and screamed silently as her baby crowned. I was just glad she wasn’t cut in half, like the pigs. He ran his finger idly over the top of the pregnant woman’s jar, then fluttered his fingers to disperse non-existent dust. “I presume the Cygnids will communicate with the appropriate authorities when they are ready.”
I wandered back to the little crab-headed thing–the Cygnid he’d called it.
“So do this little guy’s friends have someone’s Auntie Mabel on the walls in their dens?”
“Your pejorative implications aside, yes. Several of my best human specimens are now on display in Cygnid museums alongside what I gather are specimens of several other races.”
“There are other intelligent races out there?”
“Are or were,” said the taxidermist. “I couldn’t make much sense of Cygnid tenses.”
I imagined throngs of the little blue-green guys queuing for tickets to see a preserved human. I had so many questions–about the Cygnids, about the taxidermist, about these “other” species. It was going to be hard to just fly away to my next delivery and have all of this just end.
I wanted to go to the Cygnid planet, to see it with my own eyes, to watch the little Cygnids walking or scurrying or prancing around, or whatever they did. I wondered if I could pry the coordinates out of the old guy. Probably not. All he seemed to know was the general direction they’d come fromt, which narrowed it down to a measly several billion stars. But if I couldn’t get to Cygnid Prime in life, could I live with getting there in death?
I was no Olympian–seven years of sitting at the console of a cargo ship scarfing trail mix and donuts had made sure of that–but I wasn’t bad looking. I might make a respectable statue, worth displaying in some Cygnid museum. The thought of having the skin peeled off my corpse wasn’t exactly appealing, but neither was the thought of being vaporized in an industrial incinerator, which was the fate that awaited me otherwise.
“Let’s say,” I said, as tentatively as I could manage, “that I was interested.”
“Yes?” said the taxidermist.
“So, you would implant me with an ident chip and, when I die, you’d fix me up and sell me to the Cygnids?”
“If that’s what you wanted, sir.”
“That’s a bit of a gamble for you though, isn’t it? At your age, I mean.”
“I’m still young but you’re getting on in years. You could pay me now and never live to collect.”
“On the contrary, sir. I have every expectation of outliving you.”
He crooked an eyebrow. “You flatter me, sir.”
“Did you really not realize? I am a construct, sir. A machine. With proper maintenance, my lifespan is indefinite.”
“My God,” I said. I went over to him to get a better look. “May I?”
He was perfect in every detail. I’d known a lot of robots in my day, but none as convincing as this one. There were laws forbidding robots from masquerading as humans, but they were about as necessary as laws forbidding humans from masquerading as bicycles. But even from up close, I could not have told that the taxidermist was a machine. I could actually see sweat glistening on his forehead, gathered in tiny droplets around the pores.
I came to a grisly realization.
“I am, sir.”
“But whose skin?”
“It was Mr. Willoughby, sir. The final Mr. Willoughby. He died without an heir. As I had been his assistant for many years, he left me a very generous bequest.”
I leaned in closer. The skin still looked supple. Every wrinkle was perfect, from the lines on his forehead to the gnarl of his knuckles. I thought I could see his pupils dilate as I brought my face up to his. He pulled up his sleeve and held out his grizzled arm, inviting me to touch, but that was too much for me. I backed away.
“You’re having me on,” I said.
“I assure you I am not,” he said.
“Where are the seams, then?”
“Seams, sir? You insult my workmanship.”
The contract said his name was Willoughby the 6th. I flew away with that contract, half a king’s ransom in credit, and a keychain that cost me the other half. He said it was made from the foreleg of the closest thing they have to a rabbit on Cygnid Prime. I hung it over the console of my ship. Every time I look at it, I imagine some little Cygnid with some part of me dangling over the console of its ship–my ear, maybe, or my finger. Or my smile.
About the Author
Michael Ried bookends his days working to perfect his method for turning cups of tea into stories. His work has appeared on Escape Pod and in AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review. In 2015, he attended the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, from which the main take-away was that he should stop trying to solve story problems by randomly inserting volcanoes. He lives near Toronto, Canada, with his husband, a big white dog, and a volcano. During the middle bits of the day, he teaches astronomy to anyone who will listen.
About the Narrator
Motti Schleider lives in the northeast, has a cat named Mr. Blake, loves gaming of all kinds, and is an avid reader.