The taxidermy school days ended as they began: just plain weird.
On day seven, Teacher Liu defrosted four squirrels, patchy black and white rodents frozen together in a block of ice. They looked a little like they were caught spooning in an ice storm. But as they defrosted, and we worked on them, their hair fell out in large patches.
“They’ve been frozen too long,” said apprentice Xiao Long.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Teacher Zhong, who was carving alongside us. “You can cut skin from one to add to the other. Take my squirrel — you can use that.”
“Like a Frankenweenie?” Woo asked, morbidly. The others may have missed the Tim Burton reference, but they nodded all the same.
Meanwhile, chain smoking as usual, Mr Zhou sat on a discarded block of polyurethane. The irregular yellow blocks were scattered all over the courtyard, cut from larger blocks. We’d use them for so many purposes, but I’d never seen someone using them as cushions.
“Are you comfortable?” I joked, using a standard Chinese phrase as I sat beside him.
“痔疮,” he gasped, pointing to his rear. “Zhìchuāng.” I tapped at my iPhone, confused, until the answer emerged. He had haemorrhoids.
“Nine out of ten people in the northeast have them,” he growled, wincing. He pulled out the pack of smokes and forced one on me — it was a deadly strong “Hilton”-brand. I choked, and he laughed, and pounded me on the shoulder. The hotel chain really shouldn’t put their name on these bastards.
Later, Xiao Long reached his hand out and caught a passing sparrow from the air. He tied thread around the bird’s leg, and let it lead him through the studio, flapping frantically. Michelle was trying to sew up a puppy when it passed over her head.
“Grab it,” Mr Zhou urged, laughing. Both of us back away, so he took hold of the thread, and pulled in the bird like a hooked fish. As he held the tiny sparrow in his giant fist, he pet it sweetly. I expected it to be killed for taxiderm artistry, but I’d forgotten most the people here refused to kill animals. Xiao Long set it free soon after.
The days came and went, with stuffing and classes and banquets, and then — on the very last day — we sat our exam. I’d been sweating it for days. All the materials we were meant to study were written in Chinese, so I’d slowly translated the three pages of primary notes using my iPhone.
“How do you write flay,” I’d asked Xiao Han, scrawling “包皮” on a notepad. “Is it this?” He giggled nervously, in that awkward way Chinese people so often do. I knew I’d written wrong. “So it’s not this?”
There was body pointing, and nervous twittering, and dictionary work, and it turned out I’d written “foreskin.” Hm.
So we all studied, and crammed, and sat the exam. It was in Chinese, and filled with questions about eyelash angles, pH values, and preventative measures. And in the end, everyone passed. Mr Zhou and I came the closest to failing, each scoring only 80%.
Gold-embossed certificates in PRC-red bindings were passed out. Photos were taken. And Michelle and I are now both certified taxidermists.