I met Noah on a bench, waiting for the bus into town. He was a jittery man – all nervous energy – scraping at his cuticles with his fingernails.
That day, I remember, was colder than usual for the Fall in Pennsylvania.
In hindsight, I remember his appearance was not unlike Ichabod Crane from the animated The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. There was something alarming about him, something desperate, something not-quite-right, something wild eyed. He was the kind of chatter-mouth who is encouraged to continue by not getting up, and walking away.
He’d been heartbroken, he explained. He had been done wrong by an ex-girlfriend of his. This woman, named Cassandra, was larger than he, and pretty, with straight black hair down along her shoulders.
“She was the only love that I could fit in my heart,” he said.
I kept my eyes fixed on the Pocono Record spread across my lap, but he continued. Cassandra lived out in the suburbs somewhere, far out, near the woods; a place that I’d been to before, but which sounded bleaker and darker when channeled through Noah’s mind.
He’d been working, after all, as an apprentice at a taxidermy studio – a small, square, barn in the same woods.
One day he’d left work early, and had gone to surprise Cassandra. This was a mistake. He walked in to find her in bed with a local convenient store clerk named Tiller. Noah was shocked. He screamed and yelled, and Tiller fled the scene, grabbing his clothes as he tore half-naked through the apartment.
Cassandra explained to him that she was sorry, that it was stupid of her, that it was meaningless.
“It broke me,” he said. “Nothing felt right after that.”
Later that week, she tried to explain that it was through sleeping with Tiller that she was finally able to see how good Noah was to her, that she was glad their transgressions had occurred, because now she could see so clearly that it was he that she wanted.
He forgave Cassandra. He forgave her, and trusted in her promise that she would never do anything like this again.
“She told me she’d learned, and I believed her,” he said.
A month later, he was in her kitchen eating breakfast before he went into work. Her laptop was open on the kitchen counter, and he heard a cash register sound effect. He glanced over at the computer, and saw that she’d received an email. Her Hotmail inbox was open. He didn’t mean to snoop, but it was right in front of him. The email said it all; she was still seeing Tiller and was planning to run off with him to Nebraska where he’d gotten a job offer. Crushed, Noah returned to his studio, and poured his sorrows into his work. That only lasted a few days however. He couldn’t ignore it any longer.
Instead of taking her back, however, Noah reacted in a way that surprised him. He told me it was a deep anger.
“Something was building inside me,” he said.
“What was?” I asked, setting down my newspaper.
“I don’t know, but I felt volatile. I felt evil. I was so hurt and angry. And I needed to do something drastic to satiate it.”
He mulled it over and over. He spent nights pacing along the dusty corridors of recently stuffed animals in the studio; upright bears, foxes, deer, rodents. An industrial lamp swung from high above, causing dark animal shadows to grow and shrink along the aluminum siding of the barn.
He’d been ignoring Cassandra’s calls, texts, emails. He hadn’t spoken to her in days. She’d even come by his apartment, for two night’s in a row, but he’d shut the lights off, and sat in the dark – ignoring her knocks on the door.
At the end of the week, he was alone in his studio. He came to an epiphany while staring at the ferocious teeth of a massive Pocono black bear.
“I knew what I needed to do,” he said.
Noah went into action. He heaved the large doors of the barn open, letting in the thick cold of the night. The surrounding woods were calm and dark. Trees swayed in anticipation of a storm-front winds that was about to blow through. He ran around the side of the barn, and hopped into the company van. He backed the van up to the open barn doors and began loading animal, after animal inside.
“Fittingly, it was my own little taxidermized Noah’s arc.”
Once the van was sufficiently loaded, he headed out onto the back roads towards Cassandra’s apartment. She lived in a small neighborhood, consisting primarily of duplexes. The lights were on when he arrived, and he killed his headlights, and watched two figures through the opaque curtain covering the large living room window. He saw them, Cassandra and Tiller, walking hand in hand out to her car in the driveway.
Once they’d driven off, Noah backed up the van into the driveway, and hurried up to the front door.
My bus arrived at this moment. I blew warmth into my gloved hands and stepped up onto the steps and inside. It smelled like urine. Noah, caught anxiously in the middle of his story, took off up the steps after me. Together we sat in the back of the nearly empty bus. I rarely acknowledged him, preferring to keep my eyes fixed out of the bus window, but he continued, unselfconsciously.
The front door had been locked, but Noah found the key under the front mat, and was soon inside. It was dark and filled with memories.
“It was unbelievably painful,” he said. “My mind was racing, because I knew I’d crossed a threshold. I couldn’t go back from this. We all daydream revenge stories, but here I was actually acting mine out.” He said it was a strong feeling, akin to the wave of unease upon walking into an abandoned hospital.
He propped open the door, and began loading the animals into the apartment. He placed the bear in the corner of the room by the TV set, and several deer around the living room. He placed the rodents under furniture, and threw a squirrel under the sheets of her bed.
“I wanted to damage her,” he said. “I wanted to damage her with fright. I almost hoped to kill her. I wanted her to forever fear walking into darkened rooms.”
After a half hour the animals – all sixteen of them – were set up around the apartment. He turned the lights out and fled.
Later that night, the police arrived at his door. Handcuffs were thrown around his wrists and he was forced into a squad car.
I finally turned to Noah, and asked him why he did what he did.
“Weren’t you listening?”
“No, I mean why do you work in taxidermy?” I asked. I looked down at my watch. I was now late for work.
“I don’t know. It’s better than flipping burgers” he said.
My stop came and I said goodbye. As I walked along the aisle, I took a final glance back at Noah, who was looking out the window in quiet desperation. He tore at his nails with his teeth. He hopped up, and stopped me.
“Animals – stuffed ones – don’t judge you. They’re empty inside. Empty and yet immortalized. It’s why I do the work I do. That’s why I like it.”
“Good luck, Noah,” I said.
I walked off the bus and around the back of the restaurant where I work. I changed into my work clothes in a bathroom stall, and hurried out to begin my shift on the floor.
I never saw him again.
Postcard: Found at Stagecoach Antiques in Akron, OH in November 2011.