I gagged and I fought hard not to barf up breakfast. On about the third heave, Wade handed me a small bottle of Vicks.
“Put some of this under your nose,” he said.
Wade carried the little bottle in his tool belt for the newbies. Wade was a tall, lanky thirty-something native guy that walked with a cane. His high auburn cheekbones, black eye patch and long black ponytail reminded me of a kind of Indian pirate.
The powerful menthol fumes from the Vicks hardly masked the sickening reek of death in the old warehouse, that seemed to permeate every olfactory nerve in my body. The furs coming in the back door of this four-storey, nineteenth century red brick warehouse, had once covered living, breathing animals, now deceased and subject to the Law of Entropy. Although dutifully gutted and stripped of their fur-bearing skin in the field by the trappers, the remaining bits of rotting flesh and grizzle began to give off a stink as the pelts thawed in boxes on the warehouse floor. I lit another cigarette and tried hard not to breathe in the fetid warehouse air too deeply.
Coyote, beaver, lynx, fox, wolverine, ermine and squirrel all gave up their furry coats to satisfy the fashion needs of the US and European market. They were shot or snared in leg-hold traps by the hundreds of trappers that worked their lines either on a full-time or part-time basis in the vast and desolate Northern region of Canada.
“It’s a lot worse in the summer,” Wade said.
After having my bones rattled for three days and nights on the bench seat of a VIA train, I had arrived in Edmonton from Toronto. But shortly after arrival in that winter of 1979, I learned that the $20-an-hour oil field jobs I had heard about were not an option for a 18-year-old whose only work experience since graduating high school had been washing dishes and bussing restaurant tables. The job I found that frigid January at the Edmonton Fur Auction paid ten dollars per hour, which was twice what I had been paid to bus tables at Fran’s Restaurant in Toronto.
“You can work as many hours as you want,” the hiring manager told me.
Planning a tour of Europe the following summer, I would work twelve hours per day for the next few months, live at the Downtown YMCA for $7.50 per day, and fly to Amsterdam in May with a pocket full of cash. I was golden!
“I’m gonna put you on squirrels,” Wade said.
My job that first morning on the job was to unpack boxes of recently thawed, stinking squirrel pelts. There were hundreds of pelts in each box. I turned each little squirrel skin inside out like a sock and stacked them in piles, two skins abreast like strips of bacon, and then laid another two perpendicularly on top, alternatively, until each stack contained a hundred skins ready to be graded. I then doused them with a chemical spray that smelled like diesel fuel.
“It kills the maggot eggs,” Wade explained.
The stacks of squirrel pelts were lined neatly in a row along the length of the metal warehouse bench. As I processed the soft little furs, I remembered the little black stub-tailed squirrel that had scurried along the thick black phone wire outside my bedroom window in a high wire act one summer long ago. I had lied to my friend Brady that it had lost its tail when I tried to catch it one time.
“So where is the tail then?” he had asked. I told him the cat had eaten it.
I tallied twenty piles of squirrel pelt that morning; two thousand little shells of formerly living woodland creatures. Wade told me it took 150 squirrel skins to make a lady’s winter coat.
I was on coyote and fox duty next. I thought of my boyhood dog, King, as I unpacked the wet canine furs. They were more difficult to handle than the squirrels. The occasional remaining eyeball, paw or lump of putrid entrail remained, missed by the trapper who had liberated the animal from its leg-hold trap and then gutted and skinned it in field; sometimes still partially alive, Wade told me.
“What do I do with the feet,” I asked.
“Watch what I do,” said Wade. He pulled out a large cleaver and severed a remaining paw.
“Two points,” he said, as it arced through the air landing in the metal waste bin at the end of the workbench. I could only imagine scraping the maggots from the inside of the furs in warmer weather. Wade told me I had that to look forward to when the weather warmed up.
“Sometimes they fall down your boots and you can feel them nibbling at your feet,” Wade said.
The sub-zero weather during their frozen voyage in the back of a mail truck to the auction, from the Northern Canadian hinterland, eliminated that nasty process step in January. Maggots were not going to be an issue for me because I would be sitting around a campfire drinking wine with a pretty young German girl somewhere in the Black Forest by the time the warm weather hit Edmonton, I thought.
I worked until 9 PM and didn’t eat supper that evening. That night I dreamt I was opening boxes of human heads, their anguished eyes still open and mouths moving silently. I didn’t return to work at the Auction the next day. I phoned in from the payphone in the lobby of the Y.
“My grandmother died and I have to return to Toronto,” I lied. “Can you mail my paycheck to my mother’s house in Toronto, please?” I finished out that winter and spring in Edmonton bussing tables at the International House of Pancakes for five dollars an hour.
Stephen Taylor is a graduate of the University of Toronto and works as a consultant in the Oil and Gas industry in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.