It's clear to me here that I was showing off a bit because I was proud of the fact that I knew how to do Adriaan's job--how to skin a muskrat. I'm "showing and not telling," a proverbial line about good writing. Here, however, I may well be "showing" too much, the exacting description of skinning almost overtakes its thematic use in the drama of the story.
I'm learning. "The Trapper" is almost half a century old.
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That night, after the barn chores, he stropped the skinning knife until itw as razor sharp. He spat on his left wrist, rubbed the tiny bubbles into his skin, and drew the blade slowly over the the dampened area, once, twice, three times. Then he pointed the knife at the lantern on the wall and saw his own scraggly hair lining the blade. He licked his wrist and felt it smooth. The knife was sharp and ready.
Klassen had pounded twenty nails into a thick rafter of the shed, hung long strands of twine from each, and tied the ends into slip knots. Nine muskrats were lined like a jury before him. All day they had turned and spun, suspended by the twine and changed, now, as if by magic, into lustrous balls of fur. Three legs hung limply downward from each body, while the fourth pointed straight to the ceiling, forcing the hind legs to open awkwardly to the skinner's knife. Klassen stored the thin, tongue-shaped boards against the wall beneath the nails, where they waited for the pelts like vultures, Adriaan thought, tantalized by drops of blood that formed, then fell from the nose of each upended carcass.
Surrounded by a tiered gallery of drying pelts that stood, cleaned and stretched, pointing up like tall church windows, Adriaan sat on an empty keg, one of several in Evert Klassen's tool shed, brushing the edge of the knife across his calloused palm. Once his hands had carried no such scars, once he had been a teacher, much removed from all of this, well-respected in the small town of Hellendoorn, an educated man, a leader. Opa had wanted him to be a dominie, and so had his parents, but he told them he had never felt the call like his friend Geert, who had seen a vision. But a teacher was good, his mother had said from behind a mask that hid her reluctance but not her disappointment. He told her that Dominie Brummelkamp had mentioned the calling of teacher as important service for the Kingdom. Gesina Smid just nodded, accepting her fate graciously.
For almost two years he had lived in Arnhem, attending Dominie Brummelkamp's church regularly, as he studied the teaching profession at Kweekschool. Then he had returned to Hellendoorne, where he had taught at the Franse School for three years, three long years. He was respected by some for his work. But not by his students. And when he left, no one asked him to reconsider; they seemed to acknowledge by their silence that it was best for all. In fact, no one saw him leave the tiny apartment in the village; no one spoke to him as he left town; no one kissed him on the lips when he boarded the vessel in the harbor.
Now he was on the prairie of this new country, and as he carved into the crusty skin of his palms, he saw Evert Klassen standing here, stripping the pelts from cold, red carcasses. Klassen was quick but careful, and he demanded the same from his hired man. His knife of ten gashed the flesh of the muskrats, and his hands would turn scarlet in the blood that flowed over his thick fingers. But rarely did he cut the treasured pelt.
"Smid!" he would spit right now, "schiet toch op!" Adriaen's mind echoed with Klassen's command, even though the farmer was more than half a state away. He reached for the strop again and ran the blade up and back, making a patterned swish-swop over the smoothed leather, until the nearly blackened blade was ready. Then he rose from the keg and walked toward the catch.
Muskrats were easy prey to the skinner's knife, he thought, as he sliced little circles around each of the back feet. He jabbed the tip of the blade beneath the open skin, toward the tail, pulling back the loosened pelt from the carcass as the blade seemed to melt the thin membrane. His fingers held the dank flesh on the thigh as he cut down deeper toward the rat's vitals. Another slice around the tail, and a loose flap of skin dropped away from the meat.
When he had finished the other leg, he grabbed the flap of loosened pelt on both sides of the carcass and pulled down, trying to strip the carcass in one motion. Often he had seen Klassen do it, saving time, for sometimes the pelt could be jerked clean from the smooth back and underside. He pulled again, the left foot stretched with the tension, the twine tightening with a screech around the suspended foot. He gave up, pulling the skin back toward him gently with his thumb and forefinger, and drawing the blade lightly through the thin fat that held the fur to the rat's carcass. Down, down, quickly and deftly, the fur peeled away easily from the midsection, urged by the sharp blade. The redolence of musk, heavy and cloying, lay in the air like an unseen mist.
Nightly repetition had long ago faded Smid's reluctance to skin animals. The only tension he had felt this fall resulted from Klassen's persistent competition. Although it was never mentioned, Evert's lust for a match would create an awkward quietness in the shed and an unspoken game of skill and speed that Klassen invariably won with a barely muffled laugh. But tonight he was alone; he would make no mistakes.
When his knife finally reached the rat's shoulders, the pelt hung like a skirt from the carcass. Smid poked a finger through the membrane at the forearm of the rat's front paw, holding the unskinned foot 'and pelt in his right hand, and the meat of the shoulder with his left. The pelt ripped off like paper, leaving only a gloved paw on the carcass. The other paw stripped just as easily, and the carcass hung, nearly naked, only the head draped by the discolored skin of the loosened pelt.
Adriaan drew the knife carefully around the back of the skull, and the skin lifted cleanly from two greyish lobes. He swung the carcass and continued skinning around the muskrat's neck in short, swift jerks. Suddenly blood, purple as the skin of a ripe plum, flowed down and over his left hand where he clenched the wet pelt. He pulled the loose skin, hoping to finish quickly and avoid matting the fur with spilled blood. He wheeled the carcass around again and attacked the skull, cutting and carving at the eye. He sliced quickly, but it wasn't there. He pulled down hard on the pelt, and fur oozed out from a gash he mistakenly laid in the skin, a slice that opened ever wider with the incessant tugging, until, as if by fate, he sat, stunned, the wet, scarred pelt draped over his bloodied hand. And Evert Klassen never marred the pelts. Adriaan trembled.
In little more than two hours, nine pink-red carcasses swung slowly in the dim light of the lantern, and nine prime pelts stretched tight over the drying boards. Adriaan Smid wiped the blood and flesh from the blade, swept up the fatty lumps from the floor, and tried to clean the dried blood from his hands and wrists.
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In 1978, the small town of Sioux Center, Iowa, was composed almost entirely of the grandchildren and great grandchildren of Dutch immigrants. Today, it's population has swelled immensely. Many of the newcomers are immigrants also, but Hispanic.
I didn't think much about immigration back then, except, of course, in retrospect, so the entrance of a major motivation for later action in the story, introduced here, is something I knew of only by my reading, not by life experience.
These days, everyone knows that moving to a new country requires recent immigrant people taking jobs that no one else wants, even if, in the old country, your status was vastly higher than it is or will be in America. So it was with Adriaan.