Safia had no memory of entering the taxidermist's. Rain was hammering against the window and the odour of damp woodwork permeated the air. The dust suspended in the gloom made her cough. Dead skin, she recalled.
At first, she thought the room was just cluttered. Stuff, things and what's-it-calleds piled in precarious towers against the walls. Then she noticed the eyes. Hundreds of dull, glass eyes.
'My creations,' said a voice. Safia spun around and beheld the tall, stooped man. His dark hair hung down in greasy rat tails, and his clothes were too baggy for his frame.
Safia stuttered. 'I...I was...'
He extended a thin, pale hand. 'Fish Miller. Taxidermist.'
Safia wondered if she'd met him before. She nodded, close-lipped, but avoided his hand.
'They're all so lifelike.'
'All but the eyes?' Fish grinned, and Safia found herself nodding in agreement. 'You can never do much about the eyes. Glass. All of them.'
Safia approached the stuffed carcass of a hummingbird, its body pinned in perpetual almost-flight. She reached out, then retracted her hand and coughed.
'Please, make yourself comfortable.'
'Oh, I have to get back soon,' said Safia. 'Just waiting until the rain passes. The children are back at home.' She smiled fondly. 'Life gets so busy, doesn't it?' Then she coughed.
'Has that effect on many, this place.'
'You have a lot of customers?' Safia asked with difficulty.
'Not many, actually,' Fish said. 'The people who come here do so because they were always meant to come, whether they know it or not. Sometimes, people just return, or never left. There are no...accidents.'
'I walk past this place every day. If I'm honest, I have nightmares about coming in here.' Safia tried to clear her throat. 'Gods, doesn't the dust drive you insane?'
'You'll get used to it,' he said. 'After all, you know it's just skin?'
Safia tried to reply, but something was caught in her throat. She gagged, panicked and fell back against the side. Fish Miller stood by, watching.
She looked up at him, her eyes streaming. 'Could you...? I think...my throat...' She reached for the glass of water on the side. Fish moved it away.
'Most people think it's just about trophies, you know? Hunters showing off their skill.' Fish smiled and picked up an antique looking glass. 'But for many, it's about preserving what you love. The poor dears who can't let go of that beloved pet.'
Safia clutched at her throat. 'Water...'
Fish's voice was flat. 'Water ruins the wool.'
Safia stopped coughing. Fish brought the mirror up to her face and she looked at herself. Dead, glass eyes stared back at her. Eyes like the ones all around her. Eyes lodged in familiar, human faces. Safia felt her eyes prickle with tears. 'My children,' she wheezed.Fish Miller smiled. 'They're with you, Safia. They're already here.'