Alissa York’s novel, Effigy, was first published by Random House Canada in 2007, and was short-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Subsequent editions have appeared in France, The Netherlands, Italy and the US.
Dorrie, a pale girl with a mass of black hair, cannot recall anything of her life before she recovered from an illness at the age of seven. A solitary child, she dedicates herself to learning the art of taxidermy, fascinated by the act of bringing new and eternal life to the bodies of the dead. At fourteen, her parents marry her off to Erastus Hammer, a polygamous horse rancher and renowned hunter, whose desire to see his kills preserved is made urgent by the fact that he is slowly going blind. Dorrie secludes herself in her workshop, away from the rivalries among the elder wives.
As the novel opens, Hammer has brought Dorrie his latest kills, a family of wolves, and for the first time in her short life she struggles with her craft, dreaming each night of crows and strange scenes of violence. The new ranch hand, Bendy Drown, is the only one to see her dilemma and offer her help, a dangerous game in a Mormon household. Outside, a lone wolf prowls the grounds looking for his lost pack, and his nocturnal searching will unearth the tensions and secrets of this complicated and conflicted family.
She’s been looking out for them since the sun still hung over the Stansbury Range. Now, as they finally shimmer into view, it is night.
Standing in the open barn door, Dorrie peers out across moonlit pasture, marking their steady approach. There’s no mistaking Hammer, squat as a chopping block astride his giant black mare, his boot heels bouncing even at a walk. Behind him, the Tracker glides. It’s a trick of the dark—the Paiute guide puts one foot in front of the other like any man. Seven years on the ranch, and he has yet to take hold of a horse’s reins. When distance demands, he mounts up behind Hammer. When given the choice, he walks or runs.
As they draw nearer, Dorrie can see there’s no room for the Tracker on Hammer’s saddle tonight. His place is occupied by a draped and gleaming form. A jolt of pleasure shoots down through the base of her spine and beyond—as though, like the milk-white body that commands her gaze, she too is possessed of a magnificent tail.
Beside the Paiute the bay pack horse weaves, its burden a multi-toned mound. The black mare trots up a little, perhaps in response to a hay-laden waft from the stable, perhaps just a cluck of Hammer’s tongue. The Tracker keeps pace, close enough now that Dorrie can make out the ordinary motion of his feet trading forward and back. She steps out a little, broadening her wedge of lamplight as they enter the yard.
“Sister Eudora,” Hammer calls.
Her shoulders ratchet up at the sound of her name in his mouth. “You’re back.” She never knows what to call him. Mr. Hammer? Brother Hammer? This last seems plain wrong—he’s old enough to call her daughter, even granddaughter. She could call him Erastus. He would allow such familiarity, might even welcome it, but the name repels her, so coarse it threatens to abrade the tongue. Which leaves one choice—the word she uses sparingly, when she can’t help but address him. Husband.
“Eudora,” he says again, “see what I’ve brought you this fine night.”
He draws his horse up closer than he ought to, its breath steaming her crown. Ink stands higher than sixteen hands. Dorrie ducks beneath her massive black neck, passing Hammer’s boot hooked in its iron to stand where the head of the white body hangs. Its face is long, pouring down into an abrupt darkness of nose. Blood behind the left ear and all down the neck, covering the withers like a shawl.
“It’ll be a job to clean,” she says.
Hammer twists in his saddle. “Where would you have me shoot it, the tip of the tail?”
She doesn’t answer, instead reaching up to push her fingers deep into a clean patch of the animal’s ruff. As a rule, fur provides a temporary refuge for her afflicted hands. Not tonight. The plush of the white wolf’s coat awakens a crackling discomfort beyond the usual burn. She grabs her hand back, dropping her eyes.
“Stand back now,” Hammer tells the top of her head, and she does so numbly, thrusting both hands deep into the front pocket of her smock.
He dismounts, the mare’s height causing him to land hard and sway on his heels. Reaching out to cup the she-wolf’s chin, he thumbs her upper lip back to reveal a yellowed fang. “Pretty thing, ain’t she?”
The Tracker says nothing, busy at the bay’s side, quietly loosing knots. His hands work fluidly in the corner of Dorrie’s eye, and she turns in time to watch him slide a second, larger wolf from the pack horse’s back. Drawing it by the forepaws over one shoulder, he twists, squatting slightly to assume its grey bulk. The bay stands unmoving, despite the stink of predator jangling ancient bells in its brain.
The Tracker sways a little on the first step, then finds his balance and proceeds, Dorrie taking sharp, skipping steps before him to open wide the high barn door. Once inside, he bows over her workbench, ducks his head and lets the animal roll from his shoulders. As he straightens and backs away, Dorrie moves in close.
Standing over the wolf, she feels an unfamiliar fluttering beneath her rib cage. She holds her breath a moment before reaching out to lift its tail. A male—no surprise there, given Hammer’s preference for family sets.
As though privy to her thoughts, the Tracker returns with the second load clutched to his chest. Dorrie can make out multiple ears, paws, a couple of tails. This time he opens his arms as he bows over the bench, allowing the bundle to separate into three pups—two the size of well fed cats, the third smaller, an iron-grey runt.
Hammer enters now, staggering under the mother’s weight. He lurches toward them, barely in control of his load, but when the Tracker steps forward to help, he lets out a grunt, the meaning of which is clear. The Paiute nods, hands at his sides. A few steps more and Hammer crashes against the workbench, the white wolf slithering from his shoulders to fall across mate and young. For a moment no one speaks—Hammer breathless, leaning on his knuckles, Dorrie standing to one side of him and slightly behind, the Tracker retreating to his station by the door.
They are alone together, the three of them, and they are not.
Behind them the collection looms. Tiers of straw bales ascend the western wall, each of them crowded with Dorrie’s creations. Hunter lies alongside hunted—fox and pocket mouse, lynx and grouse, mountain lion and deer. She can feel them there, every beast, every bird.
Hammer draws himself up, holding a fist to his running nose. The chemicals of Dorrie’s trade have troubled him from the beginning. After three years of marriage and countless specimens preserved, the very air of her workshop is a poison to him. Already his eyes are glassy with tears. “Get on with it, will you.”
She reaches past him to where her measuring cord hangs on its hook. Unwinding its coils, she can hear him begin to wheeze. She holds one end firmly over the dark sponge of the she-wolf’s nose and lays the cord down over skull and withers, following the spine to its base. Her hands hum. Her stomach jumps. She takes the tail’s length next, root to tip, pinching the cord to keep both measurements true, then laying it over the inch marks etched along the workbench. Stepping to the small table where her lamp sits flickering, she takes up a stubby pencil and sets the information down—first on a clean page of her notebook, then again on a scrap of paper Hammer can take with him back to the house.
Female, she writes in her tight, careful hand. Head and body 51 inches together. Tail 15 1/2.