“But you better not cross him or he’ll skin you alive….Like he does with his other stuff.”
Liza’s father warned her about Ladner, who made his living as a taxidermist, working for museums.
It wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. Indeed, after that, Liza and her brother spent more time than ever with Ladner, with the exhibits in his preserve, on the trails and bridges he had created.
“That was the beginning of their spending Saturdays – and, when summer came, nearly all days – with Ladner. Their father said it was all right, if Ladner was fool enough to put up with them.”
But perhaps there should have been a serious warning attached to the children’s time with Ladner.
“He had let them watch. They had seen him clean out a squirrel’s skull and fix a bird’s feathers to best advantage with delicate wire and pins. Once he was sure that they would be careful enough, he let them fit the glass eyes in place. They watched him skin animals, scrape the skins and salt them, and set them to dry inside out before he sent them to the tanner’s.”
While watching, Liza and Kenny learn a lot, about birds and mushroom and many other things. Liza learns more than Kenny. But “[s]he knew not to talk so much about all she knew”.
There, in the northern part of Stratton township, nobody is monitoring the property that Ladner is taking steps to preserve.
It is a wilderness, but one which grows more ordered. A glass-fronted case, made from an old freezer, showcases some of the wild creatures that Ladner has stuffed.
“Signs told their habitat, their Latin names, food preferences, and styles of behavior. Some of the trees were labelled too. Tight, accurate, complicated information.”
There, on Ladner’s property, wilderness is conquered and (falsely? superficially?) ordered.
“In different places the sun falls differently and in some places not at all.”
Across the way, where sits the house that Liza and Kenny’s father rents, there are “[n]o divisions…no secret places – everything is bare and simple”.
The children are drawn to him, however. Just as Bea Doud is drawn to him.
“But love affairs were the main concern of her life, and she knew that she was not being honest when she belittled them. They were sweet, they were sour; she was happy in them, she was miserable. She knew what it was to wait in a bar for a man who never showed up. To wait for letters, to cry in public, and on the other hand to be pestered by a man she no longer wanted.”
And, although Bea has been involved with Peter Parr, she is immediately attracted to Ladner when they go to his property on a Sunday afternoon in May.
“A man could have a very ordinary, a very unremarkable, insanity, such as his devotion to a ball team. But that might not be enough, not big enough – and an insanity that was not big enough simply made a woman mean and discontented. Peter Parr, for instance, displayed kindness and hopefulness to a fairly fanatical degree. But in the end, for me, Bea wrote, that was not a suitable insanity.”
“Vandals” begins with a letter that Bea never sent, never even finished. Readers aren’t sure, at first, of the means by which it’s being presented.
On the skin of it, it seems there has been some kind of misunderstanding between Bea and Liza, that something has gone wrong between them.
But the trouble in their relationship is as much about what did not happen as it is about something that did happen.
And all of that is in the past. Well, except for the part of it which unfolds in the literary present.
On the skin of it, Liza has grown up; she is a young woman when Bea asks her to look in on the rural property, the house called Dismal, while Bea and Ladner are at a Toronto hospital.
“She looked unique, and she was. She was a girl who wouldn’t say, ‘Jesus!’ but who would, in moments or downright contentments and meditative laziness, say, ‘Well, fuck!’
She said she had been wild before becoming a Christian.”
But the Liza that readers see in “Vandals” is more wild than meditative.
On the skin of it, she is irrational and uncontrollably fierce. She is her own dog, as one might say (as Bea says of Ladner, in fact).
The landscape of Ladner’s property is as varied as the landscape of Alice Munro’s story.
“The swamp was black from a distance, a long smudge on the northern horizon. But close up, it too was choked with snow. Black trunks against the snow flashed by in a repetition that was faintly sickening.”
Readers will find the view close-up in “Vandals” faintly sickening, too. But better than being skinned alive.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the final story in Open Secrets.
The other stories are here:
A Real Life
The Albanian Virgin
The Jack Randa Hotel
A Wilderness Station
Spaceships Have Landed
Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the next collection, The Love of a Good Woman, or for a single story; I would love the company.