My good friend Eugene is shacking up this winter with his pal Purly, at Purly’s place, above the swamp on the far side of Peavey’s Flat. It’s a good arrangement now that they’ve worked out some of the logistics and division of duties. For example, Purly does the cooking now which has significantly reduced the number of grease fires. Eugene does the washing and ironing has done well so far, although he has to mop a lot.
They are trapping beaver, mink and muskrat together again this season, encouraged by the great success last year of their line of Local Organic Hand-Crafted Artisanal ladies’ undergarments that they called “Beaver Fur”. Their optimism is tinged with sadness, though, because something is missing this winter and that something is Purly’s dog, Ethan Allen. Ethan Allen was a dog with a singular talent and, while it might not have been quite exactly legal, Purly certainly appreciated his dog’s contribution to the cause.
That dog had watched and learned while young, observing closely the way Purly turned raccoon, possum and muskrat skins inside out and placed them on “stretcher boards” which don’t stretch the pelts so much as keep them from shrinking as they dry. A different size stretcher is used for each species, from tiny weasels on up, and if any dulcimer players have been wondering why it’s called a “possum board,” now they know.
Purly makes his own stretcher boards, carving a few at a time inside, by the stove, and tossing them out onto the porch when he’s done. Somewhere along the line Ethan Allen put two and two together and decided to be helpful and if Purly tossed two muskrat boards onto the porch, next morning there would be a muskrat beside each one. Three mink boards, three mink and on and on. Ethan Allen had found his calling.
That was years ago and Ethan Allen began to grow old. Purly had never taken full advantage of Ethan Allen’s talent, mindful of the potential impact on the local furbearer population, but as age took its toll he cut him way back, to just a muskrat or two and maybe a weasel a week. Purly would lean one board at a time against the wall outside the door and sooner or later old Ethan Allen would leave one appropriately sized critter, just as he’d been doing since he was a pup.
Now, stretcher boards vary in length and width but in general shape they are very similar. Square at one end and tapering to a blunt point at the other, they resemble little sawed-off surfboards or, more accurately, tiny ironing boards and therein, as they say, lies the rub. One Wednesday, while Purly was in town picking up supplies, Eugene got after the washing and ironing. Three batches of laundry went from the kitchen sink to the line above the wood stove and, as items dried, Eugene pressed them neatly. He had done the hankies and was almost done with the long-johns when the clothesline broke under the weight of wet denim and wool, startling him and causing him to spill his coffee. A brown stain spread across the brightly flowered pattern of his ironing board cover and Purly’s favorite trousers began to scorch on the stove as Eugene scrambled to pick up the fallen clothes, shake them off and re-string the line. Once things were back in order he threw the stained cover in the sink, collapsed the legs of his ironing board and carried it onto the porch to dry, leaning it against the wall outside the door with a thump that jarred old Ethan allen out of his nap in the corner.
Eugene tried to explain to Purly that he’s not one for reading the emotions of dogs and has no idea what that dog was thinking as he ran down the road but that was the last time anyone saw old Ethan Allen.