The strangest gift I ever received is a small Belgian weasel that has been dead for more than a century.
His name is Ernie, and he lives on my desk here at The Tyee. His face is set in a permanent snarl. His fur is a matted, dirty gold. He’s perched on what is either a rock or a fossilized piece of wood or fungus. There’s a small tear in his fur near one of his armpits where you can see the stuffing spilling out. He’s ugly as sin.
I’ve trucked this taxidermy ermine with me for about half a decade, ever since a good friend gave it to me as a mock goodbye gift when I left university. About five of us gathered in a little apartment, seeing how many minutes we could stretch together until the train arrived.
So long as I kept it, he said with a jokester’s smile, we’ll stay friends. As it turns out, Ernie was sort of a gift from the group of friends, who had consecutively gifted Ernie to each other and then, finally, to me. Thus began the brotherhood of the travelling ermine.
Ernie lived a presumably adequate life in Belgium. The circumstances of his death are unknown and should stay such. He was collected by an auntie of a friend, who then inherited Ernie and gave him to another friend, who may have given it to another, after which Ernie finally found his way to me.
Since then, Ernie has been a desk ornament in three countries, four cities and five different jobs. In Washington, D.C., I was reliably told that when I was out of the office my co-workers would ponder my desk and refer to me as “the weasel guy.” In Saskatoon, a colleague would occasionally enquire about my “stuffed rat.” When the COVID-19 pandemic came to Saskatchewan, Ernie was one of the newsroom possessions I quickly grabbed for what would turn into two and a half years of working from home.
I haven’t seen the gang who collectively gave me Ernie for a long, long while. The pandemic bifurcated my early 20s. Years I hoped to spend travelling were spent in front of my little home office desk with Ernie, reporting on the worst global health crisis in a century. When I spoke with COVID-19 patients in hospital or grilled a politician on their response, Ernie was my only company. Like everyone, I found substitutes to human company. I had Zoom beers, Zoom coffees, Zoom luncheons. I went for walks and binged podcasts and called friends near and far. But many of those relationships already strained by time and distance withered like vines in a drought. It’s too simple to say the world got smaller, because it takes the responsibility out of our hands. It’s more accurate to say it shrunk, like a sweater we carelessly tossed in the dryer only to find it no longer fits.
What I had in abundance is time to think about, for example, a stuffed ermine. I haven’t seen the friend who gave me Ernie in a long, long while. We were college pals, dropped off in a strange, unfamiliar place with hundreds of other pretentious 18-year-olds and not a drop of common sense between us. Everything felt new and nothing felt permanent. And sure enough, it ends. People move farther away in more ways than one. COVID-19 only accelerated the process, pushing us more into our own corners. What’s stranger to me is when friendships ferment, changing through inaction. You wonder if the stuff inside has stayed the same.
In this time of pandemic limbo, old acquaintances flung far and wide, I do the best I can to keep the bonds alive — a phone call, an Instagram message, a visit in person where we both shyly apologize and decide to pick things back up right where we left them.
The other day I called one of Ernie’s previous owners. To be precise, he was the friend who gave it to the friend who gave it to me. We hadn’t spoken for about a year. We both, as he put it, had a bit of a “blackout.” I caught him in a bar in Boston, a few days before he headed home for the holidays. We spoke for about 30 minutes, and after the first five it felt like nothing had changed.
I told him I hope to see him this year. Until then, Ernie symbolizes what makes a good and lasting friendship: a shared laugh at life’s absurdity that refuses to decay.
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