There was a man who lived down the alley from me back when we lived on 20th avenue, who was an amateur taxidermist. I never learned his name, but once, he invited me into his workshop which took up three quarters of his garage. Now, before I explain that, let me give you some background.
First, on that particular day, I was – for all intents and purposes – a walking corpse. I had just completed my first year of teaching in an extremely rough, extremely demanding school, and the stress of worrying about those kids while fussing about my own little girl nearly broke me in half. I stopped eating, I stopped sleeping – it took me two weeks into summer just to re-learn how to laugh again. As I pushed the stroller through my alley, past the workshop of the taxidermist, I was returning from a two hour walk/park excursion, where I watched my one and a half year old play and play, and I reminded myself how to be normal again.
Now this guy who lived down the alley – the guy whose name I never knew, of if I did, I don’t remember – was old then, impossibly old. Rheumy eyes, receding gums, a spine wilting to the ground. As I pushed the stroller carrying my sleeping girl, the old man peeked his head out of the window of his garage.
“I suppose you’ve been wanting to see the latest,” he said.
“The project,” he said, “the project!” He sighed. “Well, come on in, then.” He opened the door. I went inside.
I would like to say that my strange fascination with taxidermy is a universal phenomenon, but I fear that it is not. Indeed, I have distinct memories of childhood trips to the Bell Museum with my elementary school class and listening to both boys and girls squeal and shudder at the glassy eyes of dead animals peering unblinkingly outwards, at the perpetually still bodies of predators poised in mid-pounce. I found them beautiful, heartbreaking and thrilling. They haunted my dreams.
Inside the garage, half done projects leaned against one another on overloaded shelves. Pelts dried on the walls, and the wall space not covered by pelts were meticulous drawings of animal skeletons, diagrams of musculature, analyses of malformations and odd growths. He had animals with lumps on their necks, tumors on their legs, third eyes, cleft jaws.
“Never much cared for fake taxidermy,” the man said. “Jackalopes and fiji mermaids and other horseshit. I always figured nature had a way for making things strange all on her own.” There were dogs with fifth legs, cats with nine-toed feet, a heron with a third wing sprouting from its breast. He had bins of glossy eyes of every shade of yellow, brown and blue.
“I see what you mean,” I said.
“But now,” he said, gesturing to the back table, “I can’t start a project without wanting to make it fly.”
Every animal on the back table – cats, fish, squirrels and two young raccoons, had a pair of crow’s wings, angled forward and uncurling as though only just leaping into flight.
He laughed, sucked on his cigarette and choked. “Pretty aren’t they?”
And they were. “Thank you,” I breathed, “for showing me this. It’s exactly how I’ve been feeling.”
Now I’ve been thinking about that day quite a bit lately as I am doing copious amounts of research into taxidermy, rogue taxidermy and the long-forgotten practice of keeping Cabinets of Wonders, for my new short story “The Taxidermist’s Other Wife” and all the while I wonder – what is it that draws us to the preservation of the body when life is gone? And why do we think nothing of a deer head hanging over a mantle or a front door, when we wouldn’t dream of stuffing and mounting the heads of our loved ones after they had died. Is the nine-point stag simply a placeholder for everyone that we’ve lost? Or do we do it under the misguided belief that we have somehow cheated death?
is a picture from the early days of the Smithsonian. Same with here:
James L. Clark Mounting Male Indian Lion
I’m rather taken aback on their choice of verb for that one. Could it be that there is an undercurrent of eroticism in taxidermy? Is that what was really drawing me to those impossibly still animals in those field trips of my youth? I shudder to think so.
Perhaps, it is a recognition that death is beautiful – that in the teeming multitudes and abundant life are variations that are mysterious, inscrutable and strange. Death is good because life is good. Beauty may delight the body, but deformity touches the soul. My old neighbor knew this. A good taxidermist, after all, has the knowledge of a naturalist combined with the compassion of a mortician. A good taxidermist, too, delights in oddities and whimsy.
Take this, for example:
Both of these are from a shop in Paris called Deyrolle – a place that I feel that I am destined to visit one day. Here’s their website. http://www.deyrolle.com/magazine/
As I fuss and ruminate on this story – which incidentally is less about taxidermy and more about preservation, how people hang onto an idea after it is long, long dead – I am brought back to that moment nine years ago with a little old man in his garage. How even a corpse – walking, sprawling or otherwise – can be given new life with enough patience, tenderness and ingenuity. And what’s more, how even a purist can bend towards whimsy if you give him long enough. And in the end, how all of us need – or perhaps even deserve – a set of wings.