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Lessons in Taxidermy


A riveting tale of sickness and survival from the first female author on the Punk Planet Books imprint that brought you the indie hit Hairstyles of the Damned.

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Excerpt from Lessons in Taxidermy

Chapter 1: Home

The wind was blowing across the Puget Sound and into Seattle, bringing with it a tang of salt in the air. I stood in the middle of a neglected garden and inhaled the odor of my childhood, thousands of languorous days and nights next to the water. Growing up, I played on the rocky beaches that hug the divide between the forests and the water, with mountains towering above.

It was midnight and everyone in the house was asleep, but I felt uneasy. Something off-kilter was keeping me awake; a physical sense of apprehension was building in my stomach. I walked down the front steps to the street, skirting the snails that crawl out of the rock wall at night, the stones of the stairs shifting under my feet. One part of me attended to the shadows in alleys, but there was nothing to fear there. Nobody would bother me; nobody would even look twice as I trudged along.

I walked four blocks over a steep hill to a bluff that stands high above industrial flats, a glittering grid of docks and warehouses far below. Standing on a patch of wet grass I looked west across the inlet toward the outline of the Kitsap Peninsula illuminated by the moonlight, about six miles away in geographical terms but requiring either a long ferry ride or a hundred-mile drive around the inlets. The peninsula is more populated now, but when I lived there it was mostly forest with a few small towns and military installations tucked away behind stands of trees. It was too dark to see the Olympic mountain range beyond.

I am descended from one of the first pioneer families that homesteaded land on the peninsula, and most of my relatives still live within thirty miles of the original farm. They work in the shipyard, on the ferries, in gas stations, or in wrecking yards. A few of my cousins have joined the military and traveled the world but they almost always move home again when their tour of duty is over. Growing up in our rural enclave, I was always jealous of their certainty, wounded by their casual convictions. My cousins had advantages; they could work with their hands, walk the fields, move forward with an easy familiarity. They knew exactly where they belonged, and I watched them with a hungry desperation. We grew up in the same place, we were connected by blood and history, but I was different, separate, strange. I looked across the water and sighed. My stomach did not feel better and I turned to walk back home.

Quietly wandering through the house, ignoring the pain, I touched the yellow Formica table in the kitchen for scratches, then checked that my old chipped bowls and plates were stacked correctly, with various colors alternating. The room is host to dozens of pictures of strangers’ children, small boys of a previous century smiling as they go on pony rides or pose in long forgotten studios, and I stopped at each one, adjusting the frame, wiping dust off the glass. There are no pictures of my family on the walls; the photographs of my own children are tucked away, hundreds of images hidden in boxes, as though it would be unseemly to boast about my great luck in knowing them. Instead there are these other children on the walls, rescued from jumble sales and piles of garbage, children presumably once loved by their own mothers but later discarded by uncaring hands. In the hallway I paused to straighten a panoramic print of an Army troop standing in orderly rows, ready to depart for the trenches of WWI.

The feeling in my stomach was getting worse. I brushed my teeth, holding the edge of the sink, each upward thrust of the toothbrush a chore. Looking in the mirror I saw a pale face covered with heavy makeup; and then, as though my childhood double vision had been restored, I saw one face superimposed over another, the mask of daily life sliding out of focus as the dreaded ugliness of an earlier time came into view. The face in the mirror had a frowning mouth covered in dark red lipstick to conceal lips that are losing pigment, and the lipstick was smearing with the movement of the toothbrush. There were lines across a forehead, but not from age—the lines were there when I was seven, nine, thirteen, twenty, frowning in concentration. Beads of sweat melted the makeup applied to cover ancient facts: scars, or the risk of additional scars. The eyes looking back at me from the mirror were haunted, terrified, no matter what the grown-up self wanted to believe. I saw everything: the past and the present, the solutions and sorrow. More than anything I wanted to put my fist through the image in that mirror. Instead, I turned away, looked down, found the hairbrush.

It can take twenty minutes to untangle my long unruly hair and sometimes I just tie it in a knot on top of my head. But the party I had attended earlier that night had been in a club, with people smoking and laughing; it was imperative to remove the stench of smoke from my hair. Sitting on the edge of the bathtub I separated sections, lifted a hand, and started to yank a wooden brush through the bramble.

At that precise moment I was undone by a formidable, ghastly pain radiating outward from the guts protected by my ribcage. This was not indigestion, food poisoning, or a virus; there was something seriously wrong. I gasped and doubled over, dropping the brush. No, this was impossible. It could not be happening.

I didn’t want to disturb my sleeping family; I didn’t want to cause any kind of scene. I’m tough, capable of withstanding any sort of crisis. I do not need anyone to look after me, take care of me, cosset and soothe. The people who live in this house are my companions, not my caretakers. I tried to go to bed, hoping that would make it all better..

Creeping into the bedroom, I pulled the shade against the light from a neighbor’s television shining through plate glass windows, lying down on top of the covers fully dressed, trying not to shift or twitch, but the pain intensified. After an hour of tormented stillness I stood up, moving unsteadily, and walked to the bathroom. I sat on the floor and pressed my forehead against the green tiled wall. Then the vomiting began.

The pain across my ribcage turned into a firestorm so overpowering

I could barely breathe. It hurt to lie down. It hurt to sit up. Wiping my mouth with a washcloth, I wanted my mother, wanted to be a little child again, safe in her arms, face pressed against a strong shoulder.

I counted to 100, said the alphabet backwards, and when that did not work tried to think of something else. I wanted to be somewhere else, be someone else. I cannot abide getting sick, the visceral experience of illness: vomit, pus, blood, the grinding reality of infection, inflammation, incapacity.

When the nausea subsided, I paced through the house, trying to look at all of my possessions, and take an account of tasks and chores to do, my thoughts jumbled and inconsequential. The pine tree in the front yard needed pruning. The desk should be shifted to the other wall. I forced myself to think of these things, to think of anything except my stomach.

Pausing in the middle room I knelt in front of a shelf filled with children’s books from the ’50s and ’60s, salvaged from libraries as they were discarded, with titles like The True Book of Numbers, The Boy’s Book of Magnetism, Look at Your Eyes, and A Trip to the Hospital.

Under the bookshelf, in a haphazard stack covered with thick dust, I found an old illustrated medical dictionary with a blue cloth cover. My body shuddered with the effort of remaining in one position as I turned the pages, one after the other, the gleaming, shiny paper falling softly, until I found the chapter pertinent to my current crisis. Leaning forward, one hand against my midsection and the other splayed against the wood floor, I stared at artists’ renderings of organs, muscles, ligaments, minutiae.

Still on my knees I stared around the room, trying to ignore the burgeoning awfulness in my midriff, trying to think of anything other than what might be happening inside my body. Looming in the corner is an old wooden scientific cabinet, standing over eight feet high with a glass door. Looking up at it I saw some of my collections—a pickled shark and taxidermy antlers, dozens of gruesome dental prosthetic devices, rudimentary hearing aids, glass eyes, ashtrays from old nightclubs and casinos, delicate porcelain teacups, decorative cake plates, old cameras, transistor radios, and mementos from the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. The bottom shelf is crammed with boxes of undeveloped film, stacks of family pictures, old journals, and the E.T. scrapbook I kept as a child.

The cabinet contains articles of proof: I am a collector, a crank, most commonly described as quirky. There are countless pieces of ephemera to prove that I have a good life now and had a happy childhood, secure and confident in the love of my family. There were difficult challenges but also glass slippers and games, elaborate costumes and expeditions, an entire extended childhood that dragged on for years after all the other kids moved into a ramshackle adulthood. Or, to say it differently: I achieved a desolate, mutable maturity too soon, and smothered inconvenient and unpleasant facts about my history with the obsessive acquisition of objects and a compulsive need to put everything in order.

Either way, it didn’t matter. Disease—the opposite of ease, the abasement of vigor—takes everything away in an instant. Life can go from brilliant to agonizing with no intermediate step. Accomplishments are meaningless, every prideful thought is a void. Nothing matters except the immediate moment, the neural message that life is negative: nought.

Staring at the cabinet, I wanted to rail, shout, scream, to protest the inescapable and entirely wrong feeling that was now the center of my existence. It was unfair, unjust, and I wanted to kick my feet against the floor, roll around in a historic tantrum, but instead stood up and started walking again.

Hours of pacing were interrupted by more vomiting and mybody was convulsing with pain. I stretched out on the wooden floor of the dining room, turned on my side and pressed a pillow against my belly. My perspective on pain as an adult is flawed, imperfect, tendered by responsibility to other people. I do not want to be a burden, require care, distract anyone from the work of daily life. I do not want people to worry about me, or see the look on a friend’s face when they realize the significance of a story I present as amusing. More than anything, I do not want to be sick.

I have faced extreme physical pain, generally without

protesting in any way. There was no other choice; the first nineteen years of my life were a solid, unrelieved welt of disease. Since infancy I have been able to separate my brain from my body and simply rise above it, like a magician performing an old-fashioned parlor trick, or a trained freak in a sideshow. Moonlight glinted on the oak floors and the pain battered against my ribs. I closed my eyes and summoned those old skills. I thought about traveling.

Walking through the streets of Florence, my friend Gabriel kept offering the La Specola museum as a potential destination. I wasn’t paying too much attention, figuring there wasn’t anything in the city that I needed to go out of my way to witness after the stellar experience of Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Fermi, and Marconi, all snug together next to Dante’s empty tomb at Santa Croce.

“What is La Specola?”

“You know that book you have at home, about the taxidermy museum with the anatomical figures?” He asked.

“What about it?”

He shook his head at me. “Bee, that museum is here.” He pointed at the ground.

“Really? Do we have time?” Gabriel pursed his lips and looked at his watch, then pulled a train schedule out of his canvas satchel. He calculated that we could go if we hurried.

The building was quiet and empty of any other patrons. There were rooms full of plants, sea creatures, insects, hives; then leopards, jaguar, puma, male and female and infant lions, and gazelles. There was a case with deer-like creatures posed in a “natural” family group, gazing about, raising up on back legs to nibble on plants, the floor of the case covered in round brown pebbles. On the white wall of the case there was a photograph of a Saharan scene, a picture of trees and a river to provide a sense of the environment the specimens were taken from.

The floor of the hall was red tile in a crosshatch pattern, the display cases old and made of a dark, varnished wood, the glass slightly warped. One wall of cases started with cats of all kinds, but the lions and others faded away into sea lions, then bears lined up on shelves. I couldn’t tell if they were meant to be baby bears or fully grown; there were varieties I’d never seen and the cards didn’t help me figure out which might have been native to the forested land where I grew up.

The hallway veered into a room full of animal trophies, heads on the wall, furniture made from skins, a hollow elephant leg, and massive skulls. There was a zebra staring out from a corner cabinet, seams and stitching shabby from years of decay, followed by specimens of whales, belugas, and small dolphins.

We moved on to a room of more deer, elk, horned sheep, llamas, then monkeys of all sorts. Recorded organ music wafted in from the next room. Gabriel stepped up next to the other displays and looked at himself in a mirror. I took a picture of Gabriel in suspenders, long-sleeved shirt, and old workpants, jumbled in with the other specimens. I rarely allow myself to be photographed but when I developed the film, I saw the camera had caught me in the mirror, sequined skirt glinting in contrast to the shadowy cabinet.

Just past the sharks I could see the first room of human specimens. I hurried past vague objects in jars, snakes, various strange-looking fish, round, long, fat, thin, vibrantly colored or drab and muddy, big, small, crazy fins, teeth, no teeth.

I walked into a room filled with full-scale wax models of humans. The signs at the entrance explained that the models were made to facilitate biology instruction, since cadavers were hard to find and storage was a challenge in the eighteenth century. Fourteen-hundred wax anatomical sculptures were eventually collected and displayed in 550 cases taking up nine rooms of La Specola. The rooms of the exhibit had dark green curtains and the bottoms of the cases were painted to match, with a decorative green vase in each corner.

One set of cases offered hearts inside women cut open to reveal the contents of their chest cavities, heads turned slightly, hair trailing down. A woman in a glass case had long, braided hair, hands draped at her side in submission, pubic hair curling, her body open from mons to clavicle with organs draped across her chest. Another woman had her hand up, playing idly with her hair as intestines spilled out of her abdomen, her expression pensive. The third woman seemed to be in ecstasy as the deeper organs of her torso burst from the delicately rendered model.

The exhibits were mesmerizing and I moved from case to case, staring at familiar structures. Walking forward I saw details of the vertebrae, connections of the torso, the rib cage. Then the subcutaneous and deep muscles, intestines, kidneys, gallbladder, and pancreas. There was a torso of a young man with a face that looked resigned yet patrician; the note on the case said this figure had been made as a resume to request a job.

I stopped in front of a case with a woman’s head adorned with curly brown hair, cheeks detailed and lustrous, the skin of her throat rolled up to reveal the architecture of the neck, the thyroid prominent and obviously important.

Gabriel stopped with me to sketch the wax figure. I leaned close and whispered, “My first tumor, when discovered, was three times as large as the thyroid it was suckling. The doctors said that they would need to amputate my voice box. They said the cancer was terminal, a rare variety, that I would live perhaps six months.”

Gabriel smiled vaguely and moved on to another case full of faces, half faces, the anatomy of eyes and ears, figures showing how tendons and muscles and arteries are entwined. There were babies, then baby eyes, then eyes of all kinds dissected and in rows.

I put my head close to the wax eyes, trying to see how the muscles connect.

I was born with profound double vision and saw everything with one eye fixed straight ahead, the other wandering, my brain calculating distances but never quite knowing where I stood in reference to my surroundings. I wanted to be a normal girl, with regular skin and ordinary clothes, commonplace hobbies and predictable friends. Before the doctors noticed my eyes I taught myself to read by scanning two lines at once; taught myself how to ride a bicycle, how to walk on balance beams, how to twirl a baton and send it flying into the sky and then catch it again when it came back down. The doctors surgically repaired the double vision, trying to make me normal, but it took years to regain my balance.

The museum was cold, and my old, broken bones throbbed. I shivered, shoved my hands in the pockets of my coat, and walked into another room to see little babies curled up in waxen wombs, hands folded across tummies, their faces perfectly formed and rather Napoleonic. The models were accurate in detail from the tiniest fetus to the largest infant. The growth of the uterus was displayed with remarkable acuity—surprising for a time when most scientists believed in homunculus, the theory that a child is pre-constituted in sperm—and I stopped to take notes. The babies were split open to show their internal systems, their expressions placid. Gabriel started to sketch one of the infants.

A wall of cases had sections of women, ribs to below hips, legs spread. One had twins ready to birth. Every model had pubic hair. One showed a head descending and relatively accurate anatomy of the womb. The clitoris, labia minor and majora, and rectum were all presented in detail. The cervical opening was shown expanding, the head of the infant descending, the mons swelling during the descent. The model showed how the internal organs are displaced to accommodate the growth of the uterus.

One reclining female wearing pearls had two long braids. Her brown eyes stared out at me, her lips slightly open, looking pained and saddened, as though she needed to tell me something. She could be dismantled layer by layer down to the uterus.

When I was in the hospital waiting to give birth to my daughter, I wandered through the halls for hours and eventually found a private entrance to the teaching wing. I ignored the signs warning that no patients were allowed to enter the area and opened the door. I walked slowly, looking at display cases filled with medical specimens. The contents of those jars were extracted from real people; tumors and oddities left on display to assist and titillate medical students.

Before that moment I had never considered the fate of my own lost body parts, never thought they would be so indecently displayed. It wasn’t until that slow walk in the dark hospital hallway, waiting for medical technology to trick my body into giving birth too early—parents and friends convinced I would die in the process—that I understood my own value as a specimen and experiment.

I did not want these memories, did not want to see myself as a piece of medical history. Walking further into La Specola I stopped in front of a series of small macabre waxen tableaux. The Triumph of Time showed a fallen city. There were dead babies in stages of decay, fallen women still clothed, green with rot, skeletons, half decayed people, and an angel, perhaps Michael. Rats were nibbling at intestines. In The Pestilence there was a jumble of dead people, the live dragging bodies to piles, men, women, a grandmother, baby and dog all dead, a confused infant clutching the skirt of his dead mother. The Corruption of the Flesh showed the Madonna surveying the scene from a rooftop, sadly staring at the bodies strewn about, half eaten, a man in front with his belly distended, a rat opening it, a dead baby lying beside.

Standing in the center of the museum I looked around at the profusion of objects, case after case filled with detailed renderings of all manner of suffering. I could hear a telephone ringing and a cat mewling outside and a clock ticking somewhere nearby. I wanted to go home.