Kept Birds 101
“There are five steps involved in avian taxidermy: skinning, fleshing, wiring, mounting, and grooming.”
The skin of a dead starling is hardier than you’d think. It’s tissue-fine yet lizard-like—wheat-colored chainmail for an airborne knight. During my first class at Prey Taxidermy, in downtown Los Angeles, I could see in the slit breast of my specimen a mix of delicacy and toughness, the bird’s firm insides cool from the freezer and as flush as a plum.
Allis Markham, the owner of Prey, is a wisecracking thirty-two-year-old with fair skin and dyed black hair. Around the studio, she wears a ponytail and simple button-up with rolled sleeves, but in a glamorous portrait on Prey’s website, Allis poses between two taxidermied house cats like a deadpan 1940s pin-up star: carmine lipstick and a dark rockabilly pompadour. In 2008, Allis (pronounced “Alice”) quit her marketing job at Disney, where she earned a six-figure salary, to attend the Advanced Taxidermy Training Center in Montana. In her studio on the fourth floor of an arts building on Spring Street, Allis offers a range of weekend workshops for an array of misfits, hipster craftspeople, Hollywood types—and the plain old morbidly curious, like me. I decided to take Allis’s recommended course for beginners, “Birds 101.”
As a child, I kept a number of pets: a strawberry blond hamster, a pair of parakeets, a fire-bellied newt, a short-lived guppy, several generations of sweet-tempered mice, a frisky rat, and three beloved indoor cats. A collector of rocks and fossils, I’d ride the metro into DC to visit the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History as often as my parents would take me. If I could’ve purchased taxidermy from the museum’s gift shop in addition to geodes, arrowheads, and dime-sized trilobites, I would’ve transformed my bedroom into a wondrous forest populated with a hawk on my bookcase, a lemur on my lamp, a lynx in a corner, and a fox on the edge of my bed frame, one paw lifted midair, like a tightrope walker. Instead, I settled for a lucky rabbit-foot keychain from the pet store at Twinbrook Shopping Center. Marveling at the paw’s dry ivory fur, four lead-colored nails, and stiff dewclaw split to the quick, I considered the foot too precious to dangle from my backpack’s zipper. I chose to display it on my bookshelf near my collection of miniature china animals with lapis paisleys painted in intricate wisps across their backs. My dad bought me a new blue-and-white figurine from the airport each time he flew on business trips to Thailand, Singapore, or Nairobi. My favorite one was a hippo with the tip of its pale snout dipped in a rich navy glaze. I handled the animal so often that I chipped off both of its ears. With my dad’s permission, I clipped photographs of birds, mammals, and reptiles from his stacks of National Geographic magazines, taping the creatures over every inch of my walls—and the swaths of ceiling I could reach—to weave a patchwork menagerie.
Visiting the famous Parisian shop of curiosities, Deyrolle, on a trip to Europe with my husband several summers ago, I reawakened my interest in taxidermy. And as I neared the end of my first year of teaching full time, sitting quietly through departmental meetings and writing scrupulous comments on my students’ essays and poems, I longed to rebel—to do something rougher, more insubordinate or wild. I became fascinated by taxidermy’s paradoxical intents: to use dead matter to defy the natural outcome of mortality (vanishing), and to celebrate through the gestures of a corpse the wonders, textures, and varieties of life.
My husband searched on the internet for local taxidermists, found Allis’s studio, and turned the screen of his laptop toward me. I’d assumed most practitioners of taxidermy were gun-loving middle-aged men dressed in camouflage looking to make shoulder mounts of their shot whitetails. I knew, as I peered at Allis’s website, that my perceptions had been skewed. Almost all of the students in her photographs—grinning next to their skunks, coyotes, and raccoons—were young women.
In The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing, the writer and curator Rachel Poliquin argues that any of the seven “narratives of longing” can move a person to create taxidermy: “wonder, beauty, spectacle, order, narrative, allegory, and remembrance.” It’s the manner in which we make meaning from these objects—the tales they allow us to tell about ourselves—that turns the taxidermist into a storyteller. That formerly blood-filled, hungry beast, now arrested in time and posed to emulate everlasting life, grows into a locus of ambiguity—it’s both here and not here. Body without sentience. Is this once-breathing entity still an animal? Glass-eyed and lung-less, is it now an object? Can it straddle both categories, slipping back and forth, or has it broken down, irrevocably, and become neither? “What’s my narrative of longing?” I wondered several weeks after I’d stuffed my starling, mounted the bird on a gnarled ghostwood branch, created a habitat using blue stones and pieces of driftwood, and placed all of it beneath a glass doll dome—the bird’s low sky transparent and impervious, an eternal weather.
On Saturday morning, students started to trail into Prey Taxidermy in the twenty minutes before class began. A brass moose head with a rusted patina and wide hoop dangling from its septum served as a door knocker. The suite of three rooms followed the shape of an “L”: the main workspace formed the base of the letter and two small rooms off the hallway made up the stem. The studio’s white walls, tall windows, and minimal shelves recalled the curated space of an art gallery, though instead of paintings or sculptures these rooms held sleek mounts of African ungulates (a gazelle, a dik-dik, and some type of massive antelope), a male peacock, the bust of a panda, several raccoons, and numerous birds.
Allis asked the ten students in Birds 101 to sit at either of two rectangular wooden tables in the workspace. In addition to Allis and her three apprentices (Ally, a sixteen-year-old who kept a pet Jacobin pigeon; Becca, a sixteen-year-old with fuchsia hair; and Jenn, a former paleontological field technician in her early thirties), there were nine women in their twenties and thirties and one teenage boy. Allis asked us to introduce ourselves and explain why we were taking the course. Arabella, a TV writer for a Golden Globe-winning series, wanted “to do something that doesn’t involve words” and “to use [her] hands.” Anne said she loved animals and worked in educational outreach at the Los Angeles Zoo. Olivia hoped to integrate taxidermy into her projects as a costume designer. The woman sitting next to Arabella, whose name I didn’t catch, made jewelry from animal bones. At my table, Mitzy had pale blue hair with lavender streaks, and I can’t remember if she gave a reason for taking the class. I introduced myself as a writer and mentioned my trip to Deyrolle. Ashley and Andrea were preppy architects who’d signed up for the class together. Andrea spoke about her interest in “freezing time.” Sam, who sat across from me, had taken a previous course with Allis in which she’d taxidermied a spring duckling. She showed me a cell phone picture of her fluffy, butter-yellow bird, which appeared to waddle from its hillock of lime-green AstroTurf as if into a book by Mother Goose. Sam said she liked the idea of “creating emotions beyond its life.” Church, the only male in the class, was a scrawny junior in high school who wore chunky black-rimmed glasses. Without making eye contact with anyone, he hunched over the table and muttered something about taxidermy that I couldn’t make out. Church’s mother, Allis recalled, had taken Birds 101 before him.
Allis introduced us to our subject, the European starling: a stocky, eight-inch bird with a short tail, long yellow beak, and iridescent black feathers with glints of amethyst and sea green. Or as Steve Mirsky observes of the bird’s dark and mottled patina in Scientific American: “they look like chocolate that’s been left out for a few days.” Although starlings may seem small in stature, they’re gregarious, noisy birds, possessing strong feet for confident landings and an aggressive sense of curiosity. They’re also gifted mimics, with a crackling, versatile song that swerves from a static-like rattle to a muddy gurgle to a piercing whistle-screech. They can imitate car alarms, jackhammers, even patterns of human speech. Deemed a nuisance species in the US, European starlings destroy nests (“bad for local birds,” said Allis) and ravage vineyards (“which are very important to me,” she added). Our specimens were “ethically sourced,” she told us, which, in the parlance of taxidermy, means the birds weren’t netted and gassed just to become rustic décor on our shelves. According to Allis, “Randy in Wisconsin” exterminated our starlings under the auspices of pest control.
We have a work of Elizabethan literature to blame for the starling’s migration to the US during the nineteenth century: Shakespeare’s history play, Henry IV, Part 1. According to Mirsky’s article, a group of Shakespeare enthusiasts known as the Acclimatization Society vowed to populate North America with every species of bird the Bard cared to mention in his oeuvre—more than 600 avian species. The nobleman Hotspur bitterly imagines driving the king crazy by training a starling to repeat the name of Mortimer, whom the king refuses to ransom. “I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak / Nothing but ‘Mortimer,’” Hotspur says, and in response to these lines, the Acclimatization Society loosed a hundred starlings in Central Park in 1890 and 1891, tipping, in the name of literature, the balance of our ecosystem toward a raucous flock of proliferating black wings.
After Allis finished describing the difference between winter and summer plumage (white spots denote cold-weather feathers) and how beak length corresponds to age and hunting ability (bigger beaks mean older, seasoned feeders), we got to choose our starling from a group of eighteen corpses arranged on a counter in the hall. I approached the spread of specimens, which had been kept frozen, wings folded. They made me think of the ingredients to the teeming dessert described in “Sing a Song of Sixpence”: “Four-and-twenty blackbirds / Baked in a pie.” In the English nursery rhyme, when someone slices open the pie set before the king, a wily blackbird escapes from the crust, flies out the castle window, and pecks off the nose of a maid who’d been hanging laundry in the courtyard. I raised an eyebrow at the feathered pile and reached for a bird with dark summer plumage and a long vivid beak. An older one. A good feeder.
There are eight distinct genres of taxidermy, suggests Rachel Poliquin: “hunting trophies, natural history specimens, wonders of nature (albino, two-headed, etc.), extinct species, preserved pets, fraudulent creatures, anthropomorphic taxidermy (toads on swings), and animal parts used in fashion and household décor.”
My father, who grew up in Greenwood, Mississippi, once took a hunting trophy. In the rural South of the late 1950s, most men learned to hunt, and, even though my animal-loving father never much enjoyed it, he would take up his rifle and go on shooting trips with his friend Pete, as a kind of bonding ritual. His friendship with Pete—and with Pete’s gracious, educated parents—allowed my father passage, however temporarily, into a family far different from his own: one without his aloof, mean-tongued father, who ran a struggling well-digging business; without his older sister, Beulah, who was a violent bully; without his embittered mother, who, according to the town gossips, married late and “beneath her.”
Prompted by my foray into taxidermy, my father wrote to tell me a story from his adolescence that I’d never heard before. When he and Pete were both fifteen, they came across an unusual fox squirrel in the kudzu-shrouded woods: instead of red, the animal’s fur was a rich, shiny black, and a stippling of white hairs surrounded its nose in a smoky halo. My father shot the squirrel and, because of its rare color, decided to preserve the pelt. He taught himself the process of tanning a hide by referencing his Encyclopedia Americana— what he called his “favorite resource for getting along with the world.” Since fourth grade, he’d escaped Greenwood’s dirt roads, rednecks, and desolate trailers through entering the alternate worlds created by reading and through hanging out with Pete’s family. According to my father, he regularly shut himself in his room and read every volume in his encyclopedia set from cover to cover, like a novel, resulting in his impressive and enduring ability to recite curious facts, especially those concerned with science, history, and linguistics. (Over the course of a single weekend, for instance, he told me that “tattoo” is a Polynesian word; that kangaroos, unlike humans, are predominantly lefties; and that the decadent Chinese dish called “live monkey brain” requires a special table with a head-shaped hole cut in the middle so the doomed creature can sit beneath it, exposing its sawed-off cranium to diners wealthy enough to afford the appetizer.) To tan the hide, he measured out coarse salt and potassium nitrate and applied it to the cleaned squirrel, scraping off the mixture and reapplying it every few days until the skin was ready for moisturizing with mineral oil. “Tanning hides isn’t taxidermy,” my dad said, “but it’s close.” *
Bird skin doesn’t require the tanning process, which is why it’s perfect for beginning taxidermists, who can learn the basics of the craft in a single weekend. There are five steps involved in avian taxidermy: skinning, fleshing, wiring, mounting, and grooming. To prepare our starlings for skinning, we rinsed their bodies in the sink, to soften them and prevent brittleness and tearing. Back at our seats, the tables were set with metal lunch trays upon which rested a small handful of tools: a scalpel for slicing skin and sawing flesh from bone, a tweezer for prying off chunks of meat and tendons, a paintbrush for moisturizing dry patches, a wire brush for scouring yellow fat deposits, several small metal picks, and a large hooked dental tool known around the taxidermy studio as “the brain scoop.” In the center of each table sat a rotating Lazy Susan-style toolbox stocked with replacement blades, extra tools, and spools of wire and cotton thread. I sat my damp bird in the center of my tray, watched Allis demonstrate a blade change, and reached for my scalpel. I unpeeled the protective sheath of my blade halfway, held the sharp end by its wrapped tip, aligned the exposed dull end with a matching groove on the scalpel handle, and slid the blade down until I heard a firm click.
Following Allis’s instructions, I spread the wings of my starling and used my pointer finger to feel for the divot in the bird’s collarbone—the point at which the incision would begin. The first cut was surprisingly easy to make. The lightest pressure slit the skin of the starling’s breast, without puncturing the muscle beneath. I ran my scalpel from the bird’s collarbone down to its cloaca, the posterior opening for the intestinal, reproductive, and urinary tracts. Pulling back the starling’s skin felt similar to pushing apart the fuzzy velveteen of a ripe peach. I thought the bird’s guts would tumble out, but its muscles and organs stayed put, chilly and compact as a fist. There was very little blood—just the pink jellied fingerprints I kept smearing across the pages of my spiral notebook that browned in the air like the curled edges of roses. To skin the starling, I grasped the slimy edge of the incision between my left pointer finger and thumb, tugged upward, and used small strokes of the blade of my scalpel to sever the pearlescent networks of white microfibers—“the cobwebs”—that connected the skin to muscle. As more and more of my bird peeled open, I ran a water-dunked paintbrush over the underside of the skin dotted with yellow fat deposits. The chunks resembled remnants of caramel flan stuck to an aluminum baking pan. I also noticed bumpy follicles in which the tips of the feathers were rooted on the opposite side of the skin. “This is so meditative,” one of the architects said, nose bent over her bird. Allis strolled around the room, peeking over our shoulders, and then switched the low-key indie rock playing on her internet radio station to Ella Fitzgerald.
After skinning the bird’s breast, I used my thumbs to pry out its plum-like interior: a process called “removing the body.” “You’ll hear a sound like Velcro,” Allis said, “when you crack the patella.” The bird’s “knees,” the assistant Jenn added, are in different places than our own—they’re way up inside, like secret hips. “So don’t think of your own anatomy while you do it,” she urged. I found the hidden joints, cracked the patella with a satisfying crunch, changed my dull scalpel blade, and severed the pink, meaty region known as the “tail butt” from the lower vertebrae. I then tugged out the body—a pink and purple heart-shaped water balloon with a long pencil-neck—and snipped the top of the spine at the base of the skull with a wire cutter. I dropped the body into a white paint bucket for waste materials labeled ᴍᴇᴀᴛ ʙᴜᴄᴋᴇᴛ.
After flipping the bird’s neck inside out, like a wet sock, and scooting the skull down through the tube and out of the chest cavity, I had trouble locating the eyes and “releasing the ears.” Birds do have ears, I discovered, though not external cartilaginous ones like ours. They have small oval holes on their heads hidden beneath their feathers. Jenn helped me skin around the ear holes and locate “the blueberries”—the eyes—one of which I accidentally popped in its socket with the tip of my scalpel. Gripping the firm stalks of the optic nerves with my tweezer, like the taproots of dandelions, I yanked them out and dropped my starling’s pair of eyes—one whole and one punctured blueberry—into the meat bucket. I then scrubbed my hands and took my lunch break, unwrapping my turkey and Havarti on wheat.
I stared at the raised paw of a taxidermied raccoon on the counter. As a kid, I got a thrill out of keeping a piece of something that had once been alive—that fact made its own kind of magic. But why exactly is a rabbit’s foot lucky? “They’re apotropaic,” my father, still encyclopedic in his factoids, later informed me. The adjective describes something with the power to ward off evil or avert back luck. “That’s why we knock on wood,” he said. That’s why I picked four-leaf clovers from the special patch by my swing set or kissed my plaster life mask of John Keats before taking that English Romanticism exam, or why I bought on Etsy a skull-faced mermaid voodoo doll with a purple-sequined tail to which I could pin written wishes.
In Lucifer Ascending: The Occult in Folklore and Popular Culture, the scholar Bill Ellis traces the mainstream popularity of lucky rabbits’ feet during the twentieth century to fetish jewelers in the black districts of New Orleans. The superstition comes from African American conjure and concerns the belief that witches often shape-shifted into rabbits, so they could scamper around unnoticed, casting their evil spells. Ideally, Ellis notes, a hunter must use a silver bullet to shoot the supernatural creature. Cutting off a rabbit’s foot (preferably in a cemetery, by the light of the moon) was a way to possess the magical bones of a witch, or contain one’s own personal piece of wonderment, in order to manipulate and govern its intent.
After lunch, we scooped the brains of our starlings to the jazz tunes of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. As the punchy, melodious duet “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” began, I looked up to see if anyone else got the joke. Everyone was busy squinting and scooping in serious concentration. With the well-mannered jazz and craft tables and jabbing knives, our gathering could pass for a quilting bee directed by David Lynch.
My first sight of the starling’s brain startled me: out came a tacky fuchsia ooze instead of the solid chunks of gray Jell-O I’d expected. “I thought it would look like a human brain,” I said, “only smaller.” Jenn said the brains liquefied after the birds were frozen. “I don’t know why,” she added. “Ice crystals,” said the high schooler, Church, without looking up, as he stirred his bird skull with the scoop. “Ice crystals form and chop up the brain.” This was the first thing Church had said in a while, aside from his shyly muttered introduction, and the women at our table glanced at him in surprise or amusement.
I continued to hear bits of conversation, likely unique to a taxidermy studio, that delighted me—especially the banter between Allis’s neon-haired teenage apprentices, Ally and Becca: “I’m getting a piebald python.” “One of the smoky ones?” “I like the high whites.” “Is the accent on the second syllable of ‘reticulated python’ or the first?” “The most humane way to kill a rattlesnake is to freeze it.” “Have you got rat feet down?” I also enjoyed the fact that Becca, skilled in the craft of skinning and stuffing beasts, slipped into the body of one each time she donned a cartoon rodent costume for her part-time job at Chuck E. Cheese’s. “They won’t let me wear my piercings inside the mouse suit,” she sighed.
The figure of the animal, from Chuck E. Cheese’s furry burlesque to the apocalyptic fables of Ted Hughes’s poetry collection Crow, continues to captivate our imaginations. The tradition of the beast fable is, in fact, one of our most ancient literary genres. In A New Handbook of Literary Terms, scholar David Mikics defines the beast fable as “an economically told story with a moral, in which animals dramatize human faults.” We can trace the genre’s origins back to the Ancient Greek writer Aesop, a storytelling slave who lived on the island of Samos during the sixth century BCE.
The most famous example of a beast fable in English may be Geoffrey Chaucer’s “ Nun’s Priest’s Tale , ” composed in Middle English during the late fourteenth century. It tells the story of a sly, smooth-talking fox and an anxious, but ultimately clever, rooster. In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the genre surged in popularity due in part to the vast success of the French writer Jean de la Fontaine, who published the multiple volumes of his Fables from 1668—1694. Many of la Fontaine’s fables, which he composed in verse, belong to the Aesopian tradition of anecdotal stories about animals endowed with human speech and who represent human qualities. In the opening poem of his epical twelve books, la Fontaine declares:
I sing those heroes, Aesop’s progeny,
Whose tales, fictitious though indeed they be, Contain much truth. Herein, endowed with speech— Even the fish!—will all my creatures teach With human voice; for animals I choose To proffer lessons that we all might use.
“Allis, will you look at my meat window?” I asked during the second day of class, employing the term for the vertical incision made along the middle joint of a bird’s wing. I had picked the slit free of tendons and flesh, leaving, I supposed, the bones and surrounding skin as clean as the frame and panes of a freshly wiped window. After I’d “fleshed” my starling by hand as best I could, with my scalpel and wire brush, I took my specimen to one of the small rooms off the hallway, so I could use a machine called “the fleshing wheel” to grind off any remaining lumps of fat and to blast the tough-to-scrub area of the jagged tail butt. The fleshing wheel resembled a woodworker’s lathe, with a hubcap-sized, rotating, circular wire brush under which I held my bird, watching, with satisfaction (and with my mouth shut), pink slivers of flesh go flying.
I packed my starling’s empty skull and orbital sockets with clay, tamping it down with the brain scoop, and pushed the wired glass eyes into the clay, like ball-head pins. I then lathered my bird with green dish soap, rinsed it, rolled the damp body in a plastic bin of powdery “chinchilla fluff” (volcanic ash) to absorb any oil, and blow-dried the dusty feathers at an open window. As Church blasted his bird with a hair dryer beside me, he belted out show tunes from Les Misérables, his bird’s wings and neck rippling and bobbing theatrically in his outstretched hand. Back at the table with our starlings, which were beginning to look like whole animals, we wired the legs and wings in order to pose them. Although I’d thought skinning and fleshing would be the most challenging parts of taxidermy, because of the guts and gore, it was the wiring process that had me grumbling “motherfucker” and cursing my bird. As I tried to feed the sharpened point of the wire through the hollow spaghetti-thin bones, I kept poking holes in the dry skeleton, bending the wire, and jabbing my own fingertips. Ally patiently tugged out my mangled wire, clipped new pieces, and helped me feed them through the joints of the wings until both limbs held their shapes. She also showed me how to wire the limp sock of the neck with a foam tube bent in the S-shape of a plumbing pipe and stuff the chest with a cotton body. Because of my sewing experience, I neatly stitched up my starling’s stuffed breast with a needle and black cotton thread.
The final verse of “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” in which the wounded maid whose nose was ripped off by the blackbird gets stitched back together, reminds me of sewing up the body of my starling: “They sent for the king’s doctor, / who sewed it on again; / He sewed it on so neatly, / the seam was never seen.” The taxidermist’s ability to hide the seams—those threads that join dead flesh to fabric—is what makes the vanished animal flutter back to life. That surprise resurrection is precisely what underlies the whimsical recipe for a novelty dessert containing live birds described in the sixteenth-century Italian cookbook Epulario. When the pie was sliced and the songbirds burst out, the dinner guests would gasp and clap with delight. And although the origins of the nursery rhyme remain mysterious, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, Shakespeare may be responsible for provoking the ditty. In Twelfth Night, Sir Toby Belch demands of a clown: “Come on; there is sixpence for you: let’s have a song.”
After I’d taken home my bird, which I’d groomed to hide the pale slivers of down beneath black feathers (as the creature would do for itself in life) and wired its feet to a ghostwood branch, I tried to think of a name for it. My first instinct was to go for humor. The rhyming “Oh My Darling Starling,” said quickly, with an Elvis drawl (“Oma Darlin’ Starlin’”), came to mind. There was also the version that made use of my new jargon and carried an absurdist Cartoon-Network-character flare: “Meat Window.” I discovered, though, that neither name would stick. The bird appeared too dignified and realistically posed for my jokes. It seemed remote, bittersweet. It was always “the starling.”
Poliquin observes the beast fable’s humor is, necessarily, a dark one, rooted in the “eat-or-be-eaten” rule of survival—that brutal ethos of the barnyard. In taxidermy, she argues, humor often fizzles out because the moment of recognition so essential to fable—that instant we’re able to see ourselves in the drama of the animals—is no longer accessible. We can no longer project ourselves into the world of the story because “[d]eath is too bluntly visible.” Morals and movement recede into material fact ( this flesh is dead ), the smile fades, and the creature brings instead “a dark terminus to the fable tradition.” As Poliquin reminds us: “the animals have lost the fight.”
In one of my father’s stories—which, to me, feels like a beast fable—he and his friend Pete faced their blustery high-school football coach, Jim Baddley, after practice. Coach Baddley hollered at the team, calling them “wormy slackers,” and suggested that, since the boys were so dainty and delicate, he was beginning to believe they needed “fur-lined jockstraps.” My father glanced at Pete and folded his hands behind his back. When he got home, he rummaged in his desk for a box containing the rare black squirrel hide he’d tanned earlier that year. He claims he stayed up late, his door locked, gluing the hide to the cup of a jock strap and smoothing the folds to fit the concave angles. Several days later, my father presented the undergarment to Coach Baddley with a ceremonious bow, observing that, at his advanced age, it was he who would need a fur-lined jockstrap to see him through the next football season. Fortunately for my dad, Coach Baddley howled uproariously, slapping him on the back, and showed off the contraption to the school’s other coaches, vowing to wear it to the first game of the season.
“Most hunting stories have the same plot,” Poliquin suggests. Certainly my father’s heralded his pluck and pride. And although humor seemed to elide my attempts at naming my bird, my father was able to revise the ordinary narrative of his hunting trophy to create a wild fable infused with humor. In an era of 1950s conformity, he challenged an authority figure through his wit and resourcefulness. My father’s story says, “I stood up for myself.” The would-be Aesopian moral: “Brains over brawn.” A fur-lined jockstrap alters the fable of the squirrel pelt—that once-earnest object, that tangible proof of a vanquished foe—into a critique of conventional masculinity. The football field becomes a landscape of camp, a subversive burlesque. It’s Mississippi surrealism in service of a young man’s imaginative acts. And Coach Baddley recognized the value, as well as the humor, in that.
My starling still doesn’t have a name. I haven’t given up, exactly; I’ve just grown okay with the ambiguity. It’s “my bird” or “my starling.” I believe the story it allows me to tell about myself may be a simple one: Death scares me, but during those days at Prey I wasn’t afraid to touch it. For two nights in a row after the workshop I had skinning dreams, though I don’t remember their plots—just flashes of skin and scalpels and those stretching cobwebs. I also began to look at my fat black cat differently. As I stroked Jellybean’s belly, feeling her brisk heartbeat and ripples of skin, I thought, “You’re a sack of guts covered in fur.” Later, when I lay in bed reading The New Yorker, I absentmindedly felt my own right forearm. I turned to my husband. “My bones feel like bones,” I said. I can now imagine what people’s fat deposits look like on their inner thighs or buttocks, or how my own microfibers might shine in the bedside light. I think this is what doctors must conjure. Or morticians. Or cops. Hematologists must picture human-shaped knots of blood pushing carts at the grocery store. And in the bodies of shoppers who stoop to squeeze oranges in crates cardiologists must notice a floating row of beating hearts. I search for images or glints of story in a word or gesture: nine women and a boy deciding “winter or summer plumage” as they touch the bodies of their future birds; my father’s hunting trophy turned fur-lined jock strap; Allis leaving the doe-eyed creatures of Disney for the grit and complexities of flesh. Those impossible resurrections—baked blackbirds flying from a pie. My bird is beautiful. I don’t have a name for it. I opened it up and entered as if turning the first page of a story.