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She watched Carl enter the house with an empty basket held in his mittened hands. Outside, the wind blew up snowdrifts in slanted curtains of white. Carl said good morning. He left his coat and mittens in place on his tiny body. He was so much like a bird in the frail way he stood beneath Irene that it was too much for her not to keep sobbing right there in her chair. She only pointed to the birdcage in the corner.
Carl set the basket on the floor and walked over.
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The cage was a shiny brass thing. Baroque, and glowing in the firelight like a lantern. It hung from a hook in the ceiling, and Carl stretched up on the tips of his toes to see inside. There lay the canary. A monster.
What kind of person? Carl began to sweat. He took off his mittens and stuffed them in his coat pockets, and he pried open the wire door of the cage and reached one hand in. The canary was warm to the touch and felt like breath between his fingers. He had handled a dead animal before. These dead animals led to nothing.
They became dead animals and remained dead animals. Death was just an accident, an error in the world he thought he could fix. That morning a canary had died, but before anyone knew it a taxidermist was born.
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A wronged woman. And then there was Julia. Her husband, Webb Akeley, was a man who did not put on airs and had no truck with the airs put on by others. A couple cows, and few pigs, some chickens.
- The Authentic Animal.
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He grew oats and corn and wheat, but the ground was all clay and rock, and Webb never could have been called a successful man. And Julia saw success all around her. Her sisters all married well and lived in tall brick houses in town with four, five bedrooms. As she walked through town, she heard, she thought, them and the other citizens of Clarendon talking about her family—that run-down farm, that boy and his dead animals. It should have been enough to make her leave. Webb wrote to relative Gliddens out in De Kalb, Illinois where one of them, Joseph Farwell Glidden, became the inventor of barbed-wire fencing , and received word that out there was wealth and bounty.
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The Heartland. She snapped at her children and nagged her husband. By age twelve, Carl had learned to remain out of her sights, to stay busy with farmwork, to spend his afternoons far out in the woods of Clarendon. When he got home that cold morning he tried to slip noiselessly upstairs and get right to work, but his mother heard his footfalls from the kitchen. He was to have left with at least four eggs, his mother had explained, and eight if the Gliddens could spare them.
Carl had even forgotten the basket. He walked into the kitchen.
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His mother was sitting at the empty kitchen table, her hands flat on the surface. The canary was safe in his coat pocket, wrapped in a red handkerchief. I only care about feeding this family. Running around without a head on your shoulders. She was looking at him now. And stay there. Without those eggs I have too many mouths to feed tonight. It must have been a lie, because by the time dinner was ready she called him down to join them, pleaded almost, though Carl never answered. How to get started? Not that taxidermy in the second half of the nineteenth century was such a strange activity for a young boy.
This was a kind of boom era for American boyhood. All the same, he proceeded methodically. First he lay the bird on its back and cut a long incision down the breast, from neck to tail. He used only a small pocketknife, and he took his time. Once he cut away the bulk of the skin he dug into the joints, severing the tibia from the hip, the tailbone from the backbone, the wingbones from the shoulder joints, and the vertebrae from the head.
What he then held in his hands was the headless, limbless torso of the canary, shapeless and small like some broken toy. Next he had to remove the eyes and snip out the tongue and scoop the brains from the cranium. Only then was the skin ready for stuffing. He stuck four more wires into the excelsior and attached them to each severed limb and made thighbones and wing bones. Around this poseable doll went the skin, which he sewed up along the seam, keeping the stitches small and neat.
The eye of a canary is a tiny black orb, with a gloss like obsidian. The final stage of any taxidermy project is the mounting of the specimen. For something a hunter shot, a wooden plaque and some wall space in the den. A pet has its own demands. It was not enough for Carl to make the canary look lifelike. This was an animal gazed upon every day by its owner. It had to look like itself. It had to look as though nothing tragic had ever happened to it. She could hold it in her hand and it would never fly away. Pets are one of the most obvious ways we make order out of the teeming and daunting animal kingdom.
If there were a class system of animals, pets would surely be at the top: The Animals Allowed into Our Homes. In the dark, early days of taxidermy, pets were among the top candidates for preservation. And one of the oldest mounted specimens still in existence is the African gray parrot that belonged to the Duchess of Richmond, a mistress of Charles II.