The clouds decline towards the horizon to the east and far away from me. Know me as Jonah. The belief I maintain is that these shapes mean nothing. No matter how they amass into a hundred different shades and patterns before their ultimate dispersion, there is nothing in them to speak to me as might the outlines of the animals I have killed and skinned and mounted for display in the Museum. The Museum, it has stood now – oh, it seems – a thousand years. Long enough it has stood, and numerous enough the shoes that have trod through it, that the slow hand of erosion can be seen, with only gross examination, in the soft dip of the floors. In the hallways, yes, but more so in the doorways, and on the winding stairs, there can be seen the old buff of generations passing through, passing on, leaving minute traces of glove-leather sole, as they gloss away always more microscopic traces of marble stone from which the polished floor was laid.
At night, the crates arrive to me, sometimes filled with living fins and fingers, sometimes dead of heat and sound, though the odor is ever present for all the preparations I make to prevent it from filling my nostrils with the musk and wilderness that do not cry out to me. No scent could ever beckon me into the desert regions were wild animals lay down within their lairs until the sun has gone the way of the moon before it, over the whole sky and into the west from whence come the clouds which will never hail my way. No landscape, no matter its majesty, can ever demonstrate there is a final form of nature that lies yet to be discovered, a kingdom of God’s creatures. Sense-certainty recommends belief, but it can never guarantee.
The crates are carried to the basement of the Museum, where I sweep my studio. It is a small room to me so long as I keep dim the lamp I use. I read there – I am a gatherer of facts – and illuminate the table on which I spread my labors. To be glossed fittingly, all needs to be flung open. Each shape, once it is ready for my attentions, lies remote as any stone, though its will be a chill which never ceases to feel lambent for the way it seems to beat up from within the pile of fur into whose depths I must press my ungloved finger tips. No matter how many times I wash the bodies, work soaps and oils into the pelts I must at last begin to peel away from the muscle and bone of the animal’s frame, and no matter how I scrape my skin; still when I wake next morning I can always feel their musks mix with my own, feel them to have worked their way inward until they have imparted something of the creature’s ownmost animal to me.
Not that I could ever be a beast, not that I believe in such absurdities. What I do believe, because I feel it as strongly as I sense the odors in my instruments, is a howl echoing within. Something other than human bellowing, other than my own, though there is always a scent of flesh I have eaten about it, a writhing, a migrating through my skin, an insinuating pressing further inwards, occupying my body, the inner regions of it, but never present and residing. Never slowly settling within my ribs, ever wandering, ever on the prowl.
I was never trained to acquit such labors as are mine, never apprenticed to any master who might have shown me how to make the cuts along the torso and extend them down the inside of the limb until they reach the juncture of the wrist. No man ever taught me peeling back the skin, slipping a blade into the fascia and pushing through as if flourishing the quill or slitting free the page. All my schooling has been Letters and Divinity. I have trained to read the writings of Warburton, his tomes on Divine Legislation, the missing stones of Moses, and their linkage to pharaonic hieroglyphs. I had been shown to read in Hebrew and in Greek, to shape their characters and dot their vowels until the page before me blew a cave of winds, and I Aeolus of all scholia. My fingers, still in their juvenescence, soared over moldering folios as though conducting Tudor choirs. I scanned with my eyes, but also with my hands and parted lips, singing God’s whole loaf aloud, breaking my breath into it, exhaling air into the patriarchs, just as the Lord – before fig human words were ever worn – pressed himself against the breast of Father Adam and began to expire, forcing the oldest – yet still the youngest – of us all, to take in air, as if daring fledgling wren to take to wing. It was a beating of the heart, a jeremiad, an inner lamentation needing a release. To breath was – Yes! – to speak, to ascend to human station, to soar, as living soul. Life launches. No! Life lances – in, out – carving human mouth.
Tonight, I cannot let myself lie still after I dim the lamp and leave the studio behind to make my way up to my chamber. It seems a hunter’s tent, a miner’s, given the lighting. For it is candles I prefer to use once I have put my work away. At night I lie within my bed, or sit upright with a dull book on my knee, hoping to push through to the one passage within it which will possess the property finally to deliver me to sleep.
Sleep, as always, is a dream that I once had, that haunted me long after the flood of dawn, a dream I wanted all daylight to migrate home to me. All week long I pined for it. Then moons passed over the Museum. Whole suits of clothing wear and fade, watches slow, become fully broken, and yet the dream remains, fresh and almost supple in my memory, almost something I can stretch and bend and twist until dream fills grimed reality. But for all it feels like flesh to me, for all it feels so ready to my hand, still I can never nestle back into it, never pull the wool of it around me, except in walking memory. Now I can barely find the sleep I need to stay awake, discharge the duties of my present hour.
I sit abed at night and feel the pages of the book within my hands, hear the chafe my whorls make on the printed word. I feel the oils of my prints drawn away from me by the fibers I hold between my fingers. Each turn of the cut pages takes something new away, which each morning I see as I scrub my hands and pare my nails of what night imparts of substance to them. I sense life thrive in the very thread of pillow and tucked sheet. Anywhere I place my hands becomes a site of translation. I feel the exchange, the exchequing, the port or market at which unguents, extracts, essences and oils all course in conflux differentials. I try, both brain and eye, to focus on the lines before my eyes, searching them for that final instance of banality which will deliver me from my state of waking and tender me over to the morning that has not yet burned bright enough to hurt my eyes and drive me from my loft atop the galleries. I cannot sink to sleep.
I did not think to number anything at the beginning of my time amongst vile jars kept in my studio. I never understood, when I commenced, the length of what would be a long sojourn – a stationary journey whereon time swept by me, and natural histories hissed secret itineraries to me. But my days became an Aeneid, a mystery of endurance. How have I been able to sustain so many days away from daylight? How do I now? How many miles have I paced while working underground? I can scarce provide account in terms of standard measures of chronometry. Though I do always see, when I push away my tasks in moments of reprieve, the residues which rise in piles about me. Layers of grease, heaps of trimmings, hair scabs from bloody furs. I have need to kill. All these accretions index the passage of my years, which are nothing new now to me, and perhaps they never were. Nothing more are they than transits of terrestrial bodies, in and out the studio in endless chains of murders, morcellations, mummifactions. True, I do not always strangle my victims. In fact, most times they come to me already dead. But I know I share the blame for their fate, the condition they arrive in, just as I have had a hand in the way their bodies bear the mark of me upon their leaving the basement and finding a place within the galleries above, or in some foreign facility which has paid the Museum for my work and the delivery of a set of specimens, and for the guarantee that all my preparations will not compromise the authenticity of any purchased piece. The pelts should be all whole and integral. All bones within should pertain to the proper species, as should all teeth. All classifying papers should be ordered, and should be certified as to their accuracy. And all animals should bear, somewhere on their closed external form, the seal to signify the work is mine. Not that any contract should be necessary. My work will ever bear the mark of my lone hands, not in the way of stains or smudges I might leave behind, and surely never in the form of errors made or corners torn. For such is the merit of my dissections and my taxidermies that my work is ever in demand. Letters of query arrive with regularity – sometimes phrased in the parlance of solicitors, other times in that of bland aristocrats – requesting the preparation of some quadruped or other, some rare avian shape shipped up from equinoctic zones.
Each day masses throng displays I have created, though hardly do they pause to consider dark hours and livid eyes and lemur fingers needed to bring to full completion the task they come to see once I am gone. They will surround a parliment of owls, each feather of them set as if responding to a wind that blows for them, and them alone. They will gape before cave bears whose bones I clothed with pelts I once acquired of Russian merchants and stitched together until made sufficient cape to draw about the great beasts’ napes and narrow shoulder bones.
I see my public, adults and children, so alike, stretch forth their puny hands to make first contact with my animals. I see grown men transformed to children in the instant of their reaching, sense their pang of longing for encounter with something yonder of gray civilization. Even if the brute before them is not real – in the sense of drawing breath – still it retains the claws and teeth and tail it had while ranging through dark woods and hills and rivers, while yet gulping life into itself in mighty draughts of flesh or wind or water, while yet clenching earth with toes unfit for speaking beings, with thumbs unfashioned to fasten buttons or cling to amber turtle combs. They feel for this, though it is forbidden, push digits deep into the darkness of the pile, dig fearfully into the realm of the rough beast, after something which must somehow reign supreme, there beneath the hirsute sheath. If they can only encroach beyond the envelope of the form before them, feel where the life caged in the creature paces, back and forth, behind bone bars, this will be a contact of a kind different from gripping a chair in the heated clasp of surgery, hotter than pressing forehead of a child consumed by fever, sharper than the tips of canines breaking skin and finding femur. Their stretch will reach a being wanting to become a human too, wanting to arise from dreamless archaic sleep, a world before all ringing human ears. For what are dreams but man’s homesickness for the beast, nocturnal wanderings within the cave of sleep, which is everywhere bestrewn with human bones and mortal ruin.
Men strain to feel frontier of hand grasp back, up from the depths before the Deluge, and beyond. They strain back farther after Father Adam, strain farther still, to feel four fingers fight to form a hand, to feel a thumb twist into final opposition, to be seized by its grip, and begin the slow interrogation, an inquiry conducted slowly through questions manually asked. This will be a trial of mutual probations and discoveries, as if naming and receiving names could be achieved without a parting of the lips or a pressing of the pen, but simply through a blind play of twin palpations, through groping knuckle bones, two hands grappling together until coming to a truce, a covenant in which the cease of struggle signifies the closure of a pact between animal and man. It signifies, through a kind of embouchure, or locking of the horns, the nature of relationship between two foreign sovereignties. One will be master, the other vassal, bonden soul to him. The struggle may resume, but any future outcome now will be a matter foreordained. As the prey sinks ever deeper, into the embrace of a strong constricting snake, dimly aware it may resist but never leave the path that leads through gaping jaws, so the bones within the fingers of the vanquished vaguely sense their fate. One hand will pull the other, ultimately, through to its own side of the great-veined divide which separates twin kingdoms, Animal’s and Man’s. The border, running hidden, somewhere under surface of pile fur, and marking the place of transmutations, egressions, crossed purposes and tragedies; it will be cancelled, and man or beast accursed for it, for plucking what should have remained the alien though ever-tempting fruit.
These are the advances, the attitudes, I see as I pace the galleries of the Museum. Over the years such dramas have become easier to see, though they play out before me in ever-finer nuances. The dialogue consists not of heard utterances or even names of characters, but only roles within which the private person seems to disappear, gestures actor is seen to perform, so that more than anything else, all is simply stage directions now made flesh under my aged observing gaze. The Museum forms a theater in which I see enacted the same struggle within which I myself will disappear each evening, though even more profoundly, as I strip and step into my studio, alone within equivocating zones. There, daily, I wreak my miracle, turn living thumb – though it be dead – into an overstuffed display, elaborated for learning and delight, for an enlightened public, or at least a public straining for the light.
And such is to remain ever the same. Behold the people, how they lean upon each pedestal, display and plate-glass case, dressed in the finest fashions of the day. They behold my great creations. My Kingdom lies between .
Brian Kubarycz is a writer living in Salt Lake City, where he teaches Intellectual Traditions for the Honors College of the University of Utah. His work has appeared in Puerto del Sol, Black Warrior Review, New York Tyrant, Unsaid, The Quarterly, PANK, Gigantic, and other literary venues.