Among the Wonderful
By Stacy Carlson
Steerforth Press Copyright © 2011 Stacy Carlson
All rights reserved.
They had discarded the egret. And strangely, the lynx. As he approached the building Guillaudeu observed that someone had draped a burlap sack around the wild cat and left it on the sidewalk. But the covering had half fallen away, exposing taut feline shoulders poised for attack. Inside the museum the lynx had inspired awe among the visitors. But against this new backdrop of street refuse, and in the bold morning light, the specimen had the look of a bleached housecat enchanted by a ball of dust.
Until very recently, the changes had all been to the exterior of the building. The brick façade had disappeared under layers of whitewash and teams of men had painted oval portraits across the face of the structure, depicting everything from elephants to the Annunciation. They had even rebuilt the balcony, and judging from the crowds that now filled it, this narrow promenade over Broadway was as entertaining as the museum's contents, if not more so.
Guillaudeu did not appreciate the new owner's gaudy taste. He averted his eyes from the huge transparency at the museum entrance that bore the smiling, bare-breasted image of the museum's most recent acquisition: a mermaid. In his irritated mind, he shuffled through the myriad upsets in routine that had occurred since that scoundrel had taken ownership of the museum: the new exhibits, the theater, the rooftop restaurant, and on each floor an army of concessionaires. The whole place was a roiling mess.
He watched three men leave the building. One carried the white-faced ibis by the neck. The others struggled at each end of a reindeer. He did not betray even a hint of displeasure, though he felt an urgent desire to snatch back the ibis.
The first visitors of the day formed a line outside the ticket window, and a vendor was selling them hot corn and coffee. Guillaudeu continued into the entrance hall, pushing through the inner door just behind a man and his young daughter.
"A Chinaman pulled her up in a net!" the girl sang out as she skipped ahead of her father. "She's got hair mixed with seaweed and a necklace of pearls!"
The man hurried as the girl bounded up the first steps of the great marble stairway that led to the exhibits. She had holes in her stockings, and her father moved stiffly in a worn oilcloth coat.
Guillaudeu walked past the door to his own office; like the patrons, he had business on the second floor before the day's true work began.
"Here, Margaret. This way!" the father called.
"I can almost see her." The girl's voice was frantic as she approached the exhibit.
Guillaudeu heard a shriek but he did not stop. He was already well aware that the desiccated horror the girl now beheld was nothing like the siren depicted on the transparency hanging outside the museum, and it was certainly nothing like the image she had coveted in her mind. When he glanced toward them, the father was making the sign of the Cross. Guillaudeu hurried around the corner without meeting his eye.
His footsteps echoed as he walked across the portrait gallery where the blank faces of monarchs and presidents added their gazes to the empty air. At the far end he turned left into Gallery Three. He found the sloth in its handsome pergola, sleeping high in the crook of a dead tree trunk. It squatted with its long arms folded around its legs and sunlight from the gallery's high windows warming its back.
Guillaudeu had hoped that by now a proper naturalistwould have been hired; he resented the amount of his time that had been wasted worrying over the museum's newest inhabitants.
"You're an odd sort of fellow," said Guillaudeu to the lump of gray-brown fur that acted as if sleeping in a museum were the thing one was born to do. With one hand Guillaudeu clutched a small parcel wrapped in newspaper and with the other he twisted the end of his mustache, which, though his hair was white, remained the color of cinnamon. The creature was in precisely the same place as when Guillaudeu had visited the pergola the previous afternoon.
In an absurdly languorous movement the sloth raised its head. It lifted its arm and soundlessly scratched its armpit. Then the animal directed its attention toward the ceiling.
"How can an animal never come down to the ground?" Guillaudeu was unaccustomed to analyzing animal behavior, never having had to account for it during his thirty-eight years as a taxidermist. "Who wants a sloth in a museum anyway?"
He located the key to the pergola in his waistcoat pocket. He unlocked it and unwrapped his parcel, which contained half a cabbage. He pulled apart the outer leaves and placed the vegetable in the sloth's tin bowl, which still held the two uneaten carrots and several brown lettuce leaves of yesterday's meal. The creature now appeared to be gazing out the window, where the diffuse light of a March morning brightened.
Guillaudeu descended the marble stairway against an incoming tide of people. Shoulders bumped him. The feather of a woman's hat brushed across his neck and he swatted it away. The crowd's excited murmur gave him a bitter sense of constriction. At the bottom of the stairs he turned left, out of the throng, and passed through a door marked NO ADMITTANCE into a corridor with one closed door at the end. Guillaudeu would take up the matter of the sloth with the new proprietor.
Phineas T. Barnum had inherited Guillaudeu, along with the museum's collection of mounted specimens, from John Scudder, the museum's original owner. Scudder had been Guillaudeu's benefactor, professional mentor, and closest friend. He still could not bear to think of his old companion signing over both of their lives' work to a man like Barnum. He had made a point of avoiding Scudder ever since the older man had relinquished the title to the collection.
Guillaudeu had spoken with Barnum only twice. In the first conversation Barnum praised the museum's taxidermy displays and assured Guillaudeu that his services were invaluable to any natural history enterprise. But he then proceeded to reinvent the museum. To add interest, he had said during their second conversation, while men hoisted the first of the transparencies outside. Anything outdated must be expunged! Guillaudeu half expected to be thrown out himself.
He was increasingly upset as strangers delivered more and more live animals to the museum. The creatures arrived in a racket of squeals; there was even a man who arrived at the door to Guillaudeu's office with a one-eyed eagle tethered to his wrist. As he made his daily rounds among the specimens, he now looked closely to make sure no new creature was pacing or swimming in a cage that had sprung up unbeknownst to him. As he dusted and fumigated, he looked twice at specimens he had mounted himself: Was that a twitch of the head? Did the crane shift its weight from one leg to the other? He came to dread his peripheral vision.
He considered looking for employment elsewhere, but he could not bear the thought of leaving behind his menagerie of specimens, which now numbered close to one thousand creatures, despite the loss of the lynx, the egret, the ibis, and others.
He banged on the door to Barnum's office. No answer. He leaned his head briefly against the door frame and thought he heard something rustle on the other side. "Where are you?" he whispered. He knocked again, but no one came.
Guillaudeu made his way back to the entry hall with an uneasy feeling. The incoming crowd was almost impenetrable and he pushed himself against it to reach the door of his office, which was across from the ticket booth just inside the main doors. Once he was safely inside he moved to the opposite end of his cluttered workroom, past the piles of crates that had been arriving steadily and delivered, unfortunately, to his door.
He paused before the skin of the owl, Asio flammeus, which hung, splay-winged, from hooks in the wall. The skull-less hood of its head remained erect above the pinned wings. He ran a finger along the banded brown primary feathers. It had taken him several days to identify the bird. He'd bought it at an auction and knew it came from arctic Norway, but its tags contained nothing legible except the words BOG OWL. It had taken careful study and verification from three different sources to characterize it as a short-eared owl. Now the specimen embodied this taxonomic victory and was thus endeared to the taxidermist. The poisoned varnish on the bill and feet was completely dry, and he examined the owl's soles to ensure that the incisions that had drawn out the tendons had not damaged the appearance of the specimen. They had not. Poised at the threshold of his work, about to dive into its infinite solace, he turned away.
"It's not my job to take care of live animals!" he irritably told no one. "That's not why I'm here! I'm not responsible for observing a godforsaken sloth. How should I know what it eats? You'll have to find someone else to be your stable hand, Mr. Barnum." He slouched into his chair. In an attempt to banish the sloth's dolorous visage from his mind, he picked up the current issue of the University of Edinburgh's Scientific Journal.
Guillaudeu's hero, the French anatomist Baron Georges Cuvier, had published a discourse titled On the Revolutionary Upheavals on the Surface of the Globe, which the journal had excerpted. Cuvier described long periods of equilibrium on earth, during which whole kingdoms of plants and animals flourished. These epochs, though, ended in cataclysms of fire or flood. Out of the rubble of the old age would arise entirely new creatures to crawl and fly across the globe until the next apocalypse consumed them. As he read these words, Guillaudeu's mind filled with the image of a massive cyclone of wind and lightning ripping up forests and carving great wounds in the earth. He had the uncomfortable sensation that Cuvier's theory explained more than just an ancient scenario: A dark whirlwind, he realized, had struck the museum in the form of Phineas T. Barnum.
Guillaudeu pushed handfuls of excelsior into the varnished rib cage and bound it tightly with strips of linen. He replaced the owl's spinal column with a stout iron wire and strung on the bird's bleached vertebrae. Below this manufactured spine, a ball of bound excelsior became the new pelvic girdle, and he cut and sharpened the ends of two wires before slipping them through the incisions in the soles of the feet and upward inside the feathered legs. He used even heavier wire for the wings, since he wanted the specimen's ultimate pose to reflect the last moments before flight, wings uplifted.
He worked slowly, with precision and confidence. The rushing flood of visitors outside his office no longer bothered him. He recast each curve of musculature into shape and coaxed the emptied skin into what he believed was an essential new form. To Guillaudeu the scraping and stretching of leather, the briny, bloody, and alchemical tasks, each and every resinous and oily step in this metamorphosis was work that came with thrilling repercussions: What other process allowed people to come this close, so intimately close, to nature's meticulous designs?
His palette of chopped tow, powders, poisonous liquors, knives, brushes, and wires was spread out around him, each restoring ingredient within his reach and endowed, to his mind, with a numinous quality. There was no problem of anatomy, decomposition, or tanning that he could not solve. He worked single-mindedly, with a sense of duty that approached faith. Although he would never describe his joy as religious (he had never been a believer), his exultation burned like a glowing iron wire running all through him.
As he threaded a sturdy needle with catgut, Guillaudeu was interrupted by a violent knock on his door. The sound made two tiny golden monkeys, who had appeared at his doorstep the day before and who were extremely difficult to catch, leap from the bookshelf, where they'd been sleeping, and run back into their burlap-lined crate.
A large man wearing a dark blue suit, with slicked hair and one eyebrow slightly raised, stood at the door holding an ebony cane. His impatient, slightly theatrical posture made Guillaudeu instantly uncomfortable.
"Good morning?" Guillaudeu ventured, his mind still entirely with the owl and the delicate operation of securing its skin to its new architecture. With his broad face and tiny, close-set black eyes, Guillaudeu observed, the man resembled the American badger, Taxidea taxus.
"I'm looking for Mr. Barnum."
"Is he here?"
"Certainly not. Barnum has never set foot in my office."
The man looked past Guillaudeu into the room, as if Barnum were hiding among the crates inside.
"I am Mr. Archer," the man declared.
"I see." The name meant nothing to Guillaudeu.
"I am in need of an office. Barnum assured me I would be accommodated."
"You're an employee?"
The man seemed perturbed. "I am Mr. Ar-cher," he repeated, tapping his cane on the ground to match the two syllables of his name. "Formerly of the Herald and The New York Sun?"
"Ah! Mr. Archer. Yes, I'd forgotten you were to arrive today." Guillaudeu had never heard of Mr. Archer, but it would do no good to say so.
"I had expected to be met at the door. I have my things." Mr. Archer pointed with his cane. "They're unloading it all now."
"I see. Well, come in."
Guillaudeu settled Mr. Archer into a chair and hovered near him. "Mr. Barnum is actually not in the building at the moment."
"Then who is running the museum, at the moment?"
"Well." Guillaudeu leaned against his desk. "I'm not sure how to answer that question."
"What do you mean, Mr. —"
"Mr. Guillaudeu. In what way is that question a challenge to you? Who is running this museum?"
"Well, the theater staff runs the performances; certainly the custodians and ticket-takers manage themselves ..."
Mr. Archer stared at Guillaudeu as if the taxidermist had just told him there were pelicans on the moon. Guillaudeu continued: "The managing chef runs the restaurant and sees to the concession stands. And the exhibits themselves need no supervision. With exceptions, of course. But I tend to those. We're expecting some kind of naturalist, someone other than myself to look after the new ... menagerie."
"I see." Mr. Archer peered again at the office. Bookcases lined one side of the windowless den, and a small reading desk was pushed up against the wall. Chips of petrified wood fallen from the larger museum pieces had found their way to the bookshelves, along with various specimens: a few mice, a robin, a tattered hare. These were duplicates of the specimens in the galleries, too damaged or old for public display. All along the opposite wall, tools hung from hooks in an assortment of sizes, from the tiny silver brain spoon to rib clamps the size and shape of a wolf trap. The worktable was the center of this panorama, displaying its array of tools and the owl spread out, half clothed in its skin. Underneath the table were shelves of jars, metal canisters, and clay pots. There were bottles of alcohol, ether, cornmeal for absorbing a specimen's natural oils, bags of excelsior, hide- curing salt, glass eyes in brown, yellow, and even blue (for certain New World nocturnal species). As Mr. Archer swiveled in the chair to take it all in, Guillaudeu saw it as this stranger might: as if a great tide had left surf-blown piles of flotsam.
"Your wife?" Mr. Archer pointed to the framed likeness on the wall. Guillaudeu's throat filled with an awful bile that he quickly swallowed.
"Celia," he said weakly, not permitting his eyes to meet his, or hers.
"Well then," Archer tapped his cane on the floor. "About my office?"
Guillaudeu cleared his throat. "Given the museum's rate of growth in recent months, organization is sometimes difficult. Regrettably."
Mr. Archer gave a short nod. "I wouldn't have guessed organization to be the underlying principle here."
"I suppose not," Guillaudeu replied. He did not like the man's tone, and he still had no idea how Mr. Archer fit into the scheme of the museum.
"Sir," Mr. Archer said as he brushed a few golden hairs from his trouser leg. "Where is my office? I'd like to get settled."
"If you will excuse me, sir, I will research that detail." Guillaudeu ran across the hall to the ticket window. "William. Have you heard of a Mr. Archer?"
"Archer?" William was an elderly Irishman with tufted eyebrows and a wandering eye. He had worked for John Scudder for many years and remained a reliable nexus of information of all kinds. He continued to take coins from the hands of incoming visitors. "Isn't that the ad man? The fellow from the papers?"
"Is it? What's he doing here?" (Continues...)
Excerpted from Among the Wonderful by Stacy Carlson. Copyright © 2011 Stacy Carlson. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
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