The Manikin

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Overview

In The Manikin, Scott leaves behind the exquisitely rendered vision of Egon Schiele's turn-of-the-century Vienna that distinguished her much-praised novel Arrogance and turns with equally prismatic powers to the eerie rural confines outside of Rochester, New York, early in our own century. The "Manikin" is not a mannequin but a mansion, the estate of the late Henry Craxton Sr., the "Henry Ford of Natural History," founder of Craxton's Scientific Establishment, whose specialty, taxidermy, made him rich - as the ...
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Overview

In The Manikin, Scott leaves behind the exquisitely rendered vision of Egon Schiele's turn-of-the-century Vienna that distinguished her much-praised novel Arrogance and turns with equally prismatic powers to the eerie rural confines outside of Rochester, New York, early in our own century. The "Manikin" is not a mannequin but a mansion, the estate of the late Henry Craxton Sr., the "Henry Ford of Natural History," founder of Craxton's Scientific Establishment, whose specialty, taxidermy, made him rich - as the world's largest supplier of fossils, dinosaur bones, and stuffed animals. The Manikin is full of the Founder's handicrafts - gibbons and bats, owls and peacocks, quetzals and crocodiles - and it is here that young Peg Griswood arrives with her mother, the new housekeeper, in 1917, and where she will spend her formative years amid the staring, silent creatures and among a staff of eccentric servants and groundskeepers.
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Editorial Reviews

Megan Harlan

The writer Joanna Scott is perhaps best known not for her three fine previous novels -- including The Closest Possible Union and Arrogance -- but for being the happy recipient, in 1987, of the mother of all cultural awards: a MacArthur "genius" grant. Scott's new novel, The Manikin, is flush with her particular kind of literary genius -- her keen, unsentimental eye never fails to astonish -- but the book also picks up a strange, somewhat strained, gothic quality that clashes with her observant style. The result is as odd as it is fascinating.

The novel takes its name from a rambling mansion near Rochester, New York originally built by a famous taxidermist -- the so-called "Henry Ford of natural history" -- to store rooms full of stuffed specimens (gibbons, skunks, quetzels, crocodiles, you name it). Among these glass-eyed manikins lives the taxidermist's now elderly, lonely widow, Mrs. Craxton, and her dutiful housekeeper, Ellen Griswood. The story, unfolding from 1917 to the late 1920s, mixes a light mystery with the sexual coming-of-age of Ellen's beautiful, willful teenage daughter, Peg.

Scott's prose, and the exacting authenticity of her setting, simply dazzles. As in the novel's opening, in which an owl's eye view of upstate New York's wintry countryside is vividly evoked, her descriptive powers fuse a heightened sensual perception with gracefully over-arching intelligence. Young Peg's crush is portrayed thusly: "Lilian Stone may be a slender-thighed, small-breasted, fashionable nymph, but the effect of her is that of a boulder rolling down a hill, crushing everything in its way." The process of taxidermy --"the combination of surgery and art" that brings "life to death" -- is detailed to chilling effect. But the almost spoofishly gothic-style plot -- complete with an illicit master-servant romance, a dark, knife-wielding stranger, and a dramatic reading of a will -- appears in stark contrast to the unique fictional universe it inhabits. Although a fluid, believable narrative never quite emerges from under the weight of so many finely-etched images, Scott has nevertheless composed a gorgeous -- if cerebral -- meditation on love, death and art. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
With versatility and virtuosity to spare, Scott has employed her fecund imagination and intensely observant eye in three highly praised novels (the most recent was Arrogance) and one short-story collection (Various Antidotes). Each of the novels was distinguished by an unusual protagonist, meticulously detailed settings, a gothic atmosphere and Scott's interest in the junctions where life and art, or life and science, meet. Here the "art'' is that of taxidermy, the business that enabled Harold Craxton to build the estate called the Manikin, a huge, gloomy house situated in the isolated countryside of upstate New York, where the narrative is set in 1927. Manikin is the word used in taxidermy for "the durable forms used to replace the animal's skelton,'' and dozens of stuffed creatures share the house with its human inhabitants: cranky widow Mrs. Craxton and a devoted (but overworked and underpaid) staff, some black, some white. In the course of the novel several dramas are played out, romance is both thwarted and fulfilled, a young woman comes of age and antagonisms between parents and children are endured and resolved. During a blizzard on Christmas Day, three momentous events occur in which everyone's future is instantly changed; six months later, the balance is again altered as Dionysian revels end in harsh reality. Scott's skilled handling of the interplay among a group of disparate people forced to live in close proximity is psychologically keen. But she miscalculates in the character of eccentric taxidermist Boggio, variously compared to the devil, a clown, a prophet, a wizard and ``a true artist, rebellious in spirit.'' His sudden insight at the end is neither credible nor convincing; nor are the narrative's various segues from bildungsroman to gothic novel to Midsummer Night's Dream scenario. Yet Scott's formidable observational skills result in some enchanting writing. Her precise, evocative descriptions of the region's "irascible climate'' and its flora and fauna, and of the zoological collection eerily inhabiting the house, glisten with brilliant specificity. (Feb.)
Library Journal
The author of Arrogance (Norton, 1991) shifts her attention from turn-of-the-century Vienna to upstate New York in the 20th century. The Manikin is a mansion that belonged to the late Henry Craxton, whose interest in taxidermy led him to establish the world's largest supplier of fossils and stuffed animals. Now living in this house, along with the animal relics of Craxton's vocation, is an assortment of eccentric characters, including Craxton's widow, various kitchen servants and handymen, and the mysterious taxidermist Boggio. Part Gothic novel and part character study, the novel's uneasy combination of the two genres will not satisfy most readers. Even the appropriately eerie descriptions and high quality of the writing will severely try the patience of those looking for plot and resolution. For comprehensive fiction collections only.-Nancy Pearl, Washington Center for the Book, Seattle
From the Publisher
“One reads The Manikin in a kind of fever....It is packed with extraordinary bounty.” —Newsday

“Scott’s prose is sensitive and beautifully crafted. She writes with subtlety, compassion and humor, and her characters are both eminently human and touched with magic and mystery.” —The Washington Post Book World

“The wit, the magical prose and the daring devices of Scott’s writing create an enchantment....Readers of The Manikin will remember Scott’s novel as a landscape of time, and will remember that her soundings of the depth of our natures are as accurate and revealing as Thoreau’s measurements of Walden Pond.” —The Nation

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805055917
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 2/15/1998
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 290
  • Product dimensions: 5.52 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

Joanna Scott is the author of seven books of fiction, including the novels Tourmaline and Make Believe, and the story collection Various Antidotes. She is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and a Lannan Award, and lives with her family in Rochester, New York.

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Read an Excerpt


Chapter One


The winter of 1846, when half of everything alive succumbed to thecold, has been stored for over eighty years in the mysterious mindcommon to the species, and though the owl didn't experience thatwinter, she remembers it—the poisonous smell of the air, the frost thatpinned feathers to skin, the famine. She remembers that time the waya woman remembers her great-grandmother's death in childbirth. Sothis year, when summer never properly thaws the land and the tidalpools remain fringed with ice, she knows what to expect. Soon the baywill be frozen shore to shore, the ptarmigan scarce, the predators hungry.The owl understands that to survive she must leave early andabandon the north entirely.

She sounds the alarm at dawn on the eve of the equinox, waits forthe flock to gather, and sets off From Baffin Bay to Island Lake and ontoward the great expanse of Lake Ontario, she leads the way. Such astrong, sturdy queen of a bird, and so richly attired: gold-ribbed breastfeathers, white coat, brazen, diurnal eyes. Lying eyes. The other owlsbelieve her to be fearless. In truth, danger makes this brave, majesticowl as skittish as a gnat. Crossing the vast expanse of Lake Ontario—thisfrightens her, though she'd never admit it. They are met midwayby a mild squall that gains an unexpected intensity as they fly throughit. Bursts of hail scatter the owls, and the last sight the bird has of hermate is his wingtip before the mist sucks him into its center. You shouldlet a storm take you where it will, the bird knows-warp and spinacross the sky with the wind instead of trying to resist it. But the squallthreatens to pull her downwardinto the turbulent lake, so she beatsher powerful wings against the gusts, hovering while the ran swirlsaround her. All reason is swept away by the storm, leaving only thefrenzied effort of life Protecting itself and an insidious, creeping exhaustion.

And then, abruptly, the squall passes and the bird flies on throughthe drizzle to the southern shore. She alights on a narrow strip of sand,tucks her bead between bunched wings, peers out at the water. Shewonders whether the others would agree to call this beach their destination.Her tired body tells her to stay here through the winter months,and her instinct to go on fades to a whisper. The waves of the laketeeter and collapse near her feet. Yes, she persuades herself, it seems assafe a place as any.

Then she sees the hen. Just a scrawny red hen that must have wanderedaway from a nearby farm and comes trotting out of the underbrushto say hello. But to the owl, born and bred in the open tundrawhere there are few surprises, it seems a phantom bird. A demon. Herown goblin double. She lifts up into the air with a panicked flapping,sideslips until she finds a southward current, and pushes herselfthrough the air as fast as she can go.

She bends east, then southwest, then east again, races along haphazardly,escaping not the killing cold but something else, somethingunnameable. She doubles the distance southward with her zigzags,unable to stop or orient herself. Hours later, her crazed flight bringsher to a mossy hillock rising out of an egg-shaped pond, a safe refugeat first glimpse, with the surrounding woods sparse enough for her tosee an enemy. She decides to spend the night here. Come morning, shewill set out in search of her flock.

She scratches at the wet ground, her talons bidden by thick trouserfeathers. She flaps and wriggles and stomps on the spongy earth untilshe finds a comfortable position. She folds her wings. She bobs andpivots her head to take in the new landscape-the sphagnum mossbeneath her, the sumac and myrtle, the saplings with their burningleaves. Then she blinks her huge eyes slowly and surveys the water,keeping as still as a stone sphinx. This is nothing like her home. But fornow she can pretend that she is queen again, that the trees are full ofowls and the body of water is her own Baffin Bay. She takes a deepbreath and shrieks: Worship me!

And so Ellen Griswood puts another day behind her, an ordinary day:the kitchen floor was scrubbed thoroughly, the bed linen washed, theclocks wound and antlers dusted and moose-hoof nut dishes wipedclean. Nothing to remark upon. Now that Mrs. Craxton is asleep atlast, Ellen may relax. She blows out the candle and moves with herusual confidence across the darkened room—she knows the geographyof this bedroom as intimately as she knows the body of the woman sheserves, from the horny toenails to the rhythms of the bowels, from theragdoll legs to the waxy scalp beneath the thin white hair. Overthe years, Ellen has learned to divide her attention equally between thehouse and its mistress and has rarely, if ever, been found at fault. Shereminds herself of this as she steps out into the hallway, where she's lefta lamp hanging: she's an expert in her way—indispensable. She needn'tworry about her position as long as Mrs. Craxton is alive.

And here's the delicious fatigue that proves the hours have been wellspent. She turns toward her weariness as she might turn toward the sunon the first warm day of spring, basks in it, retaining just enoughstrength to drag herself up the two flights of stairs to her bedroom.

The attic room, which Ellen shares with her daughter, is long andnarrow, with a sloping ceiling, flowered wallpaper, and a half windowat the far end. The twin beds are separated by a table, and in the stingylight cast by Ellen's lamp, the room seems to have the depths of atunnel that continues beyond the window into the night sky. A desolatespace, perhaps, but a haven nonetheless, and if you asked, Ellenwould tell you that she'd be content to sleep here every night for therest of her life.

How different she is from her daughter, who looks forward to theday when she'll sleep between silk sheets on a canopy bed the size ofDelaware. That's what eight years at a provincial academy will do toa girl: give her high notions and no useful skills. The insult of Peg'scovers still tossed in a frothy mess makes the room seem strange toEllen, as though she were visiting it for the first time after many years.A regular princess, her daughter, too spoiled even to make her ownbed. The never-ending game Peg plays these days is a fatal one: toomuch time on her hands and no responsibilities. Even now she's probablyup to mischief, wandering through forbidden rooms with youngJunket, the groundskeeper's son, treating the Manikin as her privateproperty. Nonsense. From start to finish the game of leisure is nonsense,and if Peg doesn't find a proper job soon, Ellen will . . . what willshe do? She has let Peg have her own way until now, so there's notmuch possibility for correction. Peg Griswood does exactly as shepleases, with or without her mother's blessing.

After Ellen has slipped into her flannel nightgown and cap and easedherself beneath the icy spread, she hovers in this wakeful temper for afew minutes, thinking about how her influence over her daughter, alwaysprecarious, has grown negligible. She's at her wit's end-and atthe end of a busy day, as well. She has never been one to trade precioussleep for worry. And remember, Mrs. Griswood, she reassures herself,the sure reward for an honest, hardworking life will be a secure futurefor both yourself and your child.

Ultimate security is Ellen Griswood's goal—it meant complete devotionto her husband for six short years. Since his death in 1917 it hasmeant complete loyalty to her employer. Ten years of loyalty, never alapse. So when she hears, or imagines, Mrs. Craxton s voice whisperingher name, a low snap of sound against her ear just as she is driftingto sleep, she responds like a recruit called to attention.

Ellen.

"Ma'am?" she says aloud, sitting bolt upright. The lamp, left burningfor her daughter, casts a smoky yellow light, and the room feelsmore snug now. The house is silent again. It must have been nothing.or, if something, merely the crackle of wind through the hickories. Butthe possibilities suggested by the whisper have drawn Ellen back to fullawareness. Does Mrs. Craxton need her?

As the Manikin's head housekeeper and Mary Craxton's companion,Ellen is responsible for her employer's well-being. What if some.thing has happened to the old woman? Doubtful, Ellen doesn't believein portents, and the nightly routine guarantees consistency. But thewhat-if lingers. If Mrs. Craxton needs her and Ellen isn't quick torespond, she'll have to bear the brunt of the old woman's rage. It isn'tlikely, but it's possible that the imagined whisper had its source inactual distress. Anything's possible in the Manikin, and Ellen won't beable to sleep until she looks in on Mrs. Craxton one more time.

"Lord," she moans in exaggerated misery, weak solace as she descendsthe back stairwell to the first floor. Inside Mrs. Craxton's bedroom,everything appears undisturbed, but since Ellen has come allthis way she will make sure. She leaves her lamp in the hall and dropsto her hands and knees, keeping below the line of vision in case the oldwoman has her night-eyes open. By the time she reaches the bed, herown eyes have adjusted enough to the darkness to make out form, ifnot precise detail. She sees the stiff billows where the comforter isbunched against the footboard. She sees the crumpled surface on topof the bed. She sees the pillow where Mrs. Craxton's head should be.She sees the carved mahogany bedposts, eagles with folded wings risingup on either side.

Where Mrs. Craxton's head should be. Mrs. Craxton's place isempty. Empty! Neither Mary Craxton alive nor Mary Craxton dead.Ellen's history of competence won't be worth a dime if Mrs. Craxtonis missing. It's her job to sustain Mrs. Craxton so the old woman canwrite her son long, accusing letters while he's abroad and scold himwhen he's at home. She's been known to work herself into such atemper that she faints; every year their battles are a little fiercer, andwith every battle Ellen holds her breath, expecting disaster.

Now here's a disaster, Ellen thinks. Her misperception will pass ina flash. But how brilliantly that flash illuminates her confused fears.

I don't know how it happened, sir. In her mind Hal Craxton sits inhis velvet wingback chair, glowering, terrifying. Your mother simplydisappeared.

Simply? Simply? Mrs. Craxton simply disappeared? An invalidwoman can't just sneak from her bed of her own accord, no more thana newborn infant can walk away from its cradle! Someone must havestolen her, there's no other explanation possible. Someone must havegagged her, bound her, and carried off the bundle of aged flesh into thewoods. Mrs. Craxton has been kidnapped, and her son will have topay a pretty sum of money to get her back! The sheriff will want to talkto you, Ellen Griswood, he'll want to ask you a few questions, so you'dbetter have an alibi ready. Mrs. Craxton has disappeared, and you'regoing to have to answer for it!

Exhaustion, Ellen will be the first to point out, can turn the mindinto a vessel for delusions. In fact, yes, in irrefutable fact, Mary Craxtonis still in bed, asleep, her head sunk so deeply into the pillow thatthe folds almost entirely enclose her face. Which proves not that MaryCraxton has the magical ability to disappear and reappear at will, butthat Ellen was mistaken.

Only now does she consider her compromised dignity. She climbs toher feet, shakes her robe so it falls evenly, and walks from the room.She even lets the latch click as she pulls the door shut. Wake up, youold bat! Briefly, Ellen is possessed by an overpowering anger. The terribletricks the mind can play. She wants to indulge in hatred, too. Buthatred is just another deception, she tells herself. The lie of senselessblame. She has too much sensible sympathy to hate Mary Craxton.Anyway, by the time she reaches her own bedroom again she feels sotired. This fatigue: her own delicious oblivion. Give her a minute toslip back beneath the blankets, and soon she won't care much aboutanything.

In 1912, three years before his death, Henry Craxton Senior—founderof Craxton's Scientific Establishment—purchased two thousand acresin western New York State, on the outskirts of the village of Millworthand adjoining state land. The property included a barn and chickencoop, a smokehouse, a gatehouse, and the ramshackle Big House, builtin the mid-nineteenth century as a water-cure sanitorium but neverfully operational, owing to a continual lack of boarders. When Craxtonacquired the deed, the Big House, which he renamed the Manikin afterthe durable forms used to replace the animal's skeleton in taxidermy,had been sitting empty for nearly two decades. He commissioned therenowned firm of Howe, Partridge, and Stilman to renovate thehouse—they widened an alcove into a spacious conservatory andknocked down altogether sixteen walls, reducing the number of roomsbut enlarging the spaces. Outside, a landscaper planted shagbark hickoriesin a horseshoe around the front yard, designed a terraced rock gardenalong the sloping eastern lawn, and crisscrossed the orchards andoutlying pastures with paths bordered with currant bushes. The springwas dredged to make a small pool and encircled with a neat brick patio,which was enclosed, in turn, by the full circle of a grape arbor.

Henry Craxton—known as the Founder to his friends and employees—hadrun Craxton's Scientific Establishment for more than fortyyears and transformed it from a small taxidermy shop to the largestsupply company of its kind. At its height, the company employed threehundred workers, including big-game hunters, botanists, paleontologists,taxidermists, chemists, copy writers, secretaries, and accountants.Major museums around the world depended on Craxton'sScientific for everything from tiny ammonite fossils to dinosaur bonesto the full-scale dioramas that were so popular at the time, and HenryCraxton became the Henry Ford of natural history.

After spending most of his life growing rich, the Founder intendedto indulge himself. But the Manikin was a greater luxury than he couldsafely afford. Between the elaborate interior of the house and thegrounds, maintenance costs alone exceeded the annual return onHenry Craxton's remaining investments by over five percent. Yet hedipped into his capital without compunction. The Manikin was hisreward for success, the refuge that he'd dreamed of for years, splendidlyremote, without a telephone or electricity. There were other estatesin the area and other society women to quell his wife's boredom,and at her request they kept their home in Rochester so they wouldn'thave to brave winter in the country. For Henry Craxton, though, theManikin represented a last stronghold against the cutthroat modernworld, and if he could have sealed himself inside the walls, he wouldhave done so.

Of course he couldn't have foreseen how soon he would be sparedthe world entirely—he had spent only one full season at the Manikinbefore he was run down by a mail truck on a day trip he took toBuffalo. Nor had his wife been prepared for the consequences of hisdeath. She was too proud to take a huge loss on the Manikin, so in1917 she sold the more marketable Rochester home and retired to thecountry estate to live year-round. As it turned out, she was stuck withthe Manikin—an embarrassment, if she'd been willing to admit it,much too large and too isolated. Her bachelor son, Henry Junior—Hal,as he was called—hated it so that he took to trav-eling, stayingaway for months, even years, at a time, selling shares in the familybusiness to pay for his tours and leaving his mother to manage theupkeep on her own. Which enraged Mary Craxton, of course, andafter she slipped down the front steps and injured her hip, she came tobelieve that her husband and son had conspired to build this house notas a retreat but as her prison. Like that other Mary in the tower, shemourned her lost life and plotted impossible escapes.

By 1927 Ellen Griswood had been the Manikin's head housekeeperand Mrs. Craxton's companion for seven years, on the staff for ten.She had never lost a day to sickness, nor did she bother to take vacations.She had subdued dust and mold and her employer's fury. Despitethe burden of work, she had grown comfortable and couldn't betempted by a change. She was a domestic servant, no more and no less,and was proud of it. Ellen worked hard, and this became the simplejustification for her life.

With Mary Craxton as its captive and Hal away more often thannot, the Manikin came to belong, at least in spirit, to the servants.Thanks to Ellen's supervision, the rooms always looked newly furnished,the oak-paneled walls shone a lustrous blond, the mirrors werespotless. Even the animals left in Henry Senior's Cabinet of Curiositieswere dusted and their glass eyeballs polished weekly. The gibbons andbats, the giant sea turtle, the macaw, the cougar, the tiny dik-dik, thepeacock and quetzal, the crocodile, along with local specimens—a raccoon,a family of striped skunks, two beavers: all continued to lookfreshly skinned and stuffed, the fur and feathers sleek, as though theirmemory of life was just hours old.

Only outside did time leave its mark, scratching and clawing at theroof, beating relentlessly against the doors, bubbling the whitewash.Henry Craxton had chosen a harsh climate for his country estate; herein this pocket of northern wilderness, the weather, unlike the housekeeper,was inexhaustible.

But there are those who prefer the open sky to a ceiling, the busysilence of nature to the deadening quiet inside the Manikin. They loveto feel a birch-bark canoe gliding over water and to bloody the wrinkled,melancholy faces of deer. Most of all, they love this irascibleclimate, especially the long winter, with its blizzards and shockingcold. You might even say that the weather forces them into an intimacythat wouldn't have been proper or possible otherwise; so Peg Griswoodhas a father in Lore Bennett, the groundskeeper. And she has abrother in Lore's son, junket. And maybe Junket's dog, Machine,cocks her tufted ears forward not because she's trying to hear somethingbut because she, too, loves the challenge of the weather and iscaptivated by the first scent of winter.

Last week Lore gave junket a Maynard for his fourteenth birthday.Peg doesn't own a rifle, but whenever they hunt together Lore lends herhis old breech-loading shotgun, the weapon hardly more than ornamental,since the few times she has fired out in the field she's nevercome close to her target. They're out jacking to reduce the crowdedwhitetail population—the deer come down to the pond to drink, andwhen one raises its head from the water junket will attempt to put abullet in its heart. Lore might try for a muskrat. Of the two, junket isalready the sharper marksman, and the Maynard—.40 calibre, with anextralong cartridge—is designed for high accuracy. It will take weeks,though, before he's comfortable with the rifle, and during that timethere will be plenty of bungled shots.

The glow from the jacklight washes across the water at an angle,collecting in puddles of melted silver. The full moon hangs low, andthey can see the shore with unusual clarity, poplar and beech yellowingabove the mossy shore and behind them peaks of fir. Lore cuts hispaddle into the water soundlessly to ease the canoe full around so theycan survey the opposite shore. Junket will probably be the first to givethe soft chuck in alarm. Whatever might escape his new gun won'tescape his eyes. Or maybe he'll prove that his skill as a marksman isunconditional. The gun has confused the odds of the hunt-now it'sanyone's guess.

Peg loves the wonder of a hunt, when the momentous act hangs justin front, in the invisible future. Imagine life without wonder: the life ofan ox, for instance. Wonder has been broken out of the species. Out ofthe cow, the horse, the pig. Wild animals are different. Just look at thestuffed cougar in the Manikin's living room—the eyes are glass, butstill you can sense the intensity in its expression. An amazement, asthough at the moment just before its death it had suddenly been overwhelmedby wonder. How can you do this to me? it seems to ask.Boggio, Craxton Senior's leading artisan in the taxidermy departmentfor forty years, now retired and living on the grounds of the estate,supervised the mounting of all the trophies in the Manikin. And theyall have the same taut look of amazement. How can you do this to me?The working animal never asks this question, not even when it fightsfor its life in the slaughtering pen.

Peg's mother is a working animal—does what is expected, no surprises.Up before dawn, asleep by ten o'clock. As steady and predictableas the hands of a clock. As an ox. She is a dumb, domesticatedbrute, no self separate from her role as housekeeper, while Peg is asuntamed as the Craxton cougar. But unlike that animal, she has theadvantage of a future.

However much she enjoys the thrill of the hunt, her future is elsewhere.Where, she's not sure. She simply knows that she wants to seemore of the world, to experience it in the way that her sixteen-year-oldmind imagines other people do. She's never been farther than Syracuse,while her mother hasn't ventured outside the region for more thantwenty-five years. Ellen has the nasal, dropped-ending accent of anupstate native, and in her cheap charcoal-colored uniform, a kerchieftied over her hair, she's easily mistaken for Amish. Not Peg, whosefoot-long bundle of hair is more brilliantly red than Craxton's freshlypainted barn. And that wild future, her own hidden behind the silence—itis waiting to be snatched, seized, bloodied.

Lore has tried to impress upon her the importance of this belief: ahunter doesn't shoot any white-tailed deer—he shoots his deer, the onethat belonged to him long before he marks it and fires. At the momentan animal crosses into his line of vision, it gives up its life. But thehunter must kill his game with one shot, mercifully shortening the spanof dying. No experienced hunter likes to watch his victim die. Boundup in its fate, he suffers with it. He wants to possess the animal that isrightfully his, to eat its flesh or wear its skin. Killing is the means andshould elicit only minor pleasure, a sturdy satisfaction, nothing more.

Somewhere out there is Peg's future. Beyond the silence. A silencethat encompasses the meager chirping of the season's last crickets, theburr-ah of a lone bullfrog, the splash nearby as a fish leaps, as thoughstartled out of sleep by its own dream. Summer and winter both can befelt in the breeze and in the warm currents mingling with cold in thepond. As Peg lets her hand drag through the water she asks herselfwhether she'll miss her home after she leaves, forgetting for a momentthat she has no home. A housekeeper's daughter cannot call her mother'splace of employment home. Her mother. God knows what she'dhave to say about Peg sitting in a canoe between Lore Bennett andjunket, a shotgun tucked under her arm.

So Peg's thoughts go, swirling on the same side of silence as thecanoe, as Lore and junket and Machine. And from the other side atwig snaps, and Peg looks toward the bank and sees something move—theobject is too vague for her to make out its shape, but the motionattracts like an artificial light, absorbing her concentration even as theimage disperses into a blur. Junket raises his gun; Machine lets out alow, barely audible growl and lifts her front paws onto the rim of thecanoe. And just as the vision folds into the darkness again, Just as Pegthinks, Oh no, Junket's Maynard goes off. The report of the gun tearsthe silence in half, the air fills with the echo of the explosion, andanother sound follows—the crash of a heavy body rolling down thebank toward the water. And then a splash.

Peg doesn't finish the thought that was interrupted by the shot, soshe'll never know exactly what she feared. But she hears herself screamingout Lore's name, appealing to him, as though he could reversewhat has just happened, forcing, with a great heave of his strong arms,time to go backward. Instead, he bursts into laughter. Demonic laughter.And he sends Machine, who claws the wood and whines frantically,into the water with a "Fetch!" the command sandwichedbetween guffaws.

Junket shouldn't have fired—that's all Peg can say for sure, evenbefore she knows what he has killed. He is panting, grinning uncertainlyat his father, until Peg turns her rage on him: "Stupid, stupidboy! "

Junket's smile flattens, and his eyes widen in humiliation, asking,How can you do this to me? The boy's face, she senses right away, isone of those images that will remain in full detail in the front of hermind, easily recovered. And if she could have ignored the feeling thatprovoked her outburst, she would have pitied him.

But now Machine is paddling alongside the canoe, throwing backher head to raise the sopping bundle out of the water. Lore, still laughing,dips both arms and tugs at the prize, coaxes the dog to release itwith a gentle "Drop it now, come on, 'atta girl." Not until he pulls thebody into the canoe does Peg see that there hadn't been any atrocity atall. It is an owl, a white owl as large as a plump, two-year-old child,half its head smashed in, its broad, feathered chest webbed with blood.A snowy owl. Peg recognizes it from Audubon's painting. A snowyowl, beautiful yet dreadful, like a mournful ghost owl from some forgottenlegend, whose job it is to warn a person of approaching death.

Renamed by his father shortly after his mother died. Born Steven Bennettat the maternity hospital in Utica, where his father worked as anurseryman. Now junket. To be Steven Bennett again by his ownchoice when he is eighteen and living in the true wilderness, not thismake-believe version. Junket, called by his father in fondness Junk.Whatever he might have been, his father has made him laughable.Named him after the food he loved so well as a baby: a dish of sweetmilk set with rennet. Cuts his hair in sloppy haste. Never had theinclination to teach his son much of anything, except to shoot. Keepsjunket by his side, as much his possession as the locket attached to achain around his neck. The locket, containing a single petal from hisdead wife's prize-winning violet collection, will hang from his neckforever. Adores his son, as junket well knows, but years ago took tokeeping him home from school so regularly that junket finally gave upschool altogether. Yet despite the stunting effect of his father's devotion,the temptation to stay by Lore's protective side, to do as he says,to bring him good luck and keep him company, is strong. And if junkethad had his way with Peg Griswood, he would have stayed for much,much longer.

How natural, for the groundskeeper's son to love the housekeeper'sdaughter. But tonight nothing seems natural here at the Manikin, especiallynot the Craxtons' two thousand acres. This land is. no wilderness,it is a preserve, sugared and boiled down like plums into jam.After only two years in the field, junket is well on his way to becominga master hunter. So what? It is a simple game, systematic and regulated.Whether he aims at a Coca-cola bottle or a white-tailed deer, hewill hit his target. He always hits his target. And by now would havealready moved on to some other diversion if it hadn't been for Pegherself, who became his prime target, working her way into his minduntil he could hardly concentrate.

But the owl has changed everything. The magnificent white owlfrom the Arctic, a rare visitor this far south, and so early in the seasonShot, struck, felled—by mistake. By mistake! Never in his life has junketmade such an awful mistake with a gun. He committed the supremesin, firing before he had identified his target. The bullet piercedthe owl's eye and exited messily through the back of the skull. Lore.usually a man so reticent that he can go through an entire day withoututtering a conversational word, had exploded in laughter. He stilldoesn't realize that junket fired too hastily, and junket won't bother toexplain. Why spoil it? Let Lore believe in junket's purpose. Then Loreneedn't be humiliated, as junket was humiliated by Peg.

Stupid, stupid boy. At last he comprehended that she would neverhave him. Never—a crushing verdict for a fourteen-year-old boy. Buthe's wise enough to accept her rejection without despising her. To doso privately. Peg wasn't oblivious, though—not entirely. As they werecrossing the lawn back up to the Manikin, she caught junket by thearm and whispered, "I thought . . . oh, I don't know what I was thinkingback there!" laughing with unconvincing lightheartedness. Shemeant to soften the impact of her rebuke, junket believes, to win backhis friendship. And then she did what she hadn't for years—she tookhis hand and they walked together toward the house. Only then, andonly briefly, did junket want to return her malice and hurt her as shehad hurt him. But the desire for revenge, connected as it was to thecontact of flesh on flesh and to the hair that blew like threads of fireagainst his face, passed as soon as she released his hand a few stepslater, leaving him more acutely alone than before.

Machine, jolly as Lore, bouncing on the trampoline lawn, mighthave lured him backward by reminding him of the more sentimentalattachments of childhood. A boy and his dog. But wasn't there still aspray of blood across Machine's snout? Wasn't the dog's joy bound upin the death of the owl? Machine reminded junket only of the barbarityof his last kill, and the owl reminded junket of Peg.

They went separate ways at the Manikin, Peg up the stairs to herbedroom, Machine and Lore to the kitchen with the owl carcass to seewhat Sylva the cook could do with it, and junket up the drive to the oldgatehouse, where he has lived with his father for ten of his fourteenyears.

Junket. Cast-off junk. Plain Steven Bennett. He'd leave tomorrow ifit weren't for his father, whose penny-ante consolation would beYou're young, you will outgrow this, you'll fall in love a dozen timesbefore you're twenty. But junket knows that there will be no healing,since almost every worthwhile memory he has of his life includes PegGriswood, and to forget her would mean obliterating his own self. Ormaybe that's what he wants—to dissolve into the night. Inside hisbedroom he lifts the window, leans on the sill, and inhales the darkness,imagining that he is alone in the middle of nowhere-whereverthat is—surrounded by miles and miles of unmapped land. Thethought of such wilderness soothes him with its promise of vast silence,a natural silence, without the intrusion of voices. Only thesounds of animals and weather, of life in motion.

Soon he hears the scratch of pebbles as his father and Machine comeup the driveway. Then a pause, which the dog fills with an impatient.bark. Junket sees Lore standing in the middle of the drive, head slightlycocked as though he were trying to regain his bearings. He holds theowl by the legs and has been letting the head drag so there is a groovein the dirt behind him.

Of course Sylva refused to cook this carrion bird. So what can bedone with the carcass? The answer is obvious to anyone acquaintedwith the old taxidermist Boggio, though Lore, who detests the manand his useless profession, would never admit it. "Bring it to me, Papa,I'll take it," junket calls. With a wave of his free hand Lore acknowledges,and he slings the owl over his shoulder, arches to absorb thethud of the dead bird against his back. He's lost his pleased-as-punchsmile, is considering at last, junket assumes, his son's error. It isn'tright to kill such a noble animal, a godlike bird, just for fun. It is, Loremust be thinking, as close as a hunter can come to blasphemy.

At last, by midnight, the spell has been cast, the Manikin stands luminousin moonlight, everyone is asleep. But no one sleeps as soundly asEllen Griswood. Whatever worries she carries around with her fallaway, and Ellen sleeps the carefree sleep of someone who has washedher hands of the day. No remembered dreams to trouble her. No startlesor insomnia. She doesn't even hear her daughter enter the roomand rustle about as she gets ready for bed. Sleep is Ellen's reward forgood day's work, and she guards it as carefully as a miser guards hisgold. You won't catch the Manikin's housekeeper at rest during theday, but at night, when no one is watching, Ellen indulges herself withthis great luxury, draws the starched cotton sheet up to her nose, anddisappears for seven solid hours.

If she could remember the travels of her sleeping mind, however, shemight not be so eager to give up consciousness. A carefree sleep-andall her freed cares mix together in skittish visions. Perhaps tonightshe'll dream of music rasping as the gramophone needle scratches to ahalt on the record, and it's her fault. Or she'll dream that the lampbeside her bed crashes from the table, the flames spill across the floorwith the kerosene, and it's her fault. She'll dream of cobwebs in thecorners, of tiny white larvae in the millet, of worms in the eye socketsof the cougar. Where is Mrs. Craxton's fox fur and where is Mr. Craxton'snewspaper? Where is Peg when she's needed? In her dreams Pegwill be just a wee thing again, crying that little lamb's bleat of a cry.She'll hear her husband groan as he spills into her. Ellen! Foolish of herto have put off sweeping the front steps, and now the rain. Did shewind the clocks on Monday? And who is that child leaning back on herheels, refusing to go on? Why, herself a little girl again, imagine! She'llnotice dust on the antlers above the mantel, ashes in the ashtrays.What else has she neglected? Mrs. Craxton? she'll call, knocking onthe door that has been locked from the inside. Are you there, Mrs.Craxton? And there she is again, a young girl standing barefoot onhot sand, refusing to go on. The surf roars like a huge fire on the otherside of the dune, no wonder she's afraid. The sun has fallen from thesky, water burns, dust is sand, and men are made of wax. A tallwoman, her mother, stands at the top of the dune, a cardboard silhouette.Come on, poppet, she urges gently. Hurry up, poppet. Let's goand find the sea.

And after all this, Ellen will wake at dawn, thoroughly refreshed,the tumult of the night forgotten. Even before she rises from bed she'llcontemplate her sleeping daughter while she plans how to do everythingthat needs to be done.

The Twilight of Common Dreams
Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars


By Todd Gitlin

METROPOLITAN BOOKS

Copyright © 1995 Todd Gitlin.All rights reserved.
TAILER

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2000

    A Mesmerizing Read

    My first information on taxidermy, a subject I had never thought wanted to know about. Taxidermy in Scott's hands becomes symbolic of the lives and events in the book. The ending puzzled me and I have 'written' it over and over in alternative ways. I wonder what other readers thought of the ending.

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