Prose by Anja Semanco | Photos by Fontaine Rittelmann
The vulture is the thing with feathers that perches upon your soul and all this time you were waiting for a bluebird, a dove, a bird with a song.
A Drawer of Birds
You pull out the drawer and the birds are perfectly tucked together, side by side, like a box of chocolates. You take them in. Row after row, drawer after drawer, the birds fill the shelves in their neat little white boxes. Like tombs. Who are you to disturb their sleep? You aren’t a scientist or a god. You have no right to be there. You file them like books regardless.
Each bird has a tag with information wrapped around its sticky leg. Taxonomy. Taxidermy. The words are so close together. You work with both everyday. What genus? What species? Are there windows in the skull?
You have to look up every bird at first. You can’t tell from the Latin words where they belong. A robin becomes Turdus migratorius, a barn owl Tyto alba. There are hundreds of robins, hummingbirds, catbirds, starlings. It is death in excess. You are working in a library of the dead.
Forty snowy owls make your head spin. The first day you see them, it is like seeing snow preserved. Their bodies are white mounds hilled together on a plywood drawer. Black feathers fleck their immaculate breasts. They lay motionless. You cradle their bodies in your arms, feathers touching skin, bird touching human, animal cradling animal.
You are in love. You are horrified. Without eyes, it is impossible to love them fully. Just puffs of cotton stuffing where their great yellow orbs once were. Their bodies crinkle under your touch, the sound of dry skin cracking.
Their wings are pressed against their bodies. You want to see their extent, their length. They are robbed of post mortem flight. You wonder who stole that power. Who feared the violence, the rapture a beating wing creates, like that of a beating heart? Frozen. Stilled. Dead.
You find the prettiest ones, the clean ones, the ones prepared with skill and care. If the snowy owl can reveal one certainty it is that death is not so ugly, that man can take a snapshot of extravagant creation and hold onto it tightly.
The owls’ legs are sticky with fat and oil, but their feathers are dry. You stroke these feathers, starting at the head and working down to their talons. You press the sharp curves into your fingers, watching your skin dip into a teardrop. You wonder what it would be like to be a field mouse, whisked into the air by those wings, caged in between black talons. For that experience alone, you would die.
You once took the talon of an owl and pressed that teardrop of skin to its limit. You drew blood. At the time, you were uncertain of the preservation methods used in 1897. You wondered if that talon would kill you.
But you survive. You spend your days rolling a heavy metal ladder on wheels from one case to the next, observing birds from every continent, hundreds of countries. It is exotic and luxurious. You often forget where you are. The cases take on a curious tone and you are transported to a way of thinking that is all your own. It is like dying. As if you too are on display for inspection, counting, examining. Where is your tag? Around your toe like a corpse? Around your sticky leg like a bird? Your death is inconclusive. You have no data to give.
You like to work in the early mornings before museumgoers arrive. Before children with gummy fingers and disinterest roam the halls, wailing for their mothers to take them to the next exhibit or to take them home. The bird hallway is grossly overlooked and you prefer it that way.
On those kinds of mornings you have to stumble through the dark hallways to get to the office. The cases of birds are motionless behind their glass enclosures. The mounts with their glass eyes stare listlessly outward. Everything is still, shrouded in a pillowy darkness that comforts and conceals.
Some mornings you hear music reverberating down the tiled hallway. It is a custodian. You can see his cleaning cart far off, but you never see him. The music echoes around the third floor and gives chilling life to a building filled with the dead. When you ask your supervisor about the custodian who never appears, he shrugs.
“You’d think after twenty years here he’d learn to turn the damn music down.”
Even when the sun is out, there is something unsettling about being so close to trays of the dead. The room has one tiny window, which offers the smallest sliver of sunlight. You have to use the strips of fluorescent lights to see. The room is heated with a set of radiators from the 60s that clank and rattle sporadically enough to make you jump every time. It’s not that you fear the birds in any way, that they might suddenly rise and beat their wings inside of the cases begging to be let out.
What you fear is the intricacy of the darkness that hangs in the corners. Thick like sap, it oozes so slowly you don’t know it’s there until your fingers are sticky with it. It is a phenomenon that leaves you jumpy. Your heart beats a little faster, keeping time with your racing feet. Get in. Get out. Your body feels dismantled. What else is there to do?
You dutifully pull out the drawers, mark which birds are present, which are missing, and you go home. Everyday is different. Everyday offers something new. But everyday that darkness, the heavy reek of artificial death, finds you and manifests itself in a little part of your body. Perhaps the owl talon let it in.
Your soon to be supervisor looks over your résumé at his desk. He drinks instant coffee with water heated in an aging microwave. He doesn’t understand why anyone would buy beans or freshly ground coffee, or even worse, a cup of premade coffee, when you could buy instant coffee for pennies. He is a quantity over quality sort of man when it comes to financial matters. He switches from one pair of oversized glasses to another while reading your résumé and back again before you both leave the office. He doesn’t believe in expensive bifocals when two pairs of regular glasses are cheaper.
He begins the interview by walking you down to the alcohol house. You can smell it long before you can see it. A sickeningly sweet sort of smell that burns your nose and makes your stomach turn over. He opens the door and it intensifies. You are in a small hallway, doors on each end, the only light from an exit sign. The room pulses red. Along the walls are rectangular metal bins with lids that latch shut.
Your supervisor points to one of the bins and tells you to open it and to pick up what is inside. You hesitate long enough for him to cross his arms. Although every instinct is telling you not to open the box, you dutifully unlatched the lid. Your arms prickle as you peel back a piece of linen cloth like skin. You stick both of your hands into the cold, yellow alcohol and feel a slimy round object the size of a basketball. You pull the hideous orb from the liquid.
Staring back at you is the head of a leatherback turtle, eyes still intact, flesh mangled around its neck like the tip of a thumb cut from a hand with a serrated knife. You hold the head over the bin and let the alcohol drip from its ragged flesh.
“Is this the kind of stuff you thought you’d have to do?” Your supervisor asks. He is grinning, as if this were some great joke and not the head of a real animal pressed between your palms. You nod. You pretend like you knew. That this had been your plan all along, to spend your days with the dead.
He tells you to put the turtle away and open the bin to the right of it. You put the head back into the metal box, making sure the linen cloth covers the top of the head and move on to the next one.
The anticipation is heavy. The cold metal latches creak as you twist them apart. There is no linen inside, no covering of any sort. Just a tumult of brown spikes pointed at the ends like talons. They form a sort of skin, a rolling flesh that folds and conforms to the box. You do not reach your hands in, but stand with your own astonishment waiting for your supervisor to interject.
You touch one of the spikes fighting the instinct to jerk your hand away, not out of revulsion, but fear. It bobs in the alcohol.
“What is it?” you ask. You feel a glimmer of exhilaration catch within your throat. A mystery still exists for you. Something you can’t easily identify. It gives you such a rush that you have to catch your breath. Your little clump of a heart pounds.
“It’s the throat of that leatherback turtle,” your supervisor says. You have to roll this over in your head slowly. You want the job so badly; you are too embarrassed, too full of your own whimsical mind to ask why. Why does the leatherback turtle have such a throat? Why is it preserved? Who tore it from the head so that it could become two organisms instead of one? You have to pretend you know.
You wait until you are home to look it up. In the privacy of your own room, you find that the leatherback turtle has this throat because of its diet, which mainly consists of jellyfish. It uses these spines to rip the jellyfish apart so that it can avoid its stinging tentacles. What a perfect evolutionary adaptation.
And here you are, admiring that perfect throat, in a bucket of alcohol, years after its death. You have to wonder what a curious thing it must be to any other organism to wonder about any other organism.
Your supervisor latches the lid back onto the box and moves on to the next part of the tour. He is no longer impressed with the specimen—any specimen at all. Thirty years of working with the dead can make you numb to almost anything.
The Aura of a Vulture
You cut the box open with a scalpel because you can’t find a pair of scissors. The museum has scalpels in excess, which makes you uneasy and reminds you of your own impermanence.
The box is double wrapped and stamped with the red word “Fragile.” You run the scalpel down the tape, one foot, two feet, almost three. The bird inside is large.
Inside are tissue paper, cotton, and the strong scent of mothballs. It is unmistakable; a sign of something that doesn’t belong. The museum never uses mothballs, only borax. The older birds are preserved with arsenic, but you’ve been promised it would be rare for it to seep through the specimens’ skin. You worry about every migraine regardless.
Beneath the protective layers of packaging is a brown bird with a bald red head. Its beak is dark and curved to form a sharp hook. Its eyes, like all the other birds, are missing and replaced with white cotton. It bulges out like a cartoon.
The loan slip says Cathartes aura. This bird, which has been on loan for some time, is finally returning to its resting place, if something preserved can really rest. You don’t cradle it like the snowy owl. Instead, you find the empty space where it belongs, place it on its cotton-lined drawer with all the others, and wash your hands.
It feels odd to hold a vulture in your hands, to let it touch your skin unencumbered. You do not stroke its feathers or stare where its eyes had once been. You put it away with medical precision, as a surgeon might sew up a wound. Quick, clean, finished. There is no need to hold a conversation. It is impossible.
But for the rest of the day, your hands do not feel clean. You wash them again and again, feeling the fat from the legs stuck between your fingers. This one dead bird lingers on your body.
You have to find a way to cleanse yourself of the vulture, this midwife to death. You look up photos and listen to its calls. Hisses and grunts. The vulture doesn’t sing. This is fitting. This is the information you want.
But then you find it, that pretty little word that makes you squirm: purify. The vulture’s genus, Cathartes means to purify. How can this be so? How can something that feasts on putrid flesh, that hisses instead of sings, possibly be the bird that purifies?
And with that speck of information, that word ringing between your ears, you can’t help but feel a weight settle inside of you. It is thick. A mucous lining that catches the little bits of dust that pass over it. It is lighter, more fluid than a burden and has the sharp slice of intimacy.
The vulture is the thing with feathers that perches upon your soul and all this time you were waiting for a bluebird, a dove, a bird with a song. You thought it would be a snowy owl; you want it to be a snowy owl.
Your mother calls to tell you your grandfather has cancer. Pancreatic. No, he won’t have long to live. You hang up the phone and the vulture flutters inside of you, spreads her wings for a moment. It is this news, this cancer, this slow progressive death that sends her stretching, hissing, preparing.
In a courtyard along the side of the museum, where the acorns fall in autumn and the snow falls in winter, sit two jawbones from a whale. Completely exposed to the weather, the rain, the snow, the freezing cold, these whale bones sit. They are lifted off of the ground by wooden legs that are beginning to rot.
You run your hands along their splintery curves, their cracks filling with algae. Who has forgotten these bones? You have seen them for three years. Who knows how long they sat before you. Who could forget their size? The way they bend so slightly in the middle to form a curving bench that could seat ten people. They are impressive. And no one knows they exist in this way but you.
The museum has all but forgotten these bones that they set out to dry. Their reasoning for this sort of exposure, so you’ve been told, was to mimic the way the ocean weathers bones and leaves them on beaches white and clean and smooth. What made them think the Pennsylvania seasons mimicked the slow rocking of ocean waves?
These bones are turning green. They are gray and chipped where water froze and cracked their hull, like a ship frozen in the ice. It’s a sort of embarrassment it seems. The museum pretends they’ve forgotten them, says they don’t have the funds for them, but really there was a failure along the way. It is a reckless condition these bones have found themselves in.
The public doesn’t want to see them, not in this way. No one will take the time to scrub the algae, to sand and polish them until they glimmer like pearls. No one can move them, their weight is too great. So they will sit and rot and no one will care.
Your grandfather’s skin is beginning to sag. It is pulling away from his face and hanging like a jowl. His face has folded a hundred new wrinkles since you last saw him, which was only weeks ago. He is mostly bald, only a few wisps of white hair withstand. His liver spots are clear. His exhaustion is clear. The chemo is working.
He wears a hat everyday now, or so you’re told. You don’t see him everyday, although you only live an hour away. You know, from phone calls with your mother, that he has good days and bad days. Even she doesn’t call everyday though.
Some days you don’t think of him at all. You went to see a doctor and forgot to say “pancreatic cancer” when she asked for your family’s medical history. How easy it is to forget.
You see the whalebones everyday. Only a piece of what they used to be. A fragment of a body. A fragment of a history that you could never comprehend. What depths did those bones know? What secrets did they hold?
Your grandfather was in the Navy. He dove below the ship to make repairs. He saw a world most of us only skim the surface of. Where were the bones of the whale then? Swimming the same ocean as him?
You have not forgotten these bones. You have not forgotten their origins. They are not weathering into the perfect exhibit the museum wanted and so they are being pushed aside. They are rotting. You are watching their decomposition. They have an audience of one. You still remember.
Header photo of tagged vulture feet and tail feathers by Fontaine Rittelmann.