I. The Hunter
They are fewer now, and hungry. Their ranginess suits their shape, the hunter thinks, makes them better fit their own reputations. But he knows the lions were happier when they were glossy and lazy, when they watched him dismissively from the stony hills, because they did not need to bother with risky prey. They always bother him now.
Money has come to the coast, and so the people in the south are on the move, walking days through the desert and the scrublands to Algiers and Tizi-Ouzou and Skikda, anywhere the pirates sail from, because the pirates have harvested the money. So many people come that the hunter thinks the southern desert must be nearly empty, and imagines telling the lions to go there. But it is a harsh place, and he does not blame the lions for trying to hold the scrubland, for standing on the bluffs and watching, with what seems like sorrow, as the people move.
He has heard that the land south-of-the-south is rich and green, and that the lions there keep families like people, each male with a cluster of wives and children. The hunter can afford only one wife, whom he rarely sees. She wanted a clay house to raise a family in so he built one, but his work demands constant movement. He makes the rounds of his traps and pits, looks for scat or prints, disappears for days on a promising trail. Humans lack claws or fangs, but they are patient. The hunter admires his wife’s endurance too, her silent days in their dark house, weaving. She makes small rugs on a loom, to sell alongside his pelts at market. It is startling to slip in and out of his own home and see a whole different pattern emerging from the threads, the last rug he remembers already tied off and folded.
Northern lions are solitary because the land cannot support any more in one place. If he could speak to lions they might discuss this, the loneliness of their vocation. The largest group of lions the hunter has seen was a mother with twin cubs. She looked bony and harried and reminded him of his own wife, before their house went silent, before the endless rugs. He did not pursue the mother lion. As a rule, he does not hunt females, although many of his catches are made by pit-fall, and he cannot control what ends up in the pit.
When the hunter was a child, the only people on the southern trails were the blue people. Their fabrics stained their skin, even their faces, where they wrapped scarves to keep the sand out. His neighbors made fun of them, but he envied the way they looked, bits of blue moving across the brown world to the horizon, where the sky squeezed them into itself. He watched and pretended that they hadn’t disappeared into the distance, but taken flight.
Years later, he saved money for fabric and spent days in the hills harvesting piles of indigofera. He took it all to a dyer in the village who explained how to dry the plants, how to crush the leaves with ash, how to beat the fabric with wood paddles slathered with indigo paste and fat, and when she was done explaining the many steps, the hunter was so exhausted just listening to her that he bartered for her to do it herself. For three weeks, he brought her his daily cup of goat’s milk, carrying the clay cup across the village. He had nothing else to offer.
When the clothes were done and dried, he wiped the extra indigo paste across his palms and cheeks. He took the pelt of a leopard he’d killed, and at the market in the next town, he was able to ask a higher price than any he’d received. A blueman was a novelty then, this far north, and even now they did not usually hunt large game. The townspeople were amused to see a blueman set up a booth like a shopkeeper, and it was easy to refer his services to each other. The blueman, they’d say. A lion near your date trees or in the irrigation channel where your children play? Call the blueman, and he will trap the beast and sell it, and his money will come from the sale and not from you, and everyone is happy.
He made enough money to propose to a woman in his own village, promising her that he was not really blue, or at least not blue all over. These days, she asks him if they too will move north, take to the roads and leave the clay house and rocky hills behind. She asks him to describe the sea to her, and when he does she lifts his blue palm and holds it flat and open in the air and asks, “Like this?”
“Not at all like that,” he says, and is embarrassed that her world is so small, that she thinks any part of him might be like the sea.
He has seen it only once. He travelled to Algiers with a trade caravan when he heard rumors that the Dey was in particular want of live animals. He had no cart, and nothing to pull a cart, so he commissioned a heavy collar at the end of a long rigid stick, and a whip with a barbed end. He left a lioness in its pit-fall until it had half-starved—too weak to fight him, but not too weak to walk. Once she was out of the pit he saw she was pregnant. She was exhausted, hungry, swollen. Perhaps, in choosing to walk docilely beside him, she was hopeful.
The city was white and tall, and his wife made fun of him months later that he had no better, more flowery words. He was intimidated by the buildings, the Ottoman mosque Ed Djedid, and the Almoravid mosque El Kebir, and the old mosque Ali Betchnin. There were many places to pray, but very few to take a lion, and he’d soon collected a long tail of curious children. They followed him up the hill from the harbor to the Dey’s palace in the casbah. The road was steep and steeper, until the route he’d chosen ended in a staircase. The lion stopped, hung her head in the collar, baffled. She was even heavier with her pregnancy now, after their long walk. He crept closer, hand over hand down the stick. He had himself barely ever seen two or three stairs at a time. He had never seen a city like this, and when he looked down at the harbor, at the long gray crawl of the stone breakwater out into the waves, the little impudent lighthouse nestled white in the sea, the ships in the harbor offloading chained men tiny as lice, his stomach lurched.
The lion sighed. Her tongue curled out and licked her muzzle. A woman from a window above them emptied a tub of dishwater that landed on the lion’s back. Her hide twitched, but she didn’t roar. Some children laughed, and the woman peered out her window and shrieked. The hunter reached out to touch the lion’s paw. There was a story like this, he thought, about a lion and a thorn, that his father had told him years ago. The paw was huge, flat like a round of bread, but when he put his hand around the animal’s ankle she let him lift her foot and place it on the next step. “Do you understand?” he asked, and whether she did or not, the lion began to climb.
At the palace he was made to understand that the front gate was not the proper door for lions or blue hunters, but the rumor had been true. The Dey needed live animals, for a gift to the King of Sweden. The hunter had no idea where Sweden was, or why it would need lions, but he didn’t want to betray his ignorance. The men at the gates spoke Ottoman and Arabic, and they had to fetch someone who spoke Berber. The hunter had never realized this, that the people who ran his country did not speak his language.
He handed over the wooden stick, and for the first time in weeks stepped away from his lion, circled her shoulder to stand directly in front of her. He wished to say goodbye. In the collar she slowly raised her head, and stared at him with what looked like sorrow. The hunter was so close that he could see his own shape reflected in her eyes, and his first thought was that she was sad to leave him. Then he reminded himself that she was a wild thing, and felt only the bitterness of the long journey, the stiff collar.
“Goodbye,” he told the lion in Berber, and hoped the Ottoman guards would think this some ritual blueman parting, rather than sentimentality. The lion lowered her head. He wondered what she was thinking, if she thought. He wondered to what fate he had consigned her and her cub. He hoped that Sweden was like the scrubland, dry and hot and big-skied, not crowded like Algiers. It was many days into his return journey before the hunter could bring himself to arm his slingshot, unsheathe his knife, catch his dinner. But eventually his hunger shouted over his guilt—he was an animal like any other.
He thinks of the lion when his wife asks if they will move to the coast. She reminds him of his own complaints: the sparseness of game, how his body feels more and deeply the long days in the hills. She reminds him of how much money the pregnant lion fetched, and of the purchases they made: the stone step outside their door, the leather waterbag with brass fastenings, the skeins of blue thread for her weaving. On that single trip, he’d made so much money that he travelled with the coins sewn into his robes for safety, the blue hem clinking suspiciously. When he cut the coins free, they rolled to every corner of the dirt floor and the twins chased them, shrieking with laughter. His wife whispers now that perhaps this was God’s terrible, mysterious intention in taking their children—that the couple be sent north unencumbered.
He tries to find words to tell her about the city’s crowds, about the careless woman throwing dishwater, the pack of children like wolves, the pale sailors in shackles at the harbor, his own poor shackled lion. He does not tell her that when the twins first became fevered he dreamed of that lion. She climbed a flight of stairs to meet him, her breath hot and pitiless against his face. Her gaze was unforgiving.
The hunter closes his blue hand around his wife’s, and leads her out of the house, into the sunshine. He tilts her head up and she squints, pulls her veil lower to shield her eyes. “Like this,” he says. “The sea is more like this. So blue and bright you never want to look at it again.”
II. The Lion Keeper
I was born in England, and I did not give up hope of seeing it again until I was sent to Sweden with a lion. The Ottomans called it an aslan, and I called it lion, and when the men at the harbor in Stockholm saw its cage, they said le-yon, and I thought I could live here as well as any other place. Coming off the ship were three lions, two tigers, thirteen Arabian horses, four ostriches, and me. Nominally, I was to help tend the animals, but really I was one more part of the cargo, another gift for the northern King. The Dey had been told how cold it was in Sweden, a land of white snow and white people, and he’d sent someone to the galleys for the whitest white person possible. In the dank gut of the ship we were all fish-belly pale, but my eyes were green, and beneath the smoke and grease my hair was red. The Dey’s secretary pointed at me and had me unchained from the bench seat. The secretary had to uncurl my fingers from the oar, then close them again around the rungs of the ladder up to the deck. I could not seem to remember how my hands worked, or how to lift my legs under me, and climb.
In the sunshine above deck, my eyes hurt so badly I thought I might be blinded, and I wondered how to fool the secretary so that he wouldn’t put me back. I stumbled after him, a house slave gripping my arm. I was glad of the grip, to help my feet find the earth. In the ship we rowed at the oars and ate and slept and shat at the oars, and eventually we died at the oars. The secretary passed over the men who would die of being passed over, and I felt their rage behind me, a current that bore me up the ladder and off the ship. I did not look back. I am salt-white, but no pillar. I learned that lesson long before all this.
In England, my father was a drunk with no trade. My mother was a laundress, and she made us children understand that our trade was to grow up as quickly as possible, that we might take responsibility for feeding ourselves. My older sister disappeared into marriage, my oldest brother disappeared into dock work, and when a brother a year younger than I disappeared onto a Navy ship at Deptford, my mother passed me over with the morning’s porridge and I knew it was my time to find whatever I could. In London I went to the Howland Wet Dock, but decided I did not want to track whales across a puzzle of Arctic ice. In Rotherhithe I signed on to a ship carrying lamb fleece and finished woolens to Livorno. I’d never been on the water.
We’d barely passed Gibraltar when a ship under false flag came alongside in a morning fog. We were boarded before I understood what was happening. I watched a crewman throw himself overboard rather than be taken, and the only voice in my head was my own, reminding me, “You don’t know how to swim.” Neither did the man, of course. But I did not jump, and most days I am grateful. When the pirates sold me to the galley ship I knew of no way I might try to send word, and no one who might either ransom or grieve me.
In Algiers, the secretary’s house slave whispered to me, as we stumbled up the street away from the harbor. I could tell enough that it was a message for someone he thought might help him, but I speak no French. I touched the base of my throat, where the Papists wear crosses. I meant to reassure him. To not be caught by the Barbary pirates was the best luck, but next best was to be a Frenchman or a Spaniard, to have a cross around your neck or a rosary in your pocket. Protestant countries pay no ransoms, and so if there was a Swede somewhere on that ship, he is doomed, and I am sorry. But not sorry enough to be truthful, because the Englishmen are doomed as well.
I was bathed and fed, my head and beard shaved for lice. The sun went down and my sight sharpened, and I stared into a candlewick until I fell asleep, trying to retrain my eyes. The next day I was brought back to the harbor to see the animals. The sun was bright off the water, but even the Dey’s secretary was squinting, and I could walk steadily, if a bit breathless. The secretary could find no one who spoke Swedish, so I pretended I was a Swede who had learned a bit of English, and the translator did not remark upon my vocabulary. The lions were being loaded in wait for the next day’s tide. I dreaded another ship, felt watery at the thought just of stepping on board. The translator made fun of the bed I’d been assigned, a shelterless cotton mat beside the lions’ cages. But I would see stars, and the sun rising across the water, and the first night I wept with happiness, a cap wadded against my face so the watchman would not hear me. I had been given the hat, the Barbaries said, because they wished me to remain white, and not turn red along the journey. They told me that my shorn head looked like a boiled egg.
As I cried, one of the lions watched me. Its eyes reflected the moonlight and gave the beast a witchy look, but then it turned its head to a different, more personable angle. It sighed and put its snout down on its paws. It was much smaller than the others—I assumed it was a child lion, taken from its mother. There was heavy weather the next day, and the young lion sicked up its meat, and I tried to clean as well as I could without reaching too far into the cage. The Barbaries made fun of the animals, how they had no sea-legs. I thought this was unfair, because how would a lion or a tiger ever acquire them? I felt warmly toward the young lion, that it got sea-sick like a man.
I have sea-legs and land-legs, but the wrong sort of tongue, still. Swedish comes but slowly. A butcher visits the Djurgården twice a week with fresh meat for the animals, and teaches me new phrases. One day he brought me a wildlife book, in English. I have no idea where he found it, and it was difficult not to show him an embarrassment of gratitude. A group of lions is called a pride, I read, but there is nothing prideful about their lives here. In Swedish, the group is called flock, and I like that this is a sister-word to one of mine, although I do not see much similarity between lions and birds.
It is well lions cannot fly, because their main pavilion is unroofed. The floor is sunken beneath ground-level, and there is an additional iron fence around the pit, the bars ending in gold-painted points. There is raised seating along two lengths of fence, and two sides where people can wander freely by. The seating is used only during fights. At the floor of the pavilion are several heavy doors leading to different animals’ quarters, so that bears may be released with lions, or bulls with bears, or reindeer with tigers. The King considers it wasteful to fight the exotics against each other, so when the doors open and the lions see other lions, or tigers, and do not hear the roar of a crowd, they know they have a free day simply to lie in the sun.
As the keeper of the exotics, I have some rank. I do not have to clean up after the fights, haul away whatever the lions have left, the bones or hooves of the boar or böffeloxe. That is a Swedish word, but I have no idea what they might be in English. I never saw them at home, and I would remember, their dumb cows’ faces and hairy brown humps—four-legged hunchbacks. My lions have never lost, although they have taken horns to their bellies, claws to their backs. I have winced to watch them lick fresh wounds, pink tongues wetting the matted hair at the edges. I do not try to tend their injuries. Somehow, the skin always closes itself, refuses infection. Their reputation grows—that the King’s lions, even when hurt, are still untouchable. My reputation grows with them, in its own small way, and I do not tell the other keepers how I’ve seen the lions limp, sigh, stare upwards into the roof of blue sky above the pavilion. I tell no one how I worry, as the lions grow older, as I grow older, and still fierce, fresh bears keep arriving.
The gamekeepers are all housed in lodges in the Djurgården. The King’s lands are large, an entire island just east of the city, and it is some effort to leave. Once a month I make the crossing, rent a room for a night in Stockholm and buy some company. There are no women gamekeepers, and talking to the palace staff is a firing offense, if my Swedish were even good enough to try. The bought women are patient with me, ask questions in simple phrases. They ask me if I miss my home. They ask what I think of Sweden, why I do not try to return to England. They ask me if I’m happy.
I usually say that my life could have turned out much worse than it has.
“You’re not a slave anymore,” they tell me. “You could be hired as a sailor again, to try and work your way home.”
“There was nothing for me in England,” I tell them. “Or I wouldn’t have gone to the ships in the first place.”
I do not tell them how scared the thought of travel makes me. Of pirates, yes, but even the daily things: weather and waves, the pitch of the ship, the hardness of sailors. How I feel such gratitude, every time the animals are sent to the pit, that it is they who must fight and not I.
Sometimes, especially on winter nights, I imagine asking one of the women in Stockholm to marry me. But then the imagining stops, because where would we live, and what work would we do? A prostitute and a foreigner who barely speaks the language? We would not be warm for long. I would have given up my safety for nothing. I would have given up my lions. On winter mornings I find them piled against each other, their fur grown in thick and thicker until they are giant hairy pillows. I wish I could grow such a coat, and I tell them this sometimes, in English—how I envy them their warmth.
The young lion is well grown now, the best fighter by far of the three. He bounds towards
his opponents as if he enjoys the fight, or at least the prospect of fresh meat. If the beasts were fully fed, I think we could get along quite well. But they must be kept peevish, to make the fights better. They are hungry, and I am not. I wish I could explain to them that I was starving once, too. But there is language between us like gold-painted spikes. When I speak they tilt their ears towards me like housecats, though perhaps they are only imagining ways to eat me. I try to read their bodies: I see pain, or fear, or boredom. Relief, sometimes. Sometimes contempt. Always hunger.
The northern edge of the Djurgården is separated from the city by a narrow channel. In winter it freezes hard and dependable. I walk out on the ice, the sea stock-still beneath my feet like magic. I walked out of England; I walked out of the galley ship; I walked into Sweden with lions and across its water. My life is a miracle. A strange and unimpressive one perhaps, but I will not risk it. In summer, I search for smooth stones to skip across the channel. I remember the sailor who jumped, rather than be enslaved. I remember how his head turned towards the sky, how he swallowed air automatically between the slaps of the waves. I think of him often. If I find an especially well-shaped stone, and make an especially good throw—five skips or more—I allow myself to make a wish. I do not wish for England. I do not allow myself to wish for a wife. I wish a small thing instead: that I might someday be allowed to feed the lions until they are completely sated.
The second part of my wish is this: that when their bellies are distended, their eyes sleepy, I would like to enter their cage. I would like to put my hands in that thick golden fur, to be licked with a rough tongue. To sleep beside them, warm and safe. I would like to be part of their flock, their pride, their family. To know how much generosity they understand, and how much they are capable of. I would like them to know how much kindness humans can contain, and that it is more than what they’ve seen. I suppose I would like to know this kindness for myself.
III. The King
The problem, of course, is money. He would be much fonder of the lions if they ate grass. If the Dey sent gold along with wild animals, he would be much fonder of the Dey. What in the world is the King supposed to do with lions and ostriches? The horses might be ridden, but they are not broken for the heavy saddles his groomsmen are accustomed to. The King thinks of feeding the ostriches to the lions, to delay awhile longer their burden on the household accounts. But then word might get back, not just that the gift was received quizzically, but that part of the gift was fed to the other part. This might be a grave insult in Algiers, or an act of war. The Barbaries are problematically good sailors, and it is not wise to offend them, even from as far north as Sweden. The Dey encourages the pirates, skims wealth off the sea like cream off milk. The King wonders if they eat cream in Algiers. He wonders how it might be shipped. He is running out of gift ideas.
There are two bronze lions at the gates of Stockholm Castle, which are much less trouble than the live ones. The Queen hates the animals in the Djurgården, hates when they are made to fight. She prefers to spend her days quizzing ladies-in-waiting on their Bible verses, and shows favor to the ones who pass. Now in every parlor of the palace the King finds study groups of young women bent cynically over scripture. They giggle, and he feels badly for his wife, but also a little embarrassed by her. She says the animal fights make her think of war, make her think of her brother, the former king, rent by Russian and Norwegian bullets, beset from all sides like a hound-hunted fox. “Souls of the departed,” she adds, “through the mercy of God rest in peace.”
Since she refuses to attend, the King brings his mistress to the fights instead, and because there has been no Official Mistress in Sweden in generations, everyone fumbles with the etiquette. He makes her a Countess. The Riksdag left him that power, at least. He and his wife can still, and do, hand out titles like candy. The King is only beginning to realize how badly he has outnumbered himself, and how much the new noblemen feel they are owed for their loyalty. So many animals to feed. So many men to placate.
There are fights scheduled for this weekend—they are at least a chance to feel like he is getting some value out of the animals. They are also a chance to parade the Countess, and remind the audience that he is still in possession of at least some of the privileges of power. He lets the fight master set the matches, because he enjoys the surprise. The opening of the pit doors is better than the raising of the curtain at any opera or play. The women clutch at their companions’ arms or hands or knees, and the whole audience sucks in its breath, identifying the match-up of bear or tiger or bull, calculating the beasts’ chances. The fights are arranged in a series, an early afternoon undercard of Swedish reindeer locking antlers before something more exciting is loosed upon them. By the later matches, the animals are fighting in each other’s gore, stained and slipping in the beasts that have come before them.
In the early matches, however bloody, the King’s mind tends to wander. He had hoped to gift the Dey a stamp, of the kind the King has had made of his signature, so he need not be bothered with tedious official documents. It is the first stamp of its kind in Europe, as far as he knows the world, and he is much ahead of his time in this, although the Riksdag thinks it one more sign of his laziness. He does not govern, they complain, and the King dictates a message about how the new constitution suggests that the Riksdag does not wish him to govern. Then he orders his secretary to use the special stamp, to jostle it so the ink runs, and rectangular edges become visible on the page, a signal that the King has not bothered to sign by hand. He plays such games now. He did not know ruling would be only games. Like the lion, he thinks: a majestic animal, given only games.
The King’s attention is caught when he recognizes one lion in particular, cool and methodical, who sets himself so quickly to his task that his fights are often strangely dissatisfying. Today the King thinks he can see the lion strategize, drive the stag to run in smaller and smaller circles, not allowing it to pause and set up for a charge. The lion then sprints nearly even and snaps its teeth into the stag’s shoulder, severing the big muscle. The animal goes down hard on its knees. Its legs snap audibly, and the King’s mistress cheers at the sound. The King finds himself thinking fondly of his wife, her demureness, her tender sensibility. He closes his eyes. He thinks of the stamp. He had asked for a copy of the latest treaty to be unearthed, to consult the Dey’s signature, but the man had signed it in Ottoman script. Nothing but squiggles like a pile of pubic hair, the King thought, and when the stamp-carver apologetically said the task was beyond his skill, the King shrugged. It had been only a thought.
His mistress squeezes his hand, silently reminds him that a king must at least keep his eyes open. He finds that the lion has ripped open the stag’s throat. Blood arcs out, pumping with the heart. The stag slumps to one side, but when the lion begins to eat, the loser’s legs are still moving, still trying to run. The King feels his stomach go watery and wishes the stag had claws, or had found space enough to make better use of its antlers. He is angry at the champion lion, although he knows this is not the proper response. His mistress cheers again, and the King twitches in annoyance, disengages his hand. He briefly and shamefully imagines shoving her into the pit. He shakes the image off, but then can’t help imagining what else might go in: a squawking ostrich. An Arabian horse. The Dey himself. The parliamentarians in the Riksdag. His pious wife. Even his dead brother-in-law, who should still be King, who picked fights he couldn’t finish and left all his messes behind. The lion, its golden muzzle bloody, raises its head and looks around the crowd. It pauses no longer on the King than anyone else, but he still feels as if the lion has seen his secret thoughts. He wonders how the lion would feel about such victims, whether it is capable of anything like squeamishness, a hesitation to rip into creatures wearing skirts, or stockings, or hats. He suspects not. He wonders if the lion hungers especially for such flesh, to tear into the people who cage and then applaud him.
After the fight, the King wants only some fruit and cold soup for dinner. He rejects the roast and wine. He does not go to his mistress’ bedroom. He stops by his wife’s chamber to say goodnight, and she asks him to pray with her. To both their surprise he agrees, and to make room for him she shifts over on the red leather kneeler at her private altar. She praises God, asks for good health for her royal husband, asks shyly that their marriage might yet be blessed with children. This would be a miracle indeed, the King thinks, his wife so far beyond it that they long since gave up trying. He wonders guiltily if she prays for this every night, while he is in the Countess’ room. The King thinks of all the things he wants, or is supposed to want—power, glory, Sweden’s return to greatness. Aloud, he asks for good health for his faithful wife. Privately, he asks God to let him sleep peacefully, to not send dreams of the pit, the stag, the lion’s guiltless yellow stare.
There is a lion on the family coat of arms, and the King’s brother tells him that he has ordered the champion lion to be conserved after its death. Someday it shall be mounted for posterity, its glory preserved. The King nods, says nothing. To disagree would make him look weak. He knows the Riksdag thinks him weak anyway, and the Russians and Norwegians. He wonders if the Dey’s gift signified something he has failed to understand. What was he meant to do with the lions? The pavilion in the Djurgården, the fights? Or to parade them up and down the streets of Stockholm? Should he have taken them on a tour of the countryside, made them dance for peasants? Was he meant to feed people to the lions like a Roman emperor: parliamentarians, rather than Christians? Was the Dey telling him to take these lions to the floor of the Riksdag and make them roar?
Some of the newspapers have begun calling this the Age of Liberty, and the King tries to pretend he had some active hand in its dawning, or in wanting it to dawn. As he grows old he manages to be grateful that he has no heir, that the Russians will not have to engineer an assassination or accident to get the puppet king they want; that he will not have to explain to a child that he and his wife reigned as puppets from the very beginning. That he has not written his own name in years. That he has spent his life watching lions.
IV. The Taxidermist
Cartilage knives, killing knives, currier’s knives, skin scrapers, forceps, pliers, vice, footrule, ruling tape, stuffing rods, hand saw, hack saw, bone saw, keyhole saw, claw-hammer, tack-hammer, bolt-clipper, nail-punch, calipers, files, awls, trowels, glue-pot. Darning needles, common needles, glover’s needles, surgeon’s needles. A paper of pins, flax and linen thread, thimble, cotton batting, hemp twine. Iron kettles, spirits of turpentine, boiled linseed oil, arsenious acid, muriatic acid, common whiting, bicarbonate of soda, shellac, glue, tinctured paint and sponges. Alum by the barrel or hundred-weight. Boards of walnut, oak, ash, hemlock, pine, a chopping block of sycamore. An oak table of at least seven feet, and if someone delivers to you a Barbary lion, you shall need to bring an additional table from the kitchen, and raise it on blocks to be level, your wife protesting all the while.
A pitch-dark place for the drying of finished mounts. Jars for pickling the skins of small mammals. A large tank made of lead-sheeted oak, a pulley positioned above for the handling of heavy skins. A good eye, a steady hand. A strong stomach.
His family’s trade is an old one, and the bedtime story his father most liked to tell was of the Carthaginian navigator Hanno, who once brought preserved gorilla skins to the temple of Astarte. The pagans mistook the animals for Gorgons. The taxidermist himself has never seen a gorilla, in life or in pictures, and so he imagines them crowned with snakes.
In his workshop live several cats, mousers who wind around his legs while he works, keeping him company. The old gray tom is failing, and the taxidermist’s joints ache sometimes in sympathy even to see the cat rise, stretch, limp across the floor in pursuit of a patch of sunlight. The tom cannot last much longer, and the taxidermist has already chosen a posture, created the wire form and held glass eyes up to the tom’s face to match the color. He knows his wife finds this macabre and wasteful. She doesn’t spend time with cats the way he does. She doesn’t understand how excited he was to take this assignment, not because it came from Stockholm, or even from the King, but because he was told a lion was a large cat. She can’t understand the depth of his dismay at opening the crate to find a matted pelt and a single bone, already pocked with beetle larvae. The skin was loose and dry, like an empty bag or a discarded shirt, frayed and stiff with old sweat. The fur was crushed in places, in others pushed against the nap. They did not tell him the animal had been dead so long.
At least the pelt is full, a blanket-sized panel for the body, surprisingly thick columnar legs. The animal died of old age or illness, not gashed or punctured. The skins have been treated, but stink of terebenthine and camphor varnish. The taxidermist prefers orpiment and realgar. Along with stuffing he pokes in camphor to keep off the carpet beetles, and cinnamon for the smell. In his father’s day they used only cotton, and even the best of the animals looked lumpy and soft, like girls’ dolls. There should be hard lines of musculature, the illusion of bones. The taxidermist builds wool and wire frames, experiments with clay and plaster, with how much definition can be added before the whole form collapses from the weight. He is, he thinks, nearly as good as any sculptor. This, his father once told him, was what defined their art form: taxidermists attempted to preserve more than the animal’s body, but a sense of palpable, possible life. The taxidermist repeats such things to himself while he works, and tries not to regret too bitterly that he has no son to pass them to.
The taxidermist consults the only pictures he has, heraldic coats of arms, published in a book about the disastrous Great Northern War. There are lions rampant, lions passant, lions passant dexter, and lions passant sinister. Lions passant guardant and regardant, and lions sejant, and couchant, dormant, salient, or statant. There is no lion simply being a lion. In the images they are bright yellow, with curly hair and long red tongues. Their tails whip like snakes, arcing over the tops of the lions’ manes. The tail in the bag is significantly shorter, but it ends in bristles like a cheap paintbrush, so he does not think it has been severed. Instead of the large, curly manes of the pictures, this lion has limp, matted hair. But for lack of any other guide, the taxidermist shows the heraldic pictures to the town upholsterer, and orders a long tongue the drenched red of the ottoman in the mayor’s house, which he has seen only once, and which his wife does not stop mentioning. He cannot afford furniture in this color, but the materials budget the King’s gamekeeper gave him is large enough to afford a tongue.
The glassblower asks him what lions’ eyes look like. Neither man knows, so the glassblower makes large flat, black discs, and when they are installed, both men shudder.
“It looks dead,” the taxidermist says.
“It is dead,” the glassblower says.
“You know what I mean,” the taxidermist says, and it’s true. There is something empty and sinister about the black eyes. The glassblower returns with clear circles like the bottoms of wine bottles, black pupils glued to the top like lozenges. The eyes look to the side as if the lion has just heard a sound over its right shoulder. The taxidermist even thinks that he could alter slightly the tilt of the ears, twitch one back the way he sees his mousers do.
But when the eyes are glued in, the lion looks feeble-minded. There is none of the cleverness of cats, the feeling that they are not just watching him, but observing, thinking about what they see. This lion is not thinking of anything except perhaps its own cheerful stupidity. Still, the taxidermist does not want to ask for a third set of eyes. There’s no more room in the materials budget. He had hoped to come in under, to slyly turn a bit of money to the wire cat form on his workshop shelf. But the tongue has been expensive, and he’s had to carve the teeth out of pumice stone all the way from Iceland, the only hard substance he could find light enough not to break off the lower jaw. The two teeth visible in the heraldic pictures are long fangs, so he has had to imagine the rest. They came out squared-off and large, more like a cow’s than a cat’s, and the stone has a pocked, gray look. The taxidermist is ready simply to be done, and he writes to the King’s gamekeepers to come fetch their lion.
The tom cat dies, and his wife mocks the tears he sheds, the hours he spends on the mount. But when word arrives that his lion is not a success, that it in fact incited bursts of royal laughter upon its unveiling at the King’s court, she is steadfast. When no more royal orders come, when he hears that his lion is being moved to a backwater property of the King’s, to Gripsholm Castle in Mariefred, a sort of third-best castle, she can be counted upon to huff, “What sort of man keeps three castles, and more? A wasteful one,” she says, answering her own question, “who wouldn’t know hard work if it bit him on the ass.”
Hard work, she says, not good work, because even defending him she insists on honesty. But she makes him feel better. The throne does not mean what it once did, and this King is not a fearsome one. He has a lion on his coat of arms, and there are people in town who think the taxidermist mangled the lion’s face on purpose, to mock the King. They have never seen a lion, either. The taxidermist has never thought of himself as political, but he draws new business from the parliamentarians, and tries to nod at the right moments in their speeches.
The glassblower has the rich problem of too many sons, and sends his youngest to be apprenticed. The boy has a strong stomach and a steady hand, and the taxidermist hopes that the rest can be taught. The preserved tom cat looks down at them from a workshop shelf, and the taxidermist imagines that the cat is listening to their progress, wishing them well. He takes the boy into town to examine the bronze equestrian statue in the square, admiring the horse’s musculature, ignoring its royal rider. God made the animals, and Adam named them, the taxidermist explains, and it is their duty in turn to love and admire beasts, and send them faithfully down through the ages. The boy repeats this back to the taxidermist, the catechism of their trade. The taxidermist smiles and looks down at the tabby winding around his ankles. She yawns, and he asks the boy to admire her tiny white teeth, lissome tongue, the living pink of her mouth.
V. The Lion
I was never wild. Never, and the other lions were unkind to me at first, because I was born in a cage and did not know how my body worked until I was asked to fight with it. They’d both been wild-caught, one brought along the coast road in a wooden cage and wagon, and one who walked on his own four feet out of the mountains and across the scrublands, the way, he said, my mother did. I could not remember my mother. I did not know what mountains were. I was told they were tall, like the hill the Dey’s palace perched on, but without buildings. The other lions pretended to dislike having to explain things to me, but I suspected they enjoyed feeling superior. It was like being asked to describe meat, the scrubland lion told me. Or sky, or sea. It was difficult to break the world into parts smaller than the usual parts.
We all knew sea, by the time the ship arrived in Sweden. We understood sea much too well. I was confident that my body was meant to have nothing to do with water, except to drink. I was happy to walk on land that did not move beneath me, and I did not think too hard about the fact that it was ringed with wooden doors and iron spikes.
I was still small when the keepers first prodded me outside and a bear raked its paw across my nose. I had not understood what was wanted of me until that moment, and so I was grateful to the bear, that she struck first and quickly. She stood up on her hind legs and raised her paws, and instinct drove me forward into her belly. It was a riskier move than I would make now—I could have made her chase me, to tire her out—but then I had no strategy. She worked her claws into the back of my neck so I pushed harder into her, closed my mouth around what I found inside of her and pulled.
“That is pain,” the other lions said later, about my neck. “You are lucky not to be worse hurt,” they said, but I could tell they were impressed. Surprised. Perhaps even nervous, because at the time we hadn’t realized that we would not have to fight each other. I understood that when I tore the bear I caused her pain. I understood what a stag felt when I drove it to its knees and its legs shattered. But I also knew that I would rather drive than be driven, and so I put certain things outside myself, drained fear from me like a bear’s blood or yanked worry like a black tooth. I grew large and strong and fast. I thought only sometimes and I did not dream. Fighting was the only thing I had ever been asked to be good at, and I was very, very good.
I wondered if my mother fought, if my skill came from someplace other than Sweden, other than necessity. I asked, and the other lions tried to explain their old skills—how they once scanned the horizon for prey and hunted, and how far they wandered when food was scarce. “We could cover as much land as the sea,” they said. “Imagine the desert a hard brown ocean, jagged with rocks like foam, giant frozen waves of hills.”
I tried to hold this in my head. I said that life sounded lonely. I said I liked having other lions around me. We also had the keeper, and the butcher, and people came to see us, and when we won fights they applauded. “There is no applause in the wild,” the other lions said, disdainfully. They thought this was a superior thing, but I thought it sounded sad. I supposed I might feel differently if I were not so skilled at winning.
They told me that the wild meant freedom, and that this was much better than applause or winning. “But winning means eating,” I said, and they couldn’t pretend that we didn’t all spend much of our days dreaming of meat.
Freedom also meant sex, they told me, but the concept was beyond me. They explained the mechanics, but I had never felt that need or pleasure. There were only the three of us, all males, and I could not muster any want to do anything with them besides sleep or talk or eat their food. For several weeks I practiced staring at them, trying to awaken this mysterious other part of myself, but they told me this wouldn’t work and also that I was being creepy. So then I stared at the tigers, wondering if they might suffice, but they did not like it any better than the lions, and turned our discussions to other subjects. They tried to explain jungles to me. I pointed my head towards the trees of the Djurgården, visible above the rim of the pit. I asked, “Like this?”
“Not really,” they said.
I had assumed that I should be from a country that matched my color, the way Sweden did not, the way the Dey’s palace in Algiers did not. But I saw no creatures green like the grass and trees, unless I counted bears the brown of branches and dirt. The men were all colors, extra pelts even showier than the tigers. They had fingers like little worms. Their teeth were like pebbles. It would have taken so little time to slip them from their skins.
I shared with the tigers my theory, about the shape and color of my body, what must have been the yellow-brown place of my birth. “Then what possible land do you think we come from?” they asked. I admitted that it was difficult to picture. The ostriches, too, were a complication, because we could see no purpose to their shape. We discussed this. They were very stupid. Even to look at them made us drool.
The tigers explained that a human was an animal that had never been hungry. At the time I was filled with anger, but I thought later that it could not be true. Perhaps of the people who came to watch us. But of the other men, who cleaned the cages or brought us food between fights, I did not believe it. The head keeper, I was sure he had been hungry. I saw the way he looked at us, and I thought he was hungry still, although he was no longer skinny. He spoke a language that no one else spoke, though we did not understand it any better than the usual one. His head had been the white of a tooth when we met, and then it turned a color something like fire, and then it began to turn the color of ash. I thought he might be lonely, even though there were many more humans here than lions.
I saw no animal the white of snow, and no animal that enjoyed the cold better than warmth. The people who came to watch us were closest, the ladies with chalked faces, but they hated the weather so much that they would not sit for winter fights. They strolled past the fence wearing some other animal’s fur.
One day something called a hyena arrived. “Ghouls,” she said, “ghouls. What kind of animal dresses in other animals?”
“One that’s never hungry,” the scrubland lion said.
“One that’s always cold,” I said, more kindly.
The coastal lion called me “impressionable.”
“This life is all right,” I told him.
“You don’t know anything else,” the scrubland lion said.
“They’ll fight you till you can’t win anymore,” the hyena said. “Then they’ll put your head on a wall, or your fur on a coat, or your body inside a glass box. I’ve seen it happen. The fact you don’t know any better doesn’t make it right.”
The tigers nodded wisely. They said that before they left their old country, they’d seen floors carpeted in their cousins.
“What happens if you die in the wild?” I asked, and the other lions looked at each other in a way I had learned meant they didn’t have an answer. “How is it different?”
“More dignified,” they said.
“But what happens?” I said, and they said there was no answer, beyond that we all ceased to exist, and they tried to break down cease for me, and exist, but they said this was very tiring and in the wild they would never have had to talk so much. They said my mother ceased to exist, and that was why I did not know her, and never would, because there was no trace of her left.
“If she were a coat,” I said, “I would have something to help me remember.”
“No one’s going to give you a coat,” they said, and I imagined a blue cloth coat with gold buttons. That was a less macabre vision than one of us lions wearing the other, or wearing a tiger, or the ugly thing called hyena.
If my mother ended up a coat, I think I would have wanted the keeper to wear her. Because she would have been near both of us then, and the keeper would have been warm. If the keeper wanted to wear me, I supposed he would be welcome. I wondered if there was some animal that made coats out of people. I thought achingly of how easy it would be, to separate him from his skin. I heard my own hunger like a roar in my ears and I thought about closing my jaws and making him cease to exist. But really, he would become meat. And then regret. Maybe even sorrow. He would become punishment. There would be a gun, or a net and knife, or a dozen bears loosed all at once, and we’d be disassembled, blood and entrails. We’d be bone, and skin, and mane, the bits men come to scrape away after the fights and the feasting. We’d be earth, and absence, and eventually, whether I devoured him or not, we’d all just be history.