Min was a bear of a cat, round at the bottom, with a thick mast of fur. He weighed close to thirty pounds and resembled an oversized, piebald Davy Crockett cap. Bounding and wild, Min lived in the woods for days at a time, returning with a small bird to deposit on the slate slab outside the mudroom.
We lived in the woods then, my parents and sisters and brother and I, tucked into the corner of a former commune. The town had annual square dances, a swimming hole, and clay tennis courts; the streets were narrow one-lane roads marked by speed bumps at fifteen-foot intervals. To order a pizza was to invite the deliveryman to a Bermuda Triangle of tastefully lit colonial homes, with no street lamps in sight.
My mother’s retreat from the world beyond our street had begun years earlier. A botched cosmetic procedure had healed badly, leaving the skin along her jawline the color of a bone in the sun. If she left the house, she did so covered in oversized sunglasses and a baseball cap, or with her hair blown into a bottle-blond helmet that obscured the place where her makeup met her scarf.
This is how I imagine my mother’s hair—calcified and crested above silk—when she found Min in the median of the Westport Turnpike, not more than fifty feet from the clay courts and the swimming hole, all fur twisted over fur. Later that night she returned home, her camel coat stained red and Min’s carcass wrapped in a Thermos bag in the trunk of her 1982 powder-blue Volvo. She opened a bottle of Prosecco, left over from Christmas, and explained that her diet would start tomorrow.
In “Why Look at Animals?” art historian John Berger lingers on the duality of the relationship between man and animal: “A peasant becomes fond of his pig and is glad to salt away his pork,” for example. Being close to an animal, by virtue of an its habits and physical capacities, is to be close to mortality. We live beside them, share beds and meals and homes with them, and then, with the erosion of age or through the swiftness of calamity, they are gone. Sometimes, we decide when and how they die; we often watch them do so. We watch the same great black eyes that we have stared into for so long go slack with sedatives, stay wide open even as the heart stops beating. Then, we are asked what we would like to do with the body.
In 2012, a Dutch artist named Bart Jansen took his recently deceased cat, Orville, and attached him to a series of propellers and wings, splicing the cat’s carcass—for an animal body is a carcass and a human body a corpse—into the actual frame of a small aircraft. At the time of its initial exhibition, at the KunstRAI art festival in Amsterdam, the Orvillecopter hovered a little more than ten feet off the ground and moved with a jerky hesitation, like an unwelcome bumblebee at a barbecue.
Interviewed by the Telegraph, Jansen conceded that his aircraft was not quite ready for flight, but assured his interviewer that the project remained in progress—even in death Orville still had more to hope for. “Oh, how he loved birds,” enthused Jansen, explaining that Orville would “receive more powerful engines and larger props for his birthday,” so that his “hopping” might “soon change into steady flight.” The reason for Orville’s initial difficulties was that his skin was 250 grams heavier than anticipated and it weighted down the motor.
Jansen told me over Skype this past December that he had initially acquired Orville and his brother, Wilbur, when dealing with a mouse infestation. Orville was, Jansen reflected, the nicer of the two. After Orville, Jansen expanded his experiments to include an ostrich, a shark and a badger: a fleet of “friends” for Orville, whom he still occasionally flies.
Like Berger, Jansen negotiates a dual relationship with these animals; as fond as he sounds of Orville, he calls his materials “leftovers.” His girlfriend eventually required that he store his projects in their own separate freezer. He is currently collecting hedgehog bodies to stitch together into a coat.
“When we talk about an object of desire, we are really talking about a cluster of promises we want someone or something to make to us and make possible for us,” writes Lauren Berlant. These clustered promises, then, become embodied in the object, and we grow attached to the promises themselves. An object can never truly fulfill its promise, but to lose an object ruins the potential entirely—and if the things we want can never wholly be gained, then we must, at the very least, protect ourselves from loss.
After Min’s death his carcass had an odyssey that only Orville might envy. From the trunk of my mother’s car to the trunk of my father’s car to the walk-in cooler of my father’s restaurant, where dishwashers and prep cooks would find it and exclaim, horrified, “El gato está en el enfriador!” Then, nestled in a large cake box, Min came to rest in the freezer of our house on Garden Road, where he would stay for three years. By this point, our family’s affairs had become a series of stopgaps. My father’s restaurant had not broken even since its opening several years prior, and we paid for everything with credit cards—from mortgage payments to luckless pizza deliveries—even going so far as to delay the filing of my grandmother’s death certificate so that we might use her AmEx a little longer.
Min’s presence in the freezer did not go unnoticed. My father, often absent, became even more scarce. My siblings and I each took turns approaching my mother with a modest proposal: that we might, in the spring, bury Min. But my mother had ossified, grown adamant. She liked having him there, she said, explaining with a bat of her eyelashes, that it was like in Gone With the Wind, when Rhett doesn’t want to bury his daughter.
The books continued to bleed out and the ground thawed, then froze again. Min became a kind of joke, a shorthand that my sister and I liked to use to explain our family. It was a good second-date story, if I was drunk enough and so was he, to see if the guy might stick around: “My mother has kept a dead cat in the freezer for three years, isn’t it wild?”
It was no longer about the cat.
Taxidermy literally means “the arrangement (taxi) of skin (derma).” It is the precise splitting of skin into hide, hide into pieces of hide, and then the reassembly of this hide upon the bones to form a reimagined body.
“The optimism of attachment to another living being is itself the cruelest slap of all,” writes Berlant. To transform bodies into objects slows the sting.
In The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and Cultures of Longing, curator Rachel Poliquin suggests that taxidermied animals act as “objects of remembrance,” and that, in doing so, they “give us freedom to forget. They allow us to move on in life, to do other things, to put certain memories out of mind for a while.”
When I was very young, my mother kept a small, green picture of a young girl in a little wood frame above the sink in our house. She would introduce the girl in the picture as my aunt, an aunt whom I had not yet met. And she would return to washing dishes. Once, while she drove me to ballet, I asked her what the smaller headstones in the graveyard we were passing meant.
“Those are the graves for little children who have died,” she said, eyes ahead on the road. And this is how my mother had come to be comfortable with death but terrified of loss: she had lost her sister, the little girl in the green picture. Like Bonnie Blue in Gone With the Wind, my young aunt had been thrown from her horse’s back without a helmet, and then, like Min, struck in the middle of a narrow road.
I did not learn of these losses when I was small, but I did as I aged, as bigger losses took their place. It wasn’t until my maternal grandfather died that I learned I would never meet my mother’s sister. And I learned these things by way of objects of remembrance and their clusters of promises: the promises therein could never be fulfilled, but they could never truly be lost, either.
In the spring of 2008, my father and brother heaved a hunk of rock from the slope in our backyard. Our home had been on top of a hill: from the front, it was impossible to see how big and steep the descent was. My father and brother buried Min in the hillside and laid the rock back on top of him.
Our house on Garden Road was short-sold by the bank and bought by neighbors who paid the asking price, seeking to upgrade their second home. The new owners have since installed a pool at the base of the descent, beneath where Min has presumably turned to dirt. We are far from the commune now, far from Westport Turnpike, far from the bill collectors and the house that has been lost, the restaurant that has shuttered, the freezer and the frozen ground.
Berlant refers to the doomed belief in these clustered promises as optimism, and describes it as “a scene of negotiated sustenance that makes life bearable as it presents itself ambivalently, unevenly, incoherently.” What my mother did was more than a stopgap, a tabling of grief: it was an act of negotiated sustenance as life presented itself incoherently, brutally, through a series of piecemeal losses—a second mortgage after the first, credit card after credit card after the money was gone, until finally, the house was, too.
Like Orville soaring to new heights, Min, my mother’s gato en el enfriador, is strange and whimsical in the face of something imminent, the uncanny made brave through a fearsome determination.
When it comes up, my mother, now emerged from the confines of bankruptcy and Garden Road and her marriage to my father, asks us not to make fun of her. She tells us that she would like to drive back to that house, dig up Min in the middle of the night and bring him home to the one-bedroom apartment that she rents in a nearby city, so that she might always have him with her. And we all know how strange and silly this sounds, but we will hear it. Our skins, ourselves, our bodies: they are currency, they are to be measured and weighed and preserved, strenuously; to neglect them is at our peril. To endeavor to preserve an object, a body, is to defend the self, to protect the promises it contains within.
Her scar from the facelift has faded—years of creams and lotions and serums have done their work, and my mother has raveled into her senior years with high cheekbones and eyes that are a clear blue lacquer. But she can never not feel that scar on her jaw, never not think of how she has hurt, of the fur and bone turned to soil beneath granite, of the home where she no longer lives. The loss is always there.