Wednesday 1st May
Connie looked down at the scalpel in her hand.
Quicksilver-thin blade, ivory handle. To the untrained eye, it looked like a stiletto. In other houses, it would be mistaken for a paring knife for vegetables or fruit. Not flesh.
Connie cradled the dead jackdaw in her hands, feeling the memory of warmth and life in its dead muscle and sinew and vein, in the heavy droop of its neck. Corvus monedula. Black glossy birds, with ash-grey necks and crowns.
Pale eyes. Almost white.
Her tools were ready. An earthenware bowl with a mix- ture of water and arsenical soap. Several strips of cloth, and a pail on the floor at her feet. Newspaper. Pliers and scalpel and file.
Gently Connie laid the bird down on the paper. With her fingers, she parted the sooty feathers and lined up the blade at the top of the breast bone. Then, with the anticipation she always felt at the moment of incision, she manoeuvred the tip into place, looking for the best point of entry.
The jackdaw lay still, accepting of its fate. She breathed in and slowly exhaled. A ritual of sorts.
“Blood, skin, bone.”
The first time Connie had been taken inside her father’s workshop, the smell made her nauseous – of flesh and undigested food and rotting carrion.
Blood, skin, bone.
In those early days, she’d worn a handkerchief tied across her nose and mouth. The perfumes of the trade were pungent – alcohol, the musty odour of flax tow, linseed oil, the paints for the claws and feet, beaks and mounts – too strong for a child’s sensibilities. Over the years, Connie had become accustomed to them and now she barely noticed. If anything, she believed that ac- knowledging the scent of things was an integral part of the process.
She glanced up at the high windows that ran the length of the workshop, tilted open today to let in the fresh air. The sky was a welcome shock of blue after the weeks of rain. She wondered if she might persuade her father to come down for lunch. Perhaps a cup of beef tea?
Since the events in the churchyard a week ago, Gifford had barely left his room. She heard him pacing up and down until the early hours, muttering to himself. It wasn’t good for him to be so cooped up. Last night she’d come upon him standing on the half-landing, peering out over the darkening creek, his breath misting the glass.
Connie was accustomed to his dissolute condition in the days following a bout of drinking. Even so, she’d been alarmed by his physical deterioration. Bloodshot eyes, his face gaunt and six days’ worth of stubble on his chin. When she asked if there was anything she might do for him, he stared at her without appearing to have the slightest recollection of who she was.
She loved her father and, despite his shortcomings, they rubbed along well enough. Taxidermy was not con- sidered a suitable job for a woman, but Gifford had – in secret – gone against tradition and passed on his skills to her. Not merely the cutting and the stuffing and the dexterity, but also his love and passion for his craft. The belief that in death, beauty could be found. The belief that through the act of preservation, a new kind of life was promised. Immortal, perfect, brilliant, in the face of the shifting and decaying world.
Connie couldn’t recall precisely when she had gone from passive observer to Gifford’s apprentice, only that it had turned out to be essential. Her father’s hands were no longer steady. His eye was no longer true. No one was aware that it was Connie who carried out the few com- missions they still received. Business would have declined in any case. Tastes had changed, and the mounted ani- mals and birds that once graced every parlour had fallen out of fashion with the new century.
All the same, even if they never sold another piece, Connie knew she would continue to do the work she loved. She held within her the memory of every bird that had passed through her hands. Each creature had left its imprint upon her as much as she had left her mark on it.
Through the open windows, Connie could hear the jackdaws chattering in their new colony in the poplar trees at the end of the garden. Earlier in the spring, they’d set up residence between the chimney stacks of Black- thorn House. In March, a nest had come down into the drawing room, a collapse of twigs and hair and bark send- ing the cold remains of the fire billowing out on to the furniture. Particularly distressing were the three speckled, partially hatched blue-green eggs and the one tiny chick, tangled in the debris, its beak still open. The distraught cawing of the mother had haunted the house for days.
Connie looked down at the bird on the workshop counter.
“Pushing everything else from her mind, Connie lined up the scalpel, and cut.”
Unlike its living companions, this jackdaw would never age. Thanks to her care and skill, it would be preserved at one dazzling moment in time. Eternal, forever poised for flight, as if it might at any moment come back to life and soar up into the sky.
Pushing everything else from her mind, Connie lined up the scalpel, and cut.
At first, a gentle shifting, nothing more. Then the tip of the blade pierced the skin and the point slipped in. The flesh seemed to sigh as it unfolded, as if the bird was relieved the waiting was over. The journey from death back to life had begun. A leaking of liquid and the distinctive coppery smell of meat. The feathers held within them a scent of dust and old clothes, like a parlour left unaired.
The cloudy eyes of the bird stared up at her. When Connie was done, its eyes would be ivory again. Glass, not jelly, shining as brightly as they had in life. It was hard to find a good match for a jackdaw’s eyes. Pale blue when young, like jays, then shifting through dark to light.
Connie let her shoulders drop and allowed her muscles to relax, then began to peel the skin from the flesh with her fingers. Cutting, pulling back, cutting again. The deep red of the breast, the colour of quince jelly; the silver sheen of the wings. She took care to keep the intestines, lungs, kidneys, and heart intact in the abdominal sac, so she could use the body as a guide for the shaping to come.
She worked slowly and methodically, wiping the tiny pieces of tissue, feathers, blood and cartilage from the point of the blade on to the newspaper as she went. Rushing, the tiniest slip, might make the difference be- tween a clean job and a possibility ruined.
Connie allowed two days for a carrion bird – a jackdaw like this, or a magpie, rook or crow. Once begun, it was important to work fast, before the natural processes of decay took hold. If all the fat was not scraped from the bones, there was a risk of maggots destroying the bird from within. The first day was spent skinning, washing and preparing; the second, stuffing and positioning.
Each task was mirrored left and right; she followed the same sequence each time. Either side of the breastbone, the left wing and then the right, the left leg and the right. It was a dance, with steps learnt through trial and error and, in time, perfected.
Connie reached for her pliers from their hook and no- ticed that she would have to order some more wire for mounting. She started to loosen the leg bones. Twisting back and forth, the scraping of the side of the scalpel as the flesh came loose, then the snap of a knee joint.
They knew each other now, Connie and this bird. When she had finished, she placed everything she did not need – tissue, stray feathers, damp scraps of news- paper – into the pail at her feet, then turned the bird over and moved on to work on the spine. The sun climbed higher in the sky.
Eventually, when her muscles were too cramped to continue, Connie folded the bird’s wings and head in on itself to prevent the skin from drying out, then stretched her arms. She rolled her neck and shoulders, flexed her fingers, feeling satisfied with her morning’s work. Then she went out through the side door into the garden and sat in the wicker chair on the terrace. From the roof of the ice house, the colony of jackdaws continued to jabber and call. A requiem for their fallen comrade.