Taxidermist Carl Akeley is considered by most taxidermy folks to be the father of modern taxidermy. Taxidermy. Taxidermy taxidermy. Certain words when you write a whole book become very easy to type. Taxidermy. Can’t remember the last time my fingers in that pattern didn’t hit their targets: Taxidermy. Certain words’ meanings begin to fade as their sounds take over. Or no: their status as signifiers gets lost, and they become instead like one’s eyes’ specific shade of yellow, or a hairstyle one’s worn for too long.
For the record, in all my notes, taxidermy’s rendered as capital T. Taxidermists become “Tmen”, viz., “Purpose here is to do what 13 Tmen did up till yesterdaymt part. [i.e. “mount partridge”] in exact pose as reference pic.” I know: Tmen. I regret the sexism.
At any rate, Tman Carl Akeley is the father of modern T. He’s famous enough that you can be his Facebook friend, but his a little too famous to respond to friend requests on time. My book opens not with his birth, but just after: with his first mounted specimen of a canary. Beginning at his birth wasn’t much of a choice because all of us get born in more or less the same way and it takes some time for us to become people enough. People enough to write about. People who act and speak and think on their own in ways that can be illustrative. So gone from the book are the first 12 years of Carl’s life. It’s not a problem.
Carl, though, lived up until his death. Which is to say he didn’t die at a very old age. He didn’t die after retirement. He died at the top of a mountain in what’s now the Democratic Republic of the Congo while on an expedition to record the flora of the mountain gorilla’s preferred habitat. So here is where the book needs to end: Carl’s death. It should have been so easy; everyone knows before she even begins reading the book that he’s going to die at the end, unless the idea of a man born in 1864 and still kicking appeals to certain readers. So, gone is any suspense, right? Gone, I thought, was any need to surprise the reader with this inevitable conclusion.
It was not easy. I just did it yesterday. Or, rather, I just finished the doing of it yesterday, the doing of it having taken (well let’s argue four years) all of last week and most of this one. The obvious idea in killing off a character is to replicate, in the rendering of the experience, the feelings of shock and loss and grief felt by the killed character’s survivors. To make the reader a survivor. To fill him with grief. I either wasn’t able to do this or I wasn’t interested in doing it, and regardless of which I think it was a factor of my own dicey relationship with Carl Akeley.
Dicey: he’s this person who lived that I never knew, and yet he’s this guy I’ve been creating on my own. His life isn’t so much this thing I’ve been trying to commemorate as it is this irritating truth that’s keeping me from any personal invention. I accept this as a good thing, but all I’m saying is it’s no fun sometimes.
I don’t know what a person’s death means. The deaths of historical figures are really just facts, in the end. They are the events surrounding that requisite second year trailing their names in texts: Carl Akeley (1864-1926). But they have other consequences, right? They mean things to the secondary characters surrounding the historical one? Or?
In the end, I rendered the whole thing from his second wife’s point of view. She wrote about it, and it’s rather clear that her writings were done after the fact and seem to be in the service of enhancing her devotion and attentiveness at this time. So whether or not they are factually accurate (Carl’s biographer Penelope Bodry-Sanders argues no) they seem to me the most emotionally interesting. I mean, Carl died four weeks after their second anniversary, and to me that’s the event’s chief tragedy. Poor Mary Jobe Akeley, widowed in her marriage’s second year.
At any rate, killing Carl Akeley feels good. This book’s end has always been way over there in the distance. Now it’s just right over there. I can totally see it, I think.