Of what value are birds? asks a typewritten sign. When the birdwatcher isn’t looking, what can be a bird’s worth? Could you match the grosbeak with its nest? What about the blue jay, the hermit thrush, the American wigeon? Does it bother you to think that every week two domesticated animals go extinct—and some of them are birds? How can a domesticated animal go extinct, when we designed them ourselves, from the stuff of other animals? How can a taxidermied animal go extinct, if an example of it sits here before us? How can it be both here and gone? Of what value are taxidermied birds?
At the River Country Nature Center, see a mallard drake strung from the ceiling, wings outstretched. See its slow spin in the updraft of an air conditioner. Its neck cranes toward the floor, giving the effect not of flight but of an arrested fall. Nearby a golden eagle perches on a log; a bald eagle perches on a log; a great horned owl stretches its talons toward a grouse’s intricate back. These specimens are the estate of a local taxidermist whose friends and family renovated an old commercial building to hold his body of work. Six dollars pays admittance for the sculptor and me. We’re temporary residents at a center for the arts, another Nebraska City estate. Our lodgings were built in the Prairie Style, as a private retirement home for a circle of well-off friends. They left the place in trust, for people like us.
The bird has long served as a symbol to humans. The bird’s song delights humans, though not especially the eagle’s. We press buttons to hear birds’ songs through concealed speakers. We are not certain of all the reasons birds sing.
“I’m just happy when people come here,” the docent says. She admits a mother and child for free when they don’t have the $6. The docent tells us about the taxidermist, who also was just happy when people came here. “Never went hunting in his life,” she says. “He found or was given these animals.” A porcupine, a beaver kit, a bobcat posed beside a typewriter. The last brown bear was killed in Nebraska in 1858—yet here stands a half-grown cub. In a cage in Golden Gate Park, the sculptor says, there was once kept the very grizzly who posed for the California state flag. That bear and all its brethren are also extinct. The taxidermist died at ninety-nine years, nine months, nine days. Nine is my lucky number, the number that recurs most often in my life. Is recurrence luck? What value did nine have for the taxidermist?
“What percentage of brass knuckles get used?” the sculptor asks. We’ve moved on from the Nature Center to a nearby antique store. He hypothesizes that everyone in Nebraska must already have a set, since here we find a surplus pair. Of what value is this device? Its only documented use is to be confiscated at airports.
The antique dealer lifts an LBJ commemorative plate from the wall for me to examine. “I’d do $25,” he says. A piece of masking tape on its back says $15. Of what value—really—is this plate? LBJ’s wife was Lady Bird: the bird has long served as a symbol to human beings. The plate is a symbol. The bird is a symbol. That stuffed bear, a symbol. Back in our studios the sculptor and I will consider our symbols. They have all been well-used. What could come from them? What more can we make from any of this?
Stephanie Carpenter’s collection of short stories, Missing Persons, won the 2017 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. Her work has appeared in Ecotone, Nelle, Witness, The Missouri Review, Big Fiction, and other journals. She is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Michigan Tech University.