Animal Altars

Animal Altars: All dressed up in the flesh of the dead. By Beatrice Marovich with Krista Dragomer.

They arrived in a package with a FedEx label. When I pulled open the cardboard flaps I was expecting to see bubble wrap, or Styrofoam peanuts, not fur. So I choked a bit. I don’t often see fur, much less come into close contact with it. I don’t live with any domestic creatures, except the mouse who conducts his thievery in the lonely dark of night. My life is very human, all too human. So meeting the minks was visceral, shocking. And then I saw their little feet, their sharp toenails creeping out of the bone. I saw their tiny, dry noses, their stringy tails covered with a delicate pom-pom of hair. They were dead—I knew that. But they didn’t seem that way.

There were two of them, a pair of white mink. They’d been preserved in their entirety and linked together—nose to tail—into a small stole, just longer than the circumference of a stately woman’s neck. The yellowing, embroidered label on their underbelly read, simply: “C. S. K.” The initials of a wealthy person who’d commissioned this costume?

They were part of a small package that my aunt—who collects antique treasures from her home in Sallisaw, Oklahoma—sent for my birthday. They lay atop a small cache of beads (wood, glass), a delicate gold belt with a bumblebee on the buckle, an ancient pair of embroidery scissors in a tough leather case. They’d paraded into my life uninvited, these mink, but I knew my aunt had sent them to be cherished somehow, to be treasured, to be saved. Her house, after all, is filled with aged and weathered animal remains: the skull of a crocodile, a whole range of antlers, snakeskins.

I knew I could never wear them. I didn’t even bother to think about how it would feel to carry them on my shoulders for a day. I was troubled by the thought that we (all three of us) might be shamed with a smattering of red paint. I wanted to protect us. And I knew that whatever sort of ethical justification I might invent to wear them with a clear conscience, a passerby wouldn’t likely intuit it. I knew I would be misunderstood.

And, yes, I was disturbed by thoughts of their death. Their little glass eyes, locked in a state of perpetual shock and sincerity, communicated something tragic. I knew that whenever, wherever, however it happened, it was inevitably gruesome. Ultimately unnecessary. Perhaps they’d been caught in the wild, feeding near a stream, and were taken hostage. Or maybe they were raised in a cage on a small farm, given only enough nutrients and freedom of movement that their coats might gleam for the slaughter. It’s not easy—emotionally, ethically—to be the brutal sort of animal that contracts machine technology to make fellow creatures into protective, decorative costumes. We do terrible things.

And yet we often accord a certain nobility to those willing to cut the middlemen, those who step right into the raw brutality of a butchery. There’s a dignity, I suppose, in taking a bow and arrow, a cold rifle, into the woods to make the kill. If you want to eat flesh, or wear a hide, shouldn’t you know what it is to take that life?

But it’s more than that, isn’t it? I’ve never been a hunter, but I think—often—about skins, about flesh. And this encounter (the hunt) seems more than a transaction between human and animal—more than a raw experience of the robbery that we call life. The weapon (the knife, the gun, the technology) is a crucial player, too. It completes the polygon, it makes a complex web, an unholy trinity: human-animal-machine. When we take up a small machine, to make a kill, we are animals, morphing into killing machines. And the animal who glances at us in the encounter, can also halt and humanize us with her sobriety. Thus entangled, we haunt one another. It becomes less and less possible to discern who is humane, who is the animal, who is the knife.

When I was ten or eleven, my mother—an on-again-off-again vegetarian who disliked the feel of flesh enough that she refused to cook it—decided she was going to strip and tan a deer hide using an ancient method: boiling it in its own brain. She wanted to make a garment. She knew that the deer’s skin could be softer than velvet, if you treat it the right way. She decided that she wanted to try. She wanted to bead it, she wanted to wear it.

So one night my uncle, a Michigan deer hunter, came by with a giant black garbage sack. Inside was the skin of a deer he’d shot that afternoon. My mother went to work after dinner. She had very little time before the flesh spoiled and began to reek. I still remember waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of her weeping—it was coming up from the basement through cracks and floorboards. It was too much for her, the shards of raw meat that stuck stubbornly to the hide. At some point, she put down the knife. But the scene had captured her. She, the knife, the raw skin of the deer—they’d become tangled up together. She was frozen in the circuit. All she could do was howl.

She abandoned the project. And she abandoned the skin. I’ve never asked where she took it. I suppose I’ve never really wanted to know. But the sorrow and the fractured tenacity of that moment are still lodged in my head. I never saw the deer’s actual body. But that deer is still alive, in the strange way that it was still alive that night, as my mother struggled with its bare, decaying, flesh.

I’m not suggesting that the soul of the deer hovered in the room. Nor am I suggesting that something like the spirit of the deer was moving through us, through cracks in the walls of our small house. These metaphysical figures might work, if that’s what you’re looking for, if it’s what you need. But I’m a skeptic. I think what I’m suggesting is that the deer’s body was still a living incident, was still working its way into new lives, making new histories. It had been killed, certainly, but that didn’t make it entirely dead. The boundary between the living and the dead is much more porous than we tend to assume. Something about that deer stays alive in the memory of my mother’s howl—a kind of ghost in the machine. I can hear it in the boots I wear that go all the way up to my knees. I know, every time I zip them up, that they are an animal. At least one. It’s impossible to deny. I won’t deny that I feel a kind of guilt. But when I wear them I can walk tough and strong in the cold weather, like a horse at a trot. I’m grateful for that power.

It’s not like I give thanks to the gods in my gratitude. I don’t want to think of the cow(s) that make my feet superhuman as a kind of sacrifice. But there’s an open wound between the soles of my feet, the flesh of the boot, and the zipper technology that holds it all together. A wound calls for attention. I decided that the only thing I could do with the minks was to give them a place of some honor in my little house—to make, for them, an animal altar.

This wasn’t so that I could worship them, or make of them some strange idol. It wasn’t so that I could mark them as a sacrifice. I just couldn’t stand the thought that, after everything they’d been through, they’d have to be hidden somewhere. We have a thing going, the minks and I. They’re in my life. I wanted someone to celebrate their lives—the life we’re sharing. To pay some respect to the ancestral life still knotted up in their old bones and preserved muscles, that was creeping, in and through their chemically-treated hides, into my world.

The ripe, seductive figure of a paradisiacal garden haunts us: a world without planes, trains, automobiles. We dream it might still be possible for the planet’s litter to suddenly lift and disappear, that the soft breeze on our faces might be freed of its thousand toxic poisons. We dream that we can live ever-so-lightly—that we can sustain our complex and gangly frames on crisp apples from a tree. We dream that we can shake these increasingly powerful digital avatars from the marrow of our bones where they’re encoding themselves. But things are not so simple. Nor will they ever be. We are not the pure and simple humans—given a special plot of land in that prodigious garden—that we’ve been telling ourselves we are. We don’t function in a simple dialectic with either animal others or the machines of our techno-scientific lifeworld. Instead, we’re all crossbred creatures in a very messy world, tangled up together in that unholy trinity—the one without a salvation figure. It’s a contingent trinity: subject to chance, itself a pure accident. And sometimes we feel the perceived injustice of this accident acutely: we eat, and we’re eaten. We dress ourselves up in what seem, upon further thought, to be garish and decadent costumes and march through the petroleum-fueled routines of our daily lives. The ancient questions become ever more difficult: where is love, in all of this mess? What is beauty?

Perhaps, in this wreckage and robbery, we need a contingency plan—some kind of beautiful love, some sort of cultivatable garden, that won’t make a lie of this crazy accident we’re living through. And we need help, I think, from our fellow creatures (living, dead, animal, machine) who may be more accustomed to living contingently—who know how to nurture, and flourish, in the accidental. But how can we listen, if we can’t sit them down for a chat? An altar can be a portal, a place of silence, a site of attention. An altar can be a dense concentration of our beautiful fellow accidents where—if we listen very, very carefully—a different sort of truth might come seeping out.

Beatrice Marovich is a writer who studies theories of divinity. She’s currently working on a PhD at Drew University’s Graduate Division of Religion in Madison, NJ.

Krista Dragomer is an artist and writer living and working in Brooklyn. Her recent graphic essay, Waste Management #1: Backyard Biopolitics is currently on view at the Kentler International Drawing Space as part a benefit honoring the work of Dean Haspiel and Jonathan Ames and has been published in the Red Hook Star Revue where she is the Visual Arts Editor and monthly columnist. Artwork by Dragomer can be seen and heard on her website and on her blog