Unpracticed Fingers Bungle Sadly Over Tiny Feathered Bodies
Winner of Fifth Annual Short Story Contest
Dec 1, 1998
17 Min read time
Congratulations and the $1,000 first prize go to Kris Saknussemm for this year's winning story. Congratulations also to our two runners-up: "Strip" by Marianne Taylor and "The Pilot" by Wade Echer, stories forthcoming in Boston Review. The winners were chosen from among a group of finalists that included Melanie Hammer, Mary Hazzard, Roderick Townley, and Lawrence Cantera.
I am grateful for the hard work and discerning judgment of life-saver Joanna Spaziani, who read every entry and helped to choose our seven finalists. Finally, warmest thanks to the judges: C. Michael Curtis of The Atlantic Monthly, Jill McCorkle, and Ethan Canin, who made judging this year's contest a genuine pleasure.
The characters, situations, and even language of Kris Saknussemm's "Unpracticed Fingers Bungle Sadly Over Tiny Feathered Bodies" are so relentlessly original that one is hard-pressed, while reading it, to recall the existence of any other reality. With magnificently sustained irony, the author pokes gentle fun at our human capacity for weirdness, while celebrating weirdness's flip side: our infinite individuality.
Saknussemm's work has appeared in The Hudson Review, The New England Review, Prairie Schooner, Nimrod, Southwest Review, and elsewhere. Raised on the West Coast, he graduated from Dartmouth College and holds an M.A. from the University of Washington. Before abandoning a Ph.D. in anthropology in Australia, he lived for a time with the John Frum cargo cultists on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. He now lives with his wife and dingo in rural Castlemaine, Australia.
—Jodi Daynard, Fiction Editor
My mother came from an elm and mapled town of D.A.R. picnics and brass spittoons, famous now as the home of a kind of industrial pudding, which for legal reasons I feel compelled not to name. Her mother, Myra Haines, had been a beautiful opera singer in New York City until her career was cut short by a tumor in her throat. She married an older man named August Pomeroy who'd wanted to be a Shakespearean actor but whose stern Victorian father had forced him to be a banker instead. An older brother had wanted to be a writer but had been given the ultimatum of becoming a doctor or becoming disinherited, to which he responded by shooting himself in the temple with a derringer pistol--a gesture which unfortunately failed to prove as final as he'd hoped. As my mother put it, "His mortal coil remained unshuffled but his conversational abilities were severely hampered."
He was to spend the rest of his life in gentlemanly albeit vegetable seclusion in an apartment on the second floor of the family home, overlooking the garden and his rows of silver beehives, which no one had the heart to admit were really empty. At first, many awkward attempts were made to cope with Uncle Ambrose's bees. "My, the buzzing is so loud today! I hope they don't sting!" In time it came to be understood that in some mysterious, private way Uncle Ambrose was indeed a keeper of a rare and extremely delicate strain of bees, which were simply not ready to be released into the larger world.
While the tragic tantrum with the gun may not have done anything to further either his literary or his medical career, the consensus was that it had done wonders for his temperament, which prior to the powderburn had been bitter and unpredictable. One morning at breakfast he wiped the molasses from his moustache, as if for the last time, bowed his head to August and said with great gravity and conviction, "Thank you, brother, for doing more for me than I confess I would have ever done for you. And thank you all for being ever gracious and understanding on the somewhat ticklish subject of my bees." With that he went upstairs and fell asleep--only to wake up an hour later quite flabbergasted and annoyed that despite his farewell speech he was still very much alive. He remained so for another thirteen years, during which time he gave the more expected and tangible form of beekeeping a try, although it seems that what he really enjoyed was filling the bellows full of smoke and wandering through the graveyard across the road dressed in his great cloud-white outfit and wide net hat.
With a younger brother dead of diphtheria and Ambrose indefinitely beekeeping, August and wife turned their backs on the possibilities of stage life in the metropolis and set up shop amidst what Mrs. Camelia Dalrymple, their next-door neighbor, called "the gloom and grandeur of August Pomeroy's ancestral home." Mrs. Dalrymple, who everyone apparently referred to as Mrs. Camelia Dalrymple, had lost her husband to some sort of gall bladder infection and was, according to my mother's estimate, four feet tall and five feet wide. She was rarely seen in any dress which didn't call significant attention to her bosom, which was not only ample as my mother said, "It was formidable." She could be counted on to sing "Twas the Last Rose of Summer" at the drop of a hat and had spent the better part of her life rather shamelessly mooning over August Pomeroy to absolute no avail. In later years my mother was of the mind that it wasn't so much the man as the mansion that Mrs. Dalrymple craved.
The house was indeed something to blink your eyes at and make sure of--a gargantuan clapboard witch's hat bewildered by widow's walks, angel's teeth, turrets and gingerbread, with a deep balcony running around the entire house, with creaky mysterious screen doors that seemed to whisper and wheeze even on humid summer evenings and an ornate white porch swing devised especially by an old Italian who had made his living carving carousel animals before he went blind.
Inside, there were chimneys and chamber pots, flintlocks and powderhorns, a huge Atlas moth mounted on cork in a glass case and a parchment copy of "The Song of Hiawatha" framed and signed by Longfellow himself. From the steep roof in winter, icicles as big as my mother would hang, and all along the long drive the autumn leaves would fall like puddles of paint leading to the great mad shipwreck of a sagging barn that had such a harshly pitched roof it once scared away a young rafter monkey of a lightning rod salesman on the 4th of July, 1899. (Although he grew up to tell the tale from the floor of the State Senate, of his harrowing ordeal on the roof of the Pomeroy's barn, emphasizing the moral and spiritual dangers of trying to make a sale on a national holiday.)
The barn was in fact the bunkhouse, workshop, library and saloon for Knut, the family handyman, who claimed to have lost the index finger on his right hand feeding rabbit meat to the Great Horned Owl named Barnabas which his father once kept as a pet. Somewhere in the chewing tobacco and boiled shirt past, Knut's father had done August Pomeroy some good turn, which August Pomeroy never forgot. There was no other explanation, because according to my mother, Knut was the unhandiest of handymen and a completely incorrigible drunk. His principal virtue was that, fortified with the liquor he was not under any circumstances to consume, he was always quite happy to hitch up the horse and buggy in even the worst snowbelt blizzard (in which case they would take the sleigh because August Pomeroy refused to have anything whatsoever to do with automobiles), and off they would go. Many of these missions were bank foreclosures of farms. On such trips, August Pomeroy would sit stone-still and emotionless. He believed in handling such sad assignments personally, and while he never once showed the slightest ripple of sadness, it was a rare foreclosure that didn't happen over a bottle of cider or the distribution of barley sugar to a floorful of ragamuffin children, while unnoticed by the desolate family, Knut would stagger back and forth from the buggy with smoked meats, preserves, and if Christmas was anywhere near, a fat tom turkey for the axe.
Not surprisingly, the buggy could get pretty full in bad weather and such trips were no doubt not for the faint-hearted. August Pomeroy would sit undaunted, regardless of the weather or the terrain, poking and puffing his cherrywood pipe, which my mother said he'd mysteriously learned to smoke upside-down in the rain, Knut beside him, reeking of the alcohol he'd pledged to give up, flailing and straying like a scarecrow on a wire, and when-ever Mrs. Malaprop, the big bay mare started swerving off track, August Pomeroy would break the composed determination of his pipe-smoking silence and in as dignified a manner as possible he would shout through the wind and the haze of moonshine that was driving his handyman into an early grave and them both into a tree or an on-coming train, "Hold her Knut! She's headed for the rhubarb!"
August and Myra Pomeroy had two other children: Royce, my mother's brother who was in the Navy during the War and later went to medical school and became an eye specialist with a black Great Dane named Cassius, a former majorette wife named Doreen and an autistic son, named Ted--and my mother's sister Orpah. I only met Uncle Royce on two occasions, both when I was pretty young, but I remember him vividly. He was a man of substantial, self-satisfied girth, but like those men whose hairlines are forever receding without ever entirely disappearing and so will never be exactly what you would call bald, you could tell that he could get increasingly substantial and never be exactly what you would callfat.
He had a little Hitlerian moustache he would dab his napkin at after eating corn on the cob, and when he became prosperous as a doctor, he invested significant time and money locating the first car he'd ever owned, which was still in existence, but rusting in some woman's barn near Lake Champlain. The first time I met him he'd just bought it back and refurbished it. The second time I remember was when they came to visit us in California, and we were on one of the Red and White Cruisers that leave from Fisherman's Wharf. We were chopping through the water and grit from the men sandblasting the Golden Gate Bridge was raining down on the deck. We had to go inside. Uncle Royce was having a terrible time eating a hot dog. He was talking to my father about money. I remember Uncle Royce swallowing his hot dog and saying, "You know, you can't have anything you want. Only a very few people get what they want--and even they don't get everything."
My mother wasn't born until her mother was forty. August Pomeroy was sixty. He wore white linen ice-cream suits in summer and white woollen suits in winter and strolled around town with his sulphur-crested cockatoo named Ophelia on his shoulder, and a pet squirrel named Familiar that he'd saved from a rat trap and nursed back to health with peanut butter and warm milk, in his pocket. One night shortly before his death, Myra found him dragging the family grandfather clock with the tiny painted signs of the Zodiac out into the back-yard to bury in a grave he'd apparently dug himself especially for that purpose. By way of an explanation he remarked cryptically that "a grandfather clock is precisely half-way between a coffin and a man."
And while I may have mentioned some of the features of the house, such as the bamboo elephant that contained English walnuts and lemon drops, or the dumb waiter in one of the marble fireplaces, or the puzzling bell system that was designed to alert servants in the kitchen that something was wanted in the Poplar Room or the Oak Room (my mother's was the Cypress Room), which Uncle Ambrose rewired so that all the wrong bells would ring, and was unnecessary anyway because the family didn't have any servants except for Mrs. Todd, a crookback woman with chronic dermatitis who came in to do the laundry and occasionally cook a roast, bake a pie and walk a damp rag like a cat down the keys of the mahogany piano, which Knut once remarked in a moment of surprising lucidity, was so big you didn't see it--I haven't said anything about the sad case of the Finger Lakes Taxidermological Museum, which due to extreme financial difficulty was forced to close its doors and sell its remarkable collection of local and exotic specimens for a song. The purchaser in this instance was none other than August Pomeroy. As a result of that singular acquisition, the gloom, if not the grandeur of the Pomeroy home was greatly enhanced. It became literally stuffed with stuffed animals--from pileated woodpeckers with their talons wrapped around ceramic branches to wildcat heads mounted on ash wood shields. There were gulls, larks, and loons--hooded mergansers, sapsuckers, orioles, waxwings, warblers, wrens--and a motheaten beakless titmouse.
In the critter category, there were things like raccoons and weasels, muskrats and mink--even a Goliath bullfrog from Africa. There were two whole coyotes, two moose heads, five elk heads, an antelope head, (in addition to an ibex and an impala), a ram's head with bronzed horns, a wildebeest head that Mrs. Todd complained to, a full sized puma and a fearsome wolverine rug that still had fine traces of powdered magnesia in the fur. Then there were rarer specimens: guanaco and vicuna skins, a marsupial possum from Australia and an adolescent-sized Louisiana alligator that had been shot in the head after ravaging a cane farmer's prize bird dog.
This ragtag-and-bobtail menagerie came complete with a range of taxidermy tools and a rather remarkable library covering every facet of the art and science, beginning with the Carthaginian account of a preserved gorilla discovered in the year 500 BC, and a discussion of the rhinoceros in the Royal Museum of Vertebrates in Florence said to have been mounted originally in the 16th century.
Where the house had once seemed elegantly crowded with lorgnettes and dueling pistols, it now flowed to bursting and out into the barn with skinning knives, scalpels, butcher's knives, tanner's knives, nose pliers, forceps, handsaws, hacksaws, hatchets, hammers, bit braces, drawshaves, screwdrivers, corundum wheels, chisels, rasps, awls, pinking irons, needles, oilstones, monkey wrenches, fur combs, foot rules, excelsior, cotton batting, plaster of paris, corn meal, gasoline, modeling clay, fishing line, earthen jars to hold skin pickle, annealed galvanized iron wire, dry arsenic and alum, white bar soap, camphor gum, subcarbonate of potash, wood alcohol, formaldehyde, barrels and barrels of salt, not to mention large quantities of beeswax, sulphuric and carbolic acids, any number of oils, varnishes, glues, pastes, paints, and arguably one of the largest private collections of glass eyes in the world.
The accompanying library became especially popular with Uncle Ambrose, who over time fell into the habit of bribing Knut with nickels and dimes for his secret liquor fund, in return for having Knut read him at random in his uncertain ponderousness which could make the even baldest instruction seem crazed with importance. Many a fine head mounted green, without thinning or pickling, has shrunk and continued to shrink for months, until all stitches gave way and it cracked and shriveled to an inglorious end.
Each evening in summer, Uncle Ambrose would waltz a ladderback rocker out of the parlor and across the lawn, and amidst the peacock feathers, fox tails, buckhorn handles and riding whips in the bunkhouse wing of the barn where Knut felt most comfortable, he would sit rapt in devoted concentration by the light of a hurricane lamp, nodding respectfully whenever the nine-fingered handyman would take a swig of the White Lion grain alcohol he kept in a collapsed tripes-and-keister under his horseblanket and slatboard bed, that Myra Pomeroy said reminded him of the drunk tank jail cell he'd once called home for a whole winter during World War I.
It was difficult to say what Uncle Ambrose thought of as Knut, in his best church-serious voice, struggled to read The brain may be removed with a hooked wire, the skull well rinsed and given a good coat of arsenical paste. The eye sockets are to be filled with balls of wt cotton to render the lids and surrounding skin soft. For a long time it was assumed that he simply enjoyed the sound of Knut's voice and the secretive, embalmer's laboratory atmosphere. But every so often he demonstrated that he was actually listening and remembering, and at choice moments he was known to pop out with some kernel of wisdom such as Unpracticed fingers bungle sadly over tiny feathered bodies, which became the official motto of the Pomeroy home.
I'm sorry I never got to meet Uncle Ambrose, who finally did die peacefully in his sleep. Knut too, came to a bad end long before I was born. One morning they found him in a snowbank as stiff as a stuffed alligator. August Pomeroy bought him the biggest headstone in town, some said because he was senile by that time, others because he enjoyed the irony of a drunken nine-fingered handyman having the biggest tombstone short of the crypt belonging to the family that invented the industrial pudding. August Pomeroy himself died, his brain riddled with cancer, just before my mother and father were married (having inexplicably tried to bury the grandfather clock on two more occasions).
I remember going to visit the great house when I was four years old. I had a terrible nightmare about all the animals coming to life--the stuffed deer heads and moose and buffalo, owls and eagles--all the animals were whispering. In every room I went in all the animal heads were alive. The next day I found several play scripts rolled up inside one of the stuffed owls in my grandfather's study. I imagine he read them late at night when he locked the door and retreated into his private theater which perhaps kept him sane enough to stride out of the front gate each morning, scratch a match on the slate steps of the Episcopal church, light his pipe, and march toward the huge white colonnades of the bank. During his lunch hour he taught Ophelia to quote Shakespeare. O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
After August Pomeroy died it became clear that he should've been an actor because he'd bungled the accounts at the bank and bungled their personal finances, which left Myra with virtually no money except some stock in Eastman Kodak. She couldn't afford to heat the house so she closed up most of it and lived down in the kitchen. For many months after August's death, mysterious bags of grain and fruit showed up on the porch--anonymous "thank you's" from folks he'd helped battle foreclosure and despair. Myra clenched her teeth and puffed up proud and ornery. She lived until she was 80, when she put herself in the hospital with a heart attack after mowing their enormous lawn and died of "complications."
My mother, Eileen, grew up wanting to be a musician just like her mother. From the age of three she played the violin four hours a day. She was giving concerts in Rochester and Buffalo by the age of 10. Orpah, who could be the subject of a lifetime psychological investigation, had quietly slipped into the background and was happy to see her sister on stage. Even Royce, four years older, jovial big-headed bully that he was, seemed to be happy to see little Eileen shine. Then it happened.
My father's theory, expressed confidentially many years later after six Manhattans was that Royce was a prig, and that his priggishness had been offended to the point of driving him momentarily mad when my mother accidentally witnessed him masturbating. I'm sorry to say that I have no further information to substantiate this theory. In any case, the result was a frantic chase around the house--Royce whipping at Eileen with her violin bow. She eventually took refuge in one of the cupolas and in sliding down the roof to dangle in another window, it happened.
I can see Royce, 16 years old, naked to the waist, old shorts from there down. His eyes are wild with rage, his hair glued to his forehead with sweat. He's standing in the window. And just as Eileen's young hands slip all the way inside to clutch the sill and drag herself through . . . CRASH
It was Uncle Ambrose who collared Royce and sent Knut to get the doctor for Eileen. Both her wrists were badly broken, the fingers on her left hand smashed and cut from a second eye-blink slam of the window. Beside the blood, the main problem, at least in the moment, was the screaming. As Mrs. Camelia Dalrymple said later, "I thought the end of the world had come."
Perhaps it had. When Eileen--my mother--got the casts cut off her hands the first thing she did was take one of the hacksaws from the taxidermy tools and saw her violin in half. Then, as far as I know, she put both halves back in the black leather case and never opened it again.
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December 01, 1998
17 Min read time