The Cabinet of Immortal Wonders – Diana Powell

Jean-Baptiste Bécoeur is dancing with the flamingo again. A waltz – the dance has slunk across the border into Metz, even as far as the King’s private chambers, it is whispered. ‘Look,’ he says, to his captivated audience, ‘how beautiful she is! So perfect in her pink finery! So exuberant!’ And then, as he swoops and twirls in his passion, a single feather floats to the floor. Jean-Baptiste stops.

The eyes of the peacock flick across to the tortoise, who moues in return. The macaque gibbers to the sloth, behind its long, elegant fingers.

A single tear slides down Bécoeur’s face, meandering between a red pustule and a weeping sore. The birds in the Cabinet behind him bow their heads in sorrow.

‘Jean-Baptiste! Jean-Baptiste!’ His mother is calling him again. ‘The Doctor is here.’

Which one is it this time? Dr. Jameau? Dr. Bertrand? Or an entirely new member of their tribe, come to try where the others have failed. Yes, a new one, because there is maman again, saying ‘Jean studies birds!’, the excuse she has proffered all the others, in explanation of his eccentric ways – the silence, his wanderings, his fascination with the morbid … the reasons for their visits.

What, first, did they think she meant? That he copied watercolours from his Histoire Naturelle, watched the sky through his spyglass from the attic window, gazed at the habitual lark in its gilded cage? ‘All harmless enough’ they would imagine, until he led them through to the nursery, that had become his study, and waved his arm towards his handiwork there.

He had seen their slippery words and fawning manners drop from them, then, as they stared at the crow slit from beak to tail, its entrails in a dish at its side; at his jars of dermistid beetles, moths and mice, waiting for his latest preparations to put an end to their lives; at the rotting turtle-dove on its perch, its eyes already gone, its feathers lying like a burst pillow beneath it.

How it made him smile to see their various attempts to avoid the stench, a hand or kerchief to the nose, in a pretence of sneezing, or a backward step towards the window or door!

‘My apologies,’ he would say, ‘but it will improve. So far, I have been able to use nothing but what is available to hand … spices from the kitchen – cinnamon, pepper; tansy from the garden; turpentine, alcohol, camphor. Sadly, as you can see, none is sufficiently effective. But one day, when I am older, if I persevere with my studies, I will find a recipe for a preservative that will make my birds immortal!’

‘Tut, tut, Jean, such talk is blasphemous! Why not, instead, tell monsieur le docteur how you capture your birds?’ his mother would simper, encouragingly.

‘There are various ways, monsieur. A noose for birds who walk on the ground. All one has to do is frequent a favourite feeding or nesting site. The birds are particularly vulnerable at their nest; it is quite easy to catch them then. For those who roost higher, birdlime is useful – spread on a branch, their claws become stuck fast to it, and they linger there until I can retrieve them. Unfortunately, my mother sometimes forbids my excursions, and then, by the time I reach them, they are already beyond my needs. Fresh is best, you see, monsieur. Alive to start, best of all.’

‘Jean? Jean?’ She has entered his room, now, and is shaking his arm. Why can’t she let him get on with his work? Why can’t she let him be?  It has always been the same. These constant interruptions, accompanied by her eternal twittering.  He has seen the mother birds behave in just the same way. Oh, the fuss as he approaches their chicks, as if by noise alone they could deflect him from his purpose! It is a cacophony almost as deafening as the trilling and chirruping of the lark in his nursery cage.

‘Do you remember that first lark, maman? You put it facing my bed, thinking its song would sooth me! ‘Ssht, Jean, ssht’ you would say. ‘Look at the bird, how she sits there contentedly, and sings for you!’ How I hated its perpetually open beak, its unfailing merriment! Do you remember when it died? How you thought the cat had strolled in and frightened it?  But no, it was not the cat at all.

It was, simply, on that particular day, I could stand it no longer, so I opened the cage and removed the bird. With my hand wrapped round its throat, the beak moved in pitiful mime, but its heart pounded with a beat almost as loud as its song.  A twist of its neck seemed to calm it, then another, and, finally, there was no sound at all. Peace at last! And I returned it to the cage, to stand it upright on its perch again, but it wouldn’t stay! No matter how hard I tried, bending its claws, pummelling its body, it kept collapsing to the floor. And, already, its eyes were dull, and its feathers limp, their lustre gone. I could not understand it. I wanted to make it right. I wanted its beauty to return, for it to live again in its death, if that’s what this was. Alas, I did not succeed then, but I have done so since! And soon, my achievements will be the envy of all who witness them!’

‘Jean, it is I, Madeleine.’ And so it is. The face in front of him shifts and shimmers, before steadying into a fixed shape. Not his mother, after all. Of course not – his mother has been dead these fifteen years. Buried in a box in the ground, for he was not allowed to preserve her in his Cabinet.

So, instead, here is Madeleine, his wife; but the doctor is real enough, though not Jameau or Bertrand, or that ‘new’ one – they too have long departed.  Still, whoever this one is, like the others, he wants to see his ‘patient’s’ creation, having heard, no doubt, of its wonder. For the Cabinet of Jean-Baptiste Bécoeur has improved a thousand-fold since those early days, with their childish attempts…  a million times, even!  He has learnt so much since then, his training as an apothecary put to good use, the years of experimenting with fifty different chemicals finally reaping their reward in his discovery of the perfect solution, the secret of eternal preservation.

‘See,’ he says to this latest man, ‘how the birds perch effortlessly – so unlike that first lark! Others appear as if in flight. I use frames and wires to mount them, cunningly hidden by branches and shrubs. A stage designer from Italy has painted the background, so it is as realistic as possible. That is why I have added a few quadrupeds, to add to the sense of setting. The sloth, the monkeys, the deer.  And insects – the ‘food’ for the other specimens.  But it is the condition of the creatures that is the real success, the birds, especially. See how they remain unblemished after all these years, their coats pristine and shining! Of course, I outgrew the garden varieties long ago, and turned to the exotic. So picturesque, so fitting! The flamingo was brought to Metz from the south, by an itinerant dealer. The penguin has travelled even further! And look at the bird-of-paradise. My methods are perfect for such rainbow plumage, not simply preserving it, but enhancing it, even.  Burnished gold, emerald green, ruby red – brighter than the hues nature gave it. Consider, also, the brilliance of the cardinal bird!  It came from Surinam, and was destined for the Jardin des Plantes, but I was able to bid a higher price. The King would be jealous, I think, if he knew!

Ah, the King…  Do you remember when the old king, his grandfather, came to Metz, Madeleine? August, it was… ’44, I think – yes, he was on his way to the front, to see the War for himself. The entire town was so excited by his visit, then distraught at his sudden affliction, fearful of blame!  And Louis was near death – prayers were given, there was talk of last rites. But I helped cure him, using my pharmaceutical knowledge. And though his standing was diminished afterwards, my name became famous throughout the land. It will be famous again, throughout the world, even, when my Cabinet is known!  It is so much more than stuffed creatures displayed in a box! See how they live, how I have made them immortal. I am the only one to have done this. And through them, I will become immortal, too!’

‘Jean, this is sacrilege!  Only God has such power. The Bible says ‘moth and dust doth corrupt’ on earth. Man is not supposed to lay up its treasures, let alone…’

There, his mother is back again, quoting the gospels to him, as usual. Others have said much the same, some going much further, calling him an enchanter, a necromancer. The peasants, even, have whispered ‘devil’.  Ignorant yokels!  Idiots!  Jealous all, because he and he alone has vanquished the corruption of the flesh.

This man, this doctor she has brought, seems, at least, to appreciate what he has done, praising and wondering at each new discovery. ‘The heron, the bustard!   The humming-bird … amazing how it hovers, its beak within the flower, yet I see no means of suspension at all!’  He flits about the Cabinet, examining everything, and ohhs and ahhs and coos in amazement – as annoying as that first lark.

Too much so, perhaps? What if he is not really a doctor? How has Madeleine found him?  Perhaps he is a rival come here to spy, to find out the secret of his recipe, so that he can steal it away, and become the most famous conservateur in the land. Come from the Museum in Paris, or across the border from Mannheim, for the Germans covet his work, too. Employed by the ‘Academie’?  Perhaps, even, Madeleine is in league with him, has had an assignation with him, and now they will run off together, taking his masterpiece with them.

And, sure enough, the man is no longer the strange doctor, but Levaillant, his former pupil, whom he once trusted, the one person he has shared his recipe with. ‘Arsenic, Val!  That is the key!  So many trials and errors, until, finally… Other substances, yes – I mix it with camphor and potassium carbonate to form a soap, ‘savon arsenical’! But white arsenic is the crucial ingredient. Eight ounces of it, for each finished portion. Strange that some call it a poison, strange that some say it debilitates and kills. But that is nonsense, nonsense! Otherwise, how would it preserve the birds, and make them look so well?’

Fool! He should have realised!  Levaillant and Madeleine have become lovers. Together, they are planning to take the recipe and the Cabinet to the king! To reap the rewards that should have been his long ago.  And before they go, they will kill him, and leave him here to rot…

…perhaps they have already gone, because rotting is what is happening to him.

Something shifts in his lower jaw. He puts his finger in his mouth, and feels the tooth give beneath it.  Blood. Then, with a little push, the tooth has dislodged itself entirely. And another.  And, examining the blood on his fingers, he sees that the nails are yellowed and striated. And his head – his head hurts so much!

But at least the Cabinet is still here – too large, of course, for easy removal –and the animals are all in place, and remain so perfect. Except for that one flamingo feather…

Jean-Baptiste roots about amongst the stones and creepers and shrubs, blinking closely, this way, that way, all around him.  Ah, the eye of the lizard has fallen onto its rock, but it is made of glass, an artificial construct, not of the creature.  And here, at the edge of a woven nest, another feather! Snow-white, this time, from the swan, surely – but it is only a down feather, like the flamingo’s, and really, no more than would loosen through their everyday behaviour. A little squabble perhaps, an over-enthusiastic courtship dance. Now he finds the tooth of the badger, but that, too, is false – unlike his own, it is made of porcelain. No, on the whole, everything is in good order, everything is just as it should be.  It is only he who spoils the show. For here is another tooth, dribbling from his mouth, tumbling down his waistcoat, on to the head of the disgusted peacock. And here, what is this hair?  Long filaments of grey drape themselves over the leaves of the jacaranda. And there, the surface of the turtle-shell is dusted with flakes of desiccated skin. All fallen from his body, all witness to his decay.

He sees himself then, reflected in the mirror that serves as the drinking-hole he has provided for the animals. He sees a man far older than his years, his hair mostly gone, his cheeks sunk by the lost teeth, his skin covered in sores. He sees and doesn’t see, for his vision comes and goes now. Just like his mind.  Bécoeur sinks to the ground, and weeps silently– his body racked by dry sobs, because the arsenic has dried his tears. ‘What have I done?’ he asks the lizard. ‘What have I done?’ he screams at those who watch him from without, whilst banging his forehead against the glass.

‘Come away,’ Madeleine tells him, sweet, gentle Maddie, who has been faithful to him all these years.

‘Help me, my love, help me, please!’

‘Take my arm,’ says Levaillant, the only one who has ever believed in him.

‘You must rest,’ says the kindly doctor, for, it seems, there is a doctor here, as well as his old assistant.  ‘And stay away from the poison. And from your specimens. It lingers on them still.’

But how can he stay away from his Cabinet, his own perfect world, his paradise?

Besides, it is too late now. The doctor knows it, in truth; and Levaillant – that is why he has returned, to be with him at the end. Madeleine knows it. That is why she is crying…

The flamingo and the toucan, the purple gallinule and the gentle dove – all have known for a long time. Only he did not.

Bécoeur is dancing with the flamingo again. No, no, no.  It is Madeleine he dances with now.  And there is no waltz, not even a minuet. A vague shuffle is all he can manage.

‘This is foolish, Jean!’ his pink feathered wife tells him.  ‘The doctor said you must stay quiet!’

‘But it is good to dance, my little bird!  Do you not know that dancing is an antidote to the poison? And music! Sing, my sweet! La-la, la-la-la!’

Yes, surely he has read this somewhere, in some journal, or paper. But, no, no, he suddenly remembers – that is what you must do if a tarantula has bitten you.  And yes, he has one in his Cabinet, spinning its web between the bushes, and catching the flies and the moths, but it has never caught him. He has always been careful to avoid its den, just as he never steps near the scorpion, or the snake, that waits behind the mossy boulder, with its fangs visible, ready to pounce. None of these things has poisoned him. He has done that himself.

Still, his creatures are grateful for his efforts, for here they are, lining up on either side of the two dancers, applauding as they stagger past. The birds on one side, led by the royal swan, the quadrupeds on the other, led by the grinning monkey. To the left, the wings beat together, as furious as the humming-bird’s; to the right, the paws clap together, in frantic union. And now, they are cheering, squawking, barking, howling, screeching, until their master collapses to the ground and his heart falters and stops, just like the lark.

Diana Powell was born and brought up in Llanelli, South Wales, and studied English at Aberystwyth University. Her short stories have featured in a number of competitions. She is the winner of this year’s ChipLit Festival prize. In 2013, she won the Allen Raine award, and in 2014, the PENfro prize. In 2016, she was long-listed for the Sean O’Faolain, short-listed for the Over the Edge New Writer, and was a runner-up in the Cinnamon Press awards. Last year, she was long-listed for the Leicester Writes and the Yeovil prizes, and earlier this year, short-listed for the H.E. Bates award. Her work has been published in several journals and anthologies, including ‘The Lonely Crowd’, ‘The Blue Nib’ and ‘Crannog’. Esther Bligh is her first novella, published last June by Holland House Books.

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