For J. F. Dewar, Naturalist, Bird-Stuffer, 
and Importer of Fine Birds, 1892 by Elizabeth Burton

My husband lived in the house’s dead place,
the shadowy back room 
where delivery boys knew 
to bring his bundles of dead birds.
Sometimes, they came with a note 
from a tearful elderly lady,
explaining how much she missed 
her small singing companion, 
and the comfort it would give
to have Tweet’s essence preserved 
as only a naturalist bird-stuffer could do.
These letters, he said, were proof 
of his calling’s worth.
Yet still, I shuddered.

He would try to teach me words
for parts of his creatures, 
pointing at their bodies to differentiate
crest from nape, wingbar from rump, 
but I couldn’t stomach the accusation
in their lifeless eyes, 
the real reason (as I saw it)
he replaced them with glass beads.

I stayed where the birds chirped, cooed, and sang 
in immense cages of life. 
They scrapped with their neighbors, 
fell for each other, 
made love, 
raised families.
My husband saw none of that. 
When an order came in, 
he swooped a net through their world,
separating lovers as easily as enemies.
They’re only birds, he would say,
more beautiful dead.

It was only when he himself lay a corpse, 
felled by a heart too long past caring,
I saw truth in his words.
His mouth, always moving 
from one sound to another, 
had stilled into an almost-smile.
His hands, once so busy and unconcerned,
were long and gentle in repose,
and I wondered what kind of essence 
a naturalist human-stuffer could preserve.

Elizabeth Burton
grew up in the heart of Eastern Kentucky. She currently lives in far Western Kentucky on a farmette with three dogs, three cats, two birds, two horses, and one bewildered husband. Her fiction has appeared in various print and online journals, most recently in Chautauqua, The Louisville Review, and The MacGuffin, and her nonfiction has appeared in Split Lip. Find her on Twitter @eburton_writes.

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