When I was in my midtwenties, my apartment acquired a stuffed Canada goose, mounted in full flight. Although this was around the time when taxidermy was becoming obligatory for a certain breed of sepia-toned downtown restaurant, there was nothing ironic about ours, which my then boyfriend had shot himself on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The less said about his hunting proclivities the better—and I’m sure you could say all sorts of obvious things that were later borne out—but I liked that the goose had a provenance, which is a true urban rarity.
We named him Manticore, after the Robertson Davies novel (he was, after all, Canadian) and generally assumed he would be a whimsical addition to the household. How wrong we were. Manticore, it soon turned out, was a dreary and oppressive presence. Somehow, he became indelibly endowed, in our minds, with a humorless earnestness. It started as a joke but quickly took on a life of its own. We imagined him policing our conversations, interjecting superior opinions, and staring down judgmentally with his glassy eyes. Manticore, we somehow sensed, had strong and implacable opinions on matters like universal healthcare and, possibly, 9/11 conspiracies. He disapproved of levity. He would have been heavily involved in experimental theater, if he hadn’t been a stuffed goose. I grew to hate Manticore.
Initially, I’d thought Manticore would be an integral part of decorating schemes, gamely donning scarves and garlands as the season dictated. When I knew him better, this was out of the question—say what one will about the goose, he had a certain dignity. We might strip him of life, we might force him into unwilling cohabitation, but somehow he would maintain the autonomy of the wild.
When the relationship ended, Manticore took up residence in my former boyfriend’s new bachelor pad, where—since it was a studio—he loomed large. I took a certain petty pleasure in imagining the chilling effect his self-righteousness would exact on any romantic prospects. Or perhaps he’d find another woman more to his liking. Manticore, I sensed, had disapproved of me.
I had put Manticore firmly out of my mind when a certain incident threw us back into contact. I say a “certain incident” as if I weren’t the actor, but in fact it was a burglary, perpetrated by me. Manticore, you see, had not been the sole animal in our ménage. Yes, we’d had two cats that I readily surrendered to my ex, but I refer instead to the inanimate kind: my contribution had been a small brass whale, some four inches from head to tail, that my grandfather had given me some years prior. Gifts from my grandfather, an inveterate thrift shopper, were not especially uncommon. Nor for that matter were brass animals. I’d given my boyfriend the whale casually and not thought much about it. After the breakup, however, the whale became an obsession. I saw its absence everywhere. It took on dramatic—perhaps tragic—significance. That it should reside, as it were, in enemy territory seemed increasingly unbearable.
And so I stole it. I knew for a fact that he was casual about locking his door—in fact, he left it unlocked so a new girlfriend could feed the cats while he was on the Eastern Shore—and it was the work of a moment to bluff my way into the building on a cat-related pretext. The whale was not hard to find—as I say, it was a small apartment; it was sitting on a bookshelf over the bed. I snatched it and dropped it into my bag. And it was then that my eye alighted on Manticore, mounted between the apartment’s two large windows, wings spread majestically. And around his neck was a cheap plastic lei. As I left the apartment, I didn’t know whether the heaviness I felt was only the solid weight of that little brass whale.
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