Herman & Pierre

Flora Phillips

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Personally, I love a ‘To-do List’. This past year, more than ever, they have been something of an anchor to my waning sanity.

At the beginning of this year (2021), something I hadn’t expected ended up appearing on my ‘to-do’ list on Thursday 7th January:

 

“source mice (frozen)”.

I was brought up amongst animals, both alive and dead. Dogs, squirrels and rooks constantly roaming in the garden; chickens (and with them, inevitably, rats), bats escaping from the attic occasionally, and even the odd mouse. Memories of my mother driving 5 or sometimes 10 miles away from the house in order to set free one of the pretty little rascals we’d trapped (very humanely) in the larder with a raisin as bait. As well as these living specimens, our house contained other sorts of ‘domestic’ creatures – items of taxidermy. Amongst my mother’s collection are a Cayman, baby crocodiles, a turtle mounted on the wall, and a python and mongoose staged in dramatic conflict to represent Rudyard Kipling’s short story of Rikki Tikki Tavi. I remember when this story was first read to me, and I’d thought I recognised it from somewhere, only later to realise that I’d seen rather than heard it before – on a windowsill upstairs in my very own home, and far from the story’s native India.

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And so, on Friday 8th January 2021, I went to the local pet shop and bought 3 large mice for £4.77. I had assumed it would be a smooth transaction, but alas on the way to the till the shop assistant asked:

“So, what kind of snake do you have?”

Taken aback, I paused for a few moments to consider my options.

I hadn’t thought of a cover-story. Honesty and embarrassment prevailed as I replied:

“Oh, er, um, I actually don’t have a snake. I’d love one, but I’m getting the mice because I’ve started doing taxidermy...”

This was the shop assistant’s turn to pause, but their response came as a surprisingly democratic:

“Oh. Well, it’s the best way to source them for that – no waste, isn’t it?”

I agreed with a nervous laugh and hurried out of the shop, mice frozen, and paper-bagged.

The following day began with the first, rather crucial task of de-frosting the mouse. I was anxious because I didn’t want to run the risk of beginning to cook the mouse, but equally wasn’t keen on hacking through half-frozen flesh. Once just below lukewarm, and just the right amount of ‘squish’ in the belly could be felt, work began.

At this point, it might be curious for me to mention that I’m a fainter; squeamish to some extent, but most frustratingly I am useless at fighting the chaos my subconscious likes to toy with about pain or panic. Given this, taxidermy should be a straightforward no-go. I’m not sure at what point the evident morbidity of handling, dissecting and ‘making’ of a dead thing ends up not being too relevant for me. There are, admittedly, brief moments in which I suddenly feel disgusted with myself, in how overbearing my humanness is on such a delicate and innocent living thing. At this point, though, such thoughts can be used as a motivation towards working with utmost care, precision, and respect for the animal. Handling the mouse, you are instantly reminded of how delicate, incredibly soft, and quite wondrous it is as a creature – as complex as it is humble in its form and function.

The fur, skin and limbs are so delicate and supple in your hands, and this feels more precious than it does morbid. The intimacy in turn of handling and deconstructing a creature is also quite overwhelming at times, but also issues a curious sense of responsibility. It feels, in absurd irony, as though I must not cause any harm or offence to the mouse, during the process or in creating the finished result. That is, to not de-face, dismember or disregard any single millimetre of its body. This is no easy task. It took over a half an hour alone to make the first incision down the belly; trying to be neat and gentle enough that it will provide a good aesthetic result, but more crucially avoid piercing the inner membrane, as doing this would unleash all manner of woes, both for me and the mouse (organs, blood, the lot). Once this was overcome, then the intricate work can really begin.

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The skin is prized away from the internal body, and the ‘connective points’ of the ankles, wrists, tail and neck are located and cut through, so that eventually you are left with an intact inner body and pelt resembling a ‘body suit’ with hands, feet and tail attached. This is unavoidably graphic, it is fascinating to see inside the mouse, and one can’t help but faintly apply the same image to oneself and feel a jolt in the belly when you can see so clearly the tiny intestines and abdominal organs. The bones are almost shard-like; opaque, miniscule, but nonetheless capable of making the mouse move as nimbly and deftly as we know them for. However, they are often akin in robustness to that of a breadstick. I found myself quite literally sweating in angst when prizing the skin away from the hands and feet in particular – to dismember any of them would be, frankly, tragic.

After removing the innards, the next stage is ‘cleaning’ the skull, inside and out. The skull itself is not white but an opaque, pearly sort of pink. All the flesh needs to be scraped, torn and tweezer-ed off so that it won’t decompose back inside the mouse when it is sealed up again. This takes quite a bit of time, and removing enough of the flesh eventually dislocates the jawbones, which resemble minute webbed feet – alienated delicacy, thinner than paper (and yet capable of chewing through wire!?) Then there’s the brain. Described as ‘soup-like’ (I’d say phlegmatic), it is, I must admit, the most fun part for me. There is a lot of it. The best method is to take a cocktail stick and wrap cotton wool or kitchen towel around the tip, then inserting and rotating it around the brain cavity to absorb its contents. I am conscious of the fact that describing these methods sounds oddly like a series DIY-improv solutions – kitchen towel, cotton wool, cocktail sticks, cavities and the like (aren’t cavities also something to do with walls?) I enjoy the niftiness of it all, though.

Following this, you are left with the entire pelt, limbs, eyelids and ears turned inside-out, attached singly by the nose at the tip of the skull. The whole inside of the pelt needs to be painted with a light but thorough coating of tanning solution. Then, a coarse powder called Borax needs to be applied to the whole inner pelt, hands, feet and tail joints, and generously sprinkled into the skull cavity and massaged all around and into the skull itself. The Borax almost instantly dehydrates any remaining flesh or decomposable matter – again; crucial so as to avoid rot, odour, and goodness knows what else. This is also left to settle and dry for a while.

Once dried and settled, stuffing can start. Cotton wool is torn into little pieces and then rolled into balls or sausages – ironically, like largeish mouse-droppings – and then placed in and between the bones where the flesh used to be. This continues to build, and then finally the skin can be drawn gently back over the skull and manipulated to lie in the correct position, eyelids over eye sockets, ears oriented at just the right angle from the head. To me, this resembles most poignantly the ‘rebirthing’ sense and purpose behind the work itself. It suddenly becomes recognisable again. In making sure the teeth are correctly positioned (no jerky overbites, please), and using the very tip of a cocktail stick again to lightly prize the eyelids into position, while I find myself stroking back the fur, smoothing it over the head and face, almost as though my instinct is to congratulate it for being so brave and so beautiful despite the considerable debacle it’s been through.

I don’t think Homer cared much for mice, or oysters for that matter, but I do. For the second mouse, I wanted to challenge and advance my practice and give the mouse a little more stimulation. In order to stay in position, wire was inserted through the hands and curled over the rim of an old, hexagonal honey jar to allow the legs and feet to hang in a naturalistic way, enough to dry and eventually support the body and pose. I use his jar as a vase for local wildflowers; snowdrops are of season, currently, and correspond so beautifully with the white fur.

For the belly, stuffing can be a little more liberal – it takes quite a lot of cotton wool to really flesh out the body for a realistic resemblance. Though, at this point, you could insert wire through the hands and feet and along the body as a replacement ‘spine’ if you’re wishing for a more complex scene. For the first of my mice, I had an oyster shell saved. He now lies curled, foetal, but not in fear, in its ‘scoop’, with the tail snaking just slightly over the rim. To say I had been directly inspired by Botticelli’s ‘Venus’ is maybe facetious, though there is something of a Renaissance-charm about it in the way it suggests the mouse was born from the sea, like some auspicious myth from Classical literature. 

Lastly, it’s the eyes. For a creature as small and dainty as a mouse, little black glass beads are worthy substitutes for the real thing. While I indulge in the brain, I rather dread the eyes; I hate the way superglue globs and blubbers always too readily out of its tube. So far, it’s always the first eye that ends up being the problem, and the second one just slips into place, having sweated for many minutes over the other side of the head. But the eyes are something of a make-or-break feature. And, in successful formation, they manifest that truly magical sense of the animal when the light catches their surface and the glimmer of light – like life – is there.

Whether all of this has resulted in disgust, alarm, or outcry, I hope that still, maybe, at least some amount of curiosity can be taken from it – not necessarily for taxidermy but for the animal itself, and for our ideas of life, death and art. Those three things are what I aim to pivot my own living and thinking around. They have led me to doing taxidermy, and within it, an opportunity for all-consuming, indulgent focus and creativity. Few other phenomena or occupations have such power, and I am very happy to have found it.

And I have found Herman and Pierre.

And I hope they, like me, have found a sense of peace in life, or death, in being art.