The 7th Day
One Wednesday morning, I was walking home from work, playing my “Oh My Darling, Clementine” on my harmonica. It was about 7:00, and traffic was starting to pick up on the busier streets. Preparing to cross Kentucky Street on 13th, I noticed a rather large road-kill corpse on the opposite side of the corner. I wanted to pay my respects to the dead, so I approached it. Suspecting a member of the canine family, I was shocked to see that it was, in fact, a beaver. I saw a beaver once two summers ago for half a second as he splashed back into the Kaw and swam away in the opaque waters. Up close, the beast was amazing. The tail, oh the tail, and those weird webbed feet that kind of reminded me of my ex-boyfriend’s toes. I knew that this was my big break. I had to have that beaver. I walked the block to my house scheming brilliant schemes, all of them seemingly feasible. I needed a wagon, or at least a piece of plywood big enough to use as a travois. But first, I needed the dishwashing gloves from under the sink. I would have been damned rather than to pick it up with my bare hands.
Returning to the beaver, I realized in a sudden epiphany what needed to be done. I would mummify this beaver using traditional ancient Egyptian methods, record the process photographically, make a sarcophagus to hold the remains, then write an academic article about the entire mummification procedure.
Then I came upon the Dillons shopping cart, the answer to my mumbled prayers, abandoned in the back alley. I wheeled it down the street to the supposed kill site, gingerly heaved the fifty pound beaver into the cart, and cruised down the sidewalk toward home.
When I reached my house, it occurred to me that I couldn’t just leave a dead beaver in a shopping cart in the front yard. So I rolled her up in some carpet padding from the dumpster, then phoned my old sculpture professor for a quick mummification consultation. I had worked with dead animals before, but they were all self-desiccating ones, like birds, bats, crustaceans, and insects. My former professor insisted upon removing all the organs and suggested packing the body in diatomaceous earth. I needed a quick fix, so I went to Dillons for salt and baking soda, in which I coated the animal on both sides before re-wrapping her. This is very similar to the natron solution used by Ancient Egyptians to dry corpses after the removal of vital organs.
On Sunday afternoon, my veterinarian sister, Amy, came into town to assist with the anatomical identification. Andrew, my permanent partner in crime and free-lance photographer, recorded the bloody event with his Nikon camera. My roommate, Rani, assisted with moral support and held her nose. We had prepared a concoction of herbs with which to fill the abdominal cavity after removing the liver, stomach, intestines, and lungs. The brain, heart, and kidneys would remain in the body according to older dynastic tradition, as they were thought to be of little spiritual value.
Cutting open the abdomen was not as gut-wrenching as I had anticipated, and pulling out and identifying the organs was actually very interesting; I hadn’t dissected anything mammalian before, only a starfish, a crawdad, and a frog. Given my previous experience, the organs, although remarkably intact, were much bigger than the make-shift canopic jars I was going to use. Therefore, the organs were regretfully discarded.
Toward the end of the procedure, Amy announced, “Oh, great, it looks like we have an audience.” I turned around, bloody steak knife in hand, and saw the alley neighbors staring out of their window with pale, sickened faces. I replied to Amy, “It’s their choice if they want to watch. This isn’t illegal is it?” We laughed at senseless American legalities.
The ritual was almost over. Normally, the cavity would be cleansed with wine to kill any remaining bacteria, but it was Sunday in Kansas, so I had to bypass that step. We dumped in the herbs, lacking frankincense and myhrr as well. Sometimes the incision would be closed with wax in Ancient Egypt, but we left it open to hasten draining, thus allowing the cadaver to dry more efficiently. However, it would still take seventy days for the corpse to be dry enough to perform the final exterior cleansing of blood and natron, then wrap the body in linen and place it in the sarcophagus with any earthly treasures to assist and protect the soul in the afterlife. The ka would then be able to choose between her earthly body or a variety of statues placed next to the sarcophagus if she chose to re-inhabit a three-dimensional form.
The dirty work done, Amy went home, Rani went to the bar, and Andrew and I went to see the Spanish flamenco dancers at Liberty Hall. We were heading down the alley, when I spotted two cops interrogating the spies who had been eavesdropping earlier. I tip-toed past, but it was too late. Now it was our turn for interrogation.
“Hey, is that your beaver?”
“That one? Yes, why?”
“Do you have a fur-harvesting license?”
“No, should I?”
There were muffled chuckles and kiddish glances between the slightly bewildered officers. It seems I had broken the law after all. They could have arrested me for disorderly conduct based on the account told by the terrified Peeping Toms. “Everyone has their limits as to what they find offensive,” the female cop explained.
I protested, “They didn’t have to stand there staring out the window!”
After hearing all my plans for the beaver, they agreed that I am not a worshipper of the Devil, just an artist with a flare for the macabre. “This isn’t really our area of expertise,” the male officer said, “so we’re going to have to turn your case over to the Kansas Fish and Wildlife Department.” He gave me his business card with the name and number of the local conservation officer scrawled on the back. Never once was there any expressed concern for risks to my health after dealings with a dead animal of undisclosed fate, nor was there any interest in the stolen shopping cart.
First thing Monday, I called Justin Koehn, the conservation officer, and left a message declaring my plea of forgiveness. A few hours later, I called again, offering to obtain a fur-harvesting license if I could keep the beaver. He finally returned my call, and after hearing the story in its entirety, said that he wanted to just let me keep the cadaver, in the name of art. However, he had to treat everyone equally, so he would discuss it with his colleagues and get backup opinions.
Wednesday, one week after the original encounter, the conservationist arrived at my doorstep, and I showed him the kill spot, which, after discussing the improbability of the beaver actually being road-kill, I decided to agree with Andrew, whose theory was that she had fallen off the back of a poacher’s truck. The only injury I could see was an abrasion on the back of her neck, which I had originally attributed to tire tracks but was most likely where a steel trap had snapped her neck. Hopefully it was a quick and painless death because she was such a good sport, cavorting around in that shopping cart.
I pleaded again with him to allow me to obtain the license and proceed as planned. However, the officer explained, the license still would not allow me to mummify a fur-bearing animal; it would only allow me to skin her and sell the hide. Alas, Justin had made up his mind. He wrote me a warning ticket for possession “of beaver in off-season without having 2005 fur-harvesting license,” and he took her away in a transparent plastic sack, tossing her in the back of his pick-up truck. I did cry a little, maybe a lot. I wanted so badly to say, “How can it be right to treat everyone the same when every circumstance, every situation, every way in which the law is broken is completely different? Would it not be more ethical to assess every case along with the given set of motives and rationale as well as the eventual outcome?” But he was gone, and he took his conscience and my beaver with him.
Lugubriously, I collected the natron solution with bits of blood and tissue into four little glass canopic bottles. I’ll be damned if I’ll let a man take my beaver away from me without picking up the pieces and moving on ahead. Isis knows, I’ve done it before.
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