Sunday, October 23, 2005


I'm pleased to say that outside of cats I've had no intimate relationship with the smaller, furrier animals of our world, with one exception.

When I was very young I stood beside a lake in Iowa and did something I've never done since. Upon finding myself confronted with a dead, prostrate beaver -- an enormous one, easily three and a half feet long, and weighing a good 60 pounds -- that had been killed by a hunter, I spontaneously grasped it by the wrists and lifted it as high as I could. Not very high, since I was, as I say, very young, and a huge dead beaver is an unwieldly bulk for even a strong, well-proportioned man in full charge of his limbs to heft manually.

Why did I do this? Ah. I did it, I remember, to impress the people who were standing around me, all of them adults except for my sister, who was two years older than me. I wanted to appear objective and only abstractly interested in the question of dead beasts, unafraid of death or of incipiently rotting animal corpses. I wanted to appear a little man, and little men like big ones never pass up the chance to hoist a dead beaver.

There was nothing pleasurable, let alone scintillating, about the contact, but undeniably there was a sensation to it. That was of dull fascination at holding something so large and so dead. I've never seen a dead person (though I've walked past one or two covered in sheets) and certainly never lifted one: this was the closest I've come in 40 years to holding death in my hands.

Though there was a follow-up to that. The same hunter responsible for the death of the 60-pound beaver presented me with the severed paw of yet another -- one which, judging proportions from the paw alone, had to have been, in its wholeness, at least the size of the one I'd lifted. It was a reasonably fresh kill, since the fur upon the paw was still smooth, the bones inside firm, the skin black, leathery, and supple. It was only a glorified rabbit's foot or other prosaic dime-store charm, but I discovered it had one magical quality: If you applied the right pressure at the right point, the talons of the hand would extend and the paw would appear to flex, as if alive. Release the pressure and the paw would go lifeless again. Press, flex; release, die. It was a little god-like, life-giving, death-dealing, Frankensteinian action you could perform in your hand upon the hand of another organism, so recently warm-blooded and animate, now skinned, sectioned, and disseminated to a half-dozen places and purposes.

The dead beaver thing (as we may as well call it) had a weird resonance with me, for two reasons:

Firstly, I was well familiar even by this young age with the story of the monkey's paw. Though the little plot itself had doubtless been around for eons, W.W. Jacobs got the royalties for setting it down in 1902, in a story that somehow turned up in every ghostly collection I had as a youngster, and to this day is anthologized as a classic story of the macabre. That it is. A husband and wife come into possession of a monkey's paw, which they're told was once charmed, or cursed, by an Indian fakir, so that each successive owner will be granted three wishes. They're warned, of course, to use their wishes wisely: "Be careful what you desire, for you may receive it," et cetera.

The first wish, for money, is granted, but in the most terrible manner. The husband and wife lose their beloved son to an industrial accident -- a factory worker, the boy is mangled in some monstrous mangling machine -- and receive a windfall in the form of a settlement from the company. The second wish: that the beloved son might return from the dead.

If you've never read the story, give yourself a shudder.

What I always recalled was that, in the Jacobs story, the utterance of each wish causes the monkey's paw to flex and vibrate in the speaker's hand: the dormant thing comes alive to work its evil magic and draw a startled shriek from the maker of the wish. So I always thought of this when holding my beaver's paw, making it flex with subtle digital movements so that it looked independent, possessed of disembodied life. And of course I made my wishes, and fancied that one might come true, and that the beaver's paw might move of its own power, and that a startled shriek might be drawn from me. I was always tensed against the horror I couldn't help but enjoy imagining.

None of my wishes came true, and no shriek was inspired. Soon enough the paw shriveled, lost its suppleness and flexibility, and began to emanate a noxious aroma. It had always been a dead thing, and now it was visibly, palpably dead. With some reluctance, I threw the paw away, fearing I'd never know miracles through the agency of a furry creature's dismembered member. And to date I haven't.

I said there were two reasons.

The other, more extensive and strange, also came from a story I'd read, dating from the early 1930s. It was that of a talking creature which some believed had taken up residence in a remote farmhouse on the Isle of Man, a tiny archipelago in the Irish Sea, two hours' boat ride from the west coast of England. The farmhouse was inhabited by the Irving family, James, Margaret, and daughter Voirrey. In September 1931 they began to hear animalistic noises of scuffling and chattering emanating from their attic. These were followed by the incomprehensible sounds of a high-pitched voice. The voice began to mimic the Irvings' words, and soon had garnered full use of the English language.

In response to the Irvings' questions, the presence began to explain itself in detail. It called itself Jef (or "Gef," in the version I first read, in a thin Scholastic Books paperback by Margaret Ronan called House of Evil). Jef claimed to be a marsh mongoose born in New Delhi in 1852, who had been purchased and transported to England many years before. He refused to show himself at first, but gradually assented to sliding a tiny hand -- again, the creep of the paw! -- through the rafters of his attic perch so that the family might examine it. (Jim Irving described it as resembling an intensely miniaturized human hand.) Eventually Jef came into full view and moved about the house more or less freely, becoming close with the Irvings despite causing no end of poltergeistian mischief involving midnight noises, food gone missing, and general irascibility with regard to visitors and other inconveniences.

I'd only ever seen the story of Jef in the Ronan book, and, since this was a collection of brief, anecdotal entertainments for preteenagers and not a footnoted work of scholarship, believed the story to have been largely invented by the author herself. But come to find out later in life (much later -- just last week, in fact) that Ronan got her facts down with essential accuracy, and that, no matter how ridiculous, the story was not her invention but quite well-known by many. Believe it or not, in its time this story was taken with, if not general credulity, then surprisingly broad interest: the famed English ghost hunter Harry Price conducted an investigation, and many newspapers sought out the Irvings for interviews and Jef for demonstrations.

Suffice to say, nothing to satisfy either science or common skepticism was ever produced, or we most certainly would have heard of it somewhere. Jef mischievously refused to perform when called upon, and only one photograph was ever taken -- Voirrey Irving's gray, skewed shot through tall grass of something that could be a log just as easily as it could be a talking 80-year-old Indian mongoose. Another photo is supposed to show Jim Irving pointing out Jef's humanoid paw as it creeps through the rafters. But this image too makes the Loch Ness photos (the first of which would appear in 1933-34 and all but wipe Jef off the UK's monster map) appear detailed and revealing.

So Jef was an entertaining hoax, and my beaver's paw had no otherworldly powers. Both are in the garbage, more or less. But both bespeak the same story-telling instinct, the need felt by many of us to fill gaps in reality with fancy and invention, to supply a bit of whatever life and excitement seem missing in an Isle of Man farmhouse, or beside an Iowa lake, or in a house with a loved one now gone. Sometimes, to fill those gaps, we outright lie; sometimes, we write it down and call it fiction; sometimes, against every kind of evidence and sense, we merely leave open the chance that the impossible could be possible. But if that dissatisfaction with mere fact is placed in a person by psychological quirk, behavioral model, or some other factor, it will be powerful, undeniable, present throughout one's life. To deny it would be, to those of this mind-set, to surrender to reality, the dullest levels of what is factual, observable, inarguable, and therefore pointless to discuss or discover.

The story-telling impulse, even shading into the hoaxing impulse, is not to be downgraded as a positive influence, a bold act of pure imagination in a world often scornful of anything not preapproved by mass acceptance (or merely mass resignation). After all, if animals talked in real life, we wouldn't need Bugs Bunny; if children didn't have a natural instinct for believing the unbelievable, we wouldn't have rabbit's feet; and if real life answered our every wish, we'd have no compelling reason to live.

Here endeth the lesson, and you may now converse amongst yourselves. Meanwhile Jef's humanoid mitt reaches out even now at his own tribute page; W.W. Jacobs' story of the monkey's paw will always be with us; and I still remember the weight of that poor beaver, the feel of that paw in mine.