Read the opening of Kate Mosse‘s upcoming novel The Taxidermist’s Daughter.
The Church of St Peter & St Mary
Wednesday 24th April 1912
In the graveyard of the church of St Peter & St Mary, men gather in silence on the edge of the flooded marshes. Watching, waiting.
Out at sea, the curlews and the gulls are calling, strange and haunting night-time cries.
For it is believed that, on the Eve of St Mark, the ghosts of those destined to die in the coming year will be seen walking into the church at the turning of the hour. It is a custom that has long since fallen away in most parts of Sussex, but not here. Not here, where the saltwater estuary leads out to the sea. Not here, in the shadow of the Old Salt Mill and the burnt-out remains of Farhill’s Mill, its rotting timbers revealed at each low tide. Here, the old superstitions still hold sway.
Skin, blood, bone.
Out at sea, the curlews and the gulls are calling, strange and haunting night-time cries. The tide is coming in fast, higher and higher, drowning the mud flats and saltings until there is nothing left but the deep, shifting water. The rain strikes the black umbrellas and cloth caps of the farm workers and dairymen and blacksmiths. Dripping down between neck and collar, skin and cloth. No one speaks. The flames in the lanterns gutter and leap, casting distorted shadows up and along the flint face of the church.
This is no place for the living.
The taxidermist’s daughter stands hidden in the shadow of the cypress trees, having followed her father here across the Marshes. Connie can see Gifford in the knot of men at the porch and is surprised. He shuns friendship. They live a solitary life on the other side of the Creek, in a house filled with fur and feathers, bell jars and black beaded eyes, wire and cotton and tow, all that is left of Gifford’s once celebrated museum of taxidermy. A broken and dissolute man, ruined by drink.
But tonight is different. Connie senses he knows these men and they know him. That they are bound to one another in some way.
‘When the midnight signal tolls,
Along the churchyard green,
A mournful train of sentenced souls
In winding sheets are seen.’
The words of a poem learnt in a classroom slip, unbidden, into her mind. A glimpse from the vanished days. Connie struggles to grasp the memory but, as always, it fades to smoke before she can catch hold of it.
The rain falls harder, ricocheting off the grey headstones and the waterproof wrappers and coats. Damp seeps up through the soles of Connie’s boots. The wind has come round and tugs at the skirt around her ankles. She tries not to think of the dead who lie in the cold earth beneath her feet.
Then, the sound of a man whispering. An educated voice. Urgent, anxious.
‘Is she here?’
Connie peers through the leaves into the mist, but she cannot tell from whose mouth the words came and if the question was intended for anyone in particular. In any case, there is no reply.
She is surprised by how many have made their way here and on such a night. Most she recognises in the glint of the lamp which hangs above the porch. The old village families – the Barkers and the Josephs, the Boys and the Lintotts and the Reedmans. There are only one or two women. There are also, so far as she can make out, three or four gentlemen, the cut of their clothes setting them apart. One is particularly tall and broad.
She does not recognise them and they are out of place in this rural setting. Men of business or medicine or property, the kind whose names grace the pages of the local newspaper during Goodwood Week.
Connie shivers. Her shoulders are heavy with rain and her feet numb, but she dare not move. She does not want to give herself away. Her eyes dart to her father, but Gifford is no longer standing in the same place and she can no longer pick him out in the crowd. Is it possible he has gone inside the church?
The minutes pass.
Then, a movement in the far corner of the graveyard. Connie catches her breath. The woman has her back to her and her features are hidden beneath a Merry Widow, but she thinks she’s seen her before. Drops of rain glisten on the iridescent feathers of the wide brim of the hat. She, too, appears to be hiding, concealing herself in the line of the trees. Connie is almost certain it is the same woman she saw on the Marshes last week. She certainly recognises the coat, double seamed and nipped tight at the waist.
No one comes to Blackthorn House. They have few near neighbours and her father is not on visiting terms with anybody in the village. But Wednesday last, Connie noticed a woman standing on the path, half obscured by the reed mace, keeping watch on the house. A beautiful blue double-seamed woollen coat and green dress, though the hem was flecked with mud. Willow plumes and a birdcage veil obscuring her face. A tall, slim silhouette. Not at all the sort of person to be walking on the
She assumed the woman would come to the front door and present herself, that she had some purpose for being there. Someone new to the village, coming to deliver an invitation or an introduction? But Connie waited and, after a few minutes of indecision, the woman turned and vanished into the wet afternoon.
Connie wishes now she had gone out and confronted their reluctant visitor. That she had spoken to her.
‘Is she here?’
Whispered words in the dark bring Connie back from last week to this cold, wet churchyard. The same words, but a different question.
The bells begin to toll, echoing across the wild headland. Everyone turns, each set of eyes now fixed upon the western door of the tiny church.
Blood, skin, bone.
Her heart drums against her ribs, but the flash of recollection has burnt out already.
Connie finds herself staring too. Is it her imagining or does the crowd stand back to allow those who have come – apparitions, spirits – to enter the church? She refuses to give in to such superstition, yet something is happening, some movement through the mist and air. An imprint of those who have felt Death’s touch upon their shoulder? Or a trick of the light from the wind-shaken lamp above the door? She does not consider herself impressionable, yet this promise of prophecy catches at her nerves too.
This is no place for the dead.
From her hiding place, Connie struggles to see past the men’s shoulders and backs and the canopy of umbrellas. A memory, deeply buried, sparks sudden in her mind. Black trousers and shoes. Her heart drums against her ribs, but the flash of recollection has burnt out already.
Someone mutters under his breath. An angry complaint. Connie parts the branches with her hands in an attempt to see more. Shoving and jostling, male voices rising. The sound of the door of the church flung open, banging on its hinges, and the men surge inside.
Are they looking for someone? Chasing someone? Connie doesn’t know, only that the graveyard seems suddenly emptier.
The bells toll more loudly, catching their own echo and lengthening the notes. Then a shout. Someone curses. Hands flailing against the wet evening air. A hustle of movement, something rushing out of the church, frantic motion. Connie takes a step forward, desperate to see.
Not spirits or phantasms, but birds. A cloud of small birds, flocking, flying wildly out of their prison, striking hats and graves and the stone in their desperation to be free.
Still the bell tolls. Ten of the clock, eleven.
In the confusion, no one observes the black-gloved hand. No one sees the wire slipped around the throat and the vicious twist. Savage, determined. Beads of blood, like a red velvet choker, on white skin.
The clock strikes twelve. Beneath the crack and fold of the wind and the remorseless toll of the bell, no one hears the scream.
The last discordant note shimmers into the darkness. For a moment, a vast and echoing silence. Nothing but the sound of the relentless rain and the wind, the ragged pulsing of Connie’s blood in her head.
The ghosts of all whom death shall doom.
Time hangs suspended. No one moves, no one speaks. Then, a rustling and a shifting of feet. The click of the inner church door, opening or closing, Connie cannot tell which.
‘That’s the last of them,’ someone says. ‘They’re all gone.’
A restlessness runs through the crowd remaining outside. They feel they have been played for fools. That they have been victims of a hoax. Connie, too, feels she has awoken from some kind of trance.
In pale procession walk the gloom.
She remembers, now, a woman’s voice reciting the poem out loud, a long time ago. Connie writing down the words to help commit them to memory.
Most of the birds are injured or dead. A man lifts one of the dying finches from a tombstone and throws the corpse into the hedgerow. People are talking in low voices. Connie understands that they are embarrassed. No one wishes to admit to having been duped into thinking that the sudden midnight apparition was anything other than the flight of the trapped birds. They are eager to be gone. Lifting their hats and hurrying away. Taking their leave in twos and threes.
Not ghosts. Not images of the dead.
Connie looks for the woman who’d kept watch over Blackthorn House. She, too, has vanished.
Connie wants to go into the church herself. To see what, if anything, has taken place. To see with her own eyes if the hymn books are all in their usual places, if the striped bell rope is tethered to its usual hook, if the pews and the polished plaques and the lectern look the same. To try to work out how so many birds could have become trapped inside.
Keeping to the shadows, she steps out from her hiding place and moves towards the church. All around the porch, tiny bodies litter the ground. Chaffinch and siskin, silent now. Brambling, greenfinch, linnet. In different circumstances, Connie might have taken them, but her duty to her father is not yet discharged. She still can’t see him and is worried he has slipped away. Frequently, she is obliged to follow him home from the Bull’s Head to ensure he doesn’t slip into the dangerous mud on the Marshes and come to harm. Tonight, despite this strange ceremony in the churchyard, is no different.
Finally, she does catch sight of him. She watches as he puts out his hand to steady himself, staggering from the church wall to a sepulchre tomb. In the single lantern left burning, she sees his bare hands are red, raw, against the stone and lichen. Dirty, too. His shoulders slump, as if he has survived some elemental ordeal. A pitiful sound comes from his throat, like an animal in pain.
Then Gifford straightens, turns and makes his way down the footpath. His step is steady. Connie realises that the sharp rain and the cold and the birds have sobered him. For tonight, at least, she need not worry about him.
Bone, blood, skin. A single black tail feather.
A black glass bead is blowing back and forth on the path. Connie picks it up, then hurries after her father. She does not notice the dark, huddled shape lying in the northeast corner of the graveyard. She does not notice the twist of bloody wire.
Connie does not know that, a matter of yards from the broken bodies of the songbirds, a woman now also lies dead.
Wednesday 1st May
Connie looked down at the scalpel in her hand. Quicksilver-thin blade, ivory handle. To the untrained eye, it looked like a stiletto. In other houses, it would be mistaken for a paring knife for vegetables or fruit.
The perfumes of the trade were pungent – alcohol, the musty odour of flax tow, linseed oil, the paints for the claws and feet, beaks and mounts
Connie cradled the dead jackdaw in her hands, feeling the memory of warmth and life in its dead muscle and sinew and vein, in the heavy droop of its neck. Corvus monedula. Black glossy birds, with ash grey necks and crowns.
Pale eyes. Almost white.
Her tools were ready. An earthenware bowl with a mixture of water and arsenical soap. Several strips of cloth and a pail on the floor at her feet. Paper. Pliers and scalpel and file.
Gently, Connie laid the bird down on the newspaper. With her fingers, she parted the sooty feathers and lined up the blade at the top of the breast bone. Then, with the anticipation she always felt at the moment of incision, she manoeuvred the tip into place, looking for the best point of entry.
The jackdaw lay still, accepting of its fate. She breathed in and slowly exhaled. A ritual of sorts.
The first time Connie had been taken inside her father’s workshop, the smell made her nauseous – of flesh and undigested food and rotting carrion.
Blood, skin, bone.
In those early days, she’d worn a handkerchief tied across her nose and mouth. The perfumes of the trade were pungent – alcohol, the musty odour of flax tow, linseed oil, the paints for the claws and feet, beaks and mounts – too strong for a child’s sensibilities. Over the years, Connie had become accustomed to them and now she barely noticed. If anything, she believed that acknowledging the scent of things was an integral part of the process.
She glanced up at the high windows that ran the length of the workshop, tilted open today to let in the fresh air. The sky was a welcome shock of blue, after the weeks of rain. She wondered if she might persuade her father to come down for lunch. Perhaps a cup of beef tea?
Since the events in the churchyard a week ago, Gifford had barely left his room. She heard him pacing up and down until the early hours, muttering to himself. It wasn’t good for him to be so cooped up. Last night, she’d come upon him standing on the half landing, peering out over the darkening Creek, his breath misting the glass.
Connie was accustomed to his dissolute condition in the days following a bout of drinking. Even so, she’d been alarmed by his physical deterioration. Blood-shot eyes, his face gaunt and six days’ worth of stubble on his chin. When she asked if there was anything she might do for him, he stared at her without appearing to have the slightest recollection of who she was.
She loved her father and, despite his shortcomings, they rubbed along well enough. Taxidermy was not considered a suitable job for a woman, but Gifford had – in secret – gone against tradition and passed on his skills to her. Not merely the cutting and the stuffing and the dexterity, but also his love and passion for his craft. The belief that, in death, beauty could be found. The belief that, through the act of preservation, a new kind of life was promised. Immortal, perfect, brilliant, in the face of the shifting and decaying world.
Connie couldn’t recall precisely when she had gone from passive observer to Gifford’s apprentice, only that it had turned out to be essential. Her father’s hands were no longer steady. His eye was no longer true. No one was aware that it was Connie who carried out the few commissions they still received. Business would have declined in any case. Tastes had changed and the mounted animals and birds that once graced every parlour had fallen out of fashion with the new century.
All the same, even if they never sold another piece, Connie knew she would continue to do the work she loved. She held within her the memory of every bird that had passed through her hands. Each creature had left its imprint upon her as much as she had left her mark on it.
Through the open windows, Connie could hear the jackdaws chattering in their new colony in the poplar trees at the end of the garden. Earlier in the spring, they’d set up residence between the chimney stacks of Blackthorn House. In March, a nest had come down into the drawing room, a collapse of twigs and hair and bark sending the cold remains of the fire billowing out onto the furniture. Particularly distressing were the three speckled, partially-hatched blue-green eggs and the one tiny chick, tangled in the debris, its beak still open. The distraught cawing of the mother had haunted the house for days.
Connie looked down at the bird on the workshop counter.
Once begun, it was important to work fast before the natural processes of decay took hold.
Unlike its living companions, this jackdaw would never age. Thanks to her care and skill, it would be preserved at one dazzling moment in time. Eternal, forever poised for flight as if it might, at any moment, come back to life and soar up into the sky.
Pushing everything else from her mind, Connie lined up the scalpel, and cut.
At first, a gentle shifting, nothing more. Then the tip of the blade pierced the skin and the point slipped in. The flesh seemed to sigh as it unfolded, as if the bird was relieved the waiting was over. The journey from death back to life had begun. A leaking of liquid and the distinctive coppery smell of meat. The feathers carried within them a scent of dust and old clothes, like a parlour left unaired.
The cloudy eyes of the bird stared up at her. When Connie was done, its eyes would be an ivory white again. Glass, not jelly, shining as brightly as they had in life. It was hard to find a good match for a jackdaw’s eyes. Pale blue when young, like jays, then shifting through dark to light.
Connie let her shoulders drop and allowed her muscles to relax, then began to peel the skin from the flesh with her fingers. Cutting, pulling back, cutting again. The deep red of the breast, the colour of quince jelly, the silver sheen of the wings. She took care to keep the intestines, lungs, kidneys, heart intact in the abdominal sac, so she could use the body as a guide for the shaping to come.
She worked slowly and methodically, wiping the tiny pieces of tissue, feathers, blood and cartilage from the point of the blade onto the newspaper as she went. Rushing, the tiniest slip, might make the difference between a clean job and a possibility ruined.
Connie allowed two days for a carrion bird – a jackdaw like this, or magpie, rook or crow. Once begun, it was important to work fast before the natural processes of decay took hold. If all the fat was not scraped from the bones, there was a risk of maggots destroying the bird from within. The first day was spent skinning, washing and preparing the bird, the second in stuffing and positioning.
Each task was mirrored left and right, she followed the same sequence each time. Either side of the breastbone, the left wing and then right, the left leg and the right. It was a dance, with steps learnt through trial and error and, in time, perfected.
Connie reached for her pliers from their hook and noticed that she would have to order some more wire for mounting. She started to loosen the leg bones. Twisting back and forth, the scraping of the side of the scalpel as the flesh came loose, then the snap of a knee joint.
They knew each other now, Connie and this bird.
When she had finished, she placed everything she did not need – tissue, stray feathers, damp scraps of newspaper – into the pail at her feet, then turned the bird over and moved on to work on the spine.
The sun climbed higher in the sky.
Eventually, when her muscles were too cramped to continue, Connie folded the bird’s wings and head in on itself to prevent the skin from drying out, then stretched her arms. She rolled her neck and shoulders, flexed her fingers, feeling satisfied with her morning’s work. Then she went out through the side door into the garden and sat in the wicker chair on the terrace.
From the roof of the ice house, the colony of jackdaws continued to jabber and call. A requiem for their fallen comrade.
Taken from The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse, published 11th September
You can pre-order The Taxidermist’s Daughter now