About the Author

Johanna Skibsrud

Books by this Author
Nothing that Is, The

Nothing that Is, The

Essays on Art, Literature and Being
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Sentimentalists, The

Sentimentalists, The

also available: Paperback
tagged : literary
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Tiger, Tiger

Finally, I managed to seize on something. I lifted it, trem­blingly, from the bag, and Dr. Singh and I crouched together in order to gaze, with wonder and delight, at . . . well, at nothing. We could see almost nothing at all at the tweezers’ pinched end. I motioned to Dr. Singh to move aside, and in unison the two of us shuffled a pace or two so that our backs were now to the door rather than to the window, and the specimen was suddenly exposed to the light. Now, we could just barely make out a small speck, as inconsequent seeming as a mote of dust. It was so slightly different in colour and texture from the air that if we had not been looking very hard we would, almost certainly, not have seen it all.
     There it was. The tiger.
It had been Dr. Wolff, in fact—not either myself or Dr. Singh— who had stumbled on the idea. He who had first informed us of the team of Russian scientists who had recently unearthed the remains of a laboratory dating back at least a hundred years, since sometime before the Last War. The laboratory had evidently been affiliated with a wildlife sanctuary and had housed the genetic information of at least several now extinct Siberian tigers. The specimens had been carefully stored, and three of them had been recovered—it was tempting to say miraculously—intact. They were now being sold to the highest bidder.
     A lab in Moscow had already snatched up one of them, Dr. Wolff informed us. But their science programming hadn’t yet fully recuperated from the war, and it was doubtful that anything would come of it. The second specimen had been sold shortly after, to a collector from Brazil. He would keep it on some high shelf in his Rio penthouse, no doubt, Dr. Wolff sniffed. Show it off whenever he remembered it to his more fashionable guests. 
     The Chinese would almost certainly sweep up the last speci­men. Take it back to their laboratories and—hastily, without a thought to the consequences—create their own little monster . . .
      “Yes! That would be just like them,” Wolff cried. “A scien­tific approach like that of a spoiled child!”
      Dr. Singh began to fiddle with the top button of his laboratory coat. I gazed ahead, using a technique I’d perfected—my eyes making just enough contact with the doctor to suggest attention, but in fact gazing steadily past him, toward the row of high shelves that flanked his desk.
      The shelves housed the Wolff’s own collection—the extent and variety of which would have impressed even a Brazilian collector. And just like the specimens in Rio, there was no more promising future for these than to remain where they were, gathering dust and waiting for the day when, in a burst of paternal affection, Wolff would take out the feather duster he kept for the purpose and dust each jar—contemplating their secrets, which he alone now kept. His eyes would shine as he dusted the jars in the way that eyes shine only in moments of sincerest love.
      How quickly that light would go out once the job was done! It almost made you sorry for him, the way his eyes flickered, then turned inward, toward the trap he had made of his mind. To imagine him in there, shut up and alone—the last of his kind.
      Just as for Dr. Wolff, the jars provided me with a source of respite and relief by offering me something to look at while he spoke. For some reason I couldn’t bear to listen to him and look at him at the same time. One or the other, yes—but not both. And so I would look behind him at the collection of human and chimp fetuses floating in formaldehyde, their skin grey from long exposure to preserving agents, and think about how strange it was to decay that slowly—or rather, to not decay at all. Because it was the preservative process that was slowly eating away at the specimens, not the other way around—the possibil­ity of their own immortality that was now slowly destroying them. Sometimes I even imagined I could see it happen. That I could actually detect, in the length of time that I gazed at them, their incremental deterioration. (No doubt this was only my imagination; the oldest specimens, boasted Wolff, were nearly four hundred years old. It was quite ridiculous to imagine that given that great length of time I, who was witness only to the smallest fraction of it, might actually be able to see the moment in which some identifiable change occurred.)
     Other times, I would amuse myself by hazarding guesses at which of Dr. Wolff’s specimens were human and which were not, because often in the smaller, less developed specimens it was quite difficult to tell—especially from a distance. I tried to keep my eyes level, and my mind focused on this task, because if I let my eyes drift even slightly—according to some irresist­ible gravity—down toward the lower shelves, they would inevitably betray me.
      The lower shelves housed the doctor’s collection of preserved testicles—all of the human variety. It was the second-largest collection of human testicles in the world, Wolff would some­times boast, transferred into his care by the great-great-grandson of an ex-Nazi surgeon. Wolff maintained the collection “in the name of science,” though even he would have had to admit that, by this point, the evidence these specimens supplied was less scientific than spectral; from within their murky jars, they con­jured a gruesome past only Wolff was capable of looking in the eye. My own always blinked, compulsively, when they drifted to those lower levels. Or skittered away.
     It will be an immense relief, if and when the Wolff ever does finally retire, to clear out those lower shelves. Sometimes I even allow myself the brief fantasy of overseeing the operation. Of course, I would hire someone to do it; I could never bring myself to actually touch them. I would merely watch as the specimens were carried away by a sanitation engineer on a metal dolly, but it would give me a great sense of satisfaction—even pleasure—to see them go.

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