Post Road Magazine #27

Manual de Zoología Fantástica

Melissa Febos

I.

I have been reading bestiaries. The reason for this is a book I am writing, or trying to write, about the beasts in me — historical, spiritual, emotional, psychological, genetic, and so on. The paradox of caging such things both compels and frustrates me. But we have been attempting to index the intangible for a long time. Sometimes we need bars, or words, between us and our monsters, through which to see them. I always do. And, a glossary of our most terrible conjurings? Who can resist? The classification of gods and monsters implies that boundaries can be imposed on the infinite, order put on the imagination and its makings. This is why all my stories start with lists, outlines, the dictionary. Every story is a bestiary, I think. I know mine are.

In this one, I am zookeeper, zoo, and beast; hand and scalpel and slit open. It is a messy undertaking. My menagerie also inhabits a love story, or maybe the love story inhabits it. That is, I am in love and I am trying to write about it. This love, like this writing, is a groping through the dark, in which the beasts peer out from their cages. Some coo and preen, mechanical mockingbirds, wind-up wonders that march out of me like an ark. Others transform, protean, teeth sheathed into black gums, eyes zipping closed, limbs melting into torsos, slithering free. Some whir, suspended like hummingbirds, beaks' nectar-sweet needles sliding down my throat, drinking me. Others enfold, fingers hooked into my soft places, all arms and spilling hair and falling me into her dark sea of eyes.

II.

A week ago, my dog died. He was my principle beast—Falcor to my Atreyu, Orthrus to my Geryon, Sirius to my Orion.

In my early days with Red, he slept in bed with me. Some nights, I would lift the blanket to look at him, curled in the cave of our bodies' heat. He'd shift, dragging the bloodshot membrane of his eye up just enough to glimpse me, then sigh back to sleep. There is an animal in my bed, I would think, stoner-stunned every time. I never took it for granted. An animal in my bed. A 70-pound beast.

And he was beautiful, coated in red fur whose softness people often remarked on. Skin puppy-loose, it slid over his muscled body in movement. His paws smelled nutty, like corn chips, and every night, I would press my nose to their cool pads, breathe in. I marveled at him, so alive, so himself, but also mine. Free from the ambiguities of human affection, I understood how every beloved animal is a work of God, made from blood and bone and breath, but also a fabulous beast, a creature of our imagination. Red was a dog. But he was also Pegasus, unicorn, phoenix—winged, horned, and ablaze with his meaning to me. Everything we love becomes a centaur, I knew, as his warm weight leaned against my legs—our own likeness sprung up from their animal bodies.

III.

From Richard de Fournival's Bestiare d'Amour (a French philosopher's thirteenth century love letter-cum-bestiary) to A Medieval Book of Beasts, to Rebecca Solnit and Mona Caron's contemporary A California Bestiary, they are many and varied and each a curious and compelling hybrid of index and imagination. But if pressed to recommend just one, I choose Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings. His bestiary lists 120 beasts, not only from classic Greek derivation (Harpies, Minotaurs, and Centaurs abound), but also Asian, Middle-Eastern, Indian, Irish, Jewish, and Scandinavian. From literary allusions such as Kafka's Odradek, H.G. Wells' Morlocks, and C.S. Lewis's Singing Beast, to Biblical characters such as Lilith, Borges mixes fable, philosophy, humor, and poetics in the strange and perfect manner that is his alone.

My recommendation is also this: enter the labyrinth. Ask the Sphinx her riddle. Let her destroy you. Let the beasts of love ravage you, because like the Baldanders, the Soon-Another, you are a "successive monster," and will not be killed, but changed. Love your beasts. Let them change you.

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