28 - Taxidermy

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"It's really quite remarkable workmanship," Matt said at last, leaning back from the dog. He sank into the couch, his eyes still set upon the creature on the coffee table. Nat had to crane her neck to get a clear look at him. "The seams are perfectly hidden, the form is top-notch. Whoever mounted this obviously knew something about dogs, if not this dog in particular. The body language it captures is really stunning — incredibly lifelike."

"I've noticed," she said, and found herself drawing her arms across her body, as if chilled. "Can you make any guess about its age, or why it might have been stuffed, or...anything?"

"Well, that's an interesting thing," he said, pushing his glasses up his nose. "Taxidermy, as an art, really peaked shortly after its invention. The Victorians loved stuffing things. There wasn't much else to do, then, I guess." A little chuckle. Nat didn't join him in his laughter. "I mean. They had just learned these new preservation techniques, and a growing interest in naturalism meant people were preserving specimens left and right. But back then, realism wasn't much concern. A lot of them were stuffed with rags and sawdust and whatever else was on hand. You had explorers bringing home pelts that taxidermists just put together however they wanted, and you had artists putting together joke pieces. " He pointed to the tableau on the mantle, the mice in the schoolhouse. "Those are the more popular collector's pieces, now. A Walter Potter tableau could sell for ten-thousand dollars or more."

He seemed excited; she supposed he didn't get much of a chance to talk about this, and she was afraid to interrupt him even though she wished desperately that he would just answer her question. 

"But that's not the case here." She didn't phrase it as a question. A sinking feeling had taken over her gut, like a slowly deflating balloon. 

He shook his head. "Not at all. Someone took great care in making this dog as perfectly lifelike as possible. Capturing not just anatomical accuracy, but hints of personality. You can see it, right? The tilt of the head, the way the mouth has been made. This would not have been cheap to produce."

He hesitated, as if struggling to decide whether to keep talking. Nat stayed quiet, waiting, hoping. 

"It's so strange..." he murmured at last, leaning forward again and running his fingers once more along the hound's silky spine, his brow furrowed as if in deep concentration.

When he did not continue, Nat prompted, impatient. "What's strange?"

"It's just...if I didn't know better, I'd think that this was the Fairfax Hound."

"The what?"

His head made a quiet, involuntary jerk, his fingers still buried in the dog's pelt.

"It's...a legend, of sorts. A sort of unicorn for the taxidermy community."

Nat felt her brows raise in an unspoken question, and Matt Cook laughed, a quick humorless bark, shaking his head.

"Every profession has them. The little stories we tell." 

He pulled away from the dog but stayed leaning forward, his elbows now propped on his knees as he peered past the hound to look at Nat. The glass eyes of so many trophies clustered around them, gazing down from the walls, gave the impression of a vast audience for whatever he was about to say. 

"The Fairfax hound is, supposedly, the finest piece of taxidermy ever completed. The story goes that a nobleman, Edward Fairfax, commissioned to have his finest hunting dog stuffed by the greatest taxidermist working at the time. Supposedly, he held some sort of contest – you see how this takes on a certain mythic quality already – and the winner was given an exorbitant sum by those day's standards in order to complete the job."

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