Fall 2018, Volume 25

Fiction by Rebeccah Dean

To Possess Nature

The birds were easy to kill. Through the water they glided gracefully, but on land they toddled like a small child. The three men remembered when they could simply pluck them off the rocks; hundreds of birds, more than they could ever eat before sailing back to shore. Some they cooked on the island—birds in the pot and birds underneath, their black, oily bodies set aflame.

When a market opened for their feathers, the men harvested at their nesting grounds all summer long. They stopped bothering to kill them. Just tossed their naked bodies into the water and let them drift away, still alive, their feathers later stuffing a pillow or adding a fashionable touch to a hat.

But the birds were hard to find now. The rarer the birds became, the more collectors paid for a beak or a bone. Museums needed skins, innards, skeletons. No one had seen a single bird in over a year. Until now.

Last night, the three men overheard a fisherman down by the docks: He had seen a nesting pair on Eldey island.

The sea was rough around Eldey. Two men had already drowned near the island since the beginning of the year. One got tangled up in a fishermen’s net, his body dark and bloated, like some monster from the deep. But if the sailors caught the birds, they would be paid over a year’s wages by some rich man on the continent. Over a year’s wages! They left before dawn.

A thin fog hung over the island as the three men clamored ashore. When they reached the top of the cliff, hundreds of seabirds took off into the mist, their cries echoing across the water, the surface they left behind pocked and barren like the moon. The two birds they wanted, large and flightless, stayed behind. On their nest lay an egg the size of a man’s fist. The birds struggled to their feet and waddled towards the edge of the cliff, their wings tucked close against their bodies. If the sailors didn’t act fast, they’d dive off the rocks and disappear under the waves.

The first man caught the smaller bird, pinning it to the ground where it squawked and thrashed about, until the second man came from behind and snapped its neck. The third man—oldest of the three, with several missing teeth and dark patches on his skin—went after the larger bird, which he caught seconds before it jumped into the water. But the bird did not cry out. It only flapped its wings three times, blinking at him, and the man felt almost sorry for the beast before he knocked it over the head.

The men carried the limp bodies back to the boat, already arguing about how to split the money. During the chase, the third man accidentally crushed the egg with his boot, its insides now oozing out over the ground, slime and yellow streaked with red. In the center, a tiny heart still pulsed and pumped, beating and beating and beating: until it stopped.

And then there were none.


Twenty years ago, when he was still a young man, Count von Sidell went to observe a colony of Great Auks nesting on rocky islands off the coast of St. Kilda. His guide, a local Scotsman, was close to his age but looked much older. Brawny and rugged, the man’s skin was raw and cracked in places, a tangled mass of red hair falling nearly to his shoulders. The Count had been a sickly child, prone to fainting spells; his pale skin had an almost bluish cast, not unlike Wedgwood porcelain.

They went out in the man’s boat; the Count sat at the stern with his binoculars to watch the birds, a woolen blanket spread across his lap. The Scotsman stood at the bow and chewed tobacco. The dribble trickling down his chin each time he spat made the Count think of the brown liquid grasshoppers let out of their mouths before he pinned them to a mounting board when he was a child.

By mid-morning a southwesterly wind came over the sloping shores of the island, the ocean swells increasing in number and intensity. It became harder for the Count to sketch the birds in his note book, a carefully drawn wing ruined by an uneven stroke when his hand slipped, upset by the choppy water. The drizzle turned more to rain, which smeared the ink.

“I say, is it safe to be out?” The Count carefully formed the English words he'd learned the year he spent in Oxford.

But the man only gave a nod. “Aye,” he muttered.

The Count’s stomach turned. If they didn’t go back soon, he would retch over the side of the boat; he did not want to vomit in front of this man.

“Please, take me back to shore. I have enough of what I need.”

The man nodded, spitting one last glob of chaw into the water before he turned the boat around. The waters were calmer on the way back to St Kilda, and the Count’s stomach settled.

Before they left the Great Auk colonies behind them, the Count had the man harvest an egg for his collection. The man stopped the boat at a sliver of an island, little more than a rock peeking out from underneath the waves. On its surface was one egg, guarded by a single Great Auk. The bird squawked and flapped its useless wings as the man approached; it looked cartoonish, like a clumsy caricature of a penguin.

The man held the boat with one hand and with the other grabbed the egg, pushing aside the awkward bird with his foot as it continued its noisy protest. A Scottish Hercules of the sea, balancing for a moment on one leg. If the Count were so inclined, he might have fallen for him.

A few weeks later, an assistant at the Count’s laboratory in Berlin dropped the egg onto the floor where it shattered, spilling out its rotten, gray-green contents across the stone. The idiot assistant, clumsier than the Great Auk from which the man had taken the egg. Breaking the egg wasn’t the first mistake the boy had made, but it was the one that cost him his job. It took nearly two days to get the stench out of the room.

Could the Count have taken that Great Auk home with him all those years ago near St Kilda, commanding the Scottish Hercules to snap its neck as though it were an insubstantial twig? No. He hadn’t yet come into his fortune and the egg had cost him enough; the man had known its worth.

But at the time it didn’t seem necessary: Near St. Kilda, the Count had counted thirty-two nesting pairs on the biggest island and at least a dozen more spread out across the smaller rocks. Now, twenty odd years later, the birds were on the brink of extinction. The rarer the Great Auk became, the more the Count needed one for his collection: for posterity, for preservation.

When word came a pair had been harvested in Iceland, the Count immediately put in a bid for both birds. He outbid a Belgian naturalist and a Swedish prince on the male but lost the female to an English Lord.

His Great Auk was shipped from Reykjavík in late July, its body wrapped tightly in several layers of muslin, like an avian mummy, and placed between blocks of ice in a wooden crate. The howling gales over the Atlantic kept the body cool, but Hamburg was boiling when the crate arrived at the docks. Under their parasols, the ladies wilted like lettuce left on a plate in the sun as they strolled along the Elbe River. By the time the Count’s men picked up the crate at Anhalter Bahnof the ice blocks had mostly melted, the body limp and showing the first signs of decay. If it had arrived in Berlin a few days later, the bird might have been entirely beyond repair.

When the Count opened the crate at the museum, the creature soggy but luckily still intact, he wept: A Great Auk, Pinguinus impennis, the Schmuckstück of his collection. Quite possibly the last one in the world.

And it belonged to him.

The Great Auk’s display housed an elaborate cliff—black, with specks of chalk for bird droppings—sculpted from steel wires coated with several layers of cement and burlap soaked in plaster. A mural of the sea was on the wall and several stuffed seagulls hung from the ceiling. In the middle of the cliff stood the bird with an egg at its feet. The Count had it mounted at an angle so visitors might feel the Great Auk eyeing them warily, as though disturbed in its natural habitat. The egg he made himself, sanding down the gypsum plaster to the exact diameter and carefully painting the uneven stripes, each a swirl of muted brown. The entire project took nearly eight months to complete—it still smelled like fresh paint behind the glass.

The Kaiser had arranged a private viewing tomorrow morning and the official unveiling at the Naturkundemuseum was in the afternoon, the Great Auk’s display cloaked behind a black velvet curtain and a fanfare played in celebration. But the Count wanted his wife to see it first.

Their footsteps echoed in the hall as they walked arm in arm up to the display. When they reached it, the Countess leaned in to take a closer look. Her stomach, swollen with child, touched the glass. “Beautiful.”

“Yes, isn't he? Such a pity there are so few of them. I daresay, this one might be the last.”

 “If only Friedrich were here.”

Friedrich. Oh course.

“In due time my dear, in due time.”


The Countess was fifteen years younger than the Count, her feet inside her boots the dainty feet of a child. From the moment they met at Schloss Cecilienhof she became his beacon, her smile like sun upon his face, her laugh more heavenly than Haydn. They got married at Deutscher Dom, their reception on the banks of the Havel with white roses and wild boar and meaty bones for the Kaiser’s dogs. Two years later she gave birth to their first child, a son. They named him Friedrich.

From the moment Friedrich was born, the Countess doted on the boy. She made no use of the governess, allowing the poor fool to become quite fat and idle. “Let the woman take the child,” he told his wife, eager to have her go back to pinning beetles and butterflies like she did before Friedrich was born. But the Countess wouldn’t hear of it. She wanted to take care of the boy herself.

Since Friedrich, the Countess didn’t often let the Count into her bed. If she was awake when he came to her room, the candles flickering in the whoosh of air he let in as he opened the door, she usually told him she had a headache or her monthly curse or some other ailment. Sometimes she was already asleep or pretending to be. When she did let him into her bed she never made a sound, just stared up at the curtains and mahogany bed posts.

The Count came less and less to her bedroom.

But it wasn’t really sex he wanted from his wife. Sex was easy enough to have for a handful of coins. No, what he wanted from his wife was her devotion. What worthier task could a wife have than to recognize the God-like in her husband and worship it, allowing her husband to idolize her in return?

Last summer, three weeks after the Great Auk arrived, his doctor told him the Countess was pregnant again. When the man shook his hand in congratulations, the Count's first thought, his hope, was maybe she’ll love this child less.  

Behind the glass, the Count’s Great Auk loomed triumphantly over the plaster egg. The bird had been brooding an egg when it was captured, but one of its hunters—a sailor, no doubt an uncouth man—had accidentally crushed it with his boot when he chased the poor beast down. While he shaped the plaster egg for the display, the Count thought about him and his fool of an assistant. He clenched his teeth with each stroke of paint he brushed across the egg’s powdery surface: His collection, incomplete because of the clumsiness of careless men.

But as the Countess traced her fingers across the glass, enraptured by his specimen, he couldn’t help but think splendid, simply splendid. The bird was male and its egg a convincing fake, but the Countess, his wife, she was expecting. Maybe this was her path: to become fully mother, a mysterious creature, less than a quarter his.

Maybe he could let her go.

He could focus on carnality after all.

Yes, he would go mistress shopping after the baby was born, or perhaps before.

But Friedrich and the child to come, his children, they were there for him to shape and mold.

“To possess nature is to love it.”

This would be his first lesson; the most important thing to know.


Her husband’s idea had worked. The Countess felt like the bird was staring at her with its one visible eye, willing her to leave. If it weren’t for the egg, it would have long since made for the waves. Its grooved beak, the white tuft of feathers on its cheek, the flipper-like wings at its side, the cliff, the soaring seagulls and wild waves of the painted sea. Beautiful. She traced her fingers across the glass as though to test if anything could separate their worlds.

When the Countess was a girl, she once found a baby crow. The bird had fallen out of a nest high up in the beams of an old barn on her father’s land, pink skin still showing through the edges of its downy feathers. She carried the bird home in the folds of her dress and fed it berries, worms and grubs she gathered in the garden. The crow unhinged its beak, the inside of its mouth scarlet and moist, its pink, darting tongue not unlike the worms it gobbled. How easy it would be to stop feeding it, watching the bird grow weak as it wasted away.

But the Countess did no such thing.

The crow fledged and flew away, but still came to visit, sometimes bearing gifts: a bit of string, a hair pin, a silver necklace with a broken clasp.

Crows often gathered on the roof of their summer house on Usedom, cawing from their waxy beaks over the garden towards the Baltic Sea—how had the fox ever tricked one into believing he wished to hear its song? The dahlias and calendula, the apple trees and sea buckthorn shrubs, blazing with little orange berries in the fall: The Countess loved the garden at the house, in some ways more than the sea. Last summer she and Friedrich spent many days smelling every flower in the garden. They took turns, the Countess lifting him up for the hollyhocks, laughing when she later brushed the pollen off his nose. One afternoon, when they were picking berries in the forest at the edge of the garden, she turned away from him, only for a second. But when she turned back, Friedrich was gone. The Countess ran through the woods and clearing, muddying her boots and ripping her skirt, her voice hoarse from shouting his name. She found Friedrich later, fast asleep in a hollowed-out log, his little fist full of red currants, their juice smeared across his face and breeches. Even in sleep, his lips puckered at their surprising tartness.

Friedrich next to her in bed, his white blonde hair pasted to his forehead as he sleeps.

He breathes in, she breathes out; she breathes in, he breathes out.

One person, not two.

No one else has any part in it.

A week before she got married, the Countess’s mother told her sex was the cross a woman had to bear. Her mother’s teacup shuddered in the saucer as she told stories about the grievances of the marital bed. The Countess imagined sex was like a trip to the doctor’s; a man pokes and prods and pricks you with cold, hard instruments while you sit half-dressed and fully meek, the smells in the room sterile and medicinal.

But, to her surprise, the Countess liked sex: the anticipation, the pause, the blush that bloomed across her chest, in shades from pink to red. Sometimes when they were at the end, when he was about to collapse on top of her, the Countess wondered: Does it matter to him he’s inside me and not some other woman? Or for a man is it all the same?

Since Friedrich, sex has become more like her mother’s version: a distasteful inevitably, avoided until her husband’s strings were strung so tight they were bound to snap. Now, when he’s inside of her, she’s off somewhere, mentally listing the names of trees she will teach Friedrich next time they take a stroll through Tiergarten.

The Great Auk’s organs and innards were floating in jars of formaldehyde on rows of shelves in the Count’s laboratory. If the Countess lifted its heart from the yellow-hued liquid and cut it in two she would find four chambers, avian hearts the same as mammalian.

But the Countess’s heart was different; her heart had only one chamber with room enough for a single occupant.

When the new baby came, the governess would have something to do at last.

The Countess traced her fingers across the glass: the poor stuffed bird, perched on a fake cliff, standing watch over a painted egg made of plaster. If only the egg were real. Not an empty specimen, numbered and cataloged, like her husband wanted, his face dark and furrowed whenever he cursed his old assistant and the sailor, mourning the eggs that had slipped from his grasp. She wanted the egg to be fully alive, its insides a web of pulsing capillaries.

If the egg were alive, would it be enough to cradle it against her chest to see if she could sense the quivering life inside the shell? Or would she smash the egg between her hands, ending a life before it started just because she could?

She’s not sure which one she’d choose.




BIO: Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Rebeccah Dean has lived in Berlin, Germany since 1999. She's had work published in Sixfold. You can read more about Rebeccah on her website rebeccahdean.com