Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Wonderland Excavations VI

Gryphon Feathers and the Mock Turtle’s Lachramatory (inspired by Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) – Antique silver-leafed wooden frame; nineteenth-century crystal tear bottle with sterling embellishment; vintage pheasant feathers; beach sand; sea shells; dried flower; rusted tacks; colour print of sand; hand-stained recipe for “Mock Turtle Soup”; colour print of hand-stained illustrations of the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle by Sir John Tenniel

The scent of the sea suddenly assails the nostrils; briny, damp and bracing. It startles, surprises. How can we be near an ocean? Has the pool of tears swelled? Has it left its banks and flooded the lowlands? The cat’s cradle of woodland roots and branches untangles, dissipates. There is clear blue sky overhead. The forest floor gives way incrementally to sand—pure, pale beach sand, thick, soft underfoot. A veritable Stonehenge of boulders arise, worn smooth by time and tide, wind and water. Salt encrusts, sparkles. Verdant ferns become water reeds; knots and snarls of seaweed proliferate. Seashells dot the strand, half-buried. The rhythmic roar of waves lures one closer. Up and over a dune and a whole seascape stretches out before us. The sky and sea are of the same colour; where does one end and the other begin?

Above the continual grumble of the ocean, another sound comes to the ear—a sobbing, ghost-like, ethereal, faint but perceptible. No. Impossible. Just an auditory hallucination spurred by the knowledge of what happened here on this lonely sweep; here where a high-spirited Gryphon and a woebegone Mock Turtle once roamed and ruminated.

A Gryphon you must know—a mythical beast with the body of a lion and the head, wings and front claws of an eagle; a magnificent creature emblazoned for history on heraldic shields and family crests.

But the Mock Turtle? Ahhh, there’s a different kettle of fish entirely. You all know that turtle soup is made from turtles, then what could be the main ingredient of “mock” turtle soup? You guessed it! This pre-dinner delicacy was quite popular during the Victorian era, and what with real turtle meat being such a luxury (with a luxurious price tag to match), more frugal cooks replaced the costly component with the morsels of veal calves usually discarded—the head, the hoofs, and the tail. And thus the waters of Wonderland spawned Mock Turtles—another peculiar corporeal composite, this one created of the shell and front flippers of the turtle and all those unwanted cuts of bovine butchery. The poor creature has a heavy heart, though, he pines away, weeping, and wishing he was in fact genuine and not faux. After all, how can you spend your lifetime being what you’re not?

Digs here reveal a surfeit of fine feathers—too large to be any ordinary bird’s; the Gryphon must have molted evidently before becoming nothing but mythical once more. And here, what’s this? An ornate crystal and sterling container—a very rare lachramatory, or “tear bottle”—a strange bit of nineteenth-century mourning paraphernalia in which one saved up the teardrops shed in bereavement, in sorrow for someone or something lost—the spirit of grief made manifest.

And, in the end, what are tears?

Simply salt water.

Just like the sea.