Jelly Jar Pompeii

“Mamawish 8”, 2006, paper and mesh on paper, 5 x 5 in.

I’m doing my morning meander around the pond. White mug of black coffee splashing over the rim as I zero in on a pebble strangely resembling a ping pong ball. Oh. Maybe it is a ping pong ball. Down on my pajama knees for a closer look, I pick it up and —Whoa! We are not talking table tennis!

A prehistoric reptile head is poking out. Yikes! I’m holding a baby snapping turtle hatching! Cracking through the shell with its sharp little “egg tooth”. Only it’s not moving. It’s dead. Frozen in time. Suspended in the animation of simultaneously being born and dying. Mummified.

It’s weird how since we got the house, dead stuff keeps revealing itself. It’s my new media. Found objects with DNA inspiring a series of—well, I guess you could call it assemblage. All I know is when my friends see roadkill they think of me. 

It takes a village to raise the dead and we all know it. People bring offerings: bones, skulls, bugs. Stuff they stumble on and save for me. A snakeskin or butterfly wing. The random tail. A giant dragonfly that was just lying on the sidewalk in the Bronx. That dessicated bullfrog stuck under the swimming pool filter in Hilo. Pigeon carcasses excavated from a brick wall in the old Endicott Hotel on Amsterdam Avenue. 

No matter what it is—the exoskeleton of a tarantula, antlers, poodle hair, whatever— every gift arrives meticulously wrapped. A salamander in a matchbox. A foil lasagna pan of cockroaches sadly stuck on glue traps. One friend sent me her kid’s dead pet goldfish in a baggie filled with water through the US Mail. By the time I got it, it wasn’t exactly gold. Or even a fish exactly. I was able to harvest a gill, that dried out acquired a mesmerising Mother of Pearl sheen not unlike the dandruff flake of an angel.

Looking down I realize I’m standing on a sandy patch of earth, which unleashes an archeological impulse to dig with my bare fingers. Pay dirt! I uncover a second dead baby snapper! This guy made it farther, clawed itself up and half out of the cracked shell of its ping pong planet. Eensy beensie fingernails fanning out over the surface, Instinctively heading toward the pond to swim in fresh water. Cold blood warmed by the sun. Did the light dim gradually or just go pitch black in a finger snap? No answer.

Miraculously, I unearth a third. Then another and another, exhuming a nest of sisters and brothers. Scores of deceased siblings. Each body uniquely articulated in a particular stage of emergence when its limbs were seized by a rooting stiffness— Oh intrepid corps of Daphnes fleeing Apollo! Rinsing them blows the lid off my mummification theory. Dissipating armors of caked-on mud reveals rigor mortis has yet to set in, meaning they’re newly dead and on the road to getting smelly fast. 

Quick! I fill two dozen jelly-jars with alcohol, lowering hatchling by hatchling into its round glass coffin. I stack the lot into a pyramid atop an antique over-bed hospital tray table. I call it Jelly Jar Pompeii”.

“Probably a sudden drop in temperature” the herpetologist answers when I ask what did them in. The Ice Age in a nutshel! Oh the fleeting flash of life. A change in climate and poof. Curtains. We’re history. Except reptiles, maybe. Snapping turtles in particular deserve immortality.

Jelly Jar Pompeii, snapping turtles, alcohol, glass on metal enamel.