The first time I saw mouse deer, I was sitting at a table in the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Nature Lab, sketching a salamander. From the beginning, something kept distracting me. My professor looked over my shoulder and asked if I had finished three sketches. “No,” I said. “I keep getting distracted by that tiny deer.” She lifted it from its position atop a cabinet of crystals and placed the specimen beside me on the table. “Ah yes,” she said. “This is mouse deer.”
It was the size of a small dog or a large rabbit. Its fur was brownish with faded white markings down its chest. Its legs were as thin as the pastel I was using to draw; they were mounted to a wooden stand with thin metal rods. A similar piece of metal poked through its forehead. Patches of fur were missing on its side and behind its ears. Its glass eyes were cartoonishly large. An old label, barely taped to its base, announced its name: MOUSE DEER (Tragulus javanicus). It said that these “shy, solitary, monogamous” animals come from Indonesia. It added, “Silent, but they cry when frightened.” I was disturbed for a day, one might say seized with longing. The deer remained with me for the rest of the class.
Members of the Tragulidae family are mostly found in South and Southeast Asia, though a single species also lives in West Africa. The generic name Tragulus is an amalgamation of a Greek word for goat and a Latin word for tiny. Technically speaking, they are neither mice nor goats nor deer—in form, they are midway between deer and pigs. Scientists consider them living fossils because they have remained largely unchanged for 30 million years. However, the ways that humans have made meaning with mouse deer vary widely across both space and time.
Kancil, as mouse-deer is known in Malay, features prominently in Southeast Asian folklore. In these stories, kancil’s cleverness and self-control make up for his diminutive size. In one of the most widely reproduced stories, kancil tries to find a way across a river. In the river are crocodiles. Kancil calls out to them, complementing their size and strength. They flex their claws. They flash their teeth in the sun. Kancil says that they should wait for a meal bigger than a mere mouse deer—the king wants to prepare a feast for them. He tells them to line up, bank to bank, so he can count them. He jumps onto the back of the first, then the second, then the third. He counts aloud as he goes, until he’s across. And he laughs. And he enjoys his own laughter, he who isn’t being devoured. Not being devoured is the secret goal of an entire life.
Over the course of centuries, stories like that one have been told and retold. First in the languages of Southeast Asia, and then in the grammars of colonial rule: philology, ethnology, taxonomy. In the latter case, successive contexts of articulation—Orientalist journals, natural history museum catalogs, children’s books, travelogues—form a genealogy of the Western will to knowledge about Southeast Asia and its people. The first European to assign a scientific name to mouse deer was Pehr Osbeck, an apostle of Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy. Thomas Stanford Raffles, the colonial governor of Java and Singapore, was the first to distinguish between several species of Southeast Asian mouse deer. (His name later designated a subspecies of T. javanicus.) As Donna Haraway has written, men like Raffles were, “with excellent reason, at the forefront of nature work.” This work is critical to the production of race, gender, and empire. Generations of soldiers and naturalists thus laid claims to the skins, skulls, and stories of the smallest deer they had ever seen.
During the age of empire, word of kancil began to spread around the world, effecting a transformation from material into spectacle, animal into specimen. “The line that drew the animal body onto the page was essentially the same line that wrote it into sentences,” writes Giovanni Aloi, an art historian. The very word “specimen” is linked to the Latin verb specere – to see. To fill the gap between words and things, taxonomic discourse requires individuals to become fixed and singular, representative of a multitude. But indexing life’s totality requires an equal measure of death: the 1915 catalogue of the British Museum, for instance, lists dozens of killed and collected kancil, with reference to dozens of others in the United States and elsewhere.
The earliest taxidermy animals were skins filled with sawdust straw and beaten into shape with wooden clubs; with developments like clay modeling and premodeled urethane forms, the seams became less visible. The greater the degree of realism, the more the constitutive fact of a mounted animal—its death, maybe a violent one—is erased. “The power of this stance is in its magical effects: what is so painfully constructed appears effortlessly, spontaneously found, discovered, simply there if one will only look,” writes Donna Haraway. In taxidermy, “it is in the craft of killing that life is constructed, not in the accident of personal, material birth.” The stuff of life itself—land and water, muscle and movement—is effaced in favor of a frozen moment.
Mouse deer entered the Nature Lab’s collection in 2002 as part of a large donation from the Boston Children’s Museum (BCM). According to an email from Rachel Farkas, the museum’s curator of collections, the museum once accepted everything it was offered. “There was little rhyme or reason to collecting local v. exotic flora and fauna,” she wrote. Kancil would likely have been displayed at some point, but the documentation is in progress. The specimen matches an accession from the Peabody Museum of Salem in January 1914, just a year after the BCM opened. According to its website, the Peabody Museum (now the Peabody Essex Museum) dates to “the 1799 founding of the East India Marine Society, an organization of Salem captains and supercargoes who had sailed beyond either the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn.” The society members established a cabinet of curiosities for the objects they collected during their travels. Mouse deer could have been collected by one of them, but the particulars, such as the name of her collector and the reason she caught his eye, remain a matter of speculation, lost to the century since. I can only imagine, to paraphrase La Paperson, how her shape—the cherished hint of a figure—has haunted the maps drawn by his hand.
In 2016, the Nature Lab hosted an event called Love for Mouse Deer. The idea for the event began during parents’ weekend at RISD. Paper and art materials had been laid out on the tables, and visitors began drawing kancil. Most of the drawings were left on the table. Betsy Ruppa, the lab’s coordinator, showed them to me. One had heart-shaped pupils, haloed by an electric explosion of red. I LOVE YOU, the caption read. Another, with morbidly large eyes, spoke the word HAIL. Another was captioned with the injunction: free him.
“I started it with the drawing, just thinking those drawings were so funny. I wanted people to see them,” Ruppa told me. “Then this student, we were talking, and she said we should do a whole big event about finding her a boyfriend or a love interest.” And so kancil became the “bachelorungulate,” to quote one of the posters produced to promote the event. Students volunteered to contribute baked goods and art. Ultimately, the event featured mouse deer stickers, mouse deer pencil cases, mouse deer cookies, mouse deer cookie cutters, mouse deer pins, mouse deer key rings, mouse deer embroidery, and a miniature felted mouse deer mounted on a miniature stand with a miniature label. The Nature Lab raised around a thousand dollars and purchased a taxidermy dik-dik as kancil’s lover.
I asked Ruppa how people react to seeing mouse deer for the first time. “Everything from absolute love to absolute revulsion,” she said. “They think it’s creepy, they think it’s funny, they think it's dear, sweet. And then they read, ‘Silent, but cries when frightened.’ I mean, come on. What’s not to love?” I have spent some time puzzling over what it is that elicits such strong reactions. Ultimately, it must be some combination of its novelty and its familiarity, its patchy fur and tilting head, its tiny legs and arresting eyes. “I don’t know what it is. It just gives off some kind of love, and people love it.” Ruppa said. “I know this is a dumb thing, but I think, what if we had a pet mouse deer here? What would its little feet sound like walking on these creaky old wood floors? It would be so sweet.”
Midway through my work on this project, I realized that I had failed to find the language for this obsession. It wasn’t enough to describe kancil’s eyes as wide and its legs as spindly. It wasn’t enough to say ‘cute.’ I saw this on the faces of friends to whom I’d tried to explain what I was doing. I was speaking a lost language. But when I returned to a short story by Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, I knew I’d found it—I’d been found. The story begins when a French explorer ventures into Equatorial Africa to find the smallest people in the world. Among them lives the very smallest woman in the world. Seeing an immediate need for order, and to give a name to whatever exists, the explorer dubs her Little Flower. He pronounces it shyly and with a delicacy of feeling of which his wife would never have judged him capable: “You are Little Flower.” These words found their way into italics, into this story.
Lispector’s is a story about imperialist nostalgia, mass media, maternity, laughter. When I read it now, it’s a story about the human will to possess: the place where love and longing and domination cannot be pried apart. Confronted with the smallest woman in the world, all of the old colonial tricks—naming, copious note-taking, visual reproduction—simultaneously express and defer this desire. Little Flower’s image is printed, life-size, in the color supplement of the Sunday newspaper, so she can be possessed en masse. Lispector’s story moves from the Congo to the homes where people encounter this image. In one apartment, a woman cannot bear to glance again at her image, because it pains me so. Another feels such perverse tenderness for the African woman’s smallness that—prevention being better than cure—no one should ever leave Little Flower alone with the lady’s tenderness. And a five-year-old child, seeing the picture and hearing her family’s reactions, becomes alarmed. In that household of adults, this girl had up till now been the smallest of human beings, Lispector writes. And, if that was the source of the best caresses, it was also the source of this first fear of love’s tyranny.
During the winter of 1879, the American trading vessel Janet Furguson sailed from Singapore to New York, loaded with a cargo of pepper and spices. Toward the beginning of this long passage, a man who had been aboard recalled, they were met and surrounded by “the usual fleet of native bum boats laden with fruits and curiosities.” Among these curiosities were “some of the most graceful, beautiful little creatures one could well imagine—five full grown live deer, not larger than small rabbits.” The Janet Furguson’s captain trades an old silver watch for the five of them, and the kancil come aboard.
They live in a “Deer Lodge” built for them by the ship’s carpenter. “In these comfortable quarters the little midgets made in safety a voyage of 136 days, becoming great favorites with the crew,” writes Daniel Carter Beard, our correspondent. During those days on the Pacific, one of the kancil—warm, tiny, pregnant, warm—gives birth to a fawn. When discovered by the mate, a buck had eaten the fawn’s legs off, and it was dead. This smallest of tragedies portends the losses to come. As the ship arrives off Sandy Hook, three of the kancil escape from their shelter and perish in the cold. “Immediately after arriving at port the fourth, a fine buck, fell a victim to our (to them) inhospitable climate,” Beard writes. “The only survivor, a beautiful doe … came into my possession; but she only lived about a week. In spite of all my care she too expired, killed by the cold breath of our New York winter.”
After inscribing the kancil’s death, Beard reaches for words to describe the week she spent in his home. “She was a timid little creature,” he writes, “but would take food from my hand and allow me to stroke her back.” He marvels and mourns: a pencil had looked “thick and clumsy” beside her thin, delicate legs. His article, published in Scientific American, includes an illustration of the rare thing herself, a pencil in the frame for comparison, because it is good to possess, good to possess, good to possess. To quote Aloi again, “The line that drew the animal body onto the page was essentially the same line that wrote it into sentences.” This is the line of longing and love, the line that kills and brings the dead back to life.
ZACH NGIN B'22 has a poster of Clarice Lispector hanging over his bed.