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Category: Killed Dead

Reflections on death and killing

Like this Heart of Mine

Like this Heart of Mine

There was a bird in the downspout—every time we walked onto the porch we’d hear it thrash its wings and its claws would screech against the metal. “Chill out, bird,” I said, before realizing that it wasn’t just defending a nest: it was stuck. During our last heavy rain I’d seen water shooting out of the seams at the top of the drain, spilling over the edge of the gutter where it lined the roof. I’d known it was clogged—but I couldn’t understand how a bird could get itself stuck in there, if that’s what had happened.

The thrashing was loud and unsettling. I thumped against the metal once to see if I could scare the bird into flying out. Silence.

Overflow

Zettie and I started from the bottom of the drainpipe, pulling out a few handfuls of the pine needles, twigs, and grass that were packed so tight inside its mouth they came out like bricks. Then I disconnected the bottom two elbows of the spout so that I could reach up into the straight pipe that ran down the corner of the porch. Moldering duff was crammed all through it. I was surprised to see so much of it, as no tree hangs over our house—all the debris in the gutter had been carried either by the wind or a bird.

The trapped bird remained silent as I dug up higher and higher. I got kitchen tongs to extend my reach, and kept clearing until the tongs were disappearing up the pipe, then my hand too, and still I was pulling out more debris. “Maybe I can get my small hand up higher in there than you can,” Zettie offered—but then the last clot came out with a thunk and the trapped bird flew out, shrieking, and made straight for the top of a tree about 50 yards off.

What a strange feeling of relief it was, like we’d performed a kind of magic trick: turning a clogged drain into a flying bird.

“It smells,” Zettie said, her nose curled.

“It’s been rotting in there for weeks, I guess,” I said, looking back down at needles and twigs and straw, all cured to black like something dug out from under an old log.

“Oh but look: I think there’s a dead bird,” she said. She pointed to a spot where a yellowish beak made a clear line against the mess of decay. “And another one—there’s two!”

Debris

The birds were curled in on themselves, covered in rot. I used the ends of the tongs to brush one free and then turned the bird gently and noticed that it was curled around a second bird, as tightly entwined as if they were twins in utero. The other bird was the same—not one, but a pair of birds pressed together—four corpses in all.

These weren’t babies. They had full wing feathers and long legs, full beaks. What had happened? Had they been born there? Had a nest, built in the top of the spout, slid down as the babies grew and gained weight, until finally it had fallen so low that there was no way for fledglings to get out? Had the parents continued to bring their trapped children food, watched helplessly as they grew so big that they ran out of room even to move and smothered one another? Was the bird we’d freed a parent who’d gone back in for one last feeding only to find it couldn’t get out again?

We dug a hole in the lily garden and buried them together. Zettie made a headstone for them and named them. For birds who’d lived lives of inconceivable indignity, a final insult:

“Here lies Joe, Bob, Steve, and Karen.”

Headstone
For I will consider my Cat

For I will consider my Cat


We got to our family’s farm in Virginia after a 6 hour drive, aware that M’lou’s sick kitten Chloe had taken a turn for the worse in the car. We thought fresh air and water would revive her, but when we put her on the grass with some water and food she took a step toward it and collapsed.  It looked clear she wasn’t going to make back to Brooklyn for the appointment she had at the vet two days later, even if she lasted the night.

It was an almost ridiculously beautiful evening—dry and cool after a hot muggy day of driving—and we sat in the front yard, huddled around her barely moving body as she lay on a purple towel. There was nothing to eat in the house and not much in town so we ate Pizza Hut and watched her tail twitch and her eyes move but those movements—which had initially struck the girls at least as signs of life and reasons for hope or sources of consolation—quickly began to look to all of us like the first twitches of death. M’lou said it felt weird to be eating next to her, especially Pizza Hut, but we ate anyway (and we had to admit, also, that it was good, much better than we remembered or expected).

Jennifer found an emergency clinic near Richmond that could take her in and we all brought ourselves around to the reality that she needed to be put out of her pain. I explained to M’lou that “euthanasia” came from the Greek for “good death” (or so I thought at the time–I still haven’t checked) and she said “why do all our important words come from somewhere else?”

To get that good death, though, we would have to drive 45 minutes–back in the car, still warm and stale from a day’s drive–to a sterile room in an all-night clinic. We’d hand her over to strangers. Her body would be taken away and mailed back to us weeks later, ashes in a decorative tin. I kept hoping she would die on the grass in the front yard and that we could just bury her there. I thought about calling my uncle to see whether there was an AK-47 rifle in the house. I’d done that job before, even as a kid, but in this case–the thought of the girls standing in a bedroom and hearing that rifle crack ring across the field, the thought of me standing in a field with a rifle barrel against a kitten’s tiny body—the scene was too much to imagine. And the reality that we’d have to explain to M’lou that if we didn’t bury her here we’d have to put her in a ziploc bag in the freezer and save her for a week—that absurd situation, trying to keep corpse cold over hundred of miles of summer driving, also felt too much.

But the end we faced in fact was also ridiculous. The clinic was nearly empty, only an old golden retriever with a sprained ankle in the waiting room, tugging at his leash as his owners tried to settle their bill. On the TV Guy Fieri was playing, his sunglasses pasted inexplicably to the back of his head as he raved over galangal and scallops and sucked his fat fingers. We filled out paperwork and looked over the check-in log at the other animals who’d been brought in that day. Reason for Visit: wasp sting. Snake bite. Penis problem. Jennifer took the pen and wrote “euthanasia.”

I left the girls in the waiting room and went back to an examination room. The gentle vet tech brought me Chloe wrapped in a fleece blanket, a catheter held to her foreleg by a few twists of purple gauze. She was stiff with pain, her gums gray and her teeth turning black, her mouth open, her breathing raspy and labored. She gasped when I moved her. There were signs for grief counseling on the walls of the room.

I started writing this because I wanted to get to this: are all scenes of death both heartbreaking and absurd? It’s hard to know how sad you should feel as a grown man over the death of a kitten in your arms, or how sad you should acknowledge feeling. And how even your own assessment of your sadness feels awkward and self-conscious and absurd. I suppose self-consciousness is inevitable at the moment of death, as you watch a spirit separate from the messy life you’ll have to go on living. Even the spirit moving on from the body of a kitten can remind you of that.

Jubilate Agno, Fragment B, [For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry]“, Christopher Smart

Thoughts on Killing

Thoughts on Killing

I watched a documentary about meat last night at the Food Film Festival in New York. The film is full of interesting stories and raises many interesting questions, but far and away the most gripping scene shows a pig being slaughtered. In a cool upstate rain, surrounded by eager helpers, a tall German butcher wearing a long apron and an overcoat tests a rifle by shooting it into the ground. Then he steps into the back of a trailer and fires one shot into the head of a beautiful brown and black pig. A team of butchers instantly wraps a chain around the pig’s ankle and drags it from the trailer onto the wet ground. The pig is dunked in a vat of scalding water, shaved, hung from a tree, flayed, cleaned, and butchered.

Once the hair had been removed it was easy to see the animal as meat—the transition from pig to pork, as the Applestones put it, was complete right there. But when it was dropping heavily from the edge of the trailer to the ground, its body still so warm and soft you could almost feel it in the theater; when thick bright blood wreathed its head, when its body shuddered and its feet were trembling and curling up under it—then, I admit, it was hard to watch. I couldn’t help thinking of my dog.

But I also thought of all the animals I killed as a kid. They were fish, mostly, because I spent my summers on a beach trying to catch pigfish and croakers and as soon as I was old enough to swim I was killing and gutting them on my grandmother’s dock. That’s where I learned to knock a big fish hard on the head to kill it, or how to hold a fish still while you cut it up the belly to clean it. It’s where I learned that animals keep moving after their throats have been slit, and I was taught by Focus Fishing that those movements are “just nerves.”

It’s also where I learned how to be cruel—to take revenge on the hideous toadfish who’d swallow my hook, for instance. A fish like that could ruin your day. It was impossible to get a hook out of them cleanly, and they seemed to leer up at me, taunting me with this ethical dilemma. There was no point in keeping them—you couldn’t eat them—but there was no way of putting them back in the water without mauling them, yanking their guts out to extricate the hook, or cutting the line and pushing them back into the water with the hook set in their stomachs, where it was sure to kill them.

The impossibility of it made me angry, and their gaping grins made me all the angrier, so I’d just let them sit on the dock in the sun, gulping in the dry air, cursing them with a 10-year-old’s battery of insults, until I’d mustered the anger to hold them in place with my foot while I yanked on the line until my hook was free and the fish was dead, or close to it. I’d push their bodies back into the water and watch the blood trail away in the current, wishing indignities on their corpses—that they’d be swarmed by minnows, dissolved in the tentacles of jellyfish.

These different experiences of killing—killing cleanly versus killing in anger, with sadistic relish—left me with different feelings and taught me another lesson. Death isn’t just the dropping of a curtain but an experience with a thousand moral shades and wrinkles. I didn’t like the way I felt after I’d made a fish’s life end badly—I won’t pretend that it kept me up at night, but I knew when I’d gone too far, when I’d tried on a version of myself that didn’t fit right, and it made me less likely to go that far again.

Watching the pig get killed in the movie last night I wondered how it looked to people who hadn’t grown up with that experience of killing, who’d never seen the eerie way that animals twitch and shudder after they’ve been killed, who’ve never wrestled with that moment when you pull a trigger or flash a knife blade and take a life. It was hard for me to watch, but I’d seen a version of it before. I wonder how I’d have seen it if I’d grown up in the city, like my daughters will, or if I hadn’t had parents who thought it was a useful moral exercise for me to shoot an injured possum in our yard “to put it out of its misery” or to visit a slaughterhouse to pick up a side of beef for our freezer. I wonder how I’d see that beautiful pig then.

Me with a fish