First posted September 23, 2014
Last night I held a mouse while it died. I had just shooed away a menacing cat outside our local library, and not for the first time, either. A few months ago I rescued a sparrow from this same cat, carrying it home in a box supplied by a nearby friend. I hoped an evening’s worth of quiet at my house would help him recover from his shock, and it worked, I think; the next morning he hopped away into the bushes. The mouse wasn’t so lucky. He was alive when I picked him up and wrapped him in my sweater, but dead before I got home. He died from fear, I think, and for all I know my picking him up may have been what pushed him over the edge.
To Ross’ deep confusion (perhaps to yours too, dear reader), I brought the mouse home anyway, cradling its still little body with toilet paper in a box that used to hold earrings. I wanted a few things: to look at him some more, to give his body somewhere warm and safe to rest overnight, to keep him until the morning. I wanted to take pictures, too, not out of a desire to share them, so much (although I will share them, here), but more to record the overwhelmingly present and particulardetails of his tiny body. The velvety softness of his ears, his softly closed mouth (so much like my cat’s when she is sleeping), his distinct and delicate whiskers: I couldn’t get over the uniqueness of this little mouse. There is (was? The tenses of the dead are impossible) a white spot on his head, too, and it was this detail in particular that brought me to messy tears as I placed the lid over the box.
This morning I carried the box to my favorite park, thinking along the way of Marie de France’s “Laustic,” in which a different dead animal–a nightingale–ends up in a much more ornate box, the victim of a jealous husband. The thing is, even though the lai’s title means the nightingale, and even thought the body of the laustic is reverently handled, “Laustic” is not the bird’s story. The lai is much more interested in the rather flighty lovers, and even the nightingale’s reliquary can be read as nothing more than a symbol of their shallow romance. I thought about this as I carried my own little box; I’m thinking about it as I write. Whose story am I trying to tell? When I carefully placed the mouse’s body in a peaceful and private corner of the garden, who was I doing that for?
Does all this sound completely bonkers? It feels that way, a little. And yet this confusing, compulsive need to attend to this mouse’s death also feels like a logical continuation of something I’ve been struggling with all summer: as it happens, I’ve been working for a while now, and without much success, on a dissertation prospectus about animal death. I’ve been having trouble articulating my stakes in the argument, but without being sure why. Now I think I know. Carrying the mouse in my heart and hands over the past day reminded me of something I should have already known: as always, my stake in this project is deeply personal, intricately linked with my greatest sorrows.
I don’t often have trouble sleeping, but there are two topics that, if I allow myself to think about them at the wrong time, will reliably lead to sleepless nights. The first is animal suffering, and particularly projected extinction rates. The second is my dad, who is very, very slowly fading away from brain cancer. There is essentially nothing I can do to prevent either of these losses. There was nothing I could do to prevent the loss of the mouse, either (or if there was, I didn’t and don’t know it), and so that uniquely vibrant assemblage is gone forever. But I could do something with its body, and in so doing mark the passing, even just to myself, of something distinct from the world.
The stories we tell about the dead are not for them. Indeed, “dead” seems like an ecological misnomer, as the mouse, for instance, will go on to provide life for many more creatures (Karl Steel has written beautifully on medieval instantiations of this idea here). So, someday, will you. So will I. As species pass away, others will take their place, although probably not in such diversity. As I write this, the cat is probably beginning to think about sauntering to the library to find some other creature to kill. The powerful play goes on, and all that.
I believe in these cycles, and sometimes I’m even comforted by them. But I also believe that the thing that comes in between now and then–death–is a thing that should be noted, even if our attempts to do so are, ultimately, only for ourselves. I want to write a dissertation about animal death because I think the stories we tell ourselves about death matter, and that even if our motives in marking death are selfish–death does not matter to the dead–the sympathies we express by noting it are not. Medieval theological thought set strict limits on the different possibilities for human and animal afterlives. But then, as now, the actual moment comes to us all.