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Scandal

July 25, 2014

Moby killed a small brown bird. I would call it nondescript except that it would certainly be known to any backyard birder. He came into my studio with it dangling limply from his mouth and when I picked him up to throw him out before he could defile the body he growled at me, unconvincingly, like the tiny tiger he is.

He lacks the capacity to understand why I am angry at him, or even to know that I am. He has done something perfectly, instinctually natural to him, and there is nothing to be upset about except our own culpability:  that we allow him to go outside, where he has the opportunity to kill other, smaller creatures. It does not make me feel any better that the (for us) untenable alternative was having a house soaked in the piss of a petulant cat.

I couldn’t bear to move the body at first. I hoped against all logic that perhaps with time to rest, it would magically reanimate and flutter off. I kept painting, periodically spying around the corner of my canvas to see if perhaps that wing had shifted over a bit? or was that a tiny tremble of breath at all?

It did not come back to life.

Its body was shockingly weightless when I steeled myself to pick it up at the end of the day, a few straws wrapped in tissue paper; feathers mussed, slightly, by my cat’s lethal jaws and paws, a tiny clod of dirt caked on the underside of its beak. It had been so freshly alive, so newly departed when Moby brought it in, that it didn’t seem like a corpse exactly; I felt the consciousness of a unique living creature, only just turned off. Its eyes were closed, almost formally.

‘Children often say things that seem extraordinary to us precisely because the big questions are not yet “famously tricky” for them. Oliver is obsessed with death at the moment and he’s also only six. He can’t bear it, it hasn’t become part of How it Is; it’s still a scandal, a catastrophic design flaw; it ruins everything. We’ve got used to the face of death — although the experience is irreducibly strange. He hasn’t found the trick of putting a hood on the executioner, of hiding the experience with the fact. He still sees it as pure experience. I found him crying over a dead fly lying on the windowsill. He asked me why things have to die and all I could offer him was tautology:  because nothing lasts for ever.’

 

— At Last, Edward St. Aubyn

I know it is immature, a child’s view of death, but like little Oliver I still retain a strong and similar feeling that death is a “scandal, a catastrophic design flaw.”

One of my earliest memories is of sitting in the backseat of a car being parked by one of my parents, and being mutely horror-struck by the realization that when I died people would still go on about such mundane business, driving around in their cars, looking for parking spots, backing into them, putting coins into the meter, all as though something unthinkable had not occurred; and with the unapologetic egotism of a child, I felt an existential affront that the world would not cease to go on without me—me, for whom it had been created!—to witness it.

I was, and remain, indignant.

The worst part of my local avian tragedy is the fear that this was not just a random bird, but a bird I had come to think of as my daily companion in the backyard, the bird that has been warbling away atop the spiky protection of the neighbor’s holly tree all summer. I remember thinking that his song was lovely, and being happy he had such a redoubtable fortress to sing it safely in. I suppose I may impute his death by the absence of his song in the coming days.

This is the second bird Moby has killed. (It may be time to fit him for a catbib.) A year and a half ago, I made this painting to commemorate his first victim.

Dead Bird

Dead Bird, oil on linen, 10″ x 10″, 2013

I am starting another painting to commemorate the second. It seems the very least I can do.

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