The Dying of the Shrew
The shrew lay on a concrete path between sumac and corn. He wasn’t much. Just a brown comma with an elongated snout, eyes like aphid eggs, and oddly human ears. I walked a slow circle around him. A fly had settled on his belly, but he looked intact.
I bent to move him to a patch of dirt where his remains could decompose in peace. A crack in the pavement resolved into a procession. Ants were advancing with haphazard purpose. I retreated, a little queasy.
My revulsion surprised me. I have encountered many dead or dying animals. Once I found a tire-blackened doe in a pullout. Her delicate legs were extended as if she had been trying to outrun her pain until the end. On another occasion, I saw a chick-filled goldfinch nest tumble into deep water. The parents flurried their wings in grief. Then there was the terrier paralyzed with fear in the middle of a moonlit boulevard. I called from the side of the road, but the tiny thing wouldn’t budge. Eventually a truck passed with a wet, cleaving sound. A few days later, the dog appeared on a missing pet poster.
Why, then, would a shrew warrant my attention, much less upset my stomach? It was a beautiful morning, a day sleek with promise. The sky gleamed delphinium blue, the sumac reddened toward fall, and the corn released a warm odor reminiscent of baked bread. Half a mile north, riding cattails in a midge-moted wetland, blackbirds sang their wild songs. I had no reason to linger next to such an unassuming corpse.
I discovered one as I turned to go. The shrew’s spine was a drawn bow. Science told me the creature had fishhooked during his last muscle spasm. Sentiment argued he had strained to touch his nose to his breast, to inhale his own fetid scent before his consciousness scattered like mist in the sun. I remembered a verse from a Louise Glück poem: “It is not the earth I will miss/It is you [the body] I will miss.”
The lines were cryptic, even infuriating. When we die, we are supposed to gaze at slowly drifting clouds or grip the hands of significant others, their dear bones spiritual linchpins. We are not to honor the frail physical forms that betray us by containing our deaths.
Yet, at least while I stared at the shrew, Glück was right. When push comes to shove, animals, and, by extension, people, take leave of themselves. The act is aggressively, antagonistically selfish. It is also tender to the extreme. In short, it is a paradox with harrowing—and hopeful—implications.
Devotion to the corporeal implies we have nothing else. By the same token, even lives without ghosts have value. Despite our shortcomings, our unachievable dreams, the small but daily cruelties we suffer and wreak, the perennial staggering after happiness, we enjoy our brief forays into sentience enough to want more.
I continued on my way, thinking of the deceased, of their final moments. The doe in the pullout must have surged with love for the legs that refused to quit on her, scissoring the air as the world dimmed. The young finches, who never beat supple, flighted wings, must have honored their pert beaks or dexterous feet instead. The dog must have blessed skin wonderfully receptive to human fingers. And the shrew, curving toward his rank belly, had to know his best friend was not his soft-throated mate, wrinkle-faced pups, or spacious burrow, but his purling insides.
The whir and crunch of wheels sounded from behind me. I glanced over my shoulder. A woman had dismounted her bicycle to peer at the shrew. She stooped for an instant, picked him up by his rubbery tail, and swung him off the trail. He landed in a spray of weeds with a muted thump, flushing a grasshopper. The insect vanished in a single leap.
Corrina Carter grew up in northern California. She has a BA in English from UC Irvine and an MFA from Iowa State University’s Creative Writing and Environment program. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Fourth River, Alligator Juniper, Permafrost Magazine, and The Kenyon Review Online.