The robins called first; frantic, insistent. I saw the tiger-coloured cat hunched by the edge of the lawn, mouth full. As I moved toward it, the cat dropped its prize and ran down the driveway.
A tiny chipmunk lay there, heaving. I picked him up, and looked him all over. Although there were scuff marks by the neck, I couldn’t see any serious injury.
I waited, this scrap of a life hanging helpless in the hinge of my hand. I pleaded, please…spare this little creature.
He looked at me calmly, onyx eyes shining through a white mask, dark, silken whiskers, curious pointed nose. I held him close to my belly, willing him to fight for life, although my heart knew differently.
Several times, a hind foot lifted to scratch at the marks made by the cat and I noted the tiny pads like exquisite pillows on his feet. On the front paws, tapered fingers ended in delicate, almost transparent, nails.
After a time, something changed. I could feel it, could feel his leaving.
His mouth opened and he took five great heaving breaths. He twisted slightly, stretching out a body that had grown thin, let out two small cries, then his eyes grew dim and he was still.
Is it better to die in the teeth of an enemy or in the hands of a saviour? I stood there, my shoulders heavy with questions.
Did I do wrong by interfering in the scheme of things? Did I thwart the chipmunk’s sacrifice? Did I prolong a death and rob its reason? I felt like Peter, admonished for wanting to prevent Jesus’ destiny and death.
My nature is that I want to save things – I’ve always been a rescuer. I’m a lover of happy endings, an optimist…my girlfriends used to call me Pollyanna.
But life and death is the way of things…and in nature, death to one brings life to another. The creatures understand this in a way that I do not. I’ve watched peregrine falcons chase shorebirds until one falls away; one life a sacrifice that saves the others. And the story continues. Certainly, this is the base tenet of my faith…so why is it so hard to witness?
A senseless death is one without reason or meaning. I laid the chipmunk in the garden, wondering if the cat or a hawk would come for the easy meal, but the body remained throughout the afternoon.
An hour after I had buried the tiny, stiff body in the rose garden, I noticed a number of robins perched in the trees surrounding the garden, almost as if paying homage. Suddenly, they scattered, calling in alarm. Right there…in precisely the same spot…was the tiger cat, staring defiant, another chipmunk in its mouth.
I watched, unmoving this time, and he disappeared into the undergrowth. I tortured myself. Perhaps, if the cat had eaten earlier, it would not have returned for the other.
Two ravens appeared, winged shadows in pursuit. I heard their raucous cries. Although they may have been hoping to to frighten the cat and benefit from the kill, my first thought was that they were objecting. The robins followed, also scolding and chattering. Perhaps there is an unnamed alliance in the natural world; blurred lines drawn between predator and prey, between ally and enemy.
Neither my action nor my inaction brought me any measure of peace…the burden of those who straddle the line and live in the tension of the middle ground. Perhaps the value is not in how we may act–or not act–but in how it changes us.
And that evening, as the mourning doves called the settling dusk and dying light grazed the tips of the trees, I saw a sentinel sit, unmoving, on the rose garden fence above a small mound of disturbed dirt.
Just there. Keeping watch.
“We are called to give ourselves, not only in life,
but in death as well.
I am called to trust that life is a preparation for death
as a final act of giving.”
~ Henri Nouwen