Vagneur: When mortality knocks
September 6, 2013
With a steady gaze and the set jaw of a man who honors his own commitments, the warrior adjusted the buffalo-hide lacing on the war gauntlet covering his forearm and said, "Today is a good day to die." As with all things historical, that might not be directly attributable to the Native Americans, but folklore would have us believe it is so.
In "Tropic of Cancer," or maybe it's "Capricorn," novelist Henry Miller paraphrases the Jewish belief that if you live a sin-free life the day before you die, God will smile favorably upon you. Not as easy as it sounds, if you think about it.
Was it a good day to die for the young man, not yet 30, who upon arriving home late one night, drunk and depressed over his brother's death, took a .30-30 lever-action rifle down from the wall with deadly thoughts, fumbled with the apparatus and decided that, in his present condition, it was too much to deal with and went to bed, content to worry about it another day.
As I throw the saddle on my horse, a commotion breaks out behind me and from the corner of my eye spot the dog going after a juvenile rabbit that unfortunately has wandered into view. Many canines, domesticated over thousands of years, have lost the killer instinct it takes to dispatch promising prey, but the predisposition to "chase" remains strong, which can result in catastrophic injury to an innocent victim.
The horse spooks, and I'm aware that if I let the saddle fall in my haste to help the tiny rabbit, we might have a horse wreck that could be devastating in other ways. Besides, it looks as though the bunny has survived the interest of the dog, who has wandered off and found some shade.
As humans, we have the ability to reason, to think cognitively, but we also have an innate way of obfuscating reality. Do we recognize our mortality when the unavoidable but seemingly innocent cough signals a malignancy in our lungs? Are cold hands or legs due to the ambient temperature, or do they foretell potentially disastrous cardiovascular disease? These might be symptoms of a road less traveled, one we must surely and eventually take, but not recognize until well into the journey.
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The young rabbit, apparently having thought about its circumstances, makes a mad dash for safety and cuts the escape route too short, realizing at the last second that it will not fit through the space between two boards on the stall partition. The dog, imminently aware of his surroundings, believes that he should herd the rabbit into a warren somewhere and using a communication that seldom fails, makes a nip — a gentle nip actually — at the baby, not realizing how fragile the small creature is.
All this happens in the blink of an eye, and by the time I can say something to the dog, the damage has been done. The baby screams for its mother, aware that something tragic has happened to its body, but there is nothing the mother could do, even if she were close by. The dog has been cowed by my voice, and I approach the undersized rabbit, but it's wrong, terribly wrong. The small bunny cannot know his death sentence, but without functioning back legs, there is no future.
It is my responsibility to end the tragedy, and I fulfill it, but stilling the heart of a creature so young and so innocent produces a heart-wrenching sadness that transcends tears.
The other morning, in the midst of family and a herd of cows, I sat on one of my favorite horses, keeping the herd together for sorting into trailers, transport to fall pasture. My grandfather's livestock brand, passed down through the generations, was prominently displayed on the left hip of cattle belonging to my daughter and son-in-law and the knowledge resided with me that my grandson will be born to them late this winter. The air was sharp with fall aroma, and it underscored again how fortunate I am for every second I have in this realm.
There is never a good day to die, I reckon, but we all will. And in the journey I must someday make, that scared little rabbit will forever find safekeeping in my heart.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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