On confronting death, in the road and elsewhere.
The rented farmhouse in North Carolina sat at the midpoint of a dead-end street, where the only light came from a streetlight in my neighbor’s front yard. Every night before bed, my dog, Henry (David Thoreau), and I walked down the circular drive and into the road, going as far as the light reached and back again. This provided time for the night to settle in, the stars to announce themselves, and Henry to take care of business.
One autumn night, Henry found a dead frog where the light fell brightest on the pavement. I stooped to examine the creature. He lay on his back, red innards escaping from his perfectly still mouth.
The following night, I searched ahead for the frog as we walked out of the dark driveway and into the light. Henry sniffed him and moved on. The frog was in the same place as the night before, only flatter.
The next night he looked less like a frog. After staring at him for a while, I needed more. Touching him felt wrong, but smelling him, as Henry had, seemed acceptable. I placed my hands on the pavement on either side of his body, lowered my face to a few inches above him, and inhaled. He didn’t smell like dead thing, he smelled like the thing he had been; like frog, not like dead frog.
Death has never particularly called to me. Even at my worst, at alcoholic bottom, I never romanticized suicide. I wanted to hide from responsibilities, from the world, but not to disappear from them. I wanted to feel everything there was to feel: not only the good, but the bad, too.
Death in the long run was different, though. After my parents divorced, I saw my dad only every other weekend. I worried about how little time that was: 104 days a year. This led to the realization that we all rush toward our ends. I became obsessed with death in the far-off but inescapable distance.
Walking home recently, I saw a small rabbit on the sidewalk. It lay on its side, eyes open and glassy. Its fur looked soft, its whiskers exquisitely intact. Stopping, I rummaged in my canvas bag for my phone. While taking pictures, I thought about a black-and-white photograph of a dead bird I’d seen at an auction a few years before and how it made me feel like I wasn’t alone. Instagram now offers a place to find kindred spirits—“likers” of my dead-animal pictures or posters of their own. But I also have a friend who disapproves. “They’re so sad and gross,” she says. “Nobody wants to see them.” The Instagram responses indicate she may be right. The rabbit has nine likes. A picture of Henry with his little head on a pillow, staring sleepily into the camera, has nineteen.
In Poetics, Aristotle writes, “There are many things which we see with pain so far as they themselves are concerned but whose images, even when executed in very great detail, we view with pleasure. Such is the case for example with renderings of the least favored animals, or of cadavers.” Poetics is, of course, a text on the role of imitation in poetry, and here Aristotle talks about drawings of hard-to-look-at things—“the least favored animals” and “cadavers”—as being less painful to observe than the things themselves because the representations distance us from the reality of death and ugliness. It’s easier to look at a photograph of the dead rabbit, and to see beauty in it, than to view the dead rabbit itself.
Photographing the rabbit allowed me to examine a creature that had confronted death. Not long before I found him, the rabbit was full of life. And then he wasn’t. And the world went on. His individual life doesn’t really matter. But then, by extension, neither does mine. Taking his picture is a way to honor his life. But it’s also a way to face the inevitability of nonexistence.
What, then, allowed me to erase the distance and fully engage with the frog? Frogs aren’t cuddly and therefore don’t remind me of Henry, a creature whose consciousness I can at least begin to imagine. But I also encountered the frog away from the judgment of the world, on the dead-end street, in the shroud of night, with only Henry, who always experiences the world this way—close up and smelly—as witness.
A couple years ago, I got into an accident on the highway. Henry and I sat stunned but unhurt in the car, which blocked the left lane. Realizing we weren’t safe, I opened the door to get out. Henry jumped onto the road as cars sped around us. I yelled, “No!” He froze and I scooped him up. For months afterward I dreamed of him getting hit by a car. Sometimes, when I look into his expressive eyes and see a whole world of thought and feeling, I am overwhelmed by the idea of life without him. But unlike my friend, I believe my sadness and anxiety should be considered, turned over, and keenly felt. I need to take photographs or to put my hands on either side of those small bodies and breathe in the unknowable, until it’s the last thing I’ll ever know.
One evening, as I waited to cross a busy street, I noticed a pigeon sitting next to a tree. I slowly crouched next to him to get a better look. He didn’t move, only eyed me suspiciously. Eventually he rose and walked away.
He resettled in the grass overlooking the curb. I thought about chasing him back to the safety of the tree but didn’t want to inadvertently impel him into traffic. I crossed the street, but guilt made me turn back. I saw him wandering in and out of the street. Cars narrowly missed hitting his small body. I tried to return across the street, but it was too busy.
A raised pickup rolled over the pigeon, its front wheels just missing him. He mustered everything he had and tried to fly away. He lifted off the ground, but there was nowhere to go under the speeding truck. Its back tires tossed him into the air. When he struck the pavement, blood spurted from his body. He lay on his side, motionless. Another car hit him, flinging feathers into the air.
I felt responsible for his death. I should have forced my way back across the street, I should never have knelt by him in the first place. He may have been sick, perhaps even close to death, but I’d accelerated his rush toward the end. What if he hadn’t experienced everything he was meant to?
As I walked away, I mentally circled the moment of impact—the instant in which the pigeon went from something that was alive to something that was not. I longed for the distance of a photograph, Aristotle’s imitation. I wanted to go back to pondering, without the feelings that come with witnessing the moment of death, What’s left when the thing that gave life is gone?
Rachel Mabe is at work on a book about surviving sexuality and millennial identity at a small women’s college. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pacific Standard, The Wilson Quarterly, Vice, and elsewhere.