My cat killed a hummingbird a few days ago. She brought it in, as cats will do, proud, thrilled with the hunt, mad with animality. If you have a cat that goes outdoors, you know the behavior: your pet’s standard personality is turned up ten notches to a twitching, eyes-afire clench of sinew and nerves.
In my cat’s case, she’s a poor birder, for which I give thanks. In years, I’ve only found evidence of one slain bird in our yard. She’s pleased to display the occasional vole or even a rat from the nearby fields, but I, the moral relativist, shrug off those captures with bland disgust.
But here, a hummingbird. A creature of darting beauty, an expression of brimming vitality in its pulsing flights. Hummingbirds are like a sudden flare in the darkness, the wow of light, the delicate lick of the flitting flame. But this one, its flame out, being flipped maniacally into the air and onto the carpet in surges by my cat, until I was able to grab it off the floor before another flick of the cruel claw.
And when I picked it up, the bird’s limp neck flashed the ruby iridescence that contrasted with its green/gold feathers—beautiful yet, but just a shiny death mask. I put the bird out in the nearby fields, and then felt a pang of shame.
This post isn’t designed to be a forum on the politics of allowing a high-level predator like a cat to roam outdoors. My cat, Malibu, was a semi-feral cat that we’d seen roaming the neighborhood for more than a year before we adopted her. As we later found out, she had survived on the kindness of strangers—and of course, on her hunting skills. What is more interesting to me now, as a writer, is the shame. Since Malibu isn’t, as we are, gifted and cursed with a sense of self-consciousness, I had to experience shame in her stead.
Shame and Guilt, Kissing Cousins
Shame—and its first cousin, guilt—are useful tools for writers (and such intrigues for psychoanalysts): instances where a character was shamed, or felt deep guilt are often motivational markers for later character behaviors. We get a fine sense of the power of shame in our early stories: when Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, the sudden sense of their own nakedness sweeps over them in waves of shame.
[Note: I don’t know about you, but I would have made a fruit salad out of those apples long before that wiggly fellow in the grass waggled his forked tongue at fair Eve. And I’m all in favor of some people being naked, but clothes do make the man.]
Guilt follows in scene two, when God questions why they bit into the forbidden. Not having good lawyers, each bobs and weaves for blame; expulsion from the Garden follows. (And their boy Cain had a lot of splainin’ to do later for his own guilt-laden crime.) That shame/guilt of our forbears, a backstory bear trap, became a lurking presence in many books, Biblical and not, to come. [Read more…]