I hadn’t noticed it hiding underneath the car, its tiny form camouflaged perfectly among the gravel, as my daughter moved off down the driveway. Our collie Meg, on the other hand, was rather more astute and in one pounce she had it in her mouth – a little shrew.
I couldn’t bring myself to blame the dog. No malice was involved in this playful display of normal canine behaviour, but as I extricated the tiny insectivore from its confinement, I knew. The damage had already been done.
It curled itself up into the centre of my palm – a funny mouse-like thing with velvety fur and a pointy little snout, and a tail like the end of one of those red licorice laces you used to buy in the sweetie shop. I saw its tummy blowing in and out. I saw that its breath came laboured and erratic from its mouth. But most of all, I saw that its eyes were open and they were staring up at me – in what? Fear? Expectation? Looking back, I’m not exactly sure which one it was myself.
It was a lovely afternoon. Leaves had gathered in pockets at the side of the lawn, so I fashioned a makeshift nest amongst the dry foliage and very carefully placed the tiny shrew in its midst. Still, its eyes refused to close. Shock. I thought. Perhaps it’s nothing more than that after all. Surely it would revive. It would survive.
I covered it with a big leaf and left it there for a while – to see. When I returned, I saw that its eyes had finally succumbed to the light but it was still alive, panting heavily and clearly in some pain. What could I do but end its misery?
Feeling like an executioner, I went to the house and returned with a wad of cotton wool. I had never willfully killed an animal before and something about even considering it made me feel nauseous but I knew it needed to be done.
Holding the cotton wool over its nose I felt the shrew twitch and its legs jerk before I stopped. I couldn’t do it. It just wasn’t in me to do it. So finally I left it there among the leaves, I knew, to die. ‘Coward,’ I accused myself, walking away.
All through the night I prayed to be forgiven for my weakness. As the first fingers of light stretched across the garden I went to check. The hedges were full of singing. Nature does not defer to the demise of a tiny mammal. When I reached the place where my shrew had been, I saw that it had gone and save for the twitch of a leaf on dry earth, nothing stirred.
Of course I’d like to think that it survived and even now is foraging for food among the leaf litter in my garden. But I know it had probably perished, consumed by some creature destined to assuage my guilt for a deed I could not do myself.
And all must now be well. For nature surely gives back what she takes.