It was my birthday, and I had been given a live shrew in a box — not for a pet, but simply to admire and to photograph. I was a little disappointed at first that I didn’t get any real presents, but the shrew was an admirably fierce little creature who attacked anything thrust in its direction, and I soon appreciated the wisdom of the gesture: loaning me a fully wild creature, something that can never be owned or controlled. The idea that anyone can own anything — it’s such a delusion, isn’t it? But that’s what drives this mania of consumption imperiling the earth.

I’ll have to wait till morning so I can take pictures outside, I said. I’m sure it will be fine in the box overnight.

But it wasn’t fine. At first it circled the box energetically, but after a couple hours it barely moved, even when I nudged it with a pencil. I remembered reading that shrews have lightning-fast metabolisms, and eat three times their body weight every day. I started worrying that it might die if I didn’t feed it. Maybe I could go out and dig up some earthworms, I thought, but then I remembered that the ground was frozen and buried under several feet of snow.

I had meat in the freezer; maybe it would like some ground venison? But that would take at least an hour to thaw in warm water — I don’t own a microwave — and an hour for a shrew must be like a whole day to a human being. I looked down at my hands, and it occurred to me that my fingers were at least superficially similar to worms and millipedes.

I went back over to the box and wiggled my left pinky in front of the ailing shrew. It perked up almost immediately, rushing forward and sinking its teeth into the finger. I jerked my hand away and stared at the toothmarks brimming with blood. That really didn’t hurt at all, I muttered.

But I don’t like messes, so rather than end up with some ugly, mangled stump, I went out to the toolshed and made a clean cut with the radial arm saw right above the second knuckle, then quickly applied a bandage and tourniquet. I thought about cauterizing it with the oxyacetylene torch, but that seemed like overkill.

The shrew was delighted with the severed pinky. It dragged it all around the box a couple of times, then set to work eating the thing. Soon its sharp little snout was dark with blood, and as I watched I got that familiar rush of warmth I always feel when I know I’ve helped somebody. Happy birthday, I whispered. It certainly seemed spry for its age.

31 Replies to “Consumer”

  1. Er… tell me this isn’t true, Dave! If you’ll tell me that, I’ll say this was a curiously moving piece, and made me think more concretely than I ever have about Choed practice. In fact, I’ll say that anyway, but I really am worried about your finger.

  2. I knew a guy who tried to cut his finger off, once, so maybe I’m a little touchy :-)

    The detail that seemed so Dave-like was “I thought about cauterizing it with the oxyacetylene torch, but that seemed like overkill.”

    It says you’re crazy, beyond the normal range in compassion, and a terrific writer. Pretty much all good, I think :-) Though I did think that the Dave I know would probably have experimented first with whether a shrew *could* eat frozen venison.

  3. I did do a double-take, but then I realized that you certainly have a better sense of proportion than to mutilate yourself for a high-r prey animal!

    I also flashed on Little Shop Of Horrors: “… what do you want, blood?”

  4. What a fun read. You had me until you let the shrew bite your finger. That’s when it occurred to me that this tale was pure, delightful fiction. Yes, it is grand to help somebody. Make a shrew happy, that’s what I say, any way you can.

  5. Dave…

    Arent you up there in the wilds of Sullivan County, where the
    treecutter deliberately severed his leg with his chainsaw a few
    years back? Im prepared to suspend disbelief fairly quickly
    with natives of that primal province

  6. Oh yikes. I didn’t fully understand everything at first and towards the end I pushed my caramel icecream away –yes it never occured to me that you might have made this up. So, well done, I guess :-) And you owe me new caramel icecream.

  7. Yeah, I could see you maybe letting it bite you, as an experiment, but I figured probably not…a terrific piece, Dave. Of writing, that is!

  8. Brilliant, fabulous twist as I too was reading it as non-fiction till the finger chop…… writer or photographer would lose a pinky for a shrew — I hope :) This was great.

  9. And since I didn’t say it before — yes, this is a great piece, despite (or because of) being disturbing….

    It occurs to me that while I might not cut a finger off for my kitty, I’ve certainly forgiven a certain amount of blood over the years. She’s never had reason to really savage me, but I’d take it if necessary (say, if I needed to restrain her while she was panicked).

    I put up with even more from my rabbit, way back when. He not only scratched me regularly (and bit me once), but trashed the carpets of two apartments, pissed my beds, ate my futon (with help from the cat), undermined my bookcase to the point of collapse, plus chewed on my clothes, and my books. Oh yeah, there were the six years worth of damaged and cut wires ranging from phone lines and computer cables to appliance power cords. If I hadn’t loved that guy so much, he’d have been stew several times over!

  10. Geez, guys, thanks for all the comments!

    JasonR is right: if I’d had any sense, I would’ve saved it for Tuesday. But then again, it’s my impulsive nature that keeps me blogging. Whenever I hold a post to think it over for a few days, I invariably lose interest and end up never posting it at all. But I do like ignoring the lines between fiction and nonfiction when I write prose, because that’s one of the things I most enjoy about reading poetry: having to decide for myself whether and how much of it is factual or autobiographical, and whether it even matters — often it doesn’t. (We don’t categorize posts by genre at qarrtsiluni, either.)

    suzanne – I think it was Ryokan, the Japanese Edo-period poet-monk, who used to care for his fleas by removing them to sun on a rock on cold days, carefully replacing them afterwards. That’s more compassionate than i’ll ever be by several orders of magnitude.

    Marci – Nope, I’m in Blair. I remember that incident, though: guy was trapped under a fallen tree, and went all coyote on his leg with a chainsaw. Tough S.O.B.

    Anne-Mieke – Oh, sorry about that! Sure, I’ll buy you a caramel icecream sometime. It might melt before it got to you, though. :)

    David Harmon – See my response to suzanne. There’s a reason I don’t have pets! (Well, two reasons: I’m also too poor to pay for their upkeep.)

  11. The ‘isn’t it?’ tag near the beginning should have been a give away, set some anomaly alarm bell ringing at the back of my head, but I believed it even up to where you let it bite your finger, yes, I think Dave might do that…

    But was it really your birthday?

  12. Definitely had me going there, Dave! With anyone else it would immediately have been obvious that it was fiction, but you have an uncharacteristic soft spot for wild creatures (which I actually identify with deeply) that would seem to disallow you to allow a creature to come to harm because of you. It wasn’t clear at first that you had actually let the shrew bite off your finger, so when I read about the shrew playing with your finger, I knew something was wrong and had to go back and read the piece again. Phew! You had me sitting here trying to think of alternative choices for you to feed the poor creature! I’m just glad that you weren’t given a wolverine for your birthday! I’d be worried about your head!

  13. Ha! No, that is much too good for an Apr 1 placement, when everybody’s expecting something already.

    I really love the way the ha! combines with the ick!

  14. Lucy – No, it’s in late February, actually. The only sense in which any of this really happened is that I dreamed the first half of it (up through the anxiety about the shrew’s decline).

    miguel – Yet another reason to write pieces like this: it forces readers to slow down!

    If I could just see a wolverine in the wild, that would be a gift to treasure a lifetime. (I gave my mother coyotes for her 60th birthday. See here.)

    Rurality – So maybe for April Fools Day I’ll have to write something that’s true, but which nobody believes.

  15. Did that shrew venom make your hand feel numb? I tell kids that it probably would… And hey? Where are the photographs for this story??? I wanna see that severed pinkie! Or even better… the saw cutting through the pinkie… Why must you leave so much to our imaginations???

  16. Venom — good point! Sorry about the lack of pictures. If I could figure out a way to take my camera with me into my dreams, believe me, I would.

  17. I never imagined it was a true story. Anyone who would give you a birthday present would already know you can’t keep a shrew alive in a box without lots of food. As for cameras in your dreams, I thought you were already doing that.

  18. Great piece, Dave! Right up my alley — I love to embellish my real-life experiences with a bit of fantasy. The acetylene-torch remark just clinched it. Mark Twain was another writer who had a tendency to embroider…

  19. Rebecca – No, not yet. Though some would say I’m permanently in a bit of a dream-state, I suppose.

    Larry – Glad you liked. Yeah, Twain had that distinctively American penchant for the tall tale, didn’t he? Which is interesting to me because it’s one tradition that whites, African-Americans and Indians all contributed to.

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