What do animals know

Posted on April 4, 2012 by


What, I wonder, do animals know about death? Are they harbingers around whom superstitions fly? The Red horses of Irish mythology are death horses; in the Book of Revelation, Death himself arrives on a pale horse. In Egyptian funerary relics, the spine of a snake was said to contain the fluid of death; on the other hand, the spine of a bull, considered the source of semen, was the fluid of life.  Birds, by the very fact that they are not earthbound, are often seen as portentous. Swallows, in ancient mythology, bore the displeasure of the Gods; in England, a swallow trapped in the house was believed to be a sign of death; the martin, on the other hand, was viewed as serving God and was known as his bow and arrow. Known in bird lore as “aerial acrobats,” martins have great speed and agility. The idea of hundreds of them plucked from God’s quiver and fired to earth – with their slightly forked tails and tucked wings – goes a long way in tempering the idea of a wrathful celestial archer.

 The Egyptians believed the souls of the dead took the form of a bee and ascended alive into heaven – with an unerring sense of the soul, lost far from Amenta’s fields, they made a beeline for home. I met a woman once who made a beeline after weeks in a coma where it seemed she was unable to die. The woman’s hospital bed was in her living room looking out on the ponds and pathways she had spent years creating. The nurse and I arrived, as we had every morning, to draw up meds and visit with her daughter. On this particular day, a bee buzzed incessantly against the inside of the sliding glass door. Without thinking I walked over and slid it open. In the time it took the bee to crawl over the metal rim of the door and fly out towards the garden, the woman took two breaths and was gone.

 It’s easy, in the presence of death, to see the extraordinary in the ordinary; harder to know what is imagined and what is real. On the morning of my mother’s funeral, hundreds of honey bees filled the chapel – released overnight from the numerous flowers that had been delivered. At her service, their steady hum rose and fell like the undisciplined chorus of an audience before a concert; the room vibrated with anticipation and out of the corner of our eyes, the bees, moving in and out of the long shafts of light, tricked us into thinking the air was flecked with moving gold. That same morning, my son, who had returned from Ghana for his Nani’s funeral, awoke to find an Apis mellifera scutellata, otherwise known as an African killer bee, on his pillow. For three days we saw bees everywhere.

 One of the hallmarks of grief is our need to make sense of loss. It is not uncommon to look for a sign, a message more or less signaling I’m gone but I’m still here. Animal sightings are sometimes interpreted as visitations. A few days after my friend’s mother died, a hummingbird hovered outside her kitchen window while she was washing dishes. A sign is a combination of things – a confluence of our hopes, memories, beliefs – a moment in which the veil seems to drop and we are granted a glimpse of another reality.

For my friend, the fact that it was winter and hummingbirds were her mother’s favorite bird was enough for her to believe that her mother had come to say goodbye. The word interpretation lends a certain kind of bias to the idea of signs. I don’t know if her mother did pay her a visit but I also don’t know that she didn’t.

 To find a honey tree, says Annie Dillard, catch a bee when its legs are heavy with pollen and it is ready for home. Release it and follow it for as long as you can see it; wait until another bee comes, catch it, release and follow it. Keep doing this and sure enough it will lead you home. Who knows, if there is a spirit, how it leaves? Bee to bee leading us home. How does the spirit leave? We don’t know, but every window on the hospice unit is open just a crack in case.

 In early traditions, bees were believed to have originated in paradise and were known as “little servants of the Gods.” At my mother’s funeral, the little servants flew above our heads like scullery maids in the great house.

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