Whenever I think about death and fear, I think about nature documentaries–not the fuzzy happy-ending, family-friendly kind, but those brutally unflinching narratives of survival in which the only outcome is eat or be eaten. And whenever I think about nature documentaries, I think about the crane.
I can’t remember how it broke a wing, or how it found its way into the crocodile swamp. I only remember that it was alone, and it was terrified. It’s easier sometimes to convince ourselves that animals don’t feel fear, don’t understand “human” emotions like dread and panic. But look—really look—into the eyes of the trapped and the doomed of any species and all such comfort evaporates. That crane was terrified, hobbling along the swamp edge in desperate search of whatever equally doomed creature might end up its dinner. Eat or be eaten.
Of course I knew that the crane would die, and the crane must have known it, too. Sure enough, as soon as it paddled its broken way out into the swamp water, the crocodile rose up in perfect movie-climax timing. The crane spiraled its one good wing in mad pursuit of the shoreline; the croc didn’t even blink. While the narrator’s calm voice prattled on, the crane lifted its bill and gave the sky one last anguished cry as the crocodile framed it in its cavernous jaws—and then a strange thing happened. In the very moment before the life of one ended to help ensure the life of the other for one more day, the crane went still. As the jaws began to close and the crocodile sank back into the water, the crane settled its wings and gazed ahead, as serene and majestic as a fallen monarch kneeling before the executioner’s sword.
In his book Dialogue with Death, Arthur Koestler describes his experiences in prison during the Spanish Civil War. Under sentence of death, he sat in his cell every night listening to the priest and the guards go from one cell to the next rounding up those scheduled to be shot, waiting for the key to turn in his door next. He was eventually freed, and for years afterwards he would wake up at night homesick for his prison cell in that death-house. He couldn’t make sense of it until he realized that the instant he had accepted that he was as good as dead, that the key would turn in his lock next, he had become “a man without a shadow,” dismissed from the ranks of the mortal for the first time in his life. He said it was the most complete sense of freedom he’d ever had before or since.
Twice in my life I have been present at the moment of someone’s death, but the first time was too fast and violent for his awareness, the second too drawn-out for her comprehension. I have also faced death twice, but each time also either too quickly or too unsteadily for that moment of eye-to-eye recognition. And so I can only ponder whether or not, to borrow from Dylan Thomas, I would go gentle into that good night, or rage against the dying of the light. Perhaps both, at the last, but either way, the crane and I can say this much: ultimately, there is—must be!—that serene settling of the wings as death covers us like a silent blanket of snow. But as every great horror/suspense writer or filmmaker knows, the true terror comes not when you’re already in the jaws of the crocodile, but when it’s still somewhere just over your shoulder, closing in—whatever cold comfort death may offer, the true terror comes when you still stand a chance.