1 essay

by Ava Wolf

Ava Wolf is a writer, designer, and several children stacked on top of one another in a trench coat. Her work has appeared in Bedfellows Magazine, Occulum, FLAPPERHOUSE, and Tilde Literary Journal. She lives in Philadelphia with her broken hamper and an abundance of dying plants.

Black Dog

 

            Nobody knows why whales strand themselves. It’s been posited that one cause of stranding is when a sick whale seeks shallower waters, and the gam follows. They call it the sick leader hypothesis. If a dominant member of the gam gets lost or falls ill, the others will trail behind—even if it leads them to danger.

            Once, while driving home in a storm, I made the same left turn off Main Street that I had been making for years and hydroplaned into a curb going thirty-five miles per hour. It severed my front axle in two. The whiplash eventually faded, but I was left with a tender, peach-like bruise on my forehead where it smashed against the steering wheel.

            Animals have a natural response to fear. I felt, in the brief moment before my car collided with the concrete, each individual synapse firing in my brain. They all warned me at a deafening volume: there is danger ahead.

            That was my first accident. At the time, the car belonged to my parents. They were furious. How could I be so irresponsible? Why didn’t I slow down? No answer sufficed, mostly because I had none to offer. I paid for the damages out-of-pocket, biting back tears as I wiped my savings account clean and handed over a crisp $2,000 check to the mechanic.

            A nineteenth-century Victorian psychiatrist ascribed “suicidal melancholia” to certain animals. In 1845, a story was published in the newspaper detailing the death of a black dog that appeared to have drowned itself. The dog, noted as a “fine, handsome, and valuable” canine, flung its body into a nearby river, and went entirely limp once it hit the water, legs and feet “in perfect stillness.” The dog was fished out by a bystander, but soon afterwards, it dove back into the river, and had to be rescued yet again. On its third and final attempt, the dog successfully sunk to the bottom and drowned.

            The car returned to us in working condition. I was hesitant to drive it, especially in poor weather, but I lived in a small suburban town and had no other means of transportation. Several months later, I left a restaurant to find my front bumper crumpled like a tin can, radiator fluid spewing all over the asphalt. Sirens rang in the distance, and I approached a man comforting his frenzied wife beside what I could only presume to be their Volvo. Smoke was leaking out from beneath the hood. While we waited for the police to arrive, I had to ask: how do you hit a parked car?

            The woman drew in a shuddering breath. “I didn’t try to break,” she said. “I let it happen.”

            They paid the deductible. My car was out of the shop in two weeks.

            The topic of animal suicide is highly debated. Do animals demonstrate the self-awareness to take their own lives? Although animals recognize death, mourn their loved ones, and exhibit fear of carcasses, it is unclear whether they understand the transience of mortality. The primary difference between humans and animals, scientists say, is that animals lack the cognitive ability to consider the future—to envision a world in which they are no longer present.

            In China, a captive bear smothered herself and her son after he underwent a painful procedure to withdraw bile from his abdomen. Spiders allow their young to eat them in order to ensure the survival of their offspring. Certain mice are infected by a parasite that eliminates their instinctive fear of cats; even once the parasite is removed, the fear remains permanently dismissed. This often results in the death of the host.

            Humans, unlike animals, possess the unique ability to deny death. These days, I take the bus.