A Minor Death

But I did not want to shoot the elephant.”

“Somehow it always seems worse to kill a large animal.”

George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant


I’ve always loved that essay. Orwell weaved so effortlessly the failures of colonialism, the fears and weaknesses of man, all around the horror of killing a magnificent, living creature. I’ve always wondered if Orwell really killed the elephant. In any case, the killing of this elephant was killed for the shooter “solely to avoid looking the fool.”

My killing was more resolute, and, I hope, just. When discovering the leg of the wounded calf had become infected yesterday, the smell alone told me what I needed to know. Because of this calf’s importance as a symbol to our project, our team made the effort to have a vet check the leg.

I stood over this small doctor, not flinching or gagging as the smell intensified with each bandage removed. I had already made my decision, but the vet confirmed that it had reached the artery and it was only a matter of time.

I immediately told the men to grab a machete and slit its throat. Like Orwell, I also was conscious of what these men around me were thinking of my actions, but I did not act out of fear of them thinking me weak. I acted because it was what needed to be done, no matter how little I wanted to be a part of this death.

Unlike Orwell’s elephant, who “as his hind legs collapsed beneath him he seemed to tower upwards like a huge rock toppling, his trunk reaching skywards like a tree,” this calf laid gaunt and silent, an exhausted child who had given up the struggle.

While I gave her a final scratch under her chin, the soldier quickly sliced across, and she hardly startled. It was as if she simply drifted off to sleep.

The meat which could be salvaged was donated to an elderly home at the end of the day, but the smiles and tearful thanks did little to erase the memory of this young creature needlessly dying in that soldier’s tent. I guess that’s why I thought of Orwell’s elephant, how “down he came, his belly towards me, with a crash that seemed to shake the ground even where I lay.”

Minor Poem

The only response

to a child’s grave is

to lie down before it and play dead.

Bill Knott

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