Death comes calling without an invitation

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 July, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 July, 1993, 12:00am

THERE are some professions in which calling attention to one's craft is almost always a sign of desperation.

Have you ever noticed, for example, what a stand-up comic does when his jokes fall as flat as day-old beer, and his audience can't even muster a snigger? Chances are, he'll start talking about how tough it is being a comic.

Likewise with weekly ruminations such as the one you are reading. If there is a golden rule of column writing it is this: never, but never, admit to being stuck, to not quite knowing what to write about.

Oh dear. I think I just broke the rule.

Truth be told, I had planned to fill this space with somewhat less-than-original insights into the impact of terrorist threats on the American psyche, the significance of last weekend's bombing of Baghdad, and the fine line between religious and political zealotry. All worthy topics, to be sure.

But that was before my neighbours in an upstairs apartment were found this morning with their throats slit. For some reason that put a different slant on the day.

I should, I suppose, apologise for not knowing more about what happened. After all, the building was full of cops and reporters all day long, any one of whom could have told me about it. But my journalistic instincts simply failed me. Seeing the paramedics carry the bodybags out of the front door killed my appetite for more information. I didn't even watch the 11 o'clock news.

It's not as if I knew the two men, apparently a gay couple in their 50s. I don't think I ever exchanged more than a wan, elevator smile with either of them. No, I am certainly not beset with personal grief.

Oddly enough - and this sounds callous even to my ears - I am angry, as if their brutal murder were an invasion of privacy. I know that I live in a maelstrom of violence, that five of my fellow human beings are murdered, on average, every day in New York city alone.

BUT until today I had always managed to keep the mayhem at arm's length, to prevent it from entering my soul. Not anymore. Now I feel as if the violence, once safely contained by the media, has suddenly jumped out of the television and off the broadsheetinto my ''personal space'', as the self-help crowd might say. I didn't invite it in, but there it is just the same.

I will attempt to expel it, begging your indulgence, by telling a story about a dog, some cats and three birds.

While visiting my father on his 75th birthday last week, I noticed a red-breasted oriole had built a nest on the beam of an open-air pagoda in the backyard. It's probably the same bird that built a nest in exactly the same spot last spring, despite the disastrous result.

It happened so quickly that none of us could stop it. There were two hatchlings that year, and within a week they were chirping frantically while their mother foraged for worms and bugs. The family dog, a frustrated bird hunter, had been eyeing the nestfor weeks. So as the time drew near for the fledglings to leave the nest, we kept Kona indoors.

The situation reminded me of the years I lived in a traditional courtyard within the Summer Palace. (Like all state-run enterprises in China during the late 80s, the Summer Palace was looking for a way to earn a little foreign currency.) My wife and I shared our home with several cats, never less than two and as many as nine. They were normal cats, except for one peculiar habit which we noticed but could not explain: when the service attendants made their rounds from apartment to apartment, the cats followed at their heels like well-trained dogs.

One morning, very early, we learned why. The attendants, who had grown fond of the cats, had taken to knocking fledglings out of their nests in the rafters with long-handled dusters. Our feline boarders had acquired a secret taste for live baby birds.

So too, it seemed, did Kona, if only by instinct. Somehow, just at the moment when the first chick fluttered to the earth, he appeared from nowhere and devoured the bird whole before our very eyes. Kona was very pleased with his prowess, and clearly expected to be praised. But the three adults present, chagrined by our inability to prevent what had just transpired, intuitively rushed at the dog, barking our disapproval. Kona look startled and confused, as if we had all gone mad.

Just then, as we chased the uncomprehending animal about the yard, the second fledgling dropped to the ground. As if to prove to us once and for all that he was worthy of his breed (Brittany Spaniel), Kona evaded capture and dashed for the other bird. The mother oriole joined in the action, diving at the dog like a hawk. But to no avail.

This year, Kona was banished to the basement during the critical period of trial flight. The fledglings - two of them - learned their craft within a matter of hours.

And now they can fly without calling attention to themselves, or their craft.