By Chelsea Bacon
It might have been a bird. It hit the house with a soft thud, shuffled on the porch, and flitted away quickly as it came. It could have been a bat; it would have made no difference. It was aimless. It interjected into a cold Iowa evening, without meaning or significance, an inconsequential detail. We were trespassing on Kurt Vonnegut’s former residence, a large, intricate structure, replete with delicate window architecture seldom seen once society deemed it excessive and uneconomical to design and build houses with anything other than concern for profit and production. The night was cold, dark, hushed. We sat on the porch facing east. To the south, Iowa City squeezed itself into an efficient grid. To the north, a red barn guarded a vast and pristine wooded area. The west was of no importance, at least in this perspective.
The porch swing might not have been there in the 1960s, but Vonnegut was. And in that house he began writing one of the most critically acclaimed pieces of fiction. Slaughterhouse-Five dealt with free will and the futility of human life. Billy Pilgrim, the comically frail and aimless protagonist, was always fighting in World War II; inhabitants of Earth and Tralfamadore were constantly, simultaneously, at war and at peace. Any event was preordained and meaningless. There was no meaning for the depravity of war. There was no meaning in the peculiar way Vonnegut lived to write about the bombing of Dresden, Germany in World War II. Vonnegut stressed the insignificance of it all:
There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like ‘Poo-tee-weet?’
The birds felt no need to pause and consider the scene, even when surrounded by utter destruction. Death was insignificant. And so was life.
And so it had to be a bird. Not because it was verifiably avian, but because there was no significance to its entrance in the night. We reflected on Vonnegut’s writing and how he retold with such clarity and empathy the elegant suffering of humanity. The bird flew in and left the scene. It had to be a bird; it was painfully and dispassionately insignificant. The scene was beautiful and meaningless. And so was life.
Chelsea Bacon lives and works full-time in Iowa City. She graduated from The University of Iowa with a B.S. in Psychology.