I hit a deer once. It was at night, and I was out in the country, near the house where I grew up. When I was a child it was all farm country around there: big wide-open fields and thick hedgerows along the roads. By the time this happened, there was still some open country, still some farms left, though there are fewer now. That night I was driving to my parents’ house. We were all gathering there for my father’s birthday.
I was not alone in the car: my dog was in the back seat. She liked to sit up so she could see. When she’d first started riding in the car she used to sit bolt upright, not touching the back of the seat. That meant that if I braked or turned fast she could be badly thrown off balance. Since then, she’d learned to lean against the back seat for stability, but she was still at risk. She had no seat belt, of course, and so any sudden move would send her slamming against a hard surface. Once or twice that had happened, and afterward I tried to drive carefully, majestically, really—accelerating smoothly, braking slowly, turning deliberately. I was always aware of her sitting back there. She was a lean, long-legged dog, fine-boned and fragile.
Windybush Road runs due north for a while along the river and then, just beyond the village, it turns at a right angle and heads west into the countryside, parallel to Jericho Mountain. That night we had taken Windybush up from the river, then we’d come down over the crest of a hill, onto the long, straight, flat stretch. On either side of us were hay fields, with tall hedgerows along the road.
We were nearing a farm that was set back from the road, with a long driveway. When I was growing up there was a sign there, down by the road: Honey. Up by the house an outdoor table was set up. On it was a group of big glass jars, unlabeled, with white metal tops. They cost a dollar a jar, and there was a cigar box to put the money in. The honey was thick and dark, with a strong country taste.
That night I was driving fast, maybe 40 or 50. The road was straight, and there were no other cars. My headlights lit up just the blacktop ahead and the thick wild hedges on either side. It was early spring, and the branches were bare. The light made a brilliant moving arena in front of me, like a theater. A long tunnel of radiance. At night, even with that bright illumination, the landscape is drained of color, so that everything you see in those lights is strange. It’s not the world you know. The things you see there are not things that would happen in the world you know. Or that is what you hope.
Everything happened very fast, and it wasn’t until afterward that I understood the sequence, or the consequences. While they were happening it was all too quick for me to grasp. It started when I saw something out of the corner of my eye, something moving, on the left side of the road. Out of the thicket burst a doe, with her big dark eyes full of light, her long swivelling ears, her slim velvet body and those narrow, narrow legs. She was leaping directly in front of me, headed for the other side of the road. There were no other cars, no reason for urgency, and I couldn’t understand why she was doing this. Why didn’t she wait? Within seconds the road would be empty, silent, safe, and she could walk quietly across it in peace.
Right then, when I first saw her, in some suspended parallel time inside my head I thought she’d see the car and stop. She could have. But she had made her suicidal decision, and it didn’t allow for change. She was already moving in big desperate leaps, the long rectangular body rising and falling, bounding into the middle of the bright tunnel. I couldn’t slam on the brakes because of my dog, though I was already slowing. As I began braking I knew it wasn’t fast enough, but I kept thinking she’d swerve or stop, I was thinking she’d stop, she’d stop. Why didn’t she stop? She was coming across my course, but toward me, and I was slowing, but going toward her. We were headed dreadfully toward each other, as though those forces that presided over the black reaches of the night were directing us inexorably toward a nightmare intersection.
And behind her was the fawn.
Everything was happening quickly but somehow also in suspended motion, each moment seemed extended and unbearable. I slowed and slowed, still believing she would swerve or stop, but she kept on going, surging desperately past me, past my bumper; miraculously, her long narrow legs stretching, she was arriving unhurt on the far side, beyond the reach of my car. Behind her was the fawn.
I was slowing, slowing, slowing, my dog— fragile, trusting—was leaning against the seat behind me, and the car was doing two things at once, both slowing and speeding, reducing our velocity moment by moment, but still speeding unbelievably fast into the livid glare, toward another fragile trusting creature. I was slowing and slowing, still thinking he’d draw back, just for a split second, that he’d let me go past so he could safely follow his mother. But a fawn only follows his mother, he has no other way of being, he can’t permit separation, even for a split second, and so he went on and on desperately, into the brilliant path of the lights, into the lethal path of the car, he kept on going, and after the doe was safely past my headlights and beyond my bumper and moving into the safety of the hedges on the other side, the fawn kept moving, right into the brightest heart of the lights, into the most brutal, violent, radiant center, and though in some part of my mind I couldn’t understand how it was that he kept on and on, he did, until our paths met, at a dreadful angle and my car, my huge metal vehicle, which was slowing, but still traveling at speeds that will snap bone like matchsticks, hit him, hit the body of the anxious, trusting fawn, who was following his mother where she led. She was beyond, waiting in the hedge.
I had nearly stopped by then, and I saw him thrown violently into the ditch, and then I saw him scramble desperately to his feet, one hind leg dragging. I kept thinking something else would happen—could we go back to where he was still running and when we could both still stop, in time?—but he kept going, the leg dangling, his mother beyond him, into the bushes, and then they both vanished into the darkness. Then there was nothing. Just bright headlights on the empty black road.
There was nothing then for me to do but go on, though I drove slowly at first, stunned, going over it in my mind, thinking of the options, (as though I had options), thinking that something else should be done, or should happen—should I find a vet? Have him flown to Cornell? But there was nothing I could do, he had gone, scrambling through the hedges into the muddy field beyond. He was now in great pain, and pain would be his for the rest of his life. It was I who’d done it, I who’d allowed that dreadful intersection of dense hurtling steel and frail animal body. Those long fragile bones. My dog sat behind me, alert, puzzled.
Beyond that long flat stretch, the ground dips toward a wide shallow creek. Just past the bridge it rises and curves up a small hill. Steep banks rise on either side of the road. Dense brush and trees crowd the banks, and in the headlights the bare branches flared out into the road like pointing fingers.
When I got to my parents’ house, everyone was already there: my two brothers, my two sisters, and my parents, all feeling celebratory. My dog greeted them, wagging and smiling. I didn’t tell anyone what had happened. My father would have told me I’d been driving too fast. I had been, I suppose, but I didn’t want to hear him say it.
That night we all went out to dinner. The restaurant was in an old stone mill, and beyond its windows was the country darkness, spreading out across the fields. Inside we were festive, telling stories and singing songs. I kept seeing that picture: the fawn scrambling out of the ditch, his leg dangling. Each time it was a shock. What had happened was now fact: it had become part of the fawn’s life, it was part of the natural history of the world. It would never not be true. Knowing it was terrible to me, and keeping it to myself was also terrible.
The next day, when we were alone, I told my older brother. “I hit a deer last night. I broke its leg.” I told him what had happened. He only shook his head. “These things happen,” he said gently. This was 10 years ago, maybe 12. My father and my dog have both died.They haven’t sold honey at that farm for a long time.
I don’t know where to get honey like that anymore, thick and dark and pungent, tasting of wildflowers and the countryside.
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