This is my submission for the next Symposium at the Soaring Twenties Social Club. The topic for May is death. You can check out the STSC here: https://soaringtwenties.substack.com/
Scott pulled onto the two-lane road his daughter Charlotte safely buckled in the back seat. A two lane road was all that was needed for a rural highway in the farmland on the edge of town. Corn fields stretched for miles, broken up by copses and thickets. Everyone drove fast on those roads, not because they were in a hurry, but because there was a lot of ground to cover.
There’s a difference between driving fast and being in a hurry while driving fast. Being in a hurry is frantic, an anxious thing, the knowledge you probably won’t get there on time. Driving fast is zen. The gas pedal is down and that’s it. No cares or worries.
Driving is one of those activities where people feel safe, encased in armor, a mass of metal shielding them from the outside world. There’s very little that can hurt you in a car except perhaps another car, and even then it’s rarely serious. But maybe such armor cannot protect you from all injuries, especially the least expected.
With Charlotte in the car, Scott was always just a little bit tense. She unknowingly, unintentionally created that little bit of worry, the seed of anxiety, the potential for loss.
He checked on Charlotte in the rear-view mirror. She had grown quite a lot, the blonde hair of her infancy turning to brown, though highlights would still emerge every year in the summer sun. It was hard to remember those early years even though she was only six and they were really such a short time ago. Children have a way of growing so quickly that they are hard to pin down in your memory. Each iteration only exists here and now and in a short while they will be a different person, ten instead of six, appearance changed, spending more time out of the house with friends. Scott struggled to remember what Charlotte had looked like as an infant in the same back seat of the same car.
Approaching the edge of town the road expanded into four lanes in front of them and dipped down into a little dale before rising up to meet the sprawling suburban city. Mysterious glacial forces had carved gentle rolling valleys out of the landscape leaving nothing uniformly flat.
Heading down into the dale, there was sudden movement on the right. Scott hit the brakes, his vision narrowed, a side effect of adrenaline and surprise.
Two deer, brownish gray coats blending into the scrub, their presence given away only by their movement, darted into the road. One turned back, the other kept going amid honking from the oncoming traffic. The cars slowed. The lead deer scrambled across, the straggler waited. It seemed to disappear from view to his right.
“What is it, dad?”
“Deer crossing the road.”
Scott whipped his head back and forth trying to see if it was all clear, vision still narrowed, adrenaline coursing as it has a way of doing in unusual situations. Anything unusual can be a threat to your child.
He pressed the gas cautiously just in time for the second deer, unable to be separated from its mate, to dart out in front of their car.
Scott hit the brakes again. He was going slow enough that there was no danger of hitting it.
The deer, gray coat, high head, panicked gait, ran across just in time to be caught full in the chest by the SUV coming up behind Scott and Charlotte in the left lane.
The squeal of brakes. The soft, dull, fleshy thud. The broken body flailing.
The deer rocked back and crumpled, limbs thrashing and kicking as it lay on its side. It stared straight at Scott and Charlotte, stretching its neck unnaturally, eyes bulging, mouth open, pleading, seemingly like it was trying to speak but had no air left in its body.
“I know, I know.” Scott wanted to reach out, to comfort the innocent life leaving its body. The eyes stared, uncomprehending, blind with terror and shock. He inched the car forward and around the deer, still convulsing in the road.
“Dad!” Charlotte was crying now.
“We can’t just sit here,” he said, his voice sounding harsh and feeling harsh in his throat.
The SUV that had hit the deer pulled ahead and onto the right shoulder. Scott followed but didn’t stop.
“Dad, we have to go back.” Charlotte’s voice was choked, tears streaming down her face.
“Go back for what? It’s dead. There’s nothing we can do.”
“We have to help her. She’s just lying there in the road. Someone’s going to hit her.”
“Someone already did. It’s dead, Char. I’m sorry.”
“Dad!” She was pleading now, like the deer had been pleading.
Scott took a quick right, wheeled around, waited for traffic to clear, then made a left back the way they had come.
The SUV was still pulled off on the shoulder. The deer was where they had left it. It was lying completely still now and was blocking the right lane. Cars and semis swerved into the left lane to avoid the body.
Scott turned left at the nearby intersection then pulled over and parked.
“Come on, Char. Let’s get it out of traffic at least.”
Charlotte unhooked her buckle and took off from the car, hair streaming, little legs spinning in that not yet fully coordinated running style of kids her age.
“Charlotte, wait,” Scott said, panicked as all parents are when their children are around fast moving two-ton objects.
They stood together on the side of the road looking back and forth, up and down the road, waiting for a gap in the traffic. Scott had no desire to recreate the deer’s death with his own or, God forbid, his daughter’s.
Between the roaring of engines they could hear the little stream that ran from the field behind them, under the road, and out the other side. The stream was shaded by a wild, scraggly wood watered by the runoff that gathered in the stream.
“Stay here,” said Scott as the traffic cleared for a quarter mile in either direction.
He darted out into the road. Grabbing the deer’s hind legs by the ankles with one hand and the forelegs with the other he pulled it backwards off of the road.
He felt a hand on his.
“Charlotte,” he growled. “We gotta hurry up.”
The middle of the road is an unnatural place for a person to be and the surety of that feeling gnawed the length of his spine.
He checked the traffic again. They were okay. Only a few more feet. He resisted the urge to leave the deer, pick up his daughter, and set her back down safely off of the road.
The deer stopped a few yards from the road. It had been surprisingly light, probably no more than a hundred pounds.
They stood there looking at it. Its eyes were wide and staring, completely unseeing now. Its mouth was almost closed, the tongue just visible. There was a bald patch on its left side, the side visible, right where the car had hit it.
“Oh, dad.” Charlotte knelt down and stroked the deer’s neck. Scott joined her. He put one hand on Charlotte’s shoulder and the other joined Charlotte’s on the deer.
Though each hair of its brownish gray fur was coarse its coat was surprisingly fluffy and soft.
“She looks fine, like she did before. But she’s gone now,” said Charlotte.
“Yeah, she’s gone.”
Cars sped past us at sixty miles an hour. Cars, not people. They’re just cars at a distance. What might they think when they saw a man and a girl kneeling next to the body of a deer on the side of the road. They didn’t see what happened, didn’t experience the suddenness, the violence.
Roadkill is just roadkill. There’s the dead animal on the side of the road. Here you are in your car. Complete separation. Never the twain shall meet. You say, “It got hit,” and you go on with your day.
But seeing it, experiencing it, being close enough to touch its death changes things.
“Why did she have to die?”
Scott sighed. “These things just happen. There are a lot of deer around. Cars drive fast. The deer cross the road. It’s bound to happen. It’s not the first dead deer I’ve seen on this road.”
“Did you see her? She really hurt.”
“I know. But it was quick.”
“What are we going to do, dad?”
“I don’t know.”
The thought of fresh venison crossed Scott’s mind, a way to honor the animal. Practical considerations sprang to mind: where would he hang it? There would be a lot of blood. What would Charlotte think?
Then revulsion crept into his belly. He’d never butchered anything before and the thought of doing that to an animal so violently killed, an animal he’d seen die, that looked at him as it died, turned his stomach. The contradiction was immediately apparent to him. He ate meat all the time but somehow he rationalized the difference. This deer’s death was not only violent (as with all deaths of animals destined to be eaten), it was accidental, unintended, wrong.
“Why do people drive cars? It’s stupid.”
“We should take her home and bury her.”
“She’s already gone, Charlotte. Bringing her with us will not make her live, it won’t keep her with us. You have to let her go.”
Charlotte was crying again. “But she’ll be there. She’ll be at home with us.”
“She’ll always be here,” Scott said, putting a finger to Charlotte’s chest.
Charlotte was almost screaming now. “It’s not fair.”
“I know it’s not. But she’s gone and there’s nothing bringing her back. Holding onto her body and holding on to the memory of her are two different things. You can remember her without bringing her home and burying her.”
“I don’t want to remember!” Charlotte threw herself into her dad’s arms and wept.
Scott too felt tears pooling in the corners of his eyes. He squeezed his eyes shut but that just pushed them out and down his cheeks. He kissed the top of Charlotte’s head.
“It’ll be okay, Char. It’ll be okay.”
They stayed there for a while.
“Come on, Charlotte. It’s time.”
He made a vain attempt to close the deer’s eyes. Was that for her or for myself? Scott wondered.
He put a hand on the deer’s shoulder. Charlotte joined him.
“Bye,” she said and collapsed into him crying.
The left her there in the grass on the side of the road, still and quiet next to the little stream and the trees and the screaming cars.
Scott carried his daughter to the car. Back in her car seat, tears still leaked from her eyes and she hiccuped on occasion, but she didn’t weep anymore.
Scott pulled the car back onto the road and left the deer in the rear-view mirror. He tried not to look back.
“What’ll happen to her?”
Scott almost lied. “Someone from the city might take her away or coyotes or other scavengers might eat her just like if she died out in the woods.”
“Then what happens?”
“I suppose what’s left will decompose. Break down.”
“She won’t look like that anymore?”
“No.” Scott didn’t like this line of questioning. No parent does.
Charlotte was silent for a few moments.
“Will I die?”
Scott sighed. “Yes, Charlotte.”
“Hopefully not for a very long time.”
“Will you die?”
“Hopefully not for a very long time. Hopefully before you.”
“I’ll bury you, dad.”
Scott couldn’t help but laugh. In the rear-view mirror, Charlotte’s face was dead serious, the way kids can look serious without looking mean.
“Thanks. I know you will, baby. How do you feel about that?”
She thought for a moment then shrugged. “I don’t know. I think I’ll be sad.”
“That’s okay. It’s okay to be sad.”
“Dad, why do we die?”
“Most animals, and we are animals, just fancy monkeys in a way—” Charlotte laughed, “—animals just can’t live forever. Our bodies get old and give out. Or something happens, like that deer.”
“I wouldn’t want to be hit by a car.”
“No, me neither. No, we all have to go sometime. We don’t know when. We just have to make the most of the time we have.”
With the deer out of sight it was fading from Charlotte’s mind already. Scott hoped it would fade quicker. Not to shun the realities of life, but hoping that a six-year-old wouldn’t need to grapple with them so young. But maybe she was resilient enough, and maybe talking was what she needed. Maybe talking was what he needed.
“Charlotte, you want to go get some ice cream?”
“Okay. Let’s go.”