The yeares that consummate the age of men,
Spin out three times two and nine times ten:
The prattling Crow nine times as aged growes:
The Harts long life foure times exceeds the Crowes.
—Ausonius, Eclogues 5.1-4 (trans. Sandys)
I remember, years ago, flipping a canoe and being surprised by the force of the river. It was twilight, and the river was at flood stage. The current spun us sideways against a submerged rock. The water tipped us over inexorably, yet so smoothly that I had the presence of mind to say calmly to my brother-in-law, who was in the back of the boat, “Here we go.”
Years later, I was driving my family back home after an evening at the house of our son’s friend. It was dark, early March. The kids were asleep in the back seat; my wife and I were talking about our three-year-old son.
“How was he in the basement?” Sara asked, resting her head against the dark glass window.
I frowned. “He pushed over Elaine, I think because he wanted to play with the train set and didn’t know how to ask. It happened pretty fast, so it’s hard to say.”
“Did she get hurt? I didn’t hear any crying.”
I could only barely see the dark spring cornfields beyond Sara’s head.
“Well,” I said, “that’s because she fell against a yoga ball, and then he ran to the drum set to pound on the bass drum, and then he leapt on top of the coffee table to roar.”
Oscar roared because he had trouble articulating. We had him in speech therapy.
“What did you do?”
When Oscar roared, he would leap up on furniture and slowly rotate his head in a jagged ovoid patter, like a tyrannosaurus howling over a fresh kill. His roars were frantic, not staged. As he roared, I would stare at him, incapable of speech.
Sara knew I had done nothing, and I knew she was criticizing my paralysis. We both felt the need to do something, but we had no idea what to do. I felt—we both felt, I think—cut off from our son, and from each other, increasingly swept apart by currents we couldn’t control.
Suddenly, Sara shouted, “Deer!”
I was hot from our discussion; I barely registered that a buck was staring me down.
The buck thumped and rolled off our passenger side headlight as I skidded to a halt. Sara popped on the flashers. I got out and looked at the front of the car. It looked unmarked. Not a scratch, not a dent. There was only a small tuft of brown hair affixed to the headlight.
I got back in the car. “The car is fine.”
I had just started driving again when Sara said, “I want the deer.”
This was a surprise to me. On the other hand, I was on partial layoff at work, so starting in January, there would be basically no money for food. We’d have enough money to pay our regular bills and my gas for work, and then we’d have a hundred dollars or so left over. We were underwater on our mortgage and sinking.
As she said, “I want . . . ,” I felt our life pulled along by massive, unseen forces. I slowed the car, drifted to the shoulder. We’d gone maybe two hundred yards from where I’d hit the deer.
“Really?” I asked my wife.
“Don’t you think so?” She looked at the side of my face. “We should go back and see if it’s dead.”
I stared at the road. “You want me to turn around and look for the deer?” I still kind of couldn’t believe she meant it.
“Yes.” She added, “Do something.”
“Ok.” I turned around in a farm drive at the western edge of the cornfield, drove back the length of the road to the curve we had come around, and turned around again, and then we drove along the ditch. Sara took my iPod and used it as a flashlight.
“There it is,” she said finally.
We stopped, and there was a buck in the ditch, the tall prairie grass flattened all around. It wasn’t moving.
Right then, my cell rang. It was my mom. I was going to call her later anyway, so I explained the situation. My dad was a game warden for years and years, so this was exactly his expertise. But he rarely talks to people directly—he always talks through my mom—so my mom and I navigated a conversation with my dad, in which I raised my voice so my dad could hear as I talked to my mom, and he yelled his answers back to me so I could hear, my mom interjecting occasionally. All the while, Sara kept shushing me not to wake up the kids.
We concluded that I should call 911, report the accident, get a cop to come out and write a report for the insurance (just in case there was damage I couldn’t see), and then get a kill permit.
So, I called 911. No one injured, no damage to the car. Sure, they would send someone out.
While we waited for the cop, I said to Sara, “So, what should we tell the cop?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, like, do I say that we were arguing, or we were discussing tensely, or what? That I was distracted?”
Sara put her hands on her temples and started panicking. “Oh my God! What is wrong with you?”
“Why? Why would you say anything like that?”
“I just want to be accurate for his report.”
“We weren’t arguing.”
“I thought we were arguing.”
“Oh my God. What is wrong with you?”
“C’mon, I just want to be accurate. I want to be honest.”
“Distracted? We were arguing? What is wrong with you?”
I sat there in silence, angry, incapable of saying what I meant.
Anyway, we concluded that I would just say it was an accident; I hit a deer. Nobody could argue with that. But then I had to sit there and think about how to ask the cop to help me load the deer into my trunk, because there was no way I could lift that carcass.
Do you ask the cop to handle the head, the rear? Do you try and lift it yourself, and just get the cop to, like, spot you?
It made me sick to think about—the awkward asking of the cop, that is, not the handling of the dead deer, though that made me anxious, too.
And then I would have to lug a deer down to a processor and talk to more men. Working men. And then it would come out that I had never killed a deer, never been hunting, never dealt with deer processing.
I was driving a Hyundai Sonata in Michigan. This, more than anything, made me feel queasy.
I called my brother-in-law to see if he could bring his truck out and help me, so as to avoid the whole awkward cop discussion. But he was in Kalamazoo, driving home from my parents’ house with my sister and their kids.
He said, “You don’t want that deer, anyway. The haunch is the best meat, and if that’s where you hit it, then there’s gonna be blood in all the meat, and it won’t taste good.”
“But,” he added, “was it a buck or a doe?”
“I’ll call my dad.”
All the time I was talking to him, I was pacing on the side of the road so I didn’t wake the kids in the car. And I was anxious about my brother-in-law calling his dad, too, because I had just bought two sheep from his dad and then the butcher screwed up the order and insisted I was lying, so I was out 150 bucks on butchering and everyone was angry about it. And there was this guy thing, this Dad thing, that I have never had access to. It’s like when I try to talk to a mechanic or a plumber. They just grunt and sigh and seem irritated by my questions.
As I paced, getting more and more anxious, people were stopping to check if we were okay. And then finally some pickup-truck boys stopped.
“Hit a deer?”
“Yeah, cops are coming.”
“Yer getting a kill permit?”
So then the guy jumped out of his truck. “Where is it?”
I quietly panicked because I thought maybe he and his buddies were planning to overpower me, yell at me, steal the deer. I pointed down in the ditch, speechless, and he just slid down into the mud and grabbed the antlers and lifted the deer half out of the ditch.
“Man, this thing is cold. You must’ve hit it a while ago.”
I nodded. We’d been there for an hour waiting for the cop, but then I started to worry that something was wrong.
“I just wanted to see if the deer was dead,” the guy said. “Sometimes their back gets broke, but they ain’t dead. You need to check to put ’em out of their misery.” He hopped back in his truck and wished us luck.
I slid down into the ditch uncertainly. The deer was as big as me. There was no steam; it definitely wasn’t moving. Its antlers were wide but short. I knelt down. There was no smell. I put my hand in its fur, ran my hand from its haunch up to its neck. It was as cold as a rug on the floor.
I sat with my hand on the deer.
The sky was ice clear, and the voiceless stars stared at me.
Finally, after another cold half hour, the cop showed up. It was very awkward, with lots of circling the problem. He didn’t want to write up the accident because if there wasn’t any damage, he didn’t want my insurance rates to increase. This was nice, and we finally agreed that he would give me his card, and if the car had any problems in the morning, he would come out and write a report for me then.
Then I admitted that I wanted a kill permit, which was awkward, and I was nervous about it. I never know how to talk to these men, what to say. I stared at the cop, who stared back at me expectantly.
“But I’m not sure if this is the deer I hit.”
You could feel the whole moment slowly tipping over.
“What?” the cop asked.
I felt the heat in my face and ears. “Well, this is exactly where I hit a deer, but I am not sure this is the deer I hit.”
He came around to the side of his car and turned on his passenger-side spotlight. The ditch filled with light, and you could see the deer’s hoof submerged in frozen mud. You could see, too, that its tail had been shredded by some animal, the fur scattered all around the hindquarters. The cop slid down into the ditch and rested his hand on the shoulder of the deer.
“Yep. This is not your deer.”
“Huh.” I nodded. “I need a real flashlight,” I said lamely, looking down at my iPod.
“What are the odds,” he said, helpfully. He was very nice. He tried to make it not my fault.
So, about this canoe.
The canoe rolled over the rock with me still tangled in it. I hadn’t been canoeing since I was a boy, and I was terrible at it. The gunwale cut into the water and caught in the current, which pulled the boat down with me underneath it. Under the canoe, I inhaled water, I thrashed, and then I gave up. The river, flowing easily from its source miles away, was pushing all the way deep into my lungs, my chest. I’d like to say I had the presence of mind to go limp and extract myself, but really I just gave in to the water and sank beneath the boat. The current pulled me down, and I could feel it calmly dragging me along the riverbed. That I bobbed back up to the surface next to the boat was only physics. I was probably under water for a few seconds, but it felt like minutes, hours.
I exhaled the river as if coughing up a half-swallowed string. I reached out and grabbed the keel. I could stand, water up around my chest, and so there I was, up to my neck in muddy water, trying to hold onto the aluminum canoe, trying to rescue it, trying to pull everything back together. The canoe and the river swept me downstream, water rushing up around me, the canoe pulling me down, spinning me around.
My brother-in-law was lying halfway up the riverbank, yelling at me. My ears rang, and my head roared with pain and fury.
I tried to call out to him, but all I could feel was constriction, my head full of hot rocks, my skin two sizes too small.
Then I heard him yell, “Let go, jackass!”
And I did. Free of the canoe, I let myself float on my back, and I calmly rotated across the surface of the water.
At the end, the sun fully set, the canoe aground downstream, we were both lying on the bank only a few hundred feet from the bridge where friends were going to pick us up. In the clear autumn sky, we stared at the stars coming out, he and I. And then we saw one star, very faint, moving implacably against the sky.
“That a plane?” he mused.
“Satellite,” I replied, having seen one years earlier in an astronomy class. “See,” I said. “It goes from horizon to horizon. Too high to be a plane.”
My brother-in-law seemed pleased with this information. What I didn’t want to bore him with was this: orbiting is just falling. It comforted me to think of the satellite falling, submitting itself to forces so huge and mindlessly destructive. That satellite might seem adrift, cut off from everything else, suspended in the vacuum, but actually it was connected to everything. Its every movement, its entire existence, was entangled within, and submitted before, the forces of the cosmos. Threads stretched across the sky, from out of the depths of space and time, down into me, through me and the Earth, and beyond. I felt the comfort that comes with identification, with seeing something, however strange and distant, and saying, “Oh, you. I know you. You’re me. Just like me.”
The river was so swollen that the surface was placid, no rock poking high enough to raise even a ripple. It looked like a brown road that stretched unbroken in either direction.
After the cop left, my brother-in-law called back. I stood in the cold, and we talked. His dad was ready to drive out and help me field dress my deer. This was something I had totally forgotten about: before you load up a deer, you have to slit it open and disembowel it. Then, when we got it back to my house, we would have had to hang it on a chain from a tree, and in my back yard, that would have likely meant hanging it over the sidewalk.
“It’s not my deer.” I said.
There was a long pause.
“Bummer,” he replied. “Well, it must’ve been a deer trail. Lots of herds follow the same path, so last night, one member of the family was hit, and tonight, you hit another one. Let’s hope your deer is okay, off in the woods, yeah?”
I told him to thank his father for me.
I sat down in the driver’s seat, thinking about splitting open a deer belly with a hunting knife, studying the auguries of its spent innocence. I considered the uncounted generations of deer on that trail, a long and unbroken chain. Had I hit the father or the son? Which had I mourned? Which was I preparing to gut? Which one was my deer?
I drove away from the scene.
“I can’t believe you thought we were fighting,” said Sara.
“I can’t believe you wanted the deer,” I replied. I held up my hand. “I touched a dead deer,” I said. “And it wasn’t even mine.”
She rubbed my shoulder. “I know, honey. Thanks.”
“Let’s hope,” I finally said, “he’s out there jumping around, running, and being okay.”
“Let’s hope,” she nodded. “Let’s hope he lives a long, long time.” She left her hand on my shoulder for the rest of the drive home.
I carried Oscar in, laid him in bed. I ran the dead deer hand along his cheek. I lay myself down beside him in his little bed. I took my clean finger, and, pressing it against his lips, I prayed.
There was so much I wanted to say.