Driving early in the morning is like driving in the night. If you live at the end of Cape Cod, as I do, where you are buffeted by wind and snow and the kind of rain that seems like a bucket of water is pouring over you, driving early morning in the fall is driving in pitch black. Sometimes the stars don’t even come out. Even when there is moonlight, the fog and clouds can obscure the light. Coyotes large as German Shepherds follow your car with cool indifference from the side of the road and sometimes run alongside you for company. Fat nocturnal creatures amble across the road, as do foxes and wild turkey. Where I live, there are “Slow for Turtles” signs, but, as I found out too late, there are also “Caution Deer” signs.
I once had a schedule where I got up at four in the morning, and was on the road by 4:45, to catch the 5:55 to make my 8:00 class in Boston. The morning I hit the deer was a Wednesday near Thanksgiving, the day after the first of the batch of kittens I was fostering got adopted. I had begun volunteering at the local no-kill cat shelter the previous year, and after a case of ringworm emerged, the healthy cats had to be separated and lodged out from the ill ones. A mother cat and her four kittens needed a quick home, so I gladly offered mine, beginning in mid-September. How hard could it be? Feed, medicate, scoop, play. They had to be isolated in my studio to make sure they did not have ringworm, and after three successive tests proved negative, they moved into my apartment.
What I didn’t expect was to fall in love with the lot, each individual kitten with personality to spare, and a mother cat who was deeply content to nurse them long past their biological need. I played with the idea of keeping all of them, keeping some of them, all the while preparing, so I thought, for their adoptions. I was in Colorado for a reading when I found out that a guardian for the first kitten, Denim, had been found. “That’s great!” I said on the phone, ready to be stoical and generous, for he would be receiving excellent attention, and that was the main thing.
I was still taking in the news when my father called to tell me his brother had died unexpectedly. His daughter had gone to fetch him coffee, but, as my cousin told my father, her mother, who had died the previous month, must have told him that she’d fetch it instead. My father was inconsolable for a long time, but on the phone, he was philosophical. I had not seen my uncle in decades, but had heard stories about him all my life. I listened to my father talk about his brother, the surprise with which he received the news. I shelved the news away, not quite believing, and finished my trip.
I came home to find out it was Minke, not Denim, who was leaving the next day. The kitten whose name had been Mink, but who I couldn’t resist renaming with a long “e” so he became the namesake of a whale, the runt of the family, the smartest, and, I realized when my heart seemed to stop when I heard the correction, possibly my favorite. After tea with the (very nice) woman who came to pick up her kitten, I got up to retrieve Minke, who was hiding, and found him being bathed by his mother. It was a touching sight, and of course I ascribed meaning to it. Being the littlest, he was sometimes crowded out when his mother nursed the kittens, so to see him receiving this special attention seemed to me both a farewell and a protest. Ignoring my heart, I handed Minke over. I was my father’s daughter.
That night, it was only three kittens, their mother, and me in the house, and the next day, as I did twice a week, I set off to teach at 4:30 in the morning. Was the separation of this little kitten subconsciously on my mind so my reactions were slowed? Yet everything seemed so in focus that morning. I kept noticing the music playing from the iPod. As I drove by the stretch of water known as East Harbor, lovely in daytime, a blues song was on, “I am Blue” by Grant Green. I had recently bought the song for a class on “Sonny’s Blues” and didn’t know it well. I remember thinking how strange to be playing late night jazz club music at dawn. I mention the details because I think through the details, the events will make more sense.
At that time of morning, I’d pass only a few headlights going in the other direction. Past several towns, at Eastham, the two-lane highway divides into four lanes, but remains very much a country road, and the speed limit slows. I was driving a new car. My reliable, beloved maroon Honda Civic ‘92, which had been blessed by a priest at an Indian temple in NJ, which had gone to a Buddhist stupa in Colorado with friends but without me, began to fall apart in the damp of Cape Cod. The ’92 was my first car, stood me up through seven years of snow storms at high altitude in Colorado after a previous seven years at sea level in Long Island, and lasted two years on the Cape. When the AC conked out, I erroneously thought the defroster would be next, and, anticipating my coming teaching commutes to Boston, decided it was time to invest in a newer model. I quickly got a 2012 grey Civic on a Labor Day sale, with automatic windows and on-going monthly payments.
There are two ways I could look at the story. My ’92 maroon-red Civic had never been in an accident in my possession. When I first began to drive, at 38, I would play one of four cassettes to give me courage driving on the South Fork highways. In Colorado, I replaced the cassette player with a CD player, but mostly listened to the radio. This new car had a complicated music system that let me connect my iPod. The ‘92’s previous owners meticulously recorded oil changes and parts replacements in a steady blue script. Reading the small records book was like looking into a diary. After I filled out the book, I used a fat folder for all the work I had done on it over the years. This new car had one previous owner and a clean bill of health. So, either the new car saved my life that Wednesday morning, or I would never have gotten into an accident if I still had the ’92, it having been blessed. Magical thinking will only take me so far, of course, because no matter how much I wish it did not happen, the accident took place.
It was still dark. No one about me. On the iPod began my mother’s favorite sloka, hymn, if you will, sung by M.S. Subalakshmi, who we had met on her American tour back in the sixties. In her voice, you can hear the quiver of belief even as she renders the words with an affecting calm. Every evening in New Jersey, my mother plays it as part of her ritual to bidding the sun goodnight, welcoming the Goddess Lakshmi into the house as the streetlamps go on. Again, an odd coincidence, I remember thinking. Another evening song for the morning. I had 194 tunes on the iPod at that time, and in the past few months I must have gone through the rotation at least once on my commutes. The playlist remained fairly new to me, and I was surprised to hear a forgotten song, my mother’s song.
I saw something out of the corner of my eyes on my right. A buck standing still by the side of the road, so close to the car I startled. What passed through my mind? I know I got spooked, it appearing all of a sudden and so close, and I know I took in its eyes. Deer have large round eyes that, perhaps because of the way they are set in their smooth brown fur, appear luminous. It/He looked concerned, or at least that was what I thought later. Suddenly, I was shouting, no, no, and screaming as a deer slammed into my car’s hood. All my CDs in a tote bag, my briefcase, slid from the passenger seat to the floor with the impact. I must have clung to the steering wheel, and perhaps my seatbelt locked me in. I kept screaming, for the horror, the deer,
the randomness of the violence. I saw the deer’s head and the frightening agility of its slender neck, the supple broken movement, and then nothing.
Did I slam on my brakes? Did I slow when I first saw the buck on the side of the road? Was it the buck that leaped in front of my car, or was it another deer? Had I hit two different deer? A herd that was crossing? Did I superimpose the buck’s horns onto the deer that I hit?
For a long time, I could not say I hit a deer. I said a deer hit my car. I could not say it.
When the road seemed clear, I pressed the accelerator when I should have reversed. I played the scene again and again in my mind, especially the first few months. I should have put on the flashers and reversed. But instead I just wanted to resume, to keep going, and so I pressed the brake, and the deer, like something out of a horror movie, reared up again. I thought it had leapt off, but it must have been just getting to its feet when I hit it again.
There is the truth: I hit it twice. Fully screaming now, and unable to stop screaming as I finally did manage to drive away, remarkably unhurt, windshield intact, I wondered where to pull over to call the police. I could have called immediately, which is what one is supposed to do. It was so dark, and I have always been scared of the dark, of the outside without light. I saw lights on at a gas station, but did not think anyone was there. Farther, I passed, but did not stop at, a convenience store. It was five-thirty. Would it have been open? Did the image of strange men stop me? A TV-fed country scenario where not only deer but women were targets?
When “push comes to shove,” I tend to barrel through life, I realized, not caring what was in the way if I felt threatened. As a young woman in Manhattan, I once tried to leave a crowded bodega, but a deaf and mute man peddling pencils stood in my way. He held up his sign, but I was not interested. Instinct for flight took over, and I must have pushed past him. He said to me, “You are very ugly.” I was. I was ugly because it was an ugly action. I was ugly because manners and compassion fled, and I pushed past.
The car and its smashed hood. The damage extensive. At the bus stop, my fellow riders said I had to call the police, and I did. I was told by other passengers that I was lucky the deer didn’t go through the windshield, that the hooves could have killed me. I was told, this is the time they are everywhere. I was told, it must have scared you, huh? I am. They are. I was.
I had an hour and half on the bus. The first part I just sat, and at some point my cheeks were wet, and I could not bear to look at merging traffic. We passed a pond where two ducks were plunging tail up for food, but I could not take simple pleasure in the scene; I no longer felt innocent. I felt awful. Had I been placed on this earth to kill a deer? Was that the sum worth of my existence?
Our lives, the myths say, are pre-ordained. A king kills a mating deer by accident and is cursed by the deer, who was really a sage in disguise, to be likewise killed during lovemaking. The king refuses to make love to his wives so the wives mate with the gods to produce the Pandavas, heroes of the Mahabharata. When the king breaks down and finally makes love to one of his wives, he dies, as he knows he must. I tell this story because I love mythology and I love stories. I know we retell our own stories to see if we can get it right, if by the retelling, we can make sense of our lives. I do not know if I killed the buck, if it was a buck. It most likely bounded away. This is what I hope. We were both so startled. I know we looked each other in the eye. It happened so quickly. When I got to my class, I told my students what happened and when my second class came in, I hesitated, but told them, too. One student said it was not my fault that a deer decided to commit suicide in front of my car. I said maybe it carried Lyme disease ticks. But I was fooling myself. It wasn’t something I could shrug off with a joke. It was why I could not that day look at other animals or birds with appreciation of their beauty, as someone who was part of the nature they were part of. Instead, I intervened in a life with all my humanness, with my power, with my car, with my senses intact.
Last week, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in a decade or more at a store I only go to occasionally. I was headed to the cash register, but remembered I had one more purchase, so turned back. At that moment, I was hailed by my friend. Years of insecurity had made me keep this once dear friend away. As we caught up, I wondered if she were running through our separation, if she thought about it. She had children, a husband, a job, a successful creative life, and so much on her plate to keep her distracted, perhaps. My single life gave room for rumination, obsession, resentment over other people’s success. They say teachers come when you are ready for them. Perhaps friends appear this way as well. I had to be in a state of forgiveness for her to re-enter my life. I had to forgive her for being successful, for leading a life I envied, and forgive myself for my own creative failings. And it was such happenstance. I went to the store because I took another friend’s advice to have a look because I needed clothes for the upcoming semester. I found kitchenware instead and was ready to leave, but remembered I needed a new shower liner. It was at that moment my old friend re-entered my world.
And the deer. Placed in my pathway, I in his or hers. If I hadn’t noticed the buck at the side of the road would I have crashed worse? If I did not see the buck, would I have braked in time? What unknown spiritual drama was being played there? A lesson in driving, in emergency, in life and death? I had been so blissfully unaware of there even being deer on the Cape—someone told me they had gone, and I had no reason to doubt, because now there were coyotes. Yet just the night before, a friend who had just lost her father told me she had seen a beautiful buck in her yard, who she felt was a connection to her father. I listened to her grief, but still did not make the connection that there were deer on the Cape. I drove not thinking I would come across something so large, only thinking I must be careful of fox, hedgehog, and coyote. I drove not knowing, but aware of the songs playing that night. I don’t know what played afterwards, if anything.
Deer gather at dawn, at dusk. If there is one, make sure there are not more. Use brights and drive close to the center of the road. A company makes a kind of whistle that you can attach to your car bumper to emit a noise that chases away deer from your car. The efficacy rate might be as good as the electric plug-ins to ward off mice, provided you don’t have mice to start with. Keep scanning both sides of the road as you drive. If you hit a deer, pull off to where you are safe, turn on flashers, call the police. Remain in the car. A white-tailed buck can weigh 100 lbs. at the low end of the scale, and does are heavier. Rutting season occurs in October and November, when male deer actively seek females. Females often run from rutting males, maybe into the road. Deer are herbivores and can bring to mind concepts like nobility, softness, gentleness. Deer are bigger up close than you expect.
The deer are there and, if we are lucky, will always be there. I don’t advocate hunting. For weeks, maybe months, I tried to pinpoint the place it happened, but gave up. I thought of the deer’s family, if deer feel loss the way elephants do. I think how I could have prevented it, if I had started later or earlier, something, anything, to change the circumstances. These are the circumstances, though, and I don’t know what other outcome could have occurred, and in not knowing, I have to accept what happened.
For a long time, I did not believe the deer died; no carcass had
been found, but it had been wounded. The damage to my car was considerable, with a smashed in hood, bumper, and partially-crushed front side section. I used to have photographs, but I threw, that is, erased, them away. There was no blood, which for a time soothed me, but though it must have fled, it was wounded. And eventually, it must have died. For the following year, I kept thinking of the deer’s family. I kept apologizing. I kept wishing deer well. I keep wishing deer well.
In War and Peace, Tolstoy writes, “When a man sees a dying animal, horror overcomes him: That which he himself is, his essence, is obviously being annihilated before his eyes—is ceasing to be. But when the dying one is a person, and a beloved person, besides a sense of horror at the annihilation of life, there is a feeling of severance and a spiritual wound which, like a physical wound, sometimes kills and sometimes heals, but always hurts and fears any external, irritating touch.”1
Death appeared in waves that autumn. A cherished friend, a friend’s father, my aunt, and my uncle, all passed away in succession. It was an autumn of death, an autumn of grief. The next year would bring more. As I write this, the south side of my apartment has window screens filled with morning dew. The north side has a little less. My cat stretches (I adopted the mother cat and one of the babies), grips the screen, and ambles away to the other side to gaze out. Our words are full of portent and our actions. Here, she comes toward me. I am ready to receive her if she comes this way.
1 Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, translated by Pevear & Volokhonshy, New York: Vintage classics, 2008, p.1075