The Doe’s Song

Kimberly Witham's work investigates intersections between the human and natural worlds. She is the recipient of a fellowship from the Center for Emerging Visual Artists.
Photograph by Kimberly Witham

JENNIFER HIT THE DEER and the deer came onto the windshield and the deer fell back down to the pavement. The deer got up and tried to run but the deer could€n’t run and fell back down to the pavement. The deer’s front left leg was broken, flipped over one shoulder like a scarf. The deer got up and ran on three legs across the road, the bad leg dangling. The whole thing took maybe thirty seconds, a minute tops.

Mike and I were following Jennifer in a second car and when she slammed the brakes we slammed the brakes. We saw the deer try to stand and we saw the deer fall and we saw the deer rise and run. We saw the leg. She was a doe, not sure how old. It goes without saying that she was lovely, but I’ll say it anywayŠ: she was lovely. Brown and slim. Smooth. If she had a name, no human knew it.

This was springtime, a soft evening in Princeton, New Jersey, a narrow road in forested suburbs, the kind of place where deer are hit every day. I will repeat that: it was the kind of place where deer are hit every day. I will repeat that: every day. Where every day deer are struck with the force of rockfall and lightning. Where roads curve and curve back and bones litter green thickets between fine houses. Where we live our lives, always moving, always rushing this way and that, here and there, back and forth. Where spots of blood on new leaves go mostly unnoticed, and kids can be heard laughing in their yards, playing after the homework is done.

Yes, a soft evening, the clouds rosy, the sky between the clouds a pale, delicate blue.

When I reached Jennifer’s window she was sobbing, face in her hands. “Did you see the leg?” she said, the hands coming down to her lap, thin and red, her face red and wet. “Did you see the leg? Is it going to be okay?” I assumed that the doe would not be okay. I assumed that the doe was in a tremendous amount of pain. “It happened so fast. There was nothing I could do. Is it going to be okay? Is it going to die?” I said I didn’t know. I was thinking of suffering. “œIs it going to be okay?”

Cars were lining up behind us, cars and more cars. I waved them around, crossed the road, and there she was, fifty feet into the woods, curled on the ground, looking at me, shaking. I stopped, not wanting to scare her, and said I was a friend. Unsure what else to do, I sang a little song, a gentle tune without words. I invented the song as I went, the doe looking at me, shaking, a sadness thickening in my body. And then something cut through that sadness. Cleaved that sadness. I stepped back. I knew for certain that my presence was only making things worse.

Sure enough, the doe got up and ran, the bad leg now like a sock of pennies.

Returning to the scene of the accident, I found Mike in the passenger seat, Jennifer gripping the steering wheel. They weren’™t talking and they weren’™t crying. They were mesmerized it seemed, by the dust on the dashboard. A pickup truck passed behind me, way too fast and way too close. I felt the rush of air press against my neck, the force of it, the hint of rockfall and lightning.

“œDo you think it will be okay? Do you think it will live?”

Mike stared ahead. I said nothing. Jennifer raised her thin red hands and dropped her face to meet them.

***

RICHARD NELSON’S 1997 book, Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America, doesn’t deal all that much with roadkill, but the few statistics it does provide are overwhelming. By chance I had been overwhelmed with them at breakfast, drinking my coffee, reading at the table in Vermont, before getting in the car for the drive to New Jersey.

“Back in 1961 when deer were scarce by present standards,” Nelson writes, “œofficial reports counted fewer than 400 deer killed by cars on [Wisconsin’™s] roads. Just 30 years later, in the 1990s, the number had soared to between 35,000 and 50,000 whitetails killed annually, and the actual figure could be much higher, since injured deer often get away from the highway before dying.” He goes on:

The number of deer killed by cars in Boulder [Colorado] varies from 120 to more than 200 each year, and an equal number (if not more) are injured or straggle off to die in the brushland. Deer accidents increase during winter, midsummer, and especially the fall rut. An animal control officer told me, “We’ll pick up two or three dead deer every day in rutting season, plus usually one more that’s injured so badly it has to be euthanized.”

A spring morning, a cup of coffee, the house quiet. I leaned back in my chair and thought about the math. Boulder plus every other city, town, and open road in Colorado. Plus Wisconsin. Plus Florida and California. Plus Vermont and New Jersey. Two or three. Plus usually one more. Between 35,000 and 50,000. Could be much higher. I took a gulp, then took another. Straggle off to die in the brushland.

If all went well, I’d make it to Princeton in five hours, perhaps faster.

***

SEVEN YEARS AGO I drove from Vermont to Colorado keeping a tally, organized by species, on the inside cover of an atlas. The atlas sat in the passenger seat with a pencil atop it, one of those short pencils you find in libraries. For some two thousand miles it was just me and the road and the dead animals and the running tally and the short pencil. The radio in my car was broken. No air-conditioning either.

The first day’s push got me to Lansing, Michigan, where an old best friend lived at the time. We hadn’t seen each other in years, so we drank late into the night, joking and remembering and playing guitars. I didn’€™t mention my tally, the early doe in the Adirondacks, the second with her neck snapped back, the skunk whose white stripe was red, the mash of porcupine, the smears I couldn’€™t name. Ohio was bad, worse than New York. A red-tailed hawk with its wing sticking straight up. A stain that looked like tar.

Morning came too early, hot and hungover, and in no time I was on the road again. My destination was Chicago, a half day’s drive at the most. Within fifteen minutes, though, I began to doubt whether I would make it that far. It was the raccoons, Procyon lotor, my favorite animal. It was the damn tally. It was me picking the pencil up, putting it down, picking it up, putting it down, picking it up. I knew I’d be okay if I just stopped counting, but I wouldn’€™t let myself stop counting. I was thirsty and ran out of water. I worried that I might vomit. When I finally hit Chicago my shirt was off and I was sweating and the vinyl seat was sucking against my aching back. I’™d racked up an even twenty raccoons, plus three deer, a squirrel, and four unidentifiables.

Iowa. Nebraska. The rest of the trip was more of the same, though never quite as low and sad and hard as Michigan. This is a big country and it gets that much bigger when you’re watching and tallying and reaching for the pencil again and again. You know that kind of pencil I’m talking about, the kind from libraries? They never have an eraser. Any mark you make with one of those pencils is a mark made for good.

***

THERE WAS A GAME ON, the Philadelphia 76ers. I don’€™t really care about basketball, but Mike and Jennifer like sports, and I was their guest, so we watched. We also prepared a big dinner. Jennifer made tortilla chips from scratch with lots of oil and salt. I chopped jalapeños and onions, cooked black beans and rice. Mike grated cheddar cheese and fed the dog, Lucy. We had some beers. Jennifer had red wine. Nobody mentioned the deer.

The game was close and long and the commercials came and came like the raccoons that morning heading west from Lansing. They felt to me like dead things, like little flashy, noisy corpses. I sat on the carpeted floor, a giant pillow propped against the base of the couch for a backrest, my dirty plate beside me. We had some ice cream. Another drink. Three-pointer, slam dunk. During a commercial break I went out to the driveway and looked at the stars. I went out again during the next commercial. And the next. We talked for a while about nothing in particular, relaxed and played with Lucy, said goodnight and went to bed.

Edging up to sleep, I saw the stars inside my eyes, constellations bordering dreams.

The next day, rising before dawn to get the coffee started, I found Jennifer sitting on the couch, wrapped in a blanket, her face red and wet and buried in her hands, the hands lifted to meet her face.

***

AT THE LITTLE Otter Creek Wildlife Management Area, in Ferrisburgh, Vermont, I discovered the spot where the deer that die on nearby roads get piled, though I’m not sure whose job it is to haul them there. It’€™s a mass grave and an open grave on a dead-end track in a stand of white pine. The smell pulls you along the track, the curious horror of that smell, and then you see a leg. Then another. Then the shallow depression with the skulls and tangled bodies, every stage of decay, the churn and grind of time. Often I€’ve sat on the ground and forced myself to be still, to inhale, to look hard and long. The stink is overwhelming. Teeth and jawbones are everywhere. This is a mile from my childhood home, an easy walk. I’™ve got a feeling few people know about it besides me and the person who hauls the bodies from the road.

***

WHEN I WAS A TEENAGER I spent a week studying wilderness medicine. The class was held on the Vermont/New Hampshire border in the middle of winter. The two instructors were mountaineers with countless hours of experience saving lives and facing death in remote corners of the world. Simon was a Denali guy and Gabe did land-mine work in Southeast Asia. Both climbed ice.

After lunch on the last day of the course Simon got quiet and very serious. He said that now we had to talk about another aspect of the work and that if anybody didn’t feel comfortable it was okay to leave the room. Nobody left. We all sat tight. Outside it was getting ready to storm, snow lightly falling, night only a few hours off. A fellow next to me who was usually a big joker put his hands on the table and stared straight ahead.

Simon said the other aspect of the work was trauma. He told a story about a plane crash. It was a big commercial jet and a major American airport. It was many bodies. It was a heavy response, dozens and dozens of emergency workers on site. He described how easily you get pulled into the situation, the flow of the emergency, everything that needs to be done and that you’ve been trained to do without thinking. And then it’s over, he said. You’re at home on the couch. You’€™re watching TV or having dinner or humming your kid a lullaby. You’€™re chopping onions. You’re at the edge of sleep.

Processing. That was the lesson. Having spent all week teaching us how to help people, how to assess their injuries, how to stabilize and evacuate, the last lesson was that sometimes you can’t. I will repeat that: sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you arrive on the scene and the bodies are in pieces and the pieces are in pieces. Sometimes there’™s enough blood to drown in a thousand times, once every night for many years to come. You may have nightmares. The images may haunt you. After that bad plane crash, Simon told us, the medical crews went through psychiatric evaluations and participated in discussion groups. They didn’t just drift off. They knew that drifting off was not an option.

Remembering this lecture, I think of deer hunters. They process the meat. That’€™s their word for bleeding and skinning and butchering and wrapping the cuts in plastic and paper and putting them away in the chest freezer in the garage. For dating and naming the cuts with black ink. For turning a killing into another year’s calories, into holiday feasts shared with family and friends. Processing. It’™s a method. It’s been passed down through the generations, season to season, hand to hand, from father and mother to daughter and son.

***

MATT, A TEACHER I KNOW, tells a story about a cow moose. It was late spring and he was leading a group of high school students on a camping trip. Exploring away from the trail, they came upon a brook bridged by a fallen tree. The moose lay beneath the tree, partway in the water. What had happened? Maybe the tree fell on the moose while she was having a drink? The back end of the carcass was eaten away, the skeleton chewed clean by coyotes and a long winter. The front end, protected by the log, was fur and flesh, a rotten mess feeding the soil. They lifted the log as a group and pulled the moose free, up out of the brook and onto higher ground. They wanted to have a funeral.

“It was really beautiful,” Matt recalls:

We went around the circle and everyone was given a chance to say something, whatever they wanted, or they could just be silent when their turn came. One student said a prayer. I was blown away. I won’€™t try to repeat it because I’ll get it wrong. It was something like, “The moose is now able to complete its journey.” It was stirring and it was raw and it was beautiful. It was life and it was death. It was profound and it allowed students to participate in that larger dance.

Some of Matt’s students have lost a parent. Some have lost siblings, aunts, uncles, friends. I picture their circle, the things said and not said, the quiet of leaves speaking to other leaves above, the ghosts hovering close. Afternoon light slants down to the glistening pelvis. The muzzle is huge and softening. The brook’s voice fills every ear.

“œI think being able to witness the cycle of life and death as it appears in the natural world allows them to accept,” Matt says. “Not to gloss over or forget or ignore, but to just accept.”

***

Richard Nelson again:

The historical literature portrays Indians, above all, as masters of still hunting: a solitary man in the forest, armed with bow and arrow, slipping like a phantom through light and shadow, stopping every few yards to watch, waiting for the flicker of movement that reveals a deer, then cannily stalking within range. There is also a romantic but accurate image of the hunter disguised as his prey, covered with a whole or partial deer hide, his own head embellished with antlers.

The Navajo, who practiced this style, would use “the sacred hide of a deer killed by suffocation rather than with arrows or bullets.”

Suffocation? It sounds impossible. It’s not. Deer are sprinters but humans run longer and harder, or at least we can. Open country, the red dirt and sage, the summer thunderheads building over endless scrub. Hear the beat of your own feet, the uninterrupted drumming. You follow the buck. You follow and follow. You gain inches until you are within inches, and now you can almost touch the running back, the ears, the breathing chest. Crushing the sage, freeing the scent together, the two of you move in sync, human matching deer and deer matching human, mile after mile.

Nelson quotes writer Barre Toelken: “When the deer is finally caught he is thrown to the ground as gently as possible, his mouth and nose are held shut, and covered with a handful of pollen so that he may die breathing the sacred substance.”

A snort, a golden cloud-puff of pollen. Dust hangs in a rising lens over the shuddering embrace.

“And then—I am not sure how widespread this is with the Navajos—one sings to the deer as it is dying, and apologizes ritually for taking its life, explaining that he needs the skin for his family.”

***

FOUR OR FIVE DAYS before Simon’s lecture on trauma, during an anatomy lesson, he mentioned a time teaching a class when he’d come across a dead deer in the woods. He brought the students over and they put on gloves and inspected the body. It was a great success, the dead animal bringing to life what can be so much jargon, so many diagrams on the page or blackboard. The smell of late autumn, the leaves and distant smoke and hardness to the air. I see them circled up, crouched down, quiet and attentive. I see Simon bending forward. The windpipe worked, he said. You could push air into the lungs and they would fill.

***

I HAVE TRIED to say goodbye. I have tried, many ways, many times, to say goodbye.

Once, on my way to the lake for a swim, I hit a chipmunk. It was a summer day, hot and bright. Besides a speck of blood at the mouth, the chipmunk looked fine. I searched the car for something to use as a bag, but all I could find was an old foam sandal. I slid the chipmunk onto the sandal and took the body with me to the beach. Sitting shirtless on blue stones, using a jackknife and some twigs, I dissected the chipmunk. I looked inside the chipmunk. I will repeat that: I looked inside.

A few weeks later, my dog killed a chipmunk and brought the body to me. She had been chasing the chipmunk around a shagbark hickory and then the chipmunk was in her mouth and then the chipmunk was at my feet. I sharpened a knife from the kitchen and collected some other instruments, some pins, tweezers, two of those spikes with yellow plastic handles used for eating corn on the cob. Again, I went to the beach. I was supposed to meet friends for a dip. When they arrived I had the pelt laid across a log, the guts in a neat pile for the birds.

The rest of that summer I drove around with a dissection kit in my car. I got a real scalpel and some latex gloves. I was always very nervous about making the first incision. I remember cutting into an eyeball and recoiling as a stream of fluid burst out. I remember the feeling that every creature was made of layers.

Another summer, working for the forest service in Arizona, I collected skulls and smaller bones. The pile in the weeds outside my cabin door grew with each passing week. Scapula. Vertebrae. Ribs. I found dead sparrows on the dirt road and caged them in chicken wire so that they could decompose without the local bull snake getting them first. I picked a squirrel up and put him in a cinder block and checked his decomposition every day. When the field season ended I strung all my bones on bits of clear fishing line, then climbed a ponderosa pine and decorated the tree. It was a mobile. Maybe a hundred floating pieces.

That same summer my girlfriend hit a jackrabbit. It was her first roadkill. The moon was in the rearview mirror, the sky purple, the windows down. The rabbit jumped out and was tossed up and we heard a sound. I wrote my girlfriend a poem. The sound was in the poem. She cried.

I have sat for hours, the scatter of teeth and stink of flesh all around. I have sat this way with no intention, with no thoughts in my mind, with an inability to rise.

***

THEY TELL US that life lives off life, feeds off life, trails death everywhere it goes. That’s just how it is, they insist. You can wear a mask to avoid inhaling insects. You can sweep the ground before your crushing foot lands. You can go vegetarian, go vegan, and still you will fail. But you should not call it failure. You should just call it life, living, dying, the world being the world. The most we can do is pause, pray, give thanks, apologize, make ceremonies, make them a part of the very life that kills other lives.

The deer die and the blood is on our hands, the shards of bone splintering our memory. This is nothing new. We’ve been killing deer for tens of thousands of years. We will not claw our way out of the cycle. Only by clawing our way deeper into it might we find some peace, a place to rest. Perhaps our efforts won’€™t ever feel like enough. Perhaps there is no place to rest. Perhaps it is hard, very hard indeed.

Okay. I accept.

But there is something else going on here. The word is accident, car accident. The slaughter is unintentional and when the slaughter is unintentional the slaughter becomes even worse because we have no ability to process, no method or ritual by which to share and address the pain. A nice dinner. A couple beers. A basketball game and some shut-eye. Then nightmares, twisted sleep, sorrow in the chest. Tears falling into the coffee.

And there is this, too: What if the doe is not a deer? What if the doe is an aquifer, an ocean, the night’s very darkness? What if the doe is the once-black soil? What if the doe is the chirps and growls and heavy breath, the canyons and forests and ridgelines, the ice, the plankton and drifting seed? What if the car that hits the doe is a light switch, a faucet, a new shirt? What if the car is our everyday experience, our reality, our modern way, and what if it is constantly murdering the smooth brown bodies we love?

What if there is no backing out, no making things right? What happens if we ignore all of this?

What happens then?

***

JENNIFER LET GO OF HER HANDS and the blanket caught them. Morning in New Jersey. Windows not yet bright with sun. I sat down and Lucy, the dog, ran in from the other room and jumped onto the couch, snuggling between us.

“In the middle of the night I woke up crying,” Jennifer said. “I was sobbing and I couldn’™t stop. Do you think that deer is going to die?”

There was nothing to say but I made myself say something anyway. Something. Anything. And as I was speaking Jennifer’s tears dried on her cheeks and Mike came out from the bedroom and Lucy rolled onto her back, making us laugh. And we all spoke, though I forget what we said. And then I got up to start the coffee. And I made a lot and I made it strong. And in my head, as I waited for the pot to fill, leaning against the kitchen counter, my bare feet on the cold tile floor, I sang that gentle tune, the tune for the doe, the song of goodbye, which I still remember today, years later.

 

Leath Tonino writes articles and conducts interview for magazines ranging from The Sun to Men’s Journal. He is a poetry editor for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.

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