A few months ago, I drove up I-93 to New Hampshire’s White Mountains to go for a hike.
This was the time of year when the White Mountains aren’t white. Mostly, they’re different values of green – the dark cool green of narrow pines; the wild chaotic green of leaves dancing in the mountain wind; the fresh, dewy green of wet ferns, long grass; and moss so bright it seems impossible, bursting with the juice of the forest floor to the point where you can imagine its cool mineral flavor on your tongue. Even the mountains capped with granite aren’t white – they’re green, too, tapering to white at the summit. And Mount Washington, the highest peak on the East Coast at 6,218 feet above sea level, is never anything but a deep, distant blue.
Green. Bright. Silver. Blue. Uninterruptible nature, wheeling and whizzing through space, lush and perfect under a soft and flawless sky, everything flowering with beauty and joy and life and
The highway’s shoulders, littered with garbage. Breakdown lanes, grassy medians, edges of rambling forests surviving and thriving mere inches from an interstate and caring nothing for the interstate – waist-deep in garbage.
That day stands out to me because of something I saw heading both north and south on I-93, on the way to the mountains and on the way home. Both ways, on the side of the highway going north and south, I saw dead deer, limbs tangled up, beautiful white breast exposed to the world.
After I saw the first one, I thought about how on a recent day, my sister had said that if anyone she knew ever hit a deer on her road, she would never speak to them again.
My sister lives on a beautiful country road in the suburbs of Manchester – New Hampshire’s most populous city – but you’d never guess the presence of a city flashing and murmuring only nine miles from her home. My sister’s yard is a thoroughfare for turkeys, porcupines, foxes, owls, and, especially, deer. Sweet, soft-eyed, and skittish, they visit nearly every day, picking their way across her yard, eyeing her garden fence where her tasty lettuce grows, wandering through the small patch of woods behind her house, leaving trails of droppings behind. They move slowly, gently, taking their time, only breaking into a canter when my sister’s dogs notice them and set to howling.
When my sister said that she’d never speak to anyone who hit and killed a deer on her road, I fell silent. I’m always driving down her road, often at night, and I know how deer miscalculate the point at which it’s safe to cross the road. I’ve heard somewhere that deer think the lights are the danger, so they try to cross immediately after the headlights pass. The problem with this, of course, is that the car always comes after the lights. I know, too, that they move without warning, blending expertly into trees, as they were born to do, before darting into the road. I fell silent because I knew I couldn’t promise my sister that I’d never hit a deer on her road.
“Of course,” she said, noticing my reticence, “of course, if you hit one, I wouldn’t stop talking to you.”
I had miscalculated before, not noting the hyperbole was aimed at all the world, and not myself as a member of it. A tricky distinction.
Driving by the first deer on 93 north, I was reminded of that exchange between my sister and myself, and thought that even so, I was happy – proud, even – that I could truthfully say I have never hit a deer.
Driving by the second deer, I thought the same sequence of thoughts. How horrible, of course, is the first thought – pain, sorrow, and regret that a soft, sweet-eyed friend could have been murdered by the thoughtless invention of cars, which force us to live fast, complicated lives and clog this earth with trash. The second thought was of my sister. Then a third thought came – a dull pang, a memory, one I’d forgotten ‘til now.
When I was young, we hit a deer. We were in my family van, which was packed tight with my parents, my sister, and our six other siblings. My dad was driving.
We hit it hard. It was dark; it must have been winter because I distinctly remember it being early evening. We had to pull over to the side of the dark, rain-flecked highway to assess the damage to our twelve-passenger Chevy Express.
I remember getting out of the car. I remember looking at the front of our van in the darkness – a nostalgic thought, now, since the van is long gone. I remember my parents and older siblings talking together. As is always the case, their volume increased at an exponential rate as they each tried to talk over each other while my dad explained what had happened, heartily dismissing any blame that could fall on him. I leaned against the closed car door, trying to understand.
“We hit a deer,” was what my dad had said. But to me, this was no answer.
I didn’t know what a deer was. It had scampered away, so I couldn’t see what it looked like. I couldn’t conjure the proper image. In my mind, it looked like a giant daddy long legs spider. I’m not sure why. Terrified of spiders, I was relieved when my dad said the deer must have run off into the woods to die.
How different I am now from how I was at the age of six or seven. I lived with my parents then, where I would live until I was twenty and finally moved into my own apartment in the city. At age six or seven, I didn’t know what a deer looked like, couldn’t imagine one alive or dead. I pictured a daddy long legs sprinting away into the woods, hobbling maybe, one of his spindly legs injured beyond repair. I pictured the daddy long legs cowering on the forest floor, in a clearing, ethereally lit with a gentle wash of moonlight. I pictured a larger daddy long legs, maybe the wounded one’s mother, standing over the poor thing. Good, I thought. Stay there.
Now of course, I can picture a deer – a shy, delicate doe, tiptoeing her way across the lawn with her dainty hooves, looking sharply through my sister’s kitchen window when her dogs make themselves known; I can picture her little fawns, following her closely, just as cautiously; I can picture a buck, usually traveling with a couple of friends, treading more heavily than his female counterpart; he is brisk, businesslike, antlers sitting on his head like a crown.
I can also picture these same sweet faces sprawled out against hot asphalt, making the gravel and roadside debris dark and sticky with their sun-warmed blood. I can picture their entrails spilling out, swarms of flies very much alive and animated against their stillness. I can picture their legs akimbo, their necks unnaturally twisted, their dark eyes bulging, their corpses decaying before my very eyes as I zoom past.
One night, a few weeks after my trip up to the mountains, I visited my sister at her house. I went home late, maybe around midnight. I had the window down, the cool summer breeze threading its fingers through my hair as my hand floated upon the waves of wind winging past the car. I breathed in the sweet air and thought how peaceful it was.
Peace evaporated at the uncontrollable moment when I saw one.
My headlights had flashed into the mirror eyes. I saw its brownish gray coat against the gray of the tree. I was driving too quickly to see an expression on its face, but it seemed to watch me go by. I felt the volatility of this moment, the unpredictability of this creature, of its intentions, its instincts, of how it would choose to proceed.
It didn’t dart.
It remained immobile.
My rearview mirrors were black; it faded into a mystery.
My heart was pounding uncontrollably. My mouth was dry as sand. I had only just recovered when the same situation repeated itself, suddenly.
A flash of bright eyes.
A glimpse of brownish gray.
Nothing but blackness in the rearview mirrors.
My heart pounded in the utter terror, my mind crowding with thoughts like flies crowd around a corpse. How different I was now, I thought, from when I was about six or seven, feeling relief at the death of a spider at my father’s hands, thinking that such a terrifying monster was better dead than nearby.
Yet, my mind whirred, if I’d known then what I know now – that a deer is not a monster, but is elfin and docile and can only cause harm to my sister’s pear tree sapling and nothing else– I would not have been relieved. I would have cried, as my sister said she did.
So what, I thought, makes a deer so much better than a daddy long legs? Why did a daddy long legs deserve death, but the sight of a deer on the side of the road incites ire in me against the capitalist machine that has sent us all zipping down the road at breakneck speeds?
And what if, I thought, I had killed hit and killed one of the three deer on the way home from my sister’s place? Would that have meant the end of our relationship? Could I, indeed, be included among the number of the reviled deer-murderers, those who drive so carelessly, those who give no thought to their fellow creature, who toss trash into the woods, who will one day leach all the green from the New Hampshire forests?
Or am I the exception? If I hit the deer, if I throw plastic out the window, if I clog the atmosphere with black smoke – am I exempt from the ire of the world, because I am myself? Because my sister’s perception of me has made me guiltless?
Or am I just like everyone else?