Memoir — From the November 2013 issue

Killing Deer

A hard death on the high road

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Timothy was driving when it happened, and as usual he was driving too fast, flying down the little highways crisscrossing Wyoming, surrounded by emptiness. The enormous RV really did seem to leave the ground, to fly, a miracle that barely held itself together. I had lain down, resting on one of the little beds in the living area, when there was a heavy thud. Jolted out of bed, I pulled myself up off the floor as Timothy stopped the RV and parked it on the side of the road so we could see what had happened.

We had hit a deer. Right in the middle of the front of the RV was an enormous deer-size indent. We looked nervously at one another. Even under the best of circumstances, we were all a little scared of Uncle Aldous.

Then we saw the buck. Lying on the ground, his beautiful head still graceful and with two or three points on each antler, he was preparing to die. From the look of things, it would take a long time. As far as we could tell, the only thing wrong with him might be broken legs. Yet broken legs for a deer signify death as much as pancreatic cancer does for a human. And worse still, that death comes slowly. He would probably die of thirst, and it might take many days.

I should tell you that the very real possibility of intending to do good, and instead doing bad, has haunted me my whole life. I knew about this particular kind of wrongdoing — it lived as close to me as skin. My family was full of good intentions and terrible happenings.

I started to cry. My brothers did not. We were raised to know that crying was a liberty allowed to girls, and then only on special occasions. This was a special occasion.

After pausing to take in the situation, Martin said we should get going. We had somewhere to be, some place to canvass. I refused to leave, insisting that we kill the deer — that we put him out of his misery, as that strange saying goes.

We all knew how to use a gun. When we were quite young, our father taught us to load and fire a rifle, using empty soda-pop cans as targets. My brothers had regularly gone hunting in the fall for ducks, or perhaps geese, with my father and uncles. But knowing how to use a gun did us no good, as we had none with us and were far away from home on a small and empty highway. We decided to wait and flag down the next person who passed. Many Wyoming men carried a gun with them in their truck or car, often mounted over their rear windows, visible to all. And many people used those guns for subsistence hunting.

Mike and Diane, the couple who had generously boarded my horse on their property for very little money, fell into this category. They killed deer for meat, storing the flesh in a garage freezer in the fall to last through the brutal winter. When they told me happily about seeing deer on their front lawn, we all three paused for a moment and imagined those deer. Yet their pleasure was sharply distinct from mine. I imagined beauty and the delicious notion that I was not alone on this planet, living fearfully among humans. I imagined the freedom of being deer. Mike and Diane imagined food, also delicious.

They kept my horse for me and had between them an eye that permanently stared in the wrong direction. That wild eye had taken flight from the other eye, the eye sitting right next to it, complacent and conforming. Mike’s wandering eye had decided to go it alone. In this strike for independence, that eye permanently stared off to the left and up toward the sky. I am not sure whether it saw things — clouds and birds, airplanes and stormy weather. Most of us do not see most of what happens, so not seeing was the least of that eye’s problems. More pressing was the inability to get free, truly free. Getting free came right after good-intentions-going-awry among my most common anxieties. I was not sure exactly what it meant, but like Mike’s eye and like that waiting deer, I, too, wanted to be free.

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teaches at the College of Staten Island and is the author, most recently, of The Parallel Lives of Women and Cows: Meat Markets (Palgrave Macmillan).

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