Her short, rapid breaths in the cold air mixed with the smoke from my 1983 Honda engine. I stood with one leg still in the car and one leg out, holding onto the door, hoping I might be able to get back in and drive on. No. She lay broken but alive, her head on the pavement with one eye batting at the sky and the dazzling stars. She snorted when I flipped on the caution blinkers. I looked up and down the road but saw no headlights, no porch lights. This stretch of the road, I knew, bordered the state forest. In the dead of winter on a Sunday night, I couldn’t guess how long it would be before a stranger might stop and help.
The doe kicked her front legs as if to run or leap over a fence, like a dog dreaming of chasing rabbits, though her eye opened and closed slowly now. The headlights at my back, I knelt down and looked into that eye. A chocolate pool, deeper than I imagined, rimmed with white long lashes. I thought of the drawing contest in the pages of comic books: draw Winky and you could go to art school. My only contact with deer before had been like that contest: two-dimensional, flat, and cartoonlike. This doe—alive, steam bursting from her nostrils, an eye that appraised me without judgment—knew something more about the world than I could ever know.
She rubbed her head against the road while I searched for signs of injury, her lame hind legs, dark matted fur. She was paralyzed maybe halfway down the spine. “Good girl,” I said, now on my knees. Tears chilled on my cheeks and I said, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
I spied headlights on the rise of the hill a quarter mile south. I picked up my flashlight and waved it. A white Ford truck slowed as it neared the scene. “Hit a deer, huh? Too bad it wasn’t a buck,” said the driver, a teenage boy. I knew what he meant – he could have taken a buck’s head, rack and all, to a taxidermy shop in town – but I ignored him.
“Could you call a park ranger or sheriff or someone?” I asked. I wasn’t sure who to call, really. I was on my way back to school. I knew about marketing, macroeconomics, and urban politics. The death of wild animals was outside my experience. I knew enough, seen enough movies, to know that killing was sometimes a mercy and that I owed this doe, with her slow blinking eye in which the universe swirled, a mercy.
“Sure. My house is probably closest, three miles back. I’ll call the sheriff and he can put her out of her misery. Want me to call a tow truck?”
I nodded, yes. “Thank you.”
As the boy backed up and headed down the road, I sat down, took off my gloves and cradled the doe’s head in my lap. She snorted and then settled, her eyes blinking slower, the breaths shorter. I would have offered a prayer but I didn’t know any. Instead, I smoothed her brow and recited the last words of a song from Goodbye, Mr. Chips, the only words I could remember; I hoped they were enough:
Was I brave and strong and true?
Did I fill the world with love my whole life through?
*”Fill the World With Love”
Music and Lyrics by Leslie Bricusse