In the headlights

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

19 Comments In the headlights

  1. lilpickmeup December 3, 2014 at 2:24 am

    Enjoyed reading this. It reminds me of winters in Colorado Springs and all the deer that lived around the area where I once lived. On numerous occasions I nearly hit one. It can be scary because they seem to come out of nowhere. :/

    1. Meg December 4, 2014 at 1:14 am

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I nearly hit two does yesterday on my way to work. It’s gun hunting season around here this week. It is scary! Haven’t hit one yet.

  2. Stephen Thom December 3, 2014 at 2:31 am

    a very good read, some lovely little writing moment esp. the eye descriptions ‘chocolate pools rimmed with-‘ and ‘slow, blinking eye in which the universe swirled’. I like the way it unfolded into something else, something deeper at the end with its elegiac final moments, the quote worked well. Nice one, all the best 🙂

    1. Meg December 4, 2014 at 1:16 am

      Stephen! Always makes me happy to see a comment from you. You do my soul good. Thanks for reading and sharing such kind words. Hope all is well with you.

  3. Julie Henahan December 3, 2014 at 8:20 am

    Oh, Meg. Cried as I read this.

    1. Meg December 4, 2014 at 1:18 am

      Awwww…I’m sorry, Julie! Jon and I were talking about how reading these stories is always a different experience when you know the author well enough to know how he/she would react in real life to these fictional accounts. I would be bawling my eyes out. 😉 Much love to you, my friend. Really appreciate how you take time to read my work.

  4. Marissa Bergen December 3, 2014 at 9:22 pm

    Nicely done. I just read a book with a similar scene. This comment would probably be a lot more meaningful if I could only remember which darn book it was!! I read so many!!

    1. Meg December 4, 2014 at 1:21 am

      When you remember it, let me know. I’ve been surrounded by deer stories lately — watched a PBS program on white-tailed deer and the last part of the Yearling last week. And, of course, I dodge them nearly every day. Thanks for reading and commenting on this, Marissa!

  5. Anonymous December 3, 2014 at 11:43 pm

    I’ve hit a deer before. It is still painful to think about. This really hit home. Beautiful job, Meg.

    1. Meg December 4, 2014 at 1:23 am

      I’ve been so lucky not to have hit one yet. Got so close one time that I could hear the doe snort outside my window — she very nearly ran into the side of my car. I would be a blubbering mess if I did hit one. Sorry about your accident, but thankful for your reading and kind comment.

  6. Meg December 4, 2014 at 1:19 am

    You’re too sweet, Angie. Thanks for your kind words. (I won’t tell!)

  7. Shannon December 4, 2014 at 9:30 am

    Ha, I just sat at my desk at work unabashedly crying and I don’t even care. Your writing here was so natural and so evocative, painful and beautiful. I live in Ohio, and you have to watch every moment in every part of the city because they are every-corkin-where right now. Just loved this,

  8. Asha December 4, 2014 at 1:00 pm

    Meg, this was beautiful. Having had to put many kangaroos out of their misery, I thoroughly empathised with your narrator. All the conflict she/he goes through felt very very real. And the ending! Oh, the ending was spot on.

    “I would have offered a prayer but I didn’t know any.” This line in particular, struck such a chord with me.

    1. Meg December 12, 2014 at 12:46 am

      I had no idea kangaroos posed a road danger! Aaaggh. That seems even worse than hitting a deer — which, thankfully, I’ve averted so far. (And I really don’t know any prayers, so I was projecting myself onto the narrator there.) Thank you, sweet Asha.

      1. Asha December 12, 2014 at 1:01 am

        Kangaroos are the Australian equivalent of deer. Just as prevalent outside of city limits. Just as bad at crossing roads. And they’re so muscular that you end up doing terrible damage to your car if you hit them.

  9. Silverleaf December 4, 2014 at 4:16 pm

    Broke my heart! I have at times lived out in the wilderness and have always been worried this could happen to me. Thankfully it hasn’t so far. You bring the tenderness and vulnerability of the deer – and the narrator – into sharp focus here. I felt as though I could almost hear the narrator’s heart beating in the silence of the night. Beautiful descriptions – “one eye batting at the sky and the dazzling stars” and “slow blinking eye in which the universe swirled” really stood out.

  10. inNateJames December 4, 2014 at 9:35 pm

    If I hadn’t read your work before, I’d know from this story that you’re a naturalist. So glad this is in the fiction category as opposed to nonfiction. I hate that the boy had thought of practicality first over the loss of life. But that’s the naturalist in me showing through.

  11. Susie December 9, 2014 at 4:33 pm

    Reblogged this on gathestoryteller and commented:
    I hit a doe about eight months ago. It had been an unseasonably warm Sunday in early spring. The sun had almost set as my sister and I sped down a two-lane back road on the way to her house. I should have been looking for a deer, because it was, after all, dusk, and that’s when they are likely to run, but I wasn’t looking. As I recall now, it wouldn’t have mattered, the doe wasn’t looking out for me either. Out of nowhere she leaped from the safety of the barren branches, and collided with the bumper of my SUV. Her brown eyes connected with mine in the same instant that the front bumper connected with her hind legs. In the next instant she flew backwards, legs now separated from her body and she lay motionless on the side of the road. In my dazed state I drove on- speechless and terrified. I stared into my rear view mirror and saw she hadn’t moved, or couldn’t move. How I wish I had stopped and cradled her head in lap as Meg describes here. In my dreams I do.


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