All I saw of the deer at first was the eye: domed, amber and pellucid, set in a pallid furry temple. I saw that, and the briefest flash of a muscled flank as the deer charged from the trees and straight into the front right fender of my car.
If this were a short story, or a scene in a movie, this would be the moment when time would suddenly lengthen, stretch into slow motion: I’d have some kind of clarifying and revelatory last-minute realization. That’s not merely a literary conceit: I have experienced those moments when experience seems literally toculminate, the universe to distill to a point.
This, however, was not one of them. The barest moment after I noticed the deer, I struck her (it was a young doe) driving fifty miles an hour. The force of the blow knocked the deer some eight to ten feet into the air (“Hunh?” my consciousness barely registered) and then the realization hit me that the car had been wrecked and I pulled over to the side of the road.
Calmly, I got out of the car, as though it were nothing, and even now, a week later on the day I am writing, I can remember the exact sound of the slam of the door. So perhaps it was then that the universe slowed.
I was on a wooded stretch of a country road on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, fresh from dropping off one of my children at my sister’s house for the night. It was twenty-two degrees, and I was ill-dressed (leggings and bare ankles) for standing in the January cold.
The trees were a green-gray smudge; a faint droning sound from the asphalt and the approaching cars. It was only four o’clock in the afternoon.
The whole right front fender, and most of the hood of the car, had been completely smashed in. It was amazing that I could still drive the car, and (though I was not quite thinking this yet), it was amazing that I was still alive.
It felt as though, in an instant, I had mastered the appearance of competence and engagement with the problem at hand, while under the placid surface, some troubling waves were roiling. “If you could just wait until I call my husband and my sister,” I told the kind woman, the co-owner of the local grocery, who instantly pulled up behind me in her SUV and jumped out to see if I was okay.
She was the first of some ten or more people who stopped off to help, a real cross-section that included both locals and affluent weekenders; my optimism about humanity has been strengthened by them all. My husband got on the other line with roadside assistance; my sister was on her way.
When my husband hit a deer, he said, he had been saddened at taking the life of one of God’s creatures, and had mentally asked its forgiveness. That was not the emotion I felt.
I was filled instead with a species of rage—underneath my apparent calm—and I could see how if I had had a gun right then, I would have shot it over and over and felt justified in doing it—a big thing for a supposedly pacifistic urbanite to admit. But what power I felt, as though I were leveraging something deep and natural within my bones!
Aside from that, given the cold, all I wanted to do at the moment was get back into my still-drivable car, turn the engine, heater, and radio on, wait for the authorities and the tow-truck and post on Facebook things like “Hey guys, guess what happened?” (Urbanite that I am, I had conveniently forgotten that there is generally no Wi-Fi way out in the country.)
It was only when my children arrived with my sister that the full emotional force of the event struck me: My son was furious. “Where is that damn deer?” he asked over and over. And my five-year-old daughter was inconsolable, crying. The wait for the state police and the tow-truck was protracted, and my sister ultimately took my children home.
About an hour later I was back there with them, dropped off by the female state police officer whose cruiser smelled thickly of Armor All. “I think I’d like to have a drink,” I said to my sister, and stood with my chilled feet next to the heater vent in the kitchen.
My husband came out to fetch me and take me back to town, where I skipped the neighborhood Catholic school’s Casino Night (the whole point of my children going to my sister’s in the first place) in favor of my nightgown and bed.
I stayed in bed for the bulk of the following day—begging off church, getting someone to teach my Sunday school class. If I had thought about it, I would have seen if one of my priests could have brought me Holy Communion.
For I was ill, it’s true, traumatized by something I should have already known, something I do know: The need, always and at every moment, to be ready to leave.
A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
Photo belongs to State Farm, used under the Creative Commons License.