Donner is Dead
A deer hit us. We were driving along, minding our own business when a deer jumped out of the woods, or maybe it jumped out of another car, who knows, and ran smack into us. We were on Route 7 driving north, about five minutes out of Bennington, on our way to celebrate A Jew's Christmas in Vermont.
Christmas is just lovely in Vermont. Really, all the lights and the wreaths and the snow tipped steeples. You can light candles every night for a year and shake groggers until Haman rises from the dead, but Hanukah isn't fooling anyone. It's a diversionary tactic, kind of a "hey, over here" that Jewish parents employ to keep their children from feeling like those toys that get shipped out to the Island of Misfit Toys in "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Everyone claims that Hanukah isn't meant to compete with the Christmas holiday. "It's a festival, it's a festival!!!" No one even knows when the hell it is. It changes every year. I'm not sure the Farmer's Almanac could predict it correctly.
Anyway, we didn't see it coming. All of a sudden, there was a very loud thunk, and then what seemed like a two-hundred-pound snow ball exploded up and over the front windshield. My husband yelled, "What the fuck?" and I yelled "Fuck!"
We pulled over to the shoulder and sat for a moment in silence, trying to make sense of what just happened. It was a clear , bright night and very, very cold, maybe ten degrees. The air was thin; you could see for half a mile. There'd been nothing in the road. "I hope that was a deer," said David. "What else could it have been?" I asked. "I don't know," he said, "a person?"
David called the Bennington police and then, with some difficulty because the door only seemed able to open about ten inches, he got out of the car and walked around the front. Through the windshield, which, thankfully, was still there, I saw him mouth "Holy shit." He squeezed back into the car and said that the driver's side headlight was gone and the whole front left of the car was smashed in. The snowball effect we experienced must have been the glass from the headlight shooting up like sparks in the dark. The driver's side mirror was gone. David thought he saw some deer fur stuck to the ragged metal. Thank God.
There were police lights up ahead. A patrol car passed us by about two hundred yards, crossed the median, and came to a halt. The police were going to check on the deer first.
Here's what I don't understand: Why didn't Darwinism work for the deer? Cars have been around for what, over one hundred years, right? Why haven't the stupidest deer died out? Why isn't the gene that tells a deer to cross a four lane highway obsolete? Why aren't the smart deer at home in their beds making more smart deer?
What's wrong with the deer, I ask you? Zebras have stripes, for God's sake, giraffes have long necks. The leopards that survive in snowy climes are white. Was this an accident? No! The white leopards outlived the orangey ones because they were harder to see! And they made more white leopards and now, now, we have something called, yes, the Snow Leopard.
Where is the evolved deer? Haven't we waited long enough? They've certainly turned tick-carrying into a cottage industry. That didn't take long. Where is the deer that has a natural aversion to headlights? The deer who doesn't like the clickety clacking noise its hoofs make on the asphalt? Where is the deer that doesn't like the way it feels to lay dying in the middle of the road, wondering what the fuck just happened? Where is he? You know where? In the middle of the road wondering what the fuck just happened, that's where. And while we're asking, what's on the other side that's so important to see at eleven o'clock at night? Better woods?
While we waited for the police we discussed the fate of the deer. Was it dead? Was it mortally injured? Was there a driver's side mirror protruding from its head, like an extra set of antlers? The police took so long with the deer we imagined they must have found it alive and were either setting its legs in plaster of Paris or delivering the final death blow. No shots were fired so perhaps they were wringing its neck.
Our son woke up. Thankfully, his little sister slept on. She would not have been pleased to be sitting on the side of the road at eleven o'clock at night still strapped into her infernal five point harness. John wanted to know why we'd stopped. Were we in Vermont? he asked. He has finally begun to grasp that Vermont is not just a 1960's faux Swiss chalet with orange shag carpeting and a sectional couch, but a whole land mass, with other houses and trees and people. We told him about the deer, making the distinction that the deer hit us, not we it. If John were a few years older and had a bit of U.S. history under his belt, he might have said something impudent about how the deer were there first, like the Native Americans. Having been absolved of blame, however, he could afford to be magnanimous; he forgave the deer, proclaiming it didn't mean to hit us and "crack" our car, that it was an "accident," and that the deer was probably sorry. Yes, I said. The deer was sorry. Very sorry.
When the police got to us there were four of them, all without coats. They examined the car and made recommendations about how to proceed with our insurance company. In the fall and winter months this must be their main activity—cleaning deer viscera off the highway and advising motorists on their reimbursement options. Of course, there was a hearty round of thanks that no one was hurt, not counting the deer. There have been more tragic outcomes and we knew we were blessed. Our airbags did not even deploy. It was a Christmas miracle.
The policemen went back to their cars to write an accident report, and one returned about five minutes later with a copy for us. When he handed it to David through the window he told us in a hushed voice to be careful when we get in and out of the left side of the car because deer feces was splattered all over it. It's not uncommon, said the policeman.
Huh. So the deer took a crap on our car. I suppose this is some sort of natural phenomenon. The bowels releasing their contents in the midst of a trauma. I feel like I've heard that humans do this, as well, in one of the final stages of the death process. But from the deer it felt like an insult, a parting shot, revenge. You killed me, so I shit on you. How'd he do it so fast, though? He was going one way, we were going the other, at say, sixty-five miles an hour. It's not like we saw him mouthing Fuck You through the driver's side window as he flipped past. How is it possible he clung to the car long enough to take a shit and we didn't see him? It's like one of those mind—numbing calculus problems, the ones about the birds flying at different speeds over different distances and you have to figure out how the yellow—breasted pippledecker got to Cincinnati first.
We got up and skied the next day, driving our cracked, deer—fouled car to the mountain and back. After yelling "Don't touch the car" at the kids about forty times, David finally took it to a do-it-yourself car wash in Manchester. The day after Christmas we returned to Manhattan at night in a blinding snow storm with one headlight and no driver's side mirror, flouting Darwin.
When we got home I thought a great deal about the deer we'd killed. John thought about it, too. He had created a spectacular narrative of the accident, such as he knew it, editing and polishing it in order to present it at school during the first morning meeting after the break: "We were driving so so so fast, faster than all the cars, but not as fast as a Cheetah. Cheetahs are not the fasted animals on earth. They are the fastest land animals. Then Santa was flying infinity high in the sky and his sleigh was going so so so fast. Then two deer fell off and fell on our car and SMASH. Just like this SMASH. But they didn't do it on purpose. Why would they hit us on purpose? It was an accident." How the Santa thing got in there I've no idea. We may not be the most observant Jews but we definitely draw the line at Santa. I also don't know where the second deer came from. Very grassy knoll.
I couldn't get over the fact that we'd killed something as large as a deer. Not that we kill a lot of small animals. Well, once, driving home from college in a rainstorm I hit a duck. And we do kill a good number of flies. It is something of an alternate sport in Vermont, like snowshoeing. During the winter months the flies that live in ski houses become cryogenically paralyzed. When we show up and turn on the heat, they sort of half revive and flop listlessly around the white sand-sprayed ceiling like stoned beach bums. David walks around with the flyswatter and John follows with a 1975 Electrolux. I suppose, if I were a true animal activist, I would not make a distinction between the value of the life of a deer and that of a fly. But I'm not.
Really, what is it those deer are thinking when they are standing like statues by the side of the road, ready to spring forward to their deaths? What's on their minds? Why can't the deer get with the program? Hey, if you don't like the cars, get out of New England. I'm not particularly fond of research except as a tool of procrastination, but I felt I needed to know why deer were so obtuse. There must be some fundamental, scientific basis for their inability to adapt to the industrial age. I went to the library and let me tell you, there's a dearth of literature on the subject. It's pathetic. In the Eye Wonder series, of which we are particularly fond, the deer rate a quarter of a page in the book dedicated to The Forest. Our only other option was the book version of Disney's Bambi, not the most reliable source of serious information. Then it came to me—Bambi. Not the Disney version but the original 1928 novel by Felix Salton. I read it in seventh grade English and I remember I was deeply moved, deeply. So I got it out of my library and spent an afternoon rereading it.
Now, I'm sure the story of Bambi is familiar to most. Bambi is a deer born in a forest glade on a warm summer day. He becomes friends with most of the other forest animals—various birds, squirrels, etc.—and a few other deer. Unlike the animated movie, however, this Bambi was not meant for small children. I'm not sure it was really meant for any children. The deer are at the mercy of the hunter, whom they refer to as Him, and first Bambi's mother and then many of his friends are shot and killed. Around Christmas, everyone being on vacation and all, there is something of an all-forest massacre.
What strikes me most about the novel now is how stupid the deer appear to be. Their conversation is inane, they seem to be ruled entirely by a mixture of confusing urges and they are unable to identify distinct emotions or separate them from their polar opposites. They are both terrified and titillated at the same time. They either stand frozen or run completely amok. Their sense of smell is sharp but their memories are vague. They wander off mid-conversation. The words "I don't understand" follow their every utterance, action or emotion. They're dumb as posts. All the other animals in the forest remark upon their stupidity. Even the squirrels.
Furthermore, their fathers neither live with them nor acknowledge their paternity. Bambi does not know that the old stag who eventually saves his life is his father until the stag is on his own deathbed. As soon as Bambi is able to fend for himself, his mother begins disappearing for days, even weeks at a time, probably off following the stags around, hoping for a little action. After what seems like a months long absence, she returns for a visit and is killed while leading Bambi across a field. Bambi's cousin, Gobo, who has always been weaker than his peers, collapses while trying to escape a hunting expedition and is rescued by the hunter himself, taken home, and made a domestic pet. When he is released into the wild again he displays no memory of previous horrors. He spends his days bragging about the food that appeared regularly in his little deer dish and the pleasures of life among the fraternity of farm animals and dogs. One day he prances out into the open meadow and is promptly shot to death.
Finally, of all things, Bambi falls in love with Faline, Gobo's sister. Faline is Bambi's first cousin. Yoiks. Perhaps this is why natural selection has failed with the deer. Instead of marrying up, they reproduce with their own, equally stupid relatives, honing their genetic material to a half a helix, or something, and creating generations upon generations of car-chasing dolts who seem particularly fond of leading their families and friends across four lane highways. If lemmings are the People's Temple of the animal kingdom (drink the cool-aid, drink the cool-aid), deer are the Heaven's Gate: It's okay, you just need some Nikes and a plastic bag and you're good to go. Sure, I've dashed across a busy city street against the light, but I always, always look both ways and never, ever with my kids. All things being equal, although no things really are, the deer seem to have gotten themselves into a dangerous groove. I don't know what it will take to get them out of it. Higher fences? Stricter penalties? Genetic counseling?
Don't get me wrong. I have a deep and abiding esteem for the members of the animal kingdom. That they have survived at all in a world populated by the cruelest of creatures, i.e. Man, is miraculous. I feel neither good nor superior about the death of that deer. It was tragic and what's more, killing an animal from the relative safety of my station wagon makes me feel like a Republican, which I do not like at all. And, in fact, I, myself, do stupid things all the time. Why, just last week I drove home from Vermont with my family in a blinding snow storm with one headlight and no driver's side mirror. I'm lucky to be alive.