I’ll begin with a simple recitation of the facts. Perhaps that’s all that’s needed. The facts may be the best anyone can do. Karen and I were driving south on Highway 395 in eastern Oregon. It had been raining heavily, but the storm had broken up and a late afternoon sun slanted in from the west. The highway had just descended from a conifer woods and was gradually flattening out into the sagebrush and grass country of the Great Basin. Karen and I both saw the sign indicating a deer crossing and had noted to each other that we should stay alert. The highway climbed a little rise and then descended into a shallow pocket where a small fenced enclosure set off a few acres of seeded grass from the surrounding sagebrush.
We both saw the fawn as soon as we came over the rise. We saw that it had been struck and that it was struggling to get up. Highway 395 is a mere ribbon of road at that point, two narrow lanes separated by a faded line of yellow paint. The stricken fawn was exactly in the center of the road, its thin legs splayed out on both sides of the lane divider. We found space to park the car and ran back to get the fawn.
The fawn, terrified, tried to escape us, stabbing at the pavement with its front legs, its little sticks of bones flailing about, its cloven hooves clattering on the asphalt, its whole rear section, rump, thighs, calves, dragging behind it. I could hardly bear to look at it. It was brought down like this, its little body ruined beyond recovery. I picked it up and carried it off the road and laid it on the grass. In the near distance, a doe paced back and forth along a fence line. The fawn would never again rise. It would exhaust all the life left to it trying to do so, bewildered that legs that had propelled it into a sustained run on the very day of its birth would not now carry it across a hundred yards of sage and grass to its mother.
“What are we going to do?” Karen asked. She knew, of course, but neither of us wanted to say it. “It might take days for it to die,” I said, my eyes searching the roadside for a stone heavy enough to smash a deer’s skull.
Then I heard the sound of an engine and the whine of mud tires on pavement. I looked up to see a pickup truck coming over the rise where it caught the late sun, revealing the unmistakable silhouette of gun racks in the rear window. A hunter! I hailed the truck down. The driver, his eyes screwed to the road, seemed to take notice of me only at the last moment. As he slammed past us, I thought he was gone, but then the tail lights of his truck flashed and he skidded to a stop.
When he reached us his eyes went first to the fawn, where it was struggling once more to rise. He watched it for a moment. He was chewing on the stub of an unlit cigar, and he took it from his mouth and shoved it into his shirt pocket. “You hit it?” he asked. “No, we found it like this,” I told him. “Do you have a gun?” “I don’t,” he said. “You wouldn’t often hear me say that. We could sure use one now.” “I’ve got a pocket knife in the truck,” he said. “We can cut the jugular vein.”
When he got back with the knife, he opened the blade and ran his finger over it to test its sharpness. He looked at me and shrugged, pulled his cigar stub out of his pocket and stuck it back in his mouth. The hunter got down on his knees by the fawn. I got down beside him and turned the fawn’s head to the side to expose its throat. From that angle, its eye stared up at us in terror and confusion. The hunter punched the blade into its throat.
It was then that the fawn cried out. I’d never before heard a deer make any call at all. I suppose I thought the species was mute. The hunter was clearly as startled by the sound as I was. He said, “Sorry, old buddy.” I needed words myself, but I hadn’t any of my own at the moment, so I too said, “Sorry, old buddy.” The hunter sawed his way through the flesh of the fawn’s throat, and said again, “Sorry, old buddy.” And I said, “Sorry, old buddy.” Blood gushed from the torn throat as the hunter and I pressed it against the earth. Neither of us could bear to see it try to rise again. The hunter said, “It helps to say something,” and he repeated, “Sorry, old buddy.” And I echoed him a third time, saying, “Sorry, old buddy.” A second later, the fawn’s eye went blank and its brief encounter with humans was over. The hunter wiped the blade of his pocket knife on the grass and a minute later I heard the pickup start, and he was gone.
But the cry of the fawn was not gone. Its gaping throat and blank eye still reverberated with the sound of it and gave expression to all the suffering I’ve ever caused or witnessed. The fawn was dead by my own hand; its bewilderment, its terror, its innocence were facts as hard as the stones that littered the shoulder of the road. There was nothing I could look to that would soften or mitigate these realities. I couldn’t imagine retracing the fifty yards that separated me from the car, turning the key in the ignition, and driving myself back into that banal and false normality where the death of a fawn is merely an unfortunate incident to be kept in perspective.
How can I make anyone understand this? How can I show that the death of the fawn was not a matter merely pitiable, not a matter simply of regret or guilt or remorse? How can I explain that none of the deaths of my lifetime will ever again be merely regrettable? How can I touch the tenderness in all this, convey the degree to which the cry of the fawn pierced my heart?
It was a cry like that of Karen who, twenty days earlier, working her way down a Nevada trail so steep and eroded that it was little more than a ditch of teetering rocks, caught the toe of her boot and fell. With the leading foot wedged and the following foot trapped behind the first, her body tilted and, arching outward and down, slammed full length into the rocks with nothing but the ineffectual failure of one thin arm to break the fall. She lay for a long instant, blood running from her mouth and from a hand split upon some sharp edge. Her eyes swam up from their sudden bed of stones like the eyes of one drowning beneath the waters of her own life’s current. She saw from that sunken and solitary depth how the canyon walls rose into the blue summer sky, and she said, through bubbles of blood forming at her lips, “I’ve done it now.” She sat in the trail trying to comprehend what had happened to her while I bound her split hand in moistened clothing I had stripped from myself. She probed her bloody mouth, trying to see if her teeth were still there, and she said again, “I’ve really done it now, haven’t I?” She spoke a language of wonderment that what she had always feared might happen had, in fact, happened. Weeks later, she would remember how the canyon walls carried her to the wonder of blue sky from the very place of her fall.
It was a cry like that of the man who, paunchy and middle-aged, rushed up to a urinal alongside me at a rest stop on California’s Interstate 5 and confided to me that he’d wet his pants. We stood there side by side, just inches between our elbows, utter strangers to each other. He didn’t look at me or preface his disclosure in any way. He simply said to no one else but me because no one else was in the restroom, “I thought I was gonna make it, and I almost did, but not quite. I dribbled a little.” I looked at him then, his face so near that without my reading glasses it appeared blurred. He stared straight ahead, his neck and cheeks red with embarrassment, his throat working up and down as though there was more he wanted to say or wanted to prevent himself from saying. “Can you believe they recommend diapers for my condition?” He couldn’t grasp what had happened to him. He needed someone, anyone, to hear the voice of his humiliation, the anguish he felt over the betrayal wrought upon him by his body.
It was a cry like that of children anywhere when war or poverty or disaster has left them stunned and wise before their time. A cry like that of their parents who could not save them, and of all of us who have seen the young taken down while we ourselves survived. A cry like the hunter’s own “Sorry old buddy,” recited like a prayer of contrition for the hard work of his hands.
We cry out from the place of our ambush, where the certainty of accident, disease, infirmity and death lies in wait for us. Our innocence is assaulted on all sides. Were we not capable of being surprised by this, we would long ago have succumbed to despair. Were we not capable of sorrow, we would be brutes.
If you look at a map of Oregon, you can pretty well pinpoint the exact stretch of road where the fawn was struck. You can see it in relationship to the rest of Oregon, and with a more general map, you can see its relationship to all of North America. It was, as I told you, on Highway 395, forty-one miles south of John Day and twenty-nine miles north of Burns. I tell you this because I want you to understand how Oregon spreads out from the place where the fawn died, out into Washington and Idaho and California and the Pacific Ocean. And I want you to see how none of these neighboring territories limits the extension of space, so that being, of its own nature, spreads itself across the face of the earth and beyond.
Any astronomical chart will show you that the whole universe is contiguous to the exact spot where the fawn cried out, so that absolutely everything was gathered into that cry. The cry was voiced everywhere, heard everywhere, and not just at that time, not just at 5:30 pm on August 25th, 1997, but at all times. You can hear it now. It is the voice of our dismay, the cry of our innocent bewilderment. It is the injury received of our ears, the wound from which our saving sympathy bleeds forth. Listen! Listen! It calls us to the site of our deepest redemption.
(Reprinted here by permission of Wisdom Publications)