One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.
When I’m driving, I prefer to be alone. Being responsible for where others are going stirs discomfort in my belly. It’s nothing disabling; it’s just that I’m more at ease when I’m the only one taking a chance, the only one who might encounter a nasty, unanticipated event. The mucked-up reality, of course, is that none of us are ever alone in our risk.
I’m driving with no passengers when I see a massive deer carcass lying strangely pristine on the side of Interstate 79. My heart folds in on itself and pushes into my throat. The image grabs and holds my sight even though I’ve seen hundreds such dead.
Someone should tell the story of those hundreds, but explaining the lost and the dead is more unsettling than driving with others in my car. They are on every trip, and never once on the map legend. One cannot plan for them, only expect them.
Telling their story, being the narrator, is like being the driver.
Telling the story is a moral situation.
Raging, grinding trucks burn asphalt well over the seventy-mile-per-hour speed limit on a stretch of Interstate 79. It’s miles of nothingness. Between Buckhannon and Charleston, West Virginia, there are a few decent places to get food and gasoline, but slowing down is mostly about moving on to something else, fast. There is only the getting past it all, pressing the pedal, responding to a holy commandment to go.
Keep going: whatever god came up with that law was talking to me.
I’ve been thinking about what is unsaid but ever-present. And something I heard, that confession can be a starting place.
Except sometimes the confession can’t start. It stalls and won’t leave my mouth, refusing to be spoken. What I’ve waited so long to say, that I’m a bad person, that everything I did was wrong, that I’m unequivocally sorry, these things turn out to be not entirely true. There isn’t one version of what happened, just waiting for me to tell it. It’s refracted, like prism light. When I try to pull the truth up out of the darkness, it scatters. It flies and can’t be held, touched, talked about, pointed to. There it is, I want to say. There is the wrong thing. Except it won’t hold still. It rejects everything about the justice I think I’m supposed to deliver.
Finally I just shout the one thing I do know, the one truth that cannot be disputed or turned over to reveal another, prettier angle: Yes, I deliberately lied. Over and over again. The details do not matter, I know that now. There are endless ways one can turn away from commitment, can betray, and no shortage of judgments on each and every one. Exactly what my detachment looked like, if even I could tell it, does not matter.
For years I’ve tried to come clean. Perhaps my confession is not stalled but trapped. Maybe every time it has tried to come out, it has been run down by something else, some other truth that wants to be at the front of the story line. The trapped confession is both true and not true. Niels Bohr said the opposite of a trivial truth is a lie, and the opposite of profound truth is another profound truth.
I wonder if making promises is a bad idea. Maybe physics can prove that one way or the other, and give me a law that won’t break.
People native to Appalachia know deer, what they look like, how they run. We believe we know their foraging patterns. We know their colors. Older deer are a dark grayish-brown and blend into the rough and solid texture of hardwood bark. Their bodies lie prone in the back of pickup trucks or tied to the tops of cars, tongues lolling with a bright red stream of blood that dries black on the bumper. Their necks are weighted by the drag of antlers and bones, their eyes blank. The spark that fueled their heavy lifting is burned out. The first deer I passed had been a young animal, its bright orange tone capturing sunlight. The creature was enormous and its color confused me. Its coat said newborn, but I’d never seen a dead fawn on the highway. It was adult and not at the same time. Too big, too young, too out of place. The dead aren’t supposed to be young, and the young shouldn’t appear to be grown.
What compelled me to run is hard to say. Spin back the dial a few years and it’s grief over lost babies. Spin again and it’s middle-age sexual panic. Yet again and it’s rage at a suffocating patriarchal family system, or repressed regret over accepting a prefabricated life. My least favorite spin makes it look like meanness, plain and simple.
Sometimes the arrow lands on raw stupidity. Sometimes it lands on true love.
True or False: You should never run from, only to, something. The man I love says this is true.
A half mile past the first carcass I see two more. Like the first, these two are on the highway’s shoulders, one left and one right, and I pass between their bodies. I can feel their weight. These are not the rail-thin older deer of winter. They are full and strong, and once roamed in herds. This happened overnight, I’m sure of it. Roadkill loses its semblance of life within twenty-four hours. These bodies are fresh. I can imagine them standing up and staggering, albeit wounded, back into the forest. All told there are eight of them within two miles of one another.
Young, sidelined, once-strong. Dead.
Overnight a dozen young deer from three distinct herds had decided to cross the road at different intervals. Food? Potential mates? Boredom? The moon? Something pulled them out of the woods and into danger, all of them at once. I wonder if they were aware of each other. Perhaps some turned back or others made it across. Did those who did not die understand or care that some were lost? Probably not, I reason. They try to stay alive and move on to the next haunt. I never saw faces, just pounds of torso and neck with long legs ending in glossy black hooves. Fallen with their backs to the road, sightless eyes pointing toward whatever it is that they wanted enough to die.
Someone would have to clean this up. I imagine it would have to be a very strong man with a stomach for blood and guts. I start obsessing about who that person is and what it would look like when he begins the job. Would he drag the bodies by their legs? How would they be lifted into a truck bed? What would be next? It has to be awful work, getting the calls about bodies rotting all over the highway, the dead waiting to be dispatched. I worry about my clean-up phantom’s mental health. Too much trauma. Too much dragging and lifting and driving. I imagined his desire to tell someone what it’s like, then his decision to spare others the knowledge. Sharing trauma can’t do anyone any good, least of all the teller.
When I changed my name, I ascribed to myself a whole new lot. I took his name, even though I knew I shouldn’t. Then I abandoned it. That is what I truly need to confess. I left good and evil behind me, on the road.
I’m at a writing and yoga retreat in Stowe, Vermont. There are women here climbing up on the bare backs of enormous horses, stretching their own bodies into complete circles, concentrating on balance. I’m lugging the dead weight of my infidelity and I want to put it down. I want this weekend to make it all stop. Except I don’t know that yet.
“Think about someone you love,” the instructor says. “Say ‘thank you’ to that person by name.”
Arms up. Back straight. Eyes on the mountains. We say it. We do it again, perhaps twelve times.
“Now sit down with paper and write a letter to yourself from the voice of someone who loves you.”
Nothing comes out of my pen. I hear the words but cannot bring myself to write them down. I’m choking on tears, shaking, gasping for air. I hold up a blank page.
“Why is it blank? What happened?”
I tell her that I can hear the letter but I can’t write it. She tells me that is enough.
I’ve never had a collision with a deer. My parents have, but that’s not how they tell the story. They say they were driving along in their lane, being consistent and safe, and the deer darted out of nowhere and hit their car. Despite damage to both the car and the animal, both kept moving after the incident. Neither was the same, but all parties moved down or across the road. My parents each tell the same story; neither of them has ever suggested the event was on anyone but the crazy animal who chose to charge across the highway. I accept this interpretation as what they can tell. I admire their shared commitment to that narrative. When I hit a deer someday, I have a feeling it won’t be this way. I’ll be driving alone. It will be a fatal blow for one or both of us. It will be a mess, but it will be over.
Elizabeth Gaucher received her BA in History from Davidson College and her MFA in Creative Writing from West Virginia Wesleyan College. She lives with her family in Middlebury, Vermont. She is the founder of an online journal for creative nonfiction, Longridge Review. Her work has appeared in Still: The Journal, The Pikeville Review, and Brevity’s nonfiction blog, among other print and online publications. www.elizabethgaucher.com.