It was well past midnight, and a light mist fell, enveloping everything. He turned off the vehicle and exited to inspect the deer. His nostrils took in a full cloud of delayed exhaust, and it nearly gagged him. But even through this noxious smell he detected the pungent scent of an animal not yet dead but in the throes of dying a painful death. It was the same scent his dog Casey had released in his last minutes before expiring from salmon poisoning a few years ago.
Below, he heard the Wilson River, not really William Stafford’s river anymore, more of a man-made channel, riprapped on both sides, armored against the cycles of nature, full of hatchery salmon, full of silt produced from the erosion of logging on 45-degree slopes, and later downstream, full of shit from the dairy herds that produced the local famous but virtually tasteless cheese.
The deer somewhat arched its head at him and he could see the black rolling eyes, blood leaking from the mouth, nose and ears. The sternum was crushed and bore the purple imprint of a vehicle that in all likelihood was traveling at an unnecessary high speed that the driver justified because he had to press home to the coast to escape the big city haste. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, if a driver drove the speed limit, he could avoid a deer that bolted into the road.
Here he was, confronted with the impatient outcome of the ninety and the nine. He surveyed the nearby landscape. Even in the dark he could make out that virtually every tree for miles around was a Douglas fir, the state tree, waiting to be clearcut in the coming months and decades, or be afflicted by blight because Douglas firs weren’t supposed to exist here, plantation style, in a densely packed monoculture setting. But they were, and the people who drove by this plantation still thought of it as a forest, as did the foresters from the state’s forestry school. They managed the plantation like a doctor who bled his patients to treat certain fevers of the mind.
Traversing over congealed blood, he walked up to the animal and knelt. It gurgled fluid. Its nose was cleaved. One leg hung by a shred of tendon. One eye was pulverized down to the socket. He thought: I am going to have to put this deer down. For a minute he didn’t know if this sentence posed a question or declared an affirmative statement.
The word obligation entered his mind, as in the obligation to the natural world Gary Snyder once wrote about in an essay. After that fleeting thought, he wished another driver would come along.
That wasn’t going to happen tonight and he knew it. He was in undiscovered country here, as were most people who lived within one hundred miles of the deer. They didn’t know why the sky was blue, that the sound in space was b flat, what elevation they stood at, that no such species as a seagull or starfish existed, that we came from the sea, what a real tomato tasted like, or any conception that the watershed they lived in should be the geographical unit they pledged allegiance to, not an invented and self serving political entity. But a lot of these people who lived within one hundred miles of the destroyed deer knew for a fact that polar bears were not cannibalizing one another in the warming Arctic, that urban homosexuals had forged a conspiracy to ruin the country and that Jesus had blonde hair and blue eyes and quite obviously did not really mean that people would have to give up all their wealth as a precondition to follow him and enter the Kingdom of Heaven. A camel could fit through the eye of the needle if a radio talk show host or a preacher said it could.
He didn’t have a gun. Rifling through the vehicle he found a hatchet and a tire iron. He then remembered the Leatherman in the glove department, a gratuitous Christmas gift he had used twice–to slice a cheese sandwich and cut a loose cord on a tennis net.
As he walked toward the deer, he opened the serrated blade. He positioned himself, steadied the animal’s head with his left hand, hesitated, swerved for a moment, and then drove the blade into the throat. The deer moved, but barely. Life was leaving its body. He whispered to the deer, apologizing for everything, even himself. As he began to cry, he started cutting left and right, up and down. It took all his strength. This was not like cutting defrosted chicken. He suppressed an urge to vomit. Entrails burst forth from the deer’s stomach. Something smelled sweet. Blood erupted onto his face and chest but he kept cutting. Soon the motion changed to sawing. The wilderness was not listening.
As he worked, he thought hard: One day, when the time comes, would there be someone to put him down, to put us all down? And what is the color when black is burned?