November arrived and began picking the leaves off of the trees. After a week, the woods looked skeletal and naked, shivering silently in the cold. Frost lay upon the lawn each morning, glittering in the pale sun, and the rim of the pond froze. I stood there one morning wondering where the frogs went each winter, missing their nightly chorus of peeping voices. The yard seemed so quiet without them.
The days seemed old and tired, surrendering the reins to long winter nights. When the sun did bother to show his face, he remained low on the horizon, too exhausted to climb into the sky. Most of the time he remained hidden behind a gray and featureless sky, providing a little week light before allowing darkness to fall. As the weeks ticked past, the hours of light grew rare and precious.
Denise and I watched the skies like the cast of a 1950s saucer film. But the invasion we anticipated was not an armada from Mars. Daily massings of heavy, dark clouds were beginning to threaten snow, and we wondered when the first wave would begin to fall.
And as The Anniversary approached, Denise also began to watch my face. I, in turn, frequently stared at the Bend in the Road.
November 16th came again, as it did each year. Yet that year, I was there, not light years away in Manhattan. The night before I dreamed fitfully, tossing about in my sleep. In the morning, I was up before the sun, watching the darkness slowly retreat.
After a bitter cup of coffee, I stood out on the edge of the lawn, staring across the field. Above, the sky was a low-hanging ceiling of lead. I could feel the weight of it pressing down on my shoulders. The pines were whispering to each other, and without any conscious thought on my part, my feet just carried me there.
I came down across a field of fallen hay, away from the house. Scrabbling over a low stone wall, I slid down a short, wooded slope, my feet unsteady on the carpet of dead leaves. The trees gave way abruptly to the road, and just across the way towered an ancient maple, its naked arms holding up the heavens.
The scar was still there, cut deeply into the truck of the tree. The bark had partially grown back, but it still looked vicious and ugly, a twisted bite taken by metal teeth. I kneeled, pressing my fingers against the wounded wood. My own heart seemed loud in my ears.
I closed my eyes, and opened them fifteen years earlier.
Maria was preparing to leave, and so we shared an early Thanksgiving together. November was the month that winter drove her from the mountain, and it was always a somber occasion, particularly in those later years. Cancer had already consumed both my grandfather and uncle Stephen, and we were the only family Maria had left. So the final weekend of her “mountain season,” we always drove up to share a final, quiet dinner, toasting the occasion with her homemade dandelion wine.
We left on a Sunday, late into the afternoon. My mother was angry because she had made brunch plans for Monday morning and had hoped to get home early. But my father had been delayed—as always—by a long list of Maria’s last minute chores.
The clouds had been circling all day, and as evening came, they began to weep an icy rain.
“I swear, Mike, she waits until the last minute intentionally just to keep us there longer.”
I sat in the back seat, not really listening to the latest incarnation of my parent’s continual Mountain Hollow argument. My head was pressed against the window glass, thinking about how little separated me from the cold rain.
“She’s seventy-three years old for Christ’s sake,” my father replied, lighting a cigarette. “She forgets things.”
“She’s always been that way. And you’ve always been more like her groundskeeper and handyman than her son. She treats us all like house staff.”
“Not this again.”
Then we entered the Bend. I was watching the wipers sway back and forth across the windshield, seeing little of the gray world beyond the glass. I was thinking about Lisa Dryer, the apex of my seventeen-year-old ambitions. My mind was barely even there, in the car.
“Well, it’s true,” my mother insisted. “It has always been ‘Mike could you fix this’ and ‘Mike could you do that.’ And while we were always doing the grunt work to keep the place running, Stephen and Ellen were always sitting around with her acting like plantation owners. You’d be fixing the reservoir and your brother would be drunk on his Manhattans, playing that stupid piano. And now she still treats you like a servant.”
“Damnit, Jackie, could we not do this now…”
I could never clearly recall the next twenty seconds of that day. Even now they remain for me like a nightmare only half remembered, a dream that changes in small and subtle ways every time you re-examine it. And I have re-examined it, countless times.
I saw a movie once, about a man who walked away from a plane crash where everyone else died. I could relate immediately to the strange guilt he was feeling that he was alive and the others involved were not. But that’s really all just part of the mystery of life. Sometimes you are spared, only to have worse grief later in your life. If there’s a pattern, it’s not an easy one to predict. It’s beyond our eyes’ ability to see.
Later, I told the police it was a deer, and sometimes, when I close my eyes to remember the accident, I actually see a deer—a large buck diving out from the woods into the pool of our headlights.
But the problem is, my father had hit deer before. You could barely avoid them in that part of the country. You learned to be cautious, particularly as dusk, watching the sides of the road for the green pinpoints of their eyes, reflecting your lights. You slowed down when you saw them, in case the panicked animals decided to dart out into your path.
Most of all, you learn that if one does get in front of you, the best thing to do is to hit it. It’s better to injure the animal, and damage the car, than to swerve off the road and get yourself killed.
My father knew this. He would never have jerked the wheel like that—my mother would never have screamed like that—just for a deer.
It all happened so fast. Dad snapped the wheel so suddenly that the car began to fishtail in the muddy gravel, tires spinning uselessly. The car lunged forward, leaping off the road. For a few seconds, we were weightless, hurtling through open space.
My face slammed into the back of my mother’s seat so hard I saw an explosion of colors and blackness before my eyes. My nose broke and I tasted blood. In the wake of the impact, we had come to a sudden halt, and the engine was making a terrible sound like a child’s scream. I skipped in an out of consciousness, like a stone skimming over the surface of a pond. I remember wondering why I felt the rain on my face.
I remember Maria’s voice, shouting my name. I remember the ambulance ride. Then, I remember nothing until waking to find my grandmother at my bedside, and I learned my parents had died.
Fifteen winters later, a thirty-two-year-old man stood from beside the tree, and walked to the middle of the road.
I stood there for a long time, motionless, listening to the wind in the trees and watching the sky lighten. I was standing exactly where he had been standing all those years before
Dad would never have swerved for a deer. But he would have swerved to avoid hitting a young man, little older than his teenage son, standing pale and dazed in the middle of the road. And concentrating, I could almost see him, looking as if he had just stumbled out of an accident of his own. Shock made a mask of his features, and his hair was wet with mud and rain.
It was a deer. I saw a deer.
Shivering, I turned my eyes up to the sky, suddenly wondering how much time Denise and I had left before the first snow.
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