Faye Rapoport DesPres

THE DEER

     I am with my father in his small white Skoda, a Czechoslovakian import rarely seen in the United States. I am young, a teenager. My father is a large, powerful man. We are driving on County Route 5, not far from the house where my family lives in upstate New York. Darkness surrounds the little car as it hums along the road. There are no street lights in the countryside, so the black night is uninterrupted except by our headlights, which cast two cones of light straight ahead, revealing small sections of the road as it twists through the shadowy landscape.
     It happens in an instant. A deer darts out from nowhere. The animal’s body seems to fill the entire windshield. The deer tries to leap across the road, but we are too close and too fast. There is a terrible jolt, a loud bang when we hit the deer. My father cries out, and his voice is strangled. A moment passes. I am frozen, petrified. The car has stopped in the middle of the road, but the engine is still running. I turn my head toward my father. He is sobbing.

     The memory of that moment many years ago, when my father hit the deer, flashes in front of me when I least expect it. Sometimes it comes to me when I am working at my desk or in the middle of lunch at a restaurant. Sometimes I see it when I am lying quietly in my bed in the middle of the night.
     Usually when the image appears, I rapidly shut it out. I see the headlights, I see the deer, I hear the loud bang, I feel the jolt, I hear my father’s anguished sob. I see his head hanging forward on his chest as he gasps and sobs. And then I push the image as far away from conscious thought as my mind will allow, because I am afraid.
     There are many details I don’t remember. I don’t recall exactly how old I was when the incident occurred. I don’t know where my father and I were going on that deep, quiet night. I know the Skoda, which my father loved, was badly damaged. It was repaired at a local car shop and my father eventually passed it on to my brother. One day, years later, my brother passed it on to a young mechanic from the town garage, who completely restored it. He smoothed the dented fender and hood and painted it bright red.
     The memory is not really about the car.

     When I am feeling brave, I try to understand what the memory is about. In those moments I do not push it away. I see the headlights, I see the deer, I hear the loud bang, I feel the jolt, I hear my father’s anguished sob. Then I try to stay with it. I let in as much as I can, for as long as I can take it. I try to face the fear.
     What circumstance led me to be riding in the car with my father that night? Was I happy to accompany him? While I was growing up, my father left us for four days every week to work as a psychotherapist in New York City. His office also served as his apartment there. My mother raised my brother, my sister and me in an old farmhouse surrounded by forty acres of fields, two and a half hours north of the rest of my father’s life. The family only felt complete when he arrived home each Friday, and I ran to him, eager to share my childhood troubles and successes.
     But his moods could turn from loving warmth to rage in a moment, without warning. Small things would set him off; I remember him slamming his fist on the table one night when my mother forgot to set out a saltshaker at dinner. He would scream at the three of us over unintended infractions, and send us to our rooms in tears. Once he kicked our beloved German shepherd when the dog did not obey him. Then the moment or the mood would pass, as quickly as it had come on, and my father would regret his behavior. He would call to us, forgive us, hug us close, fold us tightly against his chest, reel us back toward calm.
     I don’t want to give the wrong impression when I say my father kicked the dog. A few years ago, when he was well into his seventies and beginning to be slowed by the onset of Parkinson’s disease, my father told me that kicking the dog was one of the things he deeply regretted when he looked back at his life. He loved the dog. He simply could not control himself when he was enraged. He once picked up a coffee maker and threw it against the kitchen wall during an argument with my mother. But he was never physically abusive to her, or to us. He loved us; he loved animals. Although the walls of our farmhouse were busy with the scratching and scraping of field mice, he never bought mousetraps or poison. In fact, he would panic if a mouse appeared in the room, not because it was there, but because he was afraid one of the cats would catch and kill it.
     More than once he caught the mouse himself, opened the door to the backyard and dropped it gently outside. He always said he hoped it would be safer there.
     Perhaps I was happy to be invited for a drive with my father that night. I might have felt special because he was paying attention to me or wanted to spend time with me; maybe he had offered to transport me to a school event, or to a party in a neighboring town. When I think about being in the car, in the moments before we hit the deer, I sense that I was installed cozily in my seat, surrounded by the endless, dark night, feeling safe with my father beside me and the headlights on.
     I see the headlights, I see the deer, I hear the loud bang, I feel the jolt, I hear my father’s anguished sob. A breathless shock engulfs me, even now. The deer’s face materializes before me, vividly illuminated by the starkness of our headlights. Do I imagine its terror, or am I recalling my own panic? I am not sure. But I am certain about my father’s cry. It is a deep, guttural gasp of pain, unleashed from somewhere deep within him. It lasts only a second. But it will echo in my mind forever, like the distant sound of a wolf’s howl.

     I have never discussed this moment with my father. There are certain things I know are better left unsaid. Things I don’t question, or ask about. I don’t press him to give me details about his life in the work camps in Germany and France. A few times in my life, mostly when I was still quite young, he opened up briefly about his childhood. He told me he was one of the boys who smuggled food over the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto. He told me that someone sent him to a prison when he was eleven years old to keep him safe, and he learned to speak Czech from a fellow prisoner there. Today my father speaks seven languages. English was his last. Polish, his first, he refuses to speak.
     My father told me he was on the last train out of the Warsaw ghetto before the uprising. He was reunited with his father in a camp in Germany, and eventually with his mother and three sisters at a work camp in France. My grandfather, who died before I was born, bribed the security guards at the camp to keep moving his family lower down the list of the Jews being sent by train to Auschwitz. Finally their names were at the top of the list. On the day they were scheduled to board the train, the French camp was liberated. His brother-in-law died in Auschwitz, but my father was free.
     I am not sure about these things. They are what my father told me, or what I think he told me. I cannot ask him. He rarely speaks about the past.

     I see the headlights, I see the deer, I hear the loud bang, I feel the jolt, I hear my father’s anguished sob. But what did my father see or do that night? I don’t think there was time to swerve. We were driving on a peaceful country road, with no other cars in sight. All was tranquil. Perhaps the radio was playing. Perhaps my father was saying something to me. I imagine he was enjoying being at the wheel of his little Czechoslovakian car. But then the deer was there, in the windshield. I am sure my father slammed on the brakes. I am sure it was too late.
     I was shaken to the core; the car was banged up. The deer, this exquisite, gentle creature, was dead. And then my father cried.

     My memory of the deer is brief, fleeting. Its back was light brown, like thick sea sand, damp from a summer rain. I don’t remember antlers; it must have been a doe. But the rest could be my own creation from fractured memory: the quick turn of her head toward the car, the terrified look in her eyes, the flash of white at the bottom of her tail. Blood on the road. Did I just add the blood on the road?
     Was she young, I wonder? Was she alone, or following in the path of another deer that had crossed just before her? Was a fawn waiting in the shadows among the trees? Had she lived a good life, was she happy, did she feel fear, did she know that death had come? Or was it just quick, a moment, and then over?
     The deer could have crossed a minute before, or a minute after. She could have ducked back into the trees at the sound of our little Czechoslovakian car approaching on the road.
     And then I know I must let it go, before it crushes me.

 

 

 

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Faye Rapoport DesPres holds an M.F.A. from Pine Manor College's Solstice Creative Writing Program. Her work has appeared, or is upcoming, in Ascent, The Hamilton Stone Review, Prime Number Magazine, International Gymnast Magazine, and other publications.  Faye lives in the Boston area with her husband, Jean-Paul, and their four cats.

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