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Deer in the Poppies

Gretel

For the love. For the love of all that’s holy, just pretend it’s foggy Ireland, Gretel told herself, but no, it was ashy Colorado, and the valley was socked in with wildfire smoke and the sky was orange gray, brown gray, Grey Poupon gray, and it was disgusting and no use pretending otherwise. It was disgusting and it was not Ireland. Even her imagination had limits.  

Burned pine needles—still in the shape of pine needles—were currently littering her new deck just outside the bedroom’s sliding glass doors. She watched from bed and said pretty damn grim aloud to the afternoon sun, an orb of red so shrouded by the plume that staring didn’t hurt her eyes at all. 

Her plan had been to spend the day tacking wire underneath the new deck, perhaps with the neighbor kid, Alexis. The point was to prevent future catastrophes, such as skunks moving in, but what was the point of that? So she stayed in bed and when she awoke next it was still shitty, except the sun was lower, closer to the mountains. The bright blue birdbath was filled with black water and the sunflowers blooming next to it—volunteers from the birdfeeder—stood in defiance to the ash. So did the finch, clinging to the sunflower upside-down, though the dead one below clarified that defiance had its limits. There were some bright red poppies too, the only flowers to bloom after she’d cast a huge number of wildflower seeds, the others chomped down by deer.  

She fell asleep again and woke again. Ever since she’d had COVID a few months ago, she slept like this, in fragments. She saw now that a deer was in the poppies. The doe wasn’t eating them, poppies being toxic to deer, or so she’d heard, but standing in them and eating the lilacs. This was the same deer that she’d tried to chase out of her yard all summer—this doe was young and small, not the mother of the twins, and the only one likely to jump the fence despite Gretel having put up a higher wire. Since the fire, she’d taken to plinking the deer on the butt with the BB gun, which she figured felt like a small finger-flick, given that the distance was so great. Her brothers had shot her with BB guns at a much closer range, after all, and it was never catastrophic, so she supposed she shouldn’t feel guilty. Although she did, of course. It was maybe a horrible thing? She couldn’t tell. Not exactly. Should she save the flowers, for pollinators and for her view, or should she leave the deer alone? From this distance, the plinks truly couldn’t hurt much, of that she was sure. She supposed it was an experiment of sorts, to see if the deer would exhibit some behavioral plasticity and associate her yard with unpleasant mild pains on the ass—just like humans might change their ways after the pain-in-the-ass of wildfires? Like she might become a more energetic person? 

She wanted to go back to sleep, but her nose started bleeding, and she was forced up to get a wad of toilet paper, and while she was up, and after she peed, she picked up the BB gun resting against the wall in the corner, opened the glass door and said, Scram, lady. All I want are my shitfuck lilacs and pinged the deer. 

She put her palms to her head and pressed, moaned, and then walked outside.

The deer flicked her ears and turned around to look at her but did not move. The doe had plenty of other land to munch on, after all—the house was surrounded by an enormous expanse of pastureland and foothills—sure, not lilacs, but still. So she plinked again but missed; the deer didn’t move but the lilac branch above it did. She supposed she wanted the deer to feel shitty, because she felt shitty, and because she wanted just one pretty thing to remain safe and alive. So she stepped outside the door to yell louder, and at the sight of her, the deer jumped and bounded over the fence and onto the county road. 

Then she heard the screech and thud.  

She smacked her forehead with her palm, hard. Are you serious?  

Then she smacked it again. Actually, I knew that might happen.  

Then she put her palms to her head and pressed, moaned, and then walked outside. She turned the corner of the house to see an old, rust-red truck, the same color as her pajamas. She thought for a moment about the happenstance of that too. An older and smaller and no doubt wiser woman, someone who wouldn’t have plinked or yelled at a deer, was swinging herself out of the truck and moving toward the prone deer. She approached the woman and said, “You okay? Want me to call the sheriff?” but the woman shook her head, no, and Gretel understood that the woman was likely one of the workers from the dairy, overworked and underpaid and definitely wanting to stay off the radar of the sheriff. 

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Gretel said, and indeed it felt like a river rock was stuck in her throat. Now she felt worse. She was a disgusting human being, as disgusting as the sky, and she had just made this woman’s day disgusting. And the deer—how much more disgusting could it get? Than unnecessary death?  They stood side-by-side and stared at the truck, which was visibly dented but drivable, and then at the deer, who looked fine but was clearly dented on the inside. 

“Do you want to call an insurance company? The sheriff?” she said again. 

“No,” the woman said. “No. He’s not…” 

“I know. I’m sorry.” 

They sighed and stood in silence. 

“I’ll give you money to fix it.” 

“Okay,” the woman said. “But it wasn’t your fault.” 

“It was.”  

The woman quirked an eyebrow at her, but she didn’t explain, and so they both took a step toward the deer, who now had blood streaming out of her nose. Gretel picked up a warm hind leg and the woman picked up the other and together with a one, two, three, they lurched the deer forward. The deer was warm and heavy, but it wasn’t far, and the other woman was very strong; otherwise, it simply wouldn’t have been possible. It very nearly wasn’t. Gretel was huffing from the effort, and from the ash, and she was surprised for a moment that she wasn’t shy about the pajamas, stained from period blood on the butt—while her sleep was now fragmented, her blood flow was nearly constant since COVID. She felt a glimmer of curiosity about her brain being in such a fog. She also felt something akin to stunned awe: she had wondered if this would happen, and then it did. Simple as that. Perhaps humans predicted possibilities all the time and yet did not change their behavior, and that seemed odd. 

By the time she’d jogged inside to rifle through her drawers for some cash and come back out, the red truck was gone in the twilight. She climbed back into bed. She stared at the red poppies and the yellow sunflowers and the blue birdbath filled with black water and the white ash falling like snowflakes. Pretend it’s Christmas Eve and it’s snowing, she told herself, but no, imagination had its limits. She shouldn’t have scared the deer. She should be more grateful for this community and take better care of its inhabitants. Also, she probably had until tomorrow to pack her go-bag for potential mandatory evacuations, and for the deer to start smelling, which meant she had until then to get it together.  

 

Lou

The sky was getting crazier by the minute. Lou figured it was probably the most wondrous sky he’d ever seen, in fact, so changeable in hue, just like the stock trailers going up the canyon were all sorts of colors, all sorts of models and makes and years, all sorts of levels of dented, and between the vehicles and the sky, he felt like a circus was going on in his eyes. It made him woozy.  

You couldn’t count on the cross traffic to heed the stop sign.

The evacuation center for large animals was at the elementary school parking lot and the call had been put out on the radio and social media: anyone with trailers was supposed to help out. It struck him as strange, how despite the enormous technology and too-big government, it still came down to a semi-disorganized mess of regular people guided by a volunteer posse, which mainly consisted of his neighbor on her phone at her kitchen table, and whomever she could pester.  

He wasn’t able to help with the animals, though, because he didn’t have a stock trailer. Instead, he was driving his truck to hitch up the nice motorboat of a friend to get it off the mountain, the friend busy evacuating other items. The fire had been going for weeks, maybe a solid month, but it had just flared up in the heat and wind—had gone from thirty thousand acres to sixty thousand acres yesterday, and from sixty thousand to a hundred thousand today.  

At the mouth of the canyon, he braked and glanced right, since this last intersecting county road was dangerous. You couldn’t count on the cross traffic to heed the stop sign; he’d seen a wreck or two there. And strangely—wasn’t it weird how the world worked like this sometimes?—in the exact moment he glanced, he saw an old pickup collide with a deer.  

His foot hit the brake by instinct, and a jolt of oh shit zipped up his spine. But he kept driving. Literally, there was nothing he could do—this was a narrow road with no turnarounds and the red truck was now out of sight because he’d rounded a curve and now would round many more curves before he got to a boat in the mountains. Fuckin-A that was shitty, poor dude and poor deer and I didn’t realize the apocalypse would feel so heavy.  

 

Paige

Paige heard a distant but distinct thud while she put the chickens in the back of her car—Bok-lava, Oh-Beetle-Beetle, Henrietta, Fred. That sucks for someone, she thought as she thrust the last chicken in the car and turned around to go inside for her whole CPU—it was ancient and big and heavy and yet contained so much important stuff which, of course, she’d failed to back up. She could only hope the chickens didn’t shit on it, and also, that someday in the future, she’d learn to be more organized and prepared, have her life together. Most other people seemed to manage this and she wasn’t sure why it should be any different for her, it’s not like she had a brain defect. Sure, at the moment, she was too high—edibles were hard to gauge and unpredictable—and besides, her eyes and lungs itched and it made it hard for the brain to work correctly, it was fog fog fog up there in that skull of hers, but eventually, she hoped, she would be better able to cope with life’s variations. How to be proactive and look ahead—that was the battle of her life. And the battle of humanity as well. One at which they were most obviously failing. Which caused her brain to fail even more. A negative feedback loop if ever there was one.  

At least she was living a life that didn’t put other people in direct and obvious danger.

The chickens were bokking and fluttering all over and she put out her arm to keep them in the back seat, away from her duffle bag and box of documents, and she drove past the small cluster of homes that constituted her neighborhood: two trailers, one cabin, two hippie A-frames. Most had warring yard signage, a new development of these past bifurcated years. She turned on the main road heading down the canyon. The hotels in town were all booked, she’d heard, as a result of people fleeing the mountain. She supposed she’d stop by the house at the base of the canyon and offer free babysitting for that cute little Medusa-haired kid whose name she forgot but who was always playing with toy horses.  

Halfway to town, a white junker car sped by her, going one hundred at least, passed her on a curve, scaring the shit out of her. It was her fucker neighbor, and at least she had life down better than that guy, because at least she was living a life that didn’t put other people in direct and obvious danger. But still, she wondered if there would be a future point in time when she could look at her life and think, Ah-ha! I know where my flash drives are, I am kicking ass, I am grown up and managing life. 

 

Sherm

The deer was still warm and why not? It looked like a clean snap at the neck. Sherm stood considering it in the tall roadside grass. 

Pros: income from bartending at the saloon was gone because of ’Rona, and sure, he’d need more food this winter and the community food cabinet felt embarrassing, plus, he had space in his freezer, and plus, it would be putting the death to use. 

Cons: he was in a salty, pissy mood already. And it’s just that he’d never eaten roadkill before, and also, maybe eating roadkill was illegal in Colorado, unlike his home state of Alaska, though in the end, that was a non-issue—who cared about what was legal anymore? 

It would be easier to gut her roadside but he just wanted to be away from people, all people, he hated people, and this intersection was dangerous and currently busy (for a county road) because of the fire, so he improvised a ramp out of boards already in the truck bed (he’d intended to take them to the dump, one less flammable pile of stuff around, but he’d been too tired). He also had some rope and bungee cords buried beneath all the dusty junk on the floorboard and was able to rig up a system and haul her up, bit by bit. Luckily, she wasn’t large, which made a one-man show possible, though it wasn’t easy and had him wheezing. People didn’t really know how hard it is to move a dead deer, or a dead anything, and it occurred to him that was why he was always so tired, COVID-long hauler for sure. He was tired of moving his dead, lonely soul and sick body around. He was heavy to himself. 

He heaved her body into his truck bed and stood panting, running through the progression of things he’d do next. He was having trouble thinking through things and it helped to tap his head with each agenda item. He’d:

–get her home, 
–hoist her by the back legs to the lower rafter of the tree fort left by some long-ago renter, 
–skin her, gut her,
–dump all the junk into an old plastic bin, 
–then dump all that far from the house so as not to attract that bear, 
–butcher her.  

He’d need to do it all right away because it was late August and warm. He didn’t have butcher paper—he hadn’t been planning on this—but he’d improvise with something. Or maybe his neighbors, Mariana or Paige, had some, and regardless, he’d share the meat with them (but not the jackass with the white car).   

He had the sudden prediction that he’d be very grateful for the meat this winter.

He hurried, though the sheriff was busy with doing real work for a change, and regardless, getting a deer off the road was a help to society. But he felt he had to move fast because he didn’t want to deal with another human, and also, if he didn’t go fast, it wouldn’t get done at all. He glanced to the side as he pulled himself up into the cab and noticed a woman looking out from the chinked log cabin at the corner. She was standing in front of a glass door that opened onto a porch and was mostly secluded by trees and lilacs—he wouldn’t have seen her save for the red pajamas she was wearing and the yellow sunflowers near her door. Color and movement were what caught the eye. 

She offered a little wave, and he imagined she meant, thank you, hang in there, I’m sorry we’re all feeling so shitty, and for the first time in so long, he smiled. He had the sudden prediction that he’d be very grateful for the meat this winter, and that each time he ate some, he’d think of a red-pajamaed woman. 

 

Alexis

Holy moly. Alexis watched two teenage horse riders trotting by her window while holding her toy horse and she was jealous and also surprised they were riding at all because it was super smoky out today. She wanted a horse, and she also wanted to kiss that teenage boy because she was super curious about kisses, and she also wanted to set up a lemonade stand.  

A man pulled over on the side of the road with a boat. She wished to be on a boat. A boat or a horse. The man got out of his truck to check something about the boat, maybe it wasn’t tied to his truck very good, and when he was done, he bent over, put his hands on the boat, and his shoulders moved like maybe he was crying. 

She wished she could go outside but her mom had ticked off the reasons on her fingers. No, because of  

a) the COVID and
b) the ash and
c) the mountain lion in the neighborhood, which was probably lurking around closer to the homes because of the fire.

So she went back to coloring and didn’t know the name for this feeling inside her because it was more than sad and maybe adults knew the name of it, it was more like crackling, like electricity needed to come out, like you needed to run off but there was nowhere to run off to. What was that word she learned? Voltage. What if she couldn’t handle the voltage of this and she got fried? 

She didn’t care if her mom would be mad. She picked up her drawing of the map of the mountain and ran it out to the man. 

 

Norman

The rest of the Search and Rescue team was up the canyon but Norman had been assigned to the Sleeping Bear Mountain area and thank god because for the first time in his life, he felt at his limit. Like something might snap or break or shatter and all he had to do was slowly drive around a little neighborhood trying to find the owner of an abandoned vehicle which might indicate that someone was out hiking and unaware that the fire had moved east so quickly and that person should be rescued. Also, he wanted to drive to the very end of Sugar Bear Lane, a dirt road with a few houses clustered together, to see if there was anything to be seen. Help anyone evacuate if needed. Plus, a woman he’d seen at the bar lived in one of these houses and she’d always struck him as put-together and kind and maybe she needed a friendly hand.   

Even more than sex, he wanted right relations.

Of the domiciles there, the first had hand-painted plywood signs leaning against the fence, Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police. He wondered if that was her. The second house had put up plywood that read Thank You Police and Saint Michael Protect Our Police. The third house had a sign that said Be the Reason Someone Smiles Today. The last two, hidden in the woods, had no signs, nothing to say on the matters of the day. He made a U-turn and noticed a guy unloading a dead deer from the back of a truck—odd, since it wasn’t hunting season quite yet—but he didn’t have the energy to care. He was S&R, not the law, not regulatory agencies, and besides, the neighborhood wasn’t under mandatory evacuation yet, just optional, so he had no reason to pester anyone. His job, as he thought of it, was guided by the Standard Firefighting Orders of:  

1) Be alert
2) Keep calm
3) Think clearly
4) Act decisively 

which seemed like a good approach to this whole COVID-wildfire-shit year. He wished he knew where the woman was, if she was safe. If, frankly, he could connect with any kind woman. Maybe that was the whole reason he’d volunteered for the Search and Rescue team in the first place—hoping that somehow, he’d meet a woman by helping her. Even more than sex, he wanted right relations. He wanted to hug the right woman, one who happened to be in need of the right guy, which was him, and together, they’d make things better. 

 

Mariana

In all her life, this was the first time she’d hit a deer. Of course, Mariana had considered the possibility, since so many gathered by the road, especially at dawn and dusk. It was just math—a numbers game—but she wished she didn’t have to drive all these days with the knowledge that eventually she’d hit one, and wished that today had not been the day, this day that tía Maria in California had died of COVID.  

It was true, however, that one could not pace the timing of shit. 

Also, it was true that you could anticipate something but keep trudging on anyway. As she would. She would drive home, pack up her things, get off the mountain. She would sleep at the dairy—they’d offered her the couch in the break room. Or perhaps she’d visit that woman in the red pajamas, if only because the woman had offered her money and apology in both English and broken Spanish and in a way that seemed very sincere and very sad, and sometimes you just had to reach out with concision and force and connect with someone. 

But first, she had to stop shaking. Hitting the deer was perhaps the last straw for her nervous system. She couldn’t stop the shivers. She had to sit down for a minute and drink tea. She kept saying, Okay, halt, Shivers. Halt now. Halt. This isn’t the last straw. There’s always another straw. Tranquila, tranquila. But she couldn’t move. Instead, she sat there, watching a Search and Rescue truck slowly drive down the street in the smog, pausing to look at her Be the Reason sign, the one she’d made to get the other two neighbors to shut up.  

She wished he would come in and help her. 

She wished for lobos. To keep down the deer. To make the world balanced again. 

She wished for the deer to have its life back. 

She wished for the rains to come. 

She wished for the planet to be healthy and strong. 

She wished for the lack of foreknowledge. 

She wished that everyone felt less fragmented, less alone. 

She wished the fire wasn’t growing but it was, it was, it was, and surely homes deeper in the mountains were now burning. 

She hoped everyone had enough straw. 

 

Gretel

Enough of this. She clapped her hands, changed out of her pajamas, and ate breakfast while watching the trailers come down the mountain. She sipped tea and sometimes said, Just pretend it’s foggy Ireland or Christmas and Please stop pretending and get up and do something real and useful. Change the story in your head.  

So she went outside and spray-painted a sign: Free Showers and Food. Places to Pitch a Tent. All Welcome. She had a responsibility, after all: she was the first house at the base of the canyon and the simple fact of her location made her useful to others. As she lugged the plywood to the roadside to lean against a fence, she saw little Alexis standing on the side of the county road, one house away. Alexis was talking to a man standing outside his truck, which was pulling a boat. Then the two teenage horseback riders trotted up to them, and Alexis reached out her hand to touch the roan’s nose, and then leaned in to press her face against the horse’s chest in what could only be described as an act of deep adoration and yearning. 

It made her smile but the stone was still in her throat because the thing was: the BB and her voice hadn’t hurt the deer per se, but it had caused catastrophe. Who knows what had happened to that woman, or how much trouble the dent would cause, or how many toxins were now lodged in all their lungs, or if and how the mountainside would recover. Cause-effect. The ripple in the water. The consequences. And the foreknowledge of all that! She had predicted a thing. And that thing had happened. And that’s how all humans had lived all along. And it was just a fiery truth that everyone, everyone, everyone had known this was coming.