Originally published in the Humboldt State Toyon 2007. This is the version sent to the publication. Couldn’t find electronic version of final draft that was published. This won the Redwood Mensa Award for Creative Non-Fiction in 2007.
I wandered down the wooded trail connecting my house with the parking lot below. There, I expected to meet up with my friend Serena, who called me five minutes earlier saying she was coming over. After waiting and wondering what the hold up was, I decided to investigate. What I found was Serena hovered over the body of a fawn lying on its side. She looked worried, almost sad, as she meditated on the animal.
I joined her by the fawn’s side and gazed down at the body. The chest was not moving but I swear I noticed the leaves by its mouth rustle briefly, as if the last remnants of air flowed freely from its lungs. Serena touched its chest lightly, observantly.
“I don’t feel anything,” she said. “I think its dead.”
There was no stink, no defecation, no noticeable wounds, just a dead fawn. I rubbed its chest, noticing that the body had not stiffened up yet. It was strange, seeing a dead animal. I’ve seen roadkill on the side of the road, torn to shreds by racing cars uncaring or unsuspecting of the animal. Not this though, not an animal in the forest seemingly unharmed by exterior forces, and so young.
“What do you think happened?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” replied Serena. “I startled the mother as I came up the path, and she ran off deeper into the woods. So sad, it looks like she just died.”
I wasn’t sure if it was a male or female, but I guess we personalize our experiences, and Serena thought the fawn female. She appeared peaceful, as if she just plopped on the ground and went right there and then. I remember the eyes the most, rather one eye, black and void, peering upward toward the sky. I hoped the animal didn’t suffer, went quickly and as painlessly as possible.
“What should I do with the body?” I asked. Like I said, I never dealt directly with a dead animal before.
“Don’t know,” she said, “suppose you could call the county, or maybe the university can use it for experimentation. Either way, you don’t want to let it rot here and stink up the place. Besides, she could have died of disease.”
There was a strange black spot near the mouth of the fawn, but maybe it was just a color spot. Part of me just wanted to let it lie in peace, untouched by my hands. A part of me wanted to allow other animals, insects, bacteria, to feast on the remains, to support their communities of life. That’s what would have happened had the deer died two-hundred feet further in the forest, where human eyes would not have seen it but maybe smelt it.
“I’ll make phone calls right away,” I said, trying to comfort Serena. She seemed disturbed by the scene, but she was very empathetic. She smiled and continued to meditate on the fawn as if whispering a prayer. I decided to leave her be and returned to the house.
By the time I returned home it was too late to make phone calls. I did try out the university’s biological sciences department, and got a voice mail.
After the beep, I said, “Yeah, my name is John Osborn, and I found this dead young deer on the path to my house that didn’t look like it died of a gunshot wound or anything. Maybe it’s diseased. You want it for scientific experimentation, or something, call me.”
They never called back.
The day passed on, then the night, and I wondered what was happening to the fawn. I wondered what creatures discovered this edible prize waiting for them as they made their travels through the brush. I wondered what state the fawn was in after night became dawn. Would she be decomposing, eaten, form broken by ravaging beasts, buzzing flies, or scavenging yellow jackets. I wasn’t sure, but I would find out soon enough.
It was the afternoon by the time I returned home from work. The only thing on my mind was to make phone calls and get the fawn situation taken care of. Although a part of me just wanted to leave her there, thought it was right to leave her there, another part of me was hesitant, as if I would be doing an injustice to others who lived in the area if I did nothing at all. Shatter illusion, the illusion of civility, of dominance over nature.
You really understand this when you call up county agencies to get this corpse removed and all you get is the run around. Nobody wants to take responsibility, not unless it risks shattering the illusion.
I first called the city’s police department, talked to the officer in charge of animal control.
“Yeah, got this deer that died on a path between my house and an apartment complex,” I said. “Can you take care of it?”
“No,” the woman said, “but you should call the Department of Fish and Game, they can help out. Here’s the number.”
She gave me the number for the place and I called. I sensed this was going to be hard from the moment she gave me another number. I took a breath and dialed the number she gave me. Meanwhile, my roommate Maia sat at the kitchen table giggling and brainstormed with my friend Josh as to how to dispose of the corpse.
“They directed me to Fish and Game,” I said to them.
“They take care of deer corpses?” Josh asked.
“Guess so.” The phone searched for connection, that ominous hum that lasts only a second, then a pause, a second, then a pause, then connection.
“Department of Fish and Game,” a woman said routinely.
“Hi, so this deer died on a path that connects my house to the apartment complex below. The deer doesn’t have any wounds, but it is young and maybe diseased. Can you take care of it?”
“The deer didn’t have any wounds you say,” she replied.
“No, I think it was internal, or something.”
A pause, then, “Well, I’m sorry, but we only take care of animals when there is a possibility of poaching. If there are no signs of mutilation or exterior wounds, then you have to call up the Transportation Department.”
I almost wanted to laugh, but I was too stupefied to. I mean, you’re kidding me right.
“Well, sure give me the number, I’ll try them out.”
She gave me the number, and I clicked off the phone. All I had to do was give my friends a stare and they knew what was up.
“What’s the reason?” Maia asked.
“They only deal with poaching, but I got a number at least to another agency.”
“Zero for two, man,” Josh said. “We should start thinking of alternatives.”
He was right, but I wanted to make sure first. So, I called the Transportation Department, whether it was the county or state I had no idea.
I dial the number. Same hum. Same click, pop, then connection. A man answers the line on the other side. I regurgitate the story to him, same as the others.
“Did the deer die on a county road?” he asked.
“No, it’s dead on my trail,” I replied.
“Is your trail a county road?”
I paused for a moment, making sure I heard what he actually asked. I was pretty sure he asked if the trail was a county road. If he did, then this guy is either an idiot or he was playing with me.
“No, my trail is not a county road,” I replied sarcastically.
“Well then, there’s nothing I can do for you,” he said apathetically. “We only take care of dead animals on the road since they can be a hazard.”
Frustrated, I asked, “Well who do I call to take care of this then.”
He retorted, “If we focused our attention on attending to every call pertaining to dead animals, then we would have no time or money to maintain the roads.”
I chuckled, “So, you got any suggestions as to what I can do. I mean, isn’t this corpse a health risk?”
“Call the Department of Health then,” the man sounded as if he were growing irritated with the conversation, “other than that I don’t know what to do?”
“Should I bury it?”
“Should I just leave it there?”
“Should I burn it? I have a fire pit?”
The man started laughing. Not one of those funny, ha-ha laughs, but one of those, ‘Are you fricking out of your mind’ laughs. I chuckled, but inside I grew irate at this entire situation. My friends laughed at the table. I gave them a cold stare.
“Seriously though, call up a farm or something. They should know how to dispose of animals. Other than that, you could call the Health Department, but tell them we sent you.”
“That’s all you got for me man?” I tried to lighten the situation.
“There’s no agency to take care of dead animals. Besides, there’s not much money in the agencies that exist to do much of anything.”
Here I am trying to resolve this situation with the fawn and the man is laying his budget woes on me. I shook my head, thanked the guy, got another number, and hung up the phone. I looked over at Josh, who was smirking.
“Zero for three,” he said.
I mumbled some obscenity and got back on the phone.
Moments later, a woman answers, “Department of Health.”
Same spiel, same story recounted every other time.
“Well, I would call the Transportation—”
“Already did, they sent me to you.”
She laughed, “I think everyone gets sent to us in the end. Nobody wants to take any responsibility.”
“I know,” I smiled, “I’m almost tempted to drag the fawn into the street so they can pick it up.”
She laughed again, “That’s what I would do. It’s so ridiculous that they don’t have anything set up to take care of these things. Make people rely on doing it themselves.”
“Can I just leave it there? Is it a health risk?”
“Not from the fawn, but the flies it attracts and the smell are a health risk. It’s more a matter of inconvenience. I could give you the number to the Environmental Health division…”
I shuddered at the thought of another phone call, “No thanks. I’ll deal with it.”
“Sorry I couldn’t help.”
I took a breath, placed the phone on the receiver. My friends, meanwhile, were discussing what course of action to take next, since they could tell the county was not going to do anything.
“We could burn the body. If it’s diseased that would take care of that,” Josh said.
Maia shook her head, “Hell no! My room is closest to the fire pit. Besides, it will stink up the house and ruin the pit. Have you ever smelt a burning animal?”
Josh and I shook our heads.
“Well, it’s not a pleasant smell, believe me.”
We all scratched our heads for a moment, then I said, “The lady on the phone said we could always drag it up to the road, so the county can take care of it.”
Josh giggled, “Man, you don’t want to get caught doing that. Besides, its daylight out, and it’s hard to miss two people dragging a deer’s corpse to the road.”
“What do you mean two people?” I eyed Josh suspiciously.
“Hey man, I don’t live here. Besides, I get squeamish looking at rotting corpses and what not.”
“Fine!” Maia said, as if the entire situation seemed overly ridiculous, “Me and John will take care of it.”
I thought for a moment. It didn’t feel it right to just dispose of the body in a landfill somewhere, or a rending plant for that matter. It seemed both natural and right to allow the fawn to be deconstructed by other living creatures desiring sustenance. At the same time, I really don’t like the rotting smell that comes with that deconstruction.
“What if we drag it deeper into the woods, off trail? That way, it can just decompose naturally and we won’t have to smell it too much. I mean, if the fawn died a hundred feet of trail, we wouldn’t even have noticed it until the smell came,” I said.
We thought about for a moment and concluded it was the best course of action. Eagerly, Maia and I psyched ourselves up for the mission. I grabbed two rubber gloves from the cupboard, giving one to Maia. She grabbed an old blanket to use for the transfer. We were set.
We walked down the path until we came to the fawn. Many flies already began to pick slowly at the body. There was no smell yet, but I wrapped a bandana around my mouth and nose just in case. Maia laid the blanket flat on the ground, while I scanned the area for a good site. The brush was thicker than I thought, and no opportune place existed anywhere near the body. I walked down the trail further and noticed an opening in the woods where we could carry the fawn of trail.
“Found a place down here Maia,” I said in a muffled voice.
“OK, let’s do this then,” she said energetically, as if this entire episode excited her.
I put one of the rubber gloves on my hand and hovered over the fawn. Her face was still, just as it was the day before. Strangely, a twinkle glistened in her eye, though the darkness beyond seemed to have grown deeper, as if the soul completely evacuated ship. She was an empty shell now, just matter.
“So silent and still. So strange to deal with death,” I said. Maia nodded slowly. After a moment, we continued.
We each took a side of the blanket and tossed it over the fawn. The body was stiff, as if frozen solid as we tried to lift her up to wrap the blanket around. She was surprisingly heavy for her looks, and as we moved the body, a wave of noxious scents escaped as if trapped underneath the body, the smell of death and defecation.
The flies went crazy as we finished wrapping the body. A few still on the fawn bounced the blanket up and down in scattered spots as if feasting still, or trying to escape what was to come. Either didn’t surprise me.
We each took one side and carefully lifted the fawn. We cut through the woods awkwardly, trying not to rip the blanket or get it caught on a branch. Finally, when we were about a hundred or so feet into the woods, away from the trail and street, we tossed the fawn into the brush. Maia quickly left the area, but I stayed behind for a moment.
I stood silently as the wind brushed the leaves lightly. Sunbeams penetrated the green canopy above. All was calm, I could feel it. For the first time ever, I wanted to say a prayer, anything, that may give sacredness to this event. I wanted to whisper kind words to her, to give her safe journeys wherever they lead. Nothing came to mind though, nothing but silent reflection.
It was my prayer to the fawn, the only one I could give, one of silence, one of sweet return to the elements from which all life came. I couldn’t deny her that. I couldn’t doom her flesh to a trash pile, to a factory to be made into cat food. Sure, it’s all recycling, but here in this moment and place, there are many mouths to feed, many plants and animals that need nourishment.
Maia had stopped a little ways ahead when she noticed me not following. She gave me a moment and then said, “The blackberries will grow strong there.”
I smiled and nodded as I turned away and walked back to the house.