By Ben Roffman
I put on my tough gloves, which is S.O.P. in this type of situation, and get a grip on the free antler, but the other one’s jammed tight in the chain-link fence and all the while it’s making these brutish grunting noises, inelegant noises for what’s supposed to be such an elegant creature, and I’m tugging and tugging trying to dislodge the problem antler by sort of jiggling it up and down but it won’t give because said problem antler has two hooked protrusions which make extraction seem less improbable than how-did-it-get-stuck-in-the-first-place and all the while it’s kicking and its eyes all wild and I can smell its glands exuding pure chemical fear and I can’t possibly communicate to it that I’m not trying to hurt you dipshit I’m trying to free you. I have to brace myself and lean in with my pelvis as far away from the front hooves as possible while still gripping the antlers with both gloved hands, because if I’m poorly positioned, with soft underbelly exposed, I could sustain serious abdominal injury from a foreleg kick. For an instant I picture my entrails strewn out in the snow like a Mariana Trench grotesque, lab preserve yellow and steaming. Then I see its pupils dilate and it inhales sharply and it rears up on its hind legs and sends me flying through the air. I land on my back in some dirty snow. Then it’s me and it staring at each other for one slow-mo millisecond. Huge brown eyes, pink at the edges with animal fear that are either so fucking brain dead dumb or infinitely cognizant like each eye is a brown pink planetoid older than the Earth. Then it stops struggling. And it just slides its antler out of the fence. As if it was never stuck. And it turns. And it looks back at me, nostrils smoking, and canters off into the treeline. Now I’m just lying here overheated and panting in my soaked flannel. My limbs feel heavy. I can’t, won’t move. All I can see is an opaque white ceiling of sky. It’s beginning to snow. I let it cover me for a while. The memory of the deer running off into the forest is playing over and over in my head. It turns and runs, white tail flashing into a black forest that grows darker each time the deer goes in, each subsequent repetition blurring the realness of the memory until it’s reduced to Playstation One video quality. A fuzzy 3D model of a brown quadruped pausing in eyeless judgement and then accelerating phantom-like towards a black wall which absorbs it. Suddenly I feel very cold, in regions of my body that I didn’t think could get cold, like my brain and stomach. That day I drive an hour and a half south to see my therapist in the outskirts of Columbus, OH. Stan arrives on time to his therapy appointment. The scene: A windowless room in the old industrial sector. Master’s degree framed and hanging on a yellow wall. No family photos. An oil painting of a southwestern U.S. landscape in the last rays of western daylight. It’s a very lonely picture. Stan can never take his eyes off it. He gets lost in its bleak, treeless expanse when eye contact with Dr. Dahlberg becomes emotionally strenuous. Dahlberg is a dizzyingly tall Norwegian with blonde hair, massive hands, and tiny spectacles. Stan finds it difficult to imagine Dr. Dahlberg doing ordinary human being type things like washing dishes or taking a shit. “How do you think it got stuck?” says Dr. Dahlberg. “I’m not entirely sure. Sometimes they rub their antlers on stuff.” “Hmm. And it just… freed itself, you say?” “Yeah.” “Isn’t that what you wanted to happen?” “I wanted to free it.” “And now it’s free,” says Dahlberg. “Yeah.” “So what’s your issue?” “There was no point in going out and trying to help it. All I did was scare it.” “Well, I won’t deny the possibility that it was pointless, as you say, but don’t you think the impulse that compelled you to help is, on its own, a good thing? Maybe frightening the deer was the only way to get it to shake itself loose.” “I wonder if I injured it. I was kind of rough with it.” Dahlberg is familiar with the tendency of clients to rationalize every scenario in which everything is terrible and will never get better. “Well, perhaps you’ll see this deer again. Then you can check. But animals tend to take care of themselves. They know what they’re doing.” “Yeah. But sometimes they don’t,” Stan says. Dahlberg chuckles, though Stan wasn’t looking for it. Then he stares at the ground seriously and folds his hands together. “What happened with that snapping turtle you took in last week?” “It died. Yeah. I put it in a clean tank with a hundred-watt heat lamp and fed it crickets dusted with calcium powder. But it wouldn’t eat. So I had to force feed. Which is hard to do with snapping turtles, obviously. It died overnight. I came in that morning and turned on the lights and it was dead. Sunk to the bottom of the tank. There’s not much you can do when they come out of hibernation too early. I don’t know why it didn’t just hibernate with the others.” “I’m sorry to hear that. At least you gave it a good last night alive,” Dahlberg says. He sees Stan looking at the oil painting of the western landscape. He looks down at the floor again. “It must be terribly sad to witness so much death.” “Well, it’s a fact of life, I guess.” “Are you used to it?” “I’ve been doing it seven years.” “So you are used to it? Trying to save something only to watch it die?” Stan feels immobilized. The couch is too comfortable. Somewhere, a clock is ticking. Insane murmurings of heat pipes. “You don’t have to answer that,” Dahlberg says. “It’s okay. We can discuss something else. You want to talk about sailing again?” Talking to Dahlberg is like talking to a very old tree. He lives epoch to epoch. This impression is heightened by the fact that Stan knows pretty much zilch about Stefan’s personal life, if he has one. In fact, the only thing he does know is that on the weekends, Dahlberg goes sailing. The doctor discusses his hobby like so: “I went out in the sunfish last weekend. Bitterly cold but worth it.” Or: “I bought a Gore-Tex jacket for $300, hoping it would block out the wind chill. It does seem like a lot of money for a jacket, don’t you think?” Stan always smiles and nods attentively. There is something centering about Dahlberg’s sailing adventures. Sometimes an hour-long session will be entirely occupied by nautical discussions, and no progress is made. Dahlberg will speak for a few minutes, lost in his own recollections, before asking, “Am I going on too long? Do you want to talk about something else now?” meaning: do you want to get your money’s worth and actually talk about what you’re here to talk about, or do you want to sit there in stupefied silence and pay a hundred bucks for it? Contrary to Dahlberg’s voiced or unvoiced concerns, the sailing talk is a big part of the deal. Stan enjoys imagining his therapist waking up at six a.m., rigging his one-man vessel, tying complex sailing knots, putting up the mainsail, shoving down the keel, gliding smoothly on black lake water. He enjoys picturing Lake Erie and its vast unfettered surface. He enjoys imagining Dahlberg on his weekend retreat, enjoying simple rugged pleasures. It all seems like a distant unreality. The unreality of it for Stan being the idea that tranquility actually exists somewhere. That he could reach out and touch one who has known peace. Peace is what you get when you’ve done everything you’re supposed to do, which is never. Peace is the grave. “Actually, I’m not used to it, to death,” Stan says suddenly, mid Dahlberg anecdote. Dahlberg looks surprised for a moment, then adjusts his spectacles. “I’m supposed to be used to it. At the clinic we take in all sorts of injured animals. Stray dogs and cats. Raccoons. Skunks. Baby birds. Snakes. Eagles with lead poisoning. Vultures that crash through the windshields of eighteen wheelers. And we save a lot of them. Which is good. When you fix a cracked rib or a broken wing. But then every other animal that comes in is doomed. And there’s nothing you can do. You just have to watch it struggle and die. I’m supposed to be used to it, but I’m not.” “But don’t you think it’s a good thing that you feel so strongly for the animals?” says Dahlberg. “You do it because you care, don’t you?” “Well. That’s the reason I started doing it, I think. I’ve always liked animals. But it’s so taxing. And I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing it. Most people go to work and it’s tiring and stressful, but then that’s it. You go home and watch TV and forget about it until the next day. It’s not like that for me.” “Me neither,” Dahlberg says. Why do I always think of things to say to my therapist on the way home? When I went in for my appointment, I read the small engraved plaque that says: “Dr. Stefan Dahlberg, Psychotherapist,” which I always read as “Psycho the Rapist” regardless of how many times I look at it. And every time I read it, I’m reminded how Stefan isn’t technically a doctor because he doesn’t have a PhD, just a master’s. And at that point, compulsively reading the plaque on my way in, the only thing I’d wanted to discuss was the deer. How it ran out of the clearing and into the forest. Now I’m driving back north through snowy cornfields and billboards for fireworks and the denouncement of evolution and it’s only now occurring to me that I should’ve told Stefan about the time when I was nine years old, when I spent the summer at my father’s house in rural southeastern Ohio, and it was early evening, and my father was preparing dinner, and he told me to go out back to the woodshed to fuel the stove and I went out back to the shed, which was cool and damp, and I picked up a log from the pile and underneath, underneath the log was this big yellow rat snake curled up in a big yellow pissed off heap. Everything, the air, objects, blood, became static; the only entity that could move was the snake. It uncoiled and slipped off deeper into the wood pile. My hand moved before my mind and grabbed its tail, stopping time. Time moved when the snake moved. Then I started to pull it in, hand over hand like a rope, the snake protesting with threatening hisses which I ignored, until its head at last came into view with that fixed reptilian smirk, bam all of a sudden whirling around and striking my hand, leaving tiny twin puncture marks. It didn’t hurt at all. I felt massively, carnally alive. I decided to keep it as a pet. My dad approved of my new acquisition, and set up an old aquarium in my bedroom. The snake immediately burrowed out of sight beneath the wood chips. Dad said he looked hungry, and I agreed. I told him I’d read somewhere that snakes prefer live mice. Dad got one from a trap in the basement. I watched as he opened the lid of the aquarium and dropped the mouse in, and I watched it sprint from corner to corner on little pink feet, breathing hard. It froze, little black eyes gleaming. I tried to think of its eyes as just little cameras, its legs as just little wheels, its breathing the work of finely tuned motors. Then I watched as the snake poked its face out of the wood chips, tongue flicking, and I watched as it caught sight of its prey, and they stared at each other, and I witnessed the uncertainty of flesh, the weakness and the hideousness of flesh, and I felt Dad’s hand on my shoulder, he was watching me watch. Then I watched as it struck again, and didn’t miss, and threw its coils around the little hyperventilating body, and I watched its little pink feet struggling, kicking out for its life, so vital and pink and doomed. I watched as the kicking stopped. Then we went downstairs and had dinner. Between mouthfuls, Dad was saying that keeping a pet is a big responsibility. I said I could handle it, and he smiled. Then I said that I wanted to feed it pre-killed mice from now on, because I read somewhere that they’re safer for the snake. They came frozen in little plastic packets. Every week I’d lay them out to thaw until limp under the lamp in my bedroom. Stefan glides out from the dock, gripping the tiller in his right hand. He pushes it away from himself, listing to portside, to slip by a rock. There’s no wind in the bay, so he sculls his way out into the open water. It’s ineffective and exhausting. He breaks a sweat under his Gore-Tex coat. Stefan is thinking about Stan, how he doesn’t think he can help him. He’s scared of giving advice. Giving advice is scary. Sometimes, Stefan observes, we give advice that we wouldn’t take ourselves. He uses we and not I. The mainsail flaps wildly as he slides out of the bay. Stefan pulls it in, drawing it taught against the wind. He can’t help grinning as he picks up speed. It’s one of the only sensations that stimulates an involuntary grin from him anymore. But it’s a chemical, a muscular reflex. The wind shifts north, and the smile turns into a toothy squint. Was it winter or summer of ‘98 when Natalie Briggs killed herself? It was summer, yes, because Stefan remembers what he was wearing when he got the call, one of those massive circa 1990s aloha shirts. That was the first one, wasn’t it? Then Christopher Alehouse. Which was... let’s see... ‘02? Then Jennings... Oscar Jennings, in ‘03. Stefan tacks upwind, ducking under the boom as he shifts his weight from starboard to port. The term “One-Man Sailing Vessel” is a stretch for someone of Stefan’s height and build. How had Jennings killed himself? He’d slit his wrists with a fillet knife, like what you gut a fish with. Why would he use a fillet knife? Stefan couldn’t stomach fish for a few years after that, more out of physical repulsion than grief. He had liked fish. What was a Norwegian without lutefisk, after all? And then in ‘05 there was that Panamanian girl, surname Vasquez, first name... Alicia, Elisa? Can’t remember. No, Alicia. He remembers her signature from the checks. An A and not an E, followed by a squiggly line. She hung herself, with rope. There are lots of ropes on a sailboat. They’re called lines, though, when you’re on a boat. The wind is dying. Stefan heads back towards the bay. He pushes the tiller out, ducks the boom, and slacks the mainsail, a nautical technique known as running. What if I just keep driving? Just keep heading north? I could get to Detroit in four hours. Less. Then I could head east to Toronto, or Niagara Falls. Right? Couldn’t I? I’ve never been to the falls. I could sleep in the car, eat at gas stations. I could be back by Monday. Or not. Or I could just keep going, up and up, into the great white north. Up through Quebec, to Newfoundland. I’ll live in the middle of nowhere. Find work on a fishing boat and crash on some friendly Canuck’s couch until I can save up enough for my own place. I could sell my car. Or not. Maybe I’ll just subsist on wild berries and carrion. Drink deeply from clear cold streams. Doesn’t it sound good? I’ll forget English. The language of my thoughts will be pure images, no words. I’ll make my own snowshoes, rabbit traps, ice fishing holes. Deerskin tents — they’re overpopulated anyway. I’ll become apex predator, finishing off the weak for the good of the strong, and when I’m weak, or old (if I live to be old), I hope something will have the good sense to come along and finish me off too. I’ll find a way to make smokeless fires so the helicopters won’t find me. They won’t search for me too long. My desertion won’t be felt. The animals will die with or without me. Why should I bear the weight of their little pains? Let stags get their antlers caught in the chain-link fence. Let them writhe and free themselves. They never needed me. Stefan’s Lake Erie cabin is not centrally heated, so he sets about making a fire as soon as he gets back. The heat conductive slate floors are still cold under his feet as he stands in the kitchen, boiling water for his tea. He looks freakishly tall even in his own home, but he’s so used to the size disparity between himself and regular household objects that he doesn’t even notice. The kettle boils and he pours himself a cup. He brings it into the living room and sits down in his armchair, the springs of which were shot long ago. Stefan finds it more comfortable that way, actually. There’s a pencil and a pad of paper on the table beside the chair. He picks them up and writes a stark, four-line poem. He taps his pencil on the edge of the pad in thought. There are no family photos on the walls of the cabin. There are no places where they could be hung. Instead, most of the décor consists of wide, unpeopled landscape paintings. The only framed photo with one or more human beings as the subject is sitting on the cluttered bureau behind him. It pictures Stefan, younger and blonder, laughing with his grad school friends. He’s sort of forgotten about that photo. He stops tapping the pencil and starts doodling. He doesn’t know what he wants to draw yet, so he starts with long, straight lines, from one end of the paper to the other. He fills up one page with lines, then turns to a new page, and fills it up too. Then another page. Then another. The lines begin to resemble the bark of a pine tree. At first the bark consumes the entirety of each page. With each new page the tree narrows. Branches appear. His hand moves steadily; there is no hurry. At last the trunk thins to just a few lines, the branches grow sparse and scraggly. His hand is tired and smeared with charcoal. He compares his hand, which is old, to the oldness around him. Bookshelves crammed with well-loved tomes, trinkets collected from journeys abroad. Every space occupied by old things made somehow arcane with age. It’s too intimate to be a home. It’s a nucleus. It’s the inside of his head. Stefan puts down the pencil. With the same, now cramped, charcoaled hand, he reaches for his phone and calls his secretary. Three hours later I’m being led into a white walled room with a stainless-steel table in the center. My car is impounded outside. Turns out you need a passport to get into Canada. Fucking idiot. A burly Canuck in a tactical vest pats me down, asks me to take out my wallet, keys, phone, chewing gum, etc., and places them on the table, says sorry but this is just a formality, we believe you, we believe you’re not carrying heroin or anything in a balloon in your ass, but we take border security very seriously up here, people don’t seem to realize that, Americans think they can just stroll into Windsor like it’s just more of Michigan, I deal with it every day, people like you who drive hours to cross over, with an excuse like ‘I forgot I had to bring a passport,’ as if we’re supposed to just take that on good faith and let you in. He rambles on and on, this big Canadian cop. I don’t say anything. Everything that comes out of my mouth sounds insufferably idiotic right now. Ya know, the cop says, it’s real easy to apply for a passport. Real easy, he says. I say maybe I will. I know I won’t though. By then the feeling will have passed. It’s passing now. I take off my shoes and place them on the table, the cop’s latex gloved hands searching for bags of drugs or knives or nuclear warheads in there. All they find is sweat. I’m just standing here on the cold linoleum floor in my socks, feeling empty and stupid. My mind is literally blank, like the walls. You can put your shoes back on and get your stuff, he says. I do this and am led out of the cold white room and into a waiting room. The cop is telling me that I’ll be discharged momentarily, as soon as the lady in the booth calls my name. I ask can I make a phone call and they say yes. My phone’s nearly out of juice. I call Dr. Dahlberg. It rings and rings and goes to voicemail. I don’t leave one. The next morning, I eat my colorless motel breakfast and drive back home. It’s one of those sunny late fall/early winter mornings where the sky is that washed out blue. Good day for a drive. There are red tailed hawks in the sky, circling on the updrafts. The following week felt different. A goose with a broken wing was brought in Monday. I’ve never worked on a goose before. I improvised a larger splint for the wing out of some scrap wood and bandages, and it’s been steadily improving. I decided to not tell my co-workers about my Detroit-Windsor border scrape. Out of shame? Maybe. I don’t know. It’s not a story that would make sense to anyone. On Friday I got a text from Dr. Dahlberg which said: “I am taking a long vacation. Not sure quite how long as of now. Everything’s fine. Hope you are doing well. I can refer you to a few of my colleagues in the interim if you are interested.” I don’t think he’ll be coming back. Later that day I returned to the section of fence where I’d found the deer, not bothering to convince myself that it was for any other reason than to see if he was there. He wasn’t. Why would he be. The forest is dark and the fence runs deep into it, all the way to the highway on the other side. I rattled the fence, imagining it vibrating all across its length. Animals detect disturbances that we are deaf to. But nothing happened. I stopped rattling. The forest was silent.
Read Issue 17