First published in The Silver Web in 1994, then republished in The Third Alternative (UK, 1995), Chelsea Hotel (Germany 1996) and as the title story to a Best-of Anthology of The Third Alternative.
Every morning I drive the same route I drove when I still had to work. I take State Road 40 through the Ocala National Forest, forty miles from Barberville to just this side of Ocala. The road has two lanes, with a passing lane every five or six miles, first for the east bound traffic, then for the west. Each time I come to a passing lane, I pull into the slow lane and let everyone go by. I’m always on the lookout for dead animals.
The first dead animal’s voice I ever heard came from a brown and white basset hound with a broken neck. He was lying in the grass beside the westbound lane in Astor, and I only noticed him because I had stood behind a school bus that was picking up a couple of kids. The dog looked like Barney, my neighbor’s basset when I was growing up on Lincoln Street in a small town in Illinois. The resemblance made my throat tighter; how long had it been since I’d thought about that neighbor, or his brown and white dog? When the bus’s red lights topped flashing and it moaned into first gear, I pulled my BMW of the road instead of following.
The dog lay on his side, his head lolling back at an impossible angle, one ear chastely flopped across his head, shielding his dead right eye from the sun that was just beginning to burn through the morning fog. I knelt beside him and patted his side. He wasn’t bloated. He didn’t smell. There was nothing wrong with him except for his neck, and it looked as if he might get up if I twisted his body and arranged his head just right.
I couldn’t put him in the BMW; I had chosen the leather interior package, and who knows the mysteries of a basset hound’s first few postmortem hours? It had to be the trunk.
I carried him carefully. As I leaned over the empty trunk I heard his voice.
It wasn’t an audible voice – the dog’s mouth didn’t move or anything – but it was English. It said, “A motorcycle hit me twenty minutes ago. My legs are short and I never get along much faster than a trot; I meant to stay in the grass beside the road, but I guess I didn’t. The motorcycle had a shield on it to protect the rider from the wind, and the bottom of that shield hit me just beneath my ears. My body went numb right away, and I wish I had stayed in the grass beside the road.”
I stood cradling him over the dark gape of the trunk, but he wouldn’t say anything else. Finally I gently lowered him in beside the spare tire. A muffled sound like gravel in a twisting sock came from inside his neck when I pulled back the arm that been supporting his head.
I drove back toward Barberville, thinking: This is it, Chris is taking his toll.
When my son Chris was twelve years old, he knew more about chemotherapy and bone marrow and white blood counts than any twelve-year-old should. The doctors had diagnosed him just before he turned eleven. Very rare form, they said. Not responsive to traditional treatments, they said. Give me everything you’ve got, Chris said.
God, he was a beautiful kid.
Shortly after his twelfth birthday we all knew. So I quit my job and Sarah took three months off, and we took Chris all around the states, everything he’d wanted to go: D.C. Denver, San Francisco. We went skiing in Aspen, walked through a stand of redwoods in Washington state, and visited Mark Twain’s home in Hartford, Connecticut. The Museum of Modern Art in Chicago, the Alamo, the Liberty Bell, and the beach in San Diego all bored him. He loved Sea World, Pike’s Peak, the view from the Sears Tower in Chicago, and the arch in St. Louis.
Before we could make it to New York City, Chris started fading. We brought him home, and in ten days he was gone. We buried him six weeks before the broken-necked dog spoke to me in gruff, phlegmy English.
As I drove back toward home with a dead dog in my trunk, I thought my grief had finally undone me. I’m not particularly good at expressing emotion. I had only cried a few times since Chris’s death, but every night I went to bed with a heavy, brittle feeling in my chest, and every morning it was there waiting for me when I got up. Every day, on my way to work, I would ask myself: How long will this last? How long can I stand it?
And now, here was an answer. I fully expected to hear more voices on the trip home. The moss that hangs in gray clumps from trees alongside the road might whisper my name. The garage door opener, clinging to my visor just above and in front of my left ear, might tell me where to drive next. The sly windshield wipers might softly counsel suicide.
But I heard no voices on my way home.
I live alone in a small house with a backyard that slopes down to a small lake. Sarah and I had been in the process of splitting up when Chris was diagnosed. The funeral was the last time we had seen each other.
I got a shovel from the dusty-quiet garage and buried the basset in the back yard, in the shade of my magnolia tree.
Eight days went by before the next dead animal spoke to me. I heard it at the exact moment I saw it, a huddled mass in the opposite lane, yearning to breathe, period.
A station wagon hit me,” it said, “and my intestines blew out my asshole.”
The words came slower than the basset’s had, and they were carefully enunciated.
I pulled over shakily, and when no cars were coming I pulled across the road and parked in the grass. It was a cat, gray and thick-necked, an unfixed male. Its intestines were where it said they were. It didn’t have anything else to say.
I buried it beside the basset under the magnolia. The intestines had made transport and burial difficult and unpleasant. Since then I keep a plastic tarp in any vehicle I drive, and I never travel without a pair of long rubber gloves.
I am not the type to hear dead animals’ voices in my head. Which is to say, I’m not crazy. I don’t fit the profile of someone who is susceptible to the allure of the superstitions and mass-market voodoo of marginalized humanity. I’ve never bought a magazine in a supermarket checkout line, and I never read the horoscope, even for ”fun.” I don’t believe in Ouija boards, seances or tarot cards; I’ve never had my palm read; I’ve never even made a wish before I blow out the candles on a birthday cake. I don’t believe that aliens live and walk among us. I do believe in God, but I manage to ignore Him until some disaster hits. Even then I am held in the grip of a cowardly self-consciousness, and I can’t bring myself to pray with any fervor.
Over the last four months, I’ve buried nearly thirty members of the animal kingdom under my magnolia, and every one of them spoke a few well-chosen words to me, post-demise and pre-burial. I’ve interred a half-dozen cats, eight dogs, four raccoons (two couples, united in death just feet apart), three squirrels, and two armadillos.
I saw a man pulling a deer around toward the back of his pickup once. I stopped, suspicious that he had somehow hit the animal on purpose, not sure what I would do if he had. But the deer set my mind at ease.
“He couldn’t help it,” said the deer, a medium-sized male with an unimpressive rack. “I was running through the woods and I got carried away. I knew better than to leap without looking, especially near a road. But I can feel God in me when I leap; I was meant for it. This man tried to miss me, and my feeling is: better to have leapt and lost…”
The deer wasn’t the only dead animal with a sense of humor. Although two armadillos don’t constitute a large enough sample from which to generalize about a whole species, I’d have to say that the armadillo has a healthy, good-humored sense of the absurdity of its position in the world. “Look at me,” the first one I found said. “I’m basically a dinosaur, unchanged for millions of years. I should be sharing the road with a two-year-old Saturn? That car has a computer that controls its electrical systems; I’ve got scales, for God’s sake. It’s not easy being an anachronism.”
The second armadillo I found was severely mangled, a condition made more horrible by the animal’s already naked, pink-and-gray vulnerability. I had to carry it by its tough rope of a tail; parts of it seeped and sagged all the way to my new truck.
“My only natural defense is to curl up into an armored ball and outwait my opponent,” the armadillo said. “Not too effective against steel-belted radials.”
I never did go back to work full time after my last trip with Chris. I was a financial planner with one partner in our own small but reasonably prosperous practice. Two small business clients, a total of forty-five employees, plus a handful of couples who had been referred to us. I did a little of everything; set up IRAs, mutual funds, individual deferred comp packages, some tax planning. Sarah is a mid-level administrator and RN in an Ocala hospital, and we did okay. I put everything I could away, invested in the stock market. IBM in the mid 70s, Apple in the early 80s, small bio-medical research companies in the late 80s, tobacco stocks all the time.
When Chris was diagnosed I decided I didn’t need to work anymore. When I finally came back, I kept a handful of clients whom I like and cut back to two mornings a week in a small office in Ocala. After the funeral and Sarah’s departure, we went through a very adult divorce. Sold the house, didn’t fight over money; we both have enough. I bought this medium-sized lot on the lake, with the little house on it, and Sarah bought a modest two-bedroom near her hospital.
After I buried the gray male cat in the sandy soil beneath my magnolia, next to the broken-necked basset, I sold my BMW and got a three-year-old Ford pickup. I put the tarp and rubber gloves in the back and began making a trip down State Road 40 once every morning and once every evening, just before sunset.
Sometimes as I’m driving I hear and animal but can’t see it. I always pull over and search, but often I don’t find it. In the course of one such search I realized that I could identify each species by voice. Some animals sound like you’d expect them to sound, if you expected them to talk; dead dogs speak quickly and with the tangled syntax that often produces circular sentences, while deceased cats are slower and more careful, measuring out the meticulous pronunciations of a Latin teacher. Squirrels communicate in staccato snippets that sound vaguely like Vietnamese to my ears. The posthumous speech of two other species I also associate with foreign language accents; the wry humor of armadillos comes wrapped in the harsh back-of-the-throat consonants of German, while clever raccoons trade in the nasal delicacy of French.
When I feel the occasional desire to go back to work full time, I entertain the notion of becoming either a medical examiner or a detective. My avocation has given me the appropriate mindset for either occupation. In the hieroglyphic carnage of State Road 40, I see patterns; the visceral geometry of each individual metal-versus-flesh collision tells a story that I can read with increasing acumen.
Single direct hits leave one dark blotch on the pavement, attached by fragile vapor trails of blood that stretch to where the body comes to rest after its short and final migration. More often there is multiple contact: a rear wheel finishes what a front wheel started, or the impact against a front fender ricochets the hapless beast against one of the dark humps and sinews of an undercarriage.
The worst accident scenes feature bizarre zig zag patterns that indicate a poor creature’s careening path from one vehicle to another, sometimes from an unforgiving westbound chassis into an indifferent eastbound grillwork. After this sort of accident, the animal invariably confesses its confusion to me. “Everything happened so fast,” it will tell me. “I lost my balance and couldn’t get it back.”
The “best” scenes result from glancing blows, which most often produce quick and relatively painless broken necks. In many of these cases the victim literally does not know what hit it, and the bodies invariably have an attitude of peaceful drowsiness about the.
In a way, I feel better about my life now that I ever have. When I worked full time I was good at which I did, and I had a good relationship with most of my clients. But I had so little time for anything beyond “maintenance”: work, sleep, minimal conversation with Sarah and Chris. A forty-hour work week is a grotesque invention, if you think about it. That’s just too much time. That much work insulates you from the rhythms of nature. I never soaked in the birth of a day at dawn or its death at dusk; I never sensed the slow turning of the seasons in the air. The birth, growth and death – of plants, of pets, of my own son – these things I never really noticed.
I probably spent more time with Chris than most fathers spend with their kids. We went to Disney World and the beach, saw some spring training games in St. Pete, had supper together as a family at least three or four nights a week. I loved him fiercely from the moment he was born, but that feeling always struck me as biological, instinctive. Later, as his personality developed, I found him likable; in his innocence he found me wise. Even after Sarah and I began to grow apart she said I was great with him. The night after he died she told me she felt that he never loved her as much as he did me. We were sitting across from each other at the kitchen table when she said this, the overhead light cruelly exposing the lines on her forehead and her dark-circled eyes. I’ll never forget the misery in her voice; I have no idea if she was right.
The dead animals I talk with show no signs of self-reproach, and very little concern for the mates and offspring they leave behind. Mostly they tell me the stories of their deaths. Sometimes an animal will spend its last energy regaling me with descriptions of the things it loved most on earth. One squirrel rivalled Wordsworth with her posthumous paean to a kind of small nut that she favored. Her sensual description — the tender cream of its waxy interior, the ripe brown smoothness of its outer shell, the delicate cap that sheltered its rounded top – was mesmerizing. The aesthetic alienness of a tin can, stripped of its wrapping and missing its top, elicited the fascinated admiration of one raccoon.
I used to be troubled by the gore that I see on State Road 40, but it doesn’t bother me anymore. Partly, I suspect, because the mind can adjust to most any situation after enough repeated exposure; ask a paramedic, or trauma surgeon in an emergency room, or a mortician. But part of my newfound ability to face the bloody wreckage left by violent collisions comes from the animals’ own nonchalance. Not a single animal has ever dwelt in self-pity or compulsively bemoaned its mortal wounds to me. In fact, they demonstrate a remarkable equanimity about the physical process their bodies undergo after death as well. Sometimes I come across their bodies shortly after they die, but most often I don’t arrive until after at least the first few flies and worms have begun their humble ministrations. I have never heard an animal begrudge those scavengers their due. After four months on State Road 40, what doesn’t bother my dead charges doesn’t bother me.
The one exception was when I came upon an orange female tabby just before sunset a quarter mile east of the St. John’s river. I pulled over immediately, but it took me ten minutes to find her. She had been hit in the hindquarters, but crawled into the dep grass beside a fence post before giving up the ghost, or whatever it is animals give up when they die.
“This will be hard on you,” she warned me as I bent over her and stared at her distended abdomen. “Two males and three females,” she said. “I would have delivered them in eight days, but a van hit my legs and now there’s no hope for them. One of the females wouldn’t have made it anyway, but the others were fine.”
I knelt beside her and felt the tiny waves and ripples from inside her. “Maybe it’s not too late for all of them,” I said, wondering where a caesarian incision would be made on a cat.
“A mother knows these things,” she said in a very tired voice. “This will be hard on you.” She said no more.
The first kitten died just as I laid the mother on the cold corrugations of my truck’s bed. It started mewling the moment it died – too young, I suppose, to have the power of speech.
My house is less than nine miles from the St. John’s river, but by the time I got home a chorus of pitiful mewling filled my head. Five small dead voices. After a moment there were only four, then three. By the time I had dug a small sandy hollow – outside the shady reach of the magnolia’s furthest limb now – the last voice had died away. The tabby had been right. It had been hard on me.
That night I awoke from a nightmare listening to the echoes of five pre-verbal voices. I put on some clothes and walked into the backyard. The sounds and smells of two in the morning always fill me with the hoarded privilege of sweet secrecy, and I started to walk down to the lake. As I passed the magnolia, I sensed a stirring. I knew without looking that small eyes were opening, small limbs being stretched.
I kept walking, afraid that if I stopped, or turned or squinted into the shadows, the spell would be broken. I heard behind and around me the soft rustling of many paws, padded and rough, three- and four-toed. At the water’s edge I headed east. I dared my first look at my spectral companions after I had moved halfway around the lake. A raccoon trundled along on the ribbon of packed sand to my left. To my right five kittens trailed on unsteady legs behind their mother.
I made a complete circle around the lake that night, and when I got back into my bed, the tightness in my chest was gone for the first time since Chris died.
Tonight I pulled into my driveway with a bloated cocker spaniel in the back of the truck to find Sarah’s car in my driveway. She got up from where she had been sitting on the porch and walked over to meet me as I got out of the truck. She smelled the dog and stopped a couple of yards away.
“What is that?”
I shut the door and walked back toward the bed. “Dead dog. Found him a couple of miles down 40.”
“Why did you bring him here?” she asked, up on her toes to get a glimpse of the body.
“You won’t want to see this,” I said. She turned away quickly when I lifted him and started for the corner of the house. “Why don’t you go inside while I take care of this? I’ll be in in just a minute.”
Digging is easy in sandy North Florida, and in ten minutes I stepped into the kitchen and took a drink of the ice water Sarah had poured for me. I went to the bathroom and washed my face and arms, and returned to the chair across the kitchen table from my ex-wife.
“How many are there?” she finally asked. She was looking out the sliding glass door toward the magnolia tree.
More than twenty,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say.
“Why?” she said.
“It makes me feel good.” She stared at me. “It seems like they deserve better than to just lie beside the road and rot.”
I watched her while she thought about that, and I considered what a fragile thing a marriage is. It’s as easily killed as any of those animals in the backyard. She sat across from me and I couldn’t begin to tell her a true answer to her question. What would she think if I said that the animals talked to me after they died? If I said that I was their caretaker, their bereaved, their final confessor?
After some reflection, Sarah let the subject drop. She started to talk about what had brought her here. She said she had needed to be alone for a while after the funeral, to sort things out. She talked about being mad at Chris for dying, about blaming me, and about sleeping too much. She talked about getting a prescription for valium from her doctor, about numbly going through the motions at work, and about loneliness.
As she talked I found that I still loved her, and that I had missed her. Some clinical part of my mind took note of the details of her face and body, instantly familiar again, but I felt no sexual attraction to her. I supposed that my administration of the last rites so often in the previous months imbued me with something of the priest’s mortification of the flesh. In the absence of physical desire, though, I found myself wanting Sarah back.
Soon she tentatively raised the subject of our marriage. She started to leave long pauses in her sentences, which I started to fill. We gradually realized that we both wanted to try again, but neither of us knew how. The wounds and grievances of a severed marriage rose up and silenced us. My mind was full, but I was mute. I expected her to leave.
But she said something about Chris, and I said something I remembered him doing, and before I knew it she was crying. Soon talk and memories and tears poured out of both of us and filled my small house on the lake.
After three hours of this a strange formality settled over both of us, and we both knew it was enough for tonight.
“I should be going,” she said, getting up. “I have to be in at eight tomorrow.”
“Okay.” I followed her to the door, and we both felt stiff and self-conscious. I knew then that Chris was still between us, and that he would be for some time.
She found her keys and we stepped out onto the front porch. She looked at her car, and then down at her keys and then back up at me. I kissed her, but the kiss didn’t kill the awkwardness, and she stepped off the porch.
“I’ll see you again soon?” she asked.
“I hope so,” I said.
She got into her car, and then leaned back out. “I’ll be extra careful to watch for animals crossing the road.”
“Please,” I said.
The car retreated down my driveway, and she gave me a little wave. After she was on the road and out of sight. I stood on the porch and listened to the receding sounds of her car. Finally there were only the sounds of the breeze and the night. I stopped back into my house.
A garden of dead animals blooms in my back yard. Some nights when I’m walking around the lake, they just show up. I never know when it’s going to happen. At first I thought that maybe it happened the same time of the month. Moon phases or something. But that wasn’t it. Then I thought maybe it had something to do with the weather, but that couldn’t be, because sometimes they materialize after dry days and cloudless sunsets, and sometimes after rain and low skies. I only know it’s happening again once I’m walking in the back yard and find myself surrounded by them. They pad all around me on soft feet, and each retains its personality. The squirrels maintain their small, nervous movements, the dogs their manic sociability, the raccoon his oddly-masked guilelessness, the armadillo its impervious dignity. The cats stalk and pounce, and deep in their throats they softly hum their rightness with and in the world.
On such nights I walk among them and do not willingly go back indoors; St. Francis in the final stages of mourning. I think Sarah’s coming back, but I will still walk around the lake on nights when I can’t sleep.
One night, I hope, when I am walking with them, we’ll be joined by another.
Will he look in my eyes, in that quiet, crowded yard, and wonder at his presence there, and know me?