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The Ache
By RuthE Forrest

     The ache in the center of my chest is a constant reminder. It began three months ago with a story related by Mortimer - a quirky southern gentleman who is our only male participant in the Rappatomac Writer’s Group. He had asked us to ‘critique and comment’ on his story about his date at the local watering hole with a much younger tattooed girl. Instead of meeting the girl he met with a wild deer on a dark country road. For various reasons I had originally identified with the tattooed girl upon first listening to Morti’s story. They included my being what is commonly referred to by our small-town natives as a ‘come-here’ from the big city, and living with a much older gentleman to whom I am not ‘wedded’. I also have a fair amount of ink hidden on my body. But as the story unfolded, somewhere along the telling my mind made a seamless transition to Mortimer’s point of view. 

     I began to empathize with Mortimer when his tale recalled several ancient boyhood teachings. In them he had given us a glimpse into what life was like for an awkward boy in a conservative rural town. His Sunday School teacher’s hunting advice not to worry because “animals did not feel pain” particularly struck me as odd. It forced me back into my own past to glean snippets of outworn advice from revered mentors. The ache had been a shadow reminding me even then. 

     Slowly I came to realize that I had never had the experience of having to be watchful for wildlife on the roads. I mainly had driven the urban black ribbons, and had dodged my share of cats, rats, and dogs. Driving these country roads was a whole new daily adventure. I loved flying down them in my vehicle, alone on the road, not having to dodge other drivers, or to weave in and out of a crowded rush hour. I used to drive in the country when the stress of city life became too much to bear, and banging gears always relaxed my driven mind. Now I savored every mile of pastoral scenery while driving a sixty-mile radius of small towns conducting business. Sunnybank Road was my beautiful two-mile driveway as I pulled my mobile office into home base each evening. The ache continues to scream down this road today.

     I remember thinking how awful it must feel to hit and kill an animal with your vehicle. I had no frame of reference for this kind of experience. With the exception of a few good men I had never hunted wild things. And although I truly enjoyed discharging weapons at the local gun range while I lived in the dirty city, I had never killed anything wild or domesticated. I had never been trained to be watchful of wild things on the roadway. In 30 years of driving I had never hit anything. I imagined it must be terrifying. By the end of Mortimer’s telling I had begun to fantasize about how I would handle my own thoughts after such an experience. The ache was calling.

     The monthly writers group worked with the story during several meetings, and Morti revealed much of himself with every re-write. While driving down those long country roads I started to notice the deer at dusk along the ‘edge habitat’ – the place where the woodland meets the field. I took pleasure in seeing them, began looking for the deer ones. I felt a special thrill when catching a fleeting glimpse of their regal buff-colored bodies, or a flash of white tail. This place was becoming home to me, and revealing more of itself with every re-write of Mortimer’s story as well.

     One morning I paused during my usual routine to look out the bathroom window at the dew on the soybean field next door. I found myself staring face-to-face with a large doe and her sister who were munching their way down the soybean rows straight toward my house. We locked eyes for a glass-divided eternity before they leapt silently and swiftly into the woods lining the field. Now this memory reinforces the familiar ache.

     I met the source of the ache in the misty fog of an early December darkness. I was coming down my driveway on Sunnybank Road when he appeared walking down the grassy culvert that rimmed the tree-lined roadway. His eyes glowed yellow in my headlights as he raised his head in curiosity. Our eyes locked for an interminable instant as I said out loud “don’t do it”. He did not hear me. It was a frozen-mind moment, and it was too late. The young buck leapt in front of my vehicle. In a surreal instant the ache had begun.

     I slammed on the brakes with all of the strength my clenched bodyweight could muster, and instinctively turned into the direction of the object. I don’t know how I remembered to do this racecar driver’s tip in the dark blink of an eye, but later I would remember that it was a tactic that may help you to avoid a crash. My compact car skittered across the slippery fog-soaked road. The left front fender caught him on the rump with a sickening thud that brought me to a jerking halt. I sat there clutching the steering wheel frozen in horror while watching the broken body sliding on its’ side down the dark gray ribbon with a swishing noise. In ever widening circles he tumbled away from me until finally coming to rest in the deep culvert on the opposite side of the road. The stabbing pain in my chest caused me to wince. My body shuttered with instant tears. Numbly, I pulled over to the side of the road. After fumbling for a flashlight in back of the passenger’s seat, I got out of my vehicle and stood alone in the middle of a silent country neighborhood. With knees shaking I screamed out into the night “I’m sorry little deer!” By now the ache was burning bright within me as I searched the curved roadway. Eventually I found the bent and twisted dead thing. It stared accusingly up at me from it’s grave in the culvert. His big black long – lashed eyes were still wet pools. Another frozen-mind moment passed as the ache grew stronger. Turning in circles I whimpered my ineffective apology to the creature, and to all of the creatures hiding in the fog.

     I struggled back to my car, fumbled with an impotent cell phone, and absent-mindedly drove a few miles back down the road to the local Country Store. The ruggedly handsome new clerk chuckled when I asked to use the telephone while holding up my dead cell phone. I called the sheriff, explained my predicament, and received instructions to “return to the scene of the incident and wait.” I made some ineffective small talk with the clerk before setting back out into the hoary night clutching the ache tightly with both hands. 

     I waited alone in the fog for what seemed like a very long time. On the pitch black country road the click of my flashers drummed the beat in time to my incessant mantra of “sorry, so sorry…” The young sheriff finally arrived, and the wonderful smell of his cologne was somehow calming. I was grateful for the camaraderie as we walked single-file down the road - our flashlights dancing in two-part harmony. Placing long brown fingers against the deer’s throat he confirmed that it was definitely dead. He commented to the night that it was “just a little buck with broken hips.” I stood mute - shaking back the tears that once again threatened to erupt from the middle of the white-hot ache. 

     He deftly pulled the carcass up out of the culvert while explaining that the local hunter-types would be able to see it on the shoulder of the road. He assured me that it would be “gone by morning.” I thanked him weakly. He instructed me to have my insurance company call him for any questions about my claim, and offered his business card. I watched his beautiful dark hands reach out to help me in the grayness. I wanted to fall into them, allow this stranger to hold me, and to receive comfort from the all-encompassing ache. Instead I stood there dumbstruck holding his card. He cast a compassionate eye while stating “you are the victim in this incident.” His parting remark was meant to remind me that the deer had struck me, and not vice-versa as the ache insisted. 

     I apologized again to the little buckface now visible on the gravelly shoulder as I slowly drove past him. I became consciously aware of the ache after turning onto Smith Point Road. I made my way home rubbing my chest in circular motions while reminding myself to breathe. By the time Willy greeted me at our door I was definitely hurting, and feeling more like the perpetrator than the victim. His anxious embrace revealed his gratitude for my continued existence. In a staccato voice he expertly outlined how much worse the situation could have been. While listening to my eulogy I was conscious only of the numbing ache radiating from the center of my body. I had the distinct feeling of being an outside observer of some twisted drama. I tried to tell Willy about the ache but I didn’t know where to begin, so I remained silent until I no longer felt anything. Exhausted and drained I wrestled with sleep for the next eight hours.

     The sheriff’s prediction proved to be true as the deer was no longer there in the morning. During my usual hour-long Thursday drive into Warsaw I experienced the first of what would become days peppered with flashbacks. The headlight-illuminated scene of the deer sliding in circles down the roadway in front of my vehicle flickered in my mind’s eye like a ‘B’ horror movie. I began to see glimpses of the little buck in my peripheral vision. I started noticing the multitude of dead carcasses strewn along the winding country roads. With each episode the ache swirled closer to the surface of my consciousness carrying with it a whole host of muddy memories. 

     In my driving meditations the frozen-mind moments replayed strung together into a sinister silent movie. I fantasized different endings to the various events, and tried to reason the ‘whys and the what-ifs.’ I particularly struggled with the sheriff’s last retort that labeled me a victim. I stubbornly refused to identify with the word. I had worked through untold hours of therapy as a young woman to reach the survivor mentality. I told myself that once again I was a survivor. I stubbornly held onto that part of myself as a knee-jerk response to the ache resonating deep inside. 

     No matter how many times I rearranged the details I could not quell the pulse of the ache. It hung on me like an electric line strung along the big telephone poles whose knees rotted away in the marsh. I too was knee-deep in the muck. Like the poles those big hulking memories were strung out behind me as landmarks of a life lived in the fast lane of the city. I compulsively counted my survivor trophies each time the deer mind-movie flickered. The list included my abused child trophy, a rape survivor trophy, a cancer survivor trophy, and my most current trophy – the young widow surviving by moving to a kinder gentler place in the country with an older kinder gentleman. I was working hard to create some happiness on the Little Wicomico River. I repeatedly followed the lines back into the past in an effort to release the pain. With the ache singing to me I slowly began to connect it all down deep in my soul. 

     When I remembered that I had originally connected with the colorfully tattooed lady in Mortimer’s story the floodgates opened in my mind. Hadn’t I dealt a deathblow to dear ones? Hadn’t I been the guilty one at times? I had played the victim, and also the survivor who must go on living with the memory of a painful experience filed safely away in a moldy pigeonhole. A deep feeling of shame prevented me from talking about the incident with my friends. I rationalized that if I didn’t talk about it then somehow the whole embarrassing experience had never even happened. A steep deductible was the excuse I used to avoid making the insurance claim. The sheriff’s card was filed away in a crowded Rolodex.

     I did not attend the next meeting of the Rapatomac Writer’s Group. I knew that I would not be able to bear to listen to Mortimer’s fully developed story. In my twisted logic I had begun to blame him. It was Mortimer who had caused me to wonder what a deer-strike would be like to experience. I had never before entertained the idea. I truly believed in the Universal Law of Attraction. It states that you manifest whatever you give your full emotion and attention to, and I was sure that in this manner we co-created our daily lives. We attracted others of like mind into a shared existence. I rationalized that I had somehow drawn the deer strike to me from the abundant energy of the probable universe. The process of repeatedly listening to Morti’s story, identifying with the characters in it, and actively participating in writing the story had brought me to this point.

      I had always loved driving, but now for the first time in my life an unfamiliar fear taunted me. Over several days the fear generalized to any car I entered, and whispered its’ stony tale whether I was driving or sat in the passenger’s seat. It instructed me to be ever vigilant, to scan the brush and tree-lined roads for the slightest movement, and to keep bone-crushing tension in my arms and shoulders. It contorted my face as I fought to reach each destination unharmed. One day I had the white-knuckle realization that I was driving like someone I had previously hated to follow behind in this land of retired folks. The thought made me laugh, and the laughter eased the ache somewhat. I knew that I must mentally process and release the emotional baggage left behind from the deer strike, or forever fight an unbearable ache that would eat me up inside.  

     I began a campaign of rational self-talk. The internal war of words brought up a garbage pile of questions that were lurking in the landfill of past memories in my mind. These questions I put to my Self reflected in the rear-view mirror during my daily driving meditations. Why do I insist on blaming? Is there such a thing as coincidence? Do we really attract into our experience that to which we put our full attention? Did I attract the deer strike to me by wondering how that would feel? Do I want to live with shame and guilt as friends? The ache mentored me during this process. 

     After much prayer, self-talk, and meditation I finally came to a place of understanding. I connected to this land, and to the beliefs held by the native Pamunkey Indians who have inhabited this wild land for centuries. I came to realize that in the perfect medicine-wheel circle of life there are no victims, no coincidences, and no accidents in the incidents. I understood with gratitude how the deer gave its’ life for my learning. I saw that the deer fed the vultures, the eagles, and also the people. I started talking about the experience with my friends who shared a myriad of deer-strike stories. The advice on how to avoid hitting deer ranged from driving down the middle of the street while honking your horn, to coming to a complete stop when seeing them along the edge habitat. Everyone agreed that if you saw one deer that there would be more to follow, and counseled me to be patient before starting up again. I heard more than one sigh of relief over the minimal damage done to my vehicle, and saw many insurance claim pictures of broken parts. I attended a beautiful memorial service by the river for a friend who swerved to avoid hitting a deer and was damaged beyond repair. She was a kind person who worked tirelessly for animal rights, and I’m sure that she preferred to be taken-out rather than strike-out. Her transition brought everything full-circle for me. The ache became the missing piece of the puzzle that once acknowledged formed the whole picture. 

     It was no accident that I attended a small group of writers to listen to a southern gentleman’s story. It was no coincidence that I am a tattooed lady living with an older gentleman in a contented country home. Like telephone poles reflected in water-swollen culverts I began to see both sides of the story now strung along a continuum of events forever documented in time. The beauty and the dangers of living with the wild ones here were revealed to me in a holy instant. The ache began to change, and it slowly spoke of the sweetness of a life more than just survived. 

     I attended the next meeting of the Rapatomac Writer’s Group – not coincidentally in January of a New Year. I listened attentively to a new story about the tattooed girl, the deer, and the lonely nightlife of a Southern country gentleman living with regret. I felt infinitely more than the ache as I listened while it gently encouraged me to share the electric stories of my own country life. I drove that black ribbon home with the ache quietly glowing within - more aware, more alert, and oh so grateful for the beauty and sacredness of all life.  

© 2006 RuthE Forrest All Rights Reserved


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