How do you explain to your six-year-old daughter, who stays with you two weekends a month, that you killed a dog? That while you were returning from market in the van—you driving, she sleeping—a dog ran into the road, and you hit it.
The driver has just turned thirty and thought the number would protect him from such uncertainty, from social awkwardness of all kinds, but now he squats in the gravel shoulder of a country road, holding a bleeding dog’s head.
The thud of the impact woke his daughter from her late afternoon slumber. Her mouth formed the word, “What?” as he pulled over.
“Stay in your seat,” he told her. “I’ll investigate.” He still felt thirty years old.
But now, left with the certainty that the dog’s breath is not warming his hand—the dog no longer has breath—he feels his maturity running low. Paralyzed as he is by the question, he may as well be the same age as his daughter.
At home with her mother, his daughter has three cats and a dog. When the man visits his friends, and his daughter goes along by default, she sits rapt for hours stroking their pets. He is grateful for a chance to talk to adults. Though sometimes the long days with chickens and crops for company leave his mouth empty of words and he decides to cut out early. The last time this happened, his daughter refused to leave. She forced him to stay another half hour so she could pet a Siamese who hissed every five minutes. His daughter was not deterred by the hissing, just lifted her hand until the animal resettled herself, then resumed petting. She went home without a scratch on her.
Now the man looks at the dog more closely. No collar. Nondescript breed and color. Not a dog he has seen before, though he has driven by this field of new rye before. Earlier, in summer, corn was grown and the dried husks, turned back into the soil, glow in the setting sun. The man doesn’t know the grower, but he admires his methods.
The man looks across the field for a house or clue where the dog lives, but sees nothing beyond the field of rye. Narrowing his vision back to the road, he checks the dog one last time. Nothing. Just mangled fur and blood, thanks to him, to his slow reflexes and bad brakes.
The man lifts the dog, one arm under each set of paws, and moves the cooling body to the side of the road. Maybe his people will find him there, settled amongst the green shoots of rye. The shoots stand only six inches high, but the sun is so low that they cast a long shadow, fingers of new growth reaching across the dog’s body.
The dog’s shadow looms monstrous, covering the gravel shoulder and stretches all the way back to the spot of road stained with his blood.
He glances back at the van and sees his daughter’s face pressed against her window. She has stayed in her seat, but watched every move. She knows.
He walks back to the van to write a note. He is prepared with a ream of brown wrapping paper he keeps in the cab for making impromptu signs at market. Before he can reach for the green marker he carries, his daughter says, “Dad?” She sees the blood staining his jacket and her brown eyes stretch wide, her neck freezes in a twisting posture that makes her look like a wild animal.
“What happened to the dog?”
“Be right back,” the man says. He wishes then that he is forty years old, instead of only thirty. Perhaps another decade would give him the words he needs for his daughter. He wishes too for another adult—his parents, his daughter’s mother—they would know the right thing to do. The right thing is not returning to the dog right now, he knows that much, but he needs more time.
He lets the question play and replay as he scrawls on the page.
He writes, “I’m sorry I hit your dog. He ran right into the road, and I couldn’t stop in time. He died after impact, and I moved him to the field. Beautiful rye!”
He signs his name, proceeded by the word “love.” Then he adds the name of his farm, just five miles down the road, in case anyone wants to see him about the accident. He tucks the paper around the paws that aren’t bleeding and lets the dog’s dead weight hold it.
Then he turns back to the van where his daughter sits staring, her neck still frozen in that crazy twist. He motions to her to roll down the window. She hesitates, then cranks it down.
He says her name, that beautiful name her mother picked. He remembers the night he agreed to the name, imagining a life where they would call their daughter that together. Now he stands by the side of the road and says the name alone.
His daughter doesn’t move.
“Eden?” He says her name again, then the truth, the truth that was so easy to write to whomever knew and loved the dog. “I’m sorry I hit the dog.”
She won’t look at him. She’s staring into the field at the motionless animal.
“Eden?” he says, beseeches her to look at him. When she refuses to turn her head, he says, “It was an accident, and the dog died. I’m sorry.”
His daughter knows what death means. At the farm, she has seen chickens, killed by foxes at night, being torn apart and eaten by their former coopmates by day. But this is not such a violent, cannibalizing death, just an accident, just a dog who ran at the wrong time, and a man who couldn’t stop until it was too late.
“He’s at peace now,” the man says, the words coming to him from a deep, familiar place. “He’s at eternal rest.”
Yet, he looks back across the field, the sun tucking down behind the farthest hill, and knows that if the dog’s people don’t come before the turkey vultures, things will get messy and there will be dog organs and guts strewn everywhere, just like the dead chickens back at the farm.
Then he realizes too, the origin of his words. That Baptist funeral he went to the week before for his ninety-seven-year-old neighbor. Ninety-seven. That woman knew a lot. He wanted to hear about that, how she really knew how to live, but it was just some man she’d never known giving the same speech he gave every time.
He curses himself for repeating these meaningless words to his daughter. He had wanted her to grow up knowing only peace and love, milk and honey. Wasn’t it bad enough that he was driving around killing dogs? He didn’t have to infuse her with Baptist preacher-talk on top of it.
“Eden,” he whispers, and she finally moves, pulls at her long wild hair, putting in the tangles he can never comb out or explain to her mother.
He takes off his jacket so his daughter won’t have to look at the blood while he drives, then rolls it up, and places it into an empty vegetable box. He hops up into his seat and turns to see if she’ll let him hug her, but she hangs back.
Then they both look up and see the sunset shooting off across the horizon and the long trails of red look like nothing but streaks of blood.
A week later, the man is returning from market alone, the sun setting in his line of vision, when a shape bounds across the road.
A moment or two passes, and he wakes up and realizes he’s been in an accident. His foot has left the clutch, and the van is stalled. Everything has gone dark, and at first he thinks he’s blacked out so long that the sun has set, but then he sees that the hood of the van is crumpled against the windshield so that he can no longer see out. His ear is ringing from an object that’s flown off the dash and struck him. Turning, he sees empty vegetable and egg boxes tipped from his careful stacks and tumbled across the back of the van.
He checks himself for soreness, but other than the ringing ear, he feels fine. He says a prayer of thanks that he was alone, that the small body of his daughter was not strapped into the backseat.
Adrenaline takes over and he jumps down from the van, looking for the cause of collision. He remembers the shape, then sees a deer, bounding along the top of a farmer’s field. The animal darts into the distant woodlot and disappears.
The man looks closer at the field and recognizes the shoots of rye, the freshness of the green in the otherwise brown, November landscape. Yes, it is the same field, the rye an inch higher, but he is a quarter mile closer to home from where he collided the week before.
He walks around the van and surveys the damage, amazed that an animal could crumple the hood onto the windshield and still run away.
On the passenger side of the van, he sees a dirt driveway with an old-time farm collie guarding the mailbox.
“Salut,” he says, his greeting to all dogs.
The collie doesn’t move or bark, but his green eyes, catching the light of the still-setting sun, see everything.
The way he’s staring, the man knows that no matter how many years he accumulates, they will not give him the right answers for his daughter. She will always have more questions.