Acadian Lines milk run from North Sydney to Halifax, March, 1986. The thunder of giant radials on crumbling, icy pavement. Somewhere outside Whycocomagh, closing in on nine pm. Late, so late. And so far to go. Everyone is tired, grumbling. Cigarette smoke fills the length of the bus, tumbles around in the vortices induced in the air by concentrated Caper-accented speech. Thick snow threads the darkness beyond the rattling window, weaves itself into horizontal illusions of forward momentum, but you know otherwise. This bus is going nowhere, you can feel it. The driver curses. He has the heat turned up too high. Your temple is pressed against the window, seeking transdermal cooling from the great, passing beyond. Condensation trickles from the glass into your hair, and for a moment, the snow outside parts and you see a house at the side of the narrow highway. A little house, a government-issue Mi’kmaq dwelling. An oil tank on stilts in front of it with the family name painted on its face in dripping black Tremclad: The GooGoo’s, complete with the improper possessive apostrophe people always seem so compelled to add to their pluralized surnames. Then it’s gone, and the streaming snow closes in again, streaks past in howling defiance. Optical illusions.
The driver curses forth a fresh froth of acid verbiage, tilts in his seat as he jerks the big wheel, slams a Kodiaked foot onto the brake pedal. The explosive hiss of the air brakes overrides the sharp, simultaneous intake of the breath of sixty-five souls. The careening slalom of the bus going into a fishtail. Now screams. This is it — you’re headed for the ditch. Get your face away from the glass, now. But he gets it under control, spins the steering like a roulette wheel, stops it on black. You’re ten rows back but you can still see out the front windshield, and in the dull yellow glow of the headlamps you see a sleek, dark shadow streak past. Two shadows, and then, just as the big bus is guttering to a stop on the gravel shoulder, there is the thud — muffled and indistinct, the sound of snow falling off a church roof into an abandoned parking lot. The driver loses himself, utters the biggie. It snaps out of him, uncurls into the thick air of the cabin and cleaves into everybody like an axe into a maple chopping block. FUCK! He jigs the gearstick in spastic rhythms. Gears grind. Another great, geyser-like hiss as the brakes release and the backup alarm begins to chirp. He’s reversing, taking the big cruiser back a few metres. He parks it, locks it, stands up and swipes a hand across his brow. Announces a slight delay and would everyone please stay in their seats while he steps outside for a moment.
He leaves and the nattering begins, the theatrical and indecipherable murmur of everyone talking at once. Whathappened?Atire. Radiator,prolly. SawsomethingYousee something? Hitsomething. Hit.Hit.Hitsomething.Hitsomeone. Hit. Someone? Hit.Hit.Wha’dwehit? Notwhat,who. Whothen? Indin?ProllyIndinRounHere. Theygetdrunk.Drunk. DrunkHitADrunk. DrunkIndian. PoorBasta. HitDrunkIndYouHearThatDrunkIndinHitDrunkHitHITHit– Until somebody ignores the driver’s orders, gets up, exits the bus. You can see the heads of the two men standing outside in front of the bus, aglow in light, awash in spiraling snow. The disobedient man lights two cigarettes behind a cupped hand, offers one to the driver who takes it. They walk in small circles, smoking, heads turned downward, examining that which was hit. Then the driver flicks his cigarette away into the unseen, climbs back onto the bus. He hesitates a moment before speaking, stands grim and silent at the front of the bus, snow melting on his shoulders in the cabin’s heat, steam rising from his head. There’s a preacher’s sheen ruddy in his cheeks. This is his pulpit, and his congregation awaits. “Folks,” he begins, then pauses to wipe a dribble of translucent snot from beneath his nose. “Folks, we’ve hit a deer. I’m going to have to call the Department of Lands and Forests and they’ll have to send out an agent to take care of the carcass. I can’t just leave it here, so we’re gonna have to wait until he gets here before we can go on. Plus, I’m not sure we can go on in this bus, because I think it might be damaged. I can’t tell good enough, so I’ll have to check with my superiors to see what they want to do. I’m gonna make these calls now up here on my radio, but I’m gonna have to ask everybody to please stay in their seats and remain on the bus, okay? That’s important. We’ll get you home as quickly as we can, I promise. All right?”
And again the verbal barrage begins. It’s not all right. Everybody’s got a question. Everybody’s got a reason to get home now. You turn your head back to the side window, the snow swirling outside, the shallow dimple of the ditch barely visible in the peripheral glitter of the headlights, and further ahead, the sharp imprints of deer travel cutting through the snow and disappearing into the trees beyond. You don’t want to look out that front windshield. Already the heads in front of you are popping up above the seatbacks, craning to get a view of the dead — or dying — deer. You’re nineteen years old and you’ve never seen death. At least, not fresh death. Not present at the moment. The requisite cat and dog corpses discovered by your friends in ditches along the train tracks when you were a kid. The swinging carrion of deer and moose hanging bloated and slit-bellied from beneath the eaves of your hunter neighbour’s garage, filling your nights with horrorshow dreams, yes. But you’ve never seen the life fade from the eyes of a living creature, and those other things are in the distant past now, the stuff of childhood, and life seems too fresh and urgent and squirming with vibrancy. You don’t want to see death.
So you remain in your seat. The driver makes his calls. The bus line says if the bus can move then drive on to Port Hawkesbury where they will switch the passengers over to a new bus. The Department of Lands and Forests says they’ll send somebody right away. Everybody waits. Drinks from tin flasks and glass mickeys. Smokes. Jokes fly around. “Lemme ou’ thair,” some drunk calls amiably. “I’ll get ‘er all sliced up nice and tuck ‘er in me luggage, take home some winter meat. The missus’ll be grateful.” Titters and guffaws. Some people begin singing something that sounds like a shanty.
In about thirty minutes the Lands and Forests guy shows up in his pickup truck, orange lights strobing upon the roof. Gives the okay for the bus to depart. He’ll clean up, he says. He’ll put her out of her misery. And so your heart goes sick. The deer is still alive, has been suffering out there all this time. As the bus pulls away into the snow you see the ranger pulling a rifle from the cab of his pickup, but you can’t see the deer. He has blocked her in with his truck, giving her a last moment of privacy, of wild dignity. When you disembark in Port Hawkesbury, you will see the dent in the front grille of the bus, the cracked headlight, the bright splash of crimson tracking across the galvanized steel in thin, windblown trails. The lifeblood of the deer, frozen and faint. Waiting to be hosed away.
The bus gears up and accelerates. The driver is really going to boot it, now. It’s extremely late. It’s going to be a wild ride, snow and ice be damned. He’s hunched over the wheel in concentration, shoulders rigid and mountainous beneath his parka. He tromps down on the pedals like a mad organist lost in the contrapuntal intricacies of a fugue.
You don’t hear the shot, though everyone is silent now, perhaps all listening for it. You focus instead on the reflection of your face in the dark glaze of the window glass. And on the white tempest that whips by beyond it.