A Good Idea

A deer caught in a fence


in Life & Death • Illustrated by Bhavna Ganesan


“Is this a good idea?” I keep saying. Over and over: “Is this a good idea? Is this a good idea? Is this a good idea? Isthisagoodidea?” To Matt, though I’m not really asking; to myself, like I’m trying to cast a spell, pushing myself into action; to the deer, like it might understand this mantra as coming from someone who wants to help; out loud, like I want it noted on the public record, official statement that I can refer back to if — when? — it doesn’t go well, if this proves itself to indeed have not been a good idea

I’m thinking about these videos I’ve seen of someone rescuing a wild animal in need. The person helping always seems so caring, so good. So selfless, heroic, throwing themselves into action out of instinct. I’m thinking about how I want to be selfless, I want to be heroic, I want to be the kind of person who, when they see a deer stuck in a fence on the side of the road, springs into action to help it, rather than the passive person I so often actually am. But I’m thinking, too, in full disclosure, how I want to seem selfless and heroic and like the kind of person who, when an emergency arises, takes action. 

I take a couple of steps toward the deer, and it bucks. The deer is stuck in place, his antlers — He? I ask Matt; Antlers are male, right? Matt says, I think so? I answer, self-conscious I know about . . . deer, animals, the world locked in this crisscrossing wire fence. I retreat my couple of steps, back to where I started. When he settles, I move toward him again and this time he doesn’t react. A part of me thinks maybe he can tell I want to help, maybe he can sense my calm, my heroism, my goodness, but another part of me worries maybe he’s too in shock, or maybe too in pain, to buck his body up into the air again. Closer, I can make slightly better sense of the situation. The deer’s head has become almost attached to the gridded metal fence, his antlers pushed through one of the squares and now locked in, like a giant bone barbed hook. He looks a little like a deer in a diorama — “Deer in Accidental Trap” — only to every now and then startle me by suddenly flailing his body around, trying to wiggle his way free, having no idea how fences and traps works, barbs and locking mechanisms.  

“It’s ok,” I tell him, quiet, self-assured, calm. My new mantra. “It’s ok, it’s ok, it’sokbuddy,” unsure if I’m trying to calm and assure him or Matt or myself.           

“I can’t believe nobody has stopped,” Matt says. The deer almost definitely isn’t visible from the road, certainly not driving by at 35 mph — we barely noticed from our bikes before I slowed and circled back out of curiosity at what I’d caught in my periphery — but at this point, we’ve been standing here for maybe 15 minutes, our bikes tipped over on the ground around us, and it does seem a little surprising that nobody has stopped to make sure we’re okay, or even just slowed down to rubberneck at what we’re staring at.   

Matt’s going back and forth between looking at the deer and his phone. I don’t know if he’s texting his wife, updating her on this surprise predicament (“you won’t believe what’s happening right now!”); or a friend (“you won’t believe what’s happening right now!”); or maybe he’s googling what to do, which seems crazy but there’s a YouTube for nearly everything else, so why not how to free a deer with its antlers are stuck in a fence; or maybe he’s texting someone who he thinks might know what to do. I’m not sure who that would be or what advice they could possibly have. Matt and I have been going on these long bike rides once a week for the last six months and hanging out and going to metal shows together and sharing our writing with each other for years before that. I continue to be surprised by how often he still tells me something that surprises me — one day, during our lunch break on a long bike ride, he mentioned that he was scrolling fish tank Reddit and when I asked him to clarify he told me that at one point in high school he had five or six fish tanks. Another day, we started talking about trains and he told me he subscribes (currently!) to Trains magazine, and he will often drop in a little anecdote about his weekly online Dungeons and Dragons game, which is no longer surprising, but at some point, it probably was, and then one day he mentioned he also now had a weekly chess meetup. Later in the summer, I’ll help him with a little kitchen remodeling, then deck repair, and he’ll have a collection of power tools that I’ll find both surprising and admirable — so him knowing someone to text questions about what to do in this situation doesn’t seem impossible.  

“It’s too bad we aren’t on the other side,” Matt says now, thinking aloud. “Like maybe we could push him through, if we were behind him?” 

It’s a good idea. I look down the road to my right, and then start jogging, curious where and if and how the fence ends, if I indeed might be able to push him through from the other side. The distance of a city block or so down the road, there is a driveway and the fence ends. I circle around it and start jogging down a dirt driveway, back to where Matt and the deer are.  

I move toward the deer and grab his antlers, one in each hand. Almost like I’m learning how to drive, my hands at ten and two. Later, I’ll think about how this is probably the first time I’ve ever touched antlers — antlers still attached to a deer, anyway; an actual, live deer rather than one taxidermized and mounted, or wherever else I’ve maybe grabbed hold of antlers before — but right now, I’m thinking again about those videos of people releasing and freeing wild animals from the accidental traps they’ve gotten themselves into and how the animals seem to give themselves over to their savior in this moment of calm like they understand, but this deer keeps jerking and jumping and flopping around every time I get near, and only more so when I grab its antlers. 

I double my grip and we both calm and steady ourselves into the position, two wrestlers facing each other on the mat. I try to angle the antlers — and, really, the deer’s whole head — such that I can push him through and out, made easier from this side of the fence, but like a proper wrestling opponent committed to not letting himself get pinned, he keeps doing the opposite of what I want.  

He finally calms, a little, almost definitely more tired than calm, and I realize it wasn’t just him fighting against me, but his antlers don’t seem to actually fit through the fence, no matter what I do, how I move him, whether he cooperates or not. Letting go his antlers, I grab the fencing on either side of the trapped antler and try bending it, opening the hole. A couple times, I go back and forth between grabbing the antlers and trying to push them through and grabbing the fence and trying to open it wider. Nothing works. I’m feeling exhausted, defeated. I don’t know what else to do. I take a couple of steps back to consider and reconsider the situation and then, just as I’m ready to give it another go, even while also frustrated that I don’t know what else to do, he’s free. 


I did it! 

I saved the deer!! 

He flings himself away from the fence a step, maybe two, it’s all a fast blur of awkward motion, like a baby animal trying to take its first steps only at double speed, and then, just like a newborn not yet able to hold itself up, it collapses onto the ground. 

I come back around the way I came — running down, around the fence, back to Matt and our bikes laying on the side of the road and now the deer lying in the ditch where it hasn’t moved since flopping itself out and away from the fence, I freed it from.  

“I got a couple pics!” Matt says, and I say thanks, trying to be nonchalant and like I have manners and am appreciative, but not that much, I don’t really care, I wasn’t the whole time hoping he was doing exactly that, I wasn’t at all already thinking about sending the pics to friends, sharing them on social media, retelling this story about going on a bike ride and ending up saving a deer.  

“He hasn’t moved,” Matt adds, breaking me out of my headlining, main character, hero daydreams.  

“You think he’s in shock?” 

“Maybe? Probably?” 

We stand next to each other for a while, staring, waiting. I wouldn’t say praying, but I’m not sure I wouldn’t not say praying. 

We’re both in a kind of shock ourselves, both thinking and wondering the same things, I assume, though neither quite wanting to say them aloud and make them real.  

Once, twice, maybe three times the deer tries to get up, only to immediately fall down again. Each time, our watching blooms into a hopefulness, only to turn painful and hard to watch when it doesn’t go well. Each time, it becomes more and more obvious the deer is definitely in pain, not shock. A broken leg; broken legs, plural, maybe; broken neck? 

At some point, I wonder how long he may have been trapped in this fence. An hour? Hours? A full day? Could that be possible? I have the idea that he might be starving, and I remember Matt mentioning having an apple. 

“Hey,” I say. “Could I try to give him your apple?” 

“What? Sure.” 

“I’m thinking . . . I roll it down to him?” I say, my voice rising like a question, though it isn’t really. Or there is a question in there, but not the one I’m saying. What I’m really asking is, what do you think about that? Is that a dumb idea? Do you have a better one? Later — the right now of me writing this, in fact — it will feel ridiculously dumb, almost to the point of embarrassment at admitting to it, but in the right now of the moment itself, I’m pretty proud of the idea. I wouldn’t say I think it is my smartest idea ever, but I probably wouldn’t not say it either. “He’s probably starving,” I continue. “Right? Who knows how long he’s been here?” 

Matt hands me his apple.  

“My thinking is . . .” I say again. “I roll the apple down toward him, hopefully within reach? It’ll give him something to eat and we can see if he’s mobile enough to get it and eat it?”  

I take the apple and try to do what I was envisioning and just explained — I roll it down toward him. I have a sudden flash of having rolled it too hard and it hitting the deer in the head, the last thing it needs right now, on top of everything else. The apple stops almost as perfectly placed as possible, right in front of his face. I swell with pride. I want to celebrate and brag, though it feels a weird moment to do so. I think about how, before COVID shut us down, I was in a bowling league; I wasn’t great, but I was good, and I liked it for one of the reasons I like many things: I was good enough to feel proud of and brag about how good I was for how little I actually did it.  

The deer doesn’t move. 

Fuck, I think. 

The deer is laying there on the ground, completely motionless, looking pitiful. His eyes meet mine and I wonder if he’s trying to tell me something — assuring me he’ll be ok, he just needs to rest; thanking me for rescuing him; begging for me to put him out of his misery — or maybe he’s in too much pain or shock or something and doesn’t even know we’re making eye contact. I think about how I have had Boston Terriers, and someone told me dog eye contact triggers the release of oxytocin, the hormone responsible for love and bonding, and so Boston’s (and Frenchie’s, and the similar) big, protruding eyes especially lend themselves to that. I think about this piece of trivia from when my stepdaughter was little, how horses have the largest eyes of any land mammal. I think about this giant eye looking at me right now, all that circumference bonding me to this helpless animal. 

“Fuck,” I say out loud — to Matt, to the deer, to myself, to the world and how hard it can all sometimes be.  

I know what this means. I probably knew before but had been holding onto hope; I hadn’t let myself admit and, in fact, for the next five or ten or maybe even thirty minutes, Matt and I both continue to not let ourselves admit it, to cling to hope. We wonder what we should do, we talk about different plans of action, different outcomes, various ways this might go, but it feels like we’re avoiding the obvious, postponing the inevitable.  

Matt calls the Humane Shelter, and they tell him if this were a fawn they might be able to intercede but with an adult deer, there isn’t really anything they can do. Matt calls Animal Control and they tell him this isn’t really their jurisdiction either. So, finally, Matt calls the local sheriff’s station and describes our situation and then they go back and forth a lot trying to explain just where we are, and then we’re waiting and waiting and waiting some more, and wondering if we even need to stick around, and asking each other if we should leave and just get on with the rest of our bike ride and telling each other we should probably stay just so the cop can find us, all while knowing, of course, we’re going to stay, we’re still both curious just how this is going to go. 

“Have you ever been hunting?” I ask Matt. 

“No. You?” 

“Nuh uh. I went skeet shooting a handful of times a few summers ago with some friends. It was super fun. I actually was pretty good! Have you ever shot a gun?” 

Matt tells me that he did, and we talk a little about shooting guns and I think about my friends being surprised at how good I was for someone who’d never been before. Again, I think about this aspect of myself, how I am great at few, if any things, but I’m pretty good at most things and, even more, I think about how much I enjoy people’s surprise when I’m good at something that I haven’t done before. And then finally a sheriff’s SUV pulls over to the side of the road and parks. 

The cop gets out of his car and comes over and talks to us a little bit and then says we can go ahead and head out, we don’t need to stick around just to watch. I say of course, of course and although it is morbid, I realize some part of me at least a little had wanted to stick around to watch, just because it wasn’t something I’d seen before, I kind of wanted this new experience, but saying that out loud seems weird. I get on my bike and turn around and see the cop putting in ear plugs, and it makes me think of going to metal shows with Matt and getting older and then the cop unholsters his gun and then Matt and I are back on our bikes riding away. 

Where Matt and I had stopped for the deer was at the bottom of a pretty long hill, one of the longer, steeper hills on our mostly pretty flat Midwest bike rides. It’s a struggle getting back into the momentum of riding, but it feels good too, this distracting physical activity and the reason for us being out together today in the first place. Then we’re at the top of hill and I hear the gunshot and even as far away as we are, I’m surprised just how loud it is. I turn around and look at Matt and make eye contact and bug out my eyes at him like, wild, right? 

As we keep riding, I think about mortality and unforeseen circumstances and the sadness and grief and tragedy that life can contain, but I think, too, about the stories we tell. What we do with these events in our lives, how we tell them to ourselves, to others. I think about the pictures Matt took of me “saving” the deer and I wonder what they look like. I wonder what I look like in them. I’m already thinking about telling friends all about it. It didn’t go as expected or hoped, but it’s still a pretty great story. I’m not the hero, but I tried to be.  

The rest of the ride oscillates back and forth between our totally normal, weekly bike ride and talking through the experience.  

Hours later, I get home, and start typing out the story to my group chat with my buddies.  

< “Saved” this deer from being stuck in this fence on today’s bike ride. (But then, once free, it couldn’t stand up or walk and so my buddy called animal control and they said to call the sheriff and so we did, and a guy came and . . . stopped it’s suffering. ??? . . . >   

I keep deleting, retyping, moving words around. I’m trying to figure out how to word it all just right, and then I get a text in a different group chat, from Matt to me and another buddy.  

< Aaron saved a deer but then a cop shot it in the head. > 

I guess that works, too, I think.  

And then a couple of pictures come through of me in the woods, on the other side of the fence from the deer. They’re not the best pictures — a little blurry, kind of camouflaged through the trees I’m behind — but I’m glad Matt sent them. Glad he took them in the first place. That moment frozen in time when anything still might be possible. I look at myself — one hand on an antler, the other on the fence, trying un-trap one from the other. I look pretty good. Kind of modestly heroic, even. 


Aaron Burch is the Founding Editor of Hobart (and, more recently, its spinoff journals, HAD and WAS) and the author of Backswing, a story collection, and Stephen King's The Body, a nonfiction book about the novella that was the basis for Stand By Me. He currently teaches Writing at the University of Michigan. His first novel, YEAR OF THE BUFFALO, will be released in Fall 2022.