The sun has not yet cracked the tree line. Its blush is just beginning to show when I step out onto the front porch to gauge the day. The air is close and the bird song is clear. Whatever I hear, see, feel today, I will hear, see, feel sharply. This much I know.
I must leave home early this morning for court in Jenkins County. I will cross the Ogeechee River to get there and it occurs to me — as it has countless times over these many years — that whenever I leave Bulloch County to go to Effingham or Jenkins or Screven, whenever I “ride the circuit,” as we used to say, I always have to cross the river.
That thought is especially poignant today, All Saints’ Day. The day on which the Christian church remembers all those who have died in the faith. The day on which “Shall We Gather at the River” is the hymn of choice and no one seems to notice that using a river as the metaphor for the afterlife sounds more than vaguely like Styx and Greek mythology.
In this thoughtful and near-melancholy state — a mile and a half from home, but still on the dirt road — I am jolted by a flicker of movement off to the right. I slow an already slow car to allow the deer I cannot see yet to cross my path. He bounds from the field edge, over the ditch, hitting the road once with his hard hooves and bounding into the woods on the other side. Before I can accelerate, a squirrel who could have easily been crushed by one of those hooves, darts across the road in the opposite direction.
I pause for a moment, my foot on the brake, to consider what I’ve just observed. One large animal, one small, spurred to movement simultaneously. Both panicked into moving directly into the path of danger. Neither would have been at any risk from me or the 3,500 pounds of metal and plastic I was navigating had he simply remained where he was — deer in the open field, squirrel in the underbrush. Neither would have found his heart thumping wildly, his extremities quivering had he kept still and allowed the traffic — albeit a single car — to simply flow on by.
I wonder how many times I have been the deer, the squirrel. How many times I’ve heard an unfamiliar noise and responded to it with fear just because it was unfamiliar, not because I had any reason to believe I was in peril.
I drive on. I cross the river. I go to court. I cross it again on my way back. I don’t notice it, not even the sign.
My thoughts are preoccupied with the deer and the squirrel and the paradox upon which I’ve stumbled as I consider that they ran from opposite directions. The side of the road from which the deer escaped was the side to which the squirrel ran for cover. The side from which the squirrel was flushed in fear was the side on which the deer found camouflage. Can both sides be simultaneously safe and dangerous?
I drive on and the paradox morphs into the tender idea that leaving doesn’t always have to be about avoiding danger and arriving doesn’t always have to be about seeking safety. Sometimes it’s not even about leaving and arriving. Sometimes it is simply about the crossing itself. About the spot exactly halfway across the bridge where the view is better there than anywhere else. About the moment when all four of the deer’s hooves are in the air and he is, without a feather to his name, flying.
So, yes, we will gather at the river. And with any luck, we will cross it by leaping straight into the sky.