She never had a chance.

If outmaneuvering a car in the dark is a skill you must learn to survive, then the young coyote I struck sometime after midnight last week never had a chance. In the instant that mattered more than any other, she was off by that split-second that separates life from death, and we collided there.

She leapt right into it but I had already arrived. And no matter how adept a driver I might have been, the nano-second I needed to react slipped away faster than my impulse to turn the steering wheel the small slice of its circumference that could have meant the lithe animal would have been spared.

I knew before I had even cleared her body she was dead, surely; she had turned into the grille at the very last moment. She had done her best to dodge the vast hurtling thing with bright eyes that roared out of the darkness just as she had spurned the shelter of the scrub in the median and meant to make her move into the tidal marsh.

Before our paths intersected, she made that swift back-and-forth dance step of a stressed animal trying to evade an impossibly powerful predator. She leapt into the road, stopped, felt the dread of the car coming, took one step forward and made the mortal mistake of turning back. She looked back but had not even enough time to lift her paw to turn. Her instinct to retreat was her final, fatal impulse.

And then it was over.

I heard that sickening second, in which circumstance unfolds in a way counter to the animal urge to survive, felt her bones and flesh tearing under the body of the SUV and recognized the inexorable consequences. I didn’t have to check on her; I knew an animal that had achieved 35 or 40 pounds could not withstand the force of a fast-moving killer nearly 100 times her size and speed.

But I returned to the point of impact.

I pulled onto the shoulder, my tires thumping loudly in the deserted night air, my headlights lumination enough to locate myself and focus her stilled form in the dark. I wanted to get her off the road, take her for burial in the woods behind the house. I had all the necessary equipment for my sentimental intention — a snow shovel still stowed in the back; thick black compactor bags; a couple of towels and a heavy blanket to lift her out of her spilled, strewn life.

But I knew the ritual would be lengthy and messy and heart-breaking — dangerous, too, in the ashen light of the highway. I didn’t want any more trouble, even in my sorrow, for myself or other unsuspecting travelers.

So I did the little that could be done. I got out of the car, and during one of the long stretches of quiet that reigns in the middle of the night on the interstate, I dashed across the lanes to the point from which she had risen and checked to be certain her suffering was over.

She was finished.

But even in the insubstantial glow of the headlights aimed away from her, I could see her thick, lush fur ruffle in the night breeze, the only movement her body was still capable of executing, now that nature, human nature, had swept her out of the equation of living.

I stared at her young, strong limbs, the taut appearance of her body, both revealing that the place death struck was the prime of her life, an attainment now meaningless and missing, except that it fell on my mind and bled into my mood, bringing a self-indulgent grieving that she was gone.

You don’t forget it when you kill an animal, especially one from your own class, a mammal, whose physical form is not entirely foreign and whose ways seem oddly like your own — warm-blooded and wily, hunters and killers, living to mate and reproduce, rearing young and in time letting them go.

Thus, invariably, I met myself in the roadway and felt the human emotion that separates us from the canids — guilt, remorse, regret and marvel. It was an accident and poor timing that had made us both refugees of a terrible moment in the dark, the coyote and me. But it also had fueled the possibility — for me — of standing an arm’s length away, in awe of an animal, typically bold, that is ordinarily too smart and stealthy to come so near, except to serve its own opportunistic ends.

For a lonely moment, I felt I had slaughtered one of my own.

But I had my own lair to reach, and another canine waiting, and the small details of my own existence to attend to in that part of life’s median that I occupy till instinct or obligation makes me move. The admiration for a distant acquaintance and serving as instrument and witness to its end were the best I could do in my weary sadness at the far edge of the evening.

I went home.

The coyote was carried elsewhere, bound up in the natural rule of its ecosystem — carrion birds and bugs that would feed on it, maggots that would help strip it down further, to bone.

The body was still there the next day, but someone or something had dragged it out of the passing lane and left it at the boundary of wild briar and scrub from which it had tried to travel the night before.

What can you say to death except “life goes on”? And how is it that affirmation can so easily be turned on itself, a cruel sentence because of its cost?

I have run out of easy answers, one more attribute to wed my fate with the coyote that miscalculated and paid a precious price — a swift end.

The quick and the dead we are, here together, denying the mortality that brings the balance we require to endure. There is order more authoritative than human invention or the agility of a dominant animal. It is waiting in the dark just around the bend.

North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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