I was roller-skiing last weekend on one of the roads outside the village of East Aurora. It was a brilliant afternoon and I was enjoying the skies and the impressions they brought me. I often think about what I'm working on as I work out, and that day I was working on a haiku, a little mournful verse about the death of a musician I admired. I skied that route at the start of the summer on the day after hearing of Chris Squire's death. It was while I was reflecting upon the music his band made and replaying in my mind’s ear one of its many transcendent passages that I saw scores of white birds rise from an open field into clouds as bright as they were.
That poem has to be just right, not overdone in any way but yet full enough so people sense what's going on. That's tricky with 17 syllables. It seems to get smoother – and I get closer to its essence – every time I do this route on one of those sunny/clouded days. When it stops evolving I will probably be ready to let it fly like those white birds on the day of the initial vision.
As I had those thoughts for the dozenth time on that route, I felt a quick sting on the outside of my left knee and figured that something had got me. I slapped and looked down in the same instant, and saw my gloved hand just catch an inch-long, sandy green horsefly and knock it to the rough greyness inside the white line at the edge of the road. I could clearly see it flopping and spinning like a crashed helicopter.
I hate things that attack me out of nowhere, but I hate suffering more. A quick death is the worst anything deserves. I stopped, turned, and headed back to make sure the blastie was dead. I wanted a look at it anyway. I didn’t know horseflies came in khaki.
Right where I expected the stunned stinger to be was some still critter about the same size. I ran it over with my left front wheel and heard a little crunch. My momentum took me a few yards past it again, and as I resumed my course and came back, I saw with a tremor of regret that this was not the bug that had stung me. It was a cricket that had come out of the field to our south and chosen to freeze in place on the roadside exactly where I expected the villain to be. I had missed its upper quarters, and I saw its feeble foreleg waving in the air as if bidding goodbye to this form of its existence. I ran its body over quickly, ending its struggles with a pop.
As I strode and poled away, I was troubled. I hate killing anything, and I realized that I had altered the the world by taking an innocent life. I speculated on the possible repercussions to the great balance of things. I also resolved to remember the incident and, if life gave me a shot anytime soon, not to consider myself blameless.
Like one of those unhappy thoughts or images we can't get out of our minds, I returned to the incident several times later that day, weighing the silliness of pity for something that didn't know it was alive, a creature without emotion or speculation, made in flocks to fill the bellies of predators and splat the windows of cars. I guess I was most stricken to have interfered with its destiny, unless of course, I had fulfilled it. But it was not my place to know that, and I did not feel that I had the right to act as I had. I resolved for the millionth time to be better, to rise above my lesser impulses, to pay the universe back. The only exact reparation I could think of was bringing that life back, which seemed impossible. I thought about that on and off during the day and came to no resolution.
It was near full dark that evening when I pulled into my driveway. I opened the back driver-side door, slung the laptop-bag over my shoulder, and took a few items into my arms. I turned out of the angle of the open door, shut it behind me with a backward kick, stuck a leg out for a step, and looked down. A bit of moonlight came from behind me to the south and made many small shadow-forms in the gravel at my feet. One of them shuddered as my left foot was about to fall on it. I swung my leg quickly and planted it awkwardly to the side, almost spilling my burdens. My laptop swung around to my waist and nearly pulled me over.
The little dark form was a toad, even smaller than its playing-card shadow made it look. For it, the gravel was a field of boulders. It hopped tentatively toward the lawn to my right and the wood past it. I felt a wave of thanksgiving that something had saved me from taking a second life that day, and this one a higher form that I would have pitied so much more. I wondered if that could have been the universe's way of rewarding my remorse and giving me the chance of reparation. I breathed a second prayer of thanks.
That night I sat on the deck and listened to the natural sounds of the night. I wrote a good while in my journal before falling asleep. I wanted to be sure that the day would not end with me missing something I might have been taught.