Ronna and I weren't feeling well when we left Big Bend National Park that Sunday morning anyway. After a serious bout of food poisoning, we had bailed from the Basin campground to the Motor Lodge on Saturday morning. That afternoon and evening are only hazy memories as we slept most of it and stumbled around the room in a feverish daze. On Sunday morning, we tried to eat something for breakfast at the lodge restaurant but failed. So, unfortunately, we left the Park with empty, growling, backed-up stomachs and piercing headaches. I think Ronna still had a fever, too. She drove the rental car, though, and was careful to watch the speed limit. There weren't many other cars on the road and we made good time. We admired the startling green of the desert around us as we clipped along. The rains had been generous this Autumn and even now the sky was a mottled blue-ish gray. As we drove, we chatted a little, mostly about the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday and our trips to Dallas to celebrate it with family.

About half an hour later, Ronna jerked the car abruptly to the left in order to avoid a roadrunner that was lying in the road. She apologized for the jolt and I assured her it was fine. But my words stuck in my throat. We hadn't hit the bird, but someone before us had hit it and failed to kill it. The poor thing was still alive and fluttering, trying to get up on its legs so it could fly away. I said, "Ronna, that bird is alive. We have to go back". She pulled over to the side of the road. We sat for a minute. I told her "We have to finish it. We can't let it die like that". She nodded, the tears beginning to flow. "I'll do it", I said, my own tears starting to run, "You go ahead and get out of the car". She nodded again and got out. She wouldn't look at me, but instead stared off into the desert to the East. I don't know what she was thinking as I crossed the street and sat in the driver's seat.

I shifted the car into gear and turned around on the road. Ahead, on the left, I could see the bird still flopping pathetically on its crumpled legs. I drove up to it and stopped, opening the door so I could look down on it from the right-hand lane. It was a beautiful bird, big and strong, with bright black eyes and sand-colored feathers. The poor thing was crazed with pain, and it fluttered desperately, trying to stand up. But its legs were snapped and useless. They were bent back on themselves like twigs. I can't imagine what that poor bird was feeling at that moment that I stopped and looked down at it. Helplessness, I should think, and an overwhelming fear of me. I stared at it, trying to be sure I was doing the right thing, trying to remember if I knew how to wring its neck. That would be more merciful than running it over with the car as I had intended. But it had a really short neck and I knew that I would only injure it further with my clumsy attempts to be merciful.

Then the bird looked straight at me. As it held my gaze, it stopped flapping, gathered its wings about its body, and put its head down on the road. It was alive, but it knew it was really just moments from death. I think it had had enough. I think in that moment that it accepted me as its predator. It was strangely calm as it continued looking up at me from its submissive position on the asphalt. "Right, then", I told it, "You take a look around, bird, because in 30 seconds you won't be able to see this beautiful day and you won't be part of this rare, windy, awesome desert anymore. But neither will you be in pain, nor will you suffer a slow death at the hands of a buzzard".

I slammed the car door. I gassed it down the road about a hundred feet, turned around, and lined up my passenger-side wheel with the bird's upper body. I took a breath, hit the gas and yelled out at the top of my lungs. I wanted to close my eyes but I didn't. I wish I could have closed my ears, though. Logically, I knew that there would be a 'thump' when the wheel hit the bird's body. In reality, though, it was a sickening 'pop' that I shall never forget. I didn't look back. I knew the deed was done and that I had done it. I had killed a lovely living creature, with its consent. I stopped the car near Ronna and got out. More than anything I wanted to throw myself into her arms and cry and beg forgiveness (for what, I'm not sure), but I didn't feel like I deserved it. I was disgusted with all of humankind. For building machines that kill, for racing around in vehicles like we own the world, for being stupid enough to hit a bird and not kill it. I know that the anger and shame I felt wasn't rational. But I felt it just the same. What kind of world is this where innocent animals suffer like that? Why did Ronna and I have to be the ones to come upon that injured bird - two of the most ill-equipped murderers you'll ever meet? Ronna didn't say anything as she put the car in gear and pulled away from the site. I wondered if she hated me, I wondered if she thought that I didn't mind doing what I had just done. I was unable to speak, though, for a long time, as the sobs were choking me. I didn't want to cry. I had walnuts in my throat. I could hardly breathe. I shrunk inside my skin, feeling like I was living inside a shell of a body, with half an inch of space between what was really 'me', and the physical manifestation of 'me'.

Eventually we started talking. We commented on little things, like the caterpillars in the road. The horror we had just lived was an unspoken entity sitting between us, unacknowledged. I was so grateful when she did start to talk to me. She said that I was right, that it had to happen. I explained (to whom, I wonder) that a roadrunner that cannot run is not going to fly again because I don't think they can just take off from a standstill. I think they need to take a couple of steps. And we agreed that it was a quick death, which was better than a slow drawn-out pecking from a buzzard. I wondered if it had time to look around before it died. I wondered if it had my image emblazoned on it eyes, the car looming towards it at speeds that must have been unfathomable to it. And then darkness. I hoped it didn't suffer too much.

Ronna was still very sick when we arrived in Midland, She tried to get an earlier flight out but the airlines could not accommodate her and so she endured four hours alone at the airport after I left. Poor thing. I don't know how she passed the time. I got on my plane, choking back the knots in my throat, waving good-bye to her. What a strange "vacation" that was.

I cried several times on the plane but everyone was really nice to me. I think they thought I must have come from a funeral or something. I'm glad no one asked. I could barely speak when we arrived in Las Vegas. I found my next gate and called Al for moral support. But when he answered the phone, my throat constricted and I couldn't speak to him. Eventually, I squeaked out the I had something to tell him, something that I needed help filing away in my psyche, something horrible I had done. When he got the whole story, he was devastated. We talked for an hour on my cell phone about the horrors of being human, about the curse of the knowledge of our impending death; about the responsibility we have to do no harm to this world around us, and about how this is indeed a cruel world to little things. He'd put a mouse out of its misery one day, but never talked much about it until that day. At least the mouse had met its end in a more natural way, as the prey of a cat. The poor roadrunner was just running along in the desert.

Anyway, he talked me into a state where I could get on the plane and I managed not to sob during the flights I had left. I arrived in Seattle weak from hunger and illness, and half crazy from shouldering my part of the human debt. When I die, if I am admitted to any kind of audience with a Creator who claims to be in charge of all of this down here, I'm going to have a question for Him. Why? And why me, specifically? What was the point of that experience? What was I supposed to learn from that? Who benefited? Why were these things permitted to happen? These are tough questions. I hope He puts his arms around my shoulder and takes this sadness and pain from me because I don't deserve it. And sometimes in the middle of the night I'm not at all certain that I can bear it along for all of my years. I will, though, because I don't have a choice.

If anyone has any insight into how I'm supposed to process this kind of horror, please write me and tell me because I think the memory of that bird may make me insane someday. I try not to imagine what it felt, lying there on the road, looking at the bushes that represented safety, feeling the wind in its feathers, wondering what was wrong with its legs. I try not to wonder if it knew what that fast-approaching dark shape was or how it felt when the tires first contacted its head.

I know that things happen everyday which are more horrible than this. I also know that every hour of every day, animals are hit by cars. I have hit them myself and I feel terrible and cry when I do. But those are accidents. They aren't like this situation, which forced me to assume the position of cold-blooded murder or face a lifetime knowing I turned my back on a suffering creature. I found it inside me to do this somehow. I opened up a steel room in my head, went in to it, and drove a car over that helpless bird. But when I came out, I found the door wouldn't quite shut behind me.