FICTION: Headlights by Nathan Greenberg

The deer did not belong here. This was Seoul, a city pulsing at all hours of the day and night with the honks of taxicabs and groans of buses, where shops selling cosmetics and cell-phones and coffee vie like anglerfish to lure in customers off the sidewalk with their neon signs and outward-facing speakers. The deer had probably come down from the hills. That was the only plausible explanation, but not entirely satisfying, for I had been hiking in those hills many times and doubted that anything larger than a squirrel resided there. The hills felt like wilderness when you were in them, but I had been to their peaks and seen how they were surrounded by city on all sides.

But wherever the deer had come from, here she was now, stuck in the wrought iron fence that surrounded the soccer field at the Yangjae International Girls High School. No doubt she had been terrified, and the familiar green of the field had reminded her of a meadow. Had she made it through the fence and reached her destination, she would have been confused and disappointed to find that it was artificial turf.

I’d had a few hours to kill between classes that afternoon, so I’d gone to a coffee shop across the street to get some grading done. I was walking back to campus with the remnants of an iced americano in my hand when I saw the deer. Already, a small crowd had assembled to watch the pitiful scene unfold.

The deer kept trying to free herself, but her haunches were too thick to pass through the bars. In nature, her best defense would have been to push ahead, just as she now sought to do, but where branches would have yielded, the wrought-iron fence did not.  Evidently, the deer had not been engineered with a reverse mode, for she kept repeating the same futile process. Evolution had not equipped her for the challenge at hand. She lurched forward again and again, but the fence did no more than tremble. Her sides were beginning to bleed where they had chafed against the bars, and with each painful lunge forward she issued the most horrible sounds— long, despairing moans that sounded disconcertingly human.

I noticed that the students had pulled out their phones and begun to take videos. It seemed wrong for them to gawk at the deer’s suffering like that, so I summoned my authority as a teacher and an adult and scolded them.  I’ve always had trouble enforcing discipline, but something about the urgency of the situation must have seeped into my ordinarily mousy voice and given it strength. I was surprised by how promptly the students obeyed and by the rapt attention they now gave me. That was when I realized I the predicament I had gotten myself into.

In asserting my authority about the phones, I had identified myself as the leader, and now everyone expected me to take charge. The trouble was, I hadn’t thought things through properly. I had no idea how to go about extracting the deer from the fence in which she was so helplessly entangled. To make matters worse, I’m not the kind of person that works well with animals, and animals know that. They sense my discomfort and use it to assert their dominance. Dogs constantly snap and growl at me as they pass, and even pigeons refuse to yield to me on the sidewalk. It occurred to me that the deer was a wild animal, and might harbor infectious diseases. Still, I couldn’t just stand there, so I walked around to the deer’s front side and tried to rest a comforting hand behind her ears, just as I’d seen people do with their dogs in the movies. Before I could even reach her, though, she let out a sudden groan and lunged as if to bite me. I recoiled with undignified surprise.

I noticed that some of the students had pulled out their phones again and surreptitiously resumed filming. I thought about reprimanding them, but decided against it. By now, I was imagining myself from the other side of the lens. The notion gave me comfort and confidence. It occurred to me that I had become a character in the drama that was unfolding, that my role was that of the heroic teacher rescuing a trapped deer. I took a deep breath and assumed the role of the protagonist.

The heroic teacher recovered her composure, knelt down in front of the deer, and looked into her eyes, which were glossy and black. It’s going to be alright, she told the frightened animal. We’re going to get you out of here. With slow and deliberate motions, she laid a reassuring hand on the deer’s head and caressed it. Then, she rose thoughtfully, and went around to the deer’s backside. She examined the gap in the fence, tugged on the bars to see if they would give, and when they didn’t, announced gravely and firmly that there was no way the animal would make it through. We’ll have to back her out of here, she declared, and rolled up her sleeves. The heroic teacher was trying to figure out the best way to grip the deer, when the animal lunged again.

Startled, I lost my balance and tumbled backward into the ground, which was still damp from the previous night’s rainfall. I felt a flash of pain in my ankle. It was excruciating, and I couldn’t stop the tears from welling in my eyes. Was it broken? Sprained? Dislocated? Would I need to go to the hospital, and, if so, would insurance cover it? I tried rotating my ankle back in slow circles to assess the damage. It felt stiffer than usual, but otherwise alright. Then I tried to put some weight on it, but was walloped by another sudden burst of pain.

The crowd of students had grown, and momentarily, the object of its attention shifted from the deer to me. Teacher, are you ok?  Of course I was not ok, I wanted to scream, but that would have only made it worse. This was not how things were supposed to go.  My heroism had become a blooper, twice as virulent. Put your phones away, I wheezed.  A few students lowered their phones slightly, but continued to shoot.  I’m fine, I told them. We have a deer to rescue.  I forced myself to let go of the ankle that I was clutching, and to relax my wincing facial muscles. The students were just beginning to turn their attention back to the deer when a new protagonist emerged. A wiry middle-aged man from the maintenance department dressed in a beige jumpsuit and thick protective gloves was sprinting across the soccer field.

I pulled myself up, careful not to put too much weight on my bad ankle, and tried unconvincingly to look as if I had the situation under control. The man arrived and asked me if I was alright, or something like that.  I managed to communicate that I was ok. Then he said something that I didn’t really understand and gestured in the direction of the school infirmary. I thought he was telling me to get my ankle checked out, and I had begun to stoically assert that there was no need, when one of my students stepped forward and explained that he wanted me to step out of the way, and I realized that I had completely mistranslated. Wary of further embarrassing myself, I complied, ignominiously retreating from the gaze of a dozen smartphones.

For the rest of the scene, I was just a spectator. The maintenance man unfolded a large blanket that looked like it had been sitting in a closet for years. He threw it over the deer’s head, and immediately, the animal grew calm.  She no longer cried or tried to lunge forward. He rested his hand comfortingly on the animal’s back and smiled the smile of a true hero The deer did not attempt to bite him. A few minutes later an emergency services vehicle arrived and two more uniformed men emerged. By now, my presence had become completely superfluous. I watched these capable professionals as they injected the deer with a tranquilizer and waited for her body to grow limp before pulling it backwards out of the fence and loading it into a van.

The students dispersed, but I lingered, contemplating what had just taken place. I found the section of the fence where the deer had been stuck. It was easy to locate because the ground around it had been torn up by her frantic kicking, and there was still a residue of blood where her sides had been rubbed raw. I was late for class already and knew that I should probably get going, but I couldn’t tear myself away from the scene. I touched the iron bars and when I removed my hand, there was blood on my fingertips. It was sticky and had a sour smell. I wondered what would become of the deer, and then, emerging as an afterthought, what would become of me.

I’d moved to Seoul right after graduation, partially because I’d wanted to experience the world and partially because I’d wanted to get as far away from home as possible. The Yangjae International Girls High School had offered me a competitive package that included housing and airfare and more after-tax income that most of my friends would be making at their entry-level positions in New York or Boston or wherever they’d ended up. But my situation had proved almost too comfortable, and here I was six years later, approaching thirty, trapped in the routine of least resistance, without a clue what came next. Just like the deer, I was hopelessly stuck. I was tired of my job. I still didn’t speak Korean.  I was going through a rocky phase with my boyfriend, who I suspected was only interested in me because he wanted the experience of dating a white girl. I had no close friends I could confide in. The deer did not belong here in this city of ten million, and neither did I. We are taught from a young age to admire perseverance, but sometimes, in order to move forward, you have to take a step back.

I decided to skip class. The deer would be my excuse. I turned away from the fence and walked, not really knowing where I was heading. I glared at those who passed me, as if to dare them to ask why I was walking with a slight limp and why my backside was covered in mud. When I came across a cluster of pigeons pecking at some trash, I charged ahead, determined to trample them if they didn’t hop away. After a while, I reached the place where the city abruptly ends and the hills begin. I continued onward, upward. My ankle had stopped hurting, but somehow this only deepened my sense of shame. Occasionally I passed another hiker, but most of the trails were empty. I walked up and up until, at last, I reached the top of a ridge. I looked back at the city I had left behind, and forward at the city beyond. It didn’t seem to matter where I went. Tears silently streaming down my face, I hesitated, like a deer in headlights.

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Nathan Greenberg

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Nathan Greenberg was born in Boston, MA and studied Literary Arts at Brown University.  He now lives in Seoul, South Korea, where he works as an academic consultant and private tutor.  He also makes music under the pseudonym Nathan Mild and as bassist in the band Tierpark.  In his free time, he enjoys cycling, painting, and cooking.
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Feature image by Bharat Thakur

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