by John Henry Fleming
When you drive the Overseas Highway, the Florida Keys lure you farther and farther out to sea like a long game of hopscotch over the pale blue, until at last you’ve dead-ended at Key West.
You’re probably too tired to turn around and hop back to square one. Besides, there are plenty of distractions to occupy a weary traveler for a night or a weekend, distractions that keep you from thinking too much—about, say, your tenuous connection to the mainland.
The only highway could wash out. A bridge could collapse. The airport could shut down. And then, with a cat five hurricane swirling up out of the Caribbean, you’ll be stranded on a slip of lowland doomed to vanish under the waves.
If you pause too long between drinks, you’ll find yourself searching above the rooftops on Duval Street for a sturdy coconut palm you can cling to in the 180-mph winds.
It’s a frequent sight during hurricane season: a ribbon of bumper-to-bumper traffic trying to bolt out of the Keys before a threatening hurricane sandblasts them into the sea. The evacuation can take up to 24 hours, and drivers from the southern Keys can expect to spend all day in dense traffic, lurching and braking and pounding their fists on the wheel.
Not surprisingly, some stay home or in their hotels and stock up on liquor instead. Maybe the storm will lose strength. Maybe it will veer away. When it doesn’t, some have regrets and try to dash out too late. Yet even if the bridges are still standing and the overwash not too deep on U.S. 1, they may find their way blocked by a steely-eyed gang of Key Deer.
Some call them Conch Republic Border Guards. They arrived in the Keys by land bridge during the last ice age. When the ice receded and the seas rose, they got stranded like unlucky tourists and became easy game for Native Americans and European explorers. Later, when the highway was built, they were roadkill for vacationers in rented convertibles and sportsmen hauling oversized fishing boats. Though hunting Key Deer was banned in 1939, poaching and habitat destruction brought them to near extinction.
Somehow, they’ve survived. The establishment of the National Key Deer Refuge in 1957 helped. Then, too, they must also have developed—perhaps by natural selection—a fierce will to live, a surprising strength that belies their fragile looks and shows itself most clearly in hurricanes.
There are reports of Key Deer blockades as far back as the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. In that storm, still the strongest on record to hit the U.S., a train was sent down from Homestead to evacuate a group of World War I veterans building a bridge for the new highway. The train never made it, and some say it was turned back by a gathering of Key Deer.
Something, in any case, shoved the train off the track and into the waves.
More recently, a group of Key West residents trying to escape the storm surge from Hurricane Georges in 1998 reportedly were turned back at Big Pine Key, home of the Key Deer Refuge. Survivors won’t talk about it.
Perhaps all those years at the mercy of humans have put a chip on the Key Deer’s tiny shoulders: If I’m not getting out, neither are you.
And so they gather in the storm on a high patch of U.S. 1, and you won’t see them unless you’re one of the foolish and scared, trying to escape while the storm’s underway. You may think you’re making good progress out of Key West—your big Caddy seems too heavy to be flipped and its wheels are sticking to the road. And then, at Big Pine, you discover, through the chaotic sweep of your wipers, that your path to safety is blocked by a white-tailed barricade.
Your car slides to a stop some ten feet in front of the herd. Between the roaring torrents and full-throated gusts you catch only glimpses. There must be two hundred of them. In their snarling lips and fierce eyes, you sense an almost supernatural strength of will, a collective determination that only a tribe of survivors can know. They’ve been hunted and slaughtered and crushed and starved, and still they live.
You try honking the horn but can’t even hear it yourself.
If you got out, these creatures would barely come up to your waist. They’re cute little pygmies with soft fur and spindly legs. How can they even stand up to the wind? The answer must lie in a group dynamic, the way penguins keep themselves warm by huddling together in the Antarctic winter. The Key Deer are hunkered down. They’re not going to move, and they’re not going to let you pass.
But there’s a strengthening hurricane taking aim at the lower Keys; your only hope is to push on.
What can you do? You gun the engine. You let the Caddy lunge at them to scare them off. Nothing doing. You’ve got an older model Caddy with a big chrome bumper you’ve jokingly referred to as a cowcatcher. Now you think you’ll put it to use.
Except the deer, collectively, have surprising strength. And they’re so cute you hate to destroy them. After one halting attempt, you reconsider. Smashing the deer would be like running over a child’s favorite pony.
You have to. You know this. It’s either you or the deer.
You press the accelerator. The rear wheels spin but you go nowhere. You’ve waited too long. The deer have swarmed your vehicle, closing ranks, and some have lifted your bumper. When others get up on their hind legs and peer through your windows, they block the wind and rain, and there’s an eerie calm. Their lips sneer and foam, and their huge black eyes are uncanny in their stillness.
Your car lurches. In a panic, you gun the engine, but with your wheels off the ground, the churning motor seems only to add fury to the deer’s determination. Slowly, you’re carried off the narrow strip of road and the car is spun ninety degrees to give you a view of the pounding waves through your windshield, the rivers of froth flying at you, the relentless force of the storm. You suck in your breath and feel your heart pounding in your chest.
What will you think when your Caddy is dumped into the sea? When you can’t open your door against the waves? When the seawater pours in? What will you think when the last bubble of air disappears from the underside of your convertible top? Can you hold your breath? For how long?
In the big scheme of things, your will to live is nothing compared to the Key Deer’s. They’re going to live; you won’t.
And maybe that’s their point.
About John Henry Fleming
John Henry Fleming’s new story collection, Songs for the Deaf, was recently published by Burrow Press, along with a 20th Anniversary Edition ebook edition of his novel, The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman. “Hurricane Deer” is a selection from his literary bestiary, Fearsome Creatures of Florida. He’s also the author of The Book I Will Write, a novel-in-emails originally published serially. His short stories have appeared inMcSweeney’s, The North American Review, Mississippi Review, Fourteen Hills, Kugelmass, and Carve. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of South Florida, and he’s the founder and advisory editor of Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art. His website is www.johnhenryfleming.com.