One Sunday morning in my mid-teens, I woke up to news of a terrible car crash involving some Mennonite kids from a neighbouring village. The driver’s parents had gone away for the weekend, and on Saturday night he’d taken their car and rounded up a few friends and driven to a dance in our town’s community hall. Later they were speeding recklessly down the gravel road to the highway, too late saw the stop sign and tried to swerve into a farmer’s lane but instead rolled the car several times. Everyone was thrown clear, and though some of them were hurt they were all alive, thank God, with another chance to mend their rebellious ways.
That Sunday morning on the way to our country church we stopped to view the wreck. There it sat, half-upright and badly mangled, in the farmer’s ditch. While rolling over it had sheared off several fenceposts, one of which pierced the driver’s window and the steering wheel and in a perfect hit had punched out the round speedometer in the dash. The post was stuck there like a thick arrow in a bullseye, or a piston in a cylinder.
My parents shook their heads and clucked at the kids’ foolhardiness. We all stared at the demolished car, poked our heads through its broken windows and saw how awful this thing was. If the driver had been in his seat, the post would have taken off his head and mashed it to a pulp against the dashboard. I was so shaken myself that on the rest of the drive to church, and during the entire service, I was pondering my own sins, haunted by the exact fit of fencepost to speedometer.
One frigid winter morning after this accident, I left the house to do my chores before school, boots squeaking on the snow as I trudged glumly toward the barn. From a distance I saw a cat peeping through a jagged hole in the door, where a splinter of wood had broken off and my father hadn’t yet had time to repair it. The hole tapered to a V at the bottom, and I saw only the creature’s head looking out, waiting, as I imagined, for its share of milk from a bowl we kept in a corner of the barn. To me, cats were a daily nuisance as I milked the cow like a poor Jack before a magic beanstalk grew, how impatiently they jumped at me where I squatted on my wooden stool doing the work I loathed. Now in the cold morning air I felt annoyed at this animal, wanting just to get the job over with, and change clothes and head for school where at least the work came easily to me.
The cat stared out as I lifted the latch and opened the door. For an instant it stood on its hind legs looking straight ahead, then slowly toppled forward and thumped on the ground, and lay still. During the night — I suddenly understood — it had leaped up to look outside, the gap in the door just wide enough for the head to get through, and had strangled itself there with its back paws nearly touching the floor. The body was frozen stiff where it hung impaled, and if the gap in the door had been a fraction of an inch narrower, this could not have happened.
Later when I left for school, I carried with me the uncanny image of a dead animal standing on two legs, and the long, slow fall forward with its eyes wide open.
And after all these years, it’s become even clearer how narrowly we evade death at every instant, how small the cleft that finally deals it.
Ratzlaff is a former minister, counsellor, and university lecturer. He has authored three books of literary non-fiction published by Thistledown Press, and edited an anthology of seniors’ writings published by READ Saskatoon. He has been short-listed for three Saskatchewan Books Awards, won two Saskatchewan Writers Guild literary non-fiction awards, and served on local, provincial, and national writing organization boards.