"Do you need some help?" I ask as I drive by the country woman wielding two shovels on a mangled creature on the center line of Hwy. 85 just outside of Enterprise, Oregon.
"I would love some help. Pull up over there behind my truck," she instructs out of breath. While I just can’t leave her to wrestle the mess alone, tending dead animals is new, and repulsive, territory for a city woman.
By the time I park and rejoin her on the July-hot pavement, Country Woman is nearly finished dragging the unrecognizable beast to the shoulder on a flattened cardboard box.
She hands me the shovels, blood-stained blades shining in the midday sun, and I walk them a few feet to the pick-up bed. There, tucked in a shoe box, is a baby raccoon, dead but intact.
I recall the time my husband found what he thought was a dead deer, her body left by a motorist in the middle of the southbound lane of traffic. He stopped his Vespa to pull her off to the side. When he grabbed her back legs, she lifted her head and looked back at him, blood oozing from mouth and nose. He pulled her out of traffic, and petted her neck while he waited for the policeman he was promised during a 911 call. The responding officer euthanized the deer with a single bullet. My husband felt awful for days. When someone asked him why, if he felt so awful, he did such a thing, his thoughtful reply was, "Because that's exactly the kind of person I want to be, and I always want to feel deeply about unnecessary loss of life."
Returning to Country Woman's side, I grab the box corners opposite her and get a nose full of rotting flesh and fur and guts. In spite of my resistance, I cannot help steal a glance, recognize an ear and an eye, and a bit of snout as being Mama Raccoon. I hold my breath as we lay her body next to the shoe box in the pick-up bed.
A shock of curly white hair frames Country Woman's browned leathery face and sky blue eyes. Sweat glistens on her forehead and temples.
"Have you ever come across dead animals on the road?" she asks me.
"Yes, but I usually just feel bad and keep driving," I admit. "Truth is I married a man who carries a shovel in his trunk for this kind of thing."
"Really?" She smiles, affirmed. "I usually drive by, but today they were here when I went to church, and when they were still here on my way home, I just couldn't leave them." She tears up and continues. "When I told my husband I was coming back for them he just grunted, so I came alone."
She wonders aloud who died first, imagines Mama trying to save her baby.
We stand teary in awkward silence looking at each other, and at the pick-up bed. So I hug her and thank her for being the kind of person who stops.
Then we go on our way, her taking the creatures home to bury, and me continuing to a retreat on the Zumwalt Prairie, feeling ashamed of a fleeting fear that when she patted me her hands left a bloody track on my back.