You could have, should have, turned right at the lights
across the hills and over to Kilmahog.
Could have, should have turned into the ditch
when you saw him crossing, legs moving
like the Roadrunner, arms preparing for a fight
Or swerved into the other lane, braked hard and
hoped, let the man behind the headlamps take his chances.
Could have, should have stopped to check
for breathing or a pulse. Maybe called it in.
Could have been five minutes late—
nobody would have minded.
It’s kind of ironic that I was watching the beginning of Children of the Corn when I started this post. The couple in the movie fall down the rabbit hole in a scene similar to the one described above. They’re having an argument when a boy staggers out into the road and right in front of their car. After that, things go horribly awry.
Nigel Bird is not starting a supernatural adventure with this poem. This dark event is the central point of it, rather than a jumping off point. The person in the poem could have, should have turned right and gone into Kilmahog, a hamlet in the Scottish mountains. Kilmahog could have been anywhere isolated – a West Virginia coal mining town, a forgotten rail depot in one of the prairie provinces, an ancient Black Forest village halfway between Munich and Frankfurt. Like the scene I described above, it’s in the middle of nowhere, away from the nearest gas station or police officer.
It’s a random event, driving down the road and having someone appear suddenly in front of you. You hit them. In this day of cell phones and GPS, we like to think we’d stop, we’d summon help, we’d do the right thing. Most people do. But the person in this poem doesn’t. They do what our first instinct, without fail, tells us to do: panic. Cars – our cars – don’t impact people everyday. Most people, in fact, get through their entire lives with nothing worse than a fender bender, if that. But hitting someone? That’s life-changing.
The rational mind says to stop, to check on the person, to get help, to tell the truth if the person dies. Accidents happen. Just ask Stephen King, who, in spite of incredible pain when he was hit by a minivan, seemed amused that he was hit by one of his own characters. He wasn’t happy, but he also accepted that shit happens, sometimes really bad shit.
But we panic. If panic gets the better of us, we drive off, hoping no one will ever know. And of course, we know. And our own selves are the most damning witnesses of all.