I passed four dead raccoons on the side of the road today on my drive home. Each body felt heavier than the first, and I imagined pulling off to bury them. I had enough sense to know not to. They deserved more than the rigor mortis of arms outstretched on the highway, of the honking horns of impatient drivers that would swerve to the shoulder and crack the carcass in half. For a second, I felt anger because it was easiest. The drivers would feel the tires shudder against the bones beneath their own weight and would roll it from their minds by adding miles to their thoughts.


I’ve never been that person to bury an animal, but lately, every dead body I see feels like a larger life lesson.


On my drive home from work one day, I saw the blue and red flashing lights ahead blocking the road, slowed in the dusk to see the officer dragging a body, a deer body. Upon closing the gap, the deer, she was swinging, convulsing, shaking unnaturally and desperately, curling up towards the man dragging her with fear, desperation, terror, but I knew from just those few seconds inching towards the lights that she was dying. She wouldn’t make it.

The officer looked up, dropped her body, locked his eyes with mine in a 30-in-a-25. I saw his hand slide for his gun. I hit the gas again and knew it was my time to go. But I’ve never been great with directions and my gps told me I’d have to make a u-turn. On my turn back, I caught the cop walking back towards his car, my lights blinding him now. The deer was in the grass on the side of the road, still, and for the rest of my drive, the night was silent.


I have never been good with death. I have always been avoidant.

Grief is greed, I think, but then I backtrack and realize I don't really believe that. How black and white can the traps become. Grief is more than death; it’s loss and the space that death occupies, the waves that never seem to stop pulling back with a fierce suction. Grief is greedily sucking me down.

When my grandpa was obviously dying, I needed to be out of the house. I hurled matches at leaves behind his house while my dad sponge-bathed his father and gagged audibly through the window screen. I know my father’s gags like his tattoos. Dad couldn’t deal with the shit. So how could I. I couldn’t handle it then. Grandpa was dying so I escaped. Death was too much. I killed crisping leaves instead. It was always too much.


For my whole life, I thought my great grandpa taking his last breath as I held him meant that I had killed him. Not maliciously or covertly, but my grandma had said through tears, he must have felt it was time to go, said that I’d given him permission to die with that touch. I didn’t want to give anyone permission to die, and I sat with that feeling in my chest for years, that somehow, I had allowed him to die, that secretly I had killed my grandfather. It didn’t matter that he wanted to go. I had opened the door. I had given him permission. How could that be beautiful?


My grandmother laughs and says that I’m misremembering my grandfather’s death. I am angry. “Don’t you remember?” I say. I know my voice is betraying how important this is to me. The truth is always the most important. “ I climbed into your lap, there was an infomercial playing on the TV late at night, you commented about it’s stupidity, I touched his arm, you’d been crying, I’d woken up on the hospital floor with a small thin pillow and nothing more, uncomfortable, but it wasn’t about me. You don’t remember?” I grit.

“I touched him,” I say. “I touched him and he died.” The conversation dies.

“I wouldn’t make something like that up,” and I leave the argument as unresolved as his death left me.


I sobbed today, big tears, like the time I hit a deer going 70 and he spun into the road like a Christmas top. I raked across a fresh litter of baby mice pups, who I think had been born in the weeds I hadn’t bothered to pick up a few days ago. I was lazy, had left them for the next day, but the heat of the sun, the slight dew and inch of rain had made a moist bed they had called home. Their bellies were bright red, so I knew they were at most a few days old.

They used my displaced weeds I’d left for tomorrow as a home, and in picking up my mess, I destroyed their home. I was rushing, drug the rake through the pile with force, with power. They crawled desperately and blindly away. My skin crawled. I feared I had thrown the babies away, and so I dumped out and sorted through my full lawn trash bag to see if there was anyone in there. I sobbed while telling the one I love about my day, about the mice I probably killed, about how fragile they were, about how hard life is and how hard I’d made their introduction if I hadn’t just killed them swiftly and violently. I cried because today I was the villain. Today, I was death.


I've been listening to a lot of podcasts about disasters and death because those two things seem to be uncontrollable still. Disaster and death are the staccatos of a bad day. Am I living in the disaster? Am I enjoying the crawl to death? Death is not disaster. Every death that comes, I'm already unable to pilot my emotions.


My cat is dying. Every time I look at him and think about his death, I cry. I know death will bring him peace from the pain, loss, fear, uncertainty. I am selfish in my grief and call it a friend.


My grandmother dies briefly, but my aunt pounds on her chest until she is back home again, smoking cigarettes on the couch like nothing has changed. My grandmother’s every scare greets me with executive dysfunction. I don't know why I can only process these heavy pains in movement, why I have to be going to feel less stagnant.


I am learning from death that I am not invincible. The green paring knife slicing the top of my thumb open. I wavered, the blood declared a series of fears that loosened the cranks in my knees. I sway now. You will live. You are just human. The brightest red blood against spotless stainless steel.

My mother ripped through the funeral home, weeping when her father was gone. I am ashamed beneath the other feelings. She cannot handle death. She ran from the casket. I did not follow my momma.

I scream on a bridge at 2 am when my brother tells me he’s fucked up, heroin in his veins. “He could die,” I cycle through and I don’t let it go until he is in front of me again.

I ripped open the skin beneath my knees, above my shin, and there was a dark shiny cavern that left a spattering of me on my sock and shoes. The hole could not have killed me, but I remembered my fragility. And in its hand, I think of death now too.

Death Lessons

Kalie Johnson

"Trace fossils are simply a geological record and I look at the act of writing as keeping a record for both myself and the truth. I hope to hold myself accountable in my writing and through honest reflection and record-keeping, I am able to capture that moment for what it was, the feelings for what they are often complex, often more than black and white.

Death is one of those events that brings with it a lot of feelings, inner tensions, and conflicting emotions. Death makes you want to hold onto whatever you can, whoever you love. Death brings lessons and just like trace fossils, death shows us how we have lived.”

Kalie Johnson is a 26 year old living in Lorain, Ohio. She has been previously published, mostly creative non-fiction and nature writing in The Mill, The Watershed Review, Fatal Flaws Literary Magazine, The Bookends Review, Coffin Bell Journal, The Quillkeeper's Press, The Howler Project, New Plains Review, Jet Fuel Review, Thirteen Bridges Review, and Humans of the World. She teaches children in residential care how to garden! When not writing, you can find her travelling the United States in her van! You can find her writing on Instagram at @Thingsfeelwrite.

Why is this piece your Trace Fossil?