December 30, 2012

North Cairn: When deer are a dream come true

For days after the doe arrived, I walked through my life as if in a dream, unable -- and unwilling -- to relinquish the fleeting hold my mind had on the memory.

It was well before midnight, on a cloudy night, when the vision emerged out of the dark. I was tired and intent on going to bed early, knowing that the frantic holidays were kicking into even higher gear, and that whatever fatigue I felt in that evening's moment before retiring was likely to be fierce by the following day. I still had hours of driving ahead before making it to the cottage I call home and the friends who over years of staying power through trouble and triumph alike have more than earned the status of "family."

I almost didn't want to go, had that feeling of preferring to stay in-state, being a Mainer now. I wanted to spend my first Christmas here, even if only with the dog and the evergreens all around to see me through the day. That seemed like peace on earth enough for the year in my world, and I found myself extinguishing the lights that evening as though I had nowhere else to be. I made the slow crawl to finish the day's end, climbing the hill of the bed and curled under the covers as though wrapping myself in a shroud of snow.

The dog was circling, too, her elliptical movements vertical before she threw herself down into a horizontal happiness of sleep. It all seemed routine, ritual and calm -- a perfect ending to the day -- until suddenly the dog erupted into a full-throated roar of territorial alarm.

She was looking out the long low window, which runs half the length of the bedroom and all the way up to meet the A-frame roof on its severe decline toward the side yard.

"What? What?" I kept repeating, craning to see over the mound of her in the dark, trying to make out whatever it was she was deciphering in the landscape.

And then I saw it, something like a big boulder, barely moving, in the patch of grass that we pretend is a back yard, before it gives way to woods.

It was not immediately evident to me what sort of mammal was making its visitation, and, of course, I was instantly hopeful and delusionary, praying for bear or moose or lynx, as if any of these would look like the other, even in rough outline, especially in the dark. I could not even be sure that the form wasn't human, though it struck me as unlikely, since there wasn't much to draw a thief or delinquent's interest back here in the woods in a modest cabin-like home.

But, because I now live in Maine, and more to the point abide in the woods, I had my necessary arsenal close at hand -- on the bedside table, in fact. There stood a flashlight, tall as a table lamp, equipped with some absurd, overbearing candlepower, because we are never certain just when the power might go out or for how long. I don't want to find myself in the dead of night, feeling along the pine walls for something helpful as Braille, while calculating where the stairs begin and end or what space the hutch occupies, or, for that matter, what obstacles have been created by the two or three bags or briefcases I tote around each day.

The dog was still barking and I was still trying to calm her as I grabbed the light and leapt like a bear out of bed and to the window. I pushed the reflector cone of the flashlight flush with the window, so the effect in the yard was enough illumination to be a spotlight on a stage.

Then I saw -- as she turned her face into the stream of light and her eyes glimmered -- it was a doe, browsing in the grass and low cover, chewing a twig here, snuffling there, looking for a last little bit of food in the dark.

She didn't flee, didn't even flinch.

She looked up into the light, I suppose to determine whether the unearthly beam indicated threat or predatory intent. But sensing none, she lingered in the yard for a long time, several minutes, before edging toward the low scrub, the downed trunks and the spotty cover of woods beyond.

Some vague memory about deer made me think she might not be traveling alone, so while she was busy browsing, I let the floodlight spill over a wide circle of lawn and trampled weeds. And there I saw it: a second doe, perhaps 10 feet off.

And a third, farther toward the opening forest.

And finally, a fourth, that appeared -- but only vaguely -- to be a young buck with antlers barely begun, looking like baubles between its ears.

It was like a dream, the animals specters of imagination almost, partly because their forms were dark on dark, and the only contrast came from their eyes and the white tails from which they take their name. They were such an ethereal, slow-drifting sight, that after I had doused the light, I wondered if they had been a creation of my mind.

I had to return twice to the window to be sure.

I kept expecting them to wander off, out of range of the light, but instead, something that seemed almost miraculous occurred. All four of them moved gingerly through the weeds and briar, slowly setting one hoof after the other down, almost as if they were walking on parchment thin ice or slippery glass -- carefully, carefully and covering little ground.

They moved no more than 25 feet, traipsing languidly, looking up at me -- or at the source of the light, really -- from time to time, their eyes tiny circles of fire. They stayed near one another, remained in a loosely knit ring and circled round and round slowly in what might have seemed like a dance, except I knew from earlier experience that they were tamping down the brush, preparing to bed down for the night.

It took several minutes. Just as they had arrived in the yard one by one, they now lay down, first one, then the next, then the third stomping and pawing at the ground, then curling down at the base of a tree. And then, at last, the fourth and smallest, wedged in between them, as though their bodies had formed a large cradle for its refuge and some rest.

By the time they were finished moving and had faded into the dark of the night forest, their fatigue had lifted all the way to the second-floor window and indoors, into my own limbs. I felt my arms and legs heavy as hocks as I hauled myself away from the pane and threw myself onto my own mat, a thick set of cotton and coils made suddenly soft as down as the fog of sleep and lingering awe carried me into dream.

Whole worlds are out there, I thought, as I drifted into a sleep as liquid and light as the deer hooves barely breaking the surface of the snow beyond the window. Other creatures are moving and living and resting and stopping and surviving and growing and dying, are warm enough or too cold, are seeking shelter or the company of their kind.

The next morning, the dog and I woke, ate breakfast and strode into the yard to validate the vision of the night before. It took some close investigating, the hard look that daylight requires because the shapes of night have dissolved under harsh clarity. But we found them, cloven tracks that had about them the shape of teardrops. I even found the flattened scrub where the heavy bodies of the delicate deer had lain.

The discovery gave me comfort, a feeling of new companions nearby, another family not far off. I might not always see it, I believed then, but I am never alone.

North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

ncairn@pressherald.com

 

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