I happened to look out the window last night while a car was going past and saw her illuminated in headlights. She was standing in the grass across the street, facing our house. Standing isn’t the right word, exactly. It was more like a wide-stanced lean, her head and neck bowed forward. Her whole posture was zombie-like, though I’m glad I didn’t think of that last night. When a truck stopped in front of her and turned on its flashers, my husband put on his coat and headed outside to see what was what.
I don’t really know she was a she or how to tell aside from looking for antlers. She didn’t have those, nor external injuries like the end of an arrow sticking from her midsection like one buck that used to come by our old house in the Poconos. Once or twice, my husband crept slowly, cautiously, towards him to, well, I don’t know what exactly. He wanted a miracle. He wanted to grab the arrow and pull it out, I guess, but every time he got close the buck ran off and a week or so later stopped coming around.
The first deer I ever saw was mounted above my aunt and uncle’s fireplace. My uncle shot it and at Christmas time they hung a big red bow where its throat would have been. I felt the same warm affection towards his disembodied head as I did their full-bodied golden retriever. In the finished side of their basement, my brother and I played billiards or some terrible kid version which mostly involved liberal application of chalk to pool cues. When all the cues were overchalked, we crept over to the unfinished side to peek in the closet where my uncle kept his bloodied deer dressing clothes.
I’ve never hunted. I’ve never eaten venison. I’ve eaten plenty of chicken and cow and pig and once I tried meatballs made from crocodile. I have no objection to eating animals. Sometimes I wish I did and then push the thought from my head like hanging up on a salesperson so I can sit down to dinner in peace.
When we first moved to the Poconos, we fed the deer. Everyone told us not to, but we couldn’t see the harm. They were so skinny, so hungry! All the lower tree branches and small shrubs were stripped clean by late fall. When I walked past a window in winter, their eyes locked mine, pleading, I swear. We started buying huge bags of corn at a feed supply store and spread it in the backyard in generous scoops. It didn’t take long for word to get around.
At first we felt like Snow White. They came in polite, smallish bunches and it warmed our hearts to see the yearlings graze. Then the big bucks came. They chased the smaller ones away and stood on their hindquarters and gnashed antlers, pulverizing the corn with their angry hooves. We had made them territorial and wild, so we conceded our idiocy and stopped feeding them. I stopped making eye contact from the windows unless I was feeling especially firm.
Twice my husband hit deer while driving. The first time, the deer caused serious damage to his truck – broken headlights, a cracked radiator, lots of busted thingamajigs. It perished in a ditch. The deer, I mean. Thankfully my husband wasn’t hurt, though that’s a real risk when you hit a deer. The second time, a deer glanced off his driver’s side mirror and did several thousand dollars worth of damage and kept on running. (Side question: if a very old car is only worth, say, $3,000 at trade-in, how is it possible that one measly side mirror and headlamp cost the same to replace?)
I’ve seen this happen before, this miraculous display of ballet and invincibility. Once I was behind a car that clipped a deer we both must have been hypnotized by as it flew in from the shoulder. I know why they say reindeer can fly. It’s the only way I can describe the particular way this deer t-boned into traffic. It was fluid and graceful and fearless. Once the deer hit the car in front of me, it sort of stumble-tumbled and resumed flying across the remaining stretch and disappeared into tall grass without losing a full beat.
They don’t always make it, though.
As I write this, we have a deer carcass in the grass across the street. Several concerned neighbors joined my husband last night and tried to coax the deer away from the road. She bled from her nose, leading some of us to come up with half-assed theories and diagnoses. One neighbor prodded it with a property marker and the deer just sort of hobbled in a circle and resumed that awful hanging lean. A police officer arrived and once everyone scattered back home, he took out his service pistol. I was sitting up in bed when I heard the gunfire. I thought I would feel relief but just felt sad.
In spring, we might see fawns if we’re lucky. They spend more time in the woods than on suburban lawns. They have small white spots on their back that resemble speckled sunshine on a forest floor. If you ever see a baby deer on its own, don’t attempt to move it. It’s not stranded. The mother stays away from her fawns during the day so predators won’t be attracted by her scent. Baby deer don’t have a scent. Even when they wander the woods and bleat a pathetic, heart-breaking cry when it’s feeding time, please don’t gather it in your arms and carry it up the hill like you just won the cutest, most terrified prize ever.