deer spies Observed by Deer

Sara McAulay

I've come here for raptors. Left my campsite at dawn, hiked down thru blue shadows to the meadow. Late September, 8000 feet, so cold the grass crunches under my boots. The creek is black, and rimmed with ice.

Yesterday, migrating hawks sailed past, 10 or more an hour. This morning, I crunch toward the creek; wait while the sky brightens; wait for the brightness to fill with birds.

The grass around me thaws, then dries, gives off a dusty hayloft smell. Creek ice melts; the sky's bright, all right. Intense, a brilliant, empty blue. No birds at all, not even in the scrub beside the creek.

Nothing moves but insects: mosquitoes, gnats, a cloud of small black biting flies roused by the sun. Beyond the meadow climbers angle, a trail of black ants, across the face of Lembert Dome.

Beyond the creek, a twig snaps in a thicket. Another snap; bare branches break. Something bigger than a bird is moving through the brush. Two spiky naked limbs morph into antlers; a brown buck steps on dainty legs into the clearing. Pensively, he munches leaves. Chews and swallows, noses flies from his flank, ordinary as a horse.

And then he ... replicates. Just like that: two deer. Three deer, four ... and then there are seven, the last with massive neck and 8-point branching rack.

Their coats are rough. Slick here, shag-matted there as the season turns and they ready for winter; another month or so and they will be in rut. Their antlers glisten, sticky and rubbed raw, tattered velvet dangling. Flies cluster on wet new bone.

Seven deer.

At any moment one might wheel and snort, tail flagging danger, breaking the spell and scattering them all. But for the moment, in no hurry, they make their way beside the creek, browsing in the thickets. I follow, moving slowly, stopping when they stop then edging closer, crossing the creek beneath the bridge, closer step by step till I can smell their rank, wild smell. Count their whiskers and the fat ticks clinging to their ears.

One step and another, hand outstretched...

The big buck lifts his head. 2 3 4 5 6 7 they all do, and 2 3 4 5 6 7 swing about like compass needles, facing me, their eyes all liquid dark.

I can't tell if I'm afraid or not. It doesn't feel like fear, it feels like being where I am, right here, on the surface of the earth. I hear them breathing as they watch me, hear the buzz of gnats and flies, the scatter of pellets in dry grass as one of them drops dung.

Seven pairs of liquid eyes, gold-lashed, unblinking. Seven wet dark noses, seven heads from which spring preposterous, miraculous, new-each-year-and-wrapped-in-living-velvet antlers that look less like tree-branches to me now than like arms upraised in praise or supplication.

Slowly, I kneel, hands on thighs, and wait.

What happens? Maybe nothing.

This is not one of those stories where animals speak aloud. No fiery finger thrusts down from a cloud to scorch a prophesy in the dirt. These are not the young stags of King Solomon, bounding upon a mountain of spices (though in a month or two they may be).

Today their magic is the magic of the world that is, of things that bleed and die and are born, that are bitten by insects, that defecate. A strange calm settles: being, not-being, cut loose from time, one more creature on the skin of the world. Mosquitoes settle on the backs of my hands. I feel and don't feel them biting.

This is how it is to be observed by deer.

Somehow an hour has passed, or more: other hikers in the meadow, a father calling to his kids. Climbers wave in triumph from the bald summit of the Dome. Somewhere a redtail whistles, distant as dream. And the deer are gone. Not quite gone, but going, the last of them bounding into the woods, becoming shadow, already memory.

The hawk whistles again, filling my binoculars. Banded breast. Scaly talons. Fierce golden eye.


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