When he rose, maybe 100 feet uphill of me, I was on my knees in the dusty trail. My small hiking journal teetered on my knees as my hand flew across the pages. Scrawled words in fuzzy grey pencil somehow formed into meaning. A truth: words sometimes had to be captured before they escaped. When my hand stilled and my mind returned to the surroundings, I thought it an unusual place for a deer to have lain. I watched as the young buck with his small four point antlers, still in velvet, nosed about. Odd. He did not browse. He wandered a ways, then returned to where he had risen from. I stood, then took a few steps forward. Most times, a deer would have spotted me right off. Not this one.
He moved around some more, sniffed the lower branches of a juniper tree. As he turned, his steps were unsteady and I noticed his ribs were visible. His body was thin. I wondered if he were blind. Blind animals will be disoriented and often unthrifty because they struggle to find resources to survive. Then he stood, head and neck lowered. Just stood broadside to me. The curved ridges of his ribs rose and fell forcefully. Breath came hard to him. I moved closer. Silence wrapped around us both. At last, the deer noticed me. He turned to face me, head almost touching the earth. His ears came forward, and I knew he could see. He looked into me. I looked into him. Those eyes. Huge. Round. Brown, with a dull metallic sheen to them. In his eyes, I saw stillness, then acceptance for the death he knew was not far off.
The acceptance in his eyes grounded me, right there in the dusty trail. He was ready. There was no fear or terror. There were no regrets. There was not even sadness in his gaze. These may seem like “human” traits to you, but I have felt them in animals. His eyes never left me, and the strange metallic luster of them I do not believe will ever leave me. He did not blink.
After some time, I wrenched my gaze from his. I was not ready to be shackled and dragged to that realm his eyes sought as they looked into and through me. I circled uphill around him. Even though he was motionless, a small fear hurried my steps. Once above the slope from him, I glanced back several times as I hiked on. He was still frozen in place, head lowered looking at where I had been.
Later, I left the slope of the butte where the deer had lingered, with its scattering of juniper trees. I looked at approximately where he had been as I walked back home. An eagle rode the air currents above the deer. It circled and soared, never leaving the area. Did the eagle wait also for death to claim the deer? Or was the eagle a sentinel, its circles of flight a silent herald of a life soon to end?
The butte, the trees and the land seemed to hold their breath.
S P A C E D
A quiet morning on the land. Now, I knew why the stillness felt so intense on this day.
Now, it’s been four days since I saw the deer and hiked that trail. I avoided coming here because I knew he would die. I wanted to give him space and time. It’s a matter of honor and respect for me. His gaze of acceptance revealed to me even more how his life, though trickling away, was part of this land. How a connection to the land is so intense that a life can meet its end here, in this place, with peace and being. Place and being become one. That is how he lived and died. Of course, I was not there when he died. But, I can imagine he lay, the final time, not on the trail, but close by in a protected spot, held by the land.
Today, I walk up the trail through alternate sun and shadows, cast by juniper trees. A soft breeze blows down slope into my face. As I approach where I had last seen the deer, I look around for the tawny hump amongst the grasses and trees, antlers slanted upwards from the earth, that would tell me where he lay. For some time I see nothing and think I have been mistaken. Then, the warm friendly breeze bears the dead carcass smell to my nose. Ahh. He is gone then. Not far from where I had last seen him.
Just to the east of the trail is a narrow grassy gully. After taking several steps from the trail in its direction, I stand looking up and down its length. There. Just below me, he lay. A jumble of bones and hide, already mostly eaten by coyotes. I did not think the eagle or magpies have been here for they like the eyes and I could see the dull and sunken eye in the side of the head not against the ground. His young antlers, stripped of their velvet now, are a poignant tale of a short life lived.
I stand in time suspended, then continue on. I think, how if I had not come upon him four days earlier, I would not even know this short story of his life. How he had gazed at me with those dark metallic eyes with the purest of acceptance. How, when I had passed him by and looked back, he still stood with lowered head and peered at where I had been. Could he perhaps see my own shade, now that he was so close to meeting his own? Is this what held him in thrall? Did my shade stay with him, as my thoughts had? Did it sit beside him in the sweet grasses and lay a hand on his neck when his last breath left, and the two drift away together, his last breath and my shade?
I write these words soon after I witnessed the tangle of what he had been. I sit on a flat rock rough with lichens, still cool from the night, amongst sun-cured native bunch grass. Somewhere, off to my right, a bluebird harmonizes with the warming day. The friendly breeze, despite the news it had carried to me earlier, dances with the grasses. Together, they create a ballet of the wild. I melt into this. The deer did too, the ultimate melting back into the land he sprang from. What a beautiful place to die.
“When seeking out wild creatures in natural habitats, we must make an offering of time and attention.”Briana Saussy