Just past the grain bins and the spot where the fuel tanks used to sit, about a hundred yards beyond the line where a barbed wire fence may or may not still stand in places marking the property line between us and our neighbors, there is a deer trail. It generally follows the run of the fire break gouged into the earth some years ago and, to be honest, I couldn’t tell you which was there first. Did the deer adopt the fire break or did the folks on the big yellow earth-moving equipment just follow the winding path beaten down by generations of deer?
Either way, we all know it is there. And during certain times of year we know to be extraordinarily careful when topping the hill as we are more than likely to encounter not a single deer, but multiples of our graceful neighbors crossing the road like harried and hurried pedestrians in some large city.
A few afternoons ago Owen and I were spending the last sunlit moments of the day making our usual trek up the road and back. He often rambles off to follow some scent or sound of which I have no detection and I didn’t really notice that he was not prancing along beside me until I heard a cry off in the woods. The cry of a baby calf.
There was, of course, no baby calf in the woods, but the sound of a baby calf is familiar to me and that is what I recognized in the horror-stricken wail that broke the near-silence of insect hum and low bird song. In the time it takes for the vibration that is a sound to travel through my ear, register on my brain and be interpreted thereby, that is, less than a second, the baby calf cry became a baby deer cry and I understood that Owen must have come up on one, very likely newly born, and was — like the animal he is, the wolf he once was — chasing or, worse, attacking.
I began screaming. Screaming loudly. Calling for Owen over and over and over. I had no idea where in the vast stand of pines and just-burned undergrowth he was. I could not go to him, could only hope that somehow the sound of my voice would override the instincts suddenly aflame in his brain and bring him toward me, away from the deer.
I heard the rapid rustle of scrub oak and palmettoes and the sound grew louder. I kept screaming. Owen! Owen! Owen! And, then, just as I thought my voice was gone, Owen leapt from the woods about five feet in front of me and directly behind him, close enough that I could have touched had I leaned forward, was the mama deer. She chased Owen down the open road about 25 yards before he abruptly turned and headed back toward me. The mama deer bounded back into the woods, back to the baby trembling somewhere in the undergrowth.
We, Owen and I, did not finish our walk that day. We immediately turned and headed for home — Owen breathing heavily, his tongue dangling like a flag left out in the rain, and me trembling all over.
We were far enough from home that I had time to think about the encounter — to consider how close that mama deer had come to me and the risk she’d taken in doing so, to remember that the only one of the characters in the action thriller who had lines was the baby deer, and to realize that in order to protect the one she loved the mama deer had to leave it.
I was also reminded that, in truth, there was nothing unusual about what I’d seen and heard, what I’d felt and was still feeling. That, other than my presence as audience, the scene is replayed over and over every day in the acres that surround me. Deer flee from predators, birds build nests, snakes go sidewinding across the road leaving waves of sand in their wakes.
I hope, though, that it will always be unusual to me. That the sound of a woodpecker high in a pine tree will always make me stop and listen and that the scent of honeysuckle will always make me smile. I hope that no matter how many full moons I see crest over Sandhill, how many summers I feel easing in on May breezes, how many pairs of Canada geese I watch glide through the sky above me I will always tremble as though a mama deer has just rushed by.