“Watch for deer.”
It is an admonition that — along with, “Be sweet,” and “Tell your mama and them hey” — initiates among my people the standard ritual of goodbye. I don’t remember too many times in my life in which I have taken leave of someplace that I did not receive one, two or all three of them. My required response, the response of anyone departing, is the simple, “I will.” It reminds me a lot of the marriage vow.
Several years ago, I had been to Nahunta to the visitation for the grandmother of two of my dearest friends. It was dark and late and the way home was two hours on two-lane highways. I made my way around the funeral home bidding all the various loved ones good night and assuring them that I’d be back the next morning for the service, and, to a person, every single one of them said, “Watch for deer.”
And I did. All the way back up Highway 301 through Jesup and Ludowici and Glennville and Claxton and all the way to my driveway. I was within a few yards of the carport when I heard a boom and felt a rattle that, to one schooled in such things, was instantly recognizable as the sound of a grown deer running head long into an SUV.
The deer, mercifully, died and I, fortunately, had excellent insurance coverage. Done and done. Except that now, every time someone tells me to watch for deer and every time I turn into my driveway late at night, I get a little jolt of adrenaline, half expecting another encounter with something racing through the dark.
Interestingly enough, walking around outside in the dark has, over the past year or so, become one of my favorite things to do. It is something to which I look forward, an activity that produces inspiration rather than requiring it. It is a daily comfort, a dependable solace, a soothing balm. And, until just the other night, it never occurred to me to watch for deer.
I often hear them rustling in the branch or get a glimpse of them leaping along the horizon under the light of a full moon, but those deer, the rustling and leaping deer, are disembodied, ethereal, practically magical. They are not the same as the deer about which I have been warned, for which I must always be on alert, of which I must force myself to have some fear.
One night a couple of weeks ago, Owen and I were walking the perimeter of the yard, just along the back line where the saw-tooth oaks and the sycamore grow, when suddenly, with only the faintest rustling of fallen limbs and dried grass, a deer came running at full speed directly across our path, no more than 25 feet in front of us. I stopped hard and focused as best I could in the pale yellow cone of the yard light.
I could make out the curve of antlers resting like a crown on his head. His white belly flashed like a semaphore with each jump. He was about as tall as I am, hoof to tip. And in two, maybe three, seconds he was gone — across the driveway, into the field.
I was surprised that Owen didn’t chase him. Instead, the two of us stood very still staring toward the spot where the deer had disappeared into the darkness as I realized he’d followed the same route as the deer who had hit me three years ago. The exact same route. It was as though there was a ley line cutting through the backyard.
All through Christmas and on to New Year’s, as the weather got colder and the moon grew larger, Owen and I walked. And I kept thinking about the deer, both of them. It was as though I’d been handed a knot to unravel, a code to break. Then, just as the moon reached full, an egg yolk threatening to break, I figured it out.
“Watch for deer,” was more than an encouragement of safe driving. More than a reminder toward diligence. Every time my grandmother, my mother, my friends had said, “Watch for deer,” it had meant far more than just, “Be careful.”
It had meant and would always mean, “Pay attention. There is more happening here than you can see.”
Watch for deer and you may find yourself face to face with wildness. Watch for deer and you may realize how little there is to fear. Watch for deer and you just may find magic humming through the ground beneath your feet.