I am the observer. From the back door I watch a gray squirrel hurry on tiny feet across the ground to the bird seed that has fallen from the feeder. He rises to his haunches and pushes his treasure into his mouth with claw-like hands. The male cardinal who was already there continues pecking at his breakfast, but flies away at the arrival of the blackbird.
I am the observer. From the kitchen window I see the turtle paused on the edge of what will eventually be a flower bed. He is almost hidden in the grass that needs cutting. The tracks he has left in the road on his way to the pond are wide and smooth and symmetrical. He is nonplused by Owen’s attention, the cold nose poked at his head, the dancing from side to side. He pauses long enough for Owen to lose interest and then slowly, ever so slowly, moves on.
I am the observer of the barn swallows nesting on the front porch, the black snake writhing his way under the shrubbery, the black swallowtail perching on the verbena at the edge of the road. I am always the observer.
Until today. Today I am the observed.
Across the field, the doe stands at the very edge of the cultivated rows, the long deep forest of hardwoods within an easy leap. Her fawn is a few feet away nibbling at the tiny cotton plants that have just pushed up through the crust of soil.
The doe is not eating. Not right now. Her ears, two leaf-shaped satellites, are raised and she is looking in my direction. It is at least a hundred yards to where I stand, still and silent in the middle of the road. I have stopped to watch them, the doe and the fawn, and instead find myself being watched.
I know that the slightest movement on my part will send the deer hurrying to cover, so we — the doe and I — find ourselves paused like a movie frame. In the space between us a question hovers in the heavy summer heat: Are you a danger?
I am not, but the mother does not know that. She knows only that I am different and in her world different cannot be trusted.
Eventually my curiosity overwhelms me. How much movement can I make without the doe bolting? I lift one arm from my side and place it on my hip. That answers the question. She turns and steps like a ballerina into the brush, glancing back only long enough to make sure that the fawn follows and to watch me for one last second.
I do not immediately resume my walk. I stare for a moment at the break in the tree line where the animals have disappeared and wonder what it meant, this brief encounter. It is not a lesson about maternal instinct or survival or co-existence. It is a lesson about what happens when something, someone different comes close enough to see me.
I have confronted and been confronted by deer hundreds of times. They have darted into the beam of my headlights and into the sides of my cars. They have scurried into the branch when I’ve opened the back door suddenly. They have, in herds of 10 or 20, raced across the fields with the grace of a corps de ballet. But they have not, like this doe, simply walked away.
And in walking, not running, she reminded me of this: You run when you are afraid. You run when staying is too hard. You run not necessarily knowing where you’re going, but knowing it is too dangerous to stay. Walking away is different. It is fueled by strength, not fear. It is prompted by a clear notion of where you are and where you want to go. And it always allows for one final look back.