Early October and the leaves were already long-gone to orange and gold, already falling from the old oaks and maples, the air chilly, mornings damp with low-lying fog and mist. I'd soon be needing more than a wool sweater for morning walks. The long field I had to cross to enter the woods was nothing by then but rough stubble and thorns, brown, a no-man's land, and I'd taken to wearing boots in the last few weeks so my walk to the woods and back would be less miserable, so I wouldn't have to spend half an hour after I got home again picking prickly stubble from my socks.
A thick mist lingered wetly at the wood's edge that October morning when I'd headed for the solitude of the woods, my heavy wool sweater growing heavier, and clammy from the damp air. Once I'd entered the trees though, the discomfort of the crossing lifted. The deep woods always smelled faintly sweet, like bark and dirt and rot. Like things falling back to their most basic elements.
Without thinking, I'd entered the tree-line that morning by the old post that marked where the property ended, and had turned immediately to the left, picking my way through thick underbrush and fallen limbs to a clearing where I knew a wide stump squatted beside a creek-bed. Cold water trickled in it and made its crooked way around large rocks and fallen tree limbs. It didn't matter to me where it had come from, that icy water, or where it was heading. I wanted to sit a while at its muddy edge and watch, mindlessly, as it made its way from here to there.
In those first long months after my husband had packed his things and moved out – moved on – it had seemed easier to be alone deep in the woods than to be among others; easier to be solitary and silent than to be among sympathetic friends who didn't know how to help me or what to say to pull me past the ache of failure and sorrow that seemed never to lift. In that wood, I could be out of sight of curious neighbors. Away from well-meaning friends who were trying to set me up on blind dates with their bachelor cousins or uncles or brothers or widowed fathers. Away from my stunned, confused children for whom I had no way of explaining where their father had gone or the terrible turn our lives had taken.
One morning, a dog – a hay-colored retriever – had come to drink from the slow-running creek while I sat on the old stump thinking – or trying not to think. He'd dropped his yellow head and had lapped loudly, greedily, with his long pink tongue. Though I sat still, though I hadn't moved or shifted or even exhaled, he suddenly raised his head, ears lifted, and looked at me. Maybe that was how long it had taken for my scent to reach him – that fragrance of damp wool and shampoo. Or maybe he'd been startled by the sharp tang of late apples and cinnamon that still lingered on my hands and fingers from the morning's apple-peeling and canning.
Whatever had alerted him, I'd had enough time in those few seconds to see clearly the drops of water that hung, suspended, in the fine hairs of his muzzle. I was stunned, as if it were the first time I'd seen such a small detail so clearly. And then he turned and trotted off again in the direction from which he'd come.
There had been rumors in town of a feral dog pack roaming the fields and woods, but the animal I saw that morning hadn't been thin or ragged and he'd been alone, not in a pack. He had been one of only three animals I'd ever encountered in those morning woods. Once, there'd been a raccoon who'd stood up on hind legs and chittered madly at me and swayed menacingly then, seeing I wasn't to be frightened away by his fussing, he had dropped to all fours and waddled off again. Another morning, a small white opossum ambled into the clearing; it so much resembled a large rat I'd gasped and stood up, stumbling backwards in fright. The opossum hadn't seemed to give me much thought as it nosed around in the leaves and twigs. Backing up and moving forward. Backwards and forwards, over and over, his pink snout to the ground. He looked comical, like a wind-up toy, not a real animal. Then he, too had snuffled his way into the underbrush again and was gone. He'd seemed impossibly white and out of place in that dark, mossy, lichen-riddled place: a little pink-eyed ghost, popping in to root among the fallen leaves for grubs and bugs.
I knew there were also deer nearby but I'd never seen them. A tree grew crookedly at the edge of the property – a gnarled tree, split and charry still from an old lightning-strike – and sometimes, after strong winds or a thunderstorm storm had shaken the tree, small hard apples would lie in heaps beneath those twisted boughs. I always left apples from that tree to rot because they'd have made a poor applesauce or cobbler, hard and sour as they were. Not a one would have been sweet enough to eat. The deer though, in their hunger, had arrived soundlessly in the twilight – one, two, sometimes many at a time – to gorge themselves on the windfall apples. I knew because I'd seen the tamped-down grasses where they'd stood eating and the white fleshy apple cores they'd dropped. I'd seen the hoof-prints they'd left behind when they walked again across the clearing and vanished.
But the animal that followed me as I made my way homeward, out of the woods that October morning, was noisy and crashing, staggering forward like a wild, drunken thing, out of the tree-line and into the open field behind me. I heard it, then turned and saw it for what it was: a gray-brown deer, swaying, looking back at me. I don't know how long it took before it registered on me that the deer was a doe, or that she stood there with an arrow through her throat, pink foam frothing around the bright silver shaft. By the time I saw her clear, she charged away again along the tree-line, leaping with a speed that belied a wound so devastating. I stood there, unmoving, blinking hard, not quite believing I'd seen what I had seen.
She must have been moving, by then, out of adrenalin and sheer terror.
* * * * *
A hart, my grandmother had called that large-antlered stag we'd come upon suddenly in a narrow clearing in the forest where we'd taken a shortcut on our walk to the store. When the stag had turned solemnly and walked back into the trees, she'd told me the story of Cernunnos, an Irish legend, a tale in which a lone stag would appear and disappear again at the edge of a haunted wood. A mythic creature, a being "outside of time." A hart who shifted its shape from an antlered man to a stag. An ageless creature who moved with ease between the Land of the Dead and the Land of the Living. When he appeared, it was a message. A sign.
Of what, I'd asked her excitably then, a sign of what?
But she had grown quiet and strange by then, saying only that the one for whom the sign was intended would know what it meant. She had always been given to odd beliefs, my grandmother, a woman with a penchant for seeing signs and portents in every simple thing: tangled twine on a pathway meant a traveler would become lost; two sticks laid across each other at a crossroads meant that there would be quarrels among friends and an unmendable rift; birds flying, break-neck, into windows were a sign that some devastation was coming. I'd learned to take most of what my grandmother told me as a kind of pleasant fiction, a story-teller's way of explaining the inexplicable. Of giving small things significance. Something by which to amuse an easily-amused granddaughter.
* * * * *
And yet, years later, that October morning, a deer had appeared out of nowhere, had stepped out of the mist, and had stood in front of me. She'd seemed, in that moment, a doppelganger, a mirror-image. For long seconds we stood like that, a plain little doe with a steely arrow lodged in her throat facing a woman gone almost mute.
No one had seemed able tell me why my voice was failing, not the white-coated doctors in the halls of medicine, not the specialists they'd sent me to, not the old women among whom I lived who'd offered me their best broths, brought me herbs and homemade poultices to soothe the raw, wrecked throat and the ruined vocal cords.
Back then, I wouldn't have been able to tell anyone of that morning in the field, much less say what I'd felt when the doe passed into view, halted before me, the arrow protruding from her throat, then leapt furiously away again. I remember putting my hand to my throat. I remember the thunder of her arrival and the thunder of her departure. I remember seeing her gray flanks disappear as she reentered heavy mists far down the field in which I stood. I remember also the rise of hot anger in me when the huntsman with his heavy bow had stepped from the woods, following her trail: a man hunting out of season, a man who'd shot a doe – a female – which was forbidden around those parts, even during hunting season.
Only a coward would shoot a doe; a doe might well have had a young fawn or two tucked into a bed of leaves somewhere in the forest.
He looked up and, seeing me there, briefly lowered his bow. But when I said not a word, when I stood there, flushing bright with anger, one hand at my throat, he looked again at the ground and found something that seemed more interesting than the silent woman who stood in a cleared field before him – perhaps crushed stubble where the doe had thrashed her way into the field, or a blood trail, or the distinctive curve of hooves in the soft ground – and he set out again, in the direction where she had bounded away.
How far could a thing, thus stricken, run?
* * * * *
In my dreams of the hart, she turns back into the forest and makes her way, staggering, to some safe place, to the mud bank of that stream where, finally, her forelegs give way and she kneels on the leafy ground, a supplicant, a penitent at the water's edge. The hind legs tremble and give way too until the soft white underbelly lies full-length along the muddy, leaf-strewn ground. The silky head sinks to the marsh, the wild light of terror or of pain flickering and going out, the jaw going slack, the soft ears no longer flicking.
In the dream, no other animals, large or small, devour her; neither does she fall to rot and stench, the soft hide stiffening. In the dream, the huntsman does not find her or take her body. As I drift some nights now toward sleep, she also sleeps and, in time, the arrow snaps and falls through and the wound in her throat closes and she quickens and wrenches herself upright and stumbles on unsteady legs, regaining her footing. She lifts her head and steps silently back through the dense forest and vanishes.
In the dream, I am standing again in that stubbled field when she steps forward, out of a wet morning fog, when she approaches me again, so close this time that I can see the white throat and the tender place where the arrow pierced her, the slight scar of it that remains, so close I can put out my hand and almost touch her. In the dream, I always understand, I always know what she means; the sign of her comes clear. When I wake again, I don't remember what it is that I knew in the dream. When I waken, she is always vanishing again, moving back through the mists, back through the field of time, a phantom, a lost sign, a deep and unfathomable silence.
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