Foraging along the woods’ edge, the doe looks up from the hydrangea she is nibbling and twitches an ear—a salute, I think, stopping the car, though it isn’t a salute.
She may be afraid for herself and the fawn with its muzzle in the mast, but shows no fear standing serene at the border of my yard, and being a writer I ponder “serene,” part wither as in “sere,” part song as in “serenade,”
the word transporting me to a page glowing under lamplight far from her unspoken truth.
So, with my foot on the brake, motor idling, and radio off, I stop wondering and simply look into those eyes, black against speckled trees.
The Cherokee who lived in these woods when the world was young believed that the first people could talk to deer but forgot the language, and I guess that’s true because the book the doe and I share is closed.
When people inhabited the world as dreamers, deer taught them to kill only what they needed to eat and clothe themselves and to live in harmony with animals, but now here we are, the doe and I, gazing dumbly at one another.
She is poured upside-down on the sunlit retinas of my eyes, and I am inverted in the midnight under her long lashes. I rub her neck and withers and the dark winter pelt along her back with my gaze, and she smells on the glow of my freckled skin a dreaded stench
—all this looking little more than a standoff.
This year I have written as many pages as the autumn leaves scattered in reds and yellows between us, and over my lifetime I have stacked enough to pile in heaps against the oak, poplar, dogwood, and hickory along the path down to the creek.
When I type, my words mingle with all words—now and in the past—my digital chatter floating among as many bits of meaning as the leaves on all trees, but in our mute clearing the doe’s eyes, like screens asleep in my house at the top of the hill, go dark.
“What do you have to say for yourself when words won’t do?” they ask.
And I have no answer, except this. This moment when she twitches her ear again and glances away dipping her long neck to the ground, but thinks better of it, and lifts her head quickly to see if I have raised a club or bow or gun against her,
ready to bound away,
but I sit still, waiting and watchful and weaponless, rewarded by her trust when she relaxes and returns my gaze one last time, this shrug we share as a blessing in a world no longer young, before she and her fawn safe in my presence
their way through rocks at the ragged margin and wander off into the wordless
Steven Harvey is the author of The Book of Knowledge and Wonder, a memoir about coming to terms with the suicide of his mother published by Ovenbird Books as part of the “Judith Kitchen Select” series. A section of the memoir appeared in The Best American Essays 2013 selected by Cheryl Strayed. He is also the author of three books of personal essays. A Geometry of Lilies, Lost in Translation, and Bound for Shady Grove and edited an anthology of essays written by men on middle age called In a Dark Wood. He is a professor emeritus of English and creative writing at Young Harris College, a founding faculty member in the Ashland University MFA program in creative writing, a senior editor for River Teeth magazine, and the creator of The Humble Essayist, a website designed to promote literary nonfiction. He lives in the north Georgia mountains.
Photo by Paul Bilger