(A version of this essay was published in Main Line Life on 11/20/08. It was also the basis for my short story “The Hunt.”)
For two days the fawn appeared alone outside the north windows, searching out whatever providence our yard had to offer. The first time I saw it, I stood and looked out the windows for other deer, but saw none. It was the first time I’d seen such a young deer alone in the neighborhood.
I called my daughter to the window, cautioning her not to make any sudden movements, so that the fawn would not be startled. Right away she asked if we could feed it. I told her I had no idea what deer ate, but I imagined berries and plants. I knew friends complained about deer who ate bulbs they had planted, and tender young shoots of new plants, but I always thought that was just their way of life. Deer have to eat, and since their habitat is shrinking continually, they must forage where they can, tulips or not.
But actually feeding the deer was another thing altogether. It wasn’t like feeding a neighborhood cat that comes around every now and then. Or even like feeding birds, because birds are on a journey, and you are only a stop on their flight path. I had recently read an article describing how animal control officials were trying to thin out the deer population. If we fed the fawn were we adding to that problem? And what about natural selection? Did we have the right to intervene in that process?
I always love seeing deer in our neighborhood, just north of Chicago. Sightings are not common, so whenever I do see one I stop whatever I am doing, because I feel I am in the presence of something rare and majestic. We once lived in a neighborhood in southern California where peacocks walked up and down the streets, and I felt the same way when I saw one of those all puffed up with its feathers spread like a jeweled fan. Those too were considered pests, noisy and dirty, and the City Council there was always being petitioned to do something to get rid of them. It seems that we human beings have developed a desire to eliminate all things in our environment that cause us discomfort.
As my daughter and I watched out the window, the fawn sidestepped along the grass, with marionette legs, and eyes too large and soulful for its fragile face. Suddenly my daughter ran to the kitchen and then out to the lawn, carrying pieces of bread in her hands. She was just thirteen then, with long legs that easily matched the fawn’s mincing dance.
She moved an inch at a time, not breathing. I found I was holding my breath too. The fawn retreated with some uncertainty as my daughter steadily approached. Their minuet went on, through dry fall leaves that sounded like whispering.
Finally my daughter laid the bread on the grass with infinite care and show of trust. It was this movement that startled the fawn. It leapt sideways, nostrils flaring, legs trembling, and hooves rapping and sliding along the pavement of the driveway. Hooves weren’t made for pavement; they were made for forest paths. I could feel its fear in my own body.
My daughter came back into the fold of the house. The fawn stopped its retreat, calmed itself, and did its ballet back toward the bread, all the while looking toward the house. He poked his nose into the bread and appeared to taste it.
I read once that before white settlers came to that part of the country, herds of fifty deer and more moved back and forth between the Skokie River and Lake Michigan. I would love to have seen a sight like that. Our poor straggler didn’t seem to have much of a chance.
I thought to myself of speeding cars, starvation, neglect, disease, the nearby train tracks. I thought of my daughter and how she was suddenly a young woman about to venture out on her own. I had been with her nearly every day of her life, and I hoped it had been enough.
We saw the fawn by itself every day for nearly a full week, always at around the same time of day. My daughter continued to leave food on the same patch of lawn – she left apple slices, carrots, and raw cranberries. The last time we saw the fawn it disappeared into the dusk in the trees at the edge of our property. That night there were other shapes in the twilight – larger shapes with stately antlers that moved majestically and magically, nudging the fawn away from our lawn and into the forest.