(This essay appeared in my essay collection Lake Forest Moments. I also adapted it into a short story called “The Hunt” that was published in American Airlines inflight magazine. You can read “The Hunt” under the Short Stories category on this website.)
For two days the fawn has appeared alone outside the north windows, searching out whatever Providence our yard has 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 over, 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 recalled friends complaining about deer eating bulbs and tender young shoots of new plants, but I always thought that was just the way of life. Deer have to eat, and since their habitat is continually shrinking, they must forage where they can, tulips or not.
But actually feeding the deer is another thing altogether. It’s not 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 but a stop on their flight path. I had recently read news stories about 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 interfere in that process?
Sightings of deer are not all that common, and whenever I do see one I feel as though 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 we human beings have developed a desire to eliminate all things in our environment that cause us discomfort.
As my daughter and I watch out the window, the fawn sidesteps along the grass with marionette legs, and eyes too large and soulful for its fragile face. Suddenly my daughter runs to the kitchen and then out to the lawn, carrying pieces of bread in her hands. She is thirteen, with long legs that easily match the fawn’s mincing dance.
She moves an inch at a time, not breathing. I find I am holding my breath too. The fawn retreats with some uncertainty as my daughter steadily approaches. Their minuet goes on, through dry fall leaves that sound like whispering.
Finally my daughter lays the bread on the grass with infinite care and show of trust. It is this movement that startles the fawn. It leaps sideways, nostrils flaring, legs trembling, and hooves rapping and sliding along the pavement of the driveway. I can feel its fear in my own body.
My daughter comes back into the fold of the house. The fawn stops its retreat, calms itself, and does its ballet back toward the bread, all the while looking toward the house. He pokes his nose into the bread and appears to taste it.
I read once that before white settlers came to this 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 doesn’t seem to have much of a chance.
I think to myself of speeding cars, starvation, neglect, disease, the nearby train tracks. I think of my daughter and how she is suddenly a young woman about to venture out on her own. I have been with her nearly every day of her life, and I hope it has been enough.
We see the fawn by itself every day for nearly a full week, always at around the same time of day. My daughter continues to leave food on the same patch of lawn – she now leaves apple slices, carrots, and raw cranberries. The last time we see the fawn it disappears into the dusk in the trees at the edge of our property. That night there are other shapes in the twilight – larger shapes with stately antlers that move majestically and magically, nudging the fawn away from our lawn and into the forest.