By Donna Steiner
Yesterday at dusk a deer walked through the yard. For about two seconds, we made eye contact. The deer stood still, body facing away, head turned toward me. “Be careful, baby,” I said, quietly. She had just crossed the road, and I was referring to cars, and hunters.
This morning I went outside and scanned the vicinity, visually tracing her path. I live on a ridge, which means she’d climbed uphill. She may have begun at the base of the ridge, where a stream carves through stands of trees and knots of underbrush. I’ve seen other deer down there, sipping clean water or, having heard the retort of a hunter’s gun, standing stock-still. Hunters aren’t permitted in the area, but posted bans are rarely enforced. One day I watched a deer stand, unmoving, for over 30 minutes. I needed binoculars to see to the base of the ridge. Every ten minutes or so I’d go back and check – the deer did not relent. Her life depended on her stillness – if she moved, she’d be shot.
I’ve lived in several locales that were appealing to hunters, and there were times I’ve worried that I would inadvertently become a target. When I wander into the yard, I try to remember to wear something bright and colorful. More often than not, however, I realize upon returning indoors that I’ve been clad in earth tones, moving slowly, potentially mistakable for a creature not human. Generally, when I hear gunshots, I stay inside.
This morning, however, there were no shots. It’s January and fresh snow has fallen. It’s an austere landscape: a radical slope, thousands of trees leading down to the creek, thousands of trees leading up the other side of the ridge. I feel like I live on one lip of a giant V, the house built into the ridge, trees my nearest enduring neighbors. Among those trees, deer slip. Occasionally one makes the climb up through our yard, and it is always uncanny and memorable. Unlike the vocal wild turkeys, who are skittish, or the burnished foxes, who seem single-mindedly intent on reaching a distant destination, a deer might stop for a moment if it’s not being pursued. Standing among trees, in silence, nobody around but the deer – it’s a sublime and nearly inexplicable experience. During the few seconds when both parties are startled into motionless observance, something occurs. It might be no more complex an occurrence than seeing – we see each other. It feels like authentic recognition. And then the deer disappears.
When I was eleven, my father disappeared. This was literal. My parents split up and my father was just gone one day, his closet empty of his clothes, the driveway empty of his car. We lived in New Jersey, and he landed in Alaska, as though he needed to get as far away as he could without the benefit of a passport.
After a year he came back east, and the family began what was called visitation. This meant he’d come on Saturdays and take us to a movie or for a walk on the beach. In the early months of this arrangement, we’d get ready and sit on the stoop, eagerly waiting for him. But sometimes he didn’t come. Thirty minutes would pass, then an hour, and we’d hold out hope that his Buick would round the corner. Eventually my sister would go inside, and then my brother. One of us always had to be the last one waiting. I was the oldest, so I believed the responsibility was mine.
Visitation became a transition period during which my father slowly disappeared again. He was technically a part of our lives, but fading in increments. Eventually he moved to Florida and the visits stopped. He sent a postcard that read, “I finally found my place in the sun.” The card confused me; it seemed romantic and spoke to some wanderlust I recognized. It was dramatic in its simplicity, and I was happy for my father, who had been so sad for so long. It was good that he’d found his place, right? But something nagged at me. There was something unsettling in the word “finally.” Had he been searching for this paradise his whole life? Had we – his children – kept him from finding this place? Were we just a cluster of pesky kids to him now? Was our history erased?
The neighbors view deer as pests. The guy in the nice house down the road practices bow-hunting in his yard, setting up a target and shooting arrows at it over and over while his kids play nearby. Fleeing deer have been known to smash through glass doors , destroying a room or two in their ensuing panic. They also create a driving hazard. Hitting a deer means, often, totaling one’s car and likely killing the deer. We see the bodies lying alongside roadways, as ordinary and ubiquitous around here as sheds or hay bales. Sometimes they look like they’re sleeping; other times their heads angle crazily, dark eyes open wide like entryways to some other world. There might be tire marks where a driver tried to veer; usually, however, there’s no sign of what happened beyond the relic of the animal. Whatever the human cost, it has been tended, but the deer is left behind, vulnerable to scavenger birds, awaiting an official removal vehicle which may or may not arrive. Deer are left to rot, I’m saying. While they decay, we ignore them.
Three months ago, my mother died. A few weeks later, my father died. When I tell people this, they react in one of two ways. Stunned silence is the first. It is a lot to process. The other way is an exclamation of protest, but it is weighted with a romantic assumption that softens the sound. The softening is because they believe my father died of a broken heart, unable to bear the loss of my mother.
My parents separated when I was 11 or 12; they did not speak to each other for many years after. The timing of their deaths was partly coincidence, partly the result of having lived eight plus decades and becoming, therefore, statistics firmly in the average range. My mother, in fact, hit the life expectancy number right on the nose for women in the United States, dying at 81. My father exceeded the average for men by a few years.
The numbers don’t really matter, of course; they are gone, and it wouldn’t have made it any easier if we’d had a few more years with them. They were here, and now they are not.
For many of the years they were here, I ignored them.
One evening, driving the road that transects the ridge, my partner and I crested a hill at dusk. Directly in front of us a car had stopped and the driver was outside his vehicle. The scene seemed surreal and in slow-motion, as though being filmed underwater. A deer was struggling in mid-stumble. As we braked, it rose to its knees and staggered. The deer was in our headlights, backlit by the setting sun. “It’s hurt!” I said, distressed, afraid that another car would approach behind us and send our vehicle slamming into the deer. But the deer rose to its feet and bounded across the road, into the woods. We looked at the other driver and he looked at us. There was no damage to his car. It was like we had all braked for a ghost.
Sometimes I wonder what happens to the creatures we brush up against. I found a turkey egg in the garden and took it inside to examine. I thought it was abandoned, but then read that turkeys will retrieve temporarily abandoned eggs. If they are frightened or startled, for instance, they might leave an egg behind. I immediately returned it to the same spot and the next day it was gone. Did the mother turkey rescue the egg? If so, did the poult survive? Is it among the rafter I see frequently, their giant bodies shining in the dawn? Or did a raccoon find the egg and make a quick snack of it? And what became of the tiny snapping turtle I spotted on the front steps? I named it Bucket, after Charlie Bucket in Roald Dahl’s novel of poverty and discovery. The turtle was no bigger than a quarter, and its egg looked like a punctured ping pong ball, a lovely, deflated, curious thing. Did Bucket live, or did something bigger and hungrier find it because of my neglect?
Over the years my parents survived a variety of catastrophes. Breast cancer for my mother, a stuttered series of heart attacks for my father. He had a patch of skin cancer removed, she received a pacemaker. Sometimes their illnesses overlapped, and on weekends I’d decide which one to call. They stayed in their respective homes until my mother had a stroke and my father had the final attack that would weaken him for good. Soon after the stroke, mother fell in rehab and broke her collarbone. She got pneumonia. Down in Florida, my father insisted on going home, where he sat still as a painting until his heart muscle stopped.
They both suffered. My mother lost the ability to form sentences. She was not in pain, but could not rest. Her hand rose repeatedly to her lips, her throat, her forehead, like an improvised sign of the cross, a slow-motion private ritual of anguish. Her legs were restless, too, and every afternoon as I watched her writhe I would leave the hospital room and cry.
I did not fly down to my father’s place in the sun to watch him die. But whether you witness the suffering or not, it haunts you.
A few years ago, I saw a snowy owl. It was the size of a five-year-old, and was standing in front of a neighbor’s house, just a few yards from the road. I stopped my car and stared at it. We made eye contact, and held it. I slowly opened the car door and stood. The owl never shifted, never broke our gaze. I saw its feathers ruffle in the breeze. I saw it blink. My heart raced and I wanted to speak but was afraid I’d spook it.
I’m not sure how long we stood there, but it was a luxurious minute or more, and then the owl bent to the ground and pulled, like a piece of spaghetti, a tendon from a small rodent it had killed. The tendon snapped, a sharp and effective end to my mystical moment.
An accomplished birder insisted that I had not seen a snowy owl, said it was impossible for the large bird to be in that part of the state at that time of year. His degree of certainty impressed me, but also bewildered. I saw that owl as surely as I breathe. It was as real as the five deer I saw lingering near the road today. They grazed amid the sumac, and were as close to me as the owl had been. The deer were nonchalant and graceful, high-stepping in the snow and eyeing me with disinterest.
What will become of those deer, I wonder. Will a rogue hunter take them down? Will I spy the largest through my binoculars, standing like a statue near the frozen stream, picking her way through brambles and broken limbs? We live in a marvelous, dangerous world, and one of its frustrations may be that we live with questions. Not everything can be researched, not everything can be settled.
I’ve never seen a human ghost. I do not expect to have contact with my parents, am skeptical of those who claim to have had visions of the dead, conversations with the dead, interactions of any kind with the dead. I’m not much inclined toward the supernatural but frequently, very frequently, I see deer ghosts leaping across the road. I’ve seen the ghosts of bears, too, lumbering into the density of the woods. And for every creature I’ve actually seen – seen the flesh of them, the beak and hoof and feather and scale and fur of them – I’ve also heard phantom calls in the night. They’re out there, I’m certain. I hear real sounds, legitimate sounds, and no authority can claim otherwise.
Or maybe it’s just one part of my brain trying to comfort another part, the way I dreamt of my father walking up the stairs of my mother’s house, heading toward their old bedroom. I watched him open the door, our eyes met, I felt happy – oh, how lovely, he is looking for her! – and I made myself wake up before I discovered what happened next.
The last time I saw my mother before her illness I tried to help her do the simplest thing. She had bought a new clock, one with an extra large display. We didn’t know yet that she was losing her sight; we didn’t know that a few months down the road, after the cataract surgery she feared, (we disregarded those fears), she’d have a stroke. All I knew that day was that she needed me to set the clock. The instructions were printed in 8-point font, crammed into a pamphlet of four languages, none of which made sense. While I tried to press buttons and advance numbers and slide dials, my mother chattered, and I snapped at her. She went silent, I did not apologize.
Among us creatures there are many languages. I hear them, I heed the shadows and the sources. I have looked into the eyes of owl and deer, I have held a newborn turtle in the palm of my hand. I silenced my mother that day…but I also smoothed lotion onto her bruised skin, I made her laugh, I whispered it’s okay, I repeated it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay. I have studied the gazes of my parents, their far-away looks, their dreaminess, the ways they shattered. They are ashes now, they are ocean, they are air. They are barely gone, but they are gone.
I do not expect a visit, not through dream or ghost , echo or other. But sometimes I go still, and I listen, and I think be careful, baby, be alert, because not one of us, not one, knows what happens next.
Donna Steiner’s essays and poetry have been published in literary journals including Fourth Genre, The Bellingham Review, The Sun, Full Grown People and The Manifest Station. She teaches literary citizenship and creative writing at the State University of New York in Oswego. A chapbook of five essays, Elements, was released by Sweet Publications.