“That is their medicine,” she said. “They offer themselves up.”
She was speaking of hunting, and so I disregarded her words when they came to me, second-hand. Slob hunters are slob hunters, rednecks in the Adirondacks or wannabe-healers in Montana, and I have heard all kinds of justifications from them, though not usually so dressed in eagle feather jewelry.
“They offer themselves up.”
A feminizing of the wild, the most absurd point to which “she asked for it” could be reduced.
When I was ten — eleven? twelve? — I walked into the woods in Maryland, away from family without their knowing. Narrow trails led me among the red oak and maple, the dogwood, and then the forest filled with eyes. They regarded me for a long moment, then flashed white tails at me and moved away. I followed them to a small clearing, a bit of opening inside a creek’s bend, and though they looked up at me when I crossed over they did not spook. It was as if they had expected me to join them, and I sat among them in the grass as they cropped the century-old apples. It was dark when I returned.
There is a moment every now and then in which I hear one door closing and another opens in my breast. I lose my skin. I cannot move, and the light blinds me.
“They offer themselves up.” It is absurd. It cannot be. No species long survives whose members offer themselves up to hunters, clawed or fanged or drunken orange-clad. Fleet limbs for broken field sprints, hooves honed sharp against dire wolves and short-faced bears and lions, and now even the pumas take the sick and old ones first. A healthy stag, a wary doe could take an eye, break a mouthful of teeth. Two years ago on my way to the creek at night a loud crack came from the woods, too sharp to be anything but a hoof breaking an inch-thick branch, and then nothing but the rustling of leaves in wind.
I ran hard. I can run hard in the dark. In light I cannot forget what shape I am.
It has been a long time since I spent my days in thick forests. In the land where I spent most of my adult life the woods are park-like and broad, except where the way is blocked by walls of poison oak. The undergrowth, the vines and tangles and the head-high shade-growing trees I knew back east burn out too readily there. It has been so long since I simply passed among trees with no way to walk save that the deer made for themselves.
The black-tails to the north have no trouble with poison oak. They eat it. I could not follow them through, except when they presented themselves and ran with me at night.
I wonder sometimes if the puma knew exactly what he was doing. The “deer medicine” story was related to me by one who had found it useful. She had been trying to figure me out. She found some insight in the story. The woman in the story had been justifying her hunting, and so I disregarded her words.
They do not offer themselves up. They fight like hell to live. But they are curious, and we mistake that curiosity for slowness. They face the light in frank wonder. Harts open to the world outside. Their curiosity makes them vulnerable, and the world eats them. At the Deadfall Lakes two years ago we sat in a dark camp, no fire, and something made my hair stand up. I aimed a small hand light: green eyes. “We have eyes,” I said, and Matthew and I discussed who they might belong to for a time. Coyote, cat, and bear were all nearby, and for that matter horse and steer, but there was a fluid, calm motion to the disembodied eyes that felt wrong for any of those, and then I remembered my light had a focus ring. I widened the beam: a stag. Too many points to count in my dim light.
I resist; I resist. The deer medicine is not mine. Despite my staring jaguars down, I am not strong enough to face the world broadside. And why? This is not what courage is about. Taking on the world’s pain as avocation: what a grandiose, debilitating justification for codependence. The most absurd point to which “I deserve it” could be reduced. It is far too much to read into a metaphor.
They do not offer themselves up, but I wonder if I do. All this writing, all this watching an attempt to stare into the light. A walk into the forest and no walk back, and death is not the only path into those woods.
There are deer in the Mojave, planted there long ago for the ease of hunters, but I mainly do not see them: just their spoor. They stay up in the mountains, curl up under rock shelters during the heat of day, come out at dusk to drink from springs, from guzzlers. Not long ago I leafed through a book of photos, shots taken by tripwire of animals drinking from Kessler Spring, coyotes and badgers and bighorn, and a band of black-tailed deer standing lordly among the yuccas. The buck was flare-lit, overexposed, and stood with his head turned leftward toward the camera. He was well fed for a desert black-tail; he showed no ribs. He gazed straight at the camera. His eyes glowed green.