The doe stands six feet tall in knee-high brush just off the trail. Its eyes follow me like a cop. Sam is next to me, watching the doe, silently but intently. The deer ignores her; Sam is of no matter. It is only me she studies.
“How beautiful you are,” I whisper, my eyes on hers, unwavering.
I then notice the fawn, just beyond her, and then another. Her babies are light brown with faint white spots across their bodies, like Bambi. They’re too busy munching on sapling leaves to see us. And that is why the mother is not about to blink; for she would do anything she has to, anything she must.
It’s 6 a.m. We have been in this part of Fullersburg Woods, a county forest preserve, for only a few minutes, walking past the old stone lodge built during the Depression on the loop trail along the banks of Salt Creek. The morning birdsong has only begun and water is high but hushed in its movement, the current only noticeable when it ripples across a fallen tree branch. I have come here to be quiet, Sam and I, early in the day when the parking lot and the trails are empty to fill my mind with solitude. I want a different walk for Sam today, a different one more me, and I need the peace only the woods can give.
I am out of sorts, today. It’s a number of things—a chronic stomach issue is flaring making it uncomfortable to sleep, but more importantly my younger son has been unexpectedly blue despite coming to a final deal on a new home, a place to begin a life with his fiancé, despite the anticipation of a fun trip to see family out east who will hold a wedding shower for them. Instead, it seems, things are stressful. This so-called “adulting” can be daunting. There is much to do, much to plan for a big move, for a wedding, paperwork, and lenders and lawyers. It’s not overwhelming for most, but it’s a lot for him, a young man finding his way. And the parent knows stress is a sneaky thing. I feel a bit silly worrying about it. Still, it’s there.
Sam and I step slowly along the trail and the big doe keeps her eyes locked on me as we move. Sam remains alert to them, but does not pull on the leash. She does not growl or huff. It’s a little curious, her behavior. Sam has never been this close to a deer before and it’s as if she is hushed by its presence.
“What do you think girl?” I quietly ask. Sam snaps her head to me in response. But quickly returns her attention to the deer.
The doe steps closer to us, a move I did not expect. She then lifts her left leg in an exaggerated manner and aggressively stamps her hoof on the ground. In the quiet of the early morning, there is a distinct thud. She does it again. The deer’s eyes do not waiver. Thud. What is this? I think. I learn later that a deer will stamp its hoof when it senses possible danger. And a doe may do it as a signal, a call to her young that Momma is a little worried. So, be alert. Pay attention. And listen to your mother.
I’m amazed how Sam is taking this. She does not see the stamping as some measure of hostility. She doesn’t bark or snarl. Maybe Sam knows. Maybe she understands. Sam is not a mother, never will be thanks to spaying, but instinct is a powerful thing. Maybe Sam does not react to the deer’s parental signal in the manner one would expect because she comprehends the concern. Maybe when Sam was a puppy, her golden doodle mother snapped at an aggressive dog who came too close to the young liter, or maybe she understood her mother’s menacing soft growl when a fox paced the fence of the Indiana farm where her mother gave birth.
I hope to telephone my son later today. Help where I can. Ease some anxiety. Maybe my stomach issues are related, my own worry surfacing. But I also question this thought. Parents want to protect their young, save them from the unpleasant, wrestle away the threats. It’s only natural. It’s instinct, like the doe. But there will be a time when Momma won’t be there to stamp her hoof and the children will have to figure it out on their own. Life in the woods can be scary. But it can be beautiful, too. Look at what I am witnessing in the early light of this day, the majesty of it. The beauty, however, is only realized on our own terms, with our own eyes, our own hearts. Beauty, security, serenity come to us only when we decide to let it.
Sam and I watch as the mother turns and ducks into the woods. The fawns follow. They do not run. They are safe. They are certain of their place here. The doe has determined that we are not a threat; we are not here to harm. We, too, are out to welcome the day, embrace the quiet, find a little harmony.
At a junction on the trail there are wooden signs and I think of taking another path, but decide to stay on the loop, only to realize our half-an-hour walk has been one big circle. I laugh. “Look familiar, Sam?” I ask. The old tree trunk bench at the creek’s edge we saw earlier is again right in front of us. I take a seat, pull out a handful of cooked bacon slices from a bag in my pocket and feed them to Sam. She sits to eat slowly. That’s when I hear a now familiar sound. Directly across the trail, fewer than twenty-five feet from us, is the doe, the same one, her eyes on me, and she is stamping her hoof again. Thud.
Sam sees her and watches. “Doesn’t she know who we are?” I ask. “Remember us. We’re cool. No worries.” Thud. “It’s okay, Mom,” Thud.
Just behind the doe, I see the fawns. The mother appears to be shielding them now, creating a bodily barrier. In a few moments, the doe backs up and begins to step slowly through a strand of maple trees, the fawns shadowing her, and all are soon out of sight.
I offer Sam more bacon. “What kind of parent would you have been, Sam? I ask. “As good as her?” Sam chews; her dark eyes twitch at mine. There’s a glint from the low morning sun. “I’m certain I know the answer, “ I say and pat her head.
I think I’ll hold off for now on calling my son. I’ll be right here if he needs me. He knows that. And as we leave the preserve’s parking lot, I roll down the car’s window and Sam stretches into the breeze, her eyes on the woods, watching, one might believe, for the doe and her babies, making sure everything is all right.