By Sara McAulay
I’ve come here for raptors. Left my campsite at dawn, hiked down through blue shadows to the meadow. It’s late September, 8000 feet – so cold the grass crunches under my boots, the black creek is rimmed with ice.
Yesterday, I’m told, migrating hawks sailed past, ten or more an hour. This morning, I crunch toward the creek. Wait while the sky brightens. Wait for the brightness to fill with birds.
I’m not good at waiting. The grass around me thaws, then dries, gives off a dusty hayloft smell. Creek ice melts. The sky stares down, intense – a brilliant, empty blue. Where are the hawks? No birds at all, not even in the scrub beside the creek. Nothing moves but insects: mosquitoes, gnats, a cloud of small black biting flies roused by the sun. Beyond the meadow climbers angle, a trail of black ants, across the face of Lembert Dome.
Beyond the creek, a twig snaps in a thicket. Bare branches break. Something bigger than a bird is moving through the brush. Two naked limbs become a rack of antlers. On dainty legs, a buck steps into the clearing. Pensively, he munches leaves. Chews and swallows, noses flies from his flank, ordinary as a horse. And then he … replicates. Two deer stand before me. Two deer, three, and then there are five, the last with massive neck and eight-point branching rack.
Their coats are rough – slick here, shag-matted there as the season turns and they ready for winter. Another month and they will be in rut. Their antlers glisten, sticky and rubbed raw, tattered velvet streamers dangling. Flies cluster on wet new bone.
Five deer. At any moment one might wheel and snort, tail flagging danger, breaking the spell and scattering them all. But for the moment, in no hurry, they make their way beside the creek, browsing in the thickets. I follow without thinking, stopping when they stop then edging closer, across the creek beneath the bridge, drawing closer step by step till I can smell their rank, wild smell. Count their whiskers. Count the fat ticks clinging to their ears. One step and another, hand outstretched…. The big buck lifts his head. They all do, and swing about like compass needles, facing me.
I can’t tell if I’m afraid or not. It doesn’t feel like fear, it feels like being where I am, open to whatever happens, or does not. I hear them breathing as they watch me, hear the buzz of gnats and flies, the scatter of pellets in dry grass as one of them drops dung. Five pairs of liquid eyes, gold-lashed, unblinking. Five wet dark noses, five heads from which spring preposterous, miraculous, new-each-year-and-wrapped-in-living-velvet antlers that look less like tree-branches to me now than arms upraised in praise or supplication.
Slowly I kneel, hands on thighs, and wait. What happens? Maybe nothing. This is not one of those stories where animals speak aloud. No fiery finger thrusts down from a cloud to scorch a prophesy in the dirt.
They are. I am. Today their magic is the magic of the world that is, of things that bleed and die and are born, that are bitten by insects, that defecate. A strange calm settles: being, not-being, cut loose from time. Mosquitoes settle on the backs of my hands. I feel and don’t feel them biting. They are. I am. This is how it is to be observed by deer.
Somehow an hour has passed. Other hikers in the meadow, a father calling to his kids. Climbers wave in triumph from the summit of the Dome. Somewhere a redtail whistles, distant as dream. And the deer are gone, the last of them bounding into the woods, becoming shadow, already memory.
The hawk whistles again, and fills my binoculars. Banded breast. Scaly talons. Fierce gold eye.
Sara McAulay is the author of three novels and numerous works of short fiction (Black Warrior Review, California Quarterly, Mid-American Review, Third Coast, ZYZZYVA, among others). She received NEA and NJ State Council on the Arts Fellowships in prose. She has recently turned to poetry and flash, with work published or forthcoming in Bending Genres, Hole in the Head Review, Pine Row, Rise Up Review, Stone Literary Journal and Synkroniciti, among others. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with the world’s smartest and most beautiful Australian Shepherd dog.