|The Transformation Story Archive||The Blind Pig|
The Gift of the Woods
Based on a true novel by Helen Hoover, The Gift of the Deer
I jotted a few notes on the clipboard. "Mrs. Ford, your eyes are looking pretty good this year."
The spry elder woman blinked a couple of times out of amusement. "Don't they always? Men always fell for my baby blues. And I keep telling you to call me Liz."
I smiled. "Then you do have another problem. Your eyes are green, Liz."
She drew back in exaggerated shock. "Really? When did that happen?"
I laughed and looked once more at her chart. "Like I was saying though, your eyes are fine. You still have that cataract, of course, but it hasn't progressed in years. It's also not yet affecting your vision. So there isn't any need to surgery at this point. But we will want to look at that again next year."
She nodded as I helped her out of the exam chair. "I can't say that I'm unhappy to hear that. I could never stand the idea of surgery."
I led her out the door and into the waiting room. "Why don't you take a look for a new set of frames while I finish off this paperwork. Paula will be able to help you in a moment."
As Mrs. Ford stepped into the waiting room, I heard her husband say in a hushed tone, "Liz? Take a look at this..."
I didn't pay much attention and stepped into Paula's domain behind the reception desk, handing her the sheet. "Here you go. We're going to need to order new lenses and frames. She's in a bit of a hurry, though. She's a writer, and her last pair came apart."
Paula looked thoughtful. "I could call..."
Mrs. Ford walked up to the desk, her expression troubled. "Doctor? Can I ask you something?"
I frowned a little and nodded. "Of course."
She beckoned for me to come around the partition into the waiting area. Pointing at a picture on the wall, one that her husband was intently studying, she asked. "Can you tell us were you managed to find that?" Her voice was had a slightly awed tone.
Most of the pictures in my office I would have had no idea. Almost all are relatively generic framed posters of various types, mostly in a nature theme. The kind that you'd find duplicated in dozens of shops, but were always wonderful to look at. I'd always felt that there wasn't much point in good vision if you didn't have beautiful things to look at.
But this picture was different. It was a family photo of sorts, even though the casual observer might not have realized that. Laying on the ground was a whitetail doe nestled next to two spotted fawns. Standing over her was a younger, but obviously not mature, doe. The scene was being watched over by another deer, this one a buck with a full rack.
I nodded. "Sure, but it's not a poster print or anything. It's a blow-up from a digital photo taken for the newspaper last year."
They both looked at me surprised. "Last year?" asked Mr. Ford. He looked back at the picture. "That's impossible."
Mrs. Ford reached out to the glass and touched the image of the buck with a trembling hand. "That buck is dead. He has to be." She whispered.
I shook my head. "No, that's not a normal buck. That's a SCAB friend of mine and his family. The whole family has SCABS. It's a very rare case. Actually, it's unique."
Ade Ford tapped the glass over Jon's picture. "Dr. Coe, I don't know how, but he is the spitting image of a buck that used to come around our place years ago." He traced the pattern of white around the eyes and neck. "This looks exactly the same." He pointed to a tiny, almost invisible nick near the tip of an ear. "He had a nick here to. We saw him up close a lot, and I took a lot of pictures of him."
I looked intently at Ade Ford. I didn't know him that well beyond his being a patient here. He was a SCAB, but you wouldn't know it to look at him. The only area affected with him were his eyes, and that was even for the better. At almost seventy years old, the man had vision better than any normal human. The advantage of having the eyes of a hawk. Ade was also a photographer and nature painter of some note. If anyone had an eye for detail, it was probably him.
Mrs. Ford sighed. "Wait, Ade. It's not him." She pointed to the scar on Jon's shoulder. "He never had anything like that."
Now I was shifting uncomfortably. "Actually, he got that shortly before he came back."
"Came back?" they asked, almost in unison.
"He came down with SCAB's very early in the epidemic. He was changed into a deer someplace in West Virginia and was stuck that way for about twenty years, with no memory of being human. Someone shot him with an arrow that year, and the pain brought some of his humanity to the surface."
Ade looked back at the picture and then at his wife and then back to me. "Was he still in West Virginia when he was shot?" he asked.
I shook my head. "No, he was about fifty miles south of here."
Ade looked almost ashen. "That would explain so much." He whispered. He looked at me intently. "Doctor, some years ago, we rescued a starving buck near our house up in the mountains. He stumbled into the clearing around our house barely able to walk, trembling." Ade shuddered at the memory.
"We saved him," continued Liz, "fed him until he was well." She smiled, "Then we couldn't get rid of him."
Ade smiled at the memory. "Can we meet your friend? We'd really like to know if this is the same buck."
I shrugged and looked at my watch. "Well, Jon's going to be stopping by in about three hours for lunch. If you want to meet him, you might want to come back here around noon."
Mrs. Ford looked at her husband. "Is that enough time to get to the house and back? We should bring your portfolio."
Ade looked at his own watch reflexively and then started guiding his wife to the door. "It is if we burn rubber. Let's go. We'll be back by noon!" he shouted over his shoulder.
I shook my head and walked back to Paula's desk. She was staring at me a little oddly. "What?" I asked.
"Do you think those people are for real?" she asked finally.
I shrugged. "I think they think they're for real. I'm guessing that they'll get home and take another look at the pictures and realized that they were wrong. No big deal. I mean, you have any idea how many whitetail deer there are in this area?" I looked at my patient list and back at the empty waiting room. "No show?"
Paula nodded. "Just called and said he'd be late..." The opening door interrupted us both as a patient walked in. Over the next few hours, I almost completely forgot about the Fords.
That was until they hustled through the door about five minutes to noon carrying a satchel. "Are we late?" asked Ade.
I didn't get a chance to respond. Liz drew in a shocked breath as she looked out the tinted window looking out over the parking lot. A deer, with a fawn in tow, was making a direct line for my office door.
Jon and son had arrived for lunch.
It didn't start as a nightmare. In fact, it was anything but. There was a cabin in the woods, surrounded by snow. This was a place I knew was safe for me. A place associated with food and love. The perfect place to watch my fawns grow up.
I was proud of my sons. They had perfect antlers their very first year, and I'd watched them from a distance as they practiced their sparring skills. They would do well when another buck came around to challenge for one of the many does in the area. There was only one doe for me, though.
She would come into Heat, soon. And she would accept no others than me. We loved each other very much, in a deer sort of way.
But that serenity was soon shattered.
And then I was running.
I didn't know from what or who, but the feeling was of all four cloven hooves digging into the snow covered ground. Away from some danger behind my wildly flagging tail. That wouldn't otherwise be unusual, but I was running not from a predator. But from...
Please. I didn't want to... They...
My wife's voice echoed out of the stark whiteness of my dreamscape. "Jon! Jon wake up! You're having a nightmare!"
Maxine's gentle hands awoke me. But I was nearly awake anyway. I took a deep breath and opened my eyes. I was already in morph, and used my hands to wipe away the tears. "Thanks, love."
"I'd gone to check the boys, and when I came back you were rolling around on the bed. Be glad we sleep on the floor. That's the third night running, you know." She sat down next to me, and gave me a hug and a lick-kiss. "Anything you want to talk about? I think I caught you at a later point this time."
Her scent, mixed with the light smell of our twin boys, was very comforting. I sighed and looked around the bedroom. There was nothing in it that would especially help me in forgetting what I'd just experienced. Just a nightstand, dresser. The pad that Maxine and I slept on in full deer form. A mirror on the wall behind the pad. Then there was the ionized-air scent removal system that we used throughout the house.
To my mind, that system always made the air smell ever so slightly like blood.
A scent that I could very much do without at that moment. "What time is it?"
"About time to get up anyway. Don't you want to talk about it?" she asked, massaging my tense shoulders.
I relaxed a bit under her care. "Maybe later. I need some time to digest this. I don't really remember it very clearly..." In fact, I was left with just the feeling of the dream. Nothing specific. I was quickly stuffing it down into a corner of my mind. "I've got Jimmy today, right?" I asked, changing the subject.
"Yes. It's your turn today." Because Maxine and I were such cautious parents we'd never even looked for a babysitter for our kids. Sure, Grace could look after herself. She was a sturdy ten year-old. It was our 18 month-old fawnboys that we worried about. They were a hoof-full to say the least! So to spread the stress, Maxine and I traded. The Big Boss let me have one of the boys in my office, but wouldn't allow them both. So we compromised. "What time are you meeting Brian for lunch?"
"Noon, of course," I replied. "I've got a half day today, so Jimmy and I were going to spend it at Holiday Park afterwards. He needs to spend some time in the city." We made sure that our boys spent as much time among humans and cities as woods and animals. Maxine and I liked balance in our lives.
"Just make sure you take his tether. Do you want the carrier today?"
I shook my head. "No, I'll be in morphic most of the time." The tether kept him from running off. James was the more active of the twins and preferred four legs more than two. He generally stuck his nose into every nook an cranny because of his overdeveloped sense of curiosity. The both of them could walk on four hooves in full from nearly from the moment they were born, just like natural fawns. It was the two-legged form they still had problems with.
The morning routine was pretty much the same. I went and got Grace out of bed, Maxine fixed breakfast for her while I grazed a section of the lawn (which actually wasn't grass, but a kind of "weed" that was very tasty), supplemented by a bowl full of beechnuts, acorns, cedar buds, raspberries, maple leaves, and carrots. Always carrots. I couldn't describe it, but carrots always gave me a certain feeling. It was that morning that I realized that that feeling was associated with last night's dream. I paused eating to consider it. Maxine was looking at me. "We'll talk about it this evening, love."
She stomped a hoof once on the carpet, in effect saying "We'd better!"
When I picked up Jimmy that morning and put him on my knee, he said "Daddy!" in a bleating voice, and hugged me. I licked him behind his ears once, then went on to groom the rest of his face the same way, like Maxine often did; an instinct so primal to all of us that we normally thought nothing of it. He giggled at the grooming and returned the lick, completing a sort of "bonding" ritual. It was certainly one of the more intimate aspects of being a deer that I liked. Bryan said they were growing a bit faster than human children, and both of their vocabularies were growing daily. Though they were basically at the "babbling" stage and would be for several months.
I attached Jimmy's fifteen-foot tether to a belt around my and his waist and fell to four hooves. Jimmy was already that way, and I saw that Maxine had Adam in a carrier on her back. Now ready to go, Jimmy got up off the floor where he'd been patiently waiting and we left the house.
Briefly, I stopped in the hallway and looked in the mirror on my way out. A thirteen point rack! My best yet. The local trees certainly felt it often enough at the spots where I marked territory. We were in the suburbs far enough that I occasionally saw natural deer; so I had to make sure that any bucks who came around knew the local doe was taken.
Considering our three kids already, Maxine and I had decided that having more would be a bad idea. While neither of us did anything drastic about it, we were assured that the methods we both used were completely effective. Considering that the first climax of the Rut had just passed with no signs of additional family members on the way, we were much encouraged that Maxine's second estrous period in the middle of December would turn out the same way.
It was a special time of year for the both of us. Thanksgiving was in two days, which would make it nearly three years since I'd first found Grace alone in the forest. And soon after that, Maxine. My love.
Word had long been settled into a normal pattern. Jimmy got his corner with toys to play with while I focused on work at my desk. His human words and happy sounds were often mixed with fawn bleats of joy. My son normally spent the first hour or so sniffing out every corner of my department. Jared and Inan (my two colleagues) never seemed to mind.
With the three of us watching over him he would come to no harm. Once I heard a bleat and went to go see what he'd seen. Someone had moved a desk since last he'd been in, and he'd wanted to tell daddy. His memory seemed to be getting better daily. After his exploration he generally rested on his pad in my office and chewed his cud (while I chewed mine at my desk) and then slept for a few hours.
A hoof-full at times, but he knew when daddy didn't want to be bothered. He was very well-behaved. Most of the time.
Because when he wasn't, the whole floor knew it. Fawns can bleat quite loudly.
I put out the forecast for the evening edition and sent the relevant info to Jared, who managed the weather part of the Paper's web site. And then at 11:30 it was time to leave for Brian's shop for lunch. I went onto four legs and nudged Jimmy once, attaching his tether to my waist band before I did so. "Time to go, son." I said through my vodor. He stood up on gangly legs and followed me out the door.
The sight of a buck and a fawn walking through the downtown district of any big city would draw a few stares. However, I trotted this route often enough that the shop owners knew me and Jimmy. But even so we still drew a lot of odd looks from others. As a result he stayed close to me as we trotted through the streets. Twenty five minutes later I was trotting up to Brian's storefront. It was then that I smelled it.
Two scents. Scents so hauntingly familiar that I stopped in my tracks. Frozen. I took a deep breath, nostrils flaring. My ears twisted this way and that, perking forward after each complete search, then starting again. I'd automatically fallen into my "caution" mode. Muscles poised to move if danger showed itself. The scents came from a truck parked in front of Brian's storefront. Jimmy, sensing my sudden change of mood, got very close to me, nearly under my tail, but not enough to be intrusive. I walked forward one step, tail switching back and forth, looking left to right, nostrils flared. And then I saw the older couple inside the store.
The scent, combined with the sight of their faces, nearly floored me. It was as if a window had opened in my mind. And I remembered it all. A single moment of total recall. It was so shocking my jaw seemed to hit the blacktop, and I collapsed onto the pavement in shock. Only an urgent licking behind my ears would keep me from losing consciousness completely. Jimmy helping daddy.
The familiar scents got stronger and I was aware of the couple now standing above me, Brian briefly held something foul-smelling under my nose. That started me awake. I looked up groggily at the couple. They smelled so incredibly familiar that I surprised myself when all I could say was: "Would you happen to have any carrots?"
"Is-- is-- is that your friend?" asked Liz in a faltering voice.
I nodded as I removed my lab coat. "That's him." I handed the coat across to Paula who hung it on a peg. "Thanks."
"He's got a fawn with him," said Ade matter-of-factly.
I smiled and nodded. "That's one of the twins. The other's probably with his mother." I squinted a little at the spotted form trotting stiffly alongside Jon. "I think that's Jimmy, but I'm not..."
My voice trailed off as Jon abruptly stopped. He was only a few feet from the door standing in an empty parking space next to the Ford's beaten old pick-up. Jon was suddenly in caution mode, looking slowly to the left and right. His ears were turning every which way, like he was trying to identify the source of his feeling. For a split second, he seemed satisfied that all was well and took a cautious step forward.
Then he simply collapsed to the pavement, a look of shock on his face.
I barely heard Liz Ford cry out in shock as I raced for the door. "Paula!" I yelled, "Get help!" From the way that he fell, I was sure that he'd been shot.
I was at his side a moment later, scanning for a tell tale sign of a bullet wound, but didn't find one. He was still breathing, so much to my relief, he was still alive. "Jon? Can you hear me?"
Jimmy, who'd initially been scared away to the limit of his tether by his fathers sudden collapse, confidently walked forward and started licking his father on the head.
I realized that Paula was at my side. "What happened?" she asked.
I took the first aid kit from her and popped open the top. "I don't know." A thought occurred. "Do you see an animal control truck or officer around here?" Jon was in full-morph form, and at times he'd been harassed by animal control officers who thought that he was just a deer. He could have been tranquilized.
Paula stood at full height and started scanning the shopping center. "No, nothing."
I found the vial of smelling salts and snapped the capsule, waving the foul-smelling mass under his nose. "Jon? You okay?"
He snorted loudly and brought his head up a fraction of an inch. To my surprise, his half open gaze focused directly on the Ford's, who were standing on the walkway, watching. "Would you happen to have any carrots?"
Ade took a step forward and knelt down in front of Jon. "Oh my God." He whispered. "It is you."
I unhooked the fawn from the harness. "Paula, take Jimmy in. Jon? Can you stand?"
Shaking his head slightly, he started to struggle to his feet. He shifted to morphic. "I-- I think so." Wobbly, he tried to pull himself up. I reached down and gripped him by the shoulder until he was on his hooves.
I helped Jon up the sidewalk where he let go of me and stood by himself. His attention turned to the Ford's again. "I know you, don't I?"
Liz came forward, smiling from ear to ear, but her eyes tearing. "We thought you were dead." She said as she hugged him.
Confused, he patted her on the back and looked at me. "What's going on?" He looked around frantically. "Jimmy!"
"He's inside with Paula, don't worry." I said quickly, "But why don't we all go in and sort this out."
All three seemingly dazed, they followed me back into my waiting room and took seats. Jimmy laughed from behind us where he was playing with Paula. She'd been around the twins enough though their lives that neither associated her bear scent with danger.
Jon looked to make sure that Jimmy was all right and then back at the Ford's. "How could I know you? I just don't remember you."
Ade opened the battered leather case. "Liz and I live in a cabin out at the edge of the national forest south of here. We retired there some years back, her to take up writing and myself to take up nature art." He flipped through a couple of photos and slid one out of the stack. "Some years ago, during a particularly bad winter, we discovered a starving buck around our cabin. He was struggling to move though the snow, shivering. He wasn't going to survive the week, much less the winter."
He handed the picture to Jon, whose eyes got wide. I leaned over and looked for myself. The animal in the picture was scrawny and looked tired. But it was undeniably Jon.
Liz smiled. "We called him Adam. He was our friend for five years..."
I'd named one of the twins Adam. For some reason, when they were born the name had leapt out at me. It had just seemed so right a name for some reason. And now I knew that reason. Because to these people, I had been "Adam". A starving buck that by chance alone had stumbled on these two generous humans, and was saved by them.
I stared at the photo of myself--it was undeniably me-- and shook my head. "Brian, could you do me a favor and call my wife? I think she needs to be here about now..." Brian got up and went to the phone, while I continued to stare at the photo.
The background was a world cloaked in deep snow. It made me shiver just looking at it. The picture had obviously been taken from inside, because in the foreground was a window pane. In the middle, it was me. I looked too thin and my fur coat was so ragged I was amazed that I'd even lasted long enough to even get to the cabin. My ribs and hip bones could clearly be seen, and even the skin on my face just seemed to hang on my skull. I was looking straight at the camera, my left ear cocked backward. As if I was waiting for them to do something.
I started to flip through the other photos in the portfolio. There I was, muzzle buried in a pile of cedar branches. Eating the tasty leaves, and looking much stronger. "That was about two weeks later," the woman said. "I'm Liz Ford, by the way. And that's my husband, Ade."
I looked at them, smelled their oh-so-familiar scents, and back at the photo. Our van arrived in the parking space just out front a couple minutes later. Maxine had arrived with Adam, who was being carried in her arms. "Jon, is something going on?" she asked me, looking at the couple. I sighed, and without looking up from the photo I was looking at, handed her the one of me starving in the snow. "Oh my God... this is you, isn't it?" Maxine nearly gasped.
"This is your wife?" Ade said, awed. "She isn't, uh..."
"No," Maxine replied. "I used to be human. About two years ago I contracted SCABS and I am as you see me now. I'm Maxine, by the way."
"Nice to meet you," Liz said. "And who is this that you're carrying?" I looked up to see Liz stand up and rub Adam behind the ears. He liked that. "My, he's cute. But I didn't think that children could contract SCABS..."
"We've all got dual genomes," I said absently. "Human and whitetail. We're probably the only ones of our kind. And his name is Adam, by the way."
"How very appropriate," Ade said. "Do you remember anything at all, Mr. Sleeper?"
"Call me Jon," I replied, smiling. Then I looked back at the photo. In that moment, it was as if a window had opened in my mind. I shivered at the suddenly remembered cold. Hunger suddenly gnawed at my stomachs. Brian had a bowl full of things like nuts and acorns that was supposed to be decorative. But they were quite edible to me. "Better," I said after I swallowed.
"Are you remembering something, Jon?" Maxine asked.
I nodded, and looked at the Fords. "It's still all foggy, but I remember you two. You saved my life. If not for your generosity I would be quite dead. Thank you..."
In that moment, the memories swelled within me.
So penetrating, that through my ragged fur coat, I felt it's sting like a thousand tiny needles. But above even that...
My bones creaked, muscles ached. What was left of them, in any case. It gnawed at my stomachs, which had not known any real food for a couple months. A comparatively minor injury during the Rut, along with a year with little rain, had kept me from reaching the same food that other deer could. The snows had come early, too. So I was nothing but a bag of skin and bones.
I staggered through the forest, the only sound the soft crunch, crunch of my hooves in the nearly hock-deep snow. I was too hungry to care how much noise I made. Every once in a while I'd be overtaken by a fit of shivering. When it passed I felt much weaker than before. What should have been a life-saving method of warming me up was only sapping me of more strength. So I wandered, looking for food. I really didn't care where I got it, pr what it was, just as long as it was edible. I even would eat meat, if necessary.
Nature must have it in for me... I thought with the vagueness of my lack of sentience. Briefly I fell against a tree, and righted myself, and pushed onward. I survive eight Rutting seasons, and am done in by a simple jab to the shoulder! Mother would be... moth... It felt it odd at the time. Because natural deer do have memories of sorts. What felt odd was I didn't seem to remember that my mother was a doe. That was silly, of course. And yet that feeling had always been with me.
I stopped and caught a whiff of wolf-scent. I'd smelled it off and on over the past few days. This scent was newer than the rest. The recent snow had blanked out any paw prints, but the pack-leader had marked his territory nearby. The scent was at least two days old. It's only a matter of time before they get me... I thought. But they won't get me without a fight! As if to mock me a shivering fit shook me and I nearly passed out. Only by sheer willpower did I stay on my feet. Because I knew that if I did fall unconscious, that would be the last time.
I staggered onward, coming up against what looked like a break in the trees, when I felt it. For the first time, warmth; coming from some unknown source. But then the wind shifted, and I recognized the scent all too easily. Two-legs. Odd and scary creatures, I thought. And some... I'd lost many herdmates to the loud noises that came along with them. So as a rule I stayed far away.
But this time it was different.
When I saw the boxy thing that was where two-legs seemed to spend most of their time, I saw what looked to be food nearby, so I made a beeline right for it. I barely had the strength to pull up the little plants. I barely noticed the three two-legs standing not too far away, inside the place where I could feel the warmth coming from. Behind a clear film of something, unless my vision had gone with my muscle tone. And then I heard a soft click sound...
For a moment I made as if to run, like I always had. But as I started my body said NO!, and hunger warred with raw instinct.
Hunger won out.
I dropped my head and ate every morsel I could find, hearing odd noises from within the boxy place. They were noises that I assumed two-legs made. The little stalks of food gave me hope that there just might be something else around. I sniffed along near the box, and where the voices were the loudest, I looked up.
There they were again. Though I didn't realize it at the time, a choice had been made about me by them. And as I dropped my head again to continue my search, I heard a soft noise. "Adam is a nice name," said a man's voice, though I didn't understand it. The noises that the two-legs made usually meant trouble But not this time, it seemed.
Using my reliable nose I searched ever nook and cranny around the cabin for any speck of food I could find. A frozen asparagus stalk, raspberry canes, and just out of reach, out near the front of the cabin, green cedar branches. I didn't have the strength to even briefly get up on my hind legs and pull at the branches. I panted from the exertion of trying for a while, then spotted bones hanging from a tree. I pulled them down, eating some of the smaller ones, then scented some other food. Meat-food. I licked at it through a thin, metallic-tasting thread, getting a little. I pawed for more.
And when two of the humans came out of the cabin, I tried to do what deer always do. My "meal" having energized me even a little bit. But it didn't work. I staggered, my body once more telling me NO, and stiffly walked off into the woods with what dignity I had left to me.
As it got darker, I found I'd reached a crossroads. Two-legs were bad news in general. But what could I do? Stay here and starve, the tasty cedar out of reach, or perhaps live, even with several two-legs around. What could I do? I'd never been faced with a choice before.
Once it grew dark enough, I looked up into the sky. I was greeted by a sight such as I rarely saw, and it stirred a part of me that was sleeping. One awed word, aurora, flashed through my brain. It was a marvelous, flowing curtain of green that swept from horizon to horizon. Like a waterfall of light.
The curtain slowly changed from green to red. The red of blood. The forest looked bathed in it, the snow glittering in it. But it was still green in the direction of the cabin. And to all forest creatures, small or large, carnivore or herbivore, green could only mean life.
So it was really no choice at all.
I walked towards the cabin, and was rewarded with the incredible scent of green cedar. It was as if I'd been pulled by some force towards that food. I buried my muzzle in it, and began to eat. Eat and eat and eat. I ate until my first stomach was full, and then some more. Then the wind started to pick up. So I found a place nearby the food, and settled down in the snow to sleep.
Later, a light awoke me. I smelled a hare right near me, but ignored him. I looked into the light. I saw the female standing in that light. The wind was picking up and snow was starting to blow around in little swirls of powder. Through that, I saw her face. The corners of her mouth were turned up in an odd expression. She mouthed something.
Then sleep came upon me.
Jon had stared at the wall as he recounted the tale. He seemed more surprised than anyone else to have the story to tell.
Liz Ford looked briefly at her husband before starting her tale·
Ade rubbed his hands together over the fireplace. "Remind me again why we moved out here?" he asked with a smile.
Liz opened the oven door and started to slide the turkey out. "Because we both hated the city." She reminded him cheerfully. "And don't deny it, you love it out here."
Ade chuckled and moved to give her a hand. "That I do. When did you say Karl was going to get here?" The moment he said it, there was a loud thumping on the door. Ade stepped over to the kitchen door and opened it.
Karl Eicher was something of a hermit. He'd lived in the area most of his nearly sixty years, and the last fifteen of those alone since his wife died. He was a friendly sort who knew every detail about these woods and delighted in sharing that information with anyone who needed it. Now the jovial old man was struggling to get through the door with a large gunny sack.
Ade grabbed it from him and ushered him in. "Merry Christmas, Karl! I'm glad that you could make it."
Karl stripped off his heavy leather gloves. "Merry Christmas to you, Ade, Liz. Wouldn't have missed it." He gestured to the bag. "Open it up." Ade opened the sack and found a couple of small, carefully wrapped gifts and a few jars of preserves. He started to speak, but Karl stopped him. "Don't even say I shouldn't have brought it. You both know that you've been waiting for those jars."
Liz chuckled. "Thanks, Karl. But you still need to show me how to make my own preserves. I can't get mine to come out like yours."
Karl nodded. "I just need to show you where to get the berries." He pointed at the jars. "Every last berry in there is wild grown and hand picked. Nothing like it." He winked. "I know where to find berries even the deer can't find."
The sound of a pot boiling over caused Liz to race into the kitchen, the two men on her heels. She quickly took the lid off and peered in. "Your timing is perfect, Karl. Looks like the carrots are boiled." She gestured to the platters of food around the kitchen. "If you two would be so kind as to set the table, we can eat."
Dinner long over, the trio sat around the fireplace and drank coffee. The cozy mountain cabin was really the perfect setting for a Christmas celebration, even when the winter had already been so hard.
It was during a lull in the conversation that they heard it. It wasn't much, almost drowned out by the sound of the wood burning in the fire. But Karl knew what it was. "Sounds like someone's outside. Listen." The Fords heard it then, the sound of crunching snow. They all quickly jumped to their feet and ran to the window.
"It's a deer!" said Ade with some relief. "I was afraid it might be a person."
"Poor thing." Murmured Liz. "It looks half starved."
Karl kept watching the animal in the courtyard. It was obvious that the animal was desperate. It pawed at the earth where the garden had been until the snow covered it. "He's pretty far gone." He looked carefully at Liz and Ade. "It might be most humane to put him down." He said quietly.
Liz looked at him sadly. "Isn't there something that we can do? It's Christmas·"
Karl looked at he and smiled warmly. "We can try, certainly." His chuckled. "If he's willing to be helped, you'll end up with a pet, you know. You might never get rid of him."
Ade stepped away from the window and grabbed his camera off the dinner table. He returned and snapped a picture as the buck was looking sadly in his direction. He set the camera down and looked at his wife. "Let's start giving him the leftovers. We'll see what we can do."
The buck was eating now from the small plate of scraps Liz had accumulated while she was cooking. Little was ever thrown away in this cabin. Anything not eaten by the Fords generally found it's way into the mouths of the local animals.
As the buck ate, Ade and Karl got as close as they dared and set down more. The leftover carrots and corn from dinner, a few wheat rolls, some fresh grapes that Karl had somehow managed to bring. Only when they stepped back did the buck seem to notice their presence, so intent was he at the food.
Ade smiled. "We should give him a name."
Karl nodded. "How about Adam?"
Liz smiled. "Adam."
"Adam is a nice name." Said Ade.
The buck stopped a moment, and looked up at the trio. The look was the blank stare of a curious animal. Or was it? Liz swore, if only for a moment, that she saw a flicker of something across that animal face. But she dismissed the feeling almost as soon as she felt it.
It had looked almost like gratitude.
They retreated to the cabin, both for the warmth and so as to not frighten their new guest. Karl started immediately giving them advice about caring for Adam. He ran through the kinds of food to try and not try. After a few minutes, he happened to look up as the buck was leaving the clearing. Karl nodded at him. "I'm sure that he'll be back. If you'd like, we can try to get some cedar right now for him."
There was no discussion of the matter. Ade and Karl immediately grabbed the clippers and a utility ladder and started climbing a couple of the more sturdy cedar trees around the cabin. It wasn't long before they had a pile of branches, still green despite the recent snow. They set them up near the edge of the clearing around the cabin. As soon as they were finished, they retired back to the cabin to wait.
The trio were now standing in the warmth of the kitchen looking out the window and the artificial cedar stand. The conversation over the last couple of hours had eventually drifted away from the starving buck and onto more mundane topics. Then Karl pointed out the window. "He's back."
The Fords turned to see Adam with his face buried in the cedar, eating as fast as he could. As if his life depended on it. Ade raised his camera and snapped another picture.
Liz smiled and touched the glass. "Welcome home, Adam."
The picture wasn't as clear as the first, but Jon stared hard at it as if trying to get every detail. The buck in the photo was still starving, but had now found himself in a place of safety.
The tears started to well up in my eyes as I stared, running down my furry cheeks with every blink. "I can't believe this. Why didn't I remember this before?" I stood up on shaky legs, wiping the tears for my eyes. "If you'll excuse me for a moment, I need something to drink." I didn't wait for them to respond, I just stood up and stiffly walked to Brian's restroom.
I turned on the faucet and filled the sink with water, then splashed my face with it. I was panting from the stress of it all. Amazed that something that had happened so long ago could come back with such astonishing clarity. I looked at my face in the mirror, and saw the nick in my ear. The same as the buck in the pictures.
Somehow, seeing my own reflection confirmed my own memories. There was a knock on the door. "Come in," I said in a neutral tone.
Grace had arrived, someone had thought to call the bar and ask one of my friends to pick her up from school for Maxine and I, since we were tied up here. She was ten years old now, but acted a bit more mature than her classmates of the same age. Bryan thought this was due to her coming into her "Yearling" stage of growth. Her body was one deer year old. She'd started to menstruate about a week before Halloween. And like her mother, she only did so for three months out of the year in the fall. She was even starting to act like a teenager... which was probably scarier than anything else. "Are you okay, Dad? I just got here. Mom said you've been gone for fifteen minutes."
She didn't call me "Daddy" anymore, and I missed it a lot. But then, everybody grows up, I supposed. Even my two little bucks would eventually get their first set of antlers, then I'd have to teach them how to spar. Something I was really looking forward to, in a sad sort of way. "I'm okay, Bigears."
"Who are those old people out there? They have a bunch of pictures of you."
"Grace, those 'old people' saved your dad's life. They fed me when I was hungry. I felt safe with them for years, which was why I kept going back to them when my mind was off in limboland."
Grace's ears twitched a couple times, I'd probably gone a bit too deep into things, but that couldn't be helped. She smelled a bit confused. I kneeled and hugged her. "I'm sorry, daughter of mine. Just think of Liz and Ade as a kind of aunt and uncle you never knew you had."
Grace lick-kissed me behind the ears and made a happy sound. "Goody! I've always wanted an aunt and uncle! Mom was an only kid, you know. Can we go back in? Huh?"
I laughed and stood up, holding her hand in mine. I looked at her critically. "I think so. I think I'd like you to hear the story I'm telling, too." I let her go and stood up, taking her hand in mine. "Let's go meet your aunt and uncle, shall we?"
"Definitely!" she said happily.
I gathered that they hadn't really spoken to each other when Grace had come in the door. But we decided to pause before going into the waiting room where everybody else was. Liz was holding Adam in her lap, trying to help him drink down a safety-cup of apple juice. He wasn't cooperating very well. "No!" was sprinkled with deer bleats. Liz had an oddly soft expression on her face, and she didn't mind his squirming. "Can I ask a personal question?" Liz asked Maxine, who nodded. "How much do you all act like deer?"
Maxine's ears twitched and she suddenly looked very thoughtful. "Well, it's really hard to quantify, really. I do things that seem so natural that I don't notice them. That scares me, sometimes. And I actually gave birth to the twins as a normal doe. And after that... well..."
Jimmy suddenly bounded in from the other room, where he'd been playing with Paula. He didn't seem to notice Grace and I standing in the hallway, because he went right between us without stopping. Adam bleated happily and shifted to full deer form while Liz was still holding him. As quickly as she could she put Adam down the fawn immediately dashed to meet his brother.
The two of them sniffed each other's noses, licked each other's ears, then started to prance around the room.
However, an optometrist's office isn't the best place for that. "Excuse me," Maxine said to the others. She then stood up and stomped a hoof on the floor. The twins immediately stopped their cavorting and ran over to her, bedding down at her feet. Maxine smiled and rubbed the both of them behind the ears once. "Instincts do have their advantages, though."
Liz and Ade looked amazed. "I can see that," Ade said. Then he looked in the direction from which Jimmy had come running, and saw us. "Well, there's the young lady who sped by us so fast."
Grace and I walked into the room. I suddenly felt an incredible amount of pride. "Ade, Liz, I'd like you to meet my adopted daughter, and the light of my life. This is Grace."
Grace's expression lit up, and she let go of my hand, skipped over to Ade, and sat on his lap. "Hi Unc!" she said exuberantly, and planted a lick-kiss on his cheek. Then she laughed a happy little laugh, and sat down next to her mother.
The look on Ade's face spoke volumes. He looked (and smelled) surprised, happy, and embarrassed all at the same time. "Uncle?" he said, bewildered.
I sat down so Grace was between Maxine and I, and Adam moved a bit to he was laying under my leg next to the couch Brian had in his waiting room. A sudden memory hit me. "Well, we did sort of adopt each other all those years ago, didn't we?"
It turned out that my choice to stay near the two-legs was a good one after all. When the side of the cabin had opened up, and then the female started to place things outside of the opening, I really didn't know what to do at first. That changed once I smelled what was most definitely something edible. I waited for the other two two-legs to go off into the woods, then I decided I couldn't wait any longer. Whatever she was putting out next to the opening smelled too good to pass up.
I was probably a bit closer to her than I should've been. But I really didn't care. Hunger still drove me to do things that other deer would consider crazy. I stood very close to the opening, and she put down several things that smelled good. They were warm, too. And I ate every bite. Then I came to something that smelled and tasted so good, that my life was changed forever. At the taste, a single word crossed my mind. Carrots.
I looked at her, putting as much joy into my expression as I could. They tasted so good I wanted to prance around, but even though I now had a full stomach, it would be some time before I could even think of doing that. I ate heartily, then spent the rest of my time resting nearby.
And then I made the most incredible discovery of my life.
I could ask for food when I wanted it! It was a very simple thing. I'd just walk up to the opening then tap a forehoof on the hard surface in front of it. The wall would then open up, and then I only had to wait as the female two-legs put out all sorts of things. They were a nice supplement to the cedar that the male two-legs would somehow get for me.
Once I followed him into the woods. He was using his forehooves to carry a long branch that had some sort of thing on the end. He would reach up with it, then there'd be a "click" sound that would sometimes startle me, and a branch would fall into the snow. He would then look like a walking tree as he would somehow carry the branches in his forehooves. Amazing!
I stayed a good distance away, though my hunger nearly drove me mad. I knew two-legs were generally a Bad Thing. Though these particular two-legs I found I could very much make an exception for. There was just some feeling I had about them that enabled me to trust them. Trust. I didn't trust anything. Nothing. To trust something that wasn't another deer meant that either I wouldn't eat, or I'd be eaten. That was the way of things.
But not with these two strange two-legs.
Time passed, and the days were filled with the wonderful feeling of having a full stomach, and cud to chew. I even found myself begin to relax a little. I'd found the perfect spot under that tree where all that cedar was always placed. That way, if I got hungry again, I'd just stretch out my neck a little then munch on a bit more. Paradise.
Every day I'd come for my meal. The food I was given wasn't what I was used to. But my hunger was slowly being replaced by a sense of contentment. And when I wasn't eating, I was watching the two-legs watch me. Often they weren't hardly beyond the reach of my forehooves. But I felt in no way threatened by their presence. Often they would make noises at each other, which I would listen to as I ate.
Of course, I never let them get within touching distance. That was another thing entirely.
The food eventually gave me most of my strength back. I was no longer shivering every time the wind blew. I had the energy to use my hooves to protect my food from the red squirrels, who always would try to steal what they could. Their stealing was becoming less and less every day as I got stronger.
I even got used to the smells and sounds of the two- legs. There was a large expanse of water that became hard in the cold nearby. Often two-legs would sit on logs, and holding sticks in their forehoof-things, occasionally making a whooping sound that would set me at a dash for safety at first. That happened several times before I learned that they were probably just doing what I began to call "two-legs things" that I couldn't possibly understand anyway. Not that I didn't give them any attention, but an ear turned in that direction worked just as well.
As long as they were upwind of me and could smell exactly where they were, I didn't really care.
But the one thing I didn't get used to were the wolves that would occasionally skirt the area. Only insane deer don't heed that scent.
The instant I smelled them I was on my hooves. I turned my ears left and right, taking deep breaths. They were far off, still. But I decided I wasn't going to wait for them to get any closer. I'd lost too many herdmates because they ignored what their noses were telling them.
As I found my way towards a place where I could try to dash for safety, I ran across the trail of a doe and two fawns. One fawn was a buck, the other a doe. The mother smelled familiar to me for some reason. The fawns suddenly took on a much greater significance in that moment. Then I smelled the wolves again, and forgot all about them.
I made myself as invisible as I could manage. Even though I was still hungry and thin, the food I'd been given by the two-legs had given me enough energy that I felt I could spend a while away from them. Just as long as it didn't last too long.
I never slept a wink. Eventually, the night came. Then the Silver Orb replaced the Golden one. The effect was incredible. Shadows vanished in that light, and the world took on an unreal quality about it. I felt like I was a kind of 'nothing'. Only my own hoofprints in the snow linked me with the world around me.
There was a sudden howling. I knew that howl. The wolves had found prey and were chasing it to other members of their pack. I'd been chased by wolves a couple times in my life. The first time I'd escaped by sheer chance and the second time had been a hoof in the nose of any wolf that got too close. I rotated my ears and looked up out of my hiding place in order to pinpoint the sound. It was then that I heard the terrified bleat of a fawn.
It was coming from the direction of the cabin, and the hardwater that was close by.
I found myself irrationally heading towards the danger. I just had to know what was happening! Were the two- legs okay? The doe? The fawns? My hooves crunched through the snow on a trail before I really knew what I was doing, my hot breath making puffs of white cloud as I made my way through the ever present snow. I heard the fawn bleat again, my fur stood on end at that sound. It was down near the lake now, and moving straight out towards the frozen shore.
Very soon there'd be one less fawn in the world.
It wasn't quick. The bleat took on a note of such stark terror that gave me shivers of terror. I then crossed the trail of one of the fawns, and found a scrap of memory about what was going on. The trail of this fawn, however, was going in the opposite direction. Twins, of course. But I smelled no wolf-scent on the trail of this one. But the scent of the doe was nowhere to be found.
The wolfpack was small, I knew. I'd scented perhaps only five members. There might be others, of course. But it was a small pack, I was sure. That was why they'd only chased the one fawn. They were more sure to get their prey if they focused on one. And by the lack of sound now coming from the hardwater, it was a foregone conclusion that the fawn was dead.
Such is the way of things for both deer and wolves.
I turned and walked towards the cabin, following the scent trail of the remaining fawn. His tracks were far apart, telling me that he (the scent was of the buck fawn) had been running full pelt. No wolf tracks or scents were present. So he'd been overcome by the pure panic of the scents of the Predators. I knew that feeling all too well. But I had the experience to know when they were no longer a danger.
The tracks of the fawn went right across the small clearing where the two-legs' cabin was situated. The scent trail was much stronger now. I could smell it even over the swirling snow that normally damped out every scent. Now I was smelling my own scent, only a few hours old.
Then I heard a bleat, and quickened my pace.
The two-legs stood all dressed up in the skins that they wore. I only gave them a single glance, as the scent of the fawn was suddenly so strong that I knew exactly where he was. Behind my tree, near the fresh cut cedar. He was so scared he didn't even know to be afraid of the two-legs. Which, when I thought about it for a moment, was a good thing. I didn't want him running away. He was too young to be without his mother.
I felt a sudden peculiar feeling that I'd never felt before. And I realized that this fawn might perhaps me my own flesh and blood. The sudden insight made me do something that perhaps no buck had ever done before.
I approached the fawn slowly, as he was on legs that were still shaking with fright. He bleated once more, louder this time. He didn't seem to know what I was at first. But I certainly wasn't his mother. He backed up so his rump was against a pile of wood. He was almost afraid of me, so I moved so he'd have time to absorb my presence. Then I took the next step. I nuzzled him, and licked behind the ears. That done, I waited by his side for him to react.
It seem an eternity. The two-legs waiting and watching nearby were completely speechless. I gathered it was an unusual condition for them, but I only gave them a single glance to make sure they weren't going to make any sudden moves.
Then what I was waiting for, happened. The fawn timidly lifted his head, and liked me on the side of the face. I felt a sudden warm feeling all over. I gave him one more lick on the face, then we went to look for his mother. Together.
Maxine nuzzled me as I finished my latest memory. She licked me on the neck and behind my ears. Then she whispered, "I knew you couldn't have let that fawn fend for himself."
Liz looked thoughtful. "Perhaps that was a bit of your humanity showing through?"
I considered it, but it didn't take long to dismiss it. "I really don't think so. I was nothing more than a deer at the time. Non-sentient, I think."
"Perhaps it doesn't matter," Brian added. "I've known you a long time, Jon. I'd think your personality would show through no matter what."
Ade was flipping through the photos that he brought. He gave me one of myself, the doe, and the fawn. I was watching while the two ate the cedar at a place farther away from my tree. In the picture, the fawn looked like there was nothing holding up his forepart. He had odd coloring for a deer, his forelegs were white to just above the middle part of his legs. "We called him 'Snowboots'," Ade said. "And the doe we didn't yet give a name. Not until the next year, at any rate. She was such a cautious mother that I wonder how you ever convinced her to come to the cabin to eat."
Maxine was looking at the picture of the doe. In most of the photos, the doe's ears seemed permanently locked in opposite directions: one forward, and one back. Maxine suddenly smelled a little bit jealous. "Problem, dear?" I asked.
She glared at me for a second. Then she started actually to laugh to herself. "I'm sorry, love. I'm being silly, aren't I?"
"Yes, you are," I said with mock sternness.
"How did she react when you brought Snowboots back to her?"
I thought about it. Hard. But nothing would come. There was a week or so that was blank of memory. "I wish I could tell you all. Perhaps Liz and Ade can fill in some other details."
"You don't want to know." Murmured Ade from his place under the sheets.
Liz froze in her tracks and looked over at him. "What?"
"You're going to see how cold it is. You don't want to know."
Liz chucked and cinched her robe tighter. "I was just thirsty and going to the kitchen. Go back to sleep, dear."
Ade rolled over and looked at her, the light from the moon glinting off his eyes. "Okay, but don't blame me if you realize how cold it is."
Liz chuckled again, but didn't respond. She knew a hint when she heard it. Walking into the small living room, she stoked the wood fire a bit, adding a couple of logs. She paused long enough to get a glimmer of warmth from the glowing red embers before walking into the kitchen.
The cabin was small and really not designed for living in this time of year. In fact, as Liz checked the old mercury thermometer, she was sure of it. The one above the sink showed that it was nearly cold enough in the kitchen to make ice on the counter. Liz thought about turning on the oil stove, but she discounted it right away. Their supplies of oil were really too low. What they had needed to be conserved for cooking and emergencies until the fuel truck could make it down the country road.
Liz thought about moving out into the supply cabin until then. When she and her husband had first bought land in these pristine woods, it had been a nearby log cabin. It was old, some thought constructed sometime shortly after the Civil War, but the walls were thick and solid. It was also dark and depressing. The walls had been stained at some point with the darkest wood sealant around. A few days later, they had discovered that the neighboring cabin, a summer home, was also for sale. They bought it instantly. Their intention had been to move into that cabin and use the old one for a storehouse.
Then they discovered in the first winter that it had indeed been a summer home. It was totally lacking in insulation.
They still spent most of their time there, the summer home simply being far nicer than the log cabin, but in the bitter winter they took refuge in the log cabin. Ade had even managed to finally get the last of the roof fixed so that it no longer dripped.
Liz felt the heat from the fire in the living room begin to seep into the kitchen. Rubbing her hands together, she looked out the window into the bright moonlight. She smiled. Adam was there, asleep.
He didn't always sleep near the cabin, he seemed to have at least one other spot to bed down in. Neither Liz or Ade had managed to find it, but they didn't want to look too hard. Liz looked away long enough to grab a small glass and pour water into it. By the time she looked back at Adam, he was no longer asleep.
Liz stood still in the kitchen, worried that her use of the tap had awakened him. Adam had shown at times that he could hear them clearly in the cabin, after all. But no, he wasn't looking at the cabin at all. His nose was in the air, testing. Soon, he was on his feet. All of his attention turned toward the lake. With a nervous prance, he bounded out of the clearing.
Liz stood there puzzled for a few minutes. Something had definitely spooked Adam, but it was nothing that she could make out. She walked back into the bedroom, sipping her water absently.
"What took you so long?" asked Ade, concerned.
Liz blinked. "How long was I gone?"
Ade pointed his chin at the clock on the nightstand. "At least half an hour. I was about to get up and go looking for you."
Liz smiled as she climbed back into bed. "About to?"
He hugged her as she lay beside him. "Eventually. It is cold in here."
Her smile faded. "I was watching Adam for a few minutes. Something has him spooked." Ade didn't have to say a word, because the answer came in on the wind. The howl of a wolf.
Liz blanched. "Oh no! I forgot about them!"
Ade rolled out of bed, pausing only to slip on his heavy robe. "Wolves. I'm surprised that we haven't seen them earlier this winter."
Historically, wolves were eliminated from these parts by ranchers before the Endangered Species Act was even a thought. After the turn of the century, and before the outbreak of the Flu stole the worlds attentions, wolves from breeds in Canada were relocated here. Partly it was to restore the ecosystem. Partly it was to control the population of deer.
"You don't think that they'll find him, do you?" asked Liz with concern.
Ade sighed and hugged her. "Liz, Adam is young and strong. He can outrun them. But even if he doesn't·" His voice trailed off sadly and he finished with a shrug.
Liz nodded. Even after a few years in the woods, after taking care of so many animals that had passed on, she still couldn't divorce her feelings toward the animals. Each one became family, but in the last few weeks Adam had taken a special place in her heart. "Should we do anything?"
Ade looked at his wife. "Even if we could, we shouldn't. We're already too involved with the animals around here. Too many of them seem to depend on us." He hefted his camera. "This is the only thing that I'll shoot a wolf with."
Liz didn't respond, but she understood. She knew as well as anyone that there was nothing wrong with the wolves. They wouldn't hunt Adam unless he was convenient.
There was another howl. Closer this time.
"The lake." Whispered Ade.
They walked into the kitchen, the only window that even faced the lake, and peered out. It was a futile gesture, though. The tall growth of trees blocked the view. They could hear the distant bleating of a fawn from the same direction, and both their hearts sank. "They chased it out onto the ice." Continued Ade. "The deer can't get away."
Deer hooves were great for running on solid surface or through the detritus of the forests, but on the slick surface of the frozen lake the advantage was the wolf. Their leathery footpads gave them traction that the deer lacked.
There was a final bleat, and then silence.
No words passed between Ade and Liz for a long time. They stood by the window and waited for· something. They didn't know what they wanted to see. They knew that Adam was alright, it wasn't likely two wolfpacks would be hunting so close together. They just wanted to see anything.
Finally, something did show itself, if only for a flash of a moment. A form raced across the small clearing into the bushes on the other side. The light from the full moon was bright enough to make out what it was. "A fawn?" asked Liz incredulous.
"The other one." Replied Ade. "The brother or sister of the one that just·" he stopped and returned to watching. They hadn't gotten a good look at it, but it seemed to stop in the heavy bushes near the edge of the generator shed.
Ade debated going out and trying to get a photo of the fawn, something he'd wanted for years. But it was only a passing thought. There was no reason to terrorize the poor thing anymore than it already was.
It wasn't long before there was something to take a photo of. Adam returned. He was still nervous, his ears twitching back and forth, but he seemed intent on something. He followed the trail of the fawn to the bush.
"I've got to get a photo of this." Whispered Ade. He quietly slipped out the front door, his wife on his heels.
The fawn backed away from Adam slowly, bleating again in terror. Adam seemed to know why, and he stopped. Slowly, the fawn calmed, but he didn't come forward from the woodpile. After a few moments, Adam reached out and licked him on the face.
Slowly the fawn seemed calm. Eventually, the pair walked from the woodpile into the forest.
"What the hell just happened?" mused Ade. "Bucks don't do that."
Liz smiled and tugged at her husband, bringing him back into the slightly warmer house. "There is something strange about our Adam. You think it was his fawn?"
Ade shrugged. "I doubt it. Bucks don't usually stick around. They're more of the Casanova or Clinton variety."
They closed the door and went back to bed. "You get a good picture?"
Ade's face fell. "I forgot!" he exclaimed. With a sigh, he placed the camera back on the dressing table. "Maybe it's for the best. I'm not sure I could've taken a good one without a flash. But I think I've got an idea."
Jon looked long and hard at the ancient Christmas card. It had yellowed with age, but the importance was the black and white woodcut-style artwork on the front. Depicted in intricate detail was the scene that the Fords had just described. The fawn, standing in front of the woodpile now, being gently licked by Adam.
Ade grinned. "I think I have another reason to thank you, Jon. That Christmas card paid for our supplies the next year." He ran a finger over it. "You and Snowboots."
"Snowboots?" asked Jon, quietly.
Liz nodded. "That's what we called him. His front legs were pure white. To this day, we haven't seen another like him."
Jon absently nodded, numb. "Me neither."
Maxine hugged him more closely. "You okay, Jon?"
He nodded. "I remember it so clearly now. I-- I think that they were mine."
"Did the fawn ever find his way back to his mother?" asked Paula. I glanced back to the reception desk, unaware that she'd been listening so intently.
"He did." Ade said. "But we didn't see it. The next morning we left the cabin to follow the tracks in the snow. By that time, we found Adam--- I mean Jon's tracks and the fawns near the cedar. Later, we found the mothers tracks with one fawn following in fresh snow." Ade smiled. "I imagine that she was confused. Bucks don't always take well to fawns."
Liz nodded. "Jon was unusual." She looked at Ade. "Remember Friend?"
Ade chuckled. "Oh yeah." He took the book from Jon and started going quickly though the pictures.
"Friend?" asked Jon, confused.
Ade didn't look up from the book as he went quickly through the photos. "You wouldn't know him as Friend. We started calling him that when we first saw him with you." He stopped turning the pages and pointed. "There."
We all crowded around and looked. It was another buck, one that was clearly not Jon. Even in the photo, taken apparently from the porch of the Ford's cabin, it was clear that he was colored differently. He had some long healed scars on his ribs, but the thin streaks of white were clear through the heavy fur. At the instant the photo was taken, he was looking at Ade curiously, standing over the patch of cedar. Jon's ears moved forward a little. "I-- I don't remember him."
Ade shrugged. "You knew him once, but don't know how long you spent with him. You apparently met him just before the start of spring."
A few weeks had passed since the incident with the wolves. The deer in the area were safe from them for the time being. They had retreated to the far less populated far side of the lake before the ice got two thin to cross. The combination of homes and roads that surrounded the areas was usually an effective barrier to them.
Adam had returned to the tree soon after that, but he'd started bringing a friend along.
"There she is." Whispered Liz, pointing into the trees.
Ade squinted. "I don't· Oh, there!" he said a little too loudly. The doe's head popped up and looked at the human pair only a few seconds before she moved off into the woods, her fawn Snowboots in tow.
Liz playfully slapped her husband. "You scared her."
"Sorry. But she'll be around. It seems that she likes the food as much as Adam." He hefted his camera. "I hope that I get a chance to see the fawn again before he gets too much larger. I really want a photo."
The couple returned to their cabin to warm up over a cup of hot coffee while they waited. They expected a long delayed supply run any time, so they didn't want to stray too far from the cabin. To kill the time, Ade went back to his artwork. He was putting the finishing touches on a Christmas card drawing he hoped to sell. Liz prepared lunch.
"Hey! Honey, come take a look at this." Called Ade softly from the bedroom, where his work table was located.
Liz set down the can of boiled ham and followed his voice. She found him looking out the window, camera in hand. "Adam's back, and he brought a friend."
Liz peered though the dirty glass and saw that Adam was standing face to face with another buck. "They don't look too friendly, do they?" Indeed, the newcomer was snorting and stamping while Adam watched. Finally, Adam reared back and kicked outward. It seemed like he missed intentionally, but the point was made. The newcomers head dropped a little, almost too little to tell. They both walked over to the Ade's cedar patch and started eating.
"That was interesting." Commented Liz. "I never saw them fight out of rutting season. Neither of these two have antlers anymore."
Ade shrugged and made for the door. "I don't know, but I've stopped trying to figure Adam out. Let me take a few pictures. The delivery truck will scare them off when it gets here."
Liz went back to preparing lunch while Ade snapped photo after photo from the deck. Though Adam would let him get almost to touching distance, Ade knew better than to annoy the newcomer. More than that, he looked more belligerent that Adam.
That was made clear when Snowboots, without the protection of his mother, carefully came out of the bushes. He'd gotten larger in the last few weeks and it seemed was being weaned away from his mothers teats. He hesitantly reached his muzzle forward to nip at the green cedar leaves.
That was seemingly too much for Friend to stand. He leapt the few feet between them and started stomping the earth in front of the suddenly terrified fawn. Snowboots turned to run, and Friend nipped him on the neck. As he broke and ran, Adam finally intervened. Leaping between the pair, Friend stopped his attack and Snowboots was able to escape.
This situation didn't seem to sit well with Friend, who snorted and stamped around Adam for several minutes. Strangely, he seemed to ignore the aggressive buck until he was done eating. Only then did he look up and stamp himself. Friend seemed to take the hint and backed off, letting Adam walk away to chew his cud under his favorite tree.
Liz joined Ade on the porch. "What was that about?"
Ade snapped a few more pictures of Friend. "Don't ask me. At least I've got a lot of good pictures. I'm not sure that anyone would believe us otherwise."
Liz and Ade watched the two bucks for half an hour before they both looked up the direction of the road and then vanished into the foliage. Only once they were both long gone did the human couple hear the approaching delivery truck.
"We saw you with Friend a few times before spring really came onto us." Explained Ade. "I'm not sure when we named him that, but we never saw him away from you."
Liz continued. "Once spring came, you two moved out of the area, I guess for better pastures. You came back the next winter. We never saw Friend again."
Jon looked distantly at the photo, seemingly not aware of the rest of us for the moment. Slowly, he reached out and traced the photo. "He didn't live the rest of the year. I remember now. We stayed together for the next few months." His voice was now as distant as his look. "But come fall, he had a perfect rack." He shuddered. "I don't know when it happened, but I eventually found him dead with an arrow sticking out of him."
"I'm sorry," comforted Maxine.
He shook his head. "No, it's okay. It happened."
"We don't know where you were those few months, but a few days after it snowed the following fall, you arrived again."
Jon's lips pulled back in a smile, though his gaze was still distant. "I remember that·"
The Rut is nothing but a blur. But, as would surprise most humans, fights are rare. Even before the start of the season bucks jockey for position in the hierarchy. After all, the less fighting one has to do, the more energy there is to chase down does.
Or, in my case, one particular doe.
The moment I'd scented her Heat I knew it was the same one with whom I'd mated the year before. Her sweet scent was too familiar, and led me onward into the territory of certain lesser bucks that would move out of my way. I had the biggest rack in the area, so only rarely did I ever have to do more than give my "opponents" a Hard Look before they dashed away.
There were certain advantages to being the Big Buck in the area, after all. Though there were certain disadvantages as well.
As I followed the scent of the familiar doe, I came upon another scent. Humans, combined with the overdone attempt to hide their scent. Something that hardly worked, at least for a buck of my experience. I'd had so many narrow escapes over the years that I knew every single trick that the human hunters did, and how to avoid them.
I followed the scent of the doe to its source. Every once in a while I would stop in my tracks and lip-curl to drink in her Heat-scent. I found her standing on the edge of a meadow, looking at me coyly from behind a medium sized bush. She was waiting for me, we both knew it. She'd spurned all other comers just so I would have the privilege of giving myself to her, as I had at least twice before.
What we felt was as close to love as deer could ever get. Though the word, as humans understood it, didn't quite fit.
I trotted up and licked her face in greeting; she likewise groomed me around my ears. A sensation which tickled a lot. I snorted and nuzzled her neck.
The mood set, she and I walked off into a private place in the woods.
Afterward, I suddenly had concerns there were closer to my immediate welfare. The Rut has progressed, the Heat had passed for most does, and with it, humans were flooding the forest. The population of other deer was falling at the same time. This was something new, and very alarming. That is, more alarming than what is normal for a prey animal.
I had to find someplace safe. Somewhere that there were no humans to bother me while I found the place where I could last out the coming winter. Already the winds that blew were cold. Snow had fallen for the first time nearly two weeks before; patches still covered the ground in places.
After leaving the doe, I wound my way as deep into the undergrowth as I could. The area was a mix of thick woods and wide meadows, perfect for deer such as myself. And perfect for humans to find deep cover.
I had the impression--though not actual memory--that this year there were more humans in the woods than there'd ever been before. The scent of Death was in the air, as well as the acrid smells of humans that smelled suspiciously like other deer. Occasionally the sounds of an apparent fight would filter though the trees. If I hadn't already done my duty for the season I might've gone to investigate.
I calmly made my way through the undergrowth, stopping to search under certain oak trees for any acorns the raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, and other deer may have missed, and not having very much success. Every single tree had been picked clean. I had to content myself with eating some of the maple leaves that were falling to the ground. Not the best eating, but good enough.
A sudden feeling of uneasiness flowed over me. I lifted my head up, sniffing the air, ears moving to detect the danger that I felt. There breeze was slight, coming from where the sun drove away the darkness. A sudden thunk in the tree trunk right above my head wall all it took. With a kick of my hind legs I was off and running, away from danger. Away from the short, straight branch that'd suddenly appeared in the tree I'd been feeding under.
Safe! I had to find someplace safe! Where I'd be assured of food... Just like...
I skidded to a halt, but the memory kept on running, so I had to chase it. Into the woods it seemed to go, running faster than I could really keep up.
LAST winter. And the two humans who fed me, kept me from starving to death.
It wasn't all that far, I knew the area quite well. Perhaps even better now that I had this newfound sense of "past" and "present". I knew with certainty how to find my way back to the cabin, and the carrots I knew awaited me. My mouth watered as I walked quietly though the snow that had fallen the night before, intent on going the direction I knew the cabin was. I didn't actually know I was going the right way, it simply felt right.
The scent of the declining Rut hung in the air; there would be many does expecting fawns in the spring. I couldn't help wondering if my erstwhile mate had conceived. My mind wandered and I found myself wishing that she might let me witness their births. Something I'd never really thought about before. Tomorrow, next spring, next year. It all made some sort of sense, now.
Then, a single wisp of a greasy, musky, sweet and sour scent came to my attention. I barely missed it; it was rather windy so it was snatched out of my nose almost as soon as it came. But it was enough to fix the direction... I hoped. I decided to take a chance and follow it. Several hours later I was rewarded. Just over a small rise was a familiar log cabin, smoke rising from a stone tree to one side. I almost galloped down to the door.
Thoughts of carrots danced in my head as I tapped my antlers against the wooden thing blocking the opening. After a short while the female opened the door, looking and smelling rather surprised. The heat wafting out from the interior surprised me, and I was rather cold, so I moved in just a little bit farther.
A certain feeling overcame me, there was a scent here that I just couldn't place. It smelled like... smelled like... something. I searched for what few words that I knew and could find none that really matched. I pondered this for a short while before the female stopped being so startled and moved to find me something to eat. Among those things were Carrots.
I gorged myself and walked back over to lay underneath my tree, content.
The next few days I stuck my head in that cabin many times, listening to the sounds that the humans made to one another. I noticed that he would make some sounds, and she would make some others in return. Once, in apparent response to some of these sounds, the male went over to where lots of food-smells came from and brought over more a mushy white kind that I wasn't too fond of. But what startled me most of all was that their scents remained more or less constant during this exchange.
Was it possible that humans could communicate with each other with sound alone? The question required more research, I decided. Having decided this, I ate my carrots and went back to my tree to chew my cud. Before long a new sound came to my ears. I jumped to my hooves and scanned with ears and nose, trying to pinpoint the source. It came from the cabin.
I almost bolted for cover, but there was something about it that had a ring of familiarity to it. There was a sort of pattern to the sounds, not unlike a scent trail that another deer might lay in his tracks. I carefully edged towards the opening where I could see the female working next to a glowing light that had patterns on it. She was moving her body to the pattern of the music.
Music? Another word. A word that brought forth others: beat, radio, notes, guitar... Their meaning escaped me for the most part, but I knew they all had to do with the music that came from the cabin. After a while it stopped, and the female went into another space to do something else mysterious.
The opening appeared in the side of the cabin, the male appearing with a bag of food. He spread some at the foot of a tree not too far from the opening. I watched him walk away a distance on those two legs of his, then hunger took over.
As the days passed and the show got deeper I heard the same music over and over again. The sounds stirred something deep within me. I suddenly felt a profound feeling of loss that shook me to the core of my being. The fact that I couldn't place what it was I had lost didn't help very much. What in the world might I have lost that made me feel this way? A favorite acorn tree, maybe?
Of course, that was it. Or was it? The only thing I could do was actually get up and do something about it. I began with the area around the cabin, sniffing around the bases of trees, pushing things placed around the cabin and looking underneath. All the while the female continued to play that same music over and over and over again. Until it was imprinted in my brain...
"...I've been searching for something... something so undefined... that it can only be seen... by the eyes of the blind... in the middle of the night..."
My antlers fell off while I was searching one day in the woods. I looked at them rather forlornly, impressions of the largest rack I'd had yet flashed across my brain; thoughts that were shoved aside as I realize that I'd have another rack growing come the time that the snows were melting. That one thought made me happy, so I continued searching.
Whatever I was searching for remained stubbornly hidden, though. But there were also places where I couldn't check to see if the missing thing was there. Whenever I came to the cabin for my daily meal of carrots and other food I'd stick my head inside as far as it would go, both soaking in the warmth and sniffing to see if whatever-it-was might be there. The two humans were rather puzzled at this, I could tell.
But then, these two humans seemed puzzled at a lot of things. Like the way I would watch them as they brought cedar for me to eat by the base of my tree, or when they'd put down small piles of other foods underneath other trees. There were times when I wanted to touch them, too, just to be sure that they didn't have whatever I had lost. But that wasn't proper for a deer; though I did decide that it wasn't all that uncomfortable to get within touching distance.
Humans really aren't that that bad once one got to know them, I decided. They had saved my life, after all. It was the least I could do, I supposed.
Eventually I had to expand my search out into areas away from the relative safety of the cabin. I'd smelled the traces of other deer at times, though they all went in the direction of what was quickly becoming a winter Yard, where all might find food for these lean times. With my newfound memory that was slowly extending further and further into the past I knew that this winter was no better than the last. There would be a lot of starved-to-death deer and other animals by the time spring reawakened the world.
Inevitably one of the trails I found was of a certain familiar doe. With her was the scent of two young bucks. I stopped in my tracks and put my nose into the hoof prints of all three of them. There was a note of urgency in their smell.
Suddenly a horrible image flashed through my mind. My mate, starving and emaciated, her ribs showing, standing with her back hunched; her--my--fawns nearly dead. My fawns. They had to be...
I found them standing under a cedar tree, she was standing on her hind hooves, doing her best to reach a branch that was just out of reach. I stopped and stomped a forehoof to announce my presence, since the wind was from the wrong direction. They didn't look nearly as bad as the image I remembered, but I didn't like the way they shivered. It wasn't all that cold.
The two little bucks were a study in contrasts. One was clean, neat, alert to his surroundings; he noticed my coming before his mother did. His brother was quite the opposite. He looked in better shape, shivered less, but looked rather shaggy; and at the same time stood there with a kind of indifference to his surroundings. If he didn't shape up right away he'd be wolf food.
She was startled, but not displeased, by my sudden appearance. My mate trotted up and licked my face not unlike she might do to one of her fawns. Then she smelled human on me, and backed off, completely confused.
I turned around a couple times to show her just how good my condition was. That there was food enough for the four of us. She wasn't convinced, and shied away, nudging the shaggier fawn when he failed to follow. I stomped a forehoof and snorted.
She didn't respond to that so I dashed in front of their paths, pleading with them by lowering my head nearly to the ground, ears angled backwards. After what seemed like an eternity she finally came and licked me behind my ears. Success!
Then, to my surprise, she walked around to the other side of me and pushed me towards the fawns. Those two definitely didn't know what to make of me. I hadn't seen one of my fawns this close for quite a while.
I suddenly realized that I'd found, in part, the thing I'd been looking for.
Liz leaned back on the couch, smelling thoughtful. "Is it possible that Mama was a SCAB also?" She looked at her husband.
During my tale my time limit had expired, so I was in non-morphic form. My boys were likewise and had decided that their father made a very good pillow. My vodor was turned down low. "I've given that some thought, Liz. If she was a SCAB then our children might have turned out like the twins. All of our fawns were natural--I guess you could say--deer."
"Well, what about those feelings you had for each other? Weren't they rather human?" Brian said.
I thought about it, then shook my head. "I don't think so, my friend. I had these feelings even before my sentience started to reawaken. And then there's always Mama, herself."
Maxine was giving me an oddly compassionate look. "She does seem to have been very unusual for a 'mere' animal."
I rested my head in Maxine's lap. "I don't know how you'll feel about this, love, but I consider her my first wife..."
She only chuckled warmly. "I see I have a tough act to follow, then." She kissed me between my pedicles.
It was well dark outside by now. My first stomach growled, awakening the boys, who immediately started to bleat their hunger. They got up on their hooves, freeing me to get up as well. "Perhaps we should continue this back at our house? Perhaps over dinner?" I said to Liz and Ade.
Brian's couches weren't all that comfortable even for normal humans, at least not for the amount of time for the older couple had been sitting there. Brian was normally very prompt with his patients. Liz smiled. "We'd love to, Jon. Thank you very much."
A couple of hours later, everyone gathered again at the Sleeper home. After Maxine, with some help from Liz, put the twins to bed, we all gathered in the kitchen. Maxine opened the fridge, then put a hand to her forehead. "You're not going to believe this, but I forgot we don't have much food here for normals." She smiled and looked at everyone. "I doubt any of you want cedar or beechnuts."
Ade chuckled. "To tell the truth, we've sometimes survived on the bounty of the woods. But," he said with a wink, "if you've got a phone book around here, I'll just order something."
Ade, Liz and I settled on calling a take out chicken place that delivered, nixing pizza and Chinese because the strong smells might disturb the fawns in the next room. While we waited, Maxine prepared a salad for her and Jon.
"What brought you out to that cabin, anyway?" I asked after a while. "I thought that area was pretty much deserted."
Liz nodded. "When we found it, it was," she said. "It was really a very fast decision, really. We both had good jobs in the city, Ade worked for Finch and Backlage, the ad agency, and I'm actually a trained chemist, but we hated it. We spent so much time wrapped up in our work that we barely knew each other anymore."
"What changed?" asked Maxine.
"The Flu, for one," answered Ade. "We didn't like the way things looked like they were headed at the time. At the height of the epidemic, we both got sick. I almost died."
"When he was on his feet again," continued Liz, "we went up to the lake for a rest. By that time, tourism was dead up there. Only one lodge was still open, and we were the only guests."
Ade nodded. "Up to about the turn of the century, it had actually been growing, but the Martian Flu hit the area harder than most. Killed 200 out of a population of 350. Most of the survivors moved off."
"That was 2009, and we just fell in love with the area. We came again in 2010 and stumbled across a cabin for sale. Wasn't much to look at, but it was sturdy. We bought it with the intention of making it a weekend place. By the time we'd spent a few days there, we decided to stay for good." Liz smiled. "That's when we went looking for some other place to live."
"The log cabin was quaint, but a mess," interjected Ade.
Liz nodded. "We found the summer place next door was for sale a couple weeks later, and bought it instantly. Moved all our furniture in there the next day."
Ade chuckled. "Too bad we didn't think to ask some questions first." He shook his head, "The place was a summer cabin, that's for sure. Useless in the winter. Thankfully we realized that in October, before it got too cold."
"The log cabin was our savior, built when Lincoln was still a lawyer in Illinois," Liz said with a laugh.
Ade took over. "It wasn't that old, but it looked it. Sturdy as hell, though. No lights, no phones, no gas. Woodburning stove in the kitchen and a fireplace. Walls as thick as a bank vault and sealed with tar. Wonderful."
"It smelled like varnish," said Jon suddenly. "Varnish and oil."
"I'm not surprised you remember. The inside of the cabin had decades of oily buildup on the walls, took years to clean it all off. Literally. Underneath was an incredibly thick layer of varnish." She picked up one of the photo albums and flipped through it a few pages until she found one of her and Ade with another couple taken inside. "This is the winter cabin."
She touched the photo, then let her finger slide down the plastic covered page to the lowest picture. It was a snapshot taken through a window in the middle of winter, frost thick on the edges of the glass. "Brother," she breathed. A tear formed at the edge of her eye. "He always did that when we didn't put out what he liked. He loved oatmeal, believe it or not. Dried oatmeal."
Ade smiled a little sadly as he looked at the picture. "I've been on this Earth for 70 years, but I don't remember a winter like that. It was more like living in a storybook."
"A time of simple pleasures," mused Liz.
Ade was the first one to see them that morning. As he stood over the wood stove, trying to coax the percolator into giving him an early cup of coffee, his gaze slipped up through the window. After the nights light snow, he had expected to see just Adam laying under his tree awaiting his own breakfast.
Instead, he bounded into the bedroom. "Liz! We've got visitors!"
Sleepily, she rolled over on the bed. "Unless it's someone with a search warrant, tell them to leave me alone."
Ade smiled. "I think Adam brought his kids for a visit."
Liz lay still for about half a heartbeat, then sat bolt upright. "What?"
Ade nodded as he grabbed her fleece robe off the chair. "He's out there asleep with a doe and two fawns. I'll bet they're his!"
Liz pulled the robe on, not pausing to put on slippers, and jogged into the kitchen. By the time she was there, the four deer had stood up and were snuffling the ground for food. She shook her head. "I don't believe it. I've seen that doe before, though. What'd we start calling her?"
"Mama," she said wistfully. "She's awfully skittish around people. How'd Adam do that?"
Ade shrugged on his overcoat. "I don't know, but I think I'd better put something out there. If we have these three as a permanent additions, we'll need to get more corn."
"Probably so," replied Liz. "And carrots if they take after their father."
Ade walked out the back door to the storage shed while Liz threw on some warm clothes and rummaged through the leftovers that she had on hand. There were still a few canned blueberries from the night before, as well as a handful of overripe cherries. She tossed the lot onto a large platter and stepped carefully out the front door.
Adam perked up instantly, taking a few steps forward before he seemed to realize that none of the others were following. He turned to see Mama hovering at the edge of the woods, a look of near panic on her features. Her fawns still hovering at her side. Liz set down the platter a safe distance from Adam and slowly backed her way to the house.
Smelling the air a few times, the buck took a few steps forward and looked back again toward the doe and her fawns. She was still standing very still, but seemed to have relaxed slightly. Cautiously, she took a couple of steps forward and her fawns followed. Adam led her toward the platter, but himself didn't stoop to eat the offered fruit. Instead, he watched over the doe and her fawns while they, cautiously at first and then with more vigor, ate every morsel, then licked the nearly frozen juice away.
Mama raised her head suddenly, ears focused at the side of the house. Liz could even hear now as Ade made his way through the fresh snow carrying the heavy sack of corn. This being more than she was ready for, she bounded into the woods, her fawns suddenly in tow. Ade's footsteps stopped a moment, then he continued, looking around the corner at Liz. "Damn, I hope I didn't scare them off for good."
Liz watched the buck look back and forth, torn between the food and his doe before he turned and loped after her. Liz smiled. "Put out enough for four. We'll be seeing them all again."
"We saw them a lot that winter," mused Liz. "It was just a couple of hours later that they all came back into the clearing."
"That was one of the worst winters ever up there," interjected Ade. "There wasn't much food in the forest. An ice storm devastated the cedar trees, and there was too much snow to dig for food." He pointed at a picture of the four deer eating good spread out in the clearing. "You never seemed to stray far from the side of the cabin," he said to Jon. "Mama never seemed to get any more conformable around the humans, though."
Grace pointed at the picture that had started the conversation, the cute little buck fawn with its nosed pressed against the glass. "Why'd you name him 'Brother'?" she asked. Ade and Liz exchanged a glance and shrugged in unison. "I honestly don't remember," said Liz. "We just realized one morning that we were always calling him Pig's brother and it got shortened. Maybe you had to be there, but it stuck."
"Pig?" asked Maxine with a little smile. "What possessed you to name him that?"
Ade smiled wider. "Well·"
The camera clicked a few times in rapid sequence. "I'm glad that the sun is behind that cloud," mused Ade. "If it bounced off all this snow I'd never get a decent shot."
Liz leaned back a little further in her chair on the porch and took a little sip of coffee, feeling the heat of the mug through her gloved hands. "You must have gone through about three rolls in the last week. How much of that did you buy before winter set in?" she asked.
"I've got enough for now," he answered in a distracted tone. "I'll have to go into town when we can move a bit more, though."
Liz shook her head and turned her attention back to the deer. Adam was the only one that wasn't eating at the moment, his attention turned to the woods. He didn't seem particularly worried about anything, but one of the four was always watching while the others ate. The doe ate at one end of the spread out corn and oatmeal, while the two fawns ate nearly side by side. Abruptly, the shaggier and fatter of the two fawns started shoving the other away, greedily eating where his brother had been a moment before.
His brother stumbled to the snow, letting out a surprised bleat. Even if it was only momentary, both the doe and buck immediately turned their attention to the fallen fawn while the other ignored him and continued to eat. After seeming to be satisfied that the fawn was okay, Adam started pushing the shaggy fawn away from the food to where he had been standing watch a few moment before.
This was certainly not the first time that this fawn had been forced to keep watch, even at this young age they had to learn how to spot danger, but the nearby presence of the food seemed to be irresistible. He quickly walked back to the corn and reached down to take a mouthful.
Adam never let him, instead shoving him harder toward the watch position. The fawn stumbled a little, but didn't fall or take the hint. As fast as he was on sure footing again, he was again trying to eat. This time, Adam shoved him to the snow and reared up over him.
"God, what's he doing?" breathed Liz.
To the surprise of the humans, the buck didn't come down on the fawn, indeed didn't touch him. Instead, when he was back on all fours, he snorted and stamped a few times, then returned to the pile of food to eat.
The shaggy fawn laid and trembled for a few moment, then stood and sullenly walked over to the watch position, looking out into the woods, and stealing the occasional look at the rest of his clan eating.
Ade clucked his tongue, "It looks like our little pig finally learned his place."
Liz chuckled. "That fits for him."
Ade lowered his camera. "What does?"
"That name," said Liz, pointing her chin at the fawn. "Pig."
The newly named fawn turned his attention back to the pair on the porch, a look of bewilderment on his face.
Maxine flipped through a few pages of the album, seeing page after page of the buck that would one day be her husband with the first family he had known in years. "I'm amazed," she finally said. "You two spent all winter alone with just deer for company?"
Jon looked at her in false shock. "What are you saying? I'm not good company?"
Liz laughed. "No offence, my buckish friend, but you weren't much of a conversationalist in those days." She shook her head. "No, we weren't alone, though that winter it was pretty close to it. Karl Eicher, the man who was there the night we first found Adam, would stop by periodically. How that old man made it through the snow I have never been able to figure out. And we did have visitors from time to time."
"Like who?" asked Maxine.
Ade shrugged. "Hard to say after all these years. Most of them just stopped in for a few hours. Cross country skiers, a few snowmobiliers. People like that."
Liz nodded in agreement. "Don't forget the ranger. Can't remember her name now, but she checked in on us every couple weeks or so."
"Ranger Gail," laughed Ade. "First or last name, I can't remember. Took her job way too seriously. Oh, and we had those guys in the snow tracker."
Liz looked blank a few moments, then suddenly nodded. "I'd almost forgotten about them! Funny, because they talked with us so long. Seemed so interested in Adam·" Her voice trailed off and her face paled.
"What is it?" asked Jon. "What's wrong?"
Brother usually exhibited more caution than his piggish brother, but when Ade came out with the sack of oatmeal, he threw it all to the wind. He was bounding toward his human friend when something in the air seemed to catch his attention and he stopped. Ade stopped himself and noted that the other three deer seemed to be intently interested with something on the road. Without a sound, all four bounded through the edge of the woods and out of sight.
Ade chuckled and carried the sack to the porch. As he set it down, he heard the sound that had scared his deerish friends. "Honey!" he yelled through the door. "I think we have company."
Liz stepped out, slipping on her gloves. "Who?"
Ade listened to the approaching sound. "I don't know, but it sounds like some kind of tank."
As he said it, the tracked vehicle turned through the trees and up the driveway. The small cab was attached to a flatbed, it's sides surrounded with wooden panels. It drove up to the front of the cabin, and the driver swung open the door. "You the Fords?" he asked over the sound of the motor. When Ade nodded, the man reached in and shut off the engine. "Great! We have a delivery for you!"
Ade and Liz exchanged a look. "A delivery?" Ade asked. "What are you talking about?"
The man and his friend jumped out of the cab. "The folks at the grocery store in town asked us to drop off some supplies for you folks. Said to tell you that it was a little Christmas gift for you folks and Adam."
Liz smiled, "I don't believe it. I didn't even tell them I needed anything!"
Ade jumped down the steps and helped the men pull a huge sack of grain from the bed. "I'm guessing that they thought we were starving up here."
The big man set a case of canned peaches on the snow and reached for huge canvas sack of dried corn. "They must have! It's like you're raising livestock up here."
Liz chucked as she slipped a five pound can of coffee out of the truck. "Something like that. What are you folks doing up here, anyway?"
The driver shrugged. "We're into the outdoors, you could say. Neither of us have been up in these parts this deep into winter, so we'd thought we'd check it out." He looked around the clearing. "You folks have a nice place, too. Are you on the national park land?"
Ade shook his head. "No, but we're pretty close. The edge of the official national forest is about half mile down the road."
The big man stacked a case of cans on the porch and walked back. "Must keep down the unwanted visitors."
Ade shrugged. "A little. I think we don't deal with as many hunters because of it. Too much danger of stumbling across the boarder of the national forest, and the rangers have no sense of humor about poaching. This time of year isn't a problem, though. It's way out of season, and poachers don't want to bother with bucks who've lost their antlers."
The men laughed. "I'm sure," said the driver. "I've met some of the rangers out here before." He looked around again. "I heard that you folks have a deer population out here, too."
Liz nodded. "A few come around. In fact, that's the Adam that the shopkeeper told you about."
"Must come around a lot if you've named him," mused the driver.
Liz chuckled. "You have no idea."
Liz stopped, her voice quavering.
Ade laid a hand on her shoulder. "You don't really think..."
She turned her gaze up to him. "They knew, because of me, where to come. They knew it wasn't national forest. We always thought they'd come straight to the cabin."
"You don't know that," said Ade, soothingly.
"What are you talking about?" asked Maxine, echoing my own questions. "Did something happen that winter?"
"Not that winter," said Jon, his voice quiet and filled with sadness. "It was the next fall."
Hot, cold, spring, summer, fall, winter, green, blue, ground, top, bottom, Liz, Ade... Words. Human words. To me, they meant very little for the longest time. They were just sounds that humans made that I never really paid attention to. The tone of them was much more important. They could communicate emotion, danger, and were a very good substitute when the wind was from the other direction, and I couldn't smell them.
After spring had come to the cabin, it had been time to move on again. My mate and her fawns went their own way, sadly. Yet, I knew my place wasn't with them. My mate would soon give birth to yet more fawns, and she'd quite pointedly shoved me away when I tried to follow her.
As I watched the trio leave, the fatter one turned back towards me and bleated once. It was such a sorrowful sound that I nearly ran right to him. But his mother promptly returned and forced him to follow her, leaving me standing in the forest that was still awakening from winter's long sleep.
I was heartened by the fact that I knew there always next winter. I knew quite well that does never roamed very far. So I left the cabin, left the humans again, for when the snows would come next.
I knew they would be here, too.
My top priority, of course, was to find food. New shoots and grasses were always very tasty, and I ate my way through the forest as I found my way towards my normal spring stomping grounds.
On the way I met up with a pair of bucks. Quite naturally I joined the group, taking my place in the middle hierarchy of our small herd. Only one little whap of from my forehooves and a bit of stomping had secured that position, and I had my eye on the number one spot, though I actually wasn't all that ambitious.
Sometimes it was good to be one-behind the leader. There would eventually be five of us in our little group, but that number would quickly be reduced to four. Very simply, the Head Buck generally acted very brave and normally got himself killed because he did something that, to me, was very stupid.
I wasn't the oldest of the five of us because I left things to chance, after all.
As we moved around our range, eating our way from one end to the other, we inevitably encountered humans. Their scents and their voices increasingly permeated the undergrowth. To my amazement, these four bucks seemed to have been heading for this place, whatever it was.
During the night, strange light and more voices filtered through the leaves, along with the acrid smell of wood smoke. My curiosity overcoming my natural caution, I took the next step and walked into the clearing.
There were humans everywhere. Tall ones, short ones, ones that talked in high-pitched voices, others who spoke in low, rumbling tones. A human-fawn made an excited sound and made noises in my direction. "Look, mommy! A deer!"
I vanished into the undergrowth before I really realized that I'd understood what the human-fawn had said! The epiphany hit me so hard that I slammed into a tree, knocking myself senseless...
...All I wanted was the perfect spot. Was that too much to ask? One might think it would be a very easy place to find in the Appalachian Mountains, especially in the fall. The hills and valleys of the whole area seemed to be on fire. Fallen leaves swirled behind me as I drove on a windy mountain road, a detailed map on the passenger seat.
Driving in the mountains was quite different than the flat plains of the Midwest, I decided. My brand new '04 Subaru Outback nimbly met each tight curve. I had to keep my eyes glued to the road, lest I drive off the edge of a cliff. "I've got to find a place to stop around here. There has to be a campground around here somewhere..." I said to myself.
I found a turnoff while descending towards a small river valley and had a look at my Thomas Brothers map of the area. Having been the navigator on the many stormchasing trips during time at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, I found pinpoint obscure and hidden roads to where we wanted to be.
There. At the very bottom of this valley was a little dashed line, indicating an old dirt road. Once there, I slowed down to almost a crawl and scanned the seemingly unbroken wall of vegetation Gold and red leaves were showering off the trees like rain, the wind whipping them into swirls and eddies across the aged and broken asphalt. And then...
There seemed to be a dark tunnel to the side of the road--a break in the trees--through which the wind was blowing much harder. If it hadn't been such a windy day I would have missed it completely. The space between the trees was barely wide enough to accommodate my car, but I took it slowly enough so I didn't scratch the paint.
Just past the "tunnel" was a short, but steep, grade down into a large flat area surrounded by trees. Just to the right was the rotted remains of a gate, water- stained up halfway. Once more, it was just open enough for me to drive through slowly, while I was very thankful for having 4-wheel drive.
The road curved towards the sound of a rushing river. I could see the remains of the campsite buildings, their concrete foundations overrun with moss, grasses, and other ground-hugging plants. Through the vent came the smell of what was obviously the old sites of the restrooms, no longer discernable because of the mud on the ground, but definitely still smellable. I could still make out the vague outlines of individual campsites, so drove over to one close to the river.
It was late afternoon by now, and I was quite ready to stop for the night, anyway. My feet ached within my brand-new shoes, and a dizzy spell passed over me. It took a while for me to compose myself. I really hoped that didn't mean that I was getting sick again. I'd had that strange 'Martian Flu' three months ago--just after graduation--and had been sicker than doomsday for over two weeks.
Then I thought of the other effect of the Flu, and took a moment to look at myself. The news had reported on strange changes in gender, and even species. I wasn't sure I believed it. Sounded too good to be true. Besides, nothing like that could ever happen to me.
After the Flu had taken my aunt Ardith and uncle Dick, I certainly didn't need to be changed into a woman, or an animal. I had enough problems as it was.
At least now I'd get a chance to use the camping equipment that my younger brother had given me. I got out of the car and opened the hatch, and took a moment to read the instructions for setting up the tent. It was a simple affair of springy fiberglass poles, put through sleeves. It was a nice, compact dome tent that could fit up to three people.
My shoes became increasingly less comfortable as I finally got everything set up, but I had more to do before I could relax. I was sweating before I got everything set up, and the wind didn't help with the tent, either.
I had to weigh the tent down with everything I could find. The stakes I had weren't enough. To add to the trouble, between my third and fourth fingers was a strange waxy substance. I couldn't tell where it was coming from, most likely the stakes themselves. But it smelled oddly like... me. As if it were some sort of fancy cologne.
All the exertion made me feel very tired, and I was still recovering from that stupid flu from all those months ago, so I decided to take a breather in the tent. Gratefully I removed my shoes, the ache vanishing nearly instantly. I took off my socks to wiggle my toes.
Then I wondered if I'd brought a second pair of shoes with me. The insides of my ankles were swollen on the fleshy part, and didn't smell very good. They were heavy with musk that filled the tent with it's oily smell. And to top it off, on the outside of my feet, just above my third toe, was another swollen place about the size of a dime. This one didn't smell like anything, luckily.
I rubbed my aching feet, not wanting to put my shoes back on. The waxy feeling was between my toes, too. "Sheesh. Last time I'm ever buying Adidas. I should probably see a podiatrist about this..." I rubbed the wax from between my toes and rubbed it between my fingers.
The smell was oddly compelling. I took a few deep breaths, then wiped it on my shirt.
The soil felt very good between my toes as I walked around the abandoned campground. The wind had died down to a mere breeze, though it still came in occasional gusts, which could be heard coming from miles away. It was as like knowing there was a train coming, and being able to hear it long before it arrived.
A gust reached the campground and set the branches of the trees asway. Ash, beech, hickory, and other trees abounded. Maple was most abundant in this particular spot. The whole campground was carpeted with red leaves. I could hear the urgent rattle of woodpeckers and the chatter of squirrels.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, taking in the smells and sounds of the forest. Time was meaningless. How long I stood and simply listened and smelled I have no idea. But the smells became more intense and telling. And I became aware of things I hadn't known before.
Like... eyes watching me. Deer. I could feel their presence. I'd always been a bit of a mystic, and even eight years of scientific education had failed to erase that. This... this was home, in a way.
And then... a rustle in the bushes. A doe moved carefully into view, walking carefully into the clearing. She held her nose to the breeze, and didn't seem to notice me yet. The doe's fur was a dark brown, the white rings around her eyes made her look very expressive as her ears turned this way and that. Somehow not sensing my presence, she walked over to a certain tree, sniffed it, licked the bark. It was then that I saw that the bark had been well-rubbed, the white sapwood underneath bared.
The wind shifted every so slightly. Her ears suddenly went nearly vertical, and she looked in my direction. I could see she was quite confused for some reason. I stood very still, while she stomped a forehoof and moved a couple steps my way, then a few more, and a few more. Eventually, she was sniffing at my hand. And I could smell her, too.
I couldn't stand it any longer. I reached out to scratch her ear, which startled her so badly that she nearly tripped over herself to get away from me. Leaving only her scent behind.
Her scent.... her scent...
The doe's oddly sweet scent stirred feelings in me. They were base, possessive feelings best delegated to my own few-and-far-between girlfriends. To have them for a doe seemed odd to say the least. Disgusting was more like it. "I'm not a deer," I said aloud.
I suddenly had to blink a lot as there was suddenly something in my eyes. For a minute I removed my glasses and rubbed the bridge of my nose, feeling a headache coming on. The whole experience of having a doe within touching distance had made me feel quite giddy. Her scent still lingered around me, so I waited for the almost nonexistent breeze to take it away.
Before I walked back to the tent, I decided to do one thing, just for the hell of it. I walked over to the rub site, and since I didn't have antlers, scraped down to the bare soil with my feet. Which made me feel oddly satisfied. A sort of "Jon was here" mark. As I walked away I was grinning like there was no tomorrow.
The waxy feeling between my fingers had grown. I rubbed at it a bit more, wiping the yellowish stuff on my shirt. "Must be sap, or something," I reasoned. And it certainly didn't smell bad, so I really didn't mind too much.
Back at the camp, I dug around in the trunk of my car for something to eat. This wasn't quite the first time I'd used the camping equipment, but it was close enough. I cooked hot dogs for dinner, and had a nice dessert of some Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Neither sat very well on my stomach, however.
I settled in my tent, the sun already vanished over the mountains. Both of the electric lanterns I'd brought were on, for I'd decided to use the time to look over my thesis. My literal blood-and-sweat thesis that I'd spent four years of my life on, and had only gotten a "C". A goddamn C. But what galled me more was that Dr. Bernstein, my teacher and advisor, knew where I'd made my mistake, but refused to even give me a hint.
However, I quickly found that my tolerance for looking at the thing had dropped into the basement. I opened up my hardbound copy, and found that all the equations amounted to a whole lot of gibberish. Not that it was totally unusual. Long nights of study had often made me start thinking that the particular thermodynamic equation I was focusing on somehow equaled "1".
Which was an oversimplification of the whole thing, and not to mention totally wrong in the first place.
Deciding that I didn't want to look at it, instead I shut off one of the lanterns, and turned the other one down low. It was a dead calm outside the tent. The wind had vanished, and the air was heavy with humidity. The silver moonlight outside was starting to be obscured by fog. And in that fog, I heard hoofprints.
Deer. Five or six of them, probably does. The month being October, it was at least three weeks before they would come into heat. However, the bucks would be jockeying for position in their own hierarchies, staking out the does they hoped would come into heat soonest. There was a very sweet smell in the air, and the musky scent of the deer filled the tent.
The humidity was just about unbearable for me. Summer seemed to have found a hiding place in this valley because I was suddenly soaked in sweat. So, I removed my shirt. Then I removed my shorts. Then, not believing it myself, I removed my underwear, too. But I felt no relief. It only got worse. The dead air in the tent wasn't helping any, either.
My ankles started to itch like mad all of a sudden. I reached down, and in the dim light of the fluorescent lantern that was hanging from the roof, saw something strange. The swollen areas on my ankles had enlarged. I could quite plainly see long white hairs, growing even as I watched. "Ohgod..."I gasped, suddenly remembering the name of the secondary effect of the Flu.
SCABS. Stein's Chronic Accelerated Bio-Morphic Syndrome. Symptoms: Rapid changes in genetic and body structure, sometimes resulting in death or insanity. And, sometimes, complete loss of human mental capacity...
Just what did "capacity", mean?
I shuddered. I had known what it meant only seconds before. But it escaped me, now. And then I forgot what I was worrying about, exactly. Until the waxy spots between my fingers and toes seemed to catch on fire. I screamed in pain, startling the deer that were outside the tent. But they didn't run.
There was now a very definite hole between my third and fourth fingers. A hole from which a yellowish substance was being expelled. My nails were a shiny black, and my thumbs had noticeably shrunk into the sides of my hands.
I stumbled to my feet, intent on getting into my car and driving for help. But I didn't get two steps until I collapsed onto the carpet of leaves, breathing heavily, unable to even move.
The worst part about it was that I could feel my mind being stolen from me, one bit at a time. A word here, a memory there. The building blocks of what made me human, what made me Jonathan David Sleeper were being eaten away.
There is no pain like forced transformation. Fur spread all over my body like honey. There was no pause, and I could not scream, nor make any sound. Every bit of energy in my body was forced into making a change. But a change into what?
My mind, delirious from the fever produced by the change, was nevertheless still aware of the world around me. I could hear with increasing clarity, the sounds of cloven hooves softly hitting the leaves of the forest floor. Since the air was a dead calm, their scents surrounded me, enticed me, and oddly enough, seemed to welcome me.
In my delirium I could hear them speak to me. "You've always been one of us, join us..." Their voices were feminine, dreamlike in quality, and very welcoming.
Admittedly, I'd always felt that deer and I had a certain "kinship", of sorts. They'd become my personal symbol; and while I was in college, I'd collected quite a few things to symbolized what they meant to me. Whitetails were dignity, drive, strength, love, and family. Deer were me and I...
Now I was becoming one of them.
But this wasn't what I had in mind, at all!
Even as my mind was being taken from me, my sense of Self remained strong. Which was more painful than any physical change. What was a "car"? Where was "Oklahoma"? What was my mother's name... What was a name?
Eventually, as my fingers stiffened into cloven forehooves, I was left with two words. I. Am. I clung to them like a security blanket, hopeful that I'd be able to hold on long enough to be found by someone.
In a brief moment of pause, when the sun was just lighting up the fog in golden light, I was acutely aware at what had become of my body. My head had not yet been touched, at least, I could see nor feel a muzzle. Yet, the rest of me hadn't fared so well.
Splayed out on the leaves was a hideous creature, a deer with the head of a man. My ears felt large and floppy, the stirring breeze tickling their hairy interiors. Two long forelegs, tipped by black hooves, stretched out to either side of my head. Behind a neck that was now attached to the back of my skull stretched a long torso, and at the very end, tail muscles twitched anew.
It was as if I was being given a final chance. But... what were those...
I smelled the arrival of the does before I could see them, for I still didn't have the energy to lift my own head. Yet, this time, their scents seemed to reverse the terrible energy loss that the change had sapped from my body. As my energy level rose, I was finally able to swish my tail. They were calling me... calling... I had to.. had.... hadtogo.
And then.... newscent. Buckscent. PAIN! HEAD HURTHURTHURT!!! I! Am! My last truly conscious feeling was feeling the roof of my mouth with my tongue extend forward. My brain was compressed incredibly, yet that wasn't what made me finally lose it to the beast within that was now without.
Sweetscent. Doescent. Buckscent. Rival! I... Am... Getup getup! Snort, wheeze challenge. Otherbuck staredown. I stareback, lookHARD. Otherbuck accept. I... Am.... Pawground, lower head. Charge! I.... Clack!
I sighed, the memory of the dream now clear. "I'm sure you're wondering if I remembered that dream. I'm sorry to say that I didn't. I couldn't. The knock on the head was probably the cause of it, but who knows?"
"Did you remember anything at all?" Liz asked, thoughtful.
"You could say that...."
When I came to, my head was spinning and there was a really intense pain in my antler velvet. I smelled many humans, and when I opened my eyes, there were several of them standing and taking pictures of me. "He's getting up!" one female said. "Move back, everyone."
I jumped to my feet, and made a move to run away, but a wave of the oddest feeling I'd ever had glued me to the spot. Kinship. The word, such an abstract meaning, was completely obvious to me. There was something about humans that very simply made me want to know more about them.
I decided that I didn't need to be so close to study them, however. So I did as instinct told me and dashed for the woods.
I spent the rest of that spring and summer, making a sort of study of humans. I learned that all of these words that had suddenly appeared in my head actually made more sense when organized into recognizable structures. Such as "The man ran." Or: "The apple fell from the tree."
However, though I could think these things, I couldn't speak them. No matter how hard I tried, I only bleated or wheezed. It was very frustrating, and for some reason, didn't seem right.
I knew quite well that I wasn't one of them. I had more pressing concerns than learning basic grammar. Such as the damage to my antlers. Though slight, I could feel that they were not growing correctly. The left side was heavier than the right. But I could not know quite how bad the damage was...
Until an incredible day that burned itself in my memory.
It was an unusually calm day. There was a small pond that the four of us normally drank at, across which ripples flowed at any slightest breeze. But today it was glassy smooth. So smooth...
Suddenly I was face to face with another buck, looking up at me from below the surface of the pond. Startled, I very nearly dashed away. But once more my curiosity overcame good sense. I carefully walked back and looked into the pond. What I saw... I saw... How could...?
That was me? wasn't it? The right side of his antlers was strange. He had too many small tines near the base. He also had, I noted, a very handsomely shaped muzzle, two perfect ears, and very expressive eyes. He flicked an ear, I flicked an ear.
There was no question. That was me, all right.
The rest of that summer I felt like I was on the edge of something. Something so huge and so abstract, that my mind just balked away from it. Two steps forward, two steps back.
Eventually my antlers reached their final size, and as the smell of the Rut was starting to permeate the air. And with it, the restlessness and shorter tempers of my fellow herd brothers. Now that the velvet was off, they were getting quite rambunctious. Even belligerent.
For once, I had more things on my mind than trying to keep my place in our little herd. And now that the velvet was off, I remembered that there were some very important deer over near the cabin. My mate, my sons.
As I made my way towards the cabin, I wondered what my little bucks would look like. They would be getting their first set of antlers this year. And since my memories were only clear back until the kind humans--Liz and Ade, their names were--had given me the food that had saved my life.
I would have to find a way to thank them.
The Rut was in full swing by the time I arrived in the familiar surroundings of the cabin. There was a chill in the air. The wind was lightly blowing from the north. My thick winter coat easily kept the growing chill out, although I could still feel winter coming on in my bones. I stopped to munch on a few dozen of the sweet, fallen maple leaves that were just underneath my hooves.
I soon came across two scent-trails, a pair of young bucks. It took a minute or two before I realized that these two youngsters were not competitors for my mate's attentions, but my sons. My little bucks, all grown up. And on the trail of a small herd of does.
Their scent trails followed the pattern of a careless trot, not an hour old. They obviously still didn't think of each other as rivals, as the tracks themselves were almost side by side, one giving the other a turn at being lead every so often. I paused for a moment, and snorted in laughter. If those two ever expected to get the does to respect them, they'd have to act with a bit more dignity!
Their trail finally broke off of that of the does not too far from the Fords' cabin. All of a sudden the surroundings were familiar. Over there, along the road, Ade would often walk for over a mile in the snow and biting cold to get their mail. The trees bore the signs of last year's cutting, with some of the lower branches all around cut cleanly from wondrous tool that other humans had made.
There was a sudden rustle in the undergrowth, and I caught a whiff of my little bucks on the breeze. As they romped playfully into the clearing, it was equally clear that they were certainly not "little" any more. The shaggier one now sported a perfect eight point rack! And his brother, a seven-point. For their first sets! That... that was incredible!
Standing just out of sight, I watched them romp and cavort for a while, my heart swelled with fatherly pride. They would be quite wanted by the does... if only they carried themselves with a bit more dignity. Does loved that.
I caught a brief glimpse-and-scent of the two humans as I made my way into the clearing, head held high, strutting proudly. I heard Liz-scent gasp in surprise at my appearance. My sons were also suitably surprised. They stopped their tomfoolery and stared for a minute or so as I made my way past them.
They fell into line behind me, holding their own crowned heads high and proud, that I wanted to prance and jump myself! Yet, I kept myself contained until I found the perfect spot to turn and face them.
My sons were quite handsome, I had to admit. And to my amazement, they remembered me! Once I stopped my quick trot, the shaggier one--called Pig by the humans-- walked up and licked me behind my ears, which I returned in kind to both of them. For though we deer didn't have language in the human sense of the word, we had our own ways to communicate.
My sons and I spent the remainder of the day until nightfall, sparring playfully. They had potential, if only they could learn to control themselves. Enthusiasm was good, but focused enthusiasm was better! If they were to win future battles, then I would have to teach them every little trick I knew.
When night fell, we broke off our playful sparring and made our way to the cabin. I tapped a forehoof expectantly on the doorstep, and waited for the inevitable carrots. I'd only tasted one in the months since I left this place, and that was a daring run to steal from a human child, who cried out even as I ran away.
Carrot. Carrot, carrot, carrotcarrot, carROT... I rolled the word around in my mind. Carrot. Wanted a carrot. Why weren't they answering? I tapped on the doorstep again, then noticed that the cabin was dark. A plate had been set on the doorstep, but whatever food might have been there the squirrels had already gotten to. I licked the plate wistfully, tasting just a hint of it. I sighed.
I hit the door once with my antlers in frustration... and it opened.
With great care, I made my way around the furniture, sniffing for carrots. I could hear the humming sound coming from where food-smells were the greatest. The carroty smell pulled me along, having a power all its own. There was almost no light inside, so I had to rely on my nose alone. I poked around inside the food-place. Carrotscarrots... there!
I pulled open the drawer with my mouth, and ate my fill. When my rumen was stuffed, I carefully closed it again with a forehoof, then left the cabin the same way I'd come in. However, this time I made sure the door was closed. I grabbed a hole of the knob with my mouth, and pulled on it until I heard a click. Closed.
Satisfied, I rejoined my sons, and we went to find a place to chew our cuds for the night.
Two steps forward, two steps back. Dreams that had no meaning, yet I knew they were important. I saw faces, heard names. All of it so familiar... They were clearly memories. But whose? Certainly not mine. How could they be? I wasn't a human. I could never be one of those two-legged creatures. They were silly- looking to say the least, and didn't smell too good.
No way I could want to be one of those...
...so why was my curiosity set afire every time I smelled one?
A familiar feeling awoke me just as the sun came up. The sort of feeling that sends a shiver up your spine. When every muscle suddenly goes from relaxed to alert in an instant. Even before my eyes were fully open I was bounding off into the undergrowth, where I could hide and find out just what had awoken me.
The first snow had come that night. Just a light dusting, not even a hoof's depth. Yet, that's all it took to transform the world around me, and I could feel quite a bit more on the way. Pig and Brother were nowhere to be seen, though I could see the spots where they had slept nearby, places where the snow hadn't touched. The leaves that were left on the trees drooped wetly in the windless morning. All was quiet.
I flicked my ears this way and that, backwards and forwards. The whole forest was enveloped in a frightened silence, afraid to move. Sensing nothing with my ears nor my eyes, I focused on scent. Smell, the most important sense. I wondered why I hadn't used it, first.
And then I found the reason why my sons had left. The scent of two does in heat. Except this scent was concentrated, purified, refined.
Humans. Humans with guns. I'd been hunted before my new state of mind. I had vague memories of narrowly avoiding arrows and bullets. The experience I gained from those near hits had enabled me to live as long as I had. I knew the tricks of hunters all too well. And now, with my new state of mind, it would be even simpler.
But my little bucks were only a year and a half old. They could not know humans, except for Liz and Ade. They could not know that the heat-scent was too good to be true.
Desperately, I dashed back over to the spots where they had slept, and lowered my head to sniff. They had left just after the snowfall, which couldn't have ended too long before I'd awoken. Their scents were strong and fresh. Then I noted the quite obvious sign of their passage. Hoofprints in the snow, going north.
I followed the trail as quickly and cautiously as I could, feeling nothing but worry. I risked a careful trot as the scent of false doe got stronger and stronger. The tension in the air climaxed, and two shots rang out. Followed by to bleats of pain that didn't last very long, and finally, silence once more.
The gunshots had made me skid to a stop in the snow out of pure instinct. Something that very likely saved my life. I heard two human male voices filtering from behind a thicket. "These can't be what? Two years old?" said one.
"Less than that, Jim. I betcha these are their first racks! Not bad for a day's work, eh?"
I heard the sound of something heavy being dragged through the snow. "How much ammo do we have left?" the second man said eagerly. "And I told you to call me 'Wolfmaster'."
The first man snorted, as I followed them, just out of sight. "Jim, I'm not going to call you that. You're not a scab. You'll never be a scab. I have no idea why you'd want to have fur and fangs, anyhoo. How many doctors have you been to, anyway?"
The subject of that conversation was haunting, even through the rage that boiled within me. They had killed my sons! I could smell their blood, which suffused the air with its metallic tang. Yet... that word haunted me. Scab... I knew what it meant, but it seemed to mean something different Then, what the would-be wolf said next. "I wonder where that big buck is... I want to get him before we go."
"We've been out here a week already, Jim! How many deer have we killed? Six? Seven?"
"Aww c'mon, Dave. Just one more and my wolfish nature will be satisfied."
I never actually thought about my next actions. There was no moral dilemma. All that mattered was that at first opportunity I would make those two humans pay for what they had done with their own lives. All I needed was time.
Carefully, I watched them from a secluded spot, and saw they had their guns strapped to their backs. They were still quite alert, and both smelled like does in heat; if I hadn't recognized it as too pure, I might've reacted like my sons. The clothing they were would've been more effective, if not for the snow on the ground. Snow... just starting to fall again out of the gray, gray sky.
They dragged the body of Brother back to their modified truck. As the snowfall thickened they started the engine with a growl, then started to make their very slow way through the trackless woods. I followed.
The snowfall thickened into very nearly a localized blizzard. The wind howled, making me shiver though my fur. Any sort of wind made my fur quite ineffective. Normally, I'd find a sheltered place and curl up. But I couldn't afford to do that.
The humans seemed to be having a bit of trouble. They wandered all over the place, through meadows and small streams, making quite a mess that the snow would immediately cover up. I followed with growing hope and interest, staying just out of sight. Visibility was limited to a very short distance. Everything was whitened out in the blizzard. However, I blended in quite nicely in a nearby thicket. I waited...
The first man, the taller one who'd been talking and doubted his friend was a 'scab', got out first. "Damn it! You said you knew where we were going! Gimme that compass!"
"I didn't bring a compass," the other man replied with confidence, still in the truck. "My wolfish instincts..."
He turned his back to me. I crept a bit closer. The tall human yelled into the truck. "You asshole! You're NOT a SCAB!" A bit closer. "YOU'VE NEVER BEEN A SCAB! " I got ready to charge. "YOU NEVER WILL BE A SCAB! Now we're gonna die out here!"
I lowered my head, antlers held at the ready, and charged for all I was worth. Every ounce of anger, rage, and strength. There was a sickening crunch as the momentum of my gallop drove the inner four points of my antlers into his back. He screamed sharply for a moment, as I felt a warm and wet feeling dribble down my muzzle. Very quickly, he was limp and silent, pulling my head down towards the ground. My antlers came free with an odd sort of slurping sound. I blinked to clear the blood from my eyes.
When I looked up, I found that the 'wolf' had gotten out of the truck, and was rather shakily pointing a rifle at me. I turned to face him, feeling totally fearless for once in my whole life, hunching my shoulders in order to look bigger. I took one powerful stride towards him. "Stop right there! I'll shoot you!"
I could see out of the corners of my eyes that the way he was holding that gun he couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. My breath puffed out of my flaring nostrils, and took another step.
He fired, the shot going wide as expected. I repressed the urge to shake with laughter. And then the words game, unbidden, to my lips. "Yyyyouuuu..... Khilled.... My.... Ssssonshss," I rasped.
The scent of panic from the man was so great that it only fed my grief and rage. He was frantically trying to unjam his gun. I dashed up and wrenched it from his arms with a quick sweep of my antlers. The next two words I rasped would be the last for a long time. "Run. Whoolf."
I cried silently, my head in Maxine's lap hours passed unnoticed. The memory was so clear to me, now. I had killed those two men. The first, with my antlers. But it was the memory of what I did to the other man that frightened me most.
Eventually, I worked up the nerve to finish what little more I knew. I took a deep breath. "I must have chased him for hours, days. I don't remember. When he slowed, I'd prod him with my antlers. And when he finally dropped, I prodded his body with my hooves, trying to make him get up.
"The last thing I clearly remember is the enormity of what I'd just done hitting me. Perhaps I suddenly gained my humanity. I don't know. What I can tell you is that I ran. I ran fast, and I ran long. I ran so hard that all of my memories were beaten, shattered, and broken, and I rejoined my fellow deer in blissful ignorance." I stood up abruptly. "I suppose I should to turn myself in to the police, now."
Our food sat forgotten on the coffee table in our living room. Liz shook her head and put a hand on my shoulder. "Adam--Jon, I mean. Don't be silly."
I flicked my ears, surprised. "But..."
She shook her head. "A year or so later, they found that truck, with no sign of the bodies of those men. They just vanished, and certainly weren't alone in that during that sudden snow storm." She sighed sadly. "And we'd like for you to know that we share your grief about Pig and Brother."
I was in non-morphic form, so I couldn't hug her. Instead I nuzzled her face. "Thank you. You have no idea how much that means to me." I turned to face my wife, and then nuzzled her, too. "I just don't know if I can live with myself... Much less what you think of me."
Maxine knelt down, then shifted to non-morphic form. She didn't wear her vodor, and didn't need words to express her feelings anyway. She gave me a loving lick behind my ears, then nuzzled my shoulders and side. I sighed in relief, returning her affections. I looked at Liz and Ade. "What about you two?"
Liz settled in to finish her tale.
"The National Weather Service reports that a massive storm that was headed for this area has changed course. We'll still catch the edge of it, but it will pass to the north of·"
Ade clicked off the car radio, chuckling. "Oh yeah, I believe that."
Liz looked up from her notebook. "What, Ade?"
He pointed at the car radio, "That storm they were predicting is supposed to pass north of us, but I doubt it. It's already snowing!"
Liz smiled and set the notebook down in her lap. "Okay, I'll admit it. You were right to go into town today for supplies. Happy now?"
He smiled, "Very."
They settled into silence while Ade clicked the radio on to the only other station they could get in this are, one that played classic rock. They were listening to the nearly forgotten sounds of the early '90's when the snow stopped for the moment, leaving a light dusting over the silent forest. It was only a short while later that they pulled up their driveway to the front of their cabin.
As Liz pulled open the back door of the old Mustang, Ade spied something on the ground. "Take a look at this." He waited while his wife rounded the car. "Looks like we've had visitors." He pointed at some deep track marks in the soft earth at the edge of the clearing. "Some kind of tracked truck. They headed up around the lake."
Liz shrugged. "Could be one of the Rangers. They said they'd try to patrol around here if the storm hit."
Ade shook his head. "I don't think so. These were laid here before the snowfall today." Suddenly, he looked up and looked around the front of the cabin. "Where's Adam?"
Liz's response was cut off by two gunshots.
Ade winced as if shot, then grabbed his wife around the shoulders and hustled her toward the cabin. "Inside! Now!" Ignoring the supplies inside the car, they raced up the steps and into the cabin, slamming the door behind them.
Pausing only to strip off his gloves, Ade raced to the phone. "Goddamn poachers·" he muttered loudly. He grabbed it and hit a speed-dial number. "Gail! I'm glad I got you. We've got some poachers up here. Could you·" Liz watched her husband stop, then nod slowly. "I think so. God, I hope not, but I think so."
Liz left her husband talking on the phone and walked into the kitchen, stunned. It's not them, she thought, It's something else. She robotically headed for the refrigerator and pulled open the door.
"What are you doing?" asked Ade from the kitchen door.
"Adam is going to want his carrots when he comes back around." Liz leaned down and slid open the bottom drawer. "Where are they?"
Ade frowned and walked over. "We had a half a bushel of them in there when we left. I remember checking."
Frowning, Liz closed the door and stood up. "Then where did they· Oh!" She cried, looking at the floor. Ade followed her gaze to a set of hoofprints impressed into the ancient linoleum. Liz fought back tears. "Looks like he got them himself, before·"
The couple silently went to sit on the sofa and wait.
"What do you think?" asked Ade.
Liz smiled as she looked over the fresh watercolor. "It's beautiful." She traced her finger over the edge of the canvas. "He's really gone, you think?"
Ade nodded grimly. "Him and all the rest, I think." He laid his arm around Liz's shoulders, "Deer live short, hard lives. We tried to forget it, but that's the reality."
She nodded, never taking her eyes off the watercolor of the whitetail buck looking out from above a shrub. "I know. That doesn't make it any easier." She walked into the kitchen, leaving Ade to put away his paints. Almost instantly, she ran back into the room. "She's back!"
It took Ade a moment to realize what she was saying. "Mama?" he asked, even as he ran for the front window. Sure enough, the doe they had come to know as Mama was looking back at them from the edge of the clearing. She paused in her observation only a moment to nudge one of her two half grown fawns back to her side.
"Adam's not gone," mused Liz. "He's right there."
Liz and Ade invited us out to their cabin for Thanksgiving dinner; we were only too happy to accept. We followed the older couple up the windy mountain road. It was all I could do to keep myself from prancing around like a fawn.
The view out the van's windows as we drove was disappointingly limited, since I was strapped to the floor in non-morphic form. Adam was in a car seat, while Jimmy had insisted on being belted next to his father. The little fawn boy was sleeping soundly at my side. Grace had a look on her face that was either happiness or possibly frustration. Since she was acting so much like a teenager it hard to tell which. The scents coming through the vent increasingly smelled like home. At a stop sign, Maxine turned to face me. "Are you okay?"
"Feeling better," I replied through my vodor, then nuzzling my son at my side. I loved my family so deeply that suicide had never crossed my mind. The only thing I could do was live with what I had done, or what Adam had done.
Liz's face appeared out of the window for a moment, then she opened the side door. "Are you okay? You're not stuck..." Then she saw the look on my face. Truly, the woman whom I considered a surrogate mother was very adept at reading deer expressions. "If you don't want to come for Thanksgiving, there's always Christmas."
I shook my head. "No, no. I want to come." The vodor wasn't able to quite convey my sincerity, however. "I mean it, Liz. This is something I have to do."
The graying woman smiled. "I believe you. It's not much farther."
"We'll be right behind you," Maxine reassured.
When the van came to a stop my heart started to pound. My wife undid the safety belts while I nudged Jimmy awake. My son yawned tiredly and licked me on the tip of my nose, while Grace looked out at the place had had been my winter "home" for several years. Getting out, all of us could smell the presence of at least a dozen other deer. Liz looked the hoofprints on the moist soil. "Looks like we've had other visitors," Ade said.
Naturally, I lowered my head and sniffed at the hoof prints. The deer that'd made them were healthy, at least. Liz and Ade fed all of those who came to their cabin. I shifted to morphic form for a brief time to get a better view of the house. Maxine walked over and put her right arm around my shoulder. Adam toddled on his own two hooves at her side. "Thinking about something?"
I shrugged. "Nothing. Everything. Every time I think my life has settled something new pops up. I'm just wondering when it'll end..."
"Why would you want it to, love? We've still got..." she trailed off as, right at the corner of the small clearing, a buck had appeared. He had a small star- shaped patch of fur on his muzzle that was startlingly white. He stared at us with a very confused look on his face. He had a fine ten point rack, I noticed. Ade and Liz had named him Starface.
I fell to all fours as he made his way towards me. The Rut was still on, which made me worried that he might think I was a rival. But my worries were unfounded. While the twins stayed near their mother, and Grace quietly made her way over to the humans, I put one hoof in front of the other and met my other son in the middle.
We sniffed each other around the face, on the neck. I groomed his face in a friendly way, he did mine. Then we sparred a little, the sound of our antlers clacking together echoing through the clearing. The experience was immensely enjoyable, and totally indescribable. Somehow, though I'd never met him, he seemed to know me.
It was getting dark by the time I finally left Starface to rejoin my family inside the cabin. Inside, I could see Maxine looking at the painting of myself that Ade had described, which we'd end up getting as a Christmas present. On my way there I just happened to walk by a certain cedar tree. Adam's tree. My tree. I could smell Starface still ghosting around the edge of the clearing. My son.
I made a scrape just below the tree, rubbing at the bark with the rough base of my antlers. The marking complete, for a short minute I bedded down in the spot that still seemed very much like home.
For I was home in every sense of the word.
The Gift of the Woods copyright 1999 by Jon Sleeper and Brian Eirik Coe.
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