By David Halpern
They watch from the hilltop as the doe pats a nest in the tall grasses between two trees. A year ago they watched a goat birthing in the barn. They stood on either side of the goat, helping her, talking to her, but it was not the same. The barn was warm and dry. The goat had a name. There was no nest.
When the doe beds down, Josh and Emm can see nothing from the top of the hill. They move cautiously toward the deer, these two, holding each other back. Josh walks just behind Emm, filling her footprints. He holds her waist with both hands, pulling her back with one while prodding her gently forward with the other. The grass is wet and her pants stick cold and flat to the calf of her leg. She holds both hands to her mouth. They must stay downwind and not let a sound. If frightened, the doe will kick. She will run and kick until she collapses, the fawn still in her.
They know they will never get close enough even to smell this birth, but they continue down the hill until they have gone too far. Too far to venture on and too far to risk turning back. Emm pulls Josh’s arms around her, forcing him to hug her from behind. He never hugs her. Never on his own. They have been married seven years, good years, but he never hugs her. They talk about it. Sometimes he is frightened by what he doesn’t feel. He used to hug everyone, he once told her, until it began making him feel even more alone.
In the orchard they are alone together. The late evening sky casts a bluegray light on the trees. It is cold for early spring, and the clouds move swiftly, high overhead, as though to hurry the season on. Josh and Emm often take long walks after dinner, the colors change so quickly that time of day, but they never stop to just hold each other. Emm leans against Josh now and closes her eyes. The whisper of his breathing warms her cheek.
Josh is looking at the deer’s nest but can see only a hint of the flattened grass. Wind sweeps through the meadow like a shadow, freed from the object that created it, darting from one hiding place to another.
The clouds are purple against the moonlight and moving even faster now. The trees look like huge silhouetted umbrellas, but it is too early in the spring and there is not enough foliage to protect the deer from rain. Josh and Emm watch until the trees are nearly indistinguishable from the background of night. He kisses her neck. They do not turn around, but back slowly up the hill, holding, silent. They will not know until morning if the fawn is alive.
“I wish there was something we could do,” Emm whispers when they reach the top of the hill.
“We just have to wait,” Josh says.
“But it’s so cold,” Emm says. “And waiting. I’m tired of waiting.”
“It’s cold,” Josh says.
Inside, they drag their mattress in front of the fire and make love. Emm falls asleep too soon afterwards and Josh watches her disappear. Her eyes remain still, not searching, not dreaming. She has given up on those things, even in sleep. But she is smiling, the curve of her mouth edging up ever so slightly. Josh wonders if Emm has ever watched him sleep and the thought of it makes him uneasy. Would he look so different asleep than he is awake?
The rain begins slowly, a purr against the cedar shakes, but it is not long before the storm opens full, lashing against the cabin. Emm turns, restless, and Josh touches her forehead. It is warm and moist, fevered. Half awake, she untangles herself from the sheet and looks at him.
“Can’t we put them in the barn?” she asks.
“We’d never get them both,” he says.
“But it’s so cold,” she says. “Listen.”
Josh looks at Emm and cannot hear the storm raging against the house. She is sweating out a fever. Her breathing is labored. Why did they stand so long in the cold to watch a birth they could not see? He moistens a cloth in lukewarm water and lays it on her forehead. She tosses the blankets away. He washes her gently with warm water until the fever cools, then pulls the blankets back over them.
Josh wakes with the light and fixes breakfast before waking Emm. The storm has not let up and Emm’s smile was lost in the night. Together they drink coffee and pick at the rolls, but they are not hungry. Even the goat didn’t birth until late spring, Emm remembers.
“We can look this afternoon,” Josh says. “Once the storm passes.”
“Remember that deer Kaileen rescued?”
“I know. I just–”
Emm stops herself. Three winters ago their neighbors pulled a deer out of a fox trap and kept it in their barn until it healed. The whole town adopted her, fed her compost, hay, apples.
It could have been a good story, but someone driving by nailed her while she was grazing. Nothing illegal. It was hunting season, but no one figured a deer wearing bells and a red bandana would be shot.
“Do you think we should adopt a baby?” Emm asks.
Josh looks at Emm. He holds his hand over his coffee cup, feeling the warmth. “D’you?” he says.
“When we were watching that doe,” Emm says, “I just wanted to trade all the things I know for all the things I don’t know.”
The storm worsens and in the afternoon they again consider trying to help. But there is nothing they can do unless the doe has abandoned her newborn. They dress warmly, layering themselves with sweater after sweater until they outgrow their raincoats. They feel like children, stuffed into last year’s jackets, running out to play in this year’s first snow. Emm steps into a pair of Josh’s boots.
“Do I look like you?” she asks, managing a clumsy fashion model’s twirl.
“You look like a poncho,” Josh says, kissing her.
All the grasses of the orchard are tamped flat by the driving hail and rain. There is no sign of the deer, no sign they have even been there. Josh and Emm return to the house, disappointed yet relieved.
After dinner they listen to the fire crackling, burning to ember. Emm pulls Josh close and they hold each other. They did not see the fawn, but they did imagine seeing it, springing from tufts of grass, romping through the field, and they can see it now, curled with its mother in a bed of moss, safe, cozy. Josh and Emm stay awake most of the night making love. It is the first time in many months that their love is not habit.
In the early morning they see the doe and fawn tagging through the meadow that surrounds the house. The fawn flits and stumbles, trying to keep up with its mother. Occasionally it manages two or three leaps before collapsing in the thick grass. The doe nudges the newborn with her nose, helping it to stand. Josh and Emm watch as the mother grazes on fresh buds and the fawn darts along behind her, mimicking, whisking its tail and pointing its ears.
Josh hugs Emm as they watch their visitors and she knows it is not just because she wants him to. Emm moves to the window and unlatches it quietly, letting it ease open. Maybe the deer will come close, curious, knowing they’re safe. But the breeze catches the window and knocks it hard against the side of the house. The doe springs off, jigsawing through the forest, and the fawn drops instantly to the ground, curling in a tuft of long grass until the danger passes. Emm stares at the fragile fawn and is unable to think or move. Josh reaches over her and closes the window that is beating against the house.
“Can you imagine,” Josh says after a moment, “You have a little baby, and something scares you and you just run off.”
Emm sits at the table, slumping forward as she stretches her arms. “I don’t know what to do,” she says.
As they whisper, the doe appears at the edge of the forest. The fawn, ears pricked, struggles to its feet and trots off after its mother. As the deer and fawn slip into the woods, Emm sees a sparkle fade from Josh’s eyes, now as empty as the meadow.
“They’ll come back, I bet,” Emm says.
“Anyway, it’s probably better if they don’t get too comfortable here.”
The two do not expect the deer to return. They barely allow themselves to hope for it, but they rise early the next morning and stand by the window as they drink their coffee. Emm sees them first, two small dots tracing the far border of the meadow. The deer do not venture into the field. They stay as far from the house as possible while the doe grazes on fresh spring grasses. The couple can barely see them, but they wake even earlier the next day, and every day that week. They make love as the sun rises and they watch the fawn testing itself, exploring more and more of the meadow.
Josh and Emm work late into the evening planting their garden. It’s early to plant but the doe has given them confidence it’s going to be a good year. Josh reaches to pull a swordtail fern that has encroached on the garden and something springs from a nearby bush and knocks against him. It is the fawn, ramming him, aggressive in its terror. Josh moves back, shaken by the attack but unhurt, and the fawn settles back into the brush bordering the garden. Emm and Josh stand silent, watching the tiny fawn, trying to discern if it is injured or merely frightened.
“What happened?” Emm whispers once the deer is calm.
“We must have frightened off the doe. And I almost stepped on it. Maybe I did step on it,” Josh says. “It’s no stronger than a twig.”
They watch the fawn snuggle tight around the base of a bush, apparently uninjured. They back off and put away their tools. They eat cold leftovers and though restless, they sleep soundly, catching up on the week.
They check the garden before breakfast and as expected, the fawn is nowhere in sight.
“It’s funny,” Emm says. “I want to find him here, but I’m even happier when I don’t.”
After breakfast, Josh carries stakes and fencing to the orchard. He circles the smaller fruit trees with tall fences to protect them from the deer. There are many trees and it takes him well into the afternoon. When he hikes up to the house for lunch, he sees the fawn lying at the base of a large tree. It is not tucked up and hiding, but lies open on the ground, its head twisted slightly back against the tree. Josh moves very close, hoping it is sleeping, but wondering if it is hurt. The fawn neither attacks nor makes an effort to escape. He touches the small animal. It’s cold. Its mouth is dry.
He’s crying when he reaches the house and can’t tell Emm why, but she knows. He’s holding the fawn, cradling it, but she would know even if his arms were empty.
“I wouldn’t have thought it could hurt so much to lose something you never had,” Josh says.
They bury the fawn between two trees in the orchard, digging out the grasses that made its first nest. They sit at the grave until it is dark, until they can only see each other.
©2002 David Halpern