By Amanda Leahy
The mule deer come so close to the house during winter that you notice their coarse hair and the thinness of their legs. They have descended from the higher elevations to forage in hay fields and to knock birdseed from our feeder. When they are this close, you see the physical marks of their season-to-season existence, scars from barbed wire fences or even old gunshot wounds. Once I saw a buck by the hay barn whose left hind leg was joined at the knee by skin only, his ligaments ruptured by a car’s glancing blow. He somehow managed to stack his tibia on top of his metatarsal bone in order to bear weight. I have also seen many dead deer at the side of the road and every time part of me marvels at the broken bodies, the way such innate beauty can become grotesque in form, heads flung backwards, stiff legs pointing skyward at odd angles.
It is February, the time in winter when the holiday sheen has worn away and the spring thaw is still out of reach. Days, even weeks go by without new snow, and January’s leavings begin to wear thin; the old snow turns crusty and granular. Puddles of snowmelt freeze by evening and familiar journeys to the barn or to the mailbox become treacherous. Even those dark hours of middle-winter give me a reason to go to bed early if not for the kids and their homework, or the dogs that need to be let out one last time. My husband, sensing my retreat, sits with our children and answers questions about fractions and antonyms while I empty the dishwasher, or line up boots on the mudroom floor, before going to the bedroom and curling my body underneath the bed-covers.
One night, towards the end of the month, my husband enters the dark bedroom and places his hand on my hip.
“Are you awake?” he asks.
I shift onto my back. “Yes,” I reply.
He swings his legs onto the bed and, with his hands behind his head, lies next to me on top of the covers. “Hell of a long month. I’ve had to almost double the horses’ hay ration it’s been so cold.”
Feeding the horses is my chore but, like others, it has somehow fallen away from me and my husband has gathered it up in my absence. I usually love feeding hay to our small herd, love the nickering of anticipation when the horses see me coming, the way they push the flakes with their muzzles or grab a corner with their teeth and shake it apart, their lips soft and precise when separating the stems from the grass that spreads upon the frozen ground.
“I’ll start up again tomorrow,” I say. “I’ll also go into town and pick up a new heater for the trough.”
“Okay,” replies my husband, gathering his feet under him as he stands up from the bed. “Tomorrow or the next,” and he leaves the room, softly closing the door behind him.
I look out the east facing windows at the long-fingered icicles hanging from the eaves and the way they reflect the light cast from the kitchen windows like meager beacons against the overwhelming darkness outside. I think of the deer and their intuitive response to cold and scarcity in the high country, but they seem no safer down here. What happens when either response, either direction, can end in tragedy? Can a season become a consciousness, the body waiting for a barometric change to see it through?
I come home the next afternoon after picking up the heater and a few more supplies from town. The light of the day is already fading and my husband will soon be returning with the kids from school. I decide to go for a run before they arrive, hoping the jolt of crisp air and exercise will see me through the kids’ bedtime, and maybe even later into the night, a conversation with my husband on the couch, the dogs sideways on the rug below us. By the time I find my running shoes and am ready, it is even darker outside and I turn on the porch light before I go. The forecast predicts an approaching front, strong winds and snow, and I hope enough will fall during the night to mantle the house and conceal the landscape under a layer of white snowfall thick as fur.
I run past our horse pasture. The horses are lined up in the far corner of the field where the sunlight lingers last. Their coats are woolly and the breath from their nostrils spirals visibly in the air. I call to them as I run past but get no response other than a flicker of an ear or two. Everything else about them remains quiet, a hind leg bent at the hock, a head slung low against a shoulder; they stand in the cold but not against it, conserving body heat and energy through an intuitive act of stillness, perhaps patiently waiting for the deer to emerge from the wood at dusk or the first star to appear in the sky or the hoary night to speckle them with bits of ice.
I run along the county road lined with bare-branched cottonwoods and willows. Beyond the trees the river is on my right. Ice patches scallop the edge and the larger rocks that break the surface are thinly crusted with snow. On my left is a steep incline, thick with scrub oak and juniper. It rises steeply, beyond sight, where it then levels into a series of pastures and hayfields before rising again, through aspen, conifer, and spruce, through high alpine meadows, then up again, beyond the Morrison formation, beyond the Dakota hogback, up scree fields and limestone pitches, and then ends along a ridge that divides the world into earth and air.
I run in shadow, my depth perception shrinking, so everything I see seems flattened and one-dimensional. A car’s headlights slice the oncoming darkness before me, and I step off to the side of the road to wait for it to pass, its rear lights illuminated, two red eyes brightening before the next curve. I continue to run, although I listen for the sound of other cars as I approach a particularly sharp curve in the road. I lengthen my stride and navigate the curve quickly, listening, and I think I hear a car crest the next hill. I see it, still far, but picking up speed as it descends the hill and comes to a straight section of the road. I then hear something else, something moving in or through the cold air. For an instant, I think the sound might come from inside me, the amplification of my pumping heart between my ears. But I realize it is hooves, cascading, clacking onto the pavement in front of me. I stop and watch the deer, cut from the car’s headlights, leap across the road, arched necks held perfectly still as if separated from their lunging bodies. They blend together in places, bodies with two heads, some crowned by antlers, like underworld beasts ascending, until they are gone, their sounds muffled by the waiting snow and the upward slope of the hill. It is only when the car flashes its headlights that I notice I am standing too close to the white stripe of the shoulder. The car passes and then it is dark. My breath blows in and out, and I turn to run home.
This time the car comes from behind and for some reason I do not hear its approach, the vulcanized hum of its tires or the metal din of its motor. I see my shadow cast before me by the car’s headlights, grotesque in its abnormal height and proportion, followed by the sound of the car’s horn, a mechanized scream, and I am running through snow and juniper, up the incline, before stopping long after I am safe. I listen and hear movement again, somewhere above me, near the first ridge or even just feet away among the trees. Although I cannot see them, I know they see me while the wind tunnels through the treetops, pushing the front across the mountains before reaching us amidst the winter branches and frozen earth. I like to think I continue to be watched as I descend to the road, their eyes, shining like ice, follow me as I run with the wind at my back, pushing me forward through the darkness towards home. Come morning, the clouds will give way to a white moon in a blue sky and the earth will be glazed like glass, the air fine as thread, and our kids will run outside in an innate response to the newly fallen snow.
Copyright Leahy 2013