I was born on a spring morning when the leaves were half-sprouted and the frost was still sparkling on the grass. My mother, thirsty with pain and exhaustion, licked it up as I slipped free, tawny and freckled with gangly legs. She cleaned me and I stood, trembling badly.
We did not leave our secluded thicket for hours. My muscles hardened as the evening softened and I ran for the first time. My first taste of freedom was sweet, wind in my face and the stars bright above, the smell of pine and the rushing of the just-melted river everywhere around me.
Through the spring and summer, my mother took me everywhere. Down by the river, where the water was a blessing on hot days. Up on hilltops where the sun kissed us and the stars smiled at us. To the groves where the birds gathered; we had no quarrel with them, nor they with us, and it was pleasant to hear their songs. We used to stand in peace for hours until a threatening sound would send all of us scattered. In twilight and dawn, we crept out of the forest to graze in open fields. I was frightened, but my mother was only wary.
She taught me about the ugliness of the world as well, told me that the forest loved me, but its other children didn’t. And not all threats came from within the forest, either. Almost before I could stand, she told me about the wolves, the bears, the men, all the other creatures who would harm me.
Once, we came across a desecrated body of another deer. A male. They had taken his hooves and head for trophies and left the rest behind for the flies. The hum of insects and the scent of blood and death was overwhelming. I couldn’t look away.
“This is why we run,” she said.
Autumn came, cooler weather and pretty skies. And hunting season. The forest trembled and my mother and I forged deeper into it than ever before, never staying in one place too long. Gunshots rang out from distant places. Sometimes we came across abandoned arrows. I never forgot the dead one from the summer.
It was a freezing cold morning. The pale blue sky and harsh sunlight burned my eyes. Several feet of snow had fallen over the night, and my mother was skittish. They could track us in snow, better even than in mud. But they had been distracted recently, dangling pretty lights from their strange dens and seemingly more intent on killing trees than killing us. I thought we’d made it out free. I danced about, kicking up snow, and she smiled. She was never short on smiles for me.
We were digging through snow to get at the leftover moss beneath when three of them appeared. They were frightening to look at, pale and furless with bodies made of underbrush. One was round and wrinkled, another big and loud, the third a little one, like me.
We fled. Hooves and hearts pounding until it seemed the very earth would explode around us. The wind freezing across my face, sweat pouring feverishly from my body. Branches whipped us as we ran faster, faster, faster. They were still behind us.
The old trail split. We had enough of a head that they took the wrong fork. They, except for the little one who lagged behind. He took the wrong fork as well, following us instead of his pack.
The path was icy and I was still young, not as sure-footed as my mother. I crashed hard to the ground, what little wind I had knocked out of me, my legs twisted beneath me. My mother stopped and looked back in terror.
The little one approached, panting, holding a gun too big for him. He aimed it at me and his finger found the trigger. My mother leapt forward, planting herself between us, daring him to hurt me. He lowered the gun, raised it again. He was crying.
The snow muffled everything. Even the birds were quiet. The forest was praying for us; all of us.
He didn’t fire.
He lowered his gun slowly. He could have called out for the other ones, but he didn’t. Maybe the silence was too holy to be broken. Maybe he hadn’t gotten the taste for blood yet. Maybe he wished his own mother was there.
Whatever the case, he stood there crying, the rifle hanging loose in his hands. The danger past, my mother turned and kissed my forehead. He watched us, the longing evident on his face. A cardinal landed on the ground next to him and began to sing. He turned his longing to the song, and we ran away into the woods. Alive.
I still think about the little one sometimes. Is he killing us now? I hope, if he does, it is for necessity and not pleasure. I can forgive hunger.
I am grown now, with a fawn of my own by my side. I take her to the rivers and hilltops and groves. I run with her in the cool of the evenings. I teach her what she needs to know and I will keep her safe.
Just like my mother did for me.
Story by Madeline DeCoste
I grew up in the rural Midwest, and nature was always a large part of my life. I have loved stories and the outdoors since I was a little girl, and even today, I spend as much time as possible reading, writing, and exploring nature however I can.