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Fall 1999, Volume 17.1

Essay

 

Juanita Marilyn Smart photo of Juanita Marilyn Smart.

Afternoon of a Fawn


Juanita Smart (Ph.D., Washington State University) currently teaches at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. Her essays have also appeared in the
Washington English Journal and the Language Arts Journal of Michigan.

 

Pullman High School, a blocky complex of concrete slabs, wooden beams, and viewfinder windows, dominates the northwest corner of Pullman's Military Hill. A gravel path loops around the high school following the top of a ridge that rises like a dike, between playing fields and classrooms on one side, and reams of wheat fields on the other. Halfway around the high school the ridge is bordered by squat fir trees and tall poplars that fan the wind as it combs through their branches. In the distance the cursive outline of the Moscow Mountains marks the boundaries of Idaho.

It was because of the running trail and the outdoor exercise stations posted all along it that I had come here on this breezy Tuesday afternoon, my body thudding up the steep incline of Turner Drive, pressing past the pale blue water tower on my left, the air like hot ash at the back of my throat. I was shunning the state university on a different hill, running from the compulsory lessons of graduate school, my elbows beating back the day. I crested at last at the top of Turner Drive, my vibram soled feet making little splashing noises across the gravel as I followed the trail to the ridge. "To say we dwell somewhere implies permanence, or at least continuity," Sharon Tall writes, "but at root it means to pause, to linger or delay."1 So in this ritual of the run, I sought a place to dwell, a place to root myself in pause and recollection. In the recursive progress of my own forward momentum, I willfully abandoned the sense of homelessness and dislocation that checkered my newcomer's experience of academic community and its culture.

"Home is where we know—and are known—through accumulated experience,"2 writes Tall. As often then as I repeated this loop across the landscape, venturing forth and returning, I was turning other pages, coming to "know" by accumulating familiarity, situating myself through relationship and time. I wanted to tune my mind now not to the pale abstractions of books and journals, but to the earth's resistance underneath my feet. I wanted to experience wind, and light.

Halfway around the trail I paused at the dip platform, a flat board about the size of a home plate, only square and mounted parallel to the ground on a metal rod about two feet high. I clamped my palms around a pair of knee-high hand grips which stuck up out of the ground behind me. Leaning back I squeezed the hand supports at the same time that I braced the heels of my shoes on the edge of the dip-board. Then I let my body dip until it nearly touched the ground, lifting it back up again by gripping the rubber handholds, relying on the strength of my arms to pull me up.

Hanging inches above the ground, I felt the earth pull heavily at the obtuse angle that formed my center of gravity. I concentrated now, between grimaces, on lifting my body up and dipping it down again, the world falling and rising, its quiet presence lapping gently at my consciousness. My gaze fanned out across the fields, arcing up towards the pines that fringe the backbone of Kamiack Butte twelve miles north, my eyes swinging to the east, drinking in the blue-ink silhouette of the Moscow Mountains. I let my thoughts spill out across the wheat fields where the green plumes springing up through the pleated earth invited me to dream, my will yielding consistently to the cadence of my body, perpetuating a steady momentum, until a small cry broke the rhythm of my concentration.

I paused when a sound I couldn't identify faltered through the air, its pitch tentative and uncertain. The cry I heard called out for attention, not through any recognizable form of speech, but through the insistent urgency of its utterance. Its urgency begged for my response. "Some child has fallen down the hill or wandered too far away and is bawling for its mother," I thought. I looked around me, but there were no kids in sight. I had lapsed back into the vigorous routine of the dips when that compelling call fluttered back to me across the open air again. I scanned the hills, but still no kids in sight. When I heard the cry once more my curiosity peaked, but so did my impatience. I had a schedule to attend to, and chapters to write, so I finished my dips dismissing the call as nothing more than the intrusive complaint of some unfamiliar wild bird.

Upright on my feet again, I jogged back towards the runner's path but I froze in wide-eyed wonder before I ever got there. Gulping back my disregard for discovery, I stared in awe and disbelief. Tottering through the tall grass not more than three feet away from me was the smallest fawn I had ever seen, bleating loudly for its mother. Any concern that I felt for the plight of the fawn was eclipsed in that moment by the surge of joy I experienced in the immediacy of her enchantment.

Riveting my eyes on her loveliness, I recalled a tiny porcelain unicorn with gold hooves that I had once adored as a young girl peering into a glass case at a Hallmark card shop. Moving gingerly I paused, talking to the fawn in a quiet voice. She paused too, listening, then approached me where I sat in the grass. She sniffed hesitatingly at the toe of my outstretched shoe. She was no bigger than a small house cat, her head smaller than the span of my outspread palm, her chopstick legs making her look both dainty and awkward at the same time.

A breath of wind puffed over us from the wheat field below the ridge, and nearly knocked the fawn over. She swayed against its draft like an empty lunch bag, resisting a tumble along the ground. She stepped away from me and continued faltering through the grass, crying out for the close warmth of the one she was separated from. Hearing her I felt powerless to help. I followed her with my eyes, considering that in nature too, homelessness is a condition that derives as much from longing for presence as it does from loss of place.

I turned away from the fawn with a heaviness that tugged at me. Postponing my urge to act, I decided that I should finish my run first and come back to her afterwards. Forty-five minutes later I returned to the ridge skeptically optimistic, hoping that the doe had appeared to reclaim her newborn, feeling sure that she hadn't, compelled by a longing to behold the fawn's private beauty one more time, resisting the thoughts of the certain consequence which that privilege boded for the fawn. I scouted the ridge, parting tufts of tall grass, exploring the bank of the ridge all the way down to the edge of the wheat fields and back up again, avoiding passersby and their eager dogs.

The fawn had quit her calling, and I had almost quit my search for her as I walked back towards the runner's path. Then peering just beyond the dip-board I spotted the fawn again, my eyes startled by the sudden quiet of her presence.

She was so still, wrapped around herself in the tall, thin grass.

Moving closer, I marveled at her long lashes, matted and gummed together, wanting one more lick to spruce them out above her eyes. But her spots, the creamy white palettes of her pelt, marked her with a grace that was at once singular, and brave, and absolute.

I wanted to cradle the fawn in my lap. I sat down near her in the grass instead. She lurched away from me, but not very quickly and not very far.

I realized then how hungry and exhausted she must be. I wanted to rescue her somehow, thinking how easy it would be to scoop up that little portion in my arms, and carry her away. I considered the outdoor holding pens at the state university I attended, where recovered wildlife were enclosed behind barriers of chain link fence, some of these animals captive participants for ongoing research there, the rest objects of entertainment and curiosity for drive-by spectators.

"No," I shook my head, "not that."

What then?

In my humanness, and as the only witness of the fawn's appearing, I had personalized my relationship with her, but the fawn's reflexive movement away from me had signaled that my presence here was an intrusive one. I had no part in this drama. I conceded that my being human just now was a hindrance, not a help. Best not to tamper with nature, better to respect it. Resigned to the painful awareness that I had no right to intervene in her irrevocable outcome, I left the fawn alone. When I walked away from the fawn I felt my whole body wrench itself against my consciousness, testing my resolve. That night in my mind I fictionalized a hopeful ending for the fawn: a vigilant doe stepping out at last from the cover of darkness, nudging her fawn to its feet, the two of them together, vanishing stealthily like an undisclosed secret into the moonless recesses of the night.

Two days later I ascended the top of Military Hill once again. I needed to run, but more than that I needed to put to rest my speculations about the fawn. Rising along the ridge at the high school, I frowned. The grass had been cut. I groaned over the possibility of some oblivious grounds person mutilating the fawn beyond recall with the slashing blades of a mowing machine. But the mower's swath ended inches away from the fawn's unobtrusive presence. I stopped abruptly when I glimpsed her body.

The fawn had collapsed where I'd left her, a lifeless profile in the grass now, her eyes small ovals of jellied mist, her neck stretched out along the ground as though she'd been nudging her dreams for a drink when she dropped. Both pairs of legs were folded daintily underneath her belly. I gazed at her miniature hooves, as black and bright as polished obsidian, but more delicate than the parings of fingernails. I knelt beside the fawn. She had barely decomposed, her tiny body an absent presence now, her remains neatly intact. Not even the smell of death called attention to her absence.

What I had dared not touch before, now I brushed with lingering fingertips, feeling her fur warm and soft underneath the open sky, her tiny bones like wilted flower stems underneath my hand.

"I'm sorry," I spoke quietly to the strange emptiness that was the fawn; "I'm so sorry," I heard my voice reach out to her.

Mercifully the fawn had somehow escaped the prowling eyes of coyotes and other scavengers. A litany of questions stormed my mind as I pondered her death. Did she last through the night? Had there been room for fear, at that quickening moment, in a heart no bigger than a rosebud? Did she exit without a murmur through the dewy tunnel of her narrow throat, or did death surprise her in the reverberating measure of an agonal sigh? Perhaps her life had darted blithely away in the surge of that relentless cry that had called me to her in the first place.

Looking at her now it seemed to me that the fawn had simply flickered out of this present reality into another one, shrugging off behind her the shape she no longer needed. The fawn's body reminded me of a spare pillow, situated comfortably in the shallow contours of the earth. But I mourned for the fawn, resenting a natural order that could afford to spend a miracle like this one with such frivolous ambivalence. I felt no sense of revelry in nature's wild extravagance.

Still, my grief was tempered by the unavoidable recognition that nature pursues its own impulses, frustrating the perceptions of those like me, who stand watching, outside its boundaries. In the end I had to reconcile myself to the unrelenting reality of nature and its prerogatives. Given an unpredictable world, perhaps the fawn's death was nature's way of recuperating itself in a situation gone awry.

But the fawn's rare appearing had kindled something in my spirit. "Loved I a dream?"3 the poet cries in wakeful longing. So too, longing wakefully, I envisioned the fawn in a swatch of light brightening the hillside now, her spirited presence the teasing rustle I could hear beside me as the wind played softly through the shaggy grass. The fawn dwells there unforgettably for me now, a "feast exult[ing] among extinguished leaves."4

Silencing my regrets, I embraced the abrupt ending of her elegance—for wasn't it better to blaze for one short-lived and indelible moment than to sputter and pale, blurring indistinguishably along the wake of time?

The timing of my encounter with the fawn had been exact. I considered it a gift, not a coincidence, that the fawn had strayed along my path at a moment when I could just as easily have run right past her. Better to have known the fawn, and her loss, than not to have known her at all. I left the fawn for the last time, carefully replaying her memory in my mind as I turned back towards Turner Drive, following the long loop of my slow descent home. Now in the dark I fall asleep, listening to the night sounds that resonate outside my window, but my eyes are on the fawn.

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Sources
1 Deborah Tall, "Dwelling: Making Peace with Space and Place," American Nature Writing 1996, ed.
John A. Murray (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996), 279.
2 Tall, 280.
3 Stephane Mallarme, "L'ApresMidi D'Un Faun," Selected Poems, trans. C. F. MacIntyre (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1957), 4655.
4 Mallarme, 53. Juanita Smart ( Ph.D., Washington State University) currently teaches at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. Her essays have also appeared in the Washington English Journal and the Language Arts Journal of Michigan.

 

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