[This story is dedicated to Rebecca Shelor and her beautiful and special Golden Scout.]
Roo and I were hiking on a trail that approaches a small lake, and when she saw it, she headed down the 60-foot embankment to take a swim. If you like dogs, you never get tired of watching them jump in the water, and so I was watching her run through the leaves and brush when she stopped dead in her tracks, shocked by something she happened upon. My first impression was that this was not prey, because Roo always pounces when she sees prey, even if it’s not to pounce on the prey. She just pounces for the hell of it first and then continues to chase her mouse.
She put her nose down into the brush and approached whatever it was slowly. She looked the way she does when she finds a carcass. I figured she was going to roll in it and I just hoped it wasn’t one of the bad ones.
There was a mortifying wail that I didn't recognize. It sounded like a cross between a sheep and a cat. Whatever it was sounded like something Roo should not be tangling with and I yelled at her to leave it alone, but it was too late. She was already walking uphill, in my direction, carrying what with distance and dappled light looked like a carcass the size of a large cat, limp and apparently dead.
I was horrified. Roo knows damn well that she is not allowed to chase cats, let alone kill one, and that's what I thought had happened. I didn't know how I was going to punish this, because Roo has never had to be punished. This was happening quickly. It had been only a few seconds since the now-dead animal had let out that awful, long bleating wail. But killing a cat was going to require a strong response. I was preparing to grab Roo by the neck and throw her down on the ground and half strangle her while baring my teeth and growling at her. Another thought crossed my mind, powerful with bad emotion, that Roo might have crossed a line beyond which might lie something about her that I would always hate. That was an intense and terrible and disappointing feeling.
As Roo kept walking towards me, I realized two things in quick succession. First, that she wasn't acting like this was prey, because she doesn't come to me with prey unless I insist. She doesn’t even volunteer to show me a high-value carcass if she scavenges one. And she was just calmly, carefully, even, walking towards me. Right after that, as tan spots on brown fur appeared, and long, spindly legs and a teardrop-shaped head hanging and swinging gently as Roo walked, I recognized what it was. Roo was carrying it by what would have been the scruff if it was a puppy, but this was a fawn, newborn and small enough to wrap in a newspaper, and the little deer had no scruff. In the last few feet of her approach to me I was suppressing rage. I thought she killed this newborn. She knows damn well she's not allowed to hunt deer. All right, she gets away with a bark at them and a few feet of chase, but that’s all. The idea that she would kill this newborn made me angrier than I’ve ever been at her. I said nothing, though, because I didn't want her running off.
And yet, she was still walking towards me. That made no sense at all, and I knew it. If she had killed this fawn, she would have cut a wide swath in another direction to keep it to herself.
When I got to her, Roo stopped and stood still. I put my hand under the tiny fawn's belly and told Roo to drop it. She hesitated, not so long that you'd normally hold it against a dog while they thought about it, but I was in no mood to wait at all and I repeated it and she did. It didn't feel like more than a dozen pounds weighing into my hand, soft belly fur. Roo, without being asked, lay down, which was also never in a trillion years something she would have done if she considered this prey. She would have been riled, if not agitated, and would have wanted it back.
I placed the little fawn on her side, careful to support the head — her neck was as slender and flexible as a miniature giraffe’s — and to tip its black hooves, not much bigger than thimbles, in the dirt on the way down to keep her thin legs from bunching beneath her. The fawn was limp but alive. She was one of the most beautiful animals I have ever seen, every bit as beautiful as a young ocelot, who until today I considered the most beautiful of my contact. Everything about the fawn was perfect. Her fur, a deep auburn freckled with dozens of light spots, was shiny, with every hair in place as though it had been slicker-brushed. On the buff-colored legs there was not the first of the thorn scratches or cuts she would have gone on to receive had she a lifetime ahead. The hooves had no scuffing. Her black nose was the size of a button and her ears were as thin as onion skin, long and pink and veiny on the insides.
I didn't know what else to do so I started stroking her side while I checked for damage. There was none at all. If Roo had wanted to kill the fawn, she would have by shaking her or biting her. I’ve seen her kill enough to know. She had not wanted to kill this fawn. She had carried her with her softest mouth. There was nothing on her but a little dog spit on the upper back where it rested on Roo’s tongue. I felt her ribs and legs and neck. There was no damage at all. My impression was that the fawn was more dazed than anything. She seemed partially conscious, enough, anyway, to position her pear-sized head away from where Roo was lying five feet away.
We were in an area where you would see the deer if there were any, as I have on numerous occasions every day since we got here, and I had been paying attention and was sure there none around. I kept stroking the newborn, hoping that might calm or comfort her. Her ribs weren’t as thick as pencils, and even with no pressure on them they felt flexible as she breathed. I was expecting her to be breathing hard, but she wasn't. Just steady little puffs, into lungs the size of a sandwich baggie.
As I calmed down I was thinking several things at once. I thought the fawn might have been dying when Roo found her and was going to die now and I hoped that I wasn't making things worse by stroking her. I thought I should call someone who knew about these animals for guidance, and while I dug my phone out of my back pocket I turned to look at Roo. She was looking on, but not in the way she would have if she thought I was interfering with prey. She was just looking interested.
Some instinct other than that of a predator had made her bring the fawn to me and I understood that now. I had been able to see it in the way she brought her to me.
"You're a good girl, Roo," I said. She lay there panting. She hadn’t gone for her swim.
All I know about deer is the reputation does have for leaving their young if they’ve been afflicted by the scent of any human handling, and it seemed reasonable to expect that even if the scent of a damned human could be overlooked, expecting the same reaction to the stench of wolf saliva might be asking too much. I figured on waiting a while to make sure the fawn was as calm as she might get, a few minutes, anyway, and then call the park ranger. I know full well that one is never supposed to remove a young wild animal from their home, but had this one been abandoned already or was she sick or injured? I was prepared for a dressing down from the ranger, for many offenses, against this fawn and against the law for allowing a dog off the leash, but I didn't care.
After a couple of minutes, during which I was becoming more beguiled and saddened by the passing beauty and perfection of this new animal, the fawn moved her long neck to raise her head and looked up at me with clear black eyes, and then, while dropping her head back down, noticed Roo lying in the grass panting and with a jolt of energy that I could feel electrify the body under my hand, the fawn bolted upright onto her legs and with a prancing hop higher than I would have believed possible to clear some branches, begin to run downhill.
I was astonished and relieved. There was nothing wrong with her. She was perfectly coordinated and balanced.
The abruptness of her move startled Roo into reflexively taking off after her, but I shouted at her to stop and she did before she went three steps. The sound of my loud voice scared the fawn and made her collapse on the spot. She lay there for a second wondering what to do, but then gathered her wits quickly and got up and kept running. Roo and I stood there watching for a minute.
It seemed best to go away. If there was any chance of her mother returning to find her, we had better not be in the way.
Though it seemed to have worked out, to some extent, anyway, the experience had made me feel terrible. I was worrying about the fawn, alone now in those woods, vulnerable and frightened. I had been confused about Roo’s motives, first darkly angry at her, then quickly realizing not just my error but my frailty in coming to it so prematurely and wrongly. And its reversal and processing the idea that what really seemed to have happened — that Roo had found a newborn animal and, well… I think wanted it, somehow, or wanted to protect it or to see what I could do about her. I don’t know. I do know that Roo had no desire to kill the fawn and intended to bring her to me.
We walked away. The trail is too steep at the other end so we had to come back the same way later. Roo was on the leash as we approached the area. There was no sign of the little fawn. Two teenage girls were coming the other way, each walking a dog, one a Shiba Inu, the other a smiling little Jack Russelley kind of guy.
I told them to keep their eyes open for a little fawn and told them what happened. One of them seemed to know a lot about deer.
“Deer will leave a newborn like that somewhere while they go off if they have to do something. Once she hears it call, she’ll come back,” she said.
“Well, but I handled that fawn. Everyone always says once the scent of a human is on them, their mothers reject them.”
“I don’t think she will. She’s around here someplace.”
“Dog spit, too, though,” I said.
“I don’t think it’s going to matter. She’s going to come back.”
It's later now. The sun is going down.