A fawn's amazing grace

For several weeks last spring, the injured fawn was Charlie's well-kept secret. The outer blade of his field mower had clipped the right leg of the grass-bedded newborn, shattering it before Charlie - and perhaps the fawn -knew it.

We are vigilant when we put up hay: Charlie often stands up on his tractor as he mows, peering down for any signs of movement ahead. When I rake, I, too, keep my eyes on the ground, making every effort to spare whatever wild thing might be making its way through the fallen grass. But some creatures are too small, still, or tucked away to see from atop tractors. So it was with the fawn.

It might have ended right there. As he later explained to me, Charlie weighed his options. Was it possible to save the animal? Was it worth the price of potentially lifelong captivity? As he bent to examine the fawn, its small tongue flicked up and dampened his cheek. That decided things for the moment. He wrapped the leg and roared home on his tractor, the little deer balanced on his lap.

Charlie doctored it in a quickly emptied storage shed. Until he was confident that the animal would survive, he decided not to tell anyone about it, bottle-feeding it milk from one of the cows. But he had already begun to call the fawn Fodder-Wing, after the young crippled character in Marjorie Kinnan Rawling's "The Yearling." Rawling's portrayal of the boy Fodder-Wing's luminous sweetness is an unforgettable part of the story. According to Charlie, there was no more obvious name for the fawn that had licked him in its extremity.

By the time he led me to the shed door and ushered me in for a "surprise," Fodder-Wing's leg had knitted back together after a fashion, though it was still largely useless. Nonetheless, the fawn was clearly thriving. The glow of life, health, and trust he radiated from his nest of hay took my breath away. Whatever the future held for this guy, I was instantly smitten.

The deer responded to my first tentative stroking with a nuzzling caress that has become his trademark, making it all too easy for us to forget that he was not born for our pleasure. A poignant reminder of that came one summer day as I walked along our pasture's back edge and startled a fawn about Fodder-Wing's size. I watched, thrilled, as he leapt away on four swift, slender legs, clearing the pasture fence - as if winged -to disappear amid acres of sun-dappled woods.

I could not help comparing this image to that of Fodder-Wing, who hobbled about his shed. He was gallant in his ungainly way, and seemed not so much our dependent as our benefactor, never failing to welcome and cheer us with his inexhaustible wellspring of affection.

Later in the summer, I asked our veterinarian, who had come out to tend an ailing cow, to look in at the fawn. Ken felt the damaged leg up and down and began to muse aloud about an operation to rebuild and straighten it. Hope flaring, I asked how much that would cost.

"Oh, I'd do it on my time - no charge," he said, a tad too briskly. The only large-animal vet covering a wide region of south central Indiana, Ken has no free time to speak of. Fodder-Wing must have licked him liberally during that brief exam.

Charlie again held the fawn in his lap as I drove to Ken's surgery. A few days later, Fodder-Wing came home wearing a tiny, custom-made cast that had to be removed and refitted as the surgical scars healed. Weeks passed, and the fawn's spots faded with the length of the days. His leg once again began to knit back together.

The deer might have been lonely during his two long convalescences had it not been for a succession of shed-mates. For the first couple of months, a hen and her spring hatchlings made the place lively with movement and gentle noise. The chicks found the resting fawn to be a delightfully warm knoll to clamber over, and Fodder-Wing did not seem to mind their cheek.

When they graduated as pullets to new quarters, a stray kitten took up residence, hungrily lapping up milk as well as the deer's quiet companionship. When the weather turned sharply colder, we transferred our nanny goat Cynthia from her barn pen to the shed. She lost no time scooping out a hay-and-pine-needle nest next to the deer's.

And, of course, several times a day Charlie or I continue to enter the shed with water, grain, and one of the yearling's favorite treats: carrots, sweet-potato skins, green vines, bittersweet branches, and the occasional cookie or peanut-butter cracker. Whatever my mood as I enter, I emerge better spirited, as if some unexpected and wildly flattering compliment had come my way.

Over the past few days, during a midwinter thaw, Charlie built a large fenced enclosure so that Fodder-Wing can exercise his restructured leg. He may always limp, he may never return to the wild, but he walks on all fours now.

He took quickly to his large new space in the open air, and lost no time in exploring. Yesterday, we watched him moving delicately about the snowy paddock from the window of the workshop. After a while, Charlie went back to his bookshelf project and began to hammer a partition into place.

At the sudden ringing noise, Fodder-Wing's ears swiveled. His nostrils flared, and his eyes stared out in mild alarm. Then, in a series of surprisingly graceful leaps, he closed the distance to his little roofed haven and sailed inside.

It was not the high, weightless dance of the summer fawn I'd startled back into the woods. But it was a close cousin to it - and far and away more thrilling.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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