Deer Shadows in Deep Woods

I LIKE to watch the shadow of the farmhouse as the sun comes up. At dawn the outline of the house and row of trees projects onto the far slope of the valley, and it moves like a sundial to the branch below. One morning in July, I was watching the shadow as the sun came up. The grass was glistening with dew, and the wrens and cardinals were singing in the cherry trees. But above this dawn chorus there was a different sound, like a creaking door in a haunted house. Of course, that was impossible, because there were open fields all around. The sound was coming from the edge of the woods.

I looked carefully and made out the shape of a deer. It was a doe, and this low creaking cry was directed toward the house. She was sending a warning to a pair of fawns that were grazing on the side of the garden fence, not more than 20 yards away from me. I stood absolutely still, like an extra fence post with a hat on.

Twin fawns are not rare. A doe produces one fawn in the first season, but after that, so I am told, it can often be twins. During the first months of their life, fawns are more venturesome and less afraid. The doe had picked up my scent from a long way off, but it didn't bother the fawns. They were light brown and Bambi-spotted, and quite oblivious of me. They paid no attention to the creaking warning cry, and grazed over the moist grass, making their way into the tree-covered ravine. Then the doe came across from the woods and walked right by me, following the scent of her young.

I grew up on a farm near Sherwood Forest, in England, but Robin Hood and the deer were long gone. I am not a hunter, and July was not the hunting season, but I had never been so close to raw venison.

The next morning, my wife, Julia, caught sight of the fawns, now safely on the far side of the valley. Even though they were so small, they could jump the fences like the mother, and could raise a small white tail to send a danger signal as they ran. We called them ``the twins,'' and we saw them often.

Later in the year, when the leaves were turning color, a blue pickup came slowly down the driveway. When it arrived at the house, five young fellows got out, dressed in checkered shirts, jeans, and hunting caps. Each one carried a brand new rifle with telescopic sights. I doubt that any one of them was over 16. They had seen three deer on the far hill - the doe and twins.

They were the quietest group of boys this side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. They were excited, but they kept their voices down to a whisper as they watched the deer.

``Are they on your land?'' one of them asked.

I knew what he really meant. He was asking if he could shoot.

``No,'' I said, ``they are on the colonel's land, and he's just like me, he won't let you shoot at them, either.''

``Can we sight on them, then?''

``All right. Sight but don't shoot,'' I said.

So the boys put their new rifles on the edge of the pickup and looked at the deer through the telescopic sights.

``Gee! Three beauties,'' whispered the leader as he swung his rifle's telescope from the mother to the twins. The other boys were glued to their sights, tense and determined. True to the agreement, they kept their fingers off the triggers. Then, happy to have seen three live deer in their brand new gunsights, they all drove off. The deer walked slowly into the woods, unharmed.

Julia and I do not worry much about hunters. Most of their shots seem to miss, and they generally obey the hunting limits. Even if the boys had fired, those twins were 1,000 yards away - too far for their rifles.

Our deer always disappear as soon as the hunting season begins. Maybe they are scared off by the first few shots, or maybe they follow the old grizzled bucks who know it is ``that time of year.''

On schedule, the doe and fawns left the farm in November, and returned again in the new year. The twins left their tracks in the February snow, together with the marks of foxes, crows, and field mice. When we saw them again they were no longer fawns. Their spots had faded, and the coats were a dull gray - a perfect camouflage, difficult to separate from a granite boulder.

As winter turned to spring, the twins became yearlings. They kept together for a while, grazing at night and following their old track into the ravine at dawn. Then they separated. One concentrated on the salt lick that we put on the hillside. It needed the minerals for its antlers. It was a buck, and it broke away on its own. The other twin was a doe, and it joined a small, shy group of other does. A new cycle was beginning.

``Next summer,'' I thought, ``I might hear the sound of that `creaking door' again. I might see a new pair of twins by the garden fence, as the shadow of the house glides down the hillside.''

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