On midnight visitors

As the wife of a wildlife biologist, I know more about the comings and goings of the whitetail deer in our neighborhood than I’d like. Every time we ease around the corner of the wooded bend in the road near our house, Jordan studies the trees.

“I bet they’re bedding right in here,” he says, pointing to a patch of woods that looks much like any other to me. Sure enough, when I take the dogs running the next morning, deer pop out from that exact spot–their bodies a fury of speed and surprise, tails flashing white as they bound across the road and into the woods again.

Wren is a devout deer chaser, so she usually has to stay on the leash.

Jordan has been punctuating our life with narrated maps of how wildlife move over the landscape ever since we first started dating.

I remember being charmed when, on a hike on one snowy night in upstate New York, he showed me a well-trod path in the snow beneath thickets of greenbrier. The split hooves of a deer mingled with the miniature hands of a raccoon, the tidy line of fox tracks.

“It’s a travel corridor,” he murmured, his breath frosting his beard white. He read the landscape like it was a book–seeing the stories of the animals who lived in it written in the small scuffs they made in mud and snow, conjecturing about how they might have spent their time.

He knew about things like how scent travels on the wind, and where an animal might lay to be protected from the elements. (I know that he’s going to read this and protest, so I’ll add: he’d argue that he was only just learning, and that he’s learning still).

I remember looking at him in the soft white of the moonlight, thinking that there’s nothing more attractive than a man who’s comfortable in his own skin in the woods in the middle of the night.

The charm has worn off some, over the span of eight years.

It can be exasperating having a spouse who is constantly tuned into the natural world. His attention drifts in and out, easily captured by the shadow of a bird overhead or a flicker of doe-brown through the trees.

And his obsession is downright dangerous when he’s behind the wheel. Instead of watching the road, his eyes skim the tree line, hoping to spot something wild.

He points out all sorts of sly forest creatures–coyotes and bears, foxes and bald eagles. Once on a drive, he pointed out two fox kits playing in a field, and we pulled over to watch, totally enchanted (until a big black lab galloped out of a neighboring house and bowled one over–but that’s a story for another day).

Sometimes he’s so entranced by what’s on the the side of the road that he’s slow to see the brake lights in front of him.

And there are myriad moments when we’re in the middle of a conversation–during a hike or walk or drive and suddenly Jordan is absent. My words hang like a hook in the air–featherlight after the usual pull of conversation–and Jordan is not there to catch them. His eyes are on the slope of the land, the acorns under foot, the dancing sunlight and shadow of the undergrowth.

Looking for wildlife on our honeymoon in Alaska.

A few weeks ago, Jordan and I were in the throes of a conversation about this exact thing–me bemoaning his lack of interest in anything that didn’t have hooves, horns or feathers, him listening solemnly to my complaints.

We’d been talking about it for hours. I was sick of hearing about deer along the side of the road. Sick of hearing about which game species lived where whenever the possibility of visiting a new place arose. Sick of all the early mornings he accidentally wakes the baby as he leaves to prowl lonely wild places.

And then, as we finally put our conversation on pause and eased into bed, the security light attached to the shed in our backyard blazed on. I lifted a blind to peer outside. For a moment, my eyes could discern nothing in the pooling darkness.

But then shadows shifted, and a giant doe stepped into the spotlight.

“A deer,” I whispered, and Jordan hunched beside me, lifted his own blind. Our breath fogged the glass as we watched her silhouette.

“She must be from the same group that lives down in that lot,” Jordan breathed. “She probably came up through the woods. But where are the others? It’s unusual for her to be alone at this time of year–“

We watched the darkness behind the shed with bated breath, but no more deer appeared.

I imagined her crossing our neighbors’ lawns in that deliberate, halting way, head high and ears flickering. She was alert but unfazed under the spotlight–like an actor taking the stage.

“Where’s she headed?” I asked. The pear tree that the deer usually dine on long ago dropped its last pear.

“The garden.”

The wildlife (including Chara) appreciate that we regularly allow our yard to become a meadow.

My tomato plants were still bushy, and the fall greens I’d planted were just beginning to grow leafy. I’d put hard work into those greens–planting them back in August, carefully watering them, weeding around them.

I watched, captivated, as the doe stepped over my garden fence in the same thoughtless way one might walk into an old friend’s house. The casualness of that step was equivalent to kicking your shoes off before sitting down to a family dinner.

The shadows shifted again, and another deer stepped into the light. “A buck,” Jordan whispered, and sure enough, the light caught on his antlers–crownlike above his head. The buck was twitchy in comparison to the doe, his eyes wide and dark, muscles on the edge of alarm.

Behind us, the baby stirred in his sleep, and I had a sudden view of how ridiculous we must look: two exhausted parents, worsening our sleep deprivation to watch deer decimate our garden, necks cricked at odd angles, our noses pressed to the glass.

But there was something about the starkness of the light, the shadowy realism of the fine hairs along their ears, that held our gazes.

We watched as another, younger buck detached from the shadows. His chin jutted with every step.

While the older buck had kept a respectful distance (and chosen to dine on my greens instead of the tomato plants), this young chap bellied right up to the same tomato plant the doe was grazing.

A tame deer-lab deer. Not one of our backyard visitors.

After a moment, the doe, apparently fed up with her companion, bounded into the shadows in one explosive movement.

Watching them was a bit like reading a good book that you can’t put down. Your eyelids are heavy and your neck is sore from your double-stacked pillow–not to mention you desperately need the sleep–but the story pulls you magnetically along despite yourself.

Finally, a car screamed down the street, and the two bucks scattered back into the shadows. After a moment of staring into the darkness, I let my blind slot back into place. A beat later, Jordan followed my lead.

It was an incredible relief to lie back into my pillow; to straighten my spine after being crouched in such an odd position for so long.

When the security light clicked back on twenty minutes later–just as I was beginning to drift to sleep–I felt Jordan’s body tense beside me.

“We need to go to sleep,” I croaked. His muscles reluctantly relaxed–a concession to the conversation we’d been having–and we finally, finally fell asleep.

The next morning, it was hard to believe they had ever been there. That they’d stepped over items so mundane as our garden hose, slipped past the primary red-yellow-blue of L’s swing.

But when I peered into my garden, there was sure evidence that they weren’t phantoms of our exhausted brains: deep hoof prints marred the soil, and my greens had disappeared completely. My tomatoes, too, had been dealt their final blow: there was hardly a leaf left on the vines, and the last of the cherry tomatoes had been shaken off and devoured.

Knowing from Jordan that as the days grow cold and the kudzu dies off, deer struggle to find food (and with the comforting knowledge that we had a whole grocery store of greens to fall back on)–I couldn’t begrudge my wild neighbors what small nourishment my garden could offer.

After all, that’s what neighbors–and husbands who know more than their fair share about the beasts of the land–are for.

Cheers to many more years of hearing about deer.

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