I caught a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye, on a beach in Europe no less. The full, drawn-out corpse of a mother cervine, splayed out on a towel on the sands, from hooves to hooves. I knew the shape of its body so well, could draw it in my mind, the contours of the muscles, that sandy-tan hide, so tight and taut, just like human skin, and, of course, those open black eyes, that vacant, lifeless stare, with just a bit of fluffy black crud forming at the corners and a hungry fly or two dancing about. Sometimes you could see the ruddy-red point of impact, down the abdomen, the clumps of sticky hair, but more often there was no clue as to where it had been hit and what had brought it down. It was just dead, dead as a deer on the main road in Orient.
Two little white-haired girls girls in strawberry bikinis licking dripping ice cream cones skated by. From a nearby cafe I heard an old ABBA song playing. “Chiquitita.” Chiquitita, tell me what’s wrong/ You’re enchained by your own sorrow/ In your eyes there is no hope for tomorrow.
“Daddy, Daddy?” I felt a poking at my elbow.
“What?” I looked down at the little brown face and yellow locks.
“I thought you said you were going to go get us some more ice cream. Remember?”
“Oh yeah. Almost forgot.”
“That was like half an hour ago. Please go get us some. Please!”
“Yeah sure. I just got distracted.”
“What were you staring at anyway?”
I returned my gaze to the stretched out form on the beach and saw it for what it was. A long northern woman sunbathing in a flesh-colored bikini. The lady lay limp with dark shades on. You could smell the yummy coconut from her lotion, see the sun glint off her many rings and earrings.
“That’s funny,” I said. “I thought …”
“What’s funny, Daddy?” she prodded my elbow again.
“Oh, nothing really. Just thought I saw something else over there.”
The house we had rented in Orient the year before was just off the main road, a newer construction in a field. It was a fine house, though too cookie-cutter for the neighbors, who had let it be known with their Yankee forthcomingness that they did not care for its suburban feel, and that it obstructed their country view of the sprawl of hay-colored grasses, purple flowers, thorny bushes, and eerie swamp desert trees that ran all the way down to the bay.
The area behind the property belonged to the Peconic Land Trust, and there was a small sign forbidding trespass, though I did go into the wilderness a few times when we spent the year there, mostly to fetch things that the wind had rearranged. Usually it was clothing or toys, but once the gusts had moved our whole trampoline into the wild. So I had to go out there and drag the thing back about a hundred yards. That’s when I met the only other human I ever encountered in the wild area. A burly woodsman type in a flannel shirt, looking for antler velvet. “I collect it,” he said.
The wilderness was the main resort of the deer, though, how many, I will never know. In the mornings and evenings a small herd would appear and reappear from its grassy mysteries. There were at least a dozen of them, mostly mothers and their offspring, and they would graze at the periphery of the property to drift over to the neighbor’s yard, a Japanese architect, who would go out in the early AMs to chase them playfully with his dog, ceramic coffee cup in hand. We said konnichiwa a few times, but the truth was that, aside from some chit chat, the people in Orient kept to themselves. A pleasant but lonesome little village, it was. They had come for the isolation, just like us. But the deer did not care for isolation. They cared for gardens. They cared for roads.
They introduced themselves. Once, soon after we had moved in, and my wife and three daughters were away, I was alone fixing a light in the kitchen when I heard a loud sneezing sound outside. I turned my back and saw a tall deer beyond the back-door screen, with feet fixed at the edge of the patio. It was September then, and you could see a gorgeous stripe of sunset above the fields. The deer looked me in the eyes and huffed through its nose. “Tschooooo! Tschooooo!”
My arms fell to my sides and I stared into the deer’s eyes, attempting telepathy. We come in peace. We mean your herd no harm. We’re just a family of writers from Europe here for a year.
“Tschooooo?” the deer sneezed at me. “Tschooooo, tschooooo.”
“Tschooooo, tschooooo,” I sneezed back and nodded. “Tschooooo, tschooooo, tschooooo.”
The deer blinked at me a few times and then turned and trotted back into the bush. It must have been wonderful to be that deer. No rent, no shoveling out that driveway in winter. No fetching trampolines from the woods in autumn. And they didn’t even have to go to Riverhead to shop.
Whenever the deer ran away, they did so in unison. The more alert animals would look up from their grazing and turn to flee, but making sure to promenade before the others, to awaken them to the human danger. There would typically be two or three deer who continued to munch before the pull of the herd tugged them away from their delicious grasses. One animal, always stood guard until the last animal had left. Then it would have a final look and sprint off, with a graceful leap.
All that year, we had heard rumblings from across the bay in East Hampton about plans to reduce Eastern Long Island’s deer population by means of death. They called it “cull.” Federal sharpshooters would arrive like Normandy heroes and trim the enemy lines by a few thousand.
It was an ugly, contentious little topic about which many locals had sharpened their opinions, yet it still required some prodding and a few hot chocolates at Aldo’s in Greenport to get them to fess up to their preferences. Some of them were very much in favor of death, citing ravaged crops, Lyme disease, et cetera, et cetera. Others like me had come to see the deer as friends, more open, curious, and approachable than many of the humans I encountered. Hey, if they were going to remove anybody from the East End, I told the guys at Aldo’s, they could start with those so-called “cidiots” rollerblading down the leafy streets of Greenport in May. This was met with more than a few cheers. Not that I disliked the wealthy city comers so much. I was from up island myself, before I became entangled with a European woman and sprouted fecund roots across the ocean. But I preferred the deer’s company to any other kind of company. I cared about them.
Yet the deer were dying, more and more each day, struck by ferry traffic. The worst had been the winter, when the corpses would freeze over and develop a glossy glaze, so when the blinking holiday lights reflected off of their glassy billiard ball eyes, you would mistake them for a misplaced Christmas lawn ornament.
I never knew if our herd lost any members to the traffic, but one morning I awoke and there were only two deer grazing in the distance. Just two. They were young animals, both of them had an apprehensive air to them. Something about the way they stood, the fixed position of their legs, hinted at some hidden trauma. I went over to the Orient Country Store to get some coffee and a sandwich and I asked one of the old-timers I spoke to, a fellow who was always dressed as if he had just come in off a lobster boat and who looked just like Jimmy Carter, what was up.
“Oh, yeah, I saw their white vans last night, when I was coming in from the beach,” he told me from his rocking chair. “A pal told me that their vans have been in our area every night this week.”
“How come I can’t hear any gun shots?” I asked. “And what do they do with them once they’re …”
“They use silencers. And they ship the bodies upstate to a factory that butchers them,” he said.
“Oh,” I said. Then I walked home quietly, taking bites from my sandwich, and enjoying the peace and sunshine. In the distance, down by the service station, I could see the yellow form of a dead animal baking in the late spring heat. The sight was as natural to my eyes as a pile of leaves.