The Phantom Albino Fawn
A slight breeze blew in from the north on that clear, cold, early December morning as 120 deer hunters gathered. They were exchanging hunting tales and hoping to get lucky in the lottery at Sears Bellows County Park in the Town of Southampton. There was an abundance of deer there, just as in most towns on the East End. There had been no natural predators on Long Island since the last wolf died in the early 1900s near Wolf Pit in Mattituck. So deer had flourished, and the decision had been made to “cull the herd.” But unbeknownst to anyone, a pure albino fawn had been born that spring.
All the hunters were rubbing their hands and shifting from foot to foot. Their boots squeaked with every movement on the thin layer of crunchy snow. A few smart hunters sipped coffee from their Styrofoam cups as the steam rose and disappeared in the frigid air to the envy of many around them. I couldn’t help but think how a roach coach, – the nickname for those shiny stainless steel trucks that sell coffee and breakfast – could have made a killing that morning, no pun intended, if they had known about the lottery. They often came to the stately homes we built locally, always rushing to get to their next destination.
The hunters came from all parts of Long Island, except for one who had travelled eighty five miles from Manhattan. He was conspicuous with his new Park Avenue outfit that featured enormous furry boots that probably cost more than all the hunters outfits combined. My group instantly labeled him Bigfoot. The park rangers placed numbered pieces of paper in a hat borrowed from a gutsy hunter who braved the cold. One by one the rangers called the numbers, and everyone in our group of six was selected to hunt on opening day. Talk about luck; we should have played the lotto that morning.
Two in our group were from the “West End,” the area west of the Twin Forks. My two brothers and I were natives – almost. Even though we have lived there most of our lives, we were not born there. Sixth in our group was Bigfoot, a friend of a cousin. Bigfoot owned a mansion on the East End but lived in Manhattan where he enjoyed a beautiful view of Central Park from his luxury condo on the Upper West Side.
Monday morning, the sixth of January, about a month after the lottery, it was time to hunt. I awoke to the sound of my alarm clock at 5.00 am. After dressing and eating, I headed out. There were still faint stars flickering in the sky when we met at the park and checked in. Using flashlights we found our way to our designated hunting areas. It was frigid and, as we sat in total silence in the pre-dawn morning, vapors rose with every breath. I watched the vapor trails, knowing they would carry my scent to any deer in that area.
While I waited for daybreak, my thoughts took me back to the days of my youth when my brothers and I would follow my dad as he carried his twelve-gauge shotgun on the hunt. We would march single file through knee-deep snow along the stream that ran beside our neighbor’s property. As we walked our heads would turn back and forth looking for any sign of deer. My dad never did get to harvest a deer in all the years he went hunting, and sometimes I think he brought us along just to enjoy the outdoors together.
I thought of a time when a group of sparrows were jumping from branch to branch looking for food in a beech tree I was sitting in. I watched intently as they came closer. One landed on my camouflage cap. As I sat not daring to move, she sang “Fffttt, fffttt, fffttt.” After a moment she flew away. It gave me the sense that I was in communion with nature.
The first faint rays in the eastern sky signaled the arrival of a new day. The outdoors sprang to life: I saw a squirrel digging through the snow in search of food. Another one appeared and chased the first squirrel through the woods. The birds started calling to each other as they flew from tree to tree. The Pine Barrens, an area of tall pines mixed with dwarf trees, glittered with the frost that lay on the pine needles and the cones. The branches hung from the weight of the snow and ice.
After sitting there for a couple of hours and not seeing any deer, I decided to walk around and warm up a bit. Most people will never fully understand the Pine Barrens unless they have walked through them. Your clothes get tangled in the twisted branches that reach to your waist. Sometimes you can’t walk any farther and have to crawl along the ground. You move very slowly around the dwarf trees, observing the driftwood that has been blasted by the many years of windswept sand. Pausing, you look up, feeling like a giant in a miniature forest. You finally come to a less dense area with tall pine trees, giving you the opportunity to stand and walk again.
In the late afternoon the sky became overcast; and it felt as if it would snow. My younger brother and I decided to hunt in another section of the park. Walking next to each other we left two faint sets of footprints in the dusting of snow that had fallen the previous day. We moved slowly along a small frozen pond when, out of nowhere, a doe with a thick, brown winter coat appeared. It took me a moment to spot a small outline standing beside her. It was a pure white albino fawn that blended with the snow in the background. I could barely make him out as they stood motionless. To the right were the tall pine trees. To the left was the snow-covered pond that stretched toward the Pine Barrens. It was absolutely beautiful. The scene would have made a memorial postcard.
As we watched, my brother whispered, “Should we shoot?”
“No,” I whispered back firmly.
He said he would love to harvest the fawn for the white fur, and we quietly argued about whether we should shoot the albino as the two deer stood and watched. I could see he made his decision and I tried to convince him one last time.
“Do you know what the Indians say?” I whispered, as he lowered his gun.
He was determined to shoot, and as I watched him and the deer simultaneously, he aimed carefully and pulled the trigger. The sound echoed through the woods as the shot rang out but, oddly, neither deer budged. He took careful aim once again, paused, and then slowly squeezed the trigger. Again, the shot rang out and he missed again. This time the doe and her fawn ran and disappeared into the forest. It was as if he were shooting at a phantom.
Indian legend has it that if you kill an albino, you will have bad luck for the rest of your life. I had read about some of the Native American tribes of the area and how, in 1636, white settlers had invaded the rich, fertile land of the Twin Forks, which was surrounded by water filled with an abundance of fish. The Corchaugs, a tribe from the North Fork, were treated cruelly and had mysteriously vanished from the East End. David Hannibal, one of the last known Corchaugs, lived in a shack south of the main road near a fresh-water spring. He was buried in Cutchogue Cemetery in a section that is a sort of pauper’s ground. I wondered if he knew whether any of the Corchaugs had ever killed an albino deer.
The albino fawn survived that snowy hunting season and grew into an enormous mature buck. With his keen sense of smell, sharp eyesight, and alertness, he grew wiser with the years. Because he was nocturnal, it was a reward for any outdoorsman who could spot him. He was last seen having grown a massive fourteen-point rack, the envy of any hunter.
We never did see that albino again. My brother has been successful and, so far, has suffered no bad luck – maybe because he missed those shots, or maybe because the albino never really existed. They no longer have the lottery at the park. The guys from the “West End” have returned to their wives and children. Bigfoot is back in his Manhattan office doing what he does best. The rest of us remain on the East End, constructing houses that need to be ready by next Memorial Day when the summer visitors return to their playground. Meanwhile, the phantom albino buck runs free another year, past the ponds, beyond the tall trees, and through the Pine Barrens forest.