An autumnal elegy
by Craig Childs
October’s hunters have gone into the mountains. Smoke from their campfires rises from wild, green canyons. This time of year, the deer descend into low country for the coming winter, departing with the first frost, the first light snow, the first booming echoes of rifles. They come down to drift and mingle in fields below the mountains, touching damp noses to each other, neighbors from distant valleys meeting in cool evening light.
Younger bucks stay together, stepping like teenagers abreast of one another, their parades of antlers nearly touching, but not. They cannot hide their lives in the open country of their autumn range. Everything they do is visible. When I spy older bucks alone, I think them senile, perhaps, dominance having gotten to them so they can hardly look at anything but the spread of their own territory. They seem paranoid and irritable, nipping at the hinds of does to get them out of the way, while young bucks watch with anticipation.
Autumn is the season of rut. Fights break out. One at a time young males with four fresh points on their antlers break away to challenge old ones who wear six or even eight points. They provoke each other over fields of females. They posture and snort. They wrestle each other to the ground with their antlers. I saw them do this one moonless October night. I was driving south when two bucks swung into my headlights. With heads butted nearly to the ground, they locked antlers, dragging and shoving one another into the middle of the road. Hooves coughed up dust. They did not even glance at my sudden headlights as I stepped on the brakes. My little boy was in the back seat and I told him to look, that buck deer were fighting. He leaned his body as far as he could out of his car seat and asked why they were doing this. I told him it is a season called autumn, or fall. Deer fight this time of year to see who is stronger. Sons try to topple their fathers. My boy stared over my shoulder, astonished.
The two animals moved swiftly, throwing each other this way and that, catapulting across the road and out of my headlights. They continued into the black of night where they went on in my imagination, tearing and scrapping like gods through the rest of time.
Near winter, on crisp evenings, you see events like this. The deer, having made their lives public, sleep, eat, fight, and copulate below wrinkled folds of mountains. They come in such numbers that many are killed by cars, their carcasses leaving streaks of blood and muscle across the road. Some lie in ditches, bundles of legs. Others are left cocked in the middle of the road where a driver got out to inspect a broken, bloodied headlight and then got back in to drive away, steering around the warm, dead animal. The eyes of these deer look like tarnished glass, and in the morning their curved milky surfaces are touched by frost.
IN TWENTY YEARS OF DRIVING BACK ROADS I’ve never hit a deer. There were close scrapes, of course, clipping off a bit of tail-hair with my door handle or nicking a dewclaw, but I never hit a deer dead-on. My mother hit one; my wife. Everyone I knew hit a deer, and some did it more than once. I thought maybe I was blessed. Deer medicine. Ungulate fortune. I talked to them through my windshield when I saw them approaching the side of the road, telling them to stop, directing them left or right with a hand raised off the steering wheel. Each time, these unseen gestures worked, the deer avoided me, and I began thinking myself invincible, a deer whisperer.
My luck ended with a young buck. It jumped a fence in the face of a radiant, harvest-light sunset. I pumped hard into the brakes and urgently muttered, Stop.
The buck did not stop. I jammed the brakes all the way down and my truck skidded, fishtailing across gravel. The animal was square in the grill plate when I saw it shoot into the air. It was making its escape, all of its life given to a single, fleeing bound, muscles coiled into flight. It was so close I thought its hooves would clatter across my hood. In that half second I felt a gust of relief, thinking we were going to barely graze past each other, another near hit.
Then came a dark thud. Four slender, black hooves spun in the air and my truck came to a halt. Copper-colored dust welled up around the road. My hands were gripped tight to the steering wheel. I looked over the hood, where the deer snapped back to its feet and dove from the road, sailing over barbed-wire fence into another field. Again I felt relief, and let out a nerve-wracked sigh. The deer will be fine.
But once the deer reached the other side of the fence it fell into a weakened hobble. I closed my mouth and drew my lips tightly together. About forty feet from the road it dropped into grass up to its shoulders. My heart sank. From the way the buck fell to the ground I could see how its body was wrecked, internal organs skewered by broken bones. Adrenaline had been its last defense, just enough to get itself out of the road.
From inside the truck I saw that the buck’s breathing was labored, almost convulsive. I opened the door and stepped out. In a week, I thought, that place in the grass will be occupied by ravens. Magpies will land on the carcass looking like jesters in their black and white feathers, their long tails. The buck will become bones by winter, ribs splintered by coyotes, antlers sticking out of snow.
I felt awkward, not sure if I should get back in and drive away or if a formal apology was needed. Should I hop the fence and slowly walk across the field, where I would plant my hands on the buck’s heaving heart, where I would explain that I had been in a hurry to get to town and the sunset was so bright in my eyes? The buck looked back toward me. The way he held up his head, alert, seemed to tell me not to bring my apologies across the field. He would simply have to rally again, taking his last bit of life to reach another place where he could die in peace.
I did not cross the fence. I stood and watched the buck work his breath in and out.
A small herd of does crossed nearby. One separated from the others to stand beside the fallen buck. She lowered her snout and nearly touched her black nose to his side. Then she lifted her head and stood still for a long time, the buck’s antlers raised beside her. Both of them were preserved by sunset light, everything about their living and dying naked in this autumn field. It was too private to watch. I got back in the truck and drove away.
This article, along with other landmark Orion essays about our connection to the animal world, are collected in a new anthology, Animals & People. Order your copy here.