It was strange, this misshapen lump on the ground beside me. After a few cursory sniffs, I confirmed that it was indeed mine. I stood there for a while, looking around.
I had chosen this spot specifically for this day. It was beside a large meadow that rolled slowly down to a silently moving river in the distance. I liked watching the tall, yellow-green grass waving gently in the wind, the purple and white flowers dancing with it. I was in a small hollow under a thicket of birch on the outskirts of the forest. The thick shrubbery surrounding me allowed both shady comfort and safety. We were partially hidden in the faint shadows, nothing more than dapples of russet fur, easily mistaken for a part of the rich forest.
Still, I could not help feeling more nervous and highly strung than at any other time in my entire life.
I examined the small lump again and sniffed it more vigorously, this time nuzzling it. It finally stirred and gave out a small, strange kind of bark. I nudged it some more and watched as it slowly rose higher, four spindly legs protruding from it until it managed to stand itself upright. I snuffed it some more, still uncertain about this strange thing. It quickly wobbled over to my rump and I gave a small start as it grabbed onto me and started sucking.
I stared at it drinking greedily and in that moment, I felt my world settle into place.
It was mine. He was mine.
I dropped my head down to the fresh, spring grass and began contentedly chewing away at the grass while new life stirred at my belly.
I couldn’t stop staring at him. He was so tiny, especially compared to his father, with his strong hind quarters and his tall, magnificent branching antlers. I hoped he would grow up to be just like him. I decided to name him Birchwood for the tree he was born under.
His fur was russet, like mine, although it was lighter in some places. He had a blanketing of white spots on his back that made it look like he had a covering of little round snowflakes. His ears were constantly upright as he took in all the sounds around him and his big, dark eyes were wide open to the world.
I had never had a fawn before, so I was not entirely sure what to expect. I was content to simply watch him, just as he was content to watch the world around him. I watched him follow a butterfly’s flight and I could almost sense the wonder in him.
It was the same wonder I found when looking at him.
However, I felt extremely uneasy, although all was calm under the birch and in the meadow. But I knew well the dangers that lurked even in our friendly forest, and now I doubly feared what lurked sometimes in the shadowy darkness. I feared for myself and for Birchwood, my precious little fawn.
I listened intently to the flow of the forest around me; the sounds of the wind, the rustling of the leaves and the branches and the small things that move almost silently and the loud chattering of the birds in the birch.
Nothing was amiss.
The day wore on and Birchwood occasionally stood and wobbled a few steps before tumbling down again into the soft bed of light green grass. I grazed contentedly nearby, although I was starting to crave a drink from the cool brook that I could faintly here nearby, some offshoot from the larger river below. I noticed each time he got up, he lasted a little longer standing.
It was now waning to early afternoon and I needed to get back to the herd before nightfall. It was not safe out here for a deer and a fawn after the sun had set and the creatures of the night overtook the forest.
Most deer gave birth very close to where their herd rested, always within sight of the head stag. I, however, had been too nervous, and whenever other deer came too close as my time came, I couldn’t help but kick and bite. Thus, the herd had moved on, although their trail was still fresh and they hadn’t strayed too far. Our herd numbers were dwindling due to frequent hunting.
The wolf was not quite our greatest foe.
With a renewed sense of urgency, I began urging Birchwood to stand for longer and start moving. He wobbled along beside me as we began heading back in the direction the herd lay.
It took a long while to traverse the thinning forest. I often encouraged him with a drink of milk, although feeding took time. I had picked up the herd’s tracks and they were only an hour ahead of us, but I wondered just how long that hour would take with him.
Gazing at him as he wobbled along, I finally understood the other does in my herd. I had often watched them from afar and how they were with their fawns. They were more flighty, the mothers, more short-tempered I suppose one would say. Any doe who came near their fawns would be met with flared nostrils and restrained violence, even close friends. Looking down at him and feeling that overwhelming protectiveness, I understood too why the stags often listened to the does with fawns afoot when they warned them of danger.
A mother knows when danger is coming.
And I felt danger coming now, closer and closer as the light gradually began to fade.
We reached the brook on the way to the herd and I leaned down gratefully to drink, tearing my eyes from my son for just a moment. A sudden splashing and a bark of fear jerked my head upright and there he was, my silly fawn. Curious about the water and the sound it made and the way it still sparkled in the light from the sun, he had leaned towards it and fallen in. Now his fur had darkened from the wetness and he looked rather dismayed at the sudden splash of cold.
I held back a smile as I went to collect him, trying vigorously to lick him dry. Eventually I figured that the best thing for him to do was to walk it off.
As we went along, I began telling him of the world around him, hoping he wouldn’t repeat an incident like that in the brook.
I told him the names of the trees, especially the birch after which he was named. I told him of the birds who flew overhead and nestled in the trees. I told him of the voice of the wind and the song of the waters like the light, sweet voice of the brook he had fallen into and the deep, flowing hum of the rivers. He listened and he watched and I knew one day he would learn it all and grow to be as wise as me, perhaps wiser, for he was a stag and a stag must know much to protect his herd from dangers.
A slight breeze was rolling along around us and I was grateful, for the wind would warn me if there were any dangers lurking around.
But the breeze was twofold. For while it warned of danger, the wind also carried her scent and the scent of her fawn to hungering shadows.
My nerves were strung so tightly I was surprised I didn’t burst off the ground and leap higher than even the trees. So when I finally caught the scent of my herd nearby, I almost jumped for joy. Safety. I could almost taste it and I urged my little one along, hardly waiting to bring him to safety of the herd and introduce him to the other does and his father.
Suddenly, another scent mingled with that of the herd and I froze in place. That scent was something that instilled fear into the core of every deer from the day they were born.
The scent of the wolf.
One was near now, the fresh breeze sending a whisper of the scent to me. Birchwood beside me froze as well, not because he understood the danger but because he sensed my sudden fear. I hoped that the breeze had only blown the wolf’s scent towards me and not ours to him, but I doubted that. The wind did not choose sides. It simply blew where it blew and carried all upon it.
If we could just get back to the safety of the herd…
I quickly nuzzled Birchwood up and moving, trying to calm myself so he wouldn’t panic at my flighty, jerky movements. It didn’t matter though. He could still smell my fear just as surely as I could smell the wolf.
I pushed him along, praying to the Lord of the Herds above that Birchwood would be able to make it back to the herd with me. His legs wobbled out from his sides and his gait was uneven. I knew that any lurking, yellow eyes would see his gait and sense his weakness.
Faster, faster through the waning light.
The herd was almost close enough now to sense us and I tried to bark out a warning or make some noise to alert them but I was panting too hard. The breeze had stilled so our scent, or the wolf’s, wouldn’t carry to them. Unless the herd knew we were here, no help would come.
I had never felt this kind of fear before. Our herd had often been hunted many times, both by wolves and the greatest of predators, Man, but this time I was not only scared for myself but little Birchwood, born only this morning in the early dawn. His life had only just begun.
Suddenly, Birchwood stumbled and fell. It took every ounce of my love for him to stop and turn back to him instead of running to the safety of the herd as I would have done long ago. I tried to urge him upright with my nose but his little chest was heaving and he kept trying to reach for my milk. I knew that milk would give him strength but there was danger everywhere, in every shadow it seemed. I managed to bark one loud bark but it fell upon only the sounds of the forest.
The faint cracking sound of a branch under hoof set me trembling again, although I was unsure if it was in fear or wild hope. Perhaps it was Birchwood’s father come to protect us. I saw a shadow move and hope flared.
Burning yellow eyes emerged from the shadows, attached to a lighter shadow of muscle and fur and hunger.
It was the wolf.
Both Birchwood and I were frozen in place and deep in my heart I knew it was over for my little fawn. Killed on the day he was born. I should leave him now, save myself. There was no way I could fight the wolf and there was no way Birchwood could flee fast enough. It was hopeless.
But he was my son, my first beautiful little fawn. I couldn’t just leave him to fangs and horror. I was ashamed to say I was so torn between staying and fleeing. Oh how I wish I had antlers!
The wolf prowled closer, his eyes firmly on Birchwood, the weakest one. I noticed he had a limp in his left paw which, in some tiny part of my mind, told me that he was a loner. There would be no pack of wolves hunting us tonight at least.
I stepped closer to Birchwood and could sense his intense quivering. He was petrified. I tried communicating to him that it was okay with my body but I could hardly stop mine from shaking too. My ears and eyes twitched back and forth between the wolf and Birchwood.
Perhaps if I threw myself in front of the wolf. Maybe once he had tasted my blood he would begin a frenzy and forget my fawn. Hopefully he could then escape.
I followed the wolf’s movements with my own as it drew nearer, licking its lips.
Fight or flight? Life or Death? Love and Terror.
The breeze stirred around us.
Birchwood finally gave out a terrified little bark and the sound rent my heart in two.
The wolf tensed on its haunches, ready to launch itself at me, hopefully sparing my son. I waited for the hot, hungry jaws to bite into my neck, for claws to slash at my beautiful russet fur.
Just as I felt the inevitable end settle over me, a trumpeting call echoed through the forest followed by the galloping of hooves. The wolf paused in its crouch and looked towards the sound.
Charging towards the wolf, bellowing in fury, was the great stag of the herd – Birchwood’s father. His twelve-tined antlers glinted in the fading light as he lowered his head to try to gore the wolf. The wolf, its reflexes slowed by its bad paw, managed to dodge the full force of the great stag’s antlers, but one sharp tine still managed to scrape a gash into the wolf’s side, causing it to howl loudly. In pain and not willing to face the fury of the fully-grown, furious stag, the wolf scampered off.
He would have to find food elsewhere.
I gave a breathy sigh as the great stag turned towards me. He rubbed his face against mine gently then leaned down to sniff at the trembling puddle of fawn by my feet. He snuffed, blowing hot air onto Birchwood. It seemed to calm him and I hoped that some of the wisdom of the great stag had been passed on to him.
The great stag slowly led us towards the herd and, both of us still trembling, we managed to follow.
The soft greetings from the other deer soothed the last of my nerves, the great mass of bodies comforting. The other does came to examine my Birchwood, his curiosity now slowly overriding the effects of his earlier terror.
I looked on and felt pride and overwhelming love flowing in my heart as my little fawn stood in the last of the golden-orange sunlight, watching with wonder the flight paths of the fireflies.
When night fully arrived and there was nothing but endless trails of the stars in the midnight blue skies, I felt the warmth of my son at my flank, his chest rising and falling as he slept peacefully beside me.
I gazed up at the stars and thanked them, and the great Lord of the Herds.
Then I gazed at my son, eyes full of love and settled down to sleep too.
All was well.