One night last week, a young, four-point buck stumbled onto a narrow stretch of mountain back road a few feet in front of my car. The deer teetered on long, slender legs that failed to move him forward according to his bidding, and he collapsed onto the dirt and gravel, one of his antlers broken, his mouth wet with dark moisture which began to slowly drip from his lower lip. I got out of my car and approached the buck slowly, careful not to threaten him. The stag had fallen on his side, but he held his neck and head up with great effort and looked at me with huge, glistening eyes. It was not a look of fear.
I squatted low in the darkness, a few yards away. Out of respect, I did not stare at him, but kept my eyes moving: over his face and then his body, over the road we were on and beyond it to the two-lane highway another thirty yards beyond, where no doubt this fellow had been hit by an automobile whose driver didn't think enough to stop and see what effect the machine had made on the wild thing it had clipped.
The deer looked at me in the same way one might when there is nothing left to do but to surrender and calmly await the whims of fate. He could have been in shock, but he seemed keenly aware. He was certainly in pain, I could see it overwhelmingly in every signal my senses read from him. He might have been confused, stunned. But something passed between us, unless I imagined it, something like an understanding. I would stay with him and protect him from further harm. And we would each do what we were there to do, as it was truly no accident that we happened upon one another just at this precise moment.
I say that last thing for several reasons. First, it was a strange evening and I almost didn't get to my destined appointment with the stumbling down deer. I had wrestled back and forth with whether I would drive the long road from my cabin in the pines to the mailboxes down by the highway to pick up the mail. Or should I let it accumulate another day? I had plenty of work to do, and the outing would be an interruption in my progress. But I was expecting an important piece of mail, and it would be better to have it sooner than later. I started for the door and the phone rang. I went out the door and discovered I'd forgotten my mailbox key. Third time, I made it to the car, then decided to jockey the vehicles in the driveway before leaving. This kind of bumbling and redirecting led me right to the deer at the appointed time.
The second reason I think that our encounter—mine and the deer's—was no accident is that I have been researching, writing and working among the predators this past year: wolves and cougars, the natural harvesters of the deer. Everyone in Indian Country knows that deer medicine brings an equal amount of the medicine of the corresponding predators, and vice versa. My latest book in the WILD Mystery Series is WILD SORROW, which will release in March. 2009. It features the plight of the mountain lion, and the ongoing relationship between a woman and a wolf, much like the relationship I have with my own wolf companion.
And the third reason is that I seem to witness more than my share of death for a normal citizen living mostly apart from war, genocide, and epidemic. There is something that happens when death is near, as if an unseen portal opens for the spirit in transition, an opening also palpable for the sentient witness nearby. It is as if time hangs in the heavens like the Northern Lights, a brilliant reflection of something else, something too far away and incomprehensible for us to grasp directly through our senses, and yet something so beautiful and precious that even its reflection or illusion—or the very hint of it—awakens awe and breathlessness. Time becomes nothing and everything as each precious moment floats suspended, slow and often painful, but full of grace.
And so, the moment I saw the deer stumble in my headlights, I knew I was supposed to be there. As I crouched low to the ground near the injured animal, I focused all my energy into staying in the moment with him. After a few minutes, I dared to engage his eyes. He turned his head sharply to one side, the better to see me.
He licked at his foaming lips.
I drew in a breath, and then I spoke softly. "I'll stay and watch over you. I won't let anyone else come down this road and hit you."
The buck raised his chin and fanned his nostrils.
I heard rustling sounds in the sunflowers and tall buffalo grass in the adjacent field. I turned my head and saw several deer looking at me inquisitively, two of them fauns, not quite yearlings. They looked from me to their relative, as he lay on the road. The young ones seemed restless, afraid. They stirred, moved away into shadow, came back and looked again. A female stepped forward as if to approach, but then thought better and backed away. They all disappeared into the blackness beyond the reach of my car's headlamps.
I turned back to my companion on the road. He had been watching his kin, as I had, but now he looked at me once more, and then he lay down his head with a heavy sigh. His breathing was more labored, and a dark stain formed beneath his mouth on the dirt.
I began to sing softly under my breath.
As promised, I turned several cars away, waving them back on to the highway and making them go around to the next entrance to the side road. I felt the sacred weight of my task: serving as a sentry, keeping vigil over a spirit moving to the next plane.
When I had seen the buck's chest rise and fall for the last time, I waited long enough to be sure he was gone, I went to the glove box in my car and took out some corn meal and tobacco. I said a blessing for this fellow traveler on life's journey. I thanked him for sharing the last moments of his life with me. And then, with the help of a friend who had happened by, we moved him off the road and into the grass nearby, where his body would not meet with another car.
So what was the meaning of this important event? I returned home in the dark to ponder this question. I know that deer medicine is always a blessing. The plentiful and peaceful deer represents a source of abundance. And the deer is a totem for tenderness, innocence, and the delicate aspects of the psyche. The Buddha is often depicted with a deer, and the animal is considered a religious image to Buddhists, representing a return to innocence and wildness. The antennae-like antlers, which grow above and behind the eyes, make the deer a totem of heightened perception and intuition in many Native American cultures. Their shaman frequently receive deer medicine through dreams and visions and take the name of the deer in some form as their medicine name, thus proclaiming their ability to see beyond the mundane. But, despite their heightened senses and perception, even the swift-moving deer is no match for the big machines and massive roadways of today's human society.
So I will be working with this deer medicine that has come into my life. I will be thinking about tending my own tender sides. About heightening my own perceptions, and returning to the wildness that so nourishes my spirit and my work. About being careful of the dangers of moving at too fast a pace, and of tangling with technology when I am in this tender, receptive, perceptive phase. And I will be thinking about how this deer medicine represents food for the two predators—the wolf and the mountain lion—who walk beside me almost constantly now in one form or another.
The next night, I saw the doe and her two fauns in the meadow grass below my house. Deer medicine continues to inform and nourish me. I wish you the best possible medicine for your own journey, dear reader. Thanks for traveling these past few minutes with me. - Sandi