Nonfiction by Melanie Hamon
Accept the call. There’s a deer at my house, says the other end of the line. The woman’s voice cracks, whether due to bad service or too much empathy you don’t know. Whatever it is, she is certainly moved. She says she needs help. Sometimes, you explain, deer just run into yards. They’re older than people—with ancestors tracing back to the Ice Age—and because of that, in some ways, they’re a part of people, too. These are the moments when that part of our soul recognizes us, and it forgets that our stainless-steel dishwashers and marble countertops are meant to employ the façade of civilization. In truth, we are still wild things. Failure to accept a deer also indicates a failure to accept ourselves.
As you are a wildlife rescuer, the Department of Natural Resources permits you to save, at maximum, 12 deer per year or risk losing your license. Your organization is small enough to still operate out of your backyard but you accommodate other animals by the dozen, totaling nearly 700. Saving a deer is only allotted 2% of your time and energy, sandwiched between possums, raccoons, and other semi-wild things. But once you take the call, you load up the car anyway, drive 90 minutes to the woman’s house and glimpse, even from the front yard, the white spots: that stray idea that ambled into the back of the civilized mind.
Besides, not even stray ideas really wander. They know they must go. They just aren’t sure where.
White-tailed deer are found from the Arctic Circle to South of the Equator in Peru, and everywhere in between. They flourish where people flourish. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes them as, “specialists in exploiting disrupted ecosystems but poor competition.” It’s rather harsh, but it’s true, right? Deer become important when man bores of looking only at himself; he turns his temper outwards once the pressure inside boils over. These men shoot guns and force bans without fully realizing the power they bestow on their scapegoats–and you, the opposition, are so much more necessary during this time. Society worships mathematicians, doctors, and engineers when its chin is up and it is blinking in the light of the sun. When its eyes widen at the ground shifting under its feet, it turns to you, the arts: a mender of wounds, weaver of tales, speaker of truth.
Though fresh, the fawn – that motherless thought – is anything but naïve. She backs away when you approach, her head ramming the gaps in the chain-link fence and her tiny hooves kicking up dirt in protest. You – God-like to her, able to nurture and destroy ideas – scoop her tiny body into the large dog crate that is bungee-corded in the back of your trunk. It is more difficult than it sounds.
At home, you see that your Idea has a small abscess in her front elbow, proof that she likely would have suffered on her own. Once she has decompressed and been crammed into a prison of baby gates and boxes containing the older, forgotten thoughts in the scattered mind of your garage, you clean the wound and bandage it. This is when she belongs to you the most. Fatigue has made her trust you, allowing you to dress her wounds without struggle and improve her condition in your own way with medicines and nutrients you mixed up in your kitchen.
After a few days, it is safe enough to uncover and dry out the wound. The bandages in your trash emit a bitter, too-sweet odor that follows you until you tie the bag prematurely and leave it on the curb. They remind you how something tangible, spoilable, and vulnerable can result from a venture that feels like it should be second nature.
In time, the Idea grows into a story of her own, thanks to your medicine, your puppy formula mixed with warm water, and the countless hours you spend trying to keep her still before you realize that real progress requires a little risk. Now, though, her spots are fading, and the heavy kicks she sends to your aluminum door with her rippling muscles remind you she was never meant to stay in your mind to begin with. Deer are meant to be seen: captured in the brushstrokes of a painting or the bright flash of a polaroid, maybe, but never hidden away. You reach out to everyone you know—places that can host this kind of animal in a larger space, further away from people, before setting her free.
It’s a grueling process: you call and text, beg over phone, Please take my Story. I can’t keep her with me. All the while her eyes grow darker, her legs a little longer, her fury at being trapped a little more potent. With the care that you’ve taken you know you can take more, and you meticulously catalog your every decision, from the second you rescued her to the first moment she began to outgrow you. You need these experts to see your painstaking care. But your calls are forwarded to voicemail, your letters marked RETURN TO SENDER, your applications coupled with empty, formulaic rejections. Sorry, we are full. You didn’t make the cut. We don’t accept those kinds of wild things.
To be honest, you hold her long, much longer than you should. Perhaps because you don’t want to forget the compassion you devoted, the time during which you truly invested in something greater than yourself. It isn’t until you walk into the mind-garage one day, looking for another discarded memory, that you realize you’ve forgotten her. She sees it, too. Her ribs have begun to poke tentatively from her barrel and her short hair is coated in dust. You balk at the image of her, staring into those flat black eyes that are not faded but bright and spilling with resentment. In the fine white hairs on her nose you can see a future where the sun never shines, where her bones turn brittle and crack, and her forgotten body pronates along the concrete before hardening into ice.
So you wrap some old twine into a loop and drape it over her neck, take her out to the back of your yard (she is too large now to fit into your truck) and set her free. It’s sloppy and it’s inconsiderate.
Normally, when you release animals, you spend weeks finding the perfect location. You form partnerships with state parks, you hike their trails and find the most advantageous, most remote place to release what you have helped grow. The animals may prioritize their safety in the densest patch of trees or utilize their natural advantages near the water. Then, when you set them free, you let the door to the crate hang open and turn your back on them, avoiding contact so that they can see the wilderness and remember who they are. Releasing an animal in your neighborhood means more danger of human interaction, less consideration of your ward’s wild instincts, and more chance that she would end up back in your care again, domesticated or dying. But now it is too late; the gradual phase-out that a larger institution could offer is out of the question, and since you cannot fit her in your car you must make the only choice you have left.
In your mind’s eye you can almost turn your neighbor’s wooden fence posts into towering oaks, the concrete sidewalks framing your yard into shallow creeks that lead the way to water. Even your best effort is just an illusion, though, and there is nothing left you can do. Your Story seems to realize that, too, when she turns her nose towards the neighbors’ looming pine trees and kicks out her back feet. All you can pray now is that she will avoid the bans, the hatred, the anger in favor of pure anonymity. In a best-case scenario, your work is obsolete. But it is wild, and always will be, and perhaps that is for the best.