Deer Stalks the Hunter

Deer was slipping cautiously through the trees. It was hunting season, and the woods were full of men in blaze orange, trying to get their deer. Jack Frost had touched the trees, and the colors were spectacular. The maples were showing a dazzling array of reds and oranges. The ash were dusky purple. Beeches and popples had on their ornamental yellows. The oaks were the only hardwoods still wearing green, although some of the young sprouts were starting to display a leathery red-brown on their oversized leaves. Even a hackmatack here and there was turning yellow. Every gale of wind filled the air with tumbling leaves, and the forest floor was littered with the trees’ cast-off summer garments.

There was no wind today, though. It was absolutely still in the woods. Deer could hear a late foraging honeybee buzzing past and a pair of laughing crows talking about some corvid prank or another. He heard the electricity humming in the powerlines running along the ridge. The low-angled sun lit up patches of glorious color, and dappled the ground. It was fabulous weather, brisk and invigorating, and the frost had put paid to most of the biting insects.

So far it had been a great Fall. There was an especially heavy oak mast this year. Some days the din of dropping acorns sounded like a hail storm, and all the usual suspects were gorging on the crop. Turkey and Grey Squirrel and the deer tribe were getting fat and sassy. Deer and his kin had been into the abandoned orchard up the Post Road the past few nights, where the Macs and Spies were especially sweet.

Then there was the added spice of the annual rut. Although Deer was happily mated to his doe, the woods were full of the scent of randy females, and that was a heady tang, even for a seasoned buck. Deer quivered and flicked his tail just thinking about the girls hiding in the fir thickets upwind.

But Deer really lived for The Hunt, matching wits with the local hunters. Now that was a challenge worth meeting – and the highest calling for a deer. He had been out since first light seeking one particular hunter. Was that a twig snapping in the puckerbrush? Deer pricked up his ears and listened.

Deer hadn’t always enjoyed hunting season. As a fawn he’d caught the infectious fear of his mother and the other does. They’d huddled in the thickets or crouched in the bracken while hunters were out in the daytime, and only dared move about at night. Hastily snatching a munch here and there. Spooked at the least noise. Shaking uncontrollably when the smell of men drifted into their hideouts.

Deer had understood the rough justice of sharing the woods with Mother Coyote and her children, but men seemed to kill just for fun, with no respect for the sacred balance. He had unthinkingly adopted his mother’s prejudice against men, as purely evil beings.

As a young buck, Deer and his buddies had dared each other to sneak up on hunting camps at night and see what men were up to. But it had always been a disappointment to Deer. He’d enjoyed the rush of peering in a window at the deerslayers, but invariably they’d just been smoking like chimneys, drinking to excess, overeating, and acting like yahoos. These hunters didn’t seem to honor what they were doing with any gravity or ceremony. They didn’t seem to respect anything, let alone themselves. So Deer didn’t respect them either. He figured it was his business to hide out during hunting season, and let yahoos be yahoos. Deer let it go at that during his early years.

That was before Deer was admitted to the Stag Society. You see, up until the time a buck grows his sixth point he can’t go into the Stag Club, or participate in the Society’s secret ceremonies. There’s a club for the young bucks, but it’s mostly about butting heads and fighting over nubile does. The Stags are the ones who keep the sacred rituals of The Hunt alive, however. Which is what the young bucks don’t understand. That The Hunt is something sacred which the deer must participate in, to keep the balance.

Deer went merrily on his way as a young buck, ignorant of the greater truth, until his first six-pointed rack grew in. And wasn’t he proud to see those wicked tines raking the air above him. While his new antlers were in velvet he slashed through the puckerbrush with them, snorting happily. He would just happen to trot past the girls’ yard, shaking his head so his new rack danced in the air. He was a splendid buck, and he knew it.

Then, on the day he rubbed the last velvet off his shiny new accoutrement, Deer was approached by one of his uncles. Deer was a bit apprehensive. The older deer was a massive specimen, with ten points on his huge, sweeping rack. But Deer was tough. If his uncle was looking for a head-butt, bring it on. Deer felt he could take on the World.

The older stag wasn’t looking for a fight, however. He was there to tell Deer the time had come for him to enter the Stag Society. His uncle was to be his mentor and sponsor. Deer was tickled. He would now get full stag status, which gave him access to the finest does, not to mention rights to the best browse.

But it hadn’t been as easy as rubbing off velvet. It turned out there was an entire litany of secret signals and ritual gestures, and volumes of ancient lore a new six-pointer had to memorize before he could be inducted into the Club. Deer spent the rest of that Summer boning up on the Stag stuff, and it was full of surprises. Some of the things his uncle told him made Deer’s tail stand straight up.

Even so, much of the lore sounded like fairytales to Deer. The Japanese fable about the First Buck stealing his antlers from Dog seemed far-fetched, although it did explain why the dogs were so determined to chase deer. Other stories revealed a lot Deer hadn’t understood before, however – and seemed more plausible. How the Stags cast down their antlers each Spring so men would have tools to make their living with. This seemed only fitting and proper. To share the gift. Although Deer didn’t see men using that gift now. His uncle explained it was an old story, and most men had forgotten their part in the balance. He hinted that the biggest secret about men would only be revealed at Deer’s initiation ceremony.

At last the moment came. It was on a blustery night that his uncle led Deer down into the Stag’s hemlock grove, where he’d never been permitted entrance. The local Stags were laughing and dancing around a fire in the heart of the grove, doing a buckdancer’s choice.

Deer noticed a couple of his head-butting buddies were there also, dressed as he was, in their initiation garments. The novices were solemnly led around the fire nine times, widdershins. Then they were blindfolded.

Suddenly Deer was butted from the back and sides, chased round and round the grove until he was bruised from all the ramming and bumping into trees. He was completely disoriented, and the music was a cacophony of squeaks, squawks, and staccato drumming.

Then Deer was led up to the fire, he could feel the heat of it against his chest. He was given a drink of bogwater. Only it tasted very strange. Like some sour fruit had been fermenting in it. Deer’s head started gyrating, and he had to hunker down in the heat of the fire and hang on so’s not to spin right out of control. The music pounded in his ears. Deer bent over and squeezed his gut.

That was when the music stopped. In the silence someone undid Deer’s blindfold. He wasn’t in the hemlock grove any longer. He was in one of the Great Halls described in his uncle’s tales. And Deer wasn’t surrounded by Stags. He was in the center of a circle of magical beings. Some had the shapes of men and deer, others looked like coyotes, still others seemed to be gigantic ravens. Deer was amazed.

Into the middle of the circle pranced a huge Golden Stag, standing on his hind legs.

“You are one of us now,” the Golden Stag spoke in a deep melodious voice. “And these are your kindred.” The Stag spread his forelegs to indicate the other magical figures.

“We are engaged in the dance together, and must serve one another,” the Golden Stag pronounced. With that all the figures commenced to dance slowly around Deer, sunwise, stamping on the earth. They howled and sang and croaked and snorted rhythmically.

Deer hadn’t noticed at first, but now he saw that each dancer had a unique radiance surrounding him, and a glowing jewel of the same color pulsing in their chest. As they danced around Deer, with majestic grace, each being would reach into the glowing light at his heart, and bring a portion of it out, holding it in front of him like an offering. Each figure in turn gave a portion of their light to each other dancer, who would nod in gratitude, then swallow the light.

A visceral drumming echoed through the Great hall. Deer’s head grew heavy. He tried to stay awake as the dancers whirled round him, faster and faster. Their colors changed as they swallowed the gifts of light. But Deer’s eyes were glazing over. He fell into a deep dreamless sleep.

When Deer woke he was back in the hemlock grove with his uncle. There was no sign of the magical beings, just the other young six-pointers, each one with a Stag mentor.

“Now you’ve seen the Dance of theWoods,” his uncle said. “And I will teach you your part.”

So Deer learned that every being must give of themselves to the others or the Web of the Wood unravels, and the dance will stop. His uncle explained that most men have forgotten their place in the dance, just as the young bucks think it’s all about headbutting and chasing does. Mother Coyote has to remind her children it isn’t just about random killing. And Old Man Raven knows it isn’t just about eating the dead. The Dance of the Woods must be performed with solemn dignity, and your complete attention.

Deer learned that every year the Stags go out in hunting season to find the men who haven’t forgotten the meaning of the dance. Most of the hunters they see are just doing it for sport. They may kill a young buck or a doe who acts foolishly. But the True Hunters wait for their Stag to come to them.

“You will know your True Hunter by the sacred way he hunts, and by the light you see in him,” Deer’s uncle said. “Good hunting.”

His first hunting season as a Stag, Deer hadn’t encountered a worthy hunter. He’d seen a lot of yahoos in the woods, but they hadn’t seen him. His uncle had told him some Stags go many years before they find their True Hunter, and Deer was ready to believe him. His uncle had been killed that year, however – so there must have been one True Hunter in the woods.

Now it was another hunting season, and again Deer was seeking his True Hunter, so he could pass on the gift. He’d had some close encounters with a couple of lucky yahoos. They’d almost cornered him yesterday in a high wind. But today there was barely a breeze stirring, and he’d easily outsmarted the hunters working this neck of the woods. Now he thought he heard another man somewhere in the trees. Deer pricked up his ears and listened.

Yes. He though he heard a twig snap off to his right, downhill and downwind, such as it was. Deer took a few quick steps to his right, into a clump of fir, and faced downhill. He wondered if today was the day. It was a beautiful day. The smell of the bracken was wonderful, with just a hint of sweetfern in it. The colors were at their peak in the bright sunlight. If today was his day, he was ready. It was a beautiful day to die. Deer pricked up his ears and listened.

Deer sensed movement down below him. If it was a hunter he was a master for sure. Deer thought about the past year. He’d mated well last Fall, and their fawn was growing up swiftly. He and his doe had weathered the Winter down in Peter’s Gully. The snow cover hadn’t trapped them when Mother Coyote came to call, and there’d been good browse. Was that a branch moving down there? Deer pricked up his ears and listened

Yes, there seemed to be a hunter working his way upslope very carefully. Deer couldn’t see or hear or smell him yet, but a woodcock went thrumming out of the thicket below, gliding away through the trees. Something had flushed him. Deer felt a twinge of sadness about his doe and fawn. But they were strong, and the other Stags would see to their safety. He would miss feeding in the new growth where men had cut that woodlot on the next ridge. Deer was just getting to appreciate the rhythm of the seasons. Was that the sound of a rifle bolt being worked? Deer pricked up his ears and listened.

If this was Deer’s True Hunter, he would be glad to leave the joys of life to the other deer. It was his duty to turn the wheel. Yes. There he was. Deer could just see a flicker of movement between the branches of a low-lying cedar. Deer pricked up his ears and listened.

What was that low chanting he heard? Some echo of the song in the Great Hall? Deer saw the hunter lift something to his mouth and blow. The deer call rang out in the woods. Perfectly rendered. The man stamped lightly, and snorted. Just right. Then Deer saw the radiance glowing around the figure of the hunter, and he knew. His own aura began to shimmer around him.

Deer was in the sacred trance now. He stepped out into the open. Turned his side to his True Hunter for a perfect shot. The man lifted his rifle. Deer stared deep into the True Hunter’s eyes.

Which is why some hunters meet the big bucks. And why the seeker sometimes get found.