Deer Life: Anecdotes & Legends from the Deep Woods, PART TWO

Deer Life: Anecdotes and Legends from the Deep Woods, PART TWO

The fawn’s grandmother was already grazing in this part of the woods where winter fodder was plentiful and fresh water gurgled, where deer were less disturbed by the hunters.

In the spring, the vast Northern snow-trap dissolves, and deer are free to roam all green summer. During the season of leaves and freedom their wanderings cover three hundred acres.

But winter snow layered with ice often adds up to six feet in the deep woods, and that reduces deer roaming space by nine tenths. With other kin in the winter they trample down the snow in their deeryard haunt, eat the cedar and grow a little leaner, holding out for greener days.
Now, with a dozen does and fawns already there in that refuge with granny, the fawn felt welcome, safe and sound. The time of the stuck leg and terrified heartbeats had passed.

Immediately granny saw the little scratch on the fawn’s shin, sniffed it, licked it. The whiskers around her mouth took turns at dancing as she chewed her cud and listened.

Grandmama had given birth to many fawns. Her first was a single birth. Then she had a series of twins. Twice she had three. One time she had four–a rarity. Her last delivery was small but he grew to a twe lve point buck. Now she gave birth no more. Now she led the offspring of her offspring, slower now, but full of the rhythms of endurance, full of patience and strength.

A sheer veil of snow was now covering her.

A wet snow drop or a drip of crystally rain touched her nose and she saw that soon it would be raining. Before long the snow that filled the air was so wet that it splashed when it hit. The dark sky was soon sending down strange waves of rain. The deer took shelter under a couple of tall thick fir trees. Their thick winter coats of hollow hairs kept out the damp chill.

Grandmama kept her ears cocked and sniffed in the direction of a stiff wind which had come up and was now dumping cold water drops from the cedar boughs above. She knew another change was coming, a freeze.

The rigors of winter are tests for deer. One slip-up and survival becomes grimmer and slimmer. They fly through jewelweed-meadowed summer, feasting on bittersweet leaves after giving birth in the densest thickets, with new buds and berries, flowers, seeds and fruits all opening, ripening each in its own time, smelling fine, tasting delightful. The warm sun and cool night make for easy sleeping, and there’s plenty of water, and even salt sometimes.
The does timidly approach the salt lick in spring; then the bucks do, their antlers “in velvet.” In summer the does grow more timid, but you still might see them, there in the moonlight. In summer their fulvous color, clay or bark toned, is a speedy streak, if seen at all.
Leaves and stems are in easy reach and the pad of bony gum tissue in deers’ upper jaws can break twigs off to chew in the sunshine. But winter is the bitter killer — snow-covered food, hooves slowed down by layers of ice, slender legs poking riskily through deep snow. For deer it is a constant struggle in North woods winters, to stay out of harm’s way.

In the rain a fox barked. The air began to feel colder; still raining slush the night passed and the deer slept together shivering beneath firs.
In the morning the fawn creaked awake. It had turned very cold, and everything was covered with a layer of ice, including her coat. Trees were popping even though the sun was brightening up all the icy surfaces, and when the wind blew, the trees would crack and crinkle ice. Snow and ice squeaked and crunched harshly beneath hooves; a warning bluejay called.
Grandmama had a worried look. An airplane scraped across the sky, harshly breaking the cold air where no clouds were scudding. The bluejay returned, screaming his warning in a raspy harsh cry again, and then was gone.
The fawn tried to shake off the night’s ice. Two does looked toward her, then stole away with tails and heads down. In a moment they burst into a full run, white danger-signal flag-tails now high, springing away.

The fawn turned, smelling a new scent. There, bristling with ice that seemed to spark like fire in the dawn sun, stood a moose. His horns were like the roots of two overturned trees, and he was tall as a hill-moose can get. Whitetail deer protect their lives by hightailing it. A moose can come into deers’ winter browsing grounds and bully them away, charging the bucks. Then they eat the higher branches as well as the lower ones, no whitetails to compete with.
Granny was leading, and the fawn sprang like she was trying to run in a dream, higher, farther, gone; but the snow crunched painfully, being glazed on top by the layer of crusty ice.
The bluejay screamed and squalled some more. They stopped when they felt safe, and chewed some icy hardwood twigs and a hemlock sprig or two which a squirrel had dropped in his work of getting hemlock cones for himself.

A dog-like or wolf-like howl faintly rose in the distance, then faded to nothing.
The two came to higher ground, the sun warming them a little, and ate whatever twigs and little branches they could find.
The bluejay cried again and they half-expected to have to run from the moose again, but instead they heard a wolf now. Granny led through a hardwood slope away from the sound; and the deer stopped to listen again. The hardwood trees, farther apart than the softwood, let more sun in. A cold wind was blowing hard. When they had just about forgotten the wolves they heard one again, closer than before.
They moved fast; dusk was coming. But when they stopped in low lying land by a brook, wolf voices sounded nearer yet, this time mingling with the water’s stern icy gurgle and under-ice bubble sounds.
Soon a fierce grey-black wolf was upon them. They ran harum-scarum and granny put herself in the way. Like a mother partridge feigning a broken wing to distract attention from her escaping brood, she caught the wolf’s eye, offering herself as easy prey. The wolf slanted his head quizzically, as if wondering what more-than-met-the-eye might be going on.

Sometimes the ravens act as advance scouts, they call out and alert the wolves to the fact that the deer are near, and later get their cut– the clean up the scraps of meat on the bones the wolves leave behind. (Wolves eat the entrails first, soft tissue organs—heart, kidneys, intestines, lungs and spleen.) But this time it seems the ravens made a commotion with wings and squawks alerting the white deer that the wolves were on the coming up on the fawn and the grandmother deer. The white deer took their clue and arrived to disturb the plans of the wolves.

The fawn leapt and ran and then was alone after bounding and bounding until she could not go on — the ice cut at her legs, her lungs were exhausted. She had to catch her breath.
As she slowly paced the ridge above an old logging road near huge snow-capped boulders she thought of her grandmother. A partridge under ice-covered snow moved then at her hooves. She’d been imprisoned there since the freezing rain and was trapped where she slept. Then a noise downhill scared the fawn, who stood still beneath a beechnut tree.
The fawn saw a local hunter, Azro Whipple, Jr., as a blast of wind bent the branches of the beech tree and cracked the ice, and the fawn slipped over to the huge stones. She fit perfectly between two of these beeches, nestling there, chewing her cud. There was nothing else to do.

Around a fire Azro Whipple Jr. the Fifth and two other hunters, Al Peet and Norman Nordlinger, sat and talked. Al asked Azro “Do you think there’s any truth to the stories I heard that there’s a white stag here in these woods?”
“No. Well, maybe. I mean, I heard the story from my grandpa about how he found his land when he first got to Vermont– and it started with a white stag. Yah, a white stag appeared up on the crest of a hill when my great great great grandpa was out in the wilderness hunting. A stag white as the driven snow from the highest cloud, bigger by far than any stag you ever did see. The story goes, he stood there till grampa was so close to him that he felt like he could just reach out and touch his antlers with his hand. Just then the white stag spun and leaped off, light as sunlight flashing in brook water. Legs long and slim and limber and full of spring like white birch branches, fast. That buck he ran off through the forests and valleys, up over mountains, almost getting out of sight up ahead, again and again. Grampa followed him on horseback, galloping after the deer with more determination than he ever had felt before, following the deer all night long in the moonlight in fact. When morning dawned he saw the white stag a few hundred feet away, standing there stopped by a big blue lake with swirls of white mist slowly rising up from the surface. Grampa said when he tried to get his horse to go closer the horse just balked, too tired to go any further. The white stag stood hoofing the wet ground there, and shook his head from side to side, with his tree-branch antlers making you dizzy, then vanished into that strange mist. Grampa rode the horse out into the water, but the deer was gone. He noticed back on the shore that the place where the deer had hoofed at the ground had big grooves dug there. Grampa saw there were lots of fish the lake, and partridges in the woods there. There were apple trees and blueberries, fiddlehead ferns and wildflowers all over the place. He rested for a while, then decided to go home. The white deer led him to that lake in a few hours, and it took a long time — several days at least — to get back to land he recognized. He never could figure that out. And I never saw a white stag, though I used to look for him, when I was a kid. So I just stopped believing there was a white deer in the mountains. I guess. Anyway what’s the big deal about an albino deer? Even if it’s one in a million.”
“Azro, are you sure that was your grandfather told you that story? It sounds like a story I had read to me before I went to sleep at night when I was a kid.” Al Peet said.
Azro Jr. said, “That’s what grampa told me. Are you calling me a liar?”
“No, no. But I heard that story read to me from a book,” Al Peet said.
“Well maybe somebody wrote down grampa’s story. He told it to me time and again. And he told me that in the old days Siberians had a ritual where they’d sit on the back of a reindeer—they said the reindeer could fly to the sun with you on his back, and you’d receive a blessing there, and then the deer would fly you back to earth. Siberians have a drink called ‘Deer Antler Vodka, it infuses the drinker with the spirit of the deer.”
Al Peet said, “Jeez, I never heard that one. And I’ve never been to Siberia, or flown to the sun on the back of a reindeer for that matter. But who knows, maybe it’s not just pigs that can fly!” They all laughed, relieved that a fight about lying wasn’t about to break out after all.
“I guess none of us has flown to the sun,” said Azro Jr. philosophically. He spit some tobacco juice on the snow. “Those old stories are kinda fanciful. Tales you tell to kids.”
Norman Nordlinger said, “I know a guy so dumb, he tracked a deer backwards, to where it was comin’ from, instead of where it was goin’ to. Stupid.” And everybody laughed again.
Al Peet said, “My uncle Delbert was the biggest liar I ever knew. He used to say one time he was out huntin’ deer, and in his lunch he had a piece of cherry pie. He ate it and spit out the seeds, and just then a big buck came along. His gun wasn’t loaded and the bullets were not nearby, so he loaded the gun with those cherry pits and shot the deer as he grazed. The deer seemed stunned but then ran off. He said a few years later he saw the same buck, and there was a cherry tree growing up outta his head, along with the two big antlers? Uncle Delbert was the biggest liar I ever knew! When we were kids we believed anything he said, almost.”
“That was a sorry story in the news last week– about that 17 year old kid,” Al Peet said.
“What story was that?” Azro asked.

Al Peet said, “My folks came from down in Virginia. They tell the story there about the first settlers in Roanoke– summer of 1587 was when they arrived. Those folks know their history down there. Remember how Elenor Dare, one of the settlers soon gave birth to a daughter– first Christian born in this land. She named her daughter ‘Virginia.’ Indians called the mother ‘White Doe,’ ‘cause she was pale and elegant, and called her daughter ‘White Fawn.’”
“Man, You got a good history memory, Al. That was a long time ago.”
“I have a book. Ever so often I read it. Anyway, life was hard in those days and Virginia died. Whether it was in infancy, or as a young lady, whether in some accident, or famine or a terrible tragedy– no one knows. The records show that some hostile Indians massacred the settlers and that six males and one maid escaped– maybe that maid was Virginia. In that case she grew up to be a young lady. In some stories they say an Indian named Wanchese fell in love with her before she died. But in any case there was a legend that after Virginia died– however it happened– she became a ‘spritely white fawn,’ ‘an elfin spirit’ in the body of a beautiful white fawn who was often seen frisking around where Virginia was born, or looking out to sea with a thoughtful stare. And sometime around 1615 or 1620 the Indian hunters on Roanoke Island kept seeing that white doe, the fastest of all the deer there, and it seemed to taunt them. Even the best archers in the tribe couldn’t slay her. She sprang over the sand hills near where Virginia Dare had once lived, and seemed to live a charmed life– no one could bring her down. Some said it was a good omen, others that it was a harmful ghost haunting the land. They’d see her in the swamps, on the hills, in the cranberry bogs, always beautiful and seeming sorrowful. The chiefs had a council and decided to have a hunt late in the year when the leaves were all fallen. All the hunters took part, determined that together they would take down the white doe. Manteo, the first Indian baptized there, took part; he tried but couldn’t kill the deer. Another hunter, Wanchese, who had fallen in love with Virginia while she was still alive, was told by somebody that if the white doe was really the spirit of Virginia, she would turn back into a woman if he could pierce her heart. Wanchese had been to England and had received from the Queen there a unique gift– a solid silver arrowhead. Now all the other hunters had chased the white doe and aimed their arrows and missed, but when Wanchese aimed his silver arrow it pierced the white doe’s heart. Some say when Wanchese went to the fallen doe he seemed to hear a sound like ‘Virginia Dare’ in the last gurgling blood that whispered through the white doe’s throat.”
Azro said, “That’s some tall tale, Al. Maybe you’re a reincarnation of Wanchese, for all I know. You do ever so often seem to ‘want’ some ‘cheese,’ the way you order those grilled cheese sandwiches down at the Miss Vermont Diner. I want cheese, I want cheese!” The men laughed.
Azro spit again and said. “OK, enough! Now I’m going in that direction. West. You go that way and that way.” He motioned with hand signals East and South and they agreed.
The full moon was bright in the clear sky and soon its light was the only light there was. Stars play their part — they tickle deers’ eyes and guide them, and they demarcate seasons, but their delicate light will not make for a clear walk for humans in the dark winter woods.
Azro Jr. walked West with his gun ready to shoot. He walked West for a long time, and then he saw a lean buck on a hillside.
Azro Jr. killed the big lean buck who had not long before challenged the White Stag. He knew the deer, though lean, was too big for him to lug out, and Azro also knew that it was too dark to find his way out of the woods.
He cleaned the warm deer with his Bowie knife and as he emptied the stomach of its intestines and unfroze his own hands in its red-blooded flesh, the large space of the cavity gave him an idea. Maybe he could stay warm that night by crawling inside the hollowed carcass, since he had no blanket and he was freezing. He finished opening up the buck, and cleaned it to the brisket, so it could better accommodate his own lean frame. Then he crawled inside to sleep. The fawn by the boulders watched with curiosity and wonder, chewing her cud.
By morning the cold wind had frozen Azro inside the icy carcass. Only his arms and legs were free. The deer carcass had frozen so solid that Azro could not extricate himself. He started crawling on his fleece-gloved hands and icy-pantsed knees along the old logging road toward home. From a distance human could barely see Azro’s legs, if at all; one could only see the noble head and stately rack and the back of the buck moving slowly along with a strange steadiness, as Azro crawled.
An out-of-state hunter in red flannel was taking aim at this slow-moving in-season deer.
Then, from the corner of his eye, Azro saw the hunter and said “O moy Gawd! No you don’t!” Just then he also saw the white stag appear from nowhere, bounding gracefully between the gun and the target, distracting the hunter. In the commotion, Azro yelled out some more and fell over, and the amazed hunter ran toward him to investigate. “This is the damnest thing I’ve ever seen in my life! I thought you were a deer! Do you realize you’re inside a dead deer?”
“I can explain. Help me. Get me out of this thing and I’ll tell you,” Azro said.

Seven years later stubbly-faced Azro Whipple was jacking deer late one night. He shot at one who was so white it seemed dreamlike. He fired, and like a streak of milk it dashed away from the beam. “Jeezum Crow! How could I have missed him? He was so bright and white!” Then he remembered: “That was the buck that saved my life.”
He felt happy and sad. Azro remembered the first deer he’d ever killed. Azro liked to act like he never felt sad or sorry at any time in his life. “Sentimental stuff is for whine-baby sissies,” he said. But now he felt sadness, the same sadness that flowed into the empty space around him after he shot his first buck with a twelve gage shotgun. He’d wounded that buck in the back and the deer had tried to drag himself into the forest. Azro had used a big rock to finish the deer off, making a bloody mess. The sadness he had felt and banished that day was back.
Azro always scorned those who said it took guts to kill a big beautiful animal. “What are you talkin’ about? You just pull the trigger. It’s no big deal—it’s just the life of some dumb animal. What are you talking about? We’re just harvesting the surplus!” But now somehow the feelings of sadness, and even thoughts of his own eventual death came flooding in on him.
Azro remembered the story his mother had told him long ago. How her father had found a fawn once. The fawn was starving one winter when there was too much ice and snow, so weak she could barely move. Azro’s mother’s father had fed that little deer some moss from under the snow, and she gradually gained more strength. Eventually she was able to bound off into the woods to freedom. Azro’s mother had said that when her father was old and sick he went out and got more of that same kind of moss and ate it himself, and went on to live a long long life.
Azro thought again of the bright white buck’s sudden appearance and disappearance, and sighed after it flashed in his memory. He could not understand the sadness, but he could not quickly kill it, either. He wished he could remember what kind of moss was so damn healthy it gave you a long long life.
When he told his friends about the white buck one of their wives seemed very curious.
“Were the white buck’s antlers brown, tan, or white?” she asked.
“Why?” he asked, “Are you gonna paint it for a Christmas card?”
“Because the whole thing is a mystery of nature.”
“How do you figure?”
“Maybe the antlers of a great buck should make us a little more modest, if we stopped and thought about it. I read that when those horns are lost new ones just like them grow right back. Other mammals can’t regenerate a lost organ like that, and antlers are complicated and big. Did you know the antlers of a 440-pound red buck, can weigh as much as 66 pounds, and they grow that big in about three months?”
“No. And with all due respect, except for Ripley’s, who has time to care about that kind of statistic anyway?”
When Azro went into the hardware store, a Candian hunter was standing at the counter telling the cashier a tale about the white buck. “I saw him off in the distance, while I stretched my legs and took a leak, ay. And ever so quiet I crept, to get my gun where I left it. An’ when I looked back, there the damn thing was—gone!”

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