Singing to the deer

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The fifth of this seasonal series is another story I told at this weekend’s retreat, on Saturday morning. Two deer stories in one day! I kept expecting to see some deer materialize out of forest mist, but it was not to be. This is a great story to tell to a group gathered around the hearth with the smell of the Yule Tree wafting over. It works best to sing a couple lines of the carol, and then sing the whole thing together after the story.

In the days nearing the Solstice, the woods are bright in a snowy way, the sky pearl gray above the stately maples and gnarled burr oaks. Our friend Patricia especially likes to walk among the sleeping trees in the half-lit silence of winter dawns. Maybe you like to do that, too. She often encounters deer on these walks, but they keep their distance. An instant after they see her, they usually bound silently away, their white-flag tails on high alert. Then one day, on the Solstice, a strange thing happens.

I’m at a point where the path turns sharply left to follow a small ravine, so I do not see them at first, three deer beside three empty larches. When I make them out—gray-dun hides against a gray-dun world—they are motionless, white tails aloft like flags of distress. I stop in my tracks, thinking how lucky I am to meet the animal my Celtic forebears called the spirit of wildness on that auspicious day.

The deer stare at me across the ravine. To the left stands a tall stately doe; to the right, an older, heavier one; in the center, one of the previous spring’s fawns, all gangly adolescence. Huge soft ears held high, they cast dark liquid gazes at me.

And do not run.

Desire bursts in my heart: to speak to the deer, to tell them how beautiful they are, to thank them for bringing wildness to the edge of the vast city. To speak from my heart, my own little wild heart, to theirs. To celebrate the season with them.

But I stand silent, for I do not speak the language of deer. I stare silently at them, awaiting their inevitable flight. But moments stretch out like fingers of light from the rising sun, and the deer do not run away.

Then, for no reason I can easily explain, I begin to sing, my voice loud in the silent forest. A plaintive minor-keyed medieval song springs to my lips, a holiday carol I’ve known since girlhood, Lo how a rose e’er blooming, from tender stem hath sprung! . . . .

Surely, the sound of my voice will frighten the deer away, but I want to speak to them, and music seems the only way.

Just as I expected, they begin to move. But not swiftly. And not into the forest. Not away from me at all.

No. One slow step at a time, the deer move towards me.

When I started singing, they were perhaps fifty feet away. By the time I begin the second verse, they are half that distance. By the time I finish the song, the deer stand just across the ravine.

In the sudden silence at the song’s end, three tails suddenly go up again, sounding a silent alert. So I begin another song. Tails go down, ears move slightly forward. Dawn light emblazons lemon and melon stripes upon the snow as three deer listen to carol after carol after carol.

A quarter-hour passes and still they do not move. I keep singing.

It’s not the deer but me who ends our encounter. The sky has moved from pearl to sherbet to azure, and I have promises to keep. I thank the deer for listening to my dawn chorus. The sound of my words shakes them awake. Tails go up, forelegs tuck up, and in an instant they’re gone.

In the silence, I stare into the gray forest. There on the edge of a tiny ravine, hope washes over me like light. Perhaps there is a reason for our being. Perhaps what we give our lovely blue earth is song. Beauty. Art. Perhaps that is the reason we were created: to entertain the universe. And perhaps art is not frozen moments of perfection but the process of creation itself.

Adapted from the full story by Patricia Monaghan (2003).

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