I had a stirring experience out walking the dogs at lunchtime on the trails behind our house. Cordelia bounded off into the underbrush on the scent of some varmint or other. She loves to find chipmunk hidey-holes, digging down until they are deep enough that she can stick her entire head underground and sniff. She looks headless, butt and tail high in the air, snout submerged. Meanwhile, Westley rumbled out of sight on the trail ahead, as he does on the homeward leg of our walks. I thought he might be investigating a loud, squawking bird in the distance. I often find myself in this position, suspended between two dogs with different instincts, one a homebody, the other a hunter.
I sat on a log on the uphill side of the trail to wait for Cordelia to get bored and catch up. A steep incline rose behind my back, its crest perhaps forty yards above. Down below, I could see the brushy growth of an old cranberry bog long overcome by a thicket of invasive shrubbery. I didn’t mind the wait. I enjoy the sounds of the woods, the sussurus of leaves, scrabbling sounds of small rodents, birdsong. But today there was this NOISY SQUAWKING BIRD caterwalling down in the bog. It sounded like a duck, or maybe a baby. I was near the back of my neighbor’s property—could this be their toddler kicking up a fuss? She had been a colicky infant, with an insistent, piercing cry. Up over my shoulder, on the ridge, I heard a loud rustling in the leaves. Cordelia, I suspected, and turned to call her. But Westley came barreling down the hill, juking off to the right as if he were running from something. Seconds later, a doe bounded over the ridge; simultaneously, the squawking in the bog grew more insistent. The doe bolted down the hillside towards me, cutting wildly to one side when she saw me, tearing back uphill and racing back and forth along the ridge. Every few seconds, she’d stop and make an agonized, chuffing sound. She was frantic. Recognition dawned: the wailing from the bog must be her fawn, trapped in the thicket or the oozy mud. I stood between her and her baby, not a great place to be. A kick in the head from a deer would be fatal. The desperate call and response between the separated mother and her child continued, the deer streaking along the ridgeline, grunting feverishly, the baby crying out. I felt paralyzed. Cordelia appeared on the path, running to my side, spooked. The deer stood still on the hill, looking at us, ears twitching, her breath coming hard. The fawn screeched out from the bog, then fell silent. “I’m so sorry, mama.” I said to her mother. “We’ll get out of your way.” The doe looked at me, her chest heaving, as we retreated. And then she exploded down the hill towards the bog.
In that brief second, we understood each other: there is nothing more excruciating for a mother and her child than a forced separation. I hope her baby was okay. It’s late afternoon now, and the woods are silent.