A single osprey works the sea to no avail. He lands on the outmost piling, head feathers spikey as the crested helmet of some ancient warrior tribe. He could shake himself dry. Instead he sits and stares at the stillness of mid-tide. Early, in the greyness and only a ruffle of wind, the fishing should be good. Except for him. The indifference of the sea has overwhelmed him.
A commotion of splashing.
Osprey takes flight.
Hooves and fetlocks bounding through the backwash, three white-tailed deer come.
At the first stone groin they stop. Buck, doe, and between them a female yearling. The yearling belongs to the doe but not to the buck. With his shallow chest and only a single point on each of his two antlers he is not old enough. The doe steps forward, her sides bulging. She has a week left maybe two. Perhaps that is why she is following him. She looks inland. So does the yearling. The buck breasts further into the water. He looks toward the sea, the barrier islands which he could easily make and to the blue landmass beyond. Which is out of the question. He juts his head out and calls. The yearling moves in his direction, hesitates. Her mother held back; maybe it is that, or that she does not trust him either. Or both. Whatever their doubts, the protocol of his leadership such that it is proves too strong.
At the last before he would have had to start swimming the buck turns, east, away from deep water and skirts the stone groin picking his way.
Doe and yearling follow at a gallop, clearing the small bright surf where it meets the boulders, all fours in the air.
It is too late to see the morning star and too early to find the sun. That familiar light cutting the horizon free from the land is not there, not even a hint. And in this colorless uncertainty they continue, and halt, and continue, until lost from sight.
A week later, not far from where I’d last seen her I found the yearling crumpled beside the northbound lane of I-95. A week after that, further down the highway there was the buck tossed up into the grassy shoulder below the trees. The doe I never saw again. As far as I know she survived. There is another way to look at this and it is not as a matter of judgement or the lack but that which white-tailed deer cannot get used to. To how the landscape has been transformed. To the unnatural contours we build into the shoreline, those piers and seawalls and the houses so close together one misplaced match would take them all in a single conflagration. The noise at all hours. The fences. The insurmountable obstacle of highway traveled by creatures with eyes bright-glowing in the dark and even in the day and at speeds no deer or any four-legged consciousness can grasp.
The predations of wolf and grizzly have been traded away in exchange for something alien, and incomprehensible.
Mark Seth Lender is the Explorer in Residence at Public Radio’s Living on Earth and the author of the children’s picture book, Smeagull the Seagull (Seahouse Press), available for purchase at http://Smeagull.com