This story took place in 1977 when I lived on Orcas Island, one of the San Juan Islands in Washington State. I was twenty years old. I had an Appaloosa mare named Maya. We went on regular rides to nearby Crescent Beach at low tide to go through our paces, trotting and cantering circles and figure 8’s on the hard, smooth sand. To get to the beach we followed an old eroded road next to the cliff above the beach, which used to be the very first road around the island. This crumbling old road ran parallel to the current road, which had been built about a quarter mile away maybe a hundred years ago. You could look down the cliffs and see the beach twenty, thirty feet below, and the lush oysters, which flourished there.
It was a clear, crisp but warm morning in the early spring. Sunbeams sliced through the woods at an angle, displaying a myriad of light rays which made the forest floor look mottled and dappled. My Labrador mix dog, named Dog, darted from side to side in front of us, enjoying the pre-spring smells. Suddenly he found a scent, and began tracking, moving here and there with great focus and intention. He stopped, wagged his tail excitedly but gently and looked at me. As Maya and I approached, I noticed the shifting beams of light coming in and out and yet at the contact place where Dog’s nose was the light was not shifting, but stuck into a pattern of white spots, like a net of jewels.
Maya and I seemed to realize at the same time what we were seeing and stopped in our tracks. There curled on the forest floor was a tiny little fawn. Maya stood still as a tree as I vaulted off her and slowly approached the miniscule mound of spots and fur. I didn’t know if it was alive or dead. I noticed an umbilical cord still attached, slightly withered and about four inches long. The fawn was a female. Her sides were not moving. I gently raised her lips and noticed her gums were white, dry, dehydrated. I held my hand to her nose but detected no breath. Her body was clammy and cold but not stiff. I thought she was freshly dead. I put my jacket over her and cradled her in my arms for a just a minute or two before I felt her body warm and saw her eye blink. My heart skipped. She was alive! I warmed her a bit longer, swaddled her with my jacket and marked this place in the road with a branch so I could find her again.
Adrenalized, I swung my legs over Maya and before my feet were in the stirrups she rocketed forward at a full gallop. We ran all the way back to the barn with Dog following closely behind. Carlos, island vet assistant and my partner, was at the farm when we came galloping in. He looked up in surprise. Between gulps of breath I said, “Carlos, it’s a baby fawn! You’ve got to come quick. She’s almost dead!”
He grabbed his heavy doctor bag and together we ran as fast as we could back to the fawn. I was glad to see that she was still alive. Her sides moved ever so slightly with faint breath. Slowly she opened her eyes and looked up at me, then closed them again. Carlos checked her vitals, and instructed me to stay with her, while he ran back to the farm to get his truck.
We brought her to vet in town. After examining her, the vet said, “Well, I really don’t know what we should do. I don’t think she is going to make it. Sometimes it is best to let nature take its course. As if to prove him wrong, our little patient suddenly tried to stand up. Encouraged, he said “Well, let’s try to get some goat’s milk from the health food store next door.” Within minutes we had warm goat milk in a bottle. Our little patient was very hungry, and tugged at the bottle intently, but something was still wrong.
Just then a man walked into the vet office. He had seen us walk in with a fawn when he pulled up to the cafe next door. “Just this morning on my way to work I rounded the curve up by the top of the hill and there was a big doe, full of milk, dead in the ditch. I thought you might want to know.” It seemed our fawn had walked through the woods after her mother had been killed, and collapsed where Dog had discovered her.
Suddenly Carlos’s face lit up. With his thick Argentine accent, he said “Well, Mon, in the natural world, sometimes the mother animal has to teach her babies how to poo. She will slowly lick the baby’s butt, to warm it up and then they poop. I think she may be constipated.”
The vet and I both looked at Carlos with apprehension, not sure what he was suggesting. Carlos said, “I need a little oil.” The vet handed him a tub of Vaseline. Carlos put a little on his fingers and was just starting to rub under the fawn’s tail. Immediately she began wiggling around, and dumped an impressive amount of baby deer poop on the examination table. She tugged on the bottle with renewed vigor, and drank the whole thing. We knew we were, then quite literally, out of the woods.
We brought the fawn back to our house in the woods and made a straw bed for her in a closet. We named her Punkin. Our intention was to keep her indoors till she was strong enough to go outside and eventually transition back into her natural world. Our plan didn’t last very long. In fact I don’t know if she ever slept in that closet because at that point she seemed to claim me as her mother. She slept with me every night, her tiny warm neck across my neck like a living, pulsing scarf. When she was hungry she sucked on my ear lobes and made hungry little fawn noises. Over the next two weeks she gained weight and strength.
I took Punkin into the front yard every day for some sun and earth smells. One day I was outside with her, trying to figure out the next steps. “What are we going to do? It seemed like the time to put her back into her own world had come. We didn’t want to her to get used to humans. That very moment a big buck jumped out of the thick of the woods and stood before us for a second before jumping back into the trees.
This seemed like such a clear sign that it was time to return Punkin to the forest. Carlos and I made a pen in the woods several hundred yards from our house. We set my big tent up at the mouth of the pen, so I could sleep out there with her if I wanted. Punkin had a natural habitat to be in but was still protected. Throughout the rest of the summer, Carlos and I fed her on a schedule, at first five times a day, then down to three. Punkin got bigger and stronger as her diet shifted from goat milk to berries and greens. Every time I’d go feed her, I’d call, “Punkin, Punkin!” After a period of silence long enough to where I would wonder if she finally wandered free of her pen, I would hear a bouncing sound, and there she was, hopping over the bushes to me. Excitedly she would suckle my earlobes and make her little squeaky noises.
On the Fourth of July an unusual rainstorm drenched the island. It rained so hard that the tent collapsed, freeing Punkin from her pen. Once again, it seemed like nature was showing us the right timing of her release into the wild. We still fed her, but only once a day. It took longer for her to come bouncing through the woods, but she always did.
By early fall Punkin was the size of a large dog, and had traded her spots for thick grayish brown winter fur. It was time to let her go. We quit feeding her and didn’t go into the woods for the rest of the winter. The property we lived on opened up into hundreds of acres of pristine, natural mountainside that was without human habitation. I prayed that she would be fine, live a good long life, have healthy fawns and have no negative effects from human intervention. Though I tried to forget about her, I couldn’t help wonder what she would look like as a grown doe.
Fall turned into winter, and eventually winter turned back into spring. Around six months had passed since letting Punkin go. One dry early spring day I decided to walk around the perimeter of the property, taking note of fallen trees, the new matrix of rich undergrowth, and the birds singing. I thought about Punkin as I rounded the boundary that bordered the mountainside. I wondered if she had survived the winter, and the cruel but short hunting season. I thought to myself, “Well, I’ll just call her; maybe she’s still around, and she’ll hear me and remember me.” After all, we shared a sacred time. These woods were steeped in memories of her playful and surviving spirit.
As I walked around I called out quietly “Punkin, Punkin”, feeling self conscious, but no one was around. “Punkin, Punkin!” As I turned another corner on the property boundary I called one last time “Punkin, Punkin.” I thought to myself, “Oh well, it’s alright. It is better that she forgets anyway!” I walked through the forest to where her pen had been, and was still silently calling her name.
The next thing I knew I was flat on the forest floor with a full-grown doe straddling me and sucking on my ear! I’ll never forget that moment-me lying on my back with Punkin, a mature deer, above me, squeaking and suckling my earlobes. I laughed and cried at the same time. Eventually I got up and stood next to her. I told her how beautiful she was, such a big girl, and how happy I was to see her. She let me stroke her thick winter coat tinged with black, her long velvety ears, her large, wet, black nose, and her twitching white tail. Her fine, dainty hooves danced around me with the same joy I felt, that of happy, blessed reunion.
Together we wandered through the woods, my hand scratching her back, her stopping to nibble now and then. As we approached the end of the forest, we both paused. I caressed her, told her again how beautiful she was, to take good care of herself, and thanked her for being a part of the most amazing gift nature had ever given me. She nuzzled me, wagged her tail, munched on a few bushes, turned and slowly walked back towards the mountain.
There is another piece to this story. The month before I found Punkin had been punctuated with the alarming suspicion that I was pregnant. My period was one week, two, three weeks, finally a month late. I had symptoms of early pregnancy. I was not ready to have a child, nor was I emotionally ready to deal with the alternatives. Every day I prayed and prayed so hard for the little spirit to leave me naturally!
Finally, the morning I found Punkin, my prayers were answered and my period started. I was greatly relieved that the universe had heard my pleas, but had no idea that there was a sacred exchange waiting for me in the woods that bright spring morning.