We first saw her nibbling saltbrush outside the living room window. She was a small-to-medium sized doe with a scraggly winter coat, long eyelashes and huge, scanner ears.
I opened the curtain one morning during the recent cold snap, and there she was, on the other side of the frosty glass not five feet away, working her pointy chin in among the spines. She didn’t see us there on the couch with our coffee mugs. Or didn’t care.
When she was ready to move on, she took a tentative step, but put almost no weight on her right front hoof, hopping forward a short distance to the next shrub.
Uh-oh, we said to one another, this girl is in for a hard time. I see winter kill here and there on the hill when I hike it in the summer. I never know whether the bones are the result of predation – by mountain lions or coyotes – or disease, or some bit of bad luck. Like breaking a foot.
That’s what this looked like, a broken foot, though in the deep snow it was hard to tell. She moved around the house during the day, feeding on the hillside, down the driveway, over on the leach field, never migrating more than she had to. She ate with a kind of fervor, as if she knew she had to pack on as many calories as she could.
Deer don’t usually overgraze; something tells them to stop noshing any one plant before stripping it past the point of recovery. But this one, probably because her movement was so hampered, stayed longer at each sage, each tender juniper. She was denuding them, decimating the plants as if their lives could save hers.
I found myself wishing the coyotes, or the cold, would get her. Or maybe the kind thing to do was deliver a .22 slug between her eyes. But I couldn’t do it, couldn’t even imagine the steps leading up to pulling the trigger. Let nature take it course, we said, with no idea what that would be.
The next morning was the coldest yet, eight below, according to the thermometer on the rafter, and much colder down by the river. The doe was curled up, bedded down beneath a juniper right next to the house, in the protective elbow where it makes an “L.” There were piles of pellets where she had fouled her bed in the night. On the other side of the juniper trunk lay a young buck with a single, forked antler, the left one having broken off in a fight, maybe.
It was sweet, somehow, the teenaged, beat-up Bucky lying close to the damaged doe. They both stood up, eventually, once the sun came up. We never saw Bucky again.
The doe worked her way, even more slowly now, more pitiably, to lie down later under an ancient, low-slung juniper, in a spot carpeted with needles. I saw her there in the fading light when I drove up after work, her ears straight out to the sides in cartoon wonderment, though I guessed it was to keep from bumping a low branch. Tellingly, she didn’t rotate those sensitive ears, hardly twitched at all when I spoke, gathering my computer and backpack from the passenger seat. I felt I needed to say goodbye, to wish her a quiet passage, by cold (if indeed that is a quiet way to go) rather than face, helpless, a pack of hungry canines.
She was there next morning, lying on her side, head in the dirt, the injured foot tucked up under. Her garnet-black eye stared out, just beginning to cloud.
Ellen called Colorado Parks & Wildlife to see if they might come collect the carcass, for study, or for the meat, or something. They gave her the number of someone doing a mountain lion study who might be interested in the frozen flesh, but he never returned the call. The wildlife folks, while sympathetic, didn’t have the resources to collect winter kill. A deer dies on your property, it’s your deal, they said.
I was content, initially, to leave her there, but Ellen said she didn’t want whatever would come next, the scavengers, the ravens and magpies, the worms and beetles, so close to the house. Especially as temperatures warmed up. So I said I’d drag her farther down the hill to another clump of trees out of sight.
She was lighter than I thought she’d be, and more pliant. She slid lightly on the sugar snow, leaving a track a grandchild might leave with his saucer sled.
“Is she in a beautiful place?” Ellen asked when I had returned.
“Yes,” I said.
“Is she lying comfortably?”
“Yes,” I said again, though the doe and I had made a deal where I left her, legs outstretched, awkwardly, in the snow: She was beautiful but already venison, bone and hair; she was never going to be comfortable, or in pain, again. And it was all right.