In Mundo Cervorum

On a warm day in early November, I walk from the paved Metroparks path that runs parallel to the road, and step into the shade where a new path forks off, marked with a “no bikes” sign. My baby is asleep in her wrap, warm against my body. Carrying her like this reminds me of being pregnant. My belly swelled and rounded, and hiking became a hazard. Crossing the shallow, slippery creek– something I did almost daily the year before, in all seasons– became a risk. And now, too, I step with care, one hand against the baby’s head. Her skull is still soft under her pink knit hat. I stray from the trail to wander alongside the creek on its bank of broken bricks and sand. It’s a beautiful autumn day, sunny yet crisp. We had to get outside. I had to get into these woods, for my sanity. 
But the back of my neck prickles. I keep looking around, checking behind me and in my periphery. I see that little pink hat against my chest and it feels like a target, beaming to everyone around us: here are two girls. A woman and a baby. Here’s some easy prey.

Pre-Covid, I listened to those true crime podcasts that admonish women to “stay out of the forest” to avoid being murdered. When I was a teenager, I was told horror stories about teen girls getting dragged off their bikes and raped in bushes. Once, I even mentioned to my writing group that I wished I could spend more time in the Metroparks because I liked being in the woods, but that I’d been told so many times that it was too dangerous to do so alone. Members of the group, all older than me, shook their heads and clucked that it was indeed a shame. “Sometimes I’ll be running on one of the paths,” one said, “and I’ll get a weird feeling like– something bad happened here.” When I told my Dad I’d started walking in the park with my baby, he said, “You should have a gun.”

On the walk back, up on the trail high above the creek, I look down. There’s a doe lying right on the edge of the bank above a tangle of roots. Caught in those roots, another doe, dead. Neck bent back, head in the water. 
I know in my gut that they’re mother and fawn. 
Female fawns stay with their mothers for up to two years. I’ve watched pairs of does, one smaller than the other, eating acorns or sleeping beside logs atop the hill I call the Oak Grove. They groom their matching brown coats, their tongues turning up little patches on the smooth hair. They nudge necks and lick each other’s faces. 
I walk home with both hands on my sleeping baby’s back. 

A week later, the police report: there have been poachers in the woods. Two men caught on security camera behind the apartment buildings that abut the park, with a big black Chevy truck and a crossbow. They shot a buck and let it run into the woods and didn’t retrieve it, though it left a trail of blood. The police found it dead in the creek. 
Just like the doe I saw, and just the day after, near the same intersection. I have another gut feeling.
I sit up in my dark bedroom, looking at the blurry security photos, then at the pictures I snapped on my phone of the dead creek doe. I think about the apartment parking lot and how many times I’ve stood on the creek bank opposite, picking through rocks in search of smoothed glass. I wonder if I was in the woods at the same time as the poachers. Except they weren’t even in the woods– they shot from the asphalt or from the edge of the trees. I wonder which buck they killed. Was it the one whose shed antler I found this spring? 

I get up and go sit in my living room. It will be dawn soon, and I like to watch through my front window as the sun breaks over the trees across the street. I open the curtains–
A buck lifts his head. He’s lying beneath the window, his back to me. Steam of his breath clouds the cold air. His antlers are spread wide like open hands. I crouch, and if the pane of glass wasn’t between us, I could touch his back. He’s curled like a big dog, dirt-brown and alive.

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