I walk up the hill, along the short stretch of road that bridges a gap in the footpath, until a dark hollow invites me through a natural gateway into the forest. The day is sunny, bright, which in contrast with the shade of the trees, makes the entrance to the path look like a portal into another world. 

Entering the forest, I stop with the sunshine just behind me. I am sweating a little, and I place my walking stick on my hip, while I take a few breaths in a moment of rest. The woodland path drops, then drifts up the hill to my right. To my left, a sunken lane, layered with the soft detritus of last year’s leaves and a crackling trap of branches and twigs, descends towards the floor of the valley and the slow meandering of the river that marks it out.

I look down the lane, half-conscious of the life I have startled. The deer stands in the middle of the path, about five metres away. It looks at me. I can see the expectation. It is waiting for me. Am I a threat? Am I going to attack or move along? Unless that’s my expectation – do I assume, based on what I’m taught, that all animals live in fear of being hunted? Or could it be extending its curiosity, trying to bridge the gap between us in search of an elusive bond that we can only sense?

What’s the correct way to look at the matter? Is my dog-eat-dog survivalism the reality we both quietly accept, and does the deer’s fear govern the momentary relationship between us? Or is it offering something more that we have lost behind the hard-nosed indoctrination of modern life? Is it trying to lift my drooping eyelids from the weight of their cynicism?

“Wha …?” I begin. 

What is it? I want to say. What are you thinking?

And as I falter, I think I can see something in its manner and comportment, which suggests that my two ways of looking at the situation can co-exist. It is fretful, fearful for its immediate survival, but a deeper current of thought is at work behind the short-term preoccupation with life and death. What is it? It’s hard to say, and yet I can almost see it, as if the thin shimmer of fear could easily fall away to reveal the hidden character trying to make itself known.

What is it? I ask myself again, this time silently. And then the question becomes What are you?

I keep staring, and the longer I am lost in my observation, the more everything slows down. Motion, time, even the sweat and heat of my body, are arrested and calmed. I think I am getting closer to the deer, drawing nearer to what it truly is, until the creature, captured by the skittish instinct for survival, darts into the wood. 

The movement is a rude awakening that snaps me out of my reverie and returns me to my evening walk. I look down the sunken lane, searching the spot the deer had occupied for a trace of its presence. I take a deep breath, lift up my walking stick and set out down the woodland path. 

Then something else happens. I hear a bark. I have seen many deer before, but not so close and I have never heard them bark. What does it mean? Is it a warning? A threat? Is it telling me to get lost? Or does it mean something else? 

I peer around the trees and overgrowth, but I can no longer see it, and as I collect my thoughts to set out on the return to my home, I think that perhaps the bark is not a threat, but rather a call of some sort. It has the echo of something I don’t understand. 

It could even be a laugh. 

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