My earliest memory: day camp. An August day, so hot the silky grass stiffens and yellows between the delivery of popsicles for mid-morning snack and the rumple of brown paper sacks at lunchtime. After lunch is “free play” time for our group of five-year-olds, the period when we are to roam the park. There is the regular playground, and there is the sprawl beyond: a jungle-looking meadow of shoulder-high grasses peppered with furry dandelions and tiny, ominous black mushrooms. Lining the meadow is a fence, behind which the grassy backyards of suburban brick homes align like furry green dominoes.
The meadow seems to go on forever. The fence barely registers as the back of beyond. On this particular day, a gum-smacking counselor with eyes on her boyfriend and plastic neon bracelets stacked, Slinky-style, up her arms orders me to “go explore.” My heart pounds as my white knees, sticking out of their pink Bermuda shorts, poke through leggy daisies. Flies dive-bomb me. The air smells like warm butter.
As I wade toward the back of the park, I become confused about where the playground disappeared to and which path leads back to the counselors and other campers. I can’t see the elephant slide or swing set in the distance. The meadow is now eyebrow-high, the bushy strands of honeydew grass barely shifting in the heat.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, I think suddenly: What would she do? I picture her flowered prairies dress flowing confidently through the prairie, her bobbing freckles. It doesn’t help.
Ahead I see a massive weeping willow tree. I swat my way there, eyes pooling, and duck under the canopy. The willow’s lacy green braids encircle me, a delicate, mossy veil that sweeps the ground and shades out the burning sun. The tree gathers me with a whispered hush that feels both comforting and fearsome.
I lower myself down into the weeds, draw my knees up to my chest. How long will it be? Sniffle. Blink back tears. Wait for someone, anyone, to come rescue me.
* * *
Soon after we start dating, he takes me on our first camping trip. We drive across the California desert into his home state of Arizona and up toward the famous red rocks of Sedona with their rusted glow and smooth, phallic protrusions.
At the site, he unpacks his gear and sets up our tent, checking each peg to make sure he has pounded it tight. I try to relax. Ever since being dumped out of an evil wooden canoe into slug-infested waters years ago, I have known that camping is not my thing.
Uncomfortable: peeing in the bushes (how the hell are you supposed to crouch low enough to get the pee on the ground and not all over your slouched-down pants and underwear?). Un-feminine: rumpled clothes and no makeup. Fact that this guy doesn’t much care about makeup or graceful urination: unconvincing.
As I sit on a log and watch this mysterious new man in my life, I feel both mesmerized and uneasy. At 6-foot-4, he has the build and confidence of a TV mountaineering guide (or the build I assume one would have; I would never watch an outdoors-themed TV show). He plucks wood from a nearby pile that we collected. He takes the pieces one by one, turning the slender branches and thicker limbs in his hands to examine them, sometimes running his long fingers over their rough bark.
With the strawberry sun dropping quickly behind us, he begins to lay each piece of wood into the fire pit, placing them three or four to a layer, building a careful, tight pile.
He gets down on his knees. Into the openings between the logs, he presses dry leaves, gently, gently. He strikes the match, holds it to a corner of the stack until the flame catches. Hands pushing into the earth, he leans in. Softly he blows the flame, coaxing it to come to life.
The red peaks close in. For a moment, it’s as though I can feel his breath blowing right into me, into a place where the elements of fire and air and earth spark on a cellular level. His skin glows in the firelight. The wood pops and crackles in the mountain silence. I reel, almost losing myself in the headiness of smoke and the inky weight of the starry sky that drops on us like a curtain from above.
* * *
We are just settling into bed when my husband says to me, “I saw a deer today.”
“On your run?” I ask, flipping off the light and settling into the covers.
“Yeah. It’s a strange story,” he says. We face each other on the pillow. In the darkness of the bedroom I can make out his long shape beneath the sheets and the whites of his eyes.
“I was running, and thinking about the problems we’ve been having lately. How you’ve been so stressed,” he says quietly. “All this was going through my head as I ran, and the harder I ran the more worked up I got, the more upset I was. I kept thinking that something is wrong that you aren’t telling me. That you must be doing something you’re feeling really bad about.”
I listen, say nothing.
“So I’m running, and then all of the sudden there’s this deer, right in front of me on the trail. It was so close, I could have touched it. I’ve never seen a deer out there before, never. I looked right into its eyes. And I knew. I knew that everything was going to be okay.”
“That’s amazing,” I whisper. “Like a sign.”
“Yes,” he says, squeezing my hand. “Like a sign.”
He drifts off to sleep. The story echoes in my head. Something important happened out there on that wooded path today.
I close my eyes and lay perfectly still in bed, and in the dream that comes I find myself on the trail he runs three days a week, a place near his office that I have never been. I see a narrow path blanketed with dead leaves, an arched canopy of maple and fir blocking out the gray spring sky. The air is damp and smells sweetly musty, of forest left to rot comfortably through winter.
It is dark on the path, and cozy. I tuck myself into the brush and wait. A lone bird trills somewhere above, its brreeeeeeet breeeet breet piercing the quiet. Then a faint crunch crunch crunch whispers, before growing louder. Crunch Crunch CRUNCH go the dry leaves until, huffing, he pounds up the middle of the trail and stops suddenly, shoulders heaving. His brow is wrinkled.
It is silent except for his breath, sharp and fast from the running, bursting out of his throat in silvery puffs. Crouched in my hiding place, I glance ahead to the spot on the trail at which he is staring.
And there it is. The deer. Frozen, opposite him. She thrusts her furry breast forward in a graceful arch, rust-colored with a smudge of snowy spots. Her ears perk straight up—they seem too big for her delicate head.
She stares straight at him, her round black doe eyes fixed.
He stares back.
His jaw softens.
When they have drunk each other in, she softly steps aside. They gaze a moment more into each other’s eyes, and then he bounds off, crunch crunch down the trail until he disappears around a curve.
I step from behind the brush. I look at her, reach up and run my fingers through her wiry coat. She cocks her delicate head into my hand. We stand like this, for a moment, in caress. Then she lifts her head and fixes her eyes on me.
“Be awake,” the deer says. “Nothing can go wrong if you are awake.”
“Awake?” I sense this is important, but I don’t understand.
“Awake.” Flicking her white tail, she turns and bolts into the woods.