I was out in the yard gardening, and I got sleepy, so I decided to lie down on the lawn. We live out in the woods, our lawn is shrinking, the trees and vines and ferns are slowly creeping in towards the house. I’d been engaged in the futile task of weeding. We decided we didn’t want to use chemicals, so our lawn looks like crap. I was exhausted and discouraged. I knelt and then lowered myself onto my elbows and then turned, collapsed and looked up into the cloud-bespattered sky. Lost in incomprehensible contemplation, I fell asleep.
I awoke with a deer leaning down over me, his face close to mine, his big brown eye stared unblinking. He had bad breath. He opened his mouth wider, and spoke, “What do you think you’re doing here?”
“I’m resting my eyes,” I said.
“No, I was just resting my eyes.” It was now dusk. I looked past the deer’s antlered head to see a sky gone gray and gloaming. He was probably right, it seemed I had been sleeping.
“You people have beds for that. In there,” he motioned towards the house with a jerk of his schnoz.
“Excuse me, but I think I can rest wherever I want,” I told him. “This is my lawn.”
He turned his impressive head, gave me a cold stare with his other big brown eye and said slowly, “You people.”
“What about us people,” I replied, somewhat offended, and lifted myself into a sitting position. Debating a deer from your back isn’t exactly negotiating from a position of strength. One can feel cowed by a deer, as it were, especially if said deer is towering over one’s prone body.
“You people,” he continued, “You have beds and couches and carpeted floors. You have television and blankets and heaters and cozy pajamas. You have cupboards and a refrigerator and a freezer and an oven. You’ve got all the food you could ever want stored away just waiting to be eaten – so much you can’t even eat it all, it rots and you throw it away. You have all this in that sturdy, dry, warm house of yours.” Again with the jerky schnoz.
“So! So, get up off the grass and go inside!”
“What if I said I didn’t want to.”
He pulled his head back and fixed me with another cold stare before saying, “What are you, five?”
“I’m just saying this is my house, my yard.”
“’My, my, my…me, me, me’, it’s always the same with you people, you just don’t get it.”
“You prove my point.” He moved his feet, and started to turn. He was shuffling away when he looked back and said, “You’re lucky tonight’s a special night and I’m running late, otherwise, I’d stick around and teach you a thing or two.”
“Is that a threat?” I’d never been threatened by a deer before.
“Yeah, it is, pal,” he said trying to sound menacing. “I’m in the mood for a good old-fashioned ass-kicking. My horns have come in, I’m rutting and musky and haven’t been able to get any satisfaction. Oh, I try, and I try, but I just can’t…oh, you get my point.”
“I sure do.”
“Just go inside where you belong before I change my mind and mess you up.”
“He took a few more steps and I yelled after him, “Late for what?”
He turned and grunted back at me, “Huh?”
“You said you were running late, what exactly does a deer run late to?”
“Dude, it’s St. Mid-Vernal Solstice-mas.”
“It’s the biggest party of the year.”
His “mood” had quickly changed. He dropped any ass-kicking pretenses and was now, suddenly, in a festive mood. I took a moment to examine this change. No longer the glowering mug, antlers in intimidating declensions, no tense shoulder and tight-lipped mouth. His head was tilted back, a radiant smile filled that formerly tight-lipped but certainly still foul-smelling mouth, and his eyes were lit up like a Christmas tree, so to speak. The quick transformation piqued my curiosity.
“You’re going there now?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said haltingly, perhaps foreseeing my next question.
“Can I come?”
He took a deep breath and sighed, his happiness evaporated into consternation. “I don’t know,” he started. “I don’t think it’s really the done thing. I mean I’ve never seen humans there before.”
“Oh, come on, please.” I begged and then changed tack, “How many of these things have you been to before?”
“Well, just one, come to think of it.”
“See, how would you know if it’s never done. You have no idea of the historical precedents.”
“There may have been humans at any of the countless number of these St Vernal amases that happened before you came along.”
He thought. A deer trying to think is sort of pathetic, he looked like a deer caught in…oh, nevermind.
“No. I gotta go,” he said, changing speeds and ambling towards the forest. This guy toggled through emotions like flipping channels.
“Wait!” I shouted after him. “Take me with you.”
He stopped. “OK, OK, already. Hurry up and come then.”
“Wait let me go grab my shoes.”
“Forget it, I don’t have time.”
“It’ll take two seconds.”
“Always two seconds! Listen I don’t have ‘two seconds’. Come here and climb on if you want to go with me. Otherwise I’m gone.”
I hesitated for a second, took a quick look back at the house and then ran over and climbed onto the back of the deer. I used his horns like handles, two joysticks for an incredible video game.
“Hold on,” he said, and we started tromping through the woods. It was slow going and quite awkward, especially when he had to make little leaps over fallen trees and branches that littered the forest floor. He was stronger than he looked for he managed to navigate this decidedly unflat terrain with skill and minimal huffing and puffing. It wasn’t a short trip, either. We went off, I’d reckon a half mile uphill, past our neighbors, whose houses I caught bouncing glimpses of through the trees. Then we turned into an unpopulated section of the forest, preserved open space. We went about another mile, although distances were hard to judge with all the detours and twisting and turning we made before we descended into a deep gully, at the bottom of which we turned north or west, it’s not possible to say now in retrospect as then, we turned right anyway and followed the gully up a gradual grade. The cover became increasingly thick, branches leaned over us forming a canopy, so it seemed we were walking through a tunnel, branches pulled at my clothing and left shallow white scrapes tinged with pink on my exposed arms and feet. It grew cold. Ahead I could hear a low rumbling and as we grew closer and the noise grew louder I could see the flickering of many small fires. At length we pulled into a clearing. What I saw as I looked around took my breath away, my heart beat fast and irregular. I felt dizzy.
The forest opened up into a sort of natural amphitheatre. Seated, standing and milling about on the hillside were a variety of animals, and, as it turned out, insects, too. And, I thought I saw a cat. There were groups of deer clustered about fires. Torches burned, six, seven feet high forming a rough square on what would have been the stage at the base of the hill.
The deer lowered his head, knelt on his front legs and I dismounted unsteadily. The ground beneath my bare feet was soft, cool and mossy, it felt like a moist blanket and as I walked upon it, my internal disarray evaporated. I felt calm, relaxed, almost at home, despite the fact that the scene before me continued to present bizarre images very un-home-like. A group of raccoons near the stage were the first to notice me and they began chattering amongst themselves, pointing at me with their little arms and sharp claws. One of them ran off in the other direction, climbing the amphitheatre’s hillside until I lost track of him amidst the crowd and confusion.
I took it all in. The deer stood next to me.
“Pretty cool, huh?” he said.
“Yeah,” was all I could muster. I noticed a low mound that described the circumference of the stage, at the back of which, the side facing the amphitheatre was a smaller hill, a miniature version of what stood opposite. On closer inspection I could see rows of snakes, a cloud of bugs hovered over them, walking closer still I saw slugs, giant yellow banana slugs, leopards and mossbacks, salamanders, too. Frogs hung from blackberry vines, thousands of little green amphibians resting on and clutching new blossoms as if they were life-rafts. Fighting a tingling revulsion, I stooped down to see beetles and pillbugs swarming and squirming all over each other by the millions in an orgiastic mass. The light of the lamps from the back line of the stage behind me lit the sight before me and illuminated now, in shadow, crawling on the skin of the writhing rising snakes, which stood cobra-like as if waiting to strike although in rhythm, they swayed to some vaguely heard music, and on their skin silhouetted in the torchlight was a line of spiders. They crawled up and over the swaying snakes marching in unison, lockstep.
Behind me I heard a commotion. I turned to see a great black bear come bounding down the hill, leaping over fires and scattering groups of possum, raccoon and deer alike.
“What’s the meaning of this?!” he shouted before he had even walked around the stage. Through the rows of flames I could see his glaring eyes, wrinkled fur around his muzzle, the spittle flying out as he roared in my direction.
My deer began trembling. “Oh, oh,” he muttered.
“Who brought this guy here?!” the bear bellowed, slowing to an angry walk now, his muscles bouncing as he made his way around the stage. He approached us, stood on his hind legs so I had to tilt my head back to look into his eyes, yet I couldn’t hold their gaze for long. Neither could the deer, he bent over the mossy stage floor, absently pawing the ground, hoping, I supposed, to go unnoticed. By doing so, though, he only succeeded in making himself even more noticeable. Every eye and antennae in the place was tuned on the bear.
“You! Deer!” the bear glowered at the deer’s neck. “What’s up with this?!?!” his massive paw pointed threateningly in my direction. It was as big as my head.
“Well,” the deer mumbled, still looking down.
“Look at me!”
The deer did, sheepishly.
“Did you bring him here?!”
“Jesus Fucking Christ! How many times do I have to tell you assholes we don’t want any fuckin’ people here.” He turned to the crowd assembled before him on the grade, “Listen, folks, the next stupid fuck to bring a human here is going to have to answer to me. No more of this crap!”
He returned to all four paws. He gave me a condescending once over, then turned and walked away. “You! Possum,” I heard him say, and saw him point in the direction of a circle of creepy-looking pink-snouted creatures. “Dose him up.”
“I’m sorry,” I whispered to the deer.
“Don’t worry about it,” the deer whispered back, “He’s a big blowhard, wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
I didn’t quite believe him. “Hey, what did he mean when he said, ‘dose him up’.”
Before the deer could answer, the designated possum waddled up to me. “Here,” he said thrusting a waxy orange wafer in my direction.
I leaned down and took it from his dirty claws. It was wavy, like a warped record, though not nearly round, it’s scalloped edges felt smooth in my fingers. It had not been cut or molded I thought as I stood and examined it in the flickering firelight.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” I asked.
“Eat it, you ignorant prick, what else would you do with it.”
What else indeed. I turned and looked at the deer, he nodded in assent, calmly, with a little smile showing at the corners of his mouth so I felt a bit reassured but also a bit pressured. I looked back down at the possum, who looked back up impatiently. “Well…we’re waiting,” he said sharply. The deer, too, gave another nod of his head, urging me to take it. I’ve always been a sucker for deer pressure. I put it in my mouth.
“Chew it well and Don’t throw it up!” said the possum.
Great. It was not warm, it wasn’t soft, nor particularly hard, it wasn’t sweet or bitter, it wasn’t much like anything and after five seconds of chewing it felt as if I wasn’t chewing anything at all. I made the motion of swallowing, but I might as well have been swallowing a gas for all I felt floating down my throat.
I raised my arms and looked back and forth between possum and deer, as if to say, “All gone.” Then I turned to the crowd on the hillside and a dull roar rose in front of me as if they were cheering my swallowing. I felt good. It was the first time I had been applauded for taking a drug.
Eventually, everyone stopped paying attention to me, and deer and I started walking through the crowd towards his friends. I followed his bobbing brown tail as there wasn’t room to walk side by side. Fantastic sights surrounded me. In addition to the groups of animals on the ground, the trees were filled with all types of birds and squirrels and chipmunks. There were crows and robins, seagulls and starlings; woodpeckers even, perched in pairs. They were all clustered like to like, one tree filled top to bottom with sparrows, the next with hawks.
Grayish balls hovered in the air. I thought at first they were smoke, yet they moved side to side, up and down, diagonally even. As we walked under one I could hear a buzzing, and I saw these were groups of bees and hornets, yellowjackets.
I returned to the less inspiring view of my friendly deer’s ass, his ears perked straight up as he stepped cheerily towards ten or 11 lounging deer. There were males and females, antlered and not. A few fawns but mostly adults, the largest and most impressively antlered of which stood as we stepped into their circle.
“Good work, schmuck,” he snapped at my deer. I do not think his name was Schmuck.
“Relax,” he said. “You saw him get dosed. It’s no problem.”
“’No problem, no problem’. It’s always the same with you.” And he looked disapprovingly at my deer. Four big brown eyes locked momentarily and then lit up as they both broke into smiles.
“Whatever,” said the big deer, laughing. Then he turned to me and said, “Enjoy the show.” My deer looked back at me, grinning broadly.
“Is this great, or what?”
“It’s pretty amazing,” I said.
Just then a hush fell over the clearing, all twittering, chattering and buzzing stopped. Even the crackling fires seemed hushed.
“What’s up,” I whispered to the deer.
“Look up,” he said with a nod towards the sky. Way in the ether, minute specks crossed in front of the full moon. More and more became visible as they grew larger and more distinct. Circling birds, massive wingspans, taut and tottering as they steered themselves closer and closer to the ground below. They never reached the ground, though. One by one they found perches atop the tallest trees until the last, the largest, the most impressive, slowly, carefully circled and descended in a flapping of wings and tailfeathers onto the tallest tree, which stood directly behind the stage, dead center.
When he went motionless the amphitheatre erupted in motion, sound and excitement filled the air. The festival, this St. Midvernal solstice, or whatever my silly deer friend thought it was called, had officially begun.
Chirrupping started slowly, pianissimo, from the small birds, one tree adding to the next, followed by the chirps and squeaks of the tree-rats, I looked for them and they stood in rows with their asses to the assemblage, chipmunks and squirrels flicking their bushy tails in time to the symphony. Shrieking seagulls and a percussive caw caw cawing from the crows were quickly augmented and deepened by a lowing bass, the usually disturbing, belching rutting calls of the deer were now coordinated and oddly mellifluous mixed with the background of countless ribbeting frogs and the rest of this animal music. The crescendo was reached with the banging of metal trash can lids. The raccoons paraded in step towards and around the flaming stage, in teams of two they worked these crude cymbals, one holding the lid the other striking it with a golf club, old rusty irons.
Forming a second concentric ring around the stage were the possums each holding dinner plates of various shades and sizes in one hand, and a single chopstick in the other with which they beat out a staccato pulse, not dissimilar to my own, my blood coursing mambo-style through my veins as my ear heard these rhythms and joined in un-asked or, on reflection, asked, perhaps, by my “dose”.
With the possums and raccoons doing clockwise and counterclockwise circuits around the stage, at some unseen signal, the gray squirrels and the brown chipmunks clamored out of the trees and entered the fired square. They organized themselves quickly into a sort of quadrille, their numbers dancing each with each and then alternating intermixing around the stage, creating the effect of an earth-toned kaleidoscope, yet instead of dead crystals, living fur made up the ever-moving design.
I watched and waited for the next remarkable thing when from out of the sky came a piercing cry. An eagle was plummeting, careening, wings pinned back, beak thrust forward in an attitude I fully believed meant the death of something, squirrel, mouse or that small raccoon positioned inside the square. Flapping his wings and lowering his talons, the eagle landed in a spot quickly vacated by the frantically exiting rodent dancers.
With a puffed up chest and the air of a conquering hero, the eagle cleared his throat and prepared to address the crowd.
This bird looked familiar.
He hopped around the stage a bit checking out the scene from the level of the common beast, then he raised his eyes and his voice which easily reached to the farthest reaches of the amphitheatre, even to the cheap seats where the field mice and moles sought glimpses through telescopes cobbled together from soda bottles, compact mirrors and old eyeglasses, most missing a lens yet oddly appropriate up there amidst the riff-raff and refuse.
“It is with great pleasure that I welcome you here today,” smatterings of words came out in monotone and in one breath, so that the first ended with ‘pleasure’ then ‘you’ then ‘today’. The effect left the listening in the utmost expectation of the next phrase, like the anxious recipient of a Morse code message.
“Our great friend, up there watching us, he too is happy we have been able to get together again.”
Chirps and shouts, howls and tumult, nary a catcall, greeted these words, as all present seemed to shout their assent, raising paw, wing and forelock skyward in salute.
It was then, at that very moment when uniformity seemed complete, that I noticed, and though it may sound improbable in such a diverse, eclectic setting, what I noticed was immediately incongruous. There sat, neither shouting nor meowing his agreement, neither raising paw nor wagging tail in any formal signal of allegiance, there sat, and you may have surmised it already, there sat – a cat. He sat calmly smoking a cigar, oblivious to the brouhaha surrounding him, and he was surrounded. He sat in the very center of the hill, the best seat in the house, one might say. He was directly opposite the great eagle that perched still atop that massive red cedar. He appeared to be flipping through some papers, a green eyeshade on his head. At one point he pulled a short pencil from behind his ear and jotted down some notes.
Back on the stage, the eagle continued, “We must never forget,’ breathy pause, “why it is” breathy pause “we began” breathy pause “assembling like this.”
Again a roar of assent, absent a cat’s.
“So, without further ado, LET THE BATTLE BEGIN!” He shrieked and lifted off as the last word left his mouth and echoed around him as he rose to his spot in the trees, next to, but not above, the Alpha Eagle.
“Battle?” I was puzzled. In all the craziness, in the approach, entrance, even in my brief, intimidating encounter with the bear there had been the undercurrent of a festival, carnival, in short, a party. So, what was this talk of a “battle”?
Sure enough, though, as soon as the eagle had left the field, teams of raccoons scurried around the stage, which, I could see now, was not a stage at all, well not in the theatrical sense – it was a ring! I mean to say, a boxing ring. Two teams assembled kitty-corner, they stood around a short stool. From the far side of the woods, cheering began, and a ruckus ensued, a moving ruckus, and as this roiling wave approached it was clear there was one figure at the center of it all. Stepping carefully but calmly, and wrapped in a bath towel upon which had been crudely emblazoned the single word “Rocky”, a raccoon of immense size stepped between two torches held apart by those in his entourage and he confidently entered the ring. Arms held, relatively, high to receive the cheers erupting now in the entire stadium. No sooner had the cheering subsided than a new round of shouts and caterwauling began emanating from the woods on the other side of the ring. A similar parade progressed to the other corner where a noticeably smaller, albeit, visibly muscular, raccoon, arriving with much less fanfare, removed his towel, a towel upon which one could only read, were one close and equipped with one of the moles oracular magnifiers, the words “Property of Holiday Inn”.
The two raccoons danced around the ring, throwing short jabs, and, well, mostly they just threw short jabs, it was really all their bodies could muster.
A raccoon wearing a fedora moved to the center of the ring. He held a megaphone made from rolled up aluminum siding in one hand, through this cone he now shouted, “Your attention please!”
The crowd stilled. It was in this stillness that I began feeling unwell, or rather, it became harder for me to focus on what exactly was happening. I remember the introductions, the scrappy challenger was indeed known as “Kid Holiday” although no one was certain why he took that name.
The fight itself was a blur. I saw nothing that looked even vaguely violent. Frankly, it appeared the two raccoons were doing a comic representation of a boxing match, like they’d seen one on TV, but didn’t quite understand the purpose, or maybe couldn’t believe what they had seen was real. There was so much cartoon violence they had witnessed through the windows of those humans’ homes, they refused to accept the fact that people really did that to each other, so they had created this innocuous facsimile.
In between rounds, buxom deer and possum and raccoon carried around street signs on the back of which were spraypainted the number of the next round. So, one half of the crowd would see “4,” “5,” “6,” and the other half “Speed Limit 35 MPH,” “Not a Through Street” and “Yield”.
At one point, I looked over at the cat. His green eyeshade hung low as he consulted his notes, and he still had a nub of the cigar wedged into the corner of his mouth. He looked up and I saw he was very pleased with himself, a wry smile slanted beneath his pinkish triangular nose. He was quite an impressive feline, although it did appear he’d seen better days. His light brown fur was matted in parts, and, one could not be certain that at some point, it might have been white, like it was dirty or poorly dyed.
The match had come to some sort of a conclusion. I hadn’t been paying close attention to the clownish flops and wild swings the raccoons interspersed in their minstrel show dancings. Somehow, though, Kid Holiday had dropped Rocky raccoon onto his back. He laid there still, absolutely still, while The Kid pranced around the ring. I would have worried for his well-being; however I noticed Rocky sneak a sly peak to watch his competitor, partner, so-conspirator or whatever The Kid was to Rocky. He snuck a peak and I could have sworn I saw a smile.
A group of possums came out of the woods carrying a litter of tree branches and boughs of cedar between them. The crowds parted silently to let them pass. They set their makeshift stretcher down next to where Rocky had fallen, where he lay prone and motionless, and with great effort they lifted him onto the stretcher. A few raccoons from his corner had to help. Several torches were lifted out of the ground and carried before and beside Rocky’s horizontal-ness as the smaller animals labored in their roles as “pallbearers”. The procession did look like a funeral, the last goodbye to a fallen warrior. All that was needed was someone at the head of the recession holding a bible above his head.
During this spectacle, I noticed the eagle announcer had left his perch and was circling again above the crowd. Noiselessly, he descended, passing over the heads of all present, scattering a throng of bees. It seemed only I saw him, though, that is, other than the bees. As he passed near me, he glanced in my direction, it’s hard to tell in those nanoseconds what one really sees, but as his arc past me, I thought he too registered that flash of recognition I felt. He made one more circle, looked again in my direction then plunged down into the crowd, swooping silently, his talons extended, his target became apparent. The cat was unaware he was a target, still shuffling papers and watching Rocky’s departure. In an instant he was gone. One moment there was a cat, the next only a smoldering cigar butt, and a green-eye shade amidst a handful of scraps and fur.
The eagle ascended quickly, flapping his powerful wings just twice and he was gone, disappeared into the woods, a fuzzy ball clasped in his claws, little furry brown legs flailing beneath the eagle’s feathered belly.
I looked around to see if anyone else had seen this, it seemed this abduction went unnoticed, or, at least, no one let on that they had noticed. Perhaps they all were complicit. I searched for my deer. He was loitering around the fire with his buddies, laughing, joking, clapping others on the back with his cloven hoof. Possums placed orange doses on the deer tongues, they moved on from group to group dispensing their wares, like beer vendors at a baseball game.
I was forgotten, superfluous. Then I grew frightened, for two reasons. First, I needed to get home. I had no shoes, no clear idea of where I was, and, honestly, felt drunk as a skunk. Second, I was the only outsider left. With the cat gone, that oddly anomalous housecat, I remained, the last anomaly. I stuck out like a sore thumb, a sore opposable thumb, you might say.
I decided to leave. All turned around and not knowing which way was home, I headed towards where the eagle had flown off with the cat.