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Dia de los muertos, a story of gentleness

“He’s panting,” I said to my husband, who held one of our dogs to keep her from going back to the bedroom window where I peered at the eight-point buck lying in the grass. “I think he’s hurt but it’s hard to see in the dark.”

It was just after 3 a.m. and the deer lay in the grass a few feet from the window. Its mouth was open, its head was up and its ears alert to all noise outside, but it seemed oblivious to the dog that, just moments before, was practically barking in its ear from the window. For that matter, I’m certain the buck had seen us behind the window watching him, but he didn't react to us either. The two previous nights deer had grazed in our front yard, but this one was within the fences that create a space for our dogs.

What is your story? I wondered. Why are you here?

Finally the dog calmed down and lay quiet. The buck stopped panting. And after monitoring it from behind the curtains, we decided to leave it to rest. Perhaps it had fled hunters who’d injured it along the lake nearby, or perhaps a car had grazed it on the road and frightened it. Or maybe it had entered our yard from the 20-acre spread behind our house, a property separated from ours with a short fence enforced by brushy growth. 

That I could have almost touched the buck from my window had it been open was comforting. Surely, his body would have radiated heat beneath my palm, the muscles firm beneath their layer of skin and fur. I hoped the creature felt my empathy, accepted my thoughts of good will and my hopes that it was all right.

As I began drifting off to sleep, I wondered: Would it live? Would I awaken to find it dead in the yard tomorrow? Moreover, did the universe intend a special lesson for me in seeing that deer, injured or frightened, lying by my window? Día de los Muertos, was two days away and I’d been thinking of all of my dead – grandparents, uncles, aunts – even those whom I never met but whose spirits nonetheless enveloped and welcomed me during a recent trip to my mother’s hometown in the Mexican state of Durango.

They sent their words to me on the breeze, wove them into my hair and printed them on my skin so I would not forget: “We are here, and we love you. Even when you’re lonely, remember, you belong to us. Remember, we are here.”

The deer, in some cultures a symbol of the strength that lies in gentleness, brought these dead to mind. Perhaps because my maternal grandparents were gentle people, a pacifist couple despite having grown up in the state of Durango in the heat of the Mexican Revolution; they remained so until their deaths, in spite of losing a son to a bullet in the head on the streets of Juárez in the 1950s.

Unfortunately, I struggle to find their legacy of gentleness within me. I am volatile. I am quick to anger and slow to forgive, quick to judge and slow to let go. This dark flame has long resisted tamping down; I smother it, only to have it flare up again and again. And the truth is I’d gone to bed a bit angry – about lots of things: my mother’s illness, the seeming lack of gratitude among people who have everything, the vitriol and hatred I see in society.

How did my grandparents maintain such an even keel? The endured hardships – poverty, drought, violence. Surely they experienced bigotry and prejudice. How did they manage to keep lit within them that spirit of gentleness – how did they turn that into a strength?

Such were my thoughts when just before 4 a.m. our dog lifted her head from her spot on the bed and looked toward the window. I got out of bed and drew back the sheer; the deer was gone.

In the morning, a spot of blood marked where the deer had lain. My dogs quickly found a thick trail of it running from our fence to the spot by the window. Sadly, my husband later noticed the blood on the fence itself; it was clear that the buck had leapt and somehow gotten caught on the fence and injured himself, probably mortally. Deer have jumped that fence before because I’ve seen their hoof prints, but this time, something went wrong.

I reeled with guilt and obsessed about the “ifs” of the situation: If we hadn’t had the fence, if something hadn’t made him jump, if we didn’t live in the deer territory – if, if, if.

I’ll never know exactly what happened to the buck. And I know I’m not meant to know the beginning and the end of every story. Some stories carry a lesson in their entirety. Others I step into only briefly and glean some small kernel of wisdom that I might find useful. In this case, I can’t help but ponder the death of gentleness in the world.

Is there any room anymore for the existence of gentle people? Or does our fast-paced culture harden them, squeeze them out, and otherwise make it impossible for them to survive? Sometimes, I certainly feel that to be gentle and open in our society is to invite abuse. To be gentle is to wander about getting caught on the fences and in the snares of a world where one must either prey or be preyed upon. It feels like a life of constant defense.

The deer and its probable demise pained me deeply. It’s unlikely, but I hope he survived. If he didn’t, I hope that he didn’t suffer long. All I can really do is to offer his spirit my deep remorse for the damage to him, and to offer thanks for reminding me of the gentle dead who to this day hold me in the web of family.

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