Today is one of those days of sloping light that you sometimes get when the hard edge of winter cuts into spring. Where the sun doesn’t just shine, but scuds across the fields in great golden planks. It is one of those days where mothers everywhere are nagging at their kids to get out and do something. Like mine.
Since Easter the snow has been retreating, scraping back across the hilltops and the clean-plate fields of winter. But even now, as white gives over to brown, my mother is clomping into her ski boots—like one hundred and fifty days of winter are just not enough for those unlucky enough to reside this side of the Arctic Circle. She is miserly about giving up the season; she scrapes together each wintry moment like coins in the bottom of a purse, won’t cry bankruptcy until they are well and truly spent. But, once impoverished, she is quick to borrow against the things to come—in another month she will be swimming in the icy melt-water of the pond—jump-starting the next season with the same enthusiasm with which she clings to the end of winter. As for me, I take what I get when it comes to climate and even let a day or two slip by without paying much notice or passing comment. It’s only weather, I tell my mom. A renewable resource. But no, for her it’s like a loot bag—every day begins with the thrill of surprise.
But here come the ski boots.
Come with me to find the dogs. I can hear them barking again across the road.
I groan and let my voice lilt upward at the end until I reach the perfect pitch that makes my mom wince. We are looking after my cousins’ dog, Sorrel, who is the sister to our dog, Thistle. Both are large and longlegged. Trojan dogs. Theirs is a rough and tumble existence; they observe only a loosely defined civil code of Catch-Me-If-You-Can. They are gawky adolescents without the leash of youthful uncertainty. They get on like a house on fire. Today they have run off. They’ve been gone about four hours.
It would do you good to get outside.
My mom tucks her pant-legs into long thin socks that have forgotten all about elasticity. I know she is frustrated with me. We frustrate each other.
I had planned to go outside, but my eye had already settled lazily on the rail fence by the garden—I was picturing myself perched there, lost in thought, maybe listening to music or the snow melt.
We can’t just let them run wild. It’s irresponsible.
Responsibility nags at my mother. It lives in our house like an elderly aunt, staling the air with indignation and accusations. And me? I’m of no use because I’m too unmindful, too unimpressed, too unastonished, my mom says. Too irresponsible. But those are just my symptoms. Here is the thing she cannot forgive: that I am not like her.
That’s not to say I don’t agree with her about the dogs. I know we have to get them back.
Okay, but I’m walking.
The snow’s too deep in the valley still. It’s faster and easier on skis, my mom says, definitively.
We cross the muddy road, skis slung across our shoulders. On my mom they are carried jauntily, on me they are like giant, unwieldy scissors slashing at the back of my neck. The frost coming out of the road makes a sound like tiny burbling babies. In the ditch we sink up to our knees and struggle into our skis. Dirty snow packs up my pant-legs forming icy casts against my shins. From the next valley we can faintly hear the bark of dogs. We pass through the line of tall, scarred-looking red pines, and we emerge on the topside of the neighbours’ immaculate horseshoe valley. Their tall house sits confidently on the far side—a white castle in the white snow. In this brilliant light it is an ad for toilet paper or cream cheese or cotton balls. When the snow goes from their lawns it will be sudden and precise, revealing green grass and the fat tips of early tulips. The signs of spring that splash magazine covers in every checkout line.
Our house, back through the pines and across the road, sits in a deep bowl of mud, and will do so for several weeks to come. When people talk of signs of spring to me, my thoughts turn brown.
The sun is warm on our faces, yet the snow is still crisp. On skis it is fast. Gloriously fast. Much faster than a rail fence, I think hilariously. We follow along the downward slope of the ridge, and the simple clean beauty of it slaps smiles on both our warm faces. It is like a dream about flying. Effortless. Does anyone dream about skiing? We glide to a stop, wanting to share our silly smiles with each other—it is the first thing we have shared today that didn’t cause one of us to flinch.
There are no clouds, just that expansive serious blue that puts me in mind of sailboats and whales and silk saris and other things I have never seen and places I have never been. It brings a whoop from my throat.
The birds are not back yet, not really. Maybe they sit on the other side of this horseshoed hill, huddled on that southern-facing slope, daring one another to venture over to the north face. But here, on the top, there is no sign of them. Not a single daredevil.
The barking picks up again, closer, and we begin our descent. It is too steep and too fast to ski straight down the side of the ridge so we tack back and forth like it’s a mountain railroad. My mom, ahead, manages a smooth, swooping arc at the bottom and then waits for me as I duck-walk my skis into a messy turn. Even so, the garden fence has lost its appeal.
We make our way into the woods. Hills steep to the left, swamp to the right. There is a trail here, bush-hog wide, so we go side by side, stride for stride. The dogs are near now, and the beauty of the ridge fades with each bark. It’s down to business. It only now occurs to me how senseless this plan is. We have brought leashes, but even if we can get the dogs to come, what then? I’m picturing a makeshift dogsled, fast and light and simple. We can sail across the fields. That thought goes no further because we round a corner and suddenly they are there, to the right of the trail.
For a moment we freeze because that is what we are conditioned to do when seeing a deer. And this one is young. A young doe, standing in a perfect, minced circle of mud, the two dogs intent on nothing other than barking her to death.
I have no doubt that they would have succeeded. The truth of this hits me like a blow. For four hours they’ve been doing this. The doe is scared, exhausted. I can read the pattern in the mud hole like a map of her struggle. It is an inkblot, quickly flashed before my eyes, of battle of the cruellest kind.
My mom yells. Just the once. And then the doe is off—finding, incredibly, one more burst of energy at the prospect of some new torment from us. I feel like I’ve failed her, am horrified that we have somehow made things worse. The dogs turn briefly toward us, and in that moment all youthful dogginess is gone, leaving only a lean, reeking instinct that causes the air to catch in my throat. I see recognition leave through their eyes as they dismiss us entirely and thrust through the mud—muscle and sinew— after the deer. We might have been invisible. Where are our dogs? I feel the pierce of betrayal.
I hear the snap of ski binding as my mom abandons her skis and plunges off the track. A second later I follow.
The swamp is the place of springtime. Streams weep from nowhere, pussy willows bulge from slender stems. It is the birthplace of all mud. It is where the smell of life all but teems. But this swamp is still in the throes of winter. The snow is deep. In one spot it is hard, the next it is a quick, footsized tunnel to last November. We run through this snow, falling, scrabbling, grappling. Trees, both dead and dormant, lie at every angle conceived on a compass and at every height. We throw or claw our way over them, under them; some break or sway or snap back like whips as we churn through this impossible terrain. We are racing through a course of pick-up sticks. It is a test. A gymnasium for adrenalin.
My mother is yelling for the dogs. She doesn’t know they are no longer there, didn’t see the light leave their eyes. Her voice and the sound of our bodies thrashing fill the swamp. The silence that is everything else unnerves me. I feel there should be noise, a loud, pulsing, pounding noise of water or thunder or howling wind, setting the tone for our struggle. Not this silence that is not us.
And then there is a sound. It is the sound I didn’t know I knew. The rasping, airy cough-call of a deer in danger. And again. And again. Are the dogs barking? I don’t know, for my head is filled with the husky cry. Without having known it, this is a sound that has lived deep inside me. The potential for terror.
Incredibly we push our bodies to move even faster now, but it feels like flailing. This is the part where dreams go wrong; where you can’t move your legs to run or gain enough height to fly or raise your voice to cry out, and everything depends upon you doing the very thing you cannot manage. I’m getting nowhere in the snow, but the need to struggle on intensifies. We trip or sink or fall with every single step. My mother is in front of me, crawling forward, half-dragging herself.
Suddenly my mother manages to shriek through her exhaustion and I know we are there. I pull myself up behind her.
Two fallen trees have trapped the deer. At least I assume she is cornered. She is down, but not lying with her head down; more bizarrely, she is sitting upright with her legs tucked beneath her, as if raptly attentive. Her back is to us, and she stares at the spot where the two fallen trees intersect like a prison gate. She does not turn to look at us, and for a selfish second this actually saddens me. She looks composed, patient, like she is prepared to sit there for a long time. Stupidly, I see myself sitting dully on a rail fence.
The dogs are between the deer and us. There is a brief moment where I think hysterically that it is over before the dogs attack. Up until now they had taunted and bullied; this was the real test. They lunge at the deer, but even then only nipping tentatively as if unsure of their own beastliness. But each nip is a step closer to gnash.
And suddenly there is blood. Brilliant red winding through a world brown and white. There is nothing tentative about blood. Blood is commitment.
My mother flies at Sorrel who is closest. She grabs her by the neck and hauls at the demented dog whose purpose is so singular it is frightening. She wrestles wildly with the dog and somehow pulls her off the deer. Together we push her down, and I throw myself on top of her body, my face near her bloodied neck. My mother goes for Thistle. With one hand she grabs his collar while her other gloved fist pounds into his skull and she drags him off. She falls back; her hand hardens into a hook around his collar.
The silence of the swamp crashes down on our heaving bodies. I lie panting over Sorrel, but there is no more fight in her. Thistle lies beside my mother, unresisting and spent. The deer has not moved. I feel as though a powerful spell has suddenly shattered—we are released finally, thrown to the ground as the magic splinters all around us.
The deer hasn’t moved; she hasn’t flinched, hasn’t struggled, hasn’t made a sound. She is like a serene Buddha, sitting quietly with that endless enduring patience, waiting for the rest of the world to work through its mean animal ways. Small rivulets of blood ribbon through her fur.
My mother’s eyes find mine and we look at each other—too exhausted to achieve anything other than blank expression. But with the blankness comes an enormous clarity—we are freed absolutely from the frustration and resentment that wrap us at home. The dogs look as surprised and stunned as I feel. Something warm slips back behind their eyes. Still the deer has not moved, has not even turned to beseech us to leave. We lie here, pared to our cores, stupidly and identically: prey, predators, deliverers. Equals.
I had walked out blindly this morning only to have my eyes widen at the beauty of a late winter day. The light was bright, the sun spilled warmth, the air fresh from its winter cleansing. This was the kind of day served up on the best china. I had felt privileged even—had walked in on a private feast and found myself welcomed. Was prepared to gorge on beauty.
But beauty is a mystery, at best. It is a mixture of any number of wonders and horrors. We are dragged through our days by the unlikeliest things: a plank of sunshine, a fearsome sound, a wayward dog. Sometimes it can wake us up, get us off the fence and over, pluck the chords of our being until they fairly buzz. Of course we are bound to tread some holy place now and then. How could we not?
We have been thrown here, in this swamp, at the foot of an altar, and I am shocked to see there is no difference between one heaving ribcage and another. My jeans are ripped, my left wrist a red scrawl of scratches. My mother has a thin pink welt below one eye.
This is deep springtime. The seasons have turned like the grinding plates of a continent, and we lie soaking in the snow.
Kathleen Kennedy lives in the country, enjoying in nature what Emerson has called "a perfect exhilaration." When not escaping to the Ontario woods, she spends her free time writing, and acquiring lost animals. Her stories are beginning to find their way to the post office.