The Caretaker’s Gleanings
Yearling House, November-February, 2002–2003
The other night I dreamt of bucks — massive racks on their heads, noses wet and dark like squashed prunes. One of them had great curvilinear antlers, branching outward to an eight-foot diameter, nearly touching again at the tips. His nostrils smoked. He set his jaw and stared at me: eyes black, hollow. Then he turned and I saw his flanks, his reverse-jointed legs stepping, his painted tail. He lowered his head in his grazing walk, but still I saw the antlers: yellow gyro sphere floating into orchard darkness.
I’ve been seeing the genuine article each morning — young, magisterial buck ambling through the walnut grove across the main road. He’s been in the same place at the same hour for three nights in a row — once alone (when I saw him leap a wire fence in one supple motion, like liquid thrown in an arc), once accompanied by a single stag, and once attended by two big does and a handful of fawns. My headlights do not startle him. He floats calmly away from the light, unalarmed, head low, fellow mammal. His antlers stand straight from his skull in a narrow, curving V four feet tall. He is an eminence, a spirit, a rhythm embodied, the land given shape and gesture and muscle, a grace, a bodhisattva, a talisman — and to me: an illumination on the page of my life, illustrious ancientness, an old-world character in living ink, signifying all is well. I’ve looked it up in my symbols book: the stag, known for its fleetness and sharp senses, which make capture difficult, is an attribute of hearing. Ah, to learn to hear. To learn to listen.
In the dark mornings, walking out to the car when all is blackness and even the stars seem asleep, I hear them stepping through the oak leaves — three or four of them at least — slipping back away from my strange form, sometimes hopping toward the north pasture where they collect in a stronghold of community. Hopping. The measured beat and crunch of their feet, trailing off. And, if I truly listen: the taut snap and whisp of muscle and limb.
On Saturday we walked south along the property’s edge, through the grove where I’d seen the buck, and into Briones, the vast and brambly open space across the road. Just beside the gate at the front of the property, in a tangle of star thistle and bunch grass: the fresh skeleton of a fawn, feathery with shredded fur and headless. I bent close and saw the vertebrae — gentle animal architecture. Saw the tiny ungulate feet still intact. The parcel of the belly ripped open and tongued clean of tendon and gut. Wondered where the skull had gone — the coveted morsel, carried off in coyote jaws for the more assiduous feeding. Little ravaged animal, backbone ending in a gnarled fist. Tiny feet, limp and crisscrossed in the dirt.
We walked for an hour or so, climbing to a view of Mount Diablo eight miles east. The day was clear and bright, smelling of sun-warmed dirt, pine, eucalytpus.
The first true storm of the season has passed us now. A good muscular storm: two days of wind and rain, muggy gusts that broke limbs from the oaks and brought down power lines.
Night before last, in the wind and torrent, insects thronged our front door: beetles wild in exodus from the sopping leaves, spiders groggy and sprawling in the cracks of our sill, and a slow sleepwalking salamander the color of coffee — green bulbous eyes, limbs that paddle the air softly as though swimming. (Do the amphibious creatures live the elements in converse order: crawling through water, swimming through air?) It stretched its curving length across my palm before I set it down in the dirt clearing. Later you reminded me that they respire through their skin and shouldn’t be touched because the salt of our human bodies harms them.
This morning, six o’clock, driving back to the property in the moments just before dawn: a luminous, low-spreading fog over the narrow Reliez Valley at the mouth of Briones. Blue smoke rolling over dark fields. Somewhere within it: a light. As if dawn begins in the earth itself, glow of steam unfurling from the soil.
Evening. Deep, dark autumn evening in which the night ages at a rate startling to us creeping humans. Cold air. Not a light in these valley hills. The crunch of an animal in the blackness: crumpled oak leaf under hoof, paw, talon, claw. Inside, I am snug and lamplit, bent at the kitchen table next to a taper candle’s glow. The kettle sings, aluminum rattling, the water in it still boiling as I pour. Two steaming cups. Then two steps down into the bedroom and through the door to the study where you are at work with papers and books. A “thank you” and a “sweetheart” from you, and your lips at my wrist, mine to your head: the crown of dark curls lavendar-scented, and in concord with the unnamable smell of you.
Another evening inside with a journal and some books, earth-colored tea, herbal infusion over the tongue and between the cheeks, steam of the tipped cup touching our faces. We’ll fall back into autumn thoughts, leafy mound of the mind, mulch of the heart and soul. Sod of body accepting the falling detritus from the tree of thought, the tree of feeling.
Now I am in it. Now I am leaf that falls in the dark of night. Now I am tree: many-limbed body in the blackness, past which the big-pupiled animals slip, crunching. Then they stop, one paw dangling, one hoof. Head up and black eyes slurping at shadows, listening to the sound of someone else in the darkness, sharer of the night, being who listens to them.
To hear the oceanic blood in my ears, the health of this body vibrant against silence. To lean into the space above this kitchen table, enclosed by it, at home in it for perhaps the first time. To step inside through a door, and inside again, and find the rooms filling up with stars, the walls stretching as high and wide as an autumnal sky, the breath of these lungs pluming into animal shapes — all that is inward flowing outward … Deer and hawk, lamb’s ear, laurel, footbridge, flagstone, mud field, horse print, asparagus weed, farm road, goat laughter, hinge moan, roof skitter, barn cat, crooked ladder, bale and flake, grain bucket full of rainwater, streak of galaxy, greening storm, the kitten’s dish and a soft thumbless paw kittening the palm of the hand. Contact.
I feel better than I have felt in weeks. Limpid. Lucid. Luminous. And everything seems to speak my thanks. I feel more alive than I have felt in seasons. And this night is like an animal’s glowworm eyes.
Last week on the hillside, bending to scoop up a pile of leaf, I caught the soft glister of a steely thing — something twisted, coiled like a length of narrow spring. Looking closer I saw the taper at both ends, and prodding it with the rake till it turned I made out the copper-colored back. A little snake bunched into a stiff figure-eight. Dead, I thought. He was no thicker than a pencil, no longer than a normal rubberband cut once. His belly was the thing I’d seen first: tiny horizontal bands from nose to tail, bright silver and black, and with a sheen like polished wire. On his back: two or three vertical stripes running his whole length, a lighter orange against the reptilian copper.
I took a piece of twig and lifted him from the leaves and brought him closer to find the tiny tongue lapping blindly at the air. The flavor of my presence. Then saw the rigid body slinking over the twig, every infinitesminal scale separating till the body grew in a dripping way. I carried him up the hill and laid him down in a bare place and watched him stretch sleepily to his full length — three times what I’d judged it to be. In a moment or two he moved back toward his winter blanket of leaf, buried his head like a groggy child prematurely awakened. Like I was the goading parent he didn’t yet wish to see. Back to his hillside snake dreams, his soil-warmth, his four-month torpor of empty-belly silence and sunless contentment.
Last Saturday we walked across the road and up the path to the little hillside edge of Briones. We cut along a footpath up the face of the slope, stepping in dried horse prints. The clarifying wind tumbled from the crest and over us. You were close in front of me, taking long climbing strides. I tried to place my steps in the spots your feet lifted from, and was reminded of the smallness of your body. We stood at the crest looking westward along the long Alhambra Valley. The folds of green hills — two rows of them mirroring each other.
“I love that view,” you said.
I said I loved it too.
At the little rise behind us, you discovered a thin path. No more than a deer path, snaking up into a thicket of bay laurels. I followed you along it into the trees, where the path vanished beneath crunching leaves six inches deep. We stepped about under the trees, over broken limbs and tangled shrubs. The space was like a room, walled on all sides by narrow trunks and hanging leaves.
“This is where the deer come to sleep,” I said, crunching in circles, looking for antlers.
We moved around in that space, turning, feeling it. The canopy whispered. Then, together, at the same moment, we both caught sight of a white thing among the fallen leaves. It sat nosing a downed limb. An oblong skull, the size and shape of a small football. We crouched on two sides of it. We looked without touching it.
“A deer,” I said.
I grasped it lightly between middle finger and thumb, touching it in the place the ears had been, and turned it over. It was as light as an empty cup. We both made little sounds of awe as we looked at the teeth: large flat things, like double molars. They lined the mouth in a perfect U and were beginning to rot. The lower hinge of jaw was missing.
“A deer,” I said.
“With teeth like that? I didn’t think they’d have teeth so big. Where were the antlers?”
“Maybe here,” I said.
But the skull looked too small for antlers. And I thought perhaps this was the head from the tiny skeleton down at the property’s edge. The size looked right. So did the state of decay — it had been several months. I pictured the silent coyote trotting across the road in the deep of night, his jaw agape around this little head, climbing the hill to this spot beneath the trees, lying down with the skull between his paws and lapping at the delicate fat.
I turned the skull upright, pointed to the hole at its back, inlet to the hollow brain box. “Here’s where the backbone connected. Look how clean it is in there,” I said. Saw the predator tonguing it white. Saw rat and coon and possum coming for days afterward to finish the work.
I laid the skull in place again, fit it back into its pocket of leaf. There were faint gray zigzags like stitchmarks in the bone of the crown.
We left the skull and stepped out of the trees. But I see it up there now, darkened by today’s rain, its perfect teeth set against the leaves as though eating them. I picture the slow rot week after week — leaves piling up, white bone sinking until it disappears, taken in by the soil and by the earth.
“The Caretaker’s Gleanings” appeared in Pilgrimage Magazine in 2004.
M. ALLEN CUNNINGHAM is the author of the novels The Green Age of Asher Witherow, Lost Son (about Rilke), and Partisans, a short story collection entitled Date of Disappearance, and the nonfiction volumes The Honorable Obscurity Handbook and The Flickering Page: The Reading Experience in Digital Times. He recently edited and wrote the introduction for Funny-Ass Thoreau. He is the founder and publisher of Atelier26 Books and a contributing editor for Moss literary magazine.