I know it was fall. A few leaves hung like wet bats on the rare Japanese Maple that framed the northern edge of our view of the bay. Further to the right, a bed of overgrown Rhododendrons, Camillias, and a Blue Spruce masked the path to Mrs. Basden’s out the kitchen Dutch Door. The southern view was interrupted by a small stand of tall firs with more rhodys underneath; farther south, the trees bordering Mr. and Mrs. Allen’s home, the old sheds and garages that hadn’t been torn down when they built it, the view down to Pit Passage, and McNeil, the prison island.
The wind was blowing from the south, which generally meant rain but mild temperatures. Where it was unsheltered by the windbreak of Raft Island, the bay had whitecaps just beginning on the steel blue water, like an enormous fish was broaching its scaly back there. That’s where I saw the deer.
I thought, at first, that the deer’s short horns were broken branches on a piece of driftwood. We saw a lot of it carried along by the waves, often with a gull riding along as if it had gotten tired of flying to Purdy and had decided to take the ferry instead. But there was something different about this. “Is that a deer?” I asked. Mom looked out the window. I got my Dad’s old binoculars. “It’s the beagles up the beach,” she said, “They probably chased it out there, poor thing.”
I focussed the binoculars. I could see the deer’s front feet churning away as it swam down the length of the bay. I couldn’t understand. “Why isn’t it swimming to the other shore? It’s going to drown.”
“Animals do strange things,” Mom replied. “When they panic.”
I don’t remember if I got my coat. I don’t remember if I said anything to Mom. I was already headed out the door, across the lawn, and down the oyster shell path to the beach. I untied the rope, pulled our little green boat over the log and down the beach into the water, climbed in, and started to row. I had no idea what I was going to do when I got to the deer.
In retrospect, there’s something disconcerting about picturing me, an eight year-old boy, rushing out in an eight foot plastic boat to save a drowning deer from the middle of a choppy bay. Everyone knows that’s when the ominous background music starts. But those were different days. You could try to be a hero at eight. We didn’t live in a world where everyone hovered over children in order to protect them from doing the things they might do and to praise them for the things they did. We didn’t have helmets, or seat belts, or trophies for participation. “Self esteem” had not yet entered the public domain. No, we lived in a “go and play” generation, and those instructions gave us plenty of room for both genuine disaster and actual adventure. At Allen Point, with two miles of beach and a hundred acres of woods, “Go play” might mean you could have four adventures and be dead several hours before anyone suspected that something had gone wrong.
As I closed in on the deer, I could see it was struggling, and its panicked eyes rolled towards me wildly.
It seemed like there must be only seconds to act, and so I did the stupidest thing possible: I tried to pull it into the boat. Every time I grabbed its head and tried to hoist it, its feet would thrash, I would loose my grip, and I would fall back. At one point I got its front hoofs on the transom, but it struggled and, thankfully, slid back in. If I had succeeded, it probably would kicked and killed me, or punctured the boat and we both would have drowned.
I tried to herd it with the boat toward the shore, but the wind was too strong. It kept moving me away and the deer would resume its path. Its tongue was now sticking out. Finally, I took the mooring rope and looped it around the its short horns and head. Then, rowing backwards, I began to drag the deer in towards Shell Beach.
“Shell Beach” was the northern spit that the road crossed over from the woods, and knee deep in crushed oyster shells. Only the highest of winter tides covered it. A huge Madrona, now nearly prone, guarded the Point side of the beach. John, the Harrisons’ son, had hung a huge rope swing there for when he visited in the summer. Behind it, the cliffs of the Point began to rise up back towards Mrs. Basden’s place through a haphazard cascade of trees and brush still clinging, like the Madrona, to the bank.
The beach at low tie was long and flat there, a mixture of naked clay and muddy sand grayed by a hoary carpet of sand dollars. We often found what we called “Clay Babies” out there. I could see the bottom for a long time before it got shallow enough to jump out.
The deer staggered in the water. I pulled on the rope. The deer lurched forward and fell. I rushed to drag it back up by the neck and struggled to get it to move by degrees onto the shore.
It was then that I caught sight of the woman. She was standing on the deck of a brick-red home nestled in the trees just off the beach that led up towards Cherry Cove. I didn’t go up that way on the beach. I don’t know why; I just didn’t. I always went up the Green Gate road and cut through to the Inveens.
“Help me!” I screamed. “Can you help me?” She didn’t move. I let go of the deer’s neck, and it crumpled, splattering the mud. I cupped my hands to my mouth, “Help meeee.” I waved my arms. She had to have heard me. She was looking right at me.
But, instead, she turned away. She slid the door open, went inside, and closed it.
That was that moment that I realized the thing that you realize — really realize — in the very last moment of any disaster: there is no cavalry coming, no deux ex machina, no serendipity over the horizon. In some things we are just simply alone and incapable. I sat down in the mud. The deer was dead.
Later than afternoon, Dad came home. He took the deer up into the woods, and laid it to rest among the sword ferns.
The next year, I found the jawbone of a fawn in another part of the woods and took it home to put in my Secret Box. I knew from Sunday School that Samson had taken the jawbone of an ass and used it as a weapon; he’d slain thousands of Philistines in a single day. I wished for such a weapon, a talisman whose clean white arc could clear away my own insurmountable odds.