Spring — May 26, 1999
Secure in the warmth of my horse’s body, I leaned over his neck and gave a gentle tug on his mane.
“Tchk tchk … let’s go, Justinian.”
We were in the groove of the new day and blended with a spectacular landscape where songbirds chatted beneath cornflower-blue skies, and morning haze swirled like spun sugar through rows of corn at the bottom of historic Fox Hill Road. Even the rolling buzz of empty-bellied bees in search of sweet nectar sounded muffled.
Quietly alert, a family of deer watched our progress from the edge of the field. I grinned at the playful awkwardness of a couple of long-legged fawns vying for the attention of a mature buck. He stood tall and vigilant, dark eyes missing nothing, snorted a small alarm, and stomped his foot. In one intuitive swoop, four flared white plumes and two slender feather-like tails played catch-up into the trees, and out of sight.
Life was there for all to enjoy; except of course, if you lived life as a target.
The earth smelled clean and alive.
My saddle squeaked with the sounds of well-cared-for leather as I urged my horse near the trunk of a gnarly old tree loaded with floral rosettes, the first in a long row hugging the southern slope of the old orchard. The rich musky aroma of damp earth mingled with a slight scent of apple blossoms.
Feeling the moment, I opened my arms wide and blew a kiss into the bright morning sky.
“Want an apple, Justinian?” I reached into the leather pouch clipped across the back of my saddle. “Yummy. Da-licious. Bet you didn’t know eating two apples a day is like brushing twice? It’s nature’s toothbrush. Trust me. Here.” I stretched across his white mane. Justinian turned toward me, nickered, and took a three-quarters-bite of the apple I held out.
“Hey, don’t be oinkish.”
I ate what was left, picked up the reins, and signaled my Arabian into a smooth canter toward home.
In a little more than half an hour, we were trotting under a dense canopy of oaks bordering the small farm we called Unicorn Hollow. I dismounted and led Justinian across the narrow bridge. It rained the night before—a soft spring rain, and I listened as our temperamental stream surged into a gurgling current over the rocks below. Timid by nature, Justinian was worried, but followed.
I unlatched and pushed open the gates. Five white pear trees edged the blacktop driveway leading to our red gambrel-roofed barn, only fifty feet from the road. The weathered wood was wet, darker today, in contrast to the barrels of salmon-colored geraniums around its perimeter. The barn had a hayloft, four stalls, a washing area, and a tack room.
The air felt thick and damp by the time I untacked, washed, and brushed Justinian. I opened the stall to the grassiest paddock where our other two horses were grazing. Justinian whinnied and trotted toward them.
The front of our house snugged into the slope of a hill in Tewksbury, New Jersey. Horse country—within the mini-boundaries between what passed for the rural wilderness, and the more suburban “commuter” towns, an hour west of New York City. We’d wanted to live in Tewksbury for years; I’d longed for a barn—my husband, Pino, had his heart set on a vegetable garden. One day a “wrong” turn up a hill, a scenic view, and horseback riders in the street led us to the home we would buy a year later.
It needed work, but so what? The setting was perfect.
The low-profile ranch fronted the woods across Wildwood Road, dipping dramatically in the back along the roll of Fox Hill Road toward Oldwick. The real charm and pizzazz began with the view from the back wall of windows that allowed us to watch our animals closely in the serene, ever-changing color palette of the countryside. Soft paisley summer greens turned into the crimson brilliance of autumn, then to the stark gray and white shades of winter.
I heard our Maltese pup, Kaya, yip as she raced down the lawn toward me. Pino must have let her out. I didn’t see him on the patio but waved anyway.
“Silly girl. Come with me.” I walked the fence line to check out what might have been a cracked board. Kaya was full of fun and courage, all eight pounds of her. She skittered through rotting debris and new vegetation in places I would have negotiated only with boots and a stick.
“Oops!” I said, as she tripped, rolled, and continued to traipse around the hardwoods and bushes bordering the stream.
A quiver of motion at the edge of an old yellow forsythia caught my eye. The flutter of nesting chickadees sounded like a mini-military honor guard, a warning of sorts.
I jogged toward Kaya, laughing at the way our lovable pup bounced through the tall switch grass—ears flapping, tail wagging—a come-to-life ping pong ball—full of joy. She spotted something and stood her ground, barking.
“Now what?” I wondered.
I got close enough to see a tunnel-like hole punched through the grass. There was a good-sized stick nearby, which I grabbed, tense and prepared, in case of snakes.
I hate snakes.
“Kaya, what is it?” I began to imagine other things—creatures stirring, ready to strike at my little dog. She was easy prey for aggressive animals, even large birds. It was not a comforting thought that her only defense was me.
“Come here, NOW!” She didn’t listen, unusual behavior for her. I tried to see, then tentatively moved forward, reached out, and parted the tall grass with the stick.
I gasped in surprise. “Oh, my God!”
“Aehh …” The soft cry of distress from a small fawn sounded like mewing from a kitten.
So tender and tiny, the baby lay flat on a patch of matted grasses, as if someone forgotten—head arched, legs stiff and straight, almost lifeless—the little mouth fixed open in a mock cry, taut edges curled, straining to breathe. Under a blanket of dew, her polka-dotted skin appeared stretched tight over fragile bones, while the hollow beneath her ribs jumped in time with her heart.
“Oh, no baby,” I cooed and knelt to cup her damp chest and rump with my hands. The chilly night had drained the warmth from her. The most obvious threat to her survival was dehydration and exposure.
She exhaled a weak puff of air.
“Careful, Kaya!” She continued to sniff at the petite black feet, her tail wagging nonstop at her find.
Where was the fawn’s mother? I scanned the fields to the tree line, hoping for a glimpse of the doe. Disappointed, but not surprised, I saw no-one.
She was perhaps only a few days old—and she was dying.
I remembered the warnings in a local magazine: “Don’t mess with a downed wild animal, not even a newborn! Diseases, bugs—who knows what's lurking around, ready to tag on an unsuspecting passerby. You’ll drive off its mother; she’ll abandon her baby if she detects the scent of a human.”
“Aehh … aehh …” As if her tiny heart were breaking, the fawn called for her mother, again and again. Another dog barked from somewhere.
The fawn’s ears twitched, and big eyes opened, wide with fear. I lifted her head. Suddenly, she stared at me, at first in terror, and then with soft, pleading eyes.
This baby would not survive.
In the late 70s I was a paramedic in Miami. Now, I pushed myself into a calming routine—my training turned on the gears in my mind and fingers, searching for the protocol to save her life.
“Where's your mama?” I tried to comfort her with gentle whispers and humming. “Let's take a peek at you.” She allowed my soft prodding.
I felt no bumps, abnormalities, or tenderness along her spine or bones. Pale gums and rapid breathing were a sure sign of shock. What was I not seeing?
I remembered what Captain Randy reminded me of in paramedic class: “Anna, stay calm—assess your patient first, then verify.” The ABC's of life: Airway open—check; Breathing—check; Circulation—check. “Remember, shock kills. Move fast but efficiently, and keep in mind that the most visible injuries may not be the worst.”
I put my finger in her mouth. She weakly sucked on it.
I slid my arms under her shoulders, neck, and backside, balanced her head in the crook of my arm, and scooped her off the ground. She weighed only a few pounds, as light as a bundle of feathers. I held her limp body close to my chest for warmth and turned toward the house. I felt her tremble, and her long legs dangled at my sides.
I didn't know about the language or sounds of deer then, so I cooed to her in soft, mellow tones and hums our mama alpacas used with their babies—soothing chatter, probably more comforting to me than the fawn.
“Live, little girl. You can do it.”
When I hurried through the old barn paddock, Justinian started toward me, his silver-white tail swishing from side to side and his bright white body reflecting the sun. He stopped to watch.
“Not now boy.” He appeared puzzled.
One more gate to open—single-handed. I slipped through the area where a few of the alpaca females were resting on the lawn with their babies on the steep rise behind the house.
I was out of breath and only halfway there when a flurry of gunshots boomed and echoed against the hills, like roiling clouds building on the edge of a thunderstorm.
“Ugh!” I jumped and realized the likely fate of the fawn's mother.
I rested my hand on the pitifully sick animal. If she lived, would she be safe here?
Don't think about it.