It was on the way down, moving down into that black gulch, that I saw the stag in the dappled light sifting through the aspen foliage. How the light faded! From the sunlit ridge, up, above the shadow of the surrounding hills, to the bone-white stripes of the gloomy wood, I was nearly surprised I could see anything at all. The scattered beams of sunlight penetrating the forest canopy had the effect of camouflaging everything beneath its gaze. And yet there it was. Standing, perfectly still, doomed as I did not then know, a ten-point buck.
Were my doctor more agreeable to my condition, and were my left arm not so numb (much to the good doctor's ignorance, thank god), I would have certainly brought my rifle along; a steady if brutish Marlin 30-30 with a kick almost as ferocious as that of its intended target. Unable to leave the house entirely unarmed, I brought a pair of binoculars and a pen and pad of paper. This close to the Dark Valley, that old aphorism about the pen and the sword really loses it's feeble obsolescence.
So too, as I walked down into the black gulch, did the sights around me seem more invigorating and enchanting than they used to be. In my mind their descriptors simply appeared in flowery language, and for that, dear reader, if you are indeed reading this, I sincerely apologize. I am no artist, or never have been before, that is, but I have always had an untapped gift with words. But I fear I would risk the dishonesty of downplaying the divine, were I to pretend the sights around me, and my own experience of them, here, on the cusp of light and darkness, were not so desperately fantastic. Desperate is not quite the right word, but no other adverb will do.
The stag was patient in its movement; I had the sense that it was quietly aware of me long before I noticed the handsome brown creature, so steady was his offset gaze. After a few moments of mutual awareness, he dropped his head back down to the small patch of grass in which the animal stood. Everything about it seemed graceful--believe me, reader, when I say that ordinarily such descriptions irritate me and strike me as spiritualist muck, grey in every way, but most especially in its put-on profundity. But here it seemed so true; the deer's muscles and shape, perfectly etched in tawny fur that looked, to the touch of my eyeballs, for all the world as the texture of silk feels under the fingertips.
Such was my bliss in that moment that everything was already over before my consciousness and credulity could catch up. A flash of movement in the brush behind the stag; the faint thud of impact as a mass of blonde fur collided with the deer; the ensuing entanglement; the kicking of the deer. I, as desperate for the deer's survival as the deer's flailing legs.
Somehow, the deer managed to right itself, but the mountain lion--as I now saw that flurry of death had been--still hung about its' neck. The mortally wounded creature, stepped, staggered, then spread its legs and stood, trying to remain upright. I could practically feel the life ebb out of the princely beast, from a hole somewhere in my chest. Its head hung down, and the mountain lion hung, quite still, about its' shoulders. It was nearly sunset, and the deer had mere minutes, perhaps seconds, before death would finally claw out its' throat in that black gulch.
In the most peculiar fashion, I found my sympathy (the source of which I still can't justify, except to say I felt a desperate necessity to sympathize with something), shift from the soon-to-be-deceased to its murderer. The great cat was, in fact, anything but great. It's sides were lean enough to see the individual ribs outlined beneath the blonde fur. There were the scars of healed gashes in it's tawny side. Perhaps the wounds of a lost fight, perhaps a brush with a bear, or perhaps the death throes of a recent victim. Or, more likely, the reminder of the successful defense of an elk or caribou, still roaming the forest somewhere.
Perhaps it too was near death, more knowingly, when it collided with that ill-fated dear in the black gulch, beneath the ridge-top I was now descending.
The various possibilities of the situation were unavoidable to me, and they charged into my head like a desperate blonde ball of death. Were the deer to have escaped, I noticed, the death of the feline would have been assured. Is that too murder? And starvation, what an atrocious, helpless death too! Were I armed, both the deer and the cougar, by indirect extension, would be doomed. Or perhaps the deer, by jaws, and then the mountain lion, by Marlin. And then I realized I had forgotten an important possibility: were the deer to have escaped, the desperate cat would have another last-resort option for survival, descending like a fated fool into that black gulch.
The source of my agony--watching death descend like a twilight shadow upon everything in the gulch--was not apparent to me in the moment, as the folly of my motives had not been apparent to me in all of my previous trips up to the ridge. There I came armed with death, and the life around me felt peripheral, uninteresting. It could wait, would wait for another day for my attention. And here I was, on that other day, looking with the insanity of a poet for life. And with the justice of a poet, nature has denied it to me.