The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.
Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made
is star-stuff too?
– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –
dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.
Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.
Sunday, 1 March 2015
the white hind in the thicket
That winter, the hunger gap on Dartmoor began early. Thomas knew that he had barely enough hay and feed for his few cattle, his handful of in-lamb sheep, to get through the next couple of weeks, let alone the rest of winter. The snow was so deep that the animals could barely forage at all, and though, mockingly, the gorse was in full bright blossom and the snowdrops by the garden path were bravely poking through, there was barely a blade of grass to be seen.
In the house, the situation was equally desperate. There was a single string of onions, half a sack of potatoes, and a couple of cabbages left from the frost-ravage in the vegetable garden. Thomas knew, though his young wife didn’t, nor his blind old mother, that there was almost no money left.
One afternoon, he picked up his shotgun and went out to see what he might bring back for the pot. No rabbits. No pheasants. No pigeons, even. After an hour of trekking along silently, feet sinking at each step into the blanket of snow in the shadow of the frosted hedges, Thomas was about to give up when he caught a glimmer out of the corner of his eye, just at the edge of the wood. At first, he thought it was a woman there, dressed all in white, rising up out of the snow. Then he realised it was a white deer. As swiftly and smoothly as possible, he raised his gun to his shoulder and sighted her.
But he couldn’t find it in him to pull the trigger. After all, we all know that white deer are magical creatures. The deer didn’t move, only stared at him with her head raised and ears pricked. Thomas took a step towards her, and another. She didn’t move. Again he raised the gun, and again he let it drop. He stepped towards her again, until he was close enough to see her quiver. Then she turned and, without haste, walked into the wood.
Thomas followed her for a long way, until they were really in the dark heart of the forest. She stopped, and turned. He knew this time that he wasn’t even going to try to shoot her; he simply stood, and waited. A voice like the wind through birches spoke. Thomas jumped so much he shook the snow from the tree behind and above him. He looked around. No one.
The voice came again: ‘Thomas.’ It was the deer. ‘Thomas. If you spare my life, I’ll grant you a wish.’
Thomas was dumbstruck. When he regained his powers of speech, he replied: ‘What, just one wish? We all know wishes come in threes.’
‘Just one wish,’ said the deer. ‘Your choice. Come and tell me in the morning.’ With that, the deer disappeared from view. The trees seemed to shake themselves, and then were still.
The sky was dark by the time Thomas had made his way back out of the forest. As he struggled back through the snow lighting his way, he thought over and over what that one wish might be. Just one wish!
That evening, determined though he had been not to burden his wife and mother either with their dire situation (though of course his wife had an inkling) or with the one wish, he couldn’t keep his mouth shut as they were dining on their thin potato-and-cabbage soup (again).
As casually as he could, he asked them: ‘If you had just one wish, what would you ask for?’
‘Oh!’ said his mother. ‘Oh – I’d love my sight back. Then I could help you more.’
‘Me?’ said his wife. ‘Oh – just the one wish. My heart’s desire. I want more than anything for us to have a baby.’
Thomas sat in dismay over his soup. His mother’s sight – how could that be restored? And then his wife’s desire, and another mouth to feed. For himself, he knew how desperately, and speedily, they needed money. And just the one wish.
It was in a sombre mood that he took himself off to bed that night.
All night he lay awake, listening to the creaks and groans of the old cottage roof under the weight of its snow-burden, and to the little scrabblings of the mice in the attic. All night he worried about whether he’d done the right thing in not shooting the deer. What a fool he was – there’d have been meat enough to last them weeks, salted down. And the hide – he could sell the hide; a white hide too – more precious than anything he owned.
By lunchtime the next day he’d finished the chores around the little steading. Suspecting himself to be a fool, he headed off towards the forest fringing the open moorland, taking his gun along, just in case.
Once again, it took him a while to cross the snowy meadows. Once again, at the edge of the forest he caught a glimpse of a white-clad maiden, who became a deer as he looked. Once again, he found himself unable to raise the gun with the intention to shoot. As soon as he noticed her, the hind turned and led him, once again, deep into the forest. Finally, she stopped and turned.
‘And your wish?’ she said, in a voice like the wind through apple trees.
What I wish for,’ he said, ‘is for my mother to be able to see our new baby in its cradle all made out of gold.’
The deer stood still for a moment, nostrils flaring. Then she bowed her head, and turned. He didn’t see her vanish – she simply wasn’t there any more.
Thomas sighed. How could he have believed a deer could save them? Fairy stories. He spent too long alone out there with his animals, he supposed.
He trudged home. Dark was nearly upon him, but the snow lit the way.
As he approached the gate, he could see that the cottage door was open, and a deep glow came from within.
Then he realised that his mother was standing at the door, and waving to him.
This story is one woven on the bones of a story I heard from Dartmoor teller Mavis Hewitt the other night, and in honour of the three deer-encounters I’ve had, in various guises and realms, in the last few days. And in honour of Psyche, or the soul, who leads us into the dark forest to find the treasure we need.
Twice on Dartmoor I've encountered a white deer, though not recently.
Image: detail from The Mystic Woods by John William Waterhouse
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