Christmas Present for the Birds
One lazy summer day, brilliant blue skies and all that, my neighbor down rural route #1 strolled into my yard to introduce himself. We stood near the dirt road fronting my property and watched a doe and her twin bambis lolling about in the pasture across the way.
“There’s an ominous sight for you,” my neighbor grumbled, “whitetails out in the open in broad daylight staring us down, totally unafraid.” Like me, he grew things, a variety of plants, the deer ravaged at every turn with no regard for anyone or anything.
“Well,” I said, feeling a little more conciliatory on account of the cute fawns, “they can’t shop for food at the supermarket—”
My neighbor scoffed, promising it was only a matter of time before I’d come to my senses and hate deer just like everybody else. “You’d think,” he added with a touch of despair, “with all the stuff in the forest, they’d leave our gardens alone—”
I’d been mulling it over, what he said, for a while (a few months actually), so when I saw the doe around Christmas puttering in the snowy field behind my garden, I put on my coat and boots and trudged over to ask her about it. Admittedly, I couldn’t tell if it was the same doe—after all, they all look alike—but she didn’t fret about the stereotype, just snorted, grunted and stomped a hoof, uncovering a clump of matted yellowed grass under the snow.
I couldn’t tell if she was considering the question or dodging it, or maybe she didn’t speak English.
I was about to turn away when she asked why I didn’t mark my territory if I was so concerned. Duh, I thought, can’t you see the fencing? But she just kept ranting about scents and other crazy shit, like how I should pee along my property line. “Besides,” she said, “you humans want me out of your gardens but you never leave my pasture alone. Just as soon as the juicy stuff gets to any height, you ride in on noisy critters that fart black fumes the whole time and raze everything to the ground.”
I shook my head in disbelief and she added, “Not making it up. You and your ilk always rake and roll all the food, and what you don’t haul away, you let languish in huge mounds in the field. What do you think that’s gonna do besides making it all icky? And if that’s not enough, you raid the forest, trample the saplings and the berry bushes, throw foul-smelling goo in the streams, wreck our bedding and secret hideouts—”
“Okay, okay, I get the idea,” I said, distracted by my neighbor’s rusty pickup clanging along the muddy road. I didn’t wave or anything. He’d seen me a few weeks earlier throwing a tantrum over some newly molested plants and pulled over to see what the fuss was about. When I took a break from shrieking and flailing and moseyed over to say hello, he laughed. “Hate them yet?” Then, “I hear ya. Like, how much more fencing for the vegetables? How many more cages for the saplings? Don’t we have enough with bipolar weather, weeds on steroids and waterlogged dirt?”
Last thing I needed now was for him to spy me talking to a deer. Luckily, he continued past my yard and vanished up the road. I must have blended into the bleak landscape—bare hardwoods, straggly withered plants under leaden skies, and the doe rattling off her list of grievances, “—always flattening everything, always picking on the best sheltering trees instead of the weak and the old the storms would bring down anyway—”
I figured I’d make better use of my time jumping in my car and going to Home Depot for more fencing. The doe followed my gaze to the driveway. “And what’s with these shiny, deformed critters you take out on the black trails? They can’t see squat in front of their nose despite their humongous eyes, and once they start running, they don’t know how to stop like normal, not even for big critters crossing their path. Gazillion deer friends get slaughtered this way as the seasons turn.”
Boohoo, I thought, you can’t see past your nose either. It’s not like we humans walk away unscathed from deer-car collisions. It was inevitable, my neighbor had assured me, joking about the impact of winding country roads on his personal statistics.
What could I say? “It happens.”
“Whoa,” she wheezed. “I get it you humans are going through a rough patch with gloomy forecasts and raw deals for job hunters and aliens picking all the food in the fields and no one’s getting what they asked for… But if you kill us and don’t stick around to eat, then clearly it’s got nothing to do with the economy.”
I shrugged. Economics is hard. I didn’t feel like explaining it to a deer. “Santa didn’t bring what you asked for? Is that what this is about?”
“Ho ho,” she stammered, then said with finality, “No. You don’t get it, do you?”
Maybe not. “I’m new here. I lived someplace else till recently.”
“Yeah, I don’t think I’ve seen you before. Then of course you humans all look alike.”
She lost me there.
“What made you come here? Wait, don’t tell me, I know. You’re from the city, you wanted more to eat, right? I know how that goes. I’ve got friends who migrated to the city in search of a better range—big mistake—they had to turn back, couldn’t find any forage or cover—”
She lives in a bubble, I thought, if she expects to get food and shelter in a city without money.
“—the place is overrun by herds of your deformed critters”—she sniffed in the direction of my car—“real slow ones, I could outrun any of them. All they know is to creep along a grid of dry riverbeds at the bottom of awfully narrow canyons that rise up in outlandish straight lines. Kinda like science fiction, you know?” There was a long gap. “You know?” she insisted as if it was an actual question.
Was she asking if I knew what science fiction was? Okay, whatever. “I’ve seen it on TV,” I said. As good a source as any.
Seriously? Economics is one thing, but TV? Could she be watching through my living room windows at night? Before I could sort it out, she added, “Tried books once or twice but they just rotted on the forest floor.” (My English teachers would have loved this one.) “I like sci-fi, but I wouldn’t trade the forest for the city. It’s like a moonscape over there. A few trees spaced far apart, tucked in small pits carved out of smooth flat rock that doesn’t grow a thing—no saplings, no underbrush, nothing to eat.”
“Look on the bright side,” I said, “no wolves or coyotes.”
She snorted. “Never seen a wolf in real life. They might as well be mythical critters. Not worried about coyotes either. If they get tired of their voles-and-rabbits diet, there’s always fallen deer you leave behind.”
So, as my neighbor said, she’s got nothing to fear.
“The biggest threat is humans roaming the forest with fire-spitting sticks—” She let a few pellets drop on the snow between her rear legs. “—and the polar vortex they park around here in wintertime—subzero temperatures, snow cover up to my nose for months on end—you can’t imagine how many of us starve to death, most of all the little ones.” She let out a near inaudible bleat. “Mother nature ain’t motherly anymore and it’s all your fault. You couldn’t leave well enough alone, had to mess with the climate, too. What have we done to deserve this? I can’t think of a single incident of a deer harming a human.”
“Sure, kill the messenger. Humans got an answer for everything.” She made a blowing sound. “If this arctic trend continues, we’ll be overrun by reindeer immigration—”
“Climate refugees,” I muttered to myself, forgetting deer have terrific hearing.
“Refugees my rump. More like criminals, lowlifes, pulling sleighs filled with junk for ho— ho— horrible humans—”
That stammer again. “Do you even know any reindeer?” I asked.
“What’s there to know? This is whitetail country, always has been. We don’t need no alien reindeer with ridiculous antlers and big beefy bodies coming around and stealing our food. We’ve got enough on our hoofs with your ilk.” She kicked some snow around, nose toward the bird feeder. “And what’s with that food container hanging from your garden fence? Other than a really stubborn squirrel, no one but songbirds can get at the seed. So like what gives? You hate them, too?”
Hate birds? What is she talking about?
“No? Well, you look harmless enough, standing there with your front paws tucked inside pouches in your puffy winter coat. All the while others of your ilk spread goodies on the forest floor, then—bang—hit us with their fire-spitting sticks when we show up to eat.” Her eyes darted across the soggy yard. “I can’t make heads or tails of it.”
Neither could I—I had to admit—having come across bags of deer feed at the country store. Why would anyone buy these if they hated deer so much? My neighbor had cracked up when I asked about it. It was all a joke to him. “Baiting, is all. Like shooting into a fishbowl. Some hunters don’t like to hunt.”
“You humans, it’s never about food with you,” the doe lamented. “You leave some of the dead in the forest for the coyotes to wolf down, and the rest you haul away with the trees and the pasture. It’s like you hoard dead things in remote locations. Is that what the city’s for? To store dead things?”
I wasn’t about to debate infrastructure with a doe, but she kept her round wet eyes on me as if waiting for an answer. Well, I thought, as long as she’s busy regurgitating her gripes about humans, she ain’t chomping on my plants. Finally it became awkward, so I said, “Anything else?”
“I’m waiting on my question,” she grunted. “Do you hate birds?”
“Oh, that. No. No. It’s Christmas, the bird feed is my Christmas present for the birds.”
The doe blinked as though she understood. Or maybe she was sad for not being good enough over the past year to warrant a visit from Santa. I’d never know, because she spun around, dashed across the snowy field—white tail flashing—and disappeared into the woods.
I yelled after her, “Hey! Just sport a red nose for the holidays and everything will be all right.” But she was gone, gobbled up by the winter gloom. It occurred to me belatedly that she might not appreciate being compared to reindeer. Or, for all I knew, she was in the “Happy Holidays” camp.
I got into my car, raised a cloud of fumes and drove into town, hoping she wouldn’t leap from the dense woods onto the road just as I was speeding around the bend.
You’d think I’d have more empathy after that, but actually, nah. After all, nothing has changed. Summer, winter, or holiday cheer—whatever the season I had the same reasons to throw up my arms and holler at the heavens how I hated all deer. It was nothing personal, mind you, it was just like hating nature in general. Or as my neighbor so eloquently had put it, “Nature my ass. Any way you look at it, it’s just in the way.”
About the Author: Brenda Birenbaum’s short fiction has appeared in The Mad River, Low Light Magazine, Writers Resist, and elsewhere. She can be found @brbirenbaum and on medium.com/@brbirenbaum