A frigid breeze shifted dry, brown leaves piled deep on the ground and tugged gently on the branches above. Occasional creaks and groans from the swaying trunks combined with the steady rustling, and if Jon closed his eyes, he could almost imagine being alone on some ancient sailing ship. All that was missing was the plaintive cry of seagulls and a swaying deck. Of course, he was more likely to get a swaying deck in the form of minor earthquakes than he was to have seagulls flying around this remote forest clearing.
That suited him just fine. He had driven almost a hundred miles to reach this quiet place in the woods. It was his special spot to unwind, to let the confusions and pressures of life dissipate into the silent wilderness. The twisted roots and rough bark of an ancient oak provided a seat as familiar and comfortable as a favorite recliner, and he often spent hours here.
Not tonight, however. As much as he needed this self-prescribed therapy, the cold was stinging his face, and even creeping in slowly through his heavy jacket. He had forced himself to sit here for an hour, hoping the stillness would soothe the turmoil in his mind. Huddled in the shallow depression, the best he could manage was a distraction of thought rather than escape.
Jon gave a deep sigh that created a translucent white cloud in front of his face. On the surface, even he found his anxieties a bit frivolous. After all, he was young, healthy, well fed and educated. School was a challenge sometimes, but he was doing OK in classes. Better than OK, really, especially given the obscure nature of some of his subjects. Ancient languages and civilizations were a passion, not just a course of study.
Perhaps that was part of his problem. As fascinating as history was, the glimpses of humanity preserved through time were often dark and disturbing. Especially when you could see echoes of past horrors in the world around you. Wars, poverty, disease, hatred, corruption – constants throughout a history that no on ever seemed to learn from. The politicians couldn’t even remember recent events. Environmental programs and plans sparked by the fuel shortages of the seventies were already ignored in world driving to malls and the corner store in monster SUVs and 4x4 trucks. Which was one reason he had to drive two hours to the State Park and hike a third to find his quiet place.
A crackle of twigs startled him out of his morose contemplation, but he managed to remain still. Looking to the source, he grinning suddenly in pleasure. A young whitetail buck was looking towards him from the opposite side of the clearing. Although the animal was downwind, the cold must be dulling Jon’s human scent enough to confuse it.
He remained still, hoping it would come closer. During past visits, he’d had curious fawns prancing within a dozen feet before their mothers herded them back to a safer distance. Surprisingly, the bucks tended to be more cautious than the does, remaining aloof and safe in the trees. There were no females with this deer. From his size and small rack of antlers, Jon guessed he was an adolescent spending his first winter outside his birth herd.
Too old to remain with his family and too young to have established a harem of his own – wandering without purpose, trying to survive. In a way, Jon could identify with the buck, and felt a deep compassion for him. Lost and alone in the wilderness, probably confused and frustrated by instincts he could not satisfy.
Jon suppressed a chuckle. Such mental melodramatics. If the deer was thinking about anything, it was most likely the next patch of grass. Worrying was a human foible, one that Jon knew he exercised too much. He worried about school, friends, the economy, the world, even found himself wrestling with the meaning of life and fears of death. The buck had the right idea – focus on the present, and let tomorrow take care of itself.
This particular buck seemed more adventurous than most. He shuffled across the clearing, stopping occasionally to test the air again. Jon held his breath when it was about twenty feet away, trying to prolong the moment. The deer was beautiful, its hide unblemished by injury or illness. It stared directly at him with liquid brown eyes, nostrils quivering as small swirls of frozen breath emerged and vanished.
Then it surprised him by moving close enough to touch, its nose less than a foot from Jon’s. This boldness actually alarmed him a bit – unusual aggression was one sign of rabies. He remained still, breathing shallowly and watching the animal with a mixture of awe and apprehension. They stayed like that for almost a minute, looking into each other’s eyes. The effect was hypnotic, and despite himself, Jon reached out slowly to touch the buck’s cheek.
“Ouch!” A strong electrical shock made him snatch his hand away, and the buck jumped back. Jon shook numb fingers, bewildered. What had happened? The animal hadn’t bit him, he was sure of that. Static electricity? It was cold and dry – perhaps the buck’s thick coat was getting charged by the wind. If so, it made one heck of a battery. His whole arm was still throbbing from the jolt.
It took a moment to register that the deer had not run off. Although it had recoiled from the sudden movement, it snorted and shook its head and stepped back to snuffle at Jon with renewed enthusiasm. Forcing himself to be still, Jon became aware of an acrid odor. The animal’s musk, surprisingly strong, but not really unpleasant. It leaned even closer, nostrils inches away from his face. Jon breathed in the warm air it exhaled, elated and nervous. The tips of their noses touched.
“Gaaaahh!” The back of Jon’s head slammed painfully into the tree trunk as he jerked back from the painful contact. Instead of bolting this time, the deer actually stepped closer and nosed his forehead. Jon tried to twist away, transferring some of the jolt to his left ear, and did his best to push the beast away. Both arms went rigid when fingers made contact, the throbbing current arching his body into a convulsing arch. He screamed, then nearly choked as the nostrils seared his throat with yet another violent shock. The buck finally broke contact, stepping back a few yards to watch him twitching on the ground.
Dazed and terrified, Jon drew himself up into a tight ball, afraid the animal might attack again. There didn’t seem to be any physical injury, any bites or blood, yet his whole body throbbed and ached as if he had been beaten with 2x4s. His mind raced, trying to come up with some logical explanation. Static electricity, hell! Yet even as he struggled to find answers, he realized that the pain was gone.
Sitting up cautiously created some odd pulling sensation in his muscles, more the afterglow of a hard workout. The buck remained in the center of the clearing, watching intently but making no attempt to approach. Confused, Jon began to wonder if he had somehow imagined the whole thing. Or maybe he had grossly overreacted to a cold nose. His confusion changed to annoyance, for now he couldn’t even dredge up a clear memory of what should have been an intense experience. Some sort of strange daydream?
He stood up suddenly, expecting the young male to bolt. The buck regarded him calmly, occasionally twitching an ear. Frowning in puzzlement, Jon finally shrugged and started down the long, rugged trail back to the parking area. Before he reached the edge of the clearing, he heard the male shuffling behind him and looked back.
The buck was following him. Any other time, Jon would have been delighted. Right now, he was feeling a bit embarrassed and more than a little silly, and he didn’t want to be reminded of the experience. Stopping, he waved his arms to scare the buck off. When that failed, he shouted.
Or tried to. Air moved through his throat, but no sound came out. Automatically grabbing his throat, Jon froze and his eyes widened. His palm was reporting contact with thick, soft fur. At the same time, cold, hard lumps pressed against the sides of his neck. Snatching his hand back, he stared at misshapen, dark fingers that were melting together as he watched. His right hand was worse, shifting rapidly into what was already recognizable as a cloven hoof. The hand he’d touched the buck with.
Jon’s eyes widened and he gave a silent moan of fear. Enough sense of touch remained in his blurring left hand to feel the deflating contours of his skull, and the pear shaped ear that twitched involuntarily. His fingers were gone before he could explore the swelling point of his lower face, but his eyes could follow its progress.
The buck moved close, brushing against him now. There was no shock, no pain – but the covering of brown fur that had started to sprout around his wrists raced suddenly down lengthening arms like mahogany flames, consuming the sleeves of his jacket and shirt. Trembling, Jon felt fur against cloth, fur against skin, then fur against fur. He couldn’t seem to make himself move as the male circled like some huge, friendly dog.
Musk filled his nostrils, joined by a more immediate and familiar scent that his confused mind told him was himself. It was obvious now that he was transforming into a deer, with fully-formed forelegs shifting down lower on his barreling chest. Balance wavered, then shifted forward suddenly, and he dropped to all fours. The physical sensations were almost pleasant, like a deep body massage that reshaped his muscles, bones, and organs into different configurations.
Jon knew he should be terrified, knew this was all impossible. Yet the raging torrent of emotion was slowing, bewilderment and fear fading as a strange acceptance began to take hold. He twisted around as the last scraps of jeans were absorbed into the brown and white fur of his rump, shook his head, and looked again.
His eyes reported what his nose had already told him. Told her. The doe blinked, staring at her graceful form, the slender legs, black hooves digging into the soft ground. She was still aware of the cold, but it was not unpleasant. It was not pleasant, either. It simply was.
The male rubbed against her again, stilling the waters in her mind to small waves, then ripples on a pond. Jon considered resisting, trying to find a way to fight back. She wasn’t afraid any more, and while her thoughts were changing, simplifying, she was still herself. A sort of contentment, acceptance mixed with basic fulfillment of purpose, was pushing out doubts and fears that were already hard to comprehend.
She felt the male’s need, and knew it matched her own. Yet she was also young, and danced playfully away from his first advance. Soon, perhaps before the darkness came, but not now. Now she wanted to savor the awareness of change while she could, to appreciate the knowledge that she had finally found a quiet place that she would never have to leave.