By Christine Rucker
East Bend, North Carolina
Detached love is a sticky line for me. Love tends to hook easily onto my heart, and when I love back, it’s for the long haul.
So, when a starving fawn walked up to me in the yard in September of 2016, I felt those hooks sink in, and I knew I was in for a life-changing experience. I named her Farrah Fawncett. And Farrah was going to challenge how I could love something wild and keep her wild.
I felt like a new mom. Second guessing my every decision, Googling what and how much to feed this new baby. When her belly would swell from the fruit and goat milk, I worried I might kill her, but a quick search tipped me off to adding baby-gas drops to her milk.
Of course, I wanted to bring her inside and let her sleep with us and our three dogs. But I also knew that might ruin her chance of staying wild. And I know that being wild is being free. So, instead, I made little huts all around the woods near our house. I spread straw under our deck and kept all our dogs — except our gentle Daisy — on leashes until I knew she would grow bigger and faster than the pups.
And I fell in love. Hard. I’ve had many animals in my life. I’ve raised all our dogs from pups to old age. But Farrah was different. I felt a crushing weight of responsibility to keep her alive and keep her free. With the dogs I had a level of control, but when Farrah left our front porch after eating and went into the woods, control was out of my reach.
I didn’t sleep much on nights the temperature fell into the single digits. But Farrah would be at the door at daybreak, her fur all fluffed up and looking much bigger than she actually was. When I would hear coyotes howl and yip at night, I’d get up and turn all the outside lights on. And in the morning, she would be waiting for me by the door.
I would try to prepare myself for the morning she would not show up. On those occasional mornings she wasn’t at the door, I would lose hours of my day just worrying about her ... until she rambled up to the house at midday. It was a tightrope I balanced on, and I did learn to love without expectation. I learned to love something as much as I could — and then let hope take over.
When I wondered if she were lonely being out in the woods alone, I would look outside and watch her doing hot laps chasing the dogs around the fence. She found a way to play with them on my terms.
She brought a balance into my life that is hard to explain. Her presence created a new calmness around the house.
One evening, I was walking the dogs down by the river. A big rain had just fallen, and heavy fog had settled over the river, but you could see the clouds turning a deep pink from the sunset. It was like we were surrounded by cotton candy. I turned to walk back up the trail, and Farrah was standing behind us. As she joined us at the river, she was silhouetted in this amazing fog. I wished only for a second I had a camera, but I realized it would have taken me out of this moment and taken away the rawness of this experience. Farrah walked the trail with us, all of us still enveloped in this surreal fog. As long as I live, the memory of that evening will be etched into my mind as one of the purest experiences I’ve had.
Then, she started to follow me on my mountain bike though the trails. I finally let Bailey, my English pointer, off leash, and she and Farrah would rip through the woods playing a hilarious game of hide and seek. Farrah always won.
She became part of our family. She met all our friends. She even met my mom. And she changed us.
I spent a fortune at Whole Foods, because she preferred organic strawberries over the strawberries on sale. She got tired of bananas, so we switched to grapes. She liked honeycrisp apples more than the bulk deer apples I could get at Tractor Supply. She would wait by the chicken coop for me to let out her seven yard mates; then, she would sneak in and eat all their chicken feed. Sometimes, I wondered if she thought she was a chicken instead of a deer.
Eventually, she stopped coming every day. Spring was here, and the forest was full of new green treats. Maybe she was getting introduced to other yearlings that had separated from their moms. She was becoming wilder. This was my goal all along. She had gotten through the winter. She was still small, but she had filled out.
She was returning where she belonged. But it hurt. And we missed her. When she would pop back out of the woods, I was almost as surprised as when I first saw her — an excitement you might get when you see a family member you haven’t seen in a while. A fluttering in your stomach.
But in the weeks we didn’t see her that fluttering was replaced by a quiet sadness.
As the summer wound down, she started coming into our buckwheat field to graze in the evenings. My office overlooks the river. One evening, I noticed that sunset fog drifting in after a storm, so I headed to the river to take a boat out. As I made my way through the field, I saw Farrah perk her head up over the wildflowers and buckwheat. Her ears turned in my direction, listening for my voice.
“Hey girl,” I said. “Pretty girl.” Her ears twitched; then, her tail started to wag a little quicker. She headed toward me. The fog had moved up over the field, and she seemed to want me to stick around for a bit. We meandered through the buckwheat. I stopped with her as she nibbled at the leaves. We caught up on the gossip from the forest, then simply took comfort in the silence and just settled in.
I decided it was actually Farrah calling to me instead of the river, and we kept each other company until the lightning bugs circled around us and the fog moved back to the river. When we both decided we’d had enough, we parted into the darkness. Her to the woods, and me to the house.
We know that we belong to different worlds but are somehow connected to both worlds through this friendship.
I’ve tried to write this many times but could not find the words. Or I thought in writing this, it might jinx her from ever coming back. It’s been almost a month since she last visited. Part of me is saying she’s moved on. Part of me is worried she ran into trouble. All my heart knows wherever she is, she had the love of a human family, a free love that didn’t try to make her less wild. But was just loved and given a little more of an advantage to survive.
And in the past 12 months, I’ve learned how to love wild.