The Old Country may be wild and vast, but there’s a set of rules upon it that governs all that live and depend on it for survival.
It would take too long to name every subtle rule and mannerisms one requires to live in the Old Country, but there’s a couple that can be summed up. Most of the time, the Woods are willing to forgive benign ignorance, allowing one to learn the rules as they go. Other times, the Woods can be quite merciless. See, the Woods are alive. It is in itself, a living and breathing organism where we humans are mere parts to its vastness. Everything that lives and dies within the Woods contributes to a great cycle, always turning and renewing itself. We humans are expected to respect that cycle at all times, for we depend on it also.
To my fellow countrymen, we believed that the Wood needed helpers, lesser spirits, if you will, to help it retain it’s great cycle. So thus, I grew up the knowledge that killing any pure white or black animal is strictly forbidden. This isn’t about killing animals that are usually those colors, such as black bears or white domestic geese. This was about what called the Lords and Ladies of the wood. Deer, Birds of Prey, Coyotes, and other creatures. They carried power with them so they may complete their great tasks, and they were marked by their otherworldly appearance. You may of heard of them before. Creatures like the spirit bear and the black rabbit carry a long tradition of myth and legend behind them.
It was at that time when I was young and still had my roots tied to the country. Living there in the Old Wood was an ancient leucistic stag. He quickly earned the title of Lord of the Wood and often appeared rarely, like a ghost in the fog. He was a large beautiful fellow, with blue eyes and an easily thirty point rack. Nobody was quite sure how old he was, but he was old enough to be well known. I was lucky enough to see him a few times as he guided his does and fawns across the roads and to new grazing grounds. He seemed to be magical to me as he bounced here and there as though he were flying. He became a fixture in our small community, and he was seen as a good luck charm.
The men of course, talked about him often. A Lord meant that the current stock of deer would be healthy under his guidance. It was forbidden to touch him, but his does and young sons were fair game. People took only what they needed to survive, so only a few of the Lord’s herd would fall to hunters. This delicate balance was observed and followed for as long as I could remember, and it wasn’t about to change anytime soon.
But then came the times where out of towners came to our little village, hoping to hunt on our lands. We knew the sorts. People from the city who didn’t need to kill for their food like we needed. They were after the trophy from the hunt, and often left the rest of the carcass out for the scavengers. A terrible and unforgivable waste for sure. The game wardens worked hard to protect our wildlife from such ‘hunters’, but they could not be everywhere at once. It got worse once word got out about the area’s white stag, and people came from around the neighboring towns and cities in the hopes of claiming his noble head for their walls.
It was during buck season one blustering November when things came to a head. Us kids were allowed off of school for most of the season, as we were expected to help process the harvest our relatives would bring in. The community was a buzz of activity, as deer were butchered and portions of meat were given to less fortunate families, or those too old to hunt for themselves. It had been about a week or so after the season began, and most of the town was congregated at the local clubhouse.
We were too small of a town to have a tavern or any other things like that, but we had a clubhouse next to the church were people could meet up. Things like ho downs and dances were quite common, but so was a place for young children to learn about hunting safety, as well as some contests here and there. It was the place to be. I found myself there with my uncle and my father. Everyone was celebrating, because it was a blessed year. Already, hunters were getting plenty of meat to last through the Long Cold and it wasn’t even late into the season. A potluck was shared, and people drank to honor the lives of the deer taken. Us young kids sat together and enjoyed our pieces of venison and punch as the men and women drank things a little too hard for us.
A few strangers were there as well, but they were respectful enough. Some only wanted trophies, but donated the meat to the clubhouse, which then was distributed out to families in town. As long as nothing was wasted, nobody really cared too much about the outsiders. But there was one man who stuck out fairly easily. His accent put him to be someone from the city. His hunting clothes were very expensive and brand new, not even broken in at all. He was speaking a little too loudly and a little too rudely for me to ignore, and I listened.
“I’m going to get that white buck,” He spoke to the men around him. “I saw him head down the valley not too long ago. If I head down there tomorrow I might be able to get him by noon.”
The men around him shook their heads. “Son, let me give you some friendly advice.” One of the older men spoke directly to the city man. “Leave em’ alone. Ain’t gonna give ya any lick of good to go after that old stag. Trust me, go after another buck.”
The city man shook his head with a grin. “Why not? Have you SEEN the rack on that fellow? I’m surprised none of you shot him yet.” He spoke with a very thinly veiled insult. Of course, most folk in the city take us to be gun happy rednecks that shoot at anything that moves and breathes…but we were more than that.
“We don’t shoot him, because it’s bad luck.” The other man spoke, a younger fellow who I recognized to the town postmaster. “That there, is a spirit in flesh. There’s no tellin’ what the consequences could be to shoot em. Plus, you’ll never catch him. He’s far too clever for any of us.”
“Bah….leave it to country superstition. It’s just a white deer! It’s just their chromosomes or whatever, messing with their coat colors. There isn’t anything spiritual about it.” The man from the city scoffed at what to him, was foolish fears. “His head will be on my wall soon enough!”
The townsfolk looked at each other, and shrugged. “Don’t say we didn’t warn you,” The older gentlemen spoke, and that was that. The man found himself alone at his table, and he sourly finished his food and left. What else could be said? Even if it were true that the white stag is a normal deer, than he obviously must have been very powerful and clever to reach old age.
Most folks don’t know it, but even a doe could easily kill a man should she wish too. There really isn’t much you could do against a buck if he honestly wanted to kill you.
The party wore down and everyone went home. I was quite happy and full and it was no trouble falling asleep.
I was awoken at a little after dawn by a strange and unsettling feeling. I’m not sure how well I can describe it, but it felt like….something was terribly wrong. It wasn’t happening to me, but I just knew that somewhere out there, something incredibly awful was befalling some poor soul. It was the feeling of knowing someone was doing something wrong, and you were catching the tail end of it. The sheer backlash was enough to rouse me from sleep and bring me to my bedroom window.
I looked around, and saw nothing except a layer of frost on the grass. It was then I heard a thin scream drift up from the valley. It started slow at first, and then escalated into short bursts as though the screamer was running. After that, a few cracks of rifle fire shattered the new morning. There was a pause, and then came a watery, gurgling shriek that was loud enough to scare the birds off their branches. The shrieks were followed by short cries for help, before they faded off into silence.
My father opened my bedroom door to check on me, ordering me to be a good child and stay in my room. He had his rifle with him, and was already dressed for the cold weather. Whatever was going on, must be quite serious. Once he was sure that I wasn’t about to sneak out of the house, he left, and I watched him vanish off into the white of the valley. I waited for him to return, nervous about what was happening, but all I could do was wait.
It was a few hours later when my father came back. He was followed by the local sheriff. The sheriff was a kindly man, who honestly didn’t need to do much policing in our small village. For matters such as this though, he was called. They were speaking in hushed whispers, and obviously their talk was not for my young ears, so I listened through my door. I managed to strain my ears just enough to make out what they were saying.
“I don’t know what to make of it,” The sheriff spoke in a confused tone. “Twenty years enforcin’ the law here, and ain’t never seen anything like it.”
“I’d say it was a foolish man, being a damn fool, and losing his life because of it.” My father chipped in his two cents on the matter.
“I’d say. I don’t even know how I’m going to report this. A man dead, in the middle of the woods, with a gun that has discharged, and not a mark on em. He wasn’t even frozen, just…..dead.”
“There has to be something. Drugs? Alcohol?”, my father pressed. “I recognized him from the potluck. He did have quite a bit to drink.”
“No sir, just the biggest damn deer tracks I’ve ever seen.” The sheriff sighed. “Maybe the coroner will know more. We gottah wait for one to come in from the city, but at least it’s cold enough to preserve…whatever happened.”
There was the sound of my father putting away his rifle back into his ornate gun cabinet. “From what I understood, he was going after the stag.”
The sheriff just sighed. “He was warned.”
With that, the sheriff departed, and once again it was just my father and I. He didn’t speak to me about what happened, but he did warn me to stay out of the lower valley for a little bit. Just to be sure.
A day later, I saw the old white stag again. He stepped into our yard to eat some of the fallen apples with his does and sons. His breath steamed white in the cold, and I could see that there was matted clumps of fur on his chest. It almost looked like he had some stickle burrs caught in it, whirling the hair it around as though there were holes beneath it. For a while, I enjoyed the sight of the heard munching away on our apples peacefully.
But I noticed this time, that he didn’t have just 30 tines on his antlers.
There was now 31.