That my youth suffered. My story being done
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.
She swore, in faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange,
'Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful.
She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished
That heaven had made her such a man. She thanked me
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story
And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake.
Curio:Will you go hunt my Lord?
Orsino: What, Curio?
Curio: The Hart.
Orsino: Why so I do, the noblest that I have.
-William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
Last year I woke up and my mate was dead.
I remember getting up in the middle of the night for no real reason. It's not like I heard or smelled anything funny, I just had a sense of something being a little bit off kilter. Like when you get something small stuck in your antlers. Not enough to seriously impede you but enough to make you want to beat your head across a tree for a bit. We we're taking shelter in one of the caves for the night but it had been windy so I had to shake a little snow of my fur. Somehow I didn't wake the rest of my family up. I felt alone. Normally we're never alone.
I think that's when I first knew. I didn't have to sniff, or to feel the absence of breath to understand that she was dead, though of course I did those things a second later. The next morning my brothers and sisters said it had probably been poison sprayed on the rosebushes in the suburbs, but I knew somehow, irrationally that if I hadn't woken up alone she would still be alive. We are not a people given to mourn. Death is a part of life, and the oldest of us said that she would be taken into the sky as a consort for the God of the Hunt as a Huntress rather than the hunted. The old words. I had never believed them, especially not now.
Perhaps we had been too close? I don't know.
In any case I was expected to move on, so I did. I ran. I ate. I rutted and fathered more children on more women. I taught these children how to do all these things in turn. I grew older, wise, and a little bit fatter. Sometimes there were dark days, but I had had a pretty good life.
And then she came back.
Only...no. That wasn't right. It wasn't her. Not exactly. She didn't smell anything at all like she had when I had first met her. She wasn't even the same breed as us anymore, although a quick sniff told me that despite her lighter fur she would still be compatible for lovemaking without me hurting her. Worst of all she didn't remember me and no one else seemed to recognize her.
Also she was odd now.
"What's your name?" she asked me after wandering into our camp.
I didn't understand the question. I think she was trying to find out what I did, what I was, who I was and to sum it up in a single thought for good measure. I had never been great with abstract concepts. The Great Hunt in the Sky still gave me trouble. Still this would have stumped even people who knew all the old words the best. A word like a Name seemed older and more dangerous than even they could handle.
"I don't understand," I said because I really really didn't.
"That's okay," she said being kind about it, "My name is Autumn."
Autumn. Another big concept but one I was familiar with. The time when food got scarce. The time of the first cold. The last gasp before the snow. Still, somehow, it also meant her, and she meant the word kindly. Wrapped up in Autumn was an identity and a sense of herself though. There was also a promise. A promise, that somehow all sacrifices would be made meaningful and all deaths would be made necessary.
"Why have you come back?" I asked.
"Back to our family. You died last year."
"I don't understand," she said and I was amused because now it was her turn.
So I told her the story of how we had been a family together all our lives, and how we used to play as children. I told her about the happy times when we would find clovers and the scary times when we would be chased by things that wanted to eat us. I told her about how hard I had fought for her, my antlers barred against a stronger man, how badly I had lost, and how, against all custom, she had chosen me anyway. I told her how we had stood together on hind-legs against a tree, lost in passion. I told her about not understanding God. I told her about our children. I told her how we had been different. I told her about the rosebushes and how she had died.
"And now there is nothing left to tell," I said, "Why have you come back?"
But she just looked at me sadly and said, "I'm not her."
"Then how come you make me feel this way," I said.
"How do you feel?"
"Like I could be sacrificed for you and it would be made meaningful," I said after a moment and I meant it. It was a difficult concept, that thought in her name, but it felt absolutely true.
After that though I couldn't tell what she was thinking. She just cocked her head and stared at me. I found it strange that she wasn't trying to get my scent, but also a little endearing for reasons I couldn't understand. She trusted her eyes more than her nose. Autumn, I thought, correcting myself. Autumn trusted her eyes more than her nose.
"Do you believe in love at first sight?" she said finally.
"I'm not sure I understand...-"
"...the question. Yeah, sorry, I sound a little weird sometimes. Let me rephrase: Do you think people who have never met each other can fall in love instantly?"
I considered this. "I don't think so," I said. "Not everyone at least. It takes time. But I've known these people all my life. I love them all. I guess I've had the time."
"Right!" Autumn said excitedly, "I agree with the 'not everyone' bit. But for you? I think you do. Fall in love at first sight. That's why you think I'm her."
"I'm not sure I agree but I'm willing to try loving you either way," I said after a moment.
"It doesn't work that way," Autumn said laughing suddenly. It was infectious. Soon I was laughing too. The entire thing seemed silly all of a sudden.
I told her so, "I'm not used to talking about why I feel the way I do."
She sighed and shook her fur saying, "I don't think anyone is."
We allowed ourselves to just be for awhile. Even though she was the instigator of the conversation I could tell it was difficult for her too, at least in long doses. I took her to one of my favorite places to graze. There were blueberries in the bushes and dandelions on the grass. If you slowed down, and mashed them in your mouth together it could be tastier than either one individually. I'm still not sure why though after experimenting and showing an interest I had actually become known for those weird food tricks. Autumn was delighted and called me a 'chef' a concept that while I found difficult, didn't seem entirely inaccurate. After gorging ourselves, and sniffing the air to make sure nothing dangerous was around we sat down.
"I was raised on a patch of meadow that researchers would use for an zoological survey," she said suddenly sad, "They talked with us and fed us. Told us stories. I liked the stories the most. At least they did, until they got shut down and the hunters moved in. I had to learn a lot quickly. Still in a lot of ways I'm more human than deer."
I only got about half of the meaning at first, but things like 'human' and 'deer' were easy to understand.
"The thing is, I like your story better. Your love story. Your family. There's more information, and more detail out there but with you here..."
"With you here, the story's more meaningful."
"Autumn..." I started to say something, but there was nothing more to say.
"Here's what I'm going to do," she said rising from the grass, "I will stay with you. I will listen to your stories, and I will run where you run and I will decide if I want to fall in love."
I shook my antlers in pleasure.
"But", she continued, "I will not be compared with her. She's dead. I know you loved her but I'm not her."
She really wasn't. I could see that now. It wasn't just the fur, or the size, or even the way Autumn smelled it was everything. The stuff in her mind and in her heart were different. She had never been part of my family, never drank the same water, or faced the same threats. She spoke like no one else I had ever met before, and would really stop and consider me. I knew I loved her for it, but knowing that didn't make it feel any less of a betrayal. My old mate was dead, yes, but she had never really left me. Perhaps we really had been too close. Perhaps we hadn't been close enough. Perhaps I should have followed her in The Big Hunt in the Sky. Even though I didn't know if I believed in it, I had believed in her.
Maybe it was time to believe in someone different.
"It'll be hard for me," I warned Autumn.
"That's okay. I know."
"Alright then. Where do we begin?
"Tell me a story."