Somewhere on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, six-thousand feet above sea level, on a hill shaded by giants, my father waits for death.
Job tosses my mom’s suitcase onto a deeply polished countertop alongside a chrome microwave, sleek single-serve coffee brewer, and several other shining kitchen appliances; some with tags still attached. “Beautiful isn’t it?” He says. “What do you think Rahab?”
“Oh, yes,” Mom says. She reaches up to crown her husband with a gray wooly hunting cap. The drooping side-flaps struggle to hide Job’s unusually large ears, but can do nothing for his long crooked nose and lipless grin. “It’s perfect! Everything you promised my love.”
The cabin’s wood is polished, floor and walls, to a high gloss. The armchair and couch that sit before the fireplace are covered in plastic. A chemical lemon scent sticks to my lip and waters my eyes. “Jeez,” I say, “I didn’t think a cabin could be so . . . clean.”
Mom wraps her arms around Job’s neck. “Will you take me on a walk tonight? Before sunset? Oh, I’d love to walk the forest at sunset.”
Job unlocks Mom’s arms. “You don’t walk around here after dark, Rahab. Not in this wilderness.”
“I just thought,” Mom started, then growing a small smile, “but never mind. Not if it’s too dangerous, I understand.”
“Too dangerous?” Job laughs and grips her around the waste, thrusting his hips into hers. He flicks his head toward an old redwood rifle hung on the hood of the stone fireplace. “Dangerous for the beasts you mean!”
She laughs hard and too long. “Yes, I nearly forgot: my husband the genius lawyer, and mighty hunter.” Give it a rest Mom…
Job gives her an approving smile. “Well, not here anyway—damn park regulations. But you don’t have to worry about the wildlife out there with me here. All the same, if you want to walk in the woods, there’s more to see during the day. Okay?”
“She said she wants to go at sunset,” I say.
Mom looks to the floor and winds her wedding band round the knuckle. Job doesn’t look away from her. “If it’s going to make you that upset,” Job says, “we’ll go.” Mom beams at him and rests her delicate hands on the waterproof micro fabric of Job’s hunting jacket. “But I didn’t buy this damn cabin—with a perfectly good view of the trees and butterflies and whatever—just to freeze outside in the dark.”
Every summer when school gets out, and Mom gets time off, we take a few weeks to ‘get the heck outta’ dodge,’ as she says, and travel up the California coast chasing our expectations. This time is my last year of high school and we had planned to take a drive north to Hollywood, or maybe even to San Fran—like so many of my friends have drooled over for months—but instead I’m stuck in my new stepfather’s love shack that he’s no doubt seduced many a secretary at. That is until he got so old that all the money in the firm couldn’t reverse the effects on his body—then he married my mom.
“What about Ole Sherman?” I ask, pulling out a wrinkled page I printed out before we made the drive out of San Diego. “General Sherman, I mean. When can we see him?”
Job scowls at me like a man unable to ignore the foul smell of a clogged toilet any longer. “It’s not a ‘he,’” he says, “It’s just an old tree. It’s too far down the road. What is with you two? I thought we wanted a vacation in a real log cabin, remember? Now we’re here, all you can do is go on about filling the vacation with chores.”
“What’s the point of being in nature if we can’t see the nature?” I say.
“Look!” Job backhands the sliding door that looks out to the deck and down through the brush and evergreen. “There! There’s your nature! Christ, if I wanted to dance around in the woods, I would have gone hunting with Jack and the boys, with my ass stuck up in some tree, waiting for deer. At least I’d have a pair of antlers to show for it.”
“Job,” Mom says, “do all deer have antlers?”
“What? No, that’s ridiculous, why?”
“Oh, I just thought I saw something down the hill, there, that looked like a big dog with a black tail.”
Job and I join Mom to look. “Are you sure?” I say, embarrassed that I can’t hide my excitement from Job.
“No,” he says in his lukewarm groan, “I seriously doubt that you—wait—yes, there!” Job shoulders me away from the slider, whips it open, and clomps out to the deck. “Well I’ll be damned, it’s a doe.” For a moment, he stands with hands on hips, just looking. “Well, they’re common enough around here.” Then he turns to come back inside, but Mom and I shuffle out to meet him before he can.
“Where?” Mom says. “I don’t see her.”
Job sighs, turns his head to the clear sky and nods slowly, then slides his hand down Mom’s mid back, guiding her gaze with his other hand to a spot down the hill. Then with a firm squeeze of her butt, “Bingo, you see? In that patch of fern there.”
Mom giggles like Sandy Preachily every time Professor Mineack tries to cram another terrible joke into his chemistry lecture. She did get an A this year. I’m still not able to see the deer, and I start to think that Job might be making it up when she reveals herself to me; resting in a bed of lady fern and crisp pine litter; her tall ears twirl to catch my gasp, then away to unheard noise in the woods. She licks at the base of her dark tail that contrasts beautifully with her downy copper back; quiet and alone. “Wow,” I say.
“Just a doe.” Job says. “Nothing worth looking at really.”
“Is she hurt?” Mom says. “She keeps licking at her side.”
Job takes a few steps toward the edge and blocks the sun from his eyes. He tongues something out of his teeth then in a flat tone, “Yep. She’s in labor.”
“What!” Mom and I say together.
“She’s about ready to burst.”
“Oh my goodness,” Mom says. “Should we do something?”
“We can shoo her out of my backyard if you want. She’ll make a mess.”
“Do something Job,” I say. It’s more aggressive than I planned, but Mom’s face mirrors the sentiment.
“Jeez you two, there’s nothing to do, these rats breed like crazy up here. It’s a shame they don’t let us help control the population.”
“She’s not even making noise,” I say. “Why isn’t she crying or something?”
“They don’t have feeling like that,” Mom says.
“Really?” I say. “But shouldn’t she feel pain? I mean look at her, she’s got a water-balloon hanging out.”
The doe stretches her neck and her boney leg rows in the air like a dog with a slow itch. She can’t be more than two-hundred feet from where we stand. I can see a swollen patch of skin under her tail, like a red pear, flare up, then a pair of black sticks slip out and stop.
“Oh my God! Mom she’s freaking pushing out the baby now, what are we doing, we need to help her.”
“What is that coming out?” Mom says.
“It’s the legs,” Job says. He picks at a hangnail, then bites it off. “What are you going to do? deliver the kid? Hah! No, you know what? Why don’t you go down there and deliver the kid Dr. Peter.”
The doe stiffens her tail and the legs are followed by a dripping mass that couldn’t be the baby’s head.
“Isn’t there something we can do?” Mom says.
I try to jail my response through clenched teeth, but, “To hell with you Job,” I say and crouch down at the edge of the deck. I measure the distance to the ground. “I’m going to help her.”
“You watch your mouth boy. Now I told you there’s nothing—”
I let my feet pop off the deck and drop six feet to the grass. My legs buckle when I land and I collapse on myself. I hear mom shout something. The blood rushes hot and sharp in my neck. Job’s laughter just lifts me to my feet faster. I smack the dirt from my sleeves and jeans, and wade out through the scaly tendrils of the underbrush toward the laboring doe. Closing in on her, I start to run. I can see that the baby is nearly out, she lets out a powerful groan that chills my back and drives my feet harder into the soft earth. I smell every passing dogwood flower, taste every gnat on my tongue, hear every bird cry out overhead as I tear through the woods; but I do not see the buck. Not until his six foot silhouette is rearing from behind the fat sequoia whose roots the doe labors on. There is a commotion at the cabin. I hear mom shrieking my name again and again as the sharp hooves, like volcanic glass, tear through my cheek, my jeans, break my nose. I’m on the floor. A wet membrane-covered calf wobbles on its front knees, and stares at me curiously as another blow shatters my jaw. Then a gut popping report cracks through the trees and the barrage ends.
I can’t breathe. The towering giants turn red overhead. I squirm on the pine needles and my whole body is buzzing and numb and I know I’m hurt bad. I hear a thud and Job calling after Mom. My head is full of helium now and I feel it lifting away from me. The mother does not stay after the shot. She bounds stiff legged through the dogwood, her hind squashing and extending with each powerful leap. Beside me, the newborn rocks to its knees, ears hung askance, and shakily gains his feet just as the buck collapses before it, honking a final parental protest as his doe’s black tail flitters down the slope, and disappears into the dark wood.