a deer in the headlights
“Hey! Look at that!” Bobby’s driving, so he sees him first.
It’s about 9:30 p.m. on a late summer’s eve sometime in the 1990s, and we’ve just pulled into the driveway of my mother’s country home. The five of us, Mom, myself, my then-husband Bobby, and our friends Jerry and Lee, are slightly tipsy after a lakeside dinner at McGowan house in Georgeville.
We sit like sardines in the car, waiting to spill out into the crisp evening air. But the buck stops us there.
“Shhhhhhh!” It’s a unified command to everyone else.
Someone whispers: “He’s huge.”
“Yeah.” The rest of us whisper back in agreement.
He stands stock still about forty feet away, at the end of mom’s garden: a big male deer, a buck, taken by surprise, perhaps while making short shrift of one of mom’s cabbages.
He’s frozen by the car’s high beams, a deer in the headlights, quite literally, for us to admire.
Observing wildlife is one of the great joys of rural living, and we see deer regularly of course. They wander across the field behind the house almost daily, usually in the early morning or late afternoon in groups of two or three, sometimes up to a half a dozen or more. The micro herds comprise mostly does, their spotted fawns, and yearlings.
We see bucks too, but not as often, and certainly not this close. He is a truly gorgeous specimen: at least five feet at the shoulder, sleek, fully mature, with an eight-point rack of antlers.
We sit there watching him watch us, none of us moving a muscle or backing off: the National Geographic version of a Mexican standoff. He is a magnificent statue, pinned by the headlights to the inky darkness behind him. And we are all eyes. The mutual stare down lasts only a minute or two, but it seems like an eternity.
“Let’s see if we can get closer,” Bobby breaks the silence.
One by one, Pink-Panther-like, we open the car’s four doors. All the ordinary and previously silent sounds associated with car doors opening are suddenly thunderous.
Surely the cacophony will cause him to turn tail and flee I think. But no. He stays planted there, immovably majestic.
The five of us step onto terra firma, semi-crouching behind the doors as we do. He is wild after all. And wild animals can be dangerous–even those that appear non-threatening.
“Shhhhhhh! You’ll scare him!” We hiss at each other.
“Okay okay! I am.” We are all equally guilty of disturbing the peace, but there are no deer-watching gendarmes around to take charge.
“Don’t shut the doors, it’ll make too much noise,” That’s Lee, the only city slicker among us.
“Wow. I can’t believe he’s still standing there! And he hasn’t batted an eyelash since we pulled up…” she adds.
I mentally agree. It IS strange. I have never seen a wild animal become totally paralyzed like this before. Even raccoons run like bats out of hell to avoid becoming road kill in the face of bright night lights.
Then I remember that not all wild animals are intimidated by humans. I witnessed an incident just outside Banff years ago in which, with a mere flick of an antler, a grazing elk on the shoulder of the highway tossed a snap-happy Japanese tourist across the hood of a car like the poor fellow was a piece fluff.
That’s a sobering thought, I think. I tuck my reflections at the strangeness of our current situation under my armpit, which had suddenly become slightly damp, and step out (VERY cautiously) from behind my car door onto the floodlit lawn in front of the vehicle.
“He must be mesmerized by the lights,” Mom voices what we had all been thinking.
“Yeah,” the rest of us agree softly as we inch forward, trying to get as close as safely possible before he bolts into the night or gores one of us with his pointy horns, or first the latter and then the former before we have a chance to beat him to the bolt.
Closer, closer, closer, we creep until I, at the front of our small safari pack, almost reach the edge of the garden opposite to where the buck (MR. Buck to you) rules. He still hasn’t flinched.
I stop dead. Frozen in my tracks just like he is. Then I slowly straighten from my slight animal-tracking crouch.
“Wait a minute,” I whisper, though clearly there is no longer any need to. “There’s something wrong. He should’ve run by now. He hasn’t even blinked, something’s wrong.”
Leaving my stealth behind, I take a few steps closer, through the green beans (they are ripe for picking) and onward toward the tomatoes (which are not).
WTF? That big buck is peppered with what appears to be bloodless buckshot wounds!
“Oh my God! He looks like a statute, because HE IS A STATUE!”
I stumble out of the garden and onto the lawn where I collapse in a heap of laughter.
My companions, fanned out behind me in various states of sneakiness, take a while to catch on.
“It’s a CUT OUT!” I cry, cracking up.
By this time I’m rolling around in the dewy grass, peeing my pants I’m laughing so hard.
“It’s a cardboard cutout! It’s a cardboard cutout! No wonder it’s not moving!” More peals of laughter. Even wetter panties.
“No way!” Jerry, Lee, Mom and Bobby join the laughing fit.
Turns out my brother’s brother-in-law, Andre, who is an avid hunter, is also a consummate prankster. He and my brother cooked up this little stunt to have a chuckle at our expense. While we were out for dinner, they brought over one of Andre’s life-sized targets in my brother’s truck, planted it at the edge of my mother’s garden, and made their escape before we got back.
They had planned to hide in the bushes and film us making fools of ourselves, but something interfered with that part of the scheme. No matter, I will replay the mental movie of our surprise, delight, and glee at will in the future, and thereby relive the joyfulness of one of the best-ever pranks I’ve experienced.