I take a step and my boot sinks with a deaf crunch into the snow. Its quiet; there are no birds, no squirrels, not even a breeze to move the tree branches. I didnt know the woods could be so quiet. I feel like Im walking into a temple; I feel an urge to kneel down and pray. The noise Pepe and I make feels sacrilegious.
We follow the trail so we wont get lost. We usually follow the creek, but today I want to try a new road. The woods are my favorite place to be. I like it better in the summer, when its warm and squirrels and birds move about, when the breeze makes the branches dance and sing. Today everything has been plunged into a strange world; a world where everything is white. Thin clouds cover the sky like a blanket; no, like a giant fluorescent light. Maybe this is what heaven looks like. Suddenly Pepe perks his ears and stares into the distance. I try to see what he sees; maybe a squirrel, or a deer. I see nothing.
Stupid puppy, I think. We continue on our walk. There, in the distance, a fox scurries away at the sound of our steps. I think shes carrying something in her mouth. Winter must be tough for her. Pepe sees her also, and wants to chase her. He pulls and barks happily, while his tail wags uncontrollably. I laugh. Silly puppy, I think.
But something else catches his attention. He stops his barking and stares, not at the fox, but at the place where she came from. I feel a chill run down my spine. Pepe is acting strange. Whenever something catches his attention he barks; today he simply stares, his body tense. I shake my head. This is dumb; Im letting my imagination get the better of me. Still, I resume my walk warily, this time with my eyes and ears open. I see movement far up ahead and I freeze. My heart stops for a second. Until I see the antlers; a deer. Another one jumps out to his left. Its a herd, all of them with their eyes on me. I smile. Pepe starts to bark at them, and they all run away, their white tails high in the air.
I start to relax again. Im really letting my imagination get the better of me. I know there is nothing out here that can hurt me; there are no bears or coyotes. Foxes arent dangerous except to rabbits, and Pepe was bred to hunt foxes anyway. My foot gets caught on a root, and I almost fall on my face. What I see when I look up freezes me in place. Right there, at the foot of a tree, is a deer lying on its side. I can barely feel Pepe pulling on his leash trying to get to it. I try to understand how a deer came to die at the foot of a tree in the middle of the woods. I know that deer die all the time; weak deer, sick deer, old deer. This one is young. Its coat is shiny, a mark of good health. It doesnt look malnourished, either. Its eye stares emptily at the white sky. A chunk of its back leg is missing, but its not enough to cause death. Nothing in these woods could have killed it. There is no blood around it to suggest a bullet wound. Its just dead, for no apparent reason. I stare at its empty eye. Why cant I look away?
My chest feels tight and I can hardly breathe. The forest suddenly comes alive with noise. The creek seems to scream and cry. The wind picks up and makes the trees groan and growl. Pepe keeps pulling me insistently toward the deer. I feel a cold sweat run down my spine. I feel trapped, suffocated. I turn around and run. Pepe thinks its a game and runs along with me, almost pulling me. My foot slips and I and fall painfully to my knees. No time; I scramble back to my feet, my heart in my throat, and start running again. I hadnt realized I was so deep in the woods. I cant see the exit.
I feel the hairs on my neck stand on end. Im running desperately like the deer; I feel like Im running for my life. I think that if something should grab me I have to let go of the leash so that at least Pepe can get away. Stupid, nothing is chasing me. Why am I running? But a desperate urgency makes me keep going, not even daring to look behind me. My heart aches in my chest, my lungs are burning in the freezing air. There! I see the exit. I see the clearing a few feet ahead, civilization just a few steps away. My leg muscles feel as if theyre about to give out. Just a little more, I tell myself.
I burst into the clearing. The light is blinding. I fall to my knees on the snow. I finally look behind me, into the forest. I think I hear steps walking away. Did I imagine it? I strain my ears. I hear nothing. Its gone. But Pepe stares intently into the forest, a deep growl forming in his throat. Maybe it was my imagination, maybe it wasnt. I shake the snow from my pants, and start my walk back home.