I had never heard a baby deer sneeze until I biked to the Severson home in Custer, South Dakota.
I ride up their long, inclined driveway and see a woman with joyful looking woman smile at me as she opens the door. She peeks in the house and lets Dave know I showed up. “You’re here!” she exclaims to me in a mild Midwestern accent. “Well, we weren’t sure that you’d come–after all, you are a woman traveling alone, and you don’t know who we are, so we thought maybe you’d go past us. Well, we were just about to have some dinner, come on in!”
My entire body is caked in salty sweat and my clothes are filthy. I enter their home, feeling disgusting, consciously aware not to touch anything. I know I showered at the motel that morning, but I still feel like I don’t deserve to be in the home of these nice, clean people.
“Sit, sit! Have some spaghetti, there’s a meat sauce, you can just take as much as you want. Do you eat meat?” I nod appreciatively. “And there’s this bread, we’ve never tried it before but it looks good. Do you like avocados?” I grin.
“I love avocados,” I reply. She passes a plate of sliced avocado to me. I am careful, in these first minutes at my new hosts home, not to take too much. The first helping will match the quantity that they eat. I will myself to pour a normal amount of cheese onto the spaghetti. If we make it to a second helping, then I can take what I need. But for now, moderation, restraint.
Dave turns on the TV; in the car, he explained to me that Mo’ne Davis was scheduled to pitch in the Little League World Series. They were going to watch it over dinner. Dave is a huge fan of Mo’ne Davis; he told me how impressive her story is. Her focus and her poise amazes her. And, “She’s one of the first girls or women to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated for playing a sport.” Dave glowed when he talked about Mo’ne Davis, his genuine admiration was obvious. After being somewhat isolated from mainstream culture for months, the opportunity to watch TV was tempting. Even better, I was watching a young black teenager from Philadelphia being badass on national TV.
I eat multiple helpings of pasta. When my belly is full, Mary offers the shower and laundry. Motels are totally unnecessary, I think. The trifecta of reasons I stayed at a motel last night were shower, laundry, and WiFi. The Seversons had already offered me two of these and I suspected they had WiFi. My extreme desire for a these luxuries had led me to pay for them. Perhaps if I had waited a day, I would have received these all through the kindness of strangers. Lesson learned: no more throwing money around to achieve wants; human kindness will prevail.
The sun sets late these days. I realize that it’s after 9 pm, but it hasn’t even become dark. It’s just about time to feed the deer. We go outside and Dave pulls off the barbed wire from the fence that keeps their property separated from the National Forest land. He and I walk across the boundary and suddenly, Dave is screeching. “Beeeeeeey-bees! EEEEEEEE! Beeeeey-bees! EEEEEEEE” He has a can full of corn in his hands and he rattles it loudly. I’m skeptical–I’m in Nowhere, South Dakota, listening to a grown man screech, claiming that deer are going to come for corn. But are they?
“Do you see that one?” All of the sudden, he stops screeching and points to the far left. “Behind the boulder. Oh! It’s the one with the twins. Maybe the twins will be here tonight. But she looks cautious.” I see the deer, and one of her fawns hiding behind her. The fawn is even more skeptical and timid than the mom and conceals herself behind a tree.
“I see them! Do you think they’re scared of me?” I realize that while they know Dave and Mary, I’m a stranger to this feeding ritual. Dave rattles the corn can, shakes some out onto the ground, and makes some more screeching noises. We move back to the other side of the fence.
And gradually, from miles away, the deer come. These are white-tail deer, which typically incredibly skiddish, and will scamper off into the distance if they see a sign of a human. For Dave and Mary, though, they act tame. They know these humans mean no harm; in fact, they supply a regular food source. More than a dozen deer come to dinner, but all of them soon resign themselves to me, a stranger watching from afar. A buck joins the group, and Mary and Dave tell me that they’ve watched him grow up. He’s four or five years old. They tell me that the mom with the fawn had twins, but that one of them probably died. “After all,” Mary recounts, “it seems like when they have twins, about half of them die.”
The fawn had been the most skeptical of the group. Mary tells me that this fawn is still drinking milk, and we watch as he tries to get drinks from his mama while she eats corn. He attempts to hide behind her for a while, but then agrees that we are harmless. Soon, he realizes that he is old enough for corn and tries to nibble a bite. Dave tells me that this is the first time he’s trying “adult” food. He seems to be doing ok with it, until suddenly a strange noise erupts from his general area. The baby deer starts to kick his nose with his back foot. This noise is a cross between a sneeze and a rapid, desperate inhale. The baby continues to violently kick his nose and make this strange noise.
“What’s he doing?” I ask.
“He’s sneezing! The corn went the wrong way.”
We laugh. We watch and smile as this new deer makes a humorous attempt to enter adulthood. His skinny legs tremble as he kicks his own face over and over again, to no avail.
“We hunt, but we could never kill these deer. These are our babies. We watch them grow up, we feed them, we can’t kill our babies,” Dave explains.
It dawns on me that I have never seen a baby deer sneeze. This experience is unique to those who position themselves physically close to animals and who make repeated efforts to form relationships with “wild-life.” Dave and Mary, through years of feeding these deer, had come to know their personalities. They watched them fight over food, they watched new babies come into the group and older deer who stopped showing up. They became intimately connected to the life cycle of these creatures. While they enjoy hunting various animals for sport, they continue to appreciate the simplicity and beauty of these non-human lives in a way city-dwellers who condemn hunting don’t experience.
Later, they show me the garage, where the antlers of deer they’ve killed hang and the head of an elk towers over us. As it becomes dark outside, the temperatures drop. We step outside to the outdoor hot tub. As the sky becomes blacker, the Milky Way appears. “We compete and see who can count more satellites while we sit out here.” I stare up and see one crossing the dark. We are far enough from the road that not a single car’s engine sounds.
I think about what I would be doing if I were at home. I’d be at a bar, with friends I love, drinking too much, and spending too much money on junk food. Instead, I’m in South Dakota, where the stillness of the night allows my heart to slow down and my mind to still. Instead, I’m in South Dakota, in a new friend’s hot tub, watching satellites cross the sky. Instead, I’m in South Dakota, where the Milky Way is such a normal sight that no one even comments on it. Instead, I’m here, smiling.