George is a gamekeeper. His daily routine begins after an early breakfast with his inspection of the estate’s woodland. As ever, his old, increasingly frail, Border collie, Sam, accompanies him.
In a clearing near the main road, Sam barks as he hears a mewling sound from within nearby dense undergrowth. George holds up a finger and Sam is silent. They push their way past hawthorn and ash saplings. Good God, George gasps. A fallow deer, a doe, stands over the carcass of a stag. The doe, terrified, runs off. George studies the badly butchered body of the stag. Poachers, he says, buggers are at it again; no jobs, no money, no food on the table and hungry kids; It’s not right but nor is this. Flies swarm as maggots feast. Look at the poor beast; nothing deserves being cut up like that – no respect. Sam, stay. Keep strangers away.
It’s midday by the time George has dug a grave big enough for the stag’s body. He’s bloodied and tired by the time he’s buried the stag deep enough to prevent predators. As he rests on his spade Sam quietly growls. Turning, George sees the doe standing watching him. Hello, George says, I won’t harm you. The doe turns and disappears into the wood. She’s mourning, George says, adding, Don’t be daft, man, deer aren’t human.
The following night George is awakened by a haunting persistent high-pitched cry. He dresses and with Sam at his side sets off for the stag’s grave. Reaching it, they find the doe wailing like a banshee. George and Sam stand silently until the doe sees them. She doesn’t run for cover but continues to keen. She’s mourning, George says, I was right; I’ve never seen or heard the like of it.
On the following night George and Sam join the doe at the grave. On the way back to the cottage Sam stumbles and is unable to walk any further. George carries his dog slung across his shoulders. Back in the keeper’s cottage he lays Sam in front of the wood-burning stove and feeds Sam bread dipped in whisky – a remedy in which he has no faith; nevertheless Sam sleeps.
In the early morning light George sits on the floor by Sam stroking him, telling the dog that he’ll be okay, knowing full well that his dog is near death. He sits with him until the end.
It’s early evening when George gently lowers Sam into the grave. He looks up to see the doe standing just outside the garden fence. George smiles and says thanks. By the time George has completed the burial, he wants to say a prayer but the only words that come to him are, “Though lovers be lost, love shall not; and death shall have no dominion.” That night George visits the stag’s grave and stands with the doe. When George leaves for the cottage the doe comes with him. From then on deer and man are inseparable.
© Phil Cosker 2022
Phil Cosker has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work. All rights reserved; no part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted by any mean, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise without the prior permission of the author.