This morning, stepping outside, I noticed my first tulips beside the front door. Or rather, their absence. Yesterday morning I thought that after one of the coldest Aprils on record and after last night’s warm rain, I would finally see blooming the tulips I had painstakingly planted last October. I would see their tight green fists relax, like a magician opening his clenched hand to show the colorful silk inside—red, orange and pink, yellow.
Instead, green nubs at ground level, beads of tulip juice glistening at their edges.
“Deer,” my seasoned gardener father says. “Rabbits, squirrels, and skunks will leave them alone, but deer love tulips.”
This evening in the nearby nature preserve, four does watched me walk along the mulched path. They stood as still as the tree trunks that hid them in plain sight. Tails relaxed, their bodies blended seamlessly with the bare trees, dead leaves, grasses and weeds, and the dusky sky. How long had they, motionless, watched before some grace opened my eyes and I saw that the forest had delicate legs, wide eyes, and quizzical ears—one set, then two, then four—four does paused in their evening browse?
Before I could think, on a quick intake of breath I spoke: “Oh.” Then, “Hello.”
This was too much for them—my clumping steps, vanilla-scented lotion, and sharp-cornered speech. The nearest one lifted—head, neck, chest, flanks— and bounded, white tail flashing. Three more flashing tails followed. In another breath, they had disappeared through the trees, back into the invisible dimension from which they had, briefl y, appeared.
One of these, perhaps, or all four, had begun the day at my door. Stepping lightly before dawn across suburban lawns, around skateboards and bikes left on the sidewalks, crossing Observatory Avenue, radiant in the pool of a streetlight, they’d stopped and tipped their black noses up into the night breeze. Then they’d made straight for my door—for the bed of tulips freshly risen from the dark, wet ground. Crowding each other, they’d wrapped their tongues around stems and buds, taking the broad leaves between their soft lips and tearing. One would suddenly have lifted her head, bud hanging from her mouth, and swiveled an ear. Through the latched metal door and one thin wall she’d have heard me groan and turn heavily in my sleep.
Satisfied no danger rouses past the door, she’d drop her head again. Through a long stubborn winter she has fi lled her belly with woody twigs, leathery cedar branches. Now, ravenously, she’d tear the tender succulence of new tulips. Later, in the woods, she would bring the cud back to her mouth, chewing, chewing, finally savoring the taste of spring. Swallowed, the sweet greens and flowers would feed the twin fawns growing in her belly.
I run my finger over the tulip stumps, drying out now and scabbing over. Next door my neighbor’s tulips are perfect egg cups of color. Bees hover over them, dip in then up, gargling their delight. She tells me the red ones every year draw hummingbirds. She shows me a spray bottle labeled “Deer Out.” “It’s expensive,” she says, “but it works, and there’s a money-back guarantee.”
In October I’ll plant more bulbs. And when, in April, after the last gray snow finally goes and the hard earth thaws, when tulip shoots rise like green thumbs-ups of yes to spring, I’ll set the alarm for an hour before dawn and watch for the doe to step quietly, hungrily, to my door.