The old man and the deer

My grandfather always knew right from wrong. It seemed that his inborn sense of justice was so strong it rubbed off on even the most hardened crooks and made them realise the error of their ways. What was especially amazing about it was that this effect wasn’t limited to people; well at least we, his family, are at a loss of how else to explain how gramps succeeded in making a deer repay what it had stolen, and quite dramatically at that. There’s a well-travelled saying of ‘Treat others like you want to be treated’, also known as the Golden Rule (which happens to be the reason I’m hoping that the few masochists I’m bound to run into sooner or later are as little ethically-enlightened as possible). There’s a substantial volume of theoretical substantiation of why the reciprocal approach works but I’m probably not the only one who’s felt that it would be nice to have some actual proof too from time to time. And sure enough, my grandfather stepped up and provided the factual corroboration I had hoped for.

Inside, grandpa was a gentle soul but it didn’t stop him from being as tough as a coffin nail. Born a son of humble charcoal makers, his childhood was rife with hardship and he used to say that his family was so poor they couldn’t afford to feel sorry for themselves. He grew up to become a steel worker long before occupational safety was a thing but not before he was taken prisoner during WW2 and made it back on foot, so suffice it to say his adult life wasn’t much gentler to him than his youth. Not that it held him back much; against all odds and despite all the rust he had eaten at the steel plant and the frostbite he had to remind him of the horrors endured in the POW camp, he lived to a ripe old age – way too old for his liking – and he regularly complained about having to wait so long to join my grandmother. Reckoning you can’t know for sure if there’s an afterlife until you’ve found out by yourself, he worried that there was one and, knowing his wife, he feared she was up to who knows what.

 

Those two sure were an odd couple if ever there was one. Luckily, they were married way before the notions of soulmates and irreconcilable differences became all the rage they are now, when you’re supposed to keep searching for a mate who shares most of your traits and interests until you end up marrying a sibling you didn’t know you had. Gramps was a level‑headed man of few words with the wait-and-see attitude of a well-adjusted St. Bernard. Granny was his exact opposite; bubbly and animated with the try-and-see approach to life of a happy Boxer. They sort of agreed that one never knew what the future would bring but the motto he thought this dictated was ‘waste not, want not’ while hers was ‘spend it while you’ve got it’.

I can’t think but of two things they had in common – they both deeply loved the person they married and they shared a serious passion for motorbikes. I’ve been told that when grandma was young and people were still walking into lampposts if they saw a girl riding a motorbike, there was this time when she hopped on her bike to go check out a shoe store in the next town but when she got there she thought, heck, let’s see where the road takes me, and she only turned back when she got to the Hungarian border and realised she’d probably need a passport to continue. Gramps on the other hand was less of a nomad and more of a speed fiend. He used to dart around on his red-and-white motorcycle well into his advanced age and it took a wicked fall and a split kneecap for him to kick the habit. Together, they made well-balanced kids, for which I am grateful because one of them ended up being my mum, and she is a legend in her own right.

Grandma was the light of my grandpa’s life and he had always been intent on sneaking out to the eternal pastures just before she did so that he would never live to see a day without her. Well, you know how it is with the best plans of mice and men; grandma went first and left him a widower. He was so devastated we all thought that he would follow right after but he remained strong, bright and alert for years, until the day his nurse walked in to find that his broken heart had finally given up on him. I don’t imagine to know what really happens when we pass away but I’d like to believe he found grandma again.

I adored my grandfather, his gentle nature and his discerning wit. I loved spending time with him and helping him around the cabin he had built in the hills, which served as his retreat from the crazy world he had figured out all too well to particularly like. In line with the time-honoured Slovenian tradition, the slope below grandpa’s cabin boasted an orchard, a small vineyard and a vegetable patch. There was always something to do; the land there was merciless and if you wanted to sprout anything on its miserly soil you had to fight the wind and the drought while keeping the gluttonous game out of your produce. This, of course, is where the darn deer comes into play.

It needs to be pointed out that my grandfather was a generous man. He’d always put out feed for sparrows, finches and tits all winter and he didn’t mind sharing the fruits of his labour with the wildlife. At his behest, we had to pick only the large clusters from the grapevines and leave the small ones out for the starlings; ‘the small ones are for the birdies’ he’d say. Many a time he would sit on the cabin porch, smiling to himself and observing the deer and wild boars feast on fallen fruit in the orchard below. Admittedly, it was funny seeing the tipsy creatures hobble back to the woods after they’ve had one fermented plum too many.

What he took exception to was an audacious stag that just had to keep pushing the envelope. The shameless creature wouldn’t settle for fruit that was kindly left out for the enjoyment of his ilk, no sir. Instead, it had taken up a habit of jumping the vegetable patch fence and helping itself to grandpa’s beans, peas and lettuce. While my grandfather referred to the felon simply as The Buck, I strongly suspect this hadn’t been the work of a sole brash deer; the thieving had been going on for many years and given what I’ve seen in terms of deer intelligence thus far, I doubt any buck would have lasted that long. I believe the original sinner spawned several generations of game with no sense of private property, and not only was each generation more brazen than the previous one but it also seemed that the deer’s jumping ability was improving over time, probably as a result of their well-balanced diet. Given all the hard work my grandpa had been putting into his garden and his generous sharing of the orchard produce with the forest animals, it was blatantly unfair that the deer would deny gramps of his vegetables like that.

My grandfather was as patient a fellow as one could hope to meet but one fateful afternoon he had had enough. Just after he had finished watering his vegetables and wearily walked the steep slope back to the cabin, he stopped and looked back to take in one final view of his garden in the setting sun. But what he saw instantly transformed him from the mild-mannered man we knew and loved into a hoe-wielding angel of vengeance.

It was the deer. The thieving buck was at it again; in a blatant display of disrespect for the human race, it didn’t even bother to wait for grandpa to get out of sight before going for the freshly-watered crops. It must have leapt over the fence as soon as grandpa turned his back and now it was up to its ears in the pea patch. Gripping his hoe, grandpa dashed down the slope with the grim resolve to turn the deer into venison. The slope, it was breathtakingly steep which was a real hassle when you were on your way up. Seriously, it was so steep you had to walk with a wide stance lest you risked hitting your chin with your knee, which would have sent you tumbling all the way back to the creek deep below. But downhill, the slope provided for almost super-human acceleration and grandpa and his make-shift weapon were closing in on the grazing buck fast. It was only when gramps kicked open the fence gate that the offending ungulate first looked up to see what was going on, all doe-eyed and still chewing. Faced by the sight of an elderly but brawny gentleman armed with not only a sturdy hoe but also righteous anger, astounding linear momentum and a firm intention of treating the pea-munching perp to a good beating, the buck must have realised it would be a great time to put some distance between itself and the man it had been pilfering from.

I might have mentioned that deer may not be the brightest of animals, at least this one for sure couldn’t have been the go-to wise-buck in its neck of the woods. When the startled deer dashed for safety, it badly misjudged the height of the fence, which would be the very same fence that itself and likely several generations of its ancestors had no problem negotiating on a regular basis. It rammed the fence with great force; a suspicious crack was heard and the deer bounced back spectacularly. It landed on its back and looked extremely confused, even by deer standards. Having heard the cracking sound, grandpa thought the feebleminded creature had broken the fence when it hit it, which served to fuel his wrath further. He lunged at his momentarily supine adversary to deliver a thoroughly-deserved blow, which prompted the stunned buck to scramble back to its feet and dash for the fence again, this time clearing it in an Olympic-grade leap and high-tailing it back to the woods.

Shaking with rage, my grandfather approached the fence to inspect the damage. His aggravation gave way to revelation and finally to celebration when he realised that the crack hadn’t emanated from the fence giving up at the sheer force of impact but rather from the clumsy deer itself. He held up a perfect pair of six-point roe deer antlers that his fleet-footed but dim-witted nemesis had left behind, and gloated.

When he wasn’t brandishing garden tools to discipline the local fauna, my grandfather was a man of reason. The deer had stolen from him and it had paid with its prized antlers; the deer had disrespected him and it had paid with its dignity. As far as grandpa was concerned, the matter was closed. He had always been fair to others and it was only fitting that others would treat him the same way. I don’t know how the deer felt about the settlement and whether it had planned to unleash its vengeance upon grandpa’s vegetables when its ego healed. As grandpa’s fury dissipated, he was starting to feel sorry for the buck and we figured it was in neither the deer’s nor our grandfather’s best interest to let the feud continue. We helped him raise the fence to a giraffe-proof height soon after. As an added precaution, grandpa mounted the trophy above his porch as a warning to other would-be thieves, and in the evenings we would sit around it and make him retell the story over and over again until he was sorry he hadn’t kept the whole episode quiet.

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