Retreat: Hindman Settlement School
creative nonfiction and artwork by Loren Crawford

I’ve just watched a deer slowly dying in Troublesome Creek. I watched a long time, a worthless witness. Before dawn, I stepped out on the balcony of my apartment, a precarious perch, to watch the sky lighten.  Birds were already singing their morning songs. It was colder, everything soaked with the night’s rain, the creek muddied, running fast and several feet higher than yesterday. There was a large splash below—downstream of me a deer lurched in the water, a doe, winter thin, throwing herself upstream, struggling to gain a bank. At first, she seemed stuck in the muddied bottom; she made heroic efforts to leap from the water but could not clear anything. I rooted for her. Jump deer, you can do it, you can rise. But she didn’t. Her strength was failing, she seemed to be injured, her back legs could not bear her for long. Prayers poured out of me, lift her up God, lift her up, get her out. The banks on either side were high, cut deep by erosion, carved out by flood. The lower bank across from my vantage seemed more attainable but the deer struggled toward the higher bank. I prayed harder, watched, played out various scenes of rescue, calculation. The bank was far steeper on my side than it looked from where I was; I knew this. The other bank, too. Could I wade in somewhere? Find a way into the creek from downstream, make my way through the muddy bottom against the current she was fighting? What strength would I have to lift a deer?  Memories of last summer’s flood made me wary. That water is more powerful than it looks from up here. Cold. Certainly uncaring. 

The deer rested between efforts, tried again, always going upstream against the higher bank. It seemed clearer to me that she was injured, at least one leg broken. How long had she been in the water? All night? Was she frightened into the creek from last night’s storm? Or had she been hit on the road and a panic to get home had left her floundering in the creek? I called to God over and over again—lift her up, save her, let her out—when I don’t even believe in a god that can intervene. Maybe I am meant to intervene. Should I go wake people up, find someone that can help? Can she be helped? Should she be helped? How can I just be standing up here on my perch watching from on high? Is that what God does? The savior impulse is strong, fraught with ego. If her legs are broken, I’d only cause more suffering, my own life might be endangered, I might endanger others pulling them into my rescue scheme. It’s presumptuous to think I could save anything, but there it is, hardwired. The time between her attempts to free herself grew longer and longer and longer. The cold water was taking her strength. I believed it was also taking her pain. She lay mostly submerged against the high bank. I could just make out her ears through the flowering dogwood. She looked this way and that, gently, slowly. Then she did not move at all for a long time.

This January my closest cousin, Deborah Rae, lay in her hospital bed looking gently this way and that, giving herself over to the ebbing of her strength and the pain that was the constant current she swam in. “I’ve had such a good life, I’m fine,” she told us when she gathered strength to look at us as we watched her from above. “I’m fine, so many blessings. I love you all so much, thank you for everything, I mean it,” she told us over and over. “No, no, no,” we told her. “We don’t want you to go, we don’t want you to leave.”  “I have to, I have to go.” To the end her husband believed there was something else to be done, some course of action that would keep her with him—if only she could get well enough for that transfusion, if only she would get dialysis, if only she would finally eat something, drink something, if only she tried. . . . Not doing anything felt like a failure, believing her when she said it was time to go felt like a betrayal. 

I left the apartment. I went down the hill, across the bridge, and over the flood-mudded field now growing fresh green. I found the deer clinging still to the cliff bank, far steeper than it looked from above, still clinging to life. She raised her head and looked at me across the current. She shivered, curled tight against the rocks, her hind legs in the water. I went for help.  I texted the Settlement School’s director and told him there was a deer that I didn’t know could or should be rescued.  I found another employee in the social hall and told her the same thing. We went together back to the deer. There, there she is, I pointed through the bamboo growing fresh along our bank. This time she didn’t lift her head. She lay curled against the cliff, unblinking. She wasn’t shivering anymore.

What was Debbie’s last taste of this world? It was Fresca, the hands of those she loved laying gently on her, and the sound of prayer.

For the doe, it was the cold current of Troublesome Creek and the songs of morning birds as mallards floated untroubled past her down the rushing stream. 

Loren Crawford teaches and creates theater with young people at a school she loves in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s published plays for children and occasional essays, poems and art, most recently for Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel. Loren is the Director of Religious Exploration at First Unitarian Church.