The sky was a crisp, fresh sheet of blue, stretched taut in the heat. The dead branches of a tree scratched marks across the road above me, and the warmed tarmac sagged underneath my feet. I followed the road to the bend, where it curved left under tree cover – a cool, green shade that smelt of cool, damp soil.
There was a five-bar gate on the bend ahead of me, the metal hot under my hand. I lean one foot on a lower rung. I press the top rung against my collar bone, and feel the heat of it rise up under my chin. The field is high with golden wheat. It whispers to me. There is barely a breeze today, but the wheat feels it and talks to it.
As I watch, the whitened prongs of antlers rise up in the middle of the wheat field. They are stark and boned, jagged like angry forks of lightning, and deathly pale. I feel eyes on me – two wide, brown eyes, below twitching leaf-shaped ears. The ears glow pink as the sun shines through them, and the eyes watch me, unblinking but unafraid. Wary, but no fear or anger.
The face is soft and white, somehow blurred at the edges as if it’s a mirage. I feel close enough to see the soft lips and quivering muzzle. The stag regards me further. Its ears, twitching back and forth, shine pink from the sun – two leaf-shaped, veined satellites. I barely breathe.
Then it’s away. The stag lowers its head further, hiding everything but the angry tips of the antlers, and I can hear the wheat protest and shudder as it passes through – the stalks bending and yielding before springing back into place. At the edge of the field, I see it again, in the space between the wheat and the hedge. The stag turns its head once more to look at me. It blinks. Once. Twice.
It lowers its head, soft muzzle seeming to touch one hoof in a bow, then, holding its antlers aloft, it steps away in to the hedge. And gone. I step back from the gate, feeling the stark change against my chin – from hot, metallic heat, to cooler, summer sun. I hold the bar a moment longer, lingering, yet knowing that I should go. I blink. Once. Twice.
I look to my feet, placed so squarely on the road. I let go of the gate.