…The hart ungalled play”
–Hamlet, Act III, Scene II
by Leslie Jenike
Engorged in the middle of the night, I came downstairs and hooked myself up to the breast pump. My mother, half-asleep, stumbled into the living room. “What is that?” I gestured to the flanges and tubes on my chest. “Oh,” she said. “That’s weird—I swear it sounded like (affects a robotic voice), black heart, black heart, black heart”—
“That’s just the motor, Mom.”
I think it sounds like, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.
There are just some animals no one makes into toys. There are just some animals no one wants around children, I guess: The deer. The goose. For the most part, they maintain their animal integrity, and do not commit their bodies to our cribs, stuffed-animal bins, Target shelves, grocery store check-out aisles, spastic animation, or even our sweet little board books stacked on tables beside gliders, their covers the colors of candy. What I mean is, no one wants to snuggle with a deer. No one wants to snuggle with a goose. No one wants to see that.
Actually, no one wants to see breastfeeding, let alone the breast pump. Sure, we can say it’s natural, it’s beautiful, but no one wants to see that bottle of breast milk in the office fridge. No one wants to accidently walk in on a woman hooked up to her machine—the machine machine or even the baby machine—automated joy, mechanized nourishment. What am I supposed to do, Black Hart, except submit to your requirement?
There are deer everywhere—inside our gardens, garnishing our hillsides, rummaging through the trash of our imaginations. It’s negotiable—I suppose—our childlike wonder at their flanks and noses and white tails and hooves and black noses, and some people want to shoot them, or believe by shooting them they are, in fact, saving the world. I don’t deny that. What I do deny is the unicorn, who chose not to climb aboard Noah’s ark, and so was lost to the world’s fauna forever. What I do not deny is that deer are the unicorn’s closest living relatives, only you needn’t be a virgin to call them to you—just some tasty greenery and a few trees for hiding in. Not even our highways can stop them, though our cars do sometimes. I must have been a deer in a former life because I am deathly afraid of getting hit by a car. Or I was a car in a former life because I am deathly afraid of a deer hitting me.
Saint Giles, Saint of Childhood Fears, was said to have been suckled by a hind—a small female red deer—subsisting wholly on her milk in his hermitage deep in the woods somewhere in what is now France. She loved Giles like her own fawn and he loved her like his own mama, settling his crooked man’s frame beneath her body, opening his crooked man’s mouth, and squeezing hard at her teats with his fists—
black heart, black heart, black hart
until a stream of blue-black-white milk streaked across his teeth and tongue and he felt himself grow bigger—a growing boy! Sated, he’d lay his head at her hooves, sucking his opposable thumb, and sleep.
That the hind would love a saint is no small thing, nor no real wonder. She did the best she could with what she had—the high-fat and not really sweet juice of her body—and as the saint grew in righteousness, she grew in hunger.
The deer, whom Giles called Therese or Sophie or Helga or Edith, was naturally hunted/haunted by men who wished to kill her and roast her on a spit since they’d seen her stepping lightly about the park, between shadows, as dainty as a lady—waiting for what?
She was a deer and deer love the dusk, to root and rut about in the gloaming, the hot scent of their piss on dead leaves, their twitching, swiveled ears like satellites tuned to supper-time news. When you and yours are settling around your table or—more likely—scattering yourselves to private consultations with twilight’s terror, the deer are moving. They are seeking. They are living their best lives. So, too, did Giles’ hind leave the safety of his deprivations and go out into the wilderness to seek others like her. Giles, up before the dawn, naturally fell asleep before dark, and so hardly knew the double-life his deer led, and didn’t really care to.
One day the King of Those Parts tracked the deer on horseback to Giles’ hovel—something akin to a yurt struck in a field of tuberoses—where he awoke the hermit from his godly, officious sleep with a manly Ho! and pack of baying dogs. Giles leapt up just as Therese or Sophie or Helga or Edith leapt to his side and thwack! went the arrow—meant for the hind—into Giles’ hand held out in a gesture of, No! How dare you kill my wet nurse? Like the nail that pierced Christ’s palm, so did the arrow pierce Giles’—directly in the center—though everyone knows to hang a man up on a cross, it’s better practice to drive the nails through his wrists and ankles. It’s the bone, you see. Bone is sturdier.
The story ekes out only a thimble-full of its life-giving tap after this particular confrontation between Saint and Hind and King. Giles recovered from his injury and became Saint of Injuries, of Depressions, of Fears.
The King found a new deer to hunt.
The hind? She decided to stick close to home or—if she ever meant to leave for far-off parts, she considered developing a machine by which she could milk herself into a bottle so her Saint would never have to go without again. Only, she was just an animal, and not a particularly loved one. She hadn’t the thumbs for the job.
My mother, I think, is losing her memory. It’s little things that get lost—a conversation, a time agreed-upon, a message sent—compounded to make communication between us sometimes wrought and strange. She’s been alive since the 1940s and for all her energy, I think she’s starting to lose touch with the world, too. I mean, the world as it is now, which includes breast pumps, and women who work and breastfeed and raise children and allow their breasts to be indecorously sucked by babies and machines, machines and babies.
When I was breastfeeding, I wanted to be valorized and felt sorry for. According to one camp, I’d made the correct choice; any other choice would’ve damned me. To those hardcore breastfeeding people, I would’ve been seen as selfish and wimpy—uncommitted—that is, if I’d chosen formula. Gross! Formula.
But according to another camp, as a breast-feeder I was over-achieving, maybe even too liberal, too crunchy, pretentious, using my singular power to override anyone else’s claim to my baby, to time with my baby, and with their need to fulfill some need my baby has—in particular, the need to feed.
Feeding a baby feels powerful, is all-consuming. A trial-by-fire. First, there’s the question of latching—will she, or won’t she? Next comes the terrible pain. Then, there’s the question of growth, of thriving, as in, is she blooming, is she burnishing her goldenrod? First, the colostrum simultaneous to terrible pain. Next, real milk comes in, suddenly flooding the breasts, and that means more pain. How can I describe it?
Like biting down on the most tender, adored
made-in-Devotion’s image, an articulation so delicate
who can say what she means
when she bends her body over she practically
that she’s trying not to scream:
It’s a buck, a buck in Walhalla Ravine; look! In an unusual funk, February suddenly gives us
April and with it, the hart in horny, besotted brown, pissing hormones into mud runnels,
the smell crowned by a kind of bodily junk we tease out between the fog of exhaust and
baking bread: an epigrammatic stench + muddy discharge, say the signs on lampposts.
Also, Doomed—(maybe a forewarning by some guerrilla artist with an ax to grind).
The breastfeeding mother feels weird in the meeting—sneaking in late, flushed, her big bag on her shoulder filled with a motor and tubing and bottles of her milk on ice. She may have pumped in a utility closet—the kind of place an old boyfriend coerced her into for quick sex among the mops and bleach and extra soap—or, if she’s lucky, there’s a dedicated room for her with a couch and a sink and a fridge, and plenty of outlets. Hopefully a good lock.
She might have to carry her milk past her coworkers to the communal fridge in the shared kitchen. She might have put her shirt on again backwards, inside-out, or forgotten to fasten her bra—seeing how she was in a hurry to get to the meeting where her colleagues are discussing student assessment, or best practices for grading, or a new hire who, hopefully, will never have children.
Elsewhere in the world, specifically a cathedral in Quebec—where little gold cadences on the walls and floor illustrate God in the dialectal—a full-grown deer—in the past called the hart—trots and snuffles ‘round the cross, his dewy rack of the kind maidens, mistaking him for a unicorn, rocked in their laps. Frailty can be bait if you want it hard enough.
He trots along on marble hooves, sun in his fur and white tail clamped down tight—no danger but from you, who stepped into a church, wet from rain, to find him wandering among God’s gears.
That big-eared hart with his prickly aerial regards you, stiff-necked, then vanishes out the apse. No, you hadn’t had a chance to ask for a kiss or a prayer, for his antlers to be laid down in your lap, and the story ends without a shock—just a miscommunication.
Here’s the moral: If you wish to purchase a purchase in a world that’s not yours, you’ll always be thwarted. A hart in church isn’t a miracle, nor the opposite, but an accidental crossing of dumb paths.
We see deer on the sides of our highways, just off the median in the brush, and we think to ourselves, Please don’t run this way. Please don’t jump. Then we’re safely past, and the deer becomes another car’s problem.
There are deer milling about on our lawns, eating our crabgrass. There’s a video on YouTube of a guy at a campground feeding a deer a beef patty—and the deer likes it. It sticks around, it seems, hoping for the gift of another beef patty. In the background (I’m making this up), is a woman on a park bench with a huge muslin blanket covering her chest, and a pair of tiny white feet poking out from the bottom—like the feet of Icarus in Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of—. In the background (I’m also making this up), you see another woman looking askance at the woman with the huge muslin blanket. You see deer waiting at the edges of the woods to see if more beef patties will be distributed.
Deer are the creatures of verges and brinks and borders. They are encroaching. They are maliciously without malice creeping deeper into our territory. “Bloated deer wait, overhear an egregious mistake,” says Cynthia Arrieu-King. “…its talk / was the pressing gabber of gammers / of old women,” says Charles Olsen. “I watch the woods for deer as if I’m armed,” says Bruce Weigl—because deer are always in the process of being wounded—in every poem, in every story. Stuck. Struck. Hung upside down, slit open, and drained of blood. Nobody wants such an animal in the crib, in the nursery, the shopping mall, the children’s show. We’ve got to at least keep them out of there.
Melanism is the polar opposite of albinism. Albinism is itself a genetic rarity, but think how rare a melanistic deer is—black as pitch among the hemlock, so black against the mottled white trunk of the sycamore, it’s like staring into negative energy. Such anomalies exist, especially in Texas I guess, and often mistaken for a black lab among a parcel of normal deer, the odd black deer will synthesize every last one of our citations in the Book of Fears down to one—and you know which One I mean.
Various reports of black deer sightings pepper the Web, mostly—as I say—in a certain region of South Texas, and once or twice in West Virginia. If comments are allowed, folks will make jokes like, “There goes the neighborhood!” “Blk fawns matter.” “Nope.” and “I’ve seen one.”
The headline for an article on WideOpenSpaces.com promises, “The Story of the 14-Year-Old Girl Who Harvested an Ultra-rare, Black Whitetail Deer,” and there’s a picture of her below, smiling, gripping with both hands the antlers of her dead black hart, a shotgun laid across its flanks.
‘It was nerve-racking [sic], but I knew I could do it,’ Brooke said. ‘At first I was so excited I
couldn’t pull the trigger. Dad helped me calm down with deep breaths. I found the deer in
the scope again, took a deep breath and shot. The deer fell over backwards. It was
awesome. I love hunting with my dad.’”
A hart’s antlers are called a rack. A woman’s breasts are sometimes called a rack, as in, breastfeeding sure has filled-out your rack. “People say it makes your boobs bigger,” a guy friend on his first visit to see me since my daughter’s birth, says. “Do you think that’s true?”
The expectation is: You hide in another room when among mixed company. You politely steal your baby away from doting family members and friends, and ghost upstairs for—in the beginning—maybe an hour. Then why did they drive all that way?
Later, once the baby and you know how to do it, you’re maybe gone for twenty, thirty minutes—confined to the nursery or your bedroom while life goes on without you. Then you adjust your shirt, come back downstairs, and hand the baby over.
Yes, it was two bucks, a German painter tells me over a work dinner, that drifted so close to the empty classrooms at the failing liberal arts college, they cast galaxies of expiated stars onto the windows with their hot breath. They loomed their racks around. They trotted across quads and into dormitory back gardens. They leapt into mathematics seminars, and science labs in order to count and dissect themselves. In the English Department, they read Charles Olsen’s poem “As the Dead Prey Upon Us:”
“and we helped walk [the deer] around the room
because it was seeking socks
or shoes for its hooves
now that it was acquiring
and maybe they began to understand why it was they’d been forced to assimilate or clear out or cling to liminal spaces—or maybe they’ll never understand these things—being deer or hind or hart, after-all,
and the German painter said he was so moved by the sight, he went right back to the studio and began to paint an owl, a fox, a rabbit—anything but the deer—in hopes the idea of deer-ness would seep through, knowing full-well, however, that the literalness of deer is unmarketable unless portrayed in a state of wounding—you know, like William Stafford’s famous treatise on the existential threat— a poem titled “Travelling Through the Dark,” in which he writes,
“…her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside the mountain road I hesitated.”
And it makes me want to vomit, that well-intentioned mention of the fawn. And I don’t give a fuck if you hesitated.
Black hart. Black heart. Black hart.