Fatigue made my bones ache. Why do babies always come in the middle of the night? Only a home-birth midwife such as I would be fool enough to be driving home at 4 a.m. along Berkeley’s twisty Skyline Boulevard in impenetrable fog. Exhausted, with five miles still to go, I parked on the shoulder of the road, turned off the engine and rolled down my window. Perhaps fresh air and the California night’s damp coolness on my face would help revive me.
A movement, a thickening within the heavy fog, made me blink and strain to focus. There was a density, some amorphous coalescence. I held my breath while it merged, converged . . . until in a thinning spot of fog, a doe appeared, black eyes bright in my headlights, velvety nose shining wet with the condensation of the night’s cold air.
I turned off my lights and waited while my eyes adjusted to the darkness.
So still she stood, not 10 feet from me, watching. Equally still, I sat and watched her.
She stretched her neck, nose high to taste the wind, then flicked one ear and began to graze. I heard her teeth tear at the grasses, I heard the click and clatter of her hooves on the road-edge gravel.
They were the only sounds in my nighttime world.
The doe paused and looked behind her, then took two steps and lowered her head to graze again. But she had seen or heard something, I was sure.
I watched and listened, listened hard, and heard at last what she had heard. Twigs crunching, small stones dislodged to ricochet and tumble down the hill, leaves rustling among the branches as well as underfoot. The sound of hooves. Hooves coming close, and closer still. A buck appeared, and right behind him came another doe and several fawns. And more. More deer, and more and more, leaf-shaped ears twitching, stick legs of sinew flexing. They climbed from the dark canyon between the eucalyptus trees like pale ghosts emerging from the chaparral.
Perhaps 50 deer eventually surrounded me. I smelled the mossy sweat of their hides, heard their quiet breathing and the rumble of their bellies, saw the pearly moisture of the fog glistening on their eyelashes. They grazed so close their bodies rubbed against my warm car, rocking me within. I held quite still and felt very small, then smaller yet as they absorbed me, just one within the herd.
I whispered, “Oh,” and said no more.
Maybe the grazing was extra good, the grass especially tender, because most surely half an hour passed with me settled in their midst, until at last the fog began to thin. Imperceptibly it broke into ribbons, wisped across the road and rolled down into the eastern canyon. The moon appeared above San Francisco and sent its molten silver beams streaking across the bay straight toward us, the deer and me.
The deer looked up of one accord, then turned and looked at me as if to ask if I’d done that, had I turned on that light? Perhaps the moonbeams beckoned them to come and follow, for the herd fanned out along the roadside and began to descend the west side of the ridge, both deer and chaparral glowing iridescent. As their shapes melted into the redwood, fir and eucalyptus trees, I smiled and blessed the tired mother who had birthed her firstborn in the middle of the night, giving this one midwife a memory of silver grace.
Peggy Vincent is the author of Baby Catcher: Chronicles of a Modern Midwife.