The road is narrow and sinuous and arcs down to the hamlet. To our left the fields stretch out onto the steppe. This is the very end of the Austrian Alps, the hills behind us stretch into colossal mountains all the way to the Dolomites. When I stretch my left arm out my fingertips brush the corn plants that rise to my head. My sister walks next to me, hair tied back tight in a ponytail, echoing the tension that pervades her very being, and has done now for days, months, years.
To the right is a slight rise to a small soccer field. We used to come here in the evenings with our father, and watch the little creatures come out in the dusk. Clockwork hedgehogs, quicksilver weasels, erratic hares. We walk up to the seat and sit down.
“I’m so angry,” she says. “So angry that all this time he has been sick, and the advice we got was wrong. And he kept telling us he’s fine, and he won’t stop smoking or drinking…”
“You can be angry. But he’s dying. Dad’s dying, and that means two things…at least two things. Let him smoke and drink. He’s in pain, you know that even better than me. Hear his lungs, they’re full of blood. Stopping now won’t change anything.”
“It’s not fair. They could have done something for him. Something better. I don’t know what they’re doing,” she says. I glance at her and I can see she’s not crying, and that her distress is a heat that would burn the tears from her cheeks if they dared to come out.
“They might have been able to before yes. But now we can’t do anything. So we let him do what he needs to reduce his pain; Smoke, drink, sleep and take his meds. And we love him, and let him know that even though it will be awful when he goes, we will be alright.”
We sit, and look at the fields and the houses. The pines reach up in echo to the church steeple where many years ago on Christmas Eve we listened to two trumpeters play carols before midnight mass, the sound carrying across the snow enveloped land. This buckled world of rolling soft hills, swaying wheat grass and chirping brooks and rivers. This world that the our father showed to us, shared with us and is now leaving to us.
After a time we rise and continue to walk when suddenly from the corn a few metres ahead of us a stag materialises. I sense my sister’s body tense in excitement as does my own at the sight and we both freeze. His long legs step delicately over the road and I raise my camera and snap a few hasty photos. At the sound of the shutter there is an impression of a sleek brown muscular blur and he is gone. He slides into the hedgerow to our left and is never seen again. We examine the space and there is no more than a few inches. His appearance and disappearance so elegant, that only the memory of his presence and a blurred photo attest to it.
As we walk home I think about that stag, how he was a gift to us, like a manifestation of calm and beauty. That brief encounter brought mindfulness and ease from our worries for a moment that was much needed. I think about the time I’ve had with Dad and the blessing that we can bring living closure to it now. I think about the walk my sister and I had, and those years of memories of family and love flow through me like a deer flowing through fields and hedges, sliding over meadows and into woods, and together we walk home.