A Deer Ate My Lunch and Broke My Heart
“Whoa, hey, no!” I said. “Don’t eat the plastic! Nah, nah!”
I managed to pry the deer’s jaws off the plastic, holding it up in the air. She sniffed around my bag that was on the ground. I think I had an apple in there, but I was hoping to save that for later.
I had just walked down Mount Misen on Miyajima Island and managed to score a stone bench by the water as the tide was coming in, overlooking at the orange and black Shinto floating Torri gateway. I tried to ignore the goo-goo eyed couple that had sat down on the bench the same time as me, as they cooed sweet Japanese nothings into each other’s ears, choosing to focus on my food instead.
I had finished a date with my mystery sandwich (it was butter chicken curry, who knew!), my mandarin, and juice box when I bit into my carrot and I saw something move over my shoulder. My first thought was that it was someone violating my personal space to get a better shot of the Torri for their ’gram. When I turned my head to look at the movement, it was actually a teenage doe, eagerly trying to chomp down on my plastic rubbish, and now she was sniffing around for more.
“Nah, mate, nah,” I said, pulling her head back up. “Look, if you’re gonna eat anything, you should probably eat this.”
I offered her my carrot and she quickly chomped down on it, completely removing it from my grasp.
I thought that would be the end of it, but turns out eating a carrot without opposable thumbs and a strong jaw is harder than it looks. The doe could only really nibble on the carrot. I helped her out by holding the carrot as she gnawed away on it, holding it especially still when she was ready to snap a piece off.
When she did, I cheered. “Teamwork!”
The tourists that had gathered around me laughed. Some took pictures. Maybe I would be called the “Deer Whisperer” in some corner of the internet no one ever saw. I didn’t mind.
In Nara, there are also wild deer but they’re not quite as abrasive as the Miyajima deer, because they are encouraged to be fed. You can buy special deer crackers to feed them at ¥150. When I first arrived in Nara, I didn’t want to feed them because I didn’t want to be one of those tourists. By the end of the day, I was having a bit of FOMO, so I caved and bought the crackers. Like a bad omen, suddenly the once heavily populated deer park was empty. The two deer I did find refused to eat my crackers because they were already well full.
This was much better. Me and Nellie (I had now named the doe) were in this relationship together, having the most beautiful spontaneous interaction. These are my favourite experiences.
The carrot was getting thicker and harder for her to bite. I rinsed it off and bit into it myself, surprised at how easy it was for me compared to Nellie. I bit off small pieces and fed them to her in my flat palm, like they taught us at the horse riding school.
Soon the carrot was all gone. I held up my palms up to Nellie to show that I had no more food for her. But she was not a Nara-educated deer. There were signs in the town telling people not to feed the deer, and I totally forgot about them. Oops.
I looked into her eyes, sitting in the moment of connection between human and animal. Deeper feelings swirled in my stomach. I hadn’t felt those in a long time.
Deciding this was more like a one-night stand than an actual relationship (she was based in Miyajima and didn’t have Facebook, while I was only going to be in Japan for a few more weeks: how would it ever work?), I respected the moment to be just that. Having nothing else to do but catch the ferry back to the mainland, I got up and left Nellie, a warm glow in my soul. We had had a spontaneous ephemeral moment which I would hold in my heart for the rest of my trip.
In New Zealand, even though wild deer are often hunted for sport, considered a pest, when my dad sees one on our farm, he never calls the hunters. We just watch them gracefully spring over our fences and disappear into the bush. Holding so much grace and mana in their elegance, no wonder the Forest God in Princess Mononoke takes form in that of a deer.
Back in the land of Ghibli, I turned around in a moment of weakness, naïvely hoping my bond with Nellie would mean that she was following me, allowing me to truly claim that vague internet title of “Deer Whisperer”.
Nellie was sniffing around the next lot of tourists looking at the Torri, pulling on plastic wrapping just like she had done with me.
The venomous jealousy that rose up in me was quickly overcome with sadness, and then calm. I think those were my monogamous thoughts leaving me. Nellie is off continuing her one-night stands and this is clearly who she is as a person – sorry, doe – and that is absolutely legitimate. It doesn’t make our interaction any less special. We had a good thing, it was beautiful in its ephemerality, and now we are both moving on.
I took a deep breath, swallowed the monogamous bile taste in my mouth, and headed towards the ferry terminal.
Cover by Joey Huang