It was the left eye that wasn’t. Just fine fur, smooth, a faint black scrape of a stitch line where the lower eyelid would have been. The skin blinked, an uncanny movement suggesting eye muscles with no eye to roll.
The buck had been one-eyed since birth. Hikers spotted him struggling through serpentines to follow the straight path of his mother, but his one eye was no good on a body balanced for two. Since he was in the protected woods of Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, just south of Louisville, Kentucky, the staff penned him in a habitat about the size of a large suburban backyard, just down the hill from the visitor’s center and an easy walk from the parking lot. He had regular meals, a slope of tall grass, oaks and maples, a deadfall of old wood, a shed for shade or warmth, and eventually two orphaned fawns, female, were rescued and slipped through the gate for him.
His one eye was famous year-round, but his autumn antlers told another story of the deformity. The left grew normal. The right was twisted and lopsided, melting like Dali’s clock.
Salvador Dali once kept as a pet a giant anteater, and the strange duo paraded the streets of Paris. The one-eyed buck had an unusual companion too—a wild turkey, a classic Thanksgiving tom with a bright blue wattle, raven-black feathers and pebbly pink skin on his bald head. No one knew what was up with the turkey. Bernheim staff told me he had just arrived one day and was free to leave, since any turkey could easily flap to the top of the fence and hop down to the free world where his brethren foraged in huge, Druidic flocks. Instead, he gobbled for attention for two, a self-appointed seeing-eye turkey.
Attention they got. The one-eyed buck and his turkey pal had been a prime attraction for many years by the time I met them in September of 2004, when I was a writer-in-residence at the arboretum. I was a 29-year-old who could barely call herself a writer, and the one-eyed buck was an old celebrity who had learned to walk straight on a trail around the inside perimeter of his fenced world. I knew I could learn something from him, but I didn’t know what, so the best I could do was plot daily walks to his pen.
Late one afternoon, I spotted a groundskeeper feeding leaves to the buck and the turkey, blatantly disregarding the do not feed sign. After that, if no one was around, I too slipped fresh green leaves to the pair and wondered how Dali fed his anteater. The one-eyed buck nosed me through the fence, sniffing my worn hiking shoes, my cutoff cargo pants, even nibbling at my thrift store T-shirt and huffing his breath into my long hair that fell into the space between us when I bent for a closer look. I could have observed them for a century, the comical turkey trying to manage a leaf with his beak, the serious buck pushing into the chain-link fence when I ran out of offerings. I had no problem opting for enigmatic meals with these brothers. I was reading Italo Calvino that autumn, and he told of a character who claimed to “have been in love for five hundred million years,” and because of the buck and the turkey, I knew for the first time what he meant.
[Continued in Confrontation 113]