I’d fallen into a rhythmic stride en route to the dormitories, where my path led between a ridge of lamplit trees and pond reeds dusted with snow tops. That powder sifted over my route between the parking lot and campus proper would melt before morning, but it was here now, and so was I. Everyone else would be asleep at this hour, tucked away from frosted windows and clanging radiators. But here, falling into the silent rhythm of heel-toe, I left a single set of footprints behind me.
It must be near the witching hour. I mused on all the night magic I had read about, but never seen. Though everyone awake at night must feel that eager pull to look out their windows and witness whatever miracles might unfold.
Presently the path began its ascent away from the frozen stream and towards the academic buildings that lay scattered without any sense of having been planned. The architecture had simply risen from the ground at some point, aspiring one day to house books and lectures, to be both the bane and brilliance of youth.
As I came into the first circle of buildings, I stopped short. A single deer stood on the virgin snow. Silent, unperturbed, but looking directly at me. It stood only a few yards away but blocked my most direct route back, and I was hesitant to run it off into the night. I had seen no other creatures on my walk there, though in truth I’d been so entranced with the magic of that hour, I may have passed many signs of life unseen. But here was one unmistakable.
Unsure of how to proceed with meeting a deer like this, I greeted it. “Hello!”
The cold night swallowed my voice, so the sound was smaller than I’d imagined it. The deer cocked its head, then began to run. It seemed to charge at me, but at the last moment turned away to run a circle around me instead. And around, again. A soft pounding as its hooves hit the powdered grass.
From the shadow of the academic buildings came another deer. I stepped back. Still another emerged from the tree line. In moments, there were half a dozen deer loping in a small circle around me. I was struck with too much wonder to be afraid, although a quiet question was forming in the base of my skull asking whether I could outrun a deer if I tried. (I really don’t think so.)
Then just as quickly and strangely as the dance had begun, the lead deer took off down the hill from where I’d come. The rest followed him, leaving me in a circle of hoof prints and a stillness even deeper than before. A seeping calm impregnating the air. It was no longer a thoughtful or delightful quiet. I walked more quickly through the buildings, back to my dorm.
By morning the snow had melted, leaving no trace of what had transpired before. All winter when I walked that path, I’d pause in anticipation as I crested the academic hill, and I’d wait a moment before continuing onto campus. Hoping to see the deer, knowing I would not.