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The Wild Life

Alone in the woods, amid the weeds and the rattlesnakes, I managed to cultivate something I’d never really had: a home.

By November 2015Comments

Illustration by Jason Holley

Twenty-some years ago, I didn’t want to move again. I’d lived in five states in ten years, following scholarships, then jobs. But my marriage was on the skids. My then husband had a beastly temper, and since he’d been raised in Texas, I wondered if Home—as his T-shirt with the Lone Star flag said—would soothe and settle him. A professor, I scanned national job lists and, miraculously, since jobs in my research area are rare, found one at a school called Southwest Texas State University. When it came time to move, my husband stayed behind, waiting on a pie-in-the-sky job that never materialized. But the solution to my biggest problem did. I decided to live alone—wild, undomesticated.

Arriving in an ancient sky-blue pickup truck, towing a trailer of furniture more scratched and threadbare after another move, I admired my new habitat, a swath of abruptly rugged hills separating coastal farmland from high plains. The university sat atop steep crags, the San Marcos River winding below. Yet the campus was in shambles. Its former glory—buildings like limestone castles, acres of hibiscus, stained-glass murals, paths leading to secret courtyards, a round theater accessible via a footbridge that spanned a pond with red lilies—was camouflaged by overgrown vines, cement trucks, and scaffolding. At a party, a tipsy professor told me that, after a scrappy tom had fallen through a ceiling onto a secretary, the university had hired a specialist to relocate the feral cats, though not yet the bats in the stairwells. But not to worry. We were on the upswing now, he added.

I was broke, so I lived miles from town, deep in cedars and live oaks in a dank cabin. I’d been warned to wear boots outside: rattlesnakes. Come winter, I’d use the woodstove. For now, a tiny air conditioner kept me cool during the day. At night I opened windows. I’d wake, hearing footfalls on sere grass, and think: Who’s out there? Who turned on the floodlight? I’d get out of bed to see. The moon shone silvery. Deer cocked their heads, collegial.

My other companion was Sim. A man in the parking lot of a nearby grocery store had held up a sign: “Free Coonhound.” “This’ll be an asset whether you hunt or run cattle,” the man said. “What about as a pet?” I asked. He pushed his hat back. “I can’t say.”

Sim rode in the back of the sky-blue truck until my soon-to-be ex-husband arrived to hand off the Subaru I was still making payments on. I hated giving up that truck, because as I’d drive home from my high-elevation university town to my higher-elevation cabin, crossing the skyline in a sky-colored truck made me happy. The University of Disrepair, as I called it, had a casual feel, so I’d be wearing a homemade dress and work boots. When I drove the squat Subaru, I didn’t get the same euphoric surge. But Sim liked the denlike space. Sitting in its passenger seat, taller than me, he’d sigh, let go of his hypervigilant scanning of the periphery for potential threat, and put his paw on my thigh.

Sim also sat next to my chair one night as I phoned my dad to ask to borrow $400 because I needed new tires; I had cut up all the credit cards. I told my dad I was getting divorced, explaining that my soon-to-be ex was chronically insolvent and I was living lean until I paid off joint bills—a rationale for divorce and borrowed money my dad found irrefutable. “I won’t charge you interest,” he said. But he worried. “What about your children?” The ones I hadn’t had yet, he meant. I didn’t have the spare money or brain room to consider children. I thought about saying I didn’t need to marry to breed, but I couldn’t be so blunt with my dad. I needed $400. “I guess I could someday maybe adopt,” I said, improvising. This filled the blank in his vision for me. “Yes,” he said, relieved.

Meanwhile, I read a book about raising an obedient coonhound.

I couldn’t bring myself to follow the first rule: to move Sim outside, establishing myself as alpha. Sim came indoors, which was cool in the summer, fortress-like in the winter, with a roaring fire, wood on the porch stacked across windows, blocking light. But I sent Sim outside for good one morning when I woke up and stared at him, sprawled next to me on the chenille bedspread, snoring, his jowls quivering on the embroidered pillow slip.

Sim and I were both standing outside one day when a man drove by, stopped, rolled down his truck window, and said cutting weeds keeps snakes away. So I scythed, then bought a lawn mower.

I planted flowers too.

I’d read that deer eat flowers, but not if you surround them with mothballs, or human hair from a barbershop, or bars of soap. Or you spritz them with synthetic wolf urine from the hardware store. Or sprinkle them with powder—“Not Tonight Deer.” But Sim, an asset whether I hunted or ran cattle, patrolled my flower beds. So I kept planting, having discovered this urge to dig, sow, water, weed. This isn’t nature. It’s culture. Horticulture, to be exact. At nightfall, after gardening, I’d walk to the river to swim, arms and legs pale in deep water. Sim waited on the bank. He nipped my heels, rushing me home.

I made forays into the other sort of wild life too; for example, I met a man at a local party who asked three times if I liked ballads. I said: No, no, no.  Also: “Why do you ask that over and over?” He said, “Feisty. I like it.” He’d been drinking, he explained, waltzing off-kilter. I also met a man at a professional conference, and sparks flew. Then love letters flew: airborne, well-edited sweet nothings. But long-distance is inconvenient. Sparks sputtered.

So years passed. The university, eventually renamed Texas State University, refurbished its old buildings and built shiny new ones. I refurbished too. I got raises, sold a few books I’d written, and used the money to remodel my cabin, doubling its size.

Then Sim got bit by a rattlesnake, and the vet said to hold a hot compress on the wound as it drained. Sim laid his head in my lap like a defeated outlaw. Afterward, he neglected deer patrol, so I chased deer away myself. And slowly my plans for the undomesticated life faded as my long-ago ad-lib to my dad about my unborn children turned prescient. I longed to be a mother. My longing was a biological, animal fact. I adopted.

From then on, my daughter’s days and nights ordered mine, her baby’s breath through the monitor on my hip that stayed green, serene, until it bleeped red when she woke, the tempo by which I lived. I had a hundred flowering plants, a pond with lilies shaded by palms with orchid-shaped blooms, liriope-bordered paths leading to a fragrant arbor. As she slept, I watered and fertilized. I loved my daughter. I loved each plant too, its tics, tendencies, peak moments, best blooms.  I had kin, my daughter. Flowers were kith.

One night Sim stood outside my bedroom window barking—so docile now that he wanted me to get up and chase a raccoon off the porch so he could go back to sleep. I shooed away the raccoon, then wandered into the yard to watch for falling stars. What did I wish for?

I’m a realist, so I didn’t wish for a man who’d love Texas with the Texas-size reverence I’d begun to feel, Home. (I never bought the T-shirt, though.) A man with a real job, who wouldn’t be a beast except in the optimal, after-dark way. A man who’d become my husband at a ceremony at which my daughter would be maid of honor, his son best man—a ceremony to say adieu to my flowers, too, because deer patrol was wearing me down.

Ten years later, I did meet this man.

The morning before our wedding, I raced through the yard, fancy hairdo toppling, my last deer patrol ever because now we’d all live in Austin. The morning after the wedding, my daughter saw a doe lying in the arbor with a fawn too shaky to stand. My daughter and stepson unwrapped my day-old bouquet and tossed hothouse roses to the doe.

But I didn’t know this future yet as I stood in the dark. A buck with a small rack stood next to me, eating vincas, which are deer-proof. I said so: “You’re not supposed to like those.” All at once I was surrounded by deer. A big buck. Five small deer. The doe I always recognized because each spring she had twins, this year’s standing next to her. The deer all looked at each other, a deer communiqué, as in, Why is this woman in the shiny nightgown upset? The doe stared into my eyes so long I thought I understood. She had a herd. I didn’t. At least I thought her eyes said that. Then she blinked and started chewing.

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