The curse comes like the crack of rifle shot.
I finished The Yearling two days ago, and my heart is still heavy with it. The book didn’t wound me. The wound was already there. The book gave the wound a name, which is strong medicine. I remember my mother-in-law, who named her dog Jody after the main character of the book, telling me that it wasn’t until she re-read The Yearling as an adult that she realized the yearling wasn’t the deer at all; the yearling was the boy. I had caught wind of the fact that the book was sad, which only made me dare it to sadden me. I went into the story armed with the knowledge of its metaphor and its impending doom. And yet, it caught me unaware. I was a deer in the woods, minding my own business, feasting on the green grass of the story, when the shot rang out.
My son, Aedan, was given the book by his Nana as a Christmas present last year. I remember him telling me how much he liked it, that it was sad, and that he thought I’d really like it, too. I knew Rawlings was from my part of Florida, and The Yearling was lauded in Micanopy, a little town 45 minutes from my house, near Rawlings’s home. But I never read it as a kid. If there weren’t dragons, cowboys, or ghosts in a story, I wasn’t interested. My parents tried to get me to read it, but I resisted, and I’m glad I did. My heart wasn’t ready for it. Nor do I believe Aedan’s heart was ready for it. Oh, there’s no harm in reading it at a young age. Rawlings’s descriptions of life in the Florida wilderness are fascinating, especially if, like me, you recognize the Spanish moss, live oaks, alligators, rattlesnakes, magnolias, palmettos, and deep Southern accents she writes about so well. But it’s not a child’s book, strictly speaking.
Sure, there’s a terrible old bear named Slewfoot, and a hurricane, and more than one near-death experience—but even these events happen without the usual, conventional drama. There’s not much gut-wrenching tension; things just happen–good things, and bad things. It’s more than 400 pages long, with no real plot. It meanders (or seems to). Its passages creep by as silent and dark as the Suwannee River. From the first page of the book it’s easy to see Rawlings’s great gift as a writer. That’s why you give her your time and attention for those 400 pages. Not only are there small delights along the way, you get the sense that she’s leading you on a journey you need to take. The story is about the loss of childhood. That’s why Aedan only thought of it as a good, sad book and nothing more. How can you mourn the loss of something you haven’t lost?
But as for me and my heart, we grieved. I sat on the front porch at the Warren on a rainy day, read the last sentence, turned my head so my children wouldn’t see my face, and wept. I asked God, aloud, “Why must it be so? Why must it be so?” Why must the bright wonder and innocence of youth be shot and killed? Why must the little boy in me pass into the night, gone like a ghost? Why must I spend the second half of my life grieving that boy’s departure from the world, always seeking him, always wishing for a world untainted? Aedan saw me crying and came out to the porch. I tried to pretend I wasn’t crying, but he’s pretty smart. He hugged me, and I hugged him back, no longer grieving my own past, but his future. I thought of all my children, and the loneliness that will dog them all their days, and how I long to protect them from it. But the world is drenched in sorrow. For these precious few days of childhood the Lord grants us a glimpse of Eden, and as we age we are called back again and again to remember what was lost, and to reclaim it, to tell its story. We weep for the death, and hope in the resurrection, when Christ’s Kingdom of wise, old children may walk a healed world unharried by the looming certainty of death and more death.
The young deer is a metaphor for Jody Baxter, and Jody Baxter is a metaphor for the loss of Eden. And Eden? It was a real place, but is now the metaphor for the world that was, and will be, and is no more, the world our own world longs for. I walk through fatherhood with a secret grief for my children. They inherit a world teeming with graces and wonders and mystery—and yet they too will come face to face with the bear in the woods, or the dying, bloody gasp of the little deer. They will encounter the rattlesnake in the brush. They will see that this innocence so fine will fray.
In the opening scene of the book, Jody steals to a hidden spring and lies there for the afternoon, marveling at its beauty, at the sound of the trees, and the birds, and the water. At the end of the book he returns to the spring and finds the magic gone. He is no longer a boy. That time was a child’s dream, and now he must put away the things of a child. Ah, but Jody! Don’t forget. Don’t forget the bubbling spring that brought such joy. Draw yourself a map and hide it away. Show it to your child when he or she is young, or leave it on their nightstand without explanation. Keep the fire alive. And when you’re old, Jody Baxter, slip through the fronds and scrub oaks, down the bank of the old sandy road, and drink deep of the spring again. Lie down in the hollow and rest in the loneliness that is not lonely. Let the clean, cold water remind you that the magic you believed in was always stronger than the curse that bent you low.
I visited Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s home at Cross Creek last year, and took this picture.