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The choice
21 Nov 2011

I HAVE hesitated for years to write this story, for it is a story that seems to need you (whoever you are) and me in the same space, sharing the experience, one telling, one listening.

When I tell it, the immediacy of your presence, your attentiveness and sudden intake of breath, are inseparable from my own reliving of the event. Speaking about the buck, I don’t stop to choose my words — the story simply unfolds, embracing us both.

But writing what happened, I fear that I cannot do justice to the animal, nor conjure the lived reality for you, which is the same thing. Even sharing these thoughts with you, unfairly prepares you for what is to come.

We, Jeremy and I, had no inkling ourselves of what would unfold before our eyes, to which we would unwittingly become observers, witnesses.

The impression of that day has lasted 30-odd years. The buck still enters my senses afresh. His choice confronts my very sense of being every time I share this story, something that happens rather rarely, perhaps in moments of deeper personal interconnection.

An animal behaviourist, hearing or reading the story, might explain it from the conviction of scientific knowledge. A psychologist might urge reflective introspection on my own response.

I don’t try to answer the profound questions, I simply hold the experience deep in my being, an inescapable particle lodged there by life itself. It is like the glint of water on sea sand, or the quick-burrowing snails, stranded by the waves, barely glimpsed before they vanish.

Let me try to tell it as if I — we — are there now.

“Let’s go for a walk,” I propose to Jeremy, though it is unpromising weather for the beach: a chilly, bleak afternoon and a minor wind likely to whip the sand about our legs. Davine and the others are in post-lunch relaxation mode, curled up somewhere with a book, or napping. Davine invited us all to this friend’s weekend hideaway in the north coast bush, somewhere before or beyond Salt Rock.

Where the path leaves the bush near the lagoon mouth we walk seawards, toes curling in gritty sand. The beach is deserted, a lone seagull wheels and screams. Waves heave, slap and swoosh in the rhythms of an incoming tide. We round the tip of the dune and turn north, parallel to the sea. I can’t resist rolling my jeans and dancing in the wavelets, until a larger one chases me sandwards. And then I see it, and stop instantly.

It emerges, perhaps 100 yards distant, from the bush onto the sand. “A buck, coming onto the beach?” I breathe, astonished. “Let’s sit, over there,” Jeremy whispers, nudging me dunewards. We move softly, silently, keeping our eyes fixed on the buck. It simply stands there. We subside into the lee of the dune, propping ourselves in the sand, watching.

The buck stands awhile then begins to walk, down towards the sea. Now clearly visible, he neither sees nor smells us. Halfway across the open sand between the shelter of the vegetation and the sea’s edge he stops. Stands. Looks. Then turns his head and looks back at the land, a long, long time. Turns, faces the ocean. Walks down to the sea’s edge — surely he’s not going to drink salt water! —lifts his horns a slight toss, and enters the sea. Before our disbelieving eyes he heads into the oncoming waves. As the water deepens he breasts the waves, leaping forward, launching into a full swim, out to sea.

Even as I write this story now I feel again my heart sink into my stomach as I watch the buck submerging, swimming, submerging under the rolling ocean.

At first neither Jeremy nor I can speak. Later, after walking a way further along the beach, speculating mostly in silence, we return, and come upon him washed up onto the sand. We see then that he was no longer a young animal. He bears scars, and many fat ticks embedded in his hide. His eyes are wide open, glazed and dimmed.

Whales and lemmings do it en masse, landwards or seawards. Scientists are still seeking explanations. But the buck, like some people, chose to do it — and did it — alone.

We, remaining behind, cannot know the reason. We may not understand the choice.

We leave him, stretched out there; that is all.

About the author

MARIE Odendaal has worked with students in leadership education for many years. She will soon start her retirement, dividing her time between consultancy, leadership training and writing, with inspiration and encouragement from her writing group. Odendaal is passionate about environmental issues; awareness of the global warming crisis is prompting her and her partner John Inglis to make alternative energy choices in their lifestyle and home environment

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