When my niece was four years old, she learned how to sign her name. She loved to draw so, suddenly, she was able to sign her name - Mimi - to every picture. She then went through a phase of drawing hearts on all her pictures.
At the same time, I read an elegant phrase about how the hoof prints of deer look like the hearts that young children draw. Although I can’t remember the author or the exact quote, this idea has stayed with me because a few days later, a picture arrived in the mail from Mimi, who lives in the southern United States. On the back, she’d signed her name and drawn a heart. A perfect hoof-shaped heart.
I’m not clever enough to explain what the deep, symbolic meaning of that could be but Mimi is seven now and I still have that picture. Perhaps the way it happened, the quote then the proof, made the connection indelible to me, for every time I see deer tracks in the field or on the lane behind our house, I search until I find the one that looks like my niece’s heart.
Tracks are easy to find in winter, the snow providing a blank canvas for deer and fox, rabbit and squirrel, crows and pheasants, and if very lucky, the wing tips of partridge. Sometimes I worry as I walk around our property with my head down, looking, that I am not paying attention, yet in truth, every sense is engaged. While my eyes scout for tracks, my ears are tuned to the call of a pileated woodpecker or the sound of water running under the snow or the whump-whump of the wings of crows cutting through cold morning air. My nose draws in the smells of frozen air and earth while my hands tingle from the cold. (The dogs love these walks because I pay no attention to them; they are free to follow a trail of rabbit tracks into the copse of poplar trees.) Every step makes me feel acutely alive and grateful to be in this place.
A few years ago, just before moving here, I stepped out of a coffee shop with a large cappuccino in my hand. I took a sip then looked down at my topless beverage. The tilting action of my sip had caused the cinnamon and foamed milk to swirl into the shape of a heart. I stood in the parking lot, astounded and searching for someone, anyone, with whom to share it. It was a random occurrence, but part of me believes it was a simple affirmation of my decision to follow my heart.
When I come across a line of heart-shaped hoofs in the snow, it reminds me of my (only) niece and how much I wish I could share these walks with her, show her the connection she created for me with the deer. Dropping to my knees, I deglove a hand to trace a finger in a perfectly-shaped hoof print, drawing a line from the deer through me into my niece, connecting us through the heart.