I never had a place. A girl, and the oldest of five. Two brothers and two sisters with howling mouths. Mother sleepwalking from home to work and back. Father was nothing but a flat hand and restless, punishing eyes. They were all noise and need, all shit-kick the dog and eat the last oily handful of lunchmeat from the fridge. All bony-knuckled punch through wood paneling and stinging slap on my cheek.
There were miles of woods around the house, sap running summer-hot and matting my hair. But that wasn’t my place, either. The timber company told us so, their red slashes of paint on the bark, their signs saying, No Trespassing. My family had stories about the forest. Cousins who’d gotten lost walking under oak shadows and never come home. My uncle who, as a boy, followed a dog into the woods, and then the dog turned into a woman and tried to drag him into her house dug into a hillside. He still has her nail-scars on his arm.
And my mother who found a talking goose as a girl, broken-winged and flailing on the leaves. She’d carried it home and locked it into the old barn. Every day, she caught minnows to feed it from the pond, and the goose cried, “Don’t touch me. Let me go.” Two weeks later, the stubborn thing died.
So when my father brought back the deer boy, so small and weak that he was almost thrown to the dogs for dead, why did I think it had anything to do with me?
It was near dark, the last blue glow dying in the sky, when my father walked out of the woods. Blood ran down his neck and matted his shirt, heavy sweat stains from the June heat under his arms. On his back, he carried a dead deer, its swollen belly rising to the sky.
He didn’t have to tell me to knock my sister’s toys off the picnic table, to shoo away the circling dogs with their salesman’s whine. He dumped the body across the table, and I touched its stomach, still hot.
“You shouldn’t have killed a mother,” I said. My heart was big and red and soft then, like a target.
He smacked me across the back of the head and held a finger to his lips. Voices carried far from our hill. Anyone nearby would have heard his gun in the woods. The last thing we needed was the game warden at our door.
He cleaned the deer fast and I studied it, how he cut the cuffs of the forelocks, slit the skin and peeled it off like a shirt. The deer lay fat-mottled, red and white and alien in the light from the back porch. He cut open the belly and scattered handfuls of gut to the dogs, who tore ears and bit snouts, gulping it down hot without chewing. When he found the deer’s fetus, he pulled it free and set it on the table beside me, to punish or sate my curiosity, I wasn’t sure.
It wasn’t a deer. At least, we didn’t think so at first. It was a baby. Two arms, two legs, ten fingers and toes. My brothers and sisters wandered out of the house to see, crooked teeth and stale-breathed, shirtless and shoeless to prod and talk, to ask what was wrong. They checked for the nubs of horns, checked its feet for hooves. Looked for fur, the backwards-bending knees. But it was a child. A little boy.
It was my uncle, drunk and stumbling, who came out of the house, took one look at the child laid out on the table, and picked it up. He smacked it hard across its tiny ass, then hit it again on the back and shoulders, shaking it by the feet like a chicken.
The baby choked and wailed, sucked in a breath, threw up fluid. It squalled itself red-topped, arms trembling. My uncle pushed it into my arms. I sat back on the table and let it lay against me. While it sobbed, I smoothed dry the blood on its skin.
Next to me, my father sectioned the deer and stacked meat, threw organ and skin to growls under the table. My brothers and sisters leaned close, blew into the baby’s face, tried to pull it away. I held tight and kicked. I wouldn’t trust them with a kitten. How many pets had drowned, or gotten run over, or been shot in a rage under our mean watch? So the deer boy became mine. At least, for years, that’s what I thought.
I kept the baby safe in my blankets, begging my mother to bring me diapers and bottle, syrupy formula from the store. He lay on my bare belly at night, crying in his stuttering voice if I moved. I washed an old, tooth-scarred pacifier that had been my sister’s. Found old baby clothes to keep him warm. Treated him as soft as I would a human child.
Outside, the deer came at night. Sniffing deeply at my window, they knocked the glass with their snouts. They stood like revenants in the blue yard, a twist of moving shadows. They lifted their sharp heads to the moon and made their creaking, cervine calls. Give him back, they seemed to beg. I covered the baby’s ears with my palms.
• • • •
For a few months, the deer boy seemed like a baby, like any other child. But after half a year, he was growing fast and he’d started to walk. Not the tottering, clumsy walk of a human baby. The deer boy bounced and gamboled, tossing his small head and running sideways, jerky in his movements like a baby goat.
My brothers stole a cap gun from a church yard sale, and they chased the deer boy through the house, making loud detonations and puffs of smoke. The deer boy made his wordless cry and ran down the hall, pissing himself while my sisters ran to tell my mother.
He grew older, but he did not like wearing clothes. I would tie his pants on with a length of rope so he could sit at table. Whenever my brothers or sisters moved through the room—shouting and pulling hair, scuffing chairs and fighting for the TV remote—he kept a startled eye on them.
When my father opened the door, the deer boy bolted out of his chair. I’d tackle him in the hallway and drag him back, while my father looked around the room and drew breath to lay into us: “These goddamned dishes—That slutty dress—The ever-fucking noise you kids make—An animal, sitting at my table.”
For dinner, my brother had hacked out slabs of deer steak, flattening and perforating them with a rusted little mallet, before we breaded and fried them in old grease. The table dripped with potatoes, boxed mac and cheese, boiled green beans. Every day, I made salads for the deer boy, the only thing he would eat. Underneath the shredded lettuce and tomato, I layered wildflowers collected from our yard, hoping my parents wouldn’t notice. “You’ll make him feral,” my mother had told me, watching me feed him clover blossoms.
My father tossed a piece of crisped meat into the deer boy’s bowl. He sniffed at it and rumbled in his throat, curled his lips. He picked it up and threw it at my father, striking him in the eye.
The table became so quiet, we could hear the sound of ice melting, its soft chime and splash in the glasses. My siblings put down their forks, sitting very still. My mother got up and walked to the back of the house.
My father picked up the piece of meat and stood. He walked around behind the deer boy, who made a bray of warning. My father grabbed the deer boy’s face, forcing his mouth open. He shoved the piece of meat, hot and bloody-tasting, into the deer boy’s mouth and down his throat.
I pulled at my father’s forearm, hammered on him with my fists, but he grabbed my neck with his free hand and squeezed until I went slack.
When the deer boy, gasping and biting, finally swallowed all of it, my father grabbed his lovely, tawny hair and pulled his face close. “You’re an animal. Don’t think I won’t shoot you like one.”
The deer boy ran into the hallway and started heaving. I coaxed him into the bathroom and shut the door, guiding his head to the toilet. I stroked his back while he vomited, the sound of my brothers’ laughter coming through the thin paneling.
“I’ll protect you,” I said. “I love you.”
In our bed at night, I told him everything—how I hated my family, how he and I would live alone some day—but what did it matter? He’d been with me six years then, and the deer boy understood no more words than one of our dogs.
• • • •
He was too skittish for school. We’d never been able to get the deer boy into a car without him wailing, battering his hands against the windows, shitting himself in fear. So when the bus came to get us in the mornings, I locked the deer boy in my bedroom with the blinds raised, hoping nothing would have happened to him by the time I made it home.
Home wasn’t my place, but neither was school. My work was never done. It was hard to read chapters and write reports in the evenings. There was laundry to fold, pots to scrub, floors to clean. My parents and siblings didn’t give me space to work. And then there was the deer boy to take care of, to worry over and hold, to protect from every smirking face in the house. When I went to Ms. Tillman’s desk one day to apologize for being behind on my work, she gave me a tired smile and blinked her soft eyes and said, “Oh, honey. I didn’t expect any different.”
The other students thought I was strange. I’d failed a grade, so I was in class with my brother, and he told the others about me. I heard them whispering: She’s in love with an animal. It sleeps in her room. Her brother saw her kissing it.
On the school bus, I sat near the front where I could watch the forest whip by through the big windows. I imagined running through the woods with my deer boy. He wasn’t a person, but I didn’t think he was completely a deer either. Whatever he was, that’s what I wanted to be.
When I came home from school, I ran to beat my siblings inside. He’d gotten out of my room, jumping and making his strange bray of joy in the kitchen. I straightened everything he’d knocked over and took him out for a walk.
In the deep field of the backyard, he ran circles, snatched up flowers and thick tufts of leaves, grunting in his throat. We went as far as the old barn on the edge of our land, right before the trees started.
I ran with him until I was out of breath, keeping watch. If we stayed out too long, the deer would come. They stood under the lip of the woods, waiting. If the deer boy saw them, he would take a cautious step their way. I never let him close to the forest. He had grown so fast in our years together, already taller and broader than me. If he made it under the trees, I wasn’t sure I would ever get him back.
One spring, after he’d been stuck inside for rainy weeks, the deer boy stepped through the uncut grass, sniffing deeply. In the back of the yard, very near the tree line, a march of hoof marks stamped the soft ground. He knelt and pressed his hand against the ground, making his own human-shaped mark.
“Let’s go,” I said, not knowing if he understood.
I brought him a fistful of my mother’s pink irises, but he’d found something tangled in the grass. He crouched over white curves of bone, and for a moment I was afraid he’d come across something dead, a bird carcass with thin ribs cupping nothing but ants. He pulled two thorn-crooked antlers out of the grass and held them to his chest, barking with pleasure.
They were wide and jagged, four points to a side, the bases thick and grained like tree-bark. He balled up his fists around the base of the antlers and raised his hands like claws.
“What do you want with those?” I asked.
He went to a tree in the middle of our yard and scraped the antlers against the bark, making a wide gash. He shredded the bark until strips of it hung like paper, the blonde wood underneath wet and sweet smelling.
I screamed for him to stop. I didn’t like this strange violence. I didn’t understand what the deer boy was trying to say. Most of all, I didn’t like that he was ignoring me to do some secret thing of his own.
My uncle, unemployed and unmarried, walked over from his place to check on us, finding me and the deer boy in the back yard. He held out an apple and the deer boy, finally distracted, ate it out of his hand.
“Everything’s fine,” my uncle said. “He’s just a deer. This is what deer do.”
• • • •
In the morning fog, deer crowded in the backyard, standing near the deer boy’s scrape. Usually I walked him before school, but not this morning. I told him over and over to stay in my room, but he kept coming out, even before I’d left the house. I closed all the blinds and curtains to keep him from seeing what was outside. I forgot to take away his antlers.
When I got home, the deer boy had scraped deep tracks in the walls. He’d knocked down curtains. One window was shattered, the worst thing he could have done because it would have to be fixed right away and it would be expensive. Furniture was knocked over, and the floor was a maelstrom of shredded fabric and broken things.
Had the other deer come and called to him through the walls? Had he paced madly through the house, rattling the locked door and braying while my parents were at work, all of us at school? It must have been hard for him to be alone all day. I’d trained him to piss on the tile floor of the bathroom, had left a plate of lettuce and a bag of carrots out for him to graze on, but I couldn’t do any better than that.
My brothers and sisters walked through the house, righting the table and chairs, sweeping up broken glass and drywall. They didn’t speak to me, and if the deer boy wandered close to them, they threw up their hands and hissed for him to go away.
I gave the deer boy a carton of sweet strawberry yogurt, and he shoved his greedy nose into the cup. While he ate, I took his antlers and ran down to the edge of the driveway, where our trash can was chained to the fence, and threw them away.
I forced a shirt over his arms, did up the buttons and straightened the collar. Made sure his jeans were buttoned. I even tried to put shoes on his feet, but he thrashed and kicked, his heel knocking me in the jaw so hard that I spat blood in the sink. If he looked like a person, I thought, my father wouldn’t be able to kill him.
My mother came home and started going through the wreckage, touching an old quilt that the deer boy had ripped to pieces with his antlers. “Why would he do this?” she asked, and I didn’t know what to tell her.
My oldest brother came out of my father’s room with the shotgun broken across his arm, feeding a red-jacketed shell into the chamber.
I stood in front of the deer boy. “Put that away.”
My brother wiped his nose with his free hand. “I’m just getting it ready for when dad gets home.”
“Dad’s not going to kill him. That would be murder.”
“That thing isn’t a person,” my oldest sister said, “and you’re sick for treating it like one.”
I grabbed her by the top of the head with one hand and smashed her nose with my other. She ran down the hall, blood streaming from her nose, while the deer boy hopped and snorted. My brother lifted the gun to shoot him, but I grabbed the barrel and we struggled, my mother yelling for us to put it down.
The rim of the barrel bit into my stomach. My brother looked at me with such a nasty, jealous hate. Was he lonely? Did he resent that I had the deer boy and he had no one?
“You might as well be an animal too,” he said.
My brother pulled the trigger. My mother and sister froze. We watched his finger pull back, and I held onto the barrel and waited for the shot to tear through me.
The gun made a tiny click of metal touching metal. Nothing happened. By my brother’s thumb, the safety was still on, preventing the gun from firing.
He let go of the gun, and I took it back to my room, hiding it deep in my closet so my father wouldn’t find it in his anger. I sat on the bed and wrapped my arms around the deer boy, trying to keep him still and silent, though he was impatient to go outside after being in all day. I kept picking up his arms and wrapping them around me, pressing his palms to my stomach where the barrel left its “o” in my skin. But his hands fell. He didn’t know what I wanted, and he didn’t know what was coming. So I held him, and we waited.
My father came home. I heard my mother talking to him in the kitchen, her voice low and muddy. My brother, defiant as he tried to explain himself. Then my father yelling. My brother thrown against the wall. The flat, almost wet sound of my father’s hands battering my brother’s head and back and shoulders while the rest of my family stood silent, only witnessing.
When it was late enough that the sun had disappeared and the crickets sang outside my window, my father finally opened my door. He was gray-headed and looked tired in the dim light. The deer boy grunted a warning at him, feral eyes flickering from my father to me and back.
“I’ve spoken to your brother,” he told me.
I nodded, too afraid to say anything.
“Tomorrow, you will take your pet into the woods, and you will get rid of him.”
When he left, I pulled the blanket over us. His skin was warm, his cheeks round and human. Nothing about him was a deer. Nothing, except everything. I ran my hands over his face, telling him that I would find a way to keep him. He nosed into my palms, licking them for salt or carrots, and finding nothing, rolled away from me.
• • • •
Early in the morning, I tied an old leash around the deer boy’s neck and led him out of my room. My uncle sat at the kitchen table. He did this sometimes, letting himself in and making coffee while everyone else was asleep, going through the refrigerator for leftovers. “Don’t go too far,” he told me.
I walked the deer boy toward the edge of our land, the trees waiting. It was dark and foggy under the pine limbs. I imagined I could see the shapes of deer moving. He strained against the leash, sniffing the air. Once I turned him loose, I knew he would be gone.
Instead of letting him go, I pulled on the leash and dragged him into our old barn. It was a leaky, gap-shingled old building of weathered gray wood. It had no lights or electricity. A few damp bales of hay lay molded in the middle of the space, surrounded by broken furniture and piles of old tools that had been my grandfather’s, now rusting in their bins. It was all the way at the back of our yard, where the grass was never cut, and the trees reached out their long fingers and pressed its side, scraping the wood when the wind blew.
We’d kept animals in the barn before. A flock of guinea fowl when I was little, lost to ants and damp. A dog who fought too much with the others, dead of distemper. And the goose my mother had caught as a girl, pleading with her to let it go, killed most likely by infection from its broken wing, if not from sheer hate for my family. Now, my deer boy would be stabled there, bedded down with all those ghosts.
Every day when no one was around, I opened the barn door. He groaned and ran into the light, moving in his lilting, nervous way. He bent to graze on the grass in our yard, or ate vegetables from my hands. After a short walk, I locked him away again. Each day, he seemed a little more wild, and I wondered if the deer surrounded the barn and spoke to him at night.
He had soiled and torn his clothes so badly that they fell off of him, and I washed him clean in the sun with our water hose, kneading his shoulders and scrubbing his head while he groaned. He was naked and beautiful in the sunlight, water rushing over his shoulders.
Though I hid him, heads of lettuce disappeared from the refrigerator. My mother’s flowers were chopped off. Of course, they knew what I was doing. Wild as he was, they must have known how it would end. No one stopped me.
• • • •
It rained for a week, and I wasn’t able to take him out. I opened cans of spinach and filled a bowl for him. He rattled the boards of the barn and barked to be let out.
When the rain finally stopped, I let him out and saw that his leash was gone. He ran up and down the yard, retreating whenever I got too close. He sprinted right to the edge of the forest, then wheeled and came back, again and again.
I let him have a good, hard run before I opened the barn doors wide and tried to coax him back in. He wouldn’t come. I grabbed at his arm, offered him an apple, pleaded in my softest tone with clenched teeth. Every time I approached him, he made a step toward the forest. My nails dug into my palms. I hated this so much, hated him so much for the first time, that I could feel it burning in my stomach.
In the barn I found rope, snapping it between my hands to see if it had dry-rotted. I tied a slipknot and tumbled the apple to him. While he crouched and fed on it, working his jaw in small, delicate bites, I slipped the rope over his head and jerked hard.
He was bigger than me, stronger, but I pulled the rope tight enough to choke him, tugging him toward the barn while he gasped.
“Run away?” I asked him. “When I’ve done so much for you? You deer-brained son of a bitch.”
I locked him in the barn, listening to him fling himself against the door and scream, hoarse noises no human throat could make. I walked back to the house, my palms stinging from rope burns. In the kitchen, my oldest brother stood looking out the window, his face still purpled from my father’s hands.
“So much for you being the kind one,” he said.
In the bathroom, I ran cold water over my palms and cried. “I love him,” I whispered into my raw hands. “Don’t I love him?”
• • • •
The next day, I came to the barn and pushed handfuls of grass through the crack in the door. The deer boy roared at me and threw the grass back. I sat against the door and pleaded with him. I offered orange wedges and peppers, flowers on long stems. I ran to the barn in the morning to chase away the deer, milling in their tens and muttering like goats. I pleaded. I chanted, “You’re mine.” Still, he wouldn’t eat.
After four days, I opened the doors. The deer boy stumbled into the light. He growled, whipping his bloody fists and tossing his bruised head like it bore antlers. He walked past me and into the forest, vanishing into the open arms of the oak trees.
“You did right,” my father told me that afternoon. “You can’t make a wild animal a pet.” And what he didn’t say, but I understood: “You can’t make a beast your lover.”
• • • •
I began to walk in the woods. My uncle showed me his scarred arm and warned me about the old woman of his nightmares. “She’s still out there,” he told me. “If you see her, run home.”
I’d gotten good at spotting deer-sign: their dark excrement heaped in pellets, the trees gashed open by their horns, their split hoof prints stabbing the mud, the flattened grass where they lay together at night.
I walked under heavy limbs and stepped over long-thorned briars spreading over the ground like fire. I worried over his feet, tender and thin-skinned, not made for walking shoeless through the woods. I spooked crowds of deer dipping their heads to drink from streams, chasing after them and scanning the trees for the deer boy.
I finally heard his voice one evening, a half-animal grunt, and followed it into the forest gloom. I found him wrestling with a long-bodied deer. He grappled her with his arms and tried to plant himself behind her, hanging onto her rump.
I picked up a stone and struck him in the back of the head.
The doe bolted away, and the deer boy wheeled on me, angry and confused. I could see that he recognized me. He seemed as embarrassed as I, looking at the ground and trotting closer. He got close enough to sniff my hair, to touch me on the arm, checking my palms for salt. Hadn’t I wanted just this moment?
I shoved him away, shouted, picked up sticks and threw them at his face. He hadn’t done anything wrong, had he? He was only a deer, doing what a deer did. So why was I so angry at him for it?
He ran into the forest, moving with the strange grace of an animal, slipping through the crossed limbs and mats of vines like a shadow. He was gone, back with his own kind. I knew that he was never coming back home with me.
• • • •
Years went by, and my graduation was coming up. My brother had plans to move away with friends, to find a job in a new city. My mother asked what I would do in her fearful way. Something had to come next, but I couldn’t imagine what. I still took walks in the woods, but it had been a long time since I had seen a deer. One morning, I found a hoof-print near my window, but it meant nothing. My deer boy didn’t have hooves.
My father still hunted occasionally, though he never took a pregnant deer again. Every time he came back from the woods, I waited for him to tell me, but he only shook his head.
One morning in January, my father came back from hunting early, his hands shaking. He emptied his gun of shells and threw them in the trash. Locked his gun up and didn’t touch it again, though he wouldn’t tell me anything, only, “Stay out of the woods. They’re not our place.”
My uncle nodded, digging through our refrigerator. “Haven’t I been saying that for years?”
I took his hunter’s orange vest off the table and went into the woods myself. What if he’d seen him? What if he’d shot and killed the deer boy and was too ashamed to bring him back?
My father had worn a track between the trees. I followed it and climbed into his stand, a nest made of iron and tin. The wind was cold up so high, and I hadn’t brought warm enough clothes. The metal seat burned my thighs through my jeans. It didn’t matter. I would wait.
It wasn’t until evening, with the sun falling through the branches, that the deer came. Brown-furred and white-tailed, they came snorting through the trees. There were so many of them, the shapes of deer receding into the brush as the herd moved under me, on their way to ponds and pasture land on the other side of the woods.
A tall, thin shape came, pushing branches out of the way. I leaned forward, waiting. It was a woman.
At first, I was afraid it was the old woman my uncle had warned me about, come to drag me away. But this was a young woman, her hair wild and full of burrs. She had small breasts, her sides textured with overlapping scars from branches. She moved like the deer, graceful steps, dipping low and springing back up, quick and silent. I couldn’t breathe. Ever since I was a child, I’d dreamed of being something like her.
Behind her, others came. They were people, but they were deer too. Or maybe they were only deer, regardless of their shape. They ran like deer, made deer calls, moved with the others through the forest without clothes or speech or human gesture.
My deer boy came with them. From his forehead, he’d grown a pair of huge, spreading antlers. At their base, where horn met his skull, his skin was mounded in scabs. Dried blood dripped down his nose. The tip of one horn had broken off.
I pulled off my clothes and climbed down the ladder, my skin drawing tight in the cold. I would give up my humanity, the mean house I’d come from, every confusion and disappointment of growing older. I would vanish into the woods, like my cousins had before me.
When I came down the ladder, the deer spooked. The herd rippled, moving away in every direction. I ran straight for my deer boy. He lifted his nose, sniffed, and I saw by his eyes that he knew me.
He ducked his head and ran at me with his horns, sending me stumbling back. I fell onto the leaves, a branch stabbing into my bare leg. I reached out and tried to touch his shaggy head, to run my fingers over his new horns, but he shook his neck from side to side, the points hooking toward me in a warning. He held me at bay until the other deer had gone away into the trees. Then, without another look, he turned and ran too.
I tried to follow. Flung myself off the leaves and ran, my feet shredded on rocks and frozen roots. The herd moved into the forest, so much faster than me. They weren’t people. I could see it. I thought, if I ran hard enough, if I wanted it enough, I could be like them. I could be that wild, beautiful thing running through the woods at his side. There could be a place for me here.
In a few moments, I fell gasping to the cold ground. The deer were gone. Sobbing, I went back to the deer stand to get my clothes, before the cold killed me.
On my way back, I heard a whimpering. Small, regular grunts. At the base of a tree, a very young girl stood, hair cascading down her back in a nest of sticks and leaves, looking for her mother and father.
She was one of the children who’d come walking behind the deer boy, his daughter. He would come looking for her. Or he wouldn’t. Who could say with animals?
I cornered the girl against the tree and grabbed her. She bit me on the arm, and I slapped her hard across the face. She barked, and I slapped her again, pinning her with my knees and hitting her until she became silent.
I picked up the dirty little thing and carried her out of the woods.
We still had old clothes from when I’d been a girl. And she was too small to fight me. It was easy to pitch her into the bath, to rip the comb through her tangled hair, to force her to drink a glass of milk and eat a peanut butter sandwich for dinner.
At night, the deer came into the yard and cried for her with their creaking voices. She turned circles in my room, yelping back.
I held her, smoothed her raw scalp. “They left you,” I said. “But it’s okay. They left me too.”
She would go to school. She would wear dresses, eat with a fork, and learn to shit on the toilet. She would learn speech, even if I had to shake the words out of her. Through her, I would prove that we can be who we have to be. For myself and for the deer boy, I would understand what we had lost.
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