Short Fiction Prize Winner: "My Deer"
By Kaitlin Williams
The Bronco revved toward Black Lake, the needle of the speedometer creeping over eighty miles per hour as I stole a glance over my father’s shoulder. My stomach churned as my father sped throughout the four-hour journey that really should’ve taken five. My family and I were on our way to my grandparents’ lakeside cottage in Northern Michigan.
If I were to explain the location of my grandparents’ cottage in the traditional Michigan way, presenting my right hand palm-up to mimic my mitten-shaped home state, their residence would stand at the tip of the middle finger. It was the first year my parents would let my brother and me hunt, which wasn’t really fair because I was two years older and I knew he only got to go sooner because he was a boy, but I was excited regardless. My name was going to be Joshua if I’d been born a boy, but I was born with the equipment outside-in, so the name was passed down to my brother two years and two months later.
I looked over at the back of Josh’s head, bobbing alongside mine in the back of the Bronco. His bristly blondish hair was sticking up from sleeping the first two and a half hours of the road trip. His forehead was pressed against the glass of the right backseat window as he scanned the early winter landscape of newly-naked trees and the soggy remains of the previous week’s snowfall lining the side of the highway. I sketched him with hair made of the spindly brown trees in my notebook.
We were just outside Gaylord when my brother exclaimed, “Look! A deer!” He unbuckled his seatbelt so he could kneel up in his seat for a better look. I closed my notebook, leaned as far right as my seatbelt would allow, and glimpsed a white tail that seemed attached to the forest rather than the body of an animal as it disappeared into the blur of pine trees.
“Nothing to get excited about,” my father said. “It was just a doe.”
Settling back into my seat, I smoothed out the crumpled pages of my notebook.
“I don’t know why you waste your time filling up those notebooks,” my father said as I looked up and caught his raised black eyebrow in the rearview mirror. “Just look out the window like your brother, and maybe one of you’ll spot a buck for me to nab.”
“Dave — now — don’t,” my mother chided him in my defense.
“What?” he asked before turning up the Neil Diamond Greatest Hits CD we’d been listening to on repeat. She crossed her arms over her puffy coat and reclined the passenger seat as far back as it would go. No one spoke for the rest of the trip.
We reached my grandparents’ string of three cottages a little more than two hours later. The lake stood out from behind the cottages, black and unwavering — a grapefruit sun bobbed on its surface. I was the first to reach the middle cabin — the newly-renovated yellow cube my grandparents lived in.
I didn’t have to knock. My grandfather threw the door open and his arms out in the same motion. He was wearing the brown, striped button-up — one of only three shirts I’d ever seen him wear. Whenever he came to hug me, his arms always seemed disproportionately long for his short body, making him look like a balding orangutan. I hugged him, or was hugged by him, resting my chin on his shoulder as I spied my grandmother drying her hands on a towel in the doorway.
I know it’s presumptuous to think grandmothers enjoy cooking and doing dishes, but I sincerely think my grandmother lived for it. She was always slow roasting something or wiping down some counter without wiping the smile from her olive-toned face. When she came to visit my family downstate, she insisted on bringing the food and sometimes her own special pots and pans to cook for us all. I broke free from my grandfather’s orang-arms and buried myself into her folds; even her body felt made for comfort, soft and yielding under a powder blue crew-neck sweater.
My grandfather’s voice came booming behind me, slightly muffled by the embrace. “So, are you coming hunting?” He laughed in the aftershock of his question. “Season’s almost over.” I turned so that only one arm swooped around my grandmother and faced him. “Sure,” I said, breaking away from my grandmother. “Wake me up before you go.”
I went back out to the car to unload my luggage for the long weekend. As I stowed my few belongings in the guest bedroom, I was careful to tuck my notebook behind the worn dresser with the peeling Pink Floyd sticker on the side. I paused and sighed. I wanted to tuck myself behind the dresser too. Instead I had to go out into the living room and enter the chatter of hunting, “What’s for dinner?” and, “How’s your shoulder?” I inserted myself between my brother and my father on the couch and leaned back to let them continue with their discussion.
“Which blind are we going to take?” Josh asked.
“You and I get the one by the dirt road,” my father said. “The big boys get the big bucks.” He crossed his arm over my lap to grab my brother’s knee and shake it reassuringly.
“When are we going?” I asked.
My father let go of Josh’s knee and faced me, black eyebrow cocked high again. “We’re going at the crack of dawn. Not at ten o’clock when you wake up, little missy.”
He sank back into the couch in a false sleep, jumping up a few seconds later in laughter.
I got up with a huff, went to the guest bedroom and reached behind the Pink Floyd dresser. I sketched a picture of the three cabins and put a parking lot where the lake should be. There was no sun or moon. I didn’t have colored pencils, so I filled it in with pencil. I closed my notebook and fell asleep without washing my graphite-smeared hands.
I woke up to the clattering of pots and dragged my feet on the hallway carpet on my way to the kitchen. Squinting through the sunlight reflecting off the lake and piercing the kitchen window, I found my grandmother stirring a pot of oatmeal. I was about to tell her I could just microwave some, that she didn’t have to boil water and cook it, when I saw the time on the microwave, a glowing red 10:12.
I tried to make excuses for them. The stone blue cabin was just a peek out of the right window of the kitchen. I had never been in it, but I knew that my Uncle Sammy’d moved in the summer before when his apartment had burned down. None of the lights were on.
“Did they go out hunting already?” My voice came out in a croak.
“Yes, sweetie. They left before I got up. It must’ve been about five,” my grandmother answered without turning from the oatmeal.
As I dejectedly ate my morning oatmeal, I imagined Josh steadying his arm to take aim. While my grandmother rinsed the dishes, his target entered his line of sight. When I set out my clothes for the day, he pulled the trigger in my mind.
The truck door slammed while I was applying cover-up to my nose. By the time I made it outside, my brother was already recounting his kill. My dad was nodding with a grin stuck on his face as he opened the back of the truck to reveal the four-point buck.
“We didn’t see anything for five hours.” Josh’s arms shook under his camouflage coat. “Then, I saw four antler points poke out from the edge of the woods.”
“You did good and waited for the buck to get closer and turn,” my father interrupted. I knew that was because he wanted the buck to reveal the length of his side, broadside, to get a better chance of hitting him.
“I shot him twice!” Josh’s voice cracked as he yelled “twice” and he blushed with a mixed look of embarrassment and excitement. I glanced at my father, who continued to grin and nod his orange-capped head.
When my brother looked too flustered to finish the story, my father added, “I’ll take it to the taxidermist on Friday since all the shops’ll be closed for Thanksgiving tomorrow.” He put his hands up in front of his forehead, pointing his forefinger and middle finger outward. “We’ll want to mount those antlers!”
Everyone crowded around the buck laid out in the bed of my grandfather’s pickup. It would’ve looked a lot like a wake, except that my uncle and grandfather poked and prodded the body methodically.
“Too bad we couldn’t have this processed by tomorrow,” my grandfather said. “It would’ve been some good Thanksgiving venison.”
There wouldn’t have been much, I thought. Every rib was outlined, making long hollow indents in the wood-brown fur. Two bullet wounds dotted its side and a slit ran from breastbone to pelvis where my grandfather had already gutted the buck. The injuries formed a sinister smile that beamed up at me.
My mother, insistent on documenting the kill, ran back inside for her camera. I was careful to keep the wounds away from my new ski jacket as she snapped photos of us posing with the buck.
Afterward, when I looked at the photo on the camera screen, I saw the tension around my green eyes, my long ponytail askew — and, though difficult to discern in the morning light, the lack of expression in the buck’s eyes. I thought they looked so much like overgrown black olives. My brother’s smile was strained (he looked as if he was trying to hide his braces) while he lifted his trophy by the antlers. Even the face of the buck seemed unusually scrawny compared to the deer I’d seen my father and uncles bring home in the years before, but the rack was impeccable. The four points of the tips of his antlers stuck up defiantly, as if to declare that they would continue to grow despite the death of the young buck’s body.
I tried to put aside my disappointment at being left behind in the morning and told Josh good job, stooping a little to put my arm around his shoulders as everyone walked back inside. Uncle Sammy gave us the gory details as he stripped off layers of hunting attire and polished his oversized glasses. Josh’d shot the buck twice in the abdomen. The first bullet only grazed the right kidney, so the second shot was a necessary one to the liver. I didn’t think I’d have the ability to fire again after feeling the kickback of the gun and seeing the deer wounded and running. We’d been practicing at the shooting range for the past few summers, but that was shooting bales of hay and beer cans. No second tries, I thought. I’d have to end it with just one bullet.
At dinner that night my brother was still visibly shaking, amped on adrenaline. He shook his head and put his fork down.
“I think I’ll just sleep in tomorrow,” he said. “I’m too tired to even eat.”
I took my opening and offered my services in his stead.
“I want to go.” Greeted by his laughter and raised hands, I reminded my grandfather, “You asked me if I wanted to go yesterday.”
“I didn’t think you were serious.” He looked around the table for support, but everyone was suddenly more concerned with spaghetti than with conversation.
I was. But I didn’t have to say how serious I was to stop his laughter; he must’ve seen it on my face.
My father broke the silent stare-off.
“I’m tired from our early success too,” he said, shooting a grin at Josh. “I think I’ll sleep in.”
I smiled until he looked at me and then back down at his plate.
“Good, I’ll have my own blind then. Can I use your rifle, Uncle Sammy?”
Still hunched over his spaghetti, Uncle Sammy said, “Sure.” Then he shrugged. “If you can carry it.”
I took in a mouthful of pasta to cool down before I responded. “Thanks,” I said without looking up. It was settled then. Voices were hushed over dessert. I went to bed early and slept as if I’d only blinked before it was morning.
I ate my oatmeal with purpose. It was already 6 A.M. and I wanted to get my breakfast down before the deer had time to get theirs. My mother’s voice startled me through my furious eating.
“Mind if I join you? I bet it’d be awfully boring out there alone.”
I put down my spoon and turned. She was standing in the doorway, wearing a full-length terrycloth robe.
“Sure,” I said, perhaps a little too cheerfully, “but you know we’ll have to be quiet.”
She widened her eyes and nodded. “Oh, I know!” She kept nodding, and I turned my focus back to my oatmeal. I knew my mother was only coming with me because she didn’t think I would be able to go through with it. No one did.
That’s why my grandfather dropped us off by the blind and turned to get back in his truck saying, “Call me when you want to get picked up,” and shouting as he got further away, “or if you get something!” While I knew I couldn’t make the deer come to me, I was sure I could make it stay if it entered the clearing.
My mother and I fidgeted in the blind, which was just a shack made of leftover wood. The blind was intended for one person at a time, but my mother and I sat on our bench made of a two-by-four and two milk crates. I scarcely had room to prop up the rifle. It was too difficult to grip the barrel with gloves on, so I sacrificed my fingers and took them off. My feet were too toasty in their wool socks, but I had to endure. Though it was cold — the dry kind of cold that saps the spit from your mouth and chaps your lips — sweat built up in my armpits and on the backs of my knees. My mother fussed over my gloveless hands and we both fidgeted for a few minutes before we were comfortable enough.
Finally settled, I stared at the line of the woods at the left of the clearing with the rifle pressed against the space between my shoulder and my collarbone. The stock rested on the edge of the blind’s opening, making it easier to hold up the cold, unyielding weapon. The opening was a foot-long slit that gave us a good view of a clearing about an acre wide. The forest bore down on the small open space — all bare trees like hands raised to the sky. Staring into the forest, I thought over and over about a line of a poem I’d read — the woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I could not remember the next line of the poem for the life of me. It was really starting to bother me. So was the cold; clammy sweat beaded on my forehead.
Our breathing was the only sound, punctuated by the occasional caw of a crow. The sun’s progress was marked by a slight shift of shadow in the left corner of the clearing. After about half an hour of the quietest minutes I’ve ever endured, my mother pulled a piece of hard candy from her coat pocket. As I listened to the crinkle of the wrapper, which sounded louder than any noise to enter the weedy clearing, my eyes scanned back and forth in an almost mechanical motion. Then, there. I saw movement at the far left of the clearing; my breath forced a rattled shush to my mother.
She must’ve seen something too because my mother faded to silence. A few more seconds of trembling bushes, then I watched as a doe walked out into the field, stepping cautiously, as if tiptoeing around mines. She looked about warily, almost as if she expected us to be there all along. Her ears were pointed up, daring sounds to enter them from the peripheral landscape. I held my breath while I watched her through the scope of the rifle, her back arching subtly as she drew a breath and stepped. She was so cautious during her slow progress across the field that I began to worry I wasn’t the only thing worth fearing in the outlying forest.
Seconds were nonexistent; time passed only as breath as I began to force air back into my lungs. One slowed breath later, my mother whispered, “Don’t do it.” I realized then that my gloved hands were frozen to the gun with cold determination, the left hand pressed hard around the barrel, the right hand poised with the index finger hovering slightly above the trigger. I flicked the safety off with my left thumb and tightened my grip. Two faster breaths later, my mother whispered a little more harshly, “Wait.” But I had already been waiting. My target, on the other hand, hadn’t. Whatever her destination, she inched toward it purposefully. One pointed hoof after pointed hoof crumpled the grass in the meadow. Over an eternity of breaths, she got closer to me and closer to Death. Death in a ski jacket, Death and Death’s mother.
Then, time ceased to exist in breaths and became fluid, a fluid I was drowning in. In one graceful motion, my target looked back, as if to look back on her life; and her movement startled me. I pulled the trigger. She leapt away from me, arching her light brown back and showing her creamy underside. For a fraction of a second I thought she might fly, but she was grounded by gravity. I clutched the gun for support and watched as the ground came up to meet her.
“You did it!” my mother screamed in a shrill voice. She threw her arms up with a look of triumph that wasn’t shared by her tone. I was more startled by her voice’s presence than I was by its tone. In my concentration, I’d forgotten everything but me and the doe. Then, it was just me, I thought. But I had to make sure. We stumbled out of our hiding place and I left the gun behind, my shoulder sore from the kickback, before we ran the fifty yards or so to her side. She looked like she could’ve been resting in the clearing.
I wanted to say something when we reached her, but it was too late for goodbyes. The hello had done enough. The doe’s body was settling. A spatter of blood traced back to the point of impact on her chest. A ragged hole marred her otherwise unaltered caramel and velvet coat. She was heartier in stature than she’d seemed from my point of view hunched in the blind. Then I knew why my brother’s buck looked like he had been starving — she’d obviously been eating all of the food in the forest. The ground cradled the fatty pouch of her abdomen. Her long limbs and neck were thick with muscle. Her mouth was slightly open against the ground and her tongue inched its way out as if searching for some grass to eat. Yet her black eyes had that same, freshly-washed olive appearance that told me she would never feel the pain of hunger again.
I tore my eyes away from the doe and looked at my mother. Walky-talky in hand, she was paging my grandfather. The receiver beeped. “She shot it,” she said. I could hear his laughing crackle through the receiver. She repeated herself sternly and shut the device off.
She cried while we waited. I looked down at my hands and they were shaking, wet from my own tears. “Look at us,” she said, holding her own hands out and lifting her camouflage-padded shoulders. I felt her voice float up and over my ears like the birds that’d already started migrating south for the long winter. I was distracted, trying to listen for something from the deer below me. I doubted that anything was as important as what was on the ground.
My grandfather pulled up close behind us. I could hear his pickup’s engine fizzle and cut off. I turned to face him and noticed he already had his butterfly knife flipped open, so I reached to grab it from him. But my hands were shaking too badly, so he waved me away and cut open the doe himself. The first cut traveled vertically up her abdomen. As he stretched the skin back, revealing glistening viscera, I took inventory of what I remembered from biology class in my head. Bladder, check. Ovaries, check. Intestines, check. Stomach, liver, kidneys and gallbladder, all check. Heart… where was the heart ?
My grandfather spoke just then, as if to answer my unasked question. “It looks like you shot her heart out,” he said without a hint of laughter. I couldn’t think of anything to say. My mind, however, raced with responses. They rushed out into open space. At least she died quickly, she couldn’t have felt much, there was no unnecessary suffering, and at worst she was aware for a second. My heartbeat quickened.
Soon, the doe was packed in the back, and we climbed in the cab of the truck. We became a funeral procession of strangers; our makeshift hearse bouncing through forest trails while our heads bobbed with downcast eyes.
We arrived at the cottage to smells of cooked turkey and rolls with pools of butter on top. My stomach curled inward. I’d forgotten it was Thanksgiving. My grandmother’d prepared a feast worthy of such a momentous occasion. And I’d brought my own side dish, growing cold in the bed of the truck.
“Hell, you weren’t gone long,” Uncle Sammy said in the doorway. “Must be beginners’ luck.”
I locked eyes with my father on my way to hang up my coat. He reached his hand out and then thought twice, waving me inside instead.
“Let’s eat now. We’ll go out and look at it after dinner,” he said.
We sat down for Thanksgiving dinner. My grandmother said grace, giving thanks for the usual niceties — family, good food, good health. I tried to eat, but each bite was dry fur in my mouth. I put down my fork and looked up at my family, all eating silently except for my mother.
“Too bad it was just a doe,” my father said.
I looked to Josh, but he wouldn’t meet my eyes. I looked down at my food again and heard the wooden chair scrape the linoleum as my mother got up and left the table. I caught my grandmother’s eyes apologetically and left my food still steaming, following my mother out of the room. She went to the living room and I heard television laughter before I closed the guest room door.
After about half an hour of reading the same page of my history textbook, I put my head down. History’s a dead field anyway, I thought. Just like writing, like hunting. They’d died out.
My thoughts returned to the doe; though they hadn’t really left her the whole day. My family must’ve gone outside to inspect her. I wondered if it would take Uncle Sammy’s help to move her from the pickup bed or if my father could do it himself. I retrieved my notebook and drew the doe. I drew her eating grass. I drew her running with her fawns. I drew her sleeping. By the time I was done drawing, a blister formed on my ring finger, and the doe was most likely hanging by her hind legs in the garage next to Josh’s buck, her blood beating a dull rhythm against the cement floor.
I imagined the drops corresponding to the beating of my heart. I imagined the beating slowing. Then it stopped.
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