Spring 2023 • Vol. XLV No. 2 2022 Short Fiction ContestApril 6, 2023 |

Doe

2022 Short Fiction Contest Runner-up

This has happened to me five or six times: I pull up the garage door and find a doe. She is hanging upside down, her legs splayed, and blood is dripping from her mouth onto the concrete floor. Her eyes are open, dark and surprised. She has curly lashes like a deer in a cartoon. My father doesn’t shut the eyes, as he would if she were human. She hangs next to the canoe, near the croquet set.

My father hugs me when I go inside, past the gutted animal that weighs more than I do, that he field dressed and dragged out of the woods. I’ve seen the knife he uses. It has a hook on the blade for slitting skin and ripping it from pelvic bone to rib cage, like someone unzipping a jacket—to avoid puncturing the stomach or intestines, to avoid a mess. For the same reason, we don’t talk about the first one.

Two days later he skins the deer, undressing her as if she is wearing a tight garment. He removes the backstraps, the big muscles along the spine and thighs and butt, and cuts them into steaks. The meat around the shoulders is more difficult; it comes off in scraps. He takes the scrap meat to a butcher, where it is made into brats and summer sausage. He takes the skin to the hardware store, where there is a drop box and a sign that says DONATE DEER HIDE—HELP SEND A CHILD TO CAMP.  He doesn’t know who comes to collect the deer hides, or what they do with them. He uses a hacksaw to cut off the head. The head, legs, and rib cage go into the woods behind our house for raccoons and coyotes.

While the first doe is draining, I avoid the garage. The second doe, I stare at. I study the pulley system and the thick steel hanger he has threaded through the tendons in her hind legs. I find the bullet holes. He has taken up rifle hunting in addition to the crossbow. Both are bad, but I think I can live with the crossbow because it seems fairer. That is before I learn that modern crossbows are so powerful, arrows go through the deer just like bullets. And they are easy to aim, even for a sixty-three-year-old man with Parkinson’s. He tells me on a video call, holding the phone up in front of his face; the image shakes with the rhythmic rocking of his hands and makes him look like he’s in an earthquake. It’s progressing very slowly, he says. Everything is going to be fine.

The third is a buck with no rack, only two short spikes like the horns of a baby goat. My mother asks me how was my drive as I come through the door into the kitchen. She wipes her hands on a dish towel. Strands of hair are coming out of her braid.

I tell her I have to go talk to Dad about murdering deer.

Did you say harvesting animals for the good of the herd? he asks as he comes around the corner. I watch his feet to see if they are shuffling. He still takes big steps, but I think they are starting to be big on purpose.

Doing a public service, is that what you said?

I tell him I don’t like it.

My mother says she doesn’t like it either. It’s like Wisconsin finally got to him. She never wanted to move, thirty years ago. She still makes sure that fact is well known, in her way of talking about people around here; for her there is another place, a primary place, objectively normal. She seems weary in her body as it moves straight backed and narrow hipped through the kitchen, her flyaway grays protesting that we are all better than this, this place.

He explains field dressing, hoping the technical aspects will engage my interest. Getting the deer out of the woods is the hardest part. More than one of his patients found out about their heart disease that way. Chest pains trying to move a deer. He tells me spike bucks like the one in the garage are a genetic blight on the deer population, that culling them is a good deed.

I ask him: Isn’t it up to the deer ladies not to mate with them? Why is it his job?

How does Dad seem? my mother wants to know, as soon as he goes to bed.

About the same, I say.

She tells me he can’t sleep with sheets over him anymore. He is too weak to roll over if there is anything on top of him. He wakes up and feels trapped.

……

Two years go by: my father gets nothing during gun season. When winter comes, he is out with his crossbow in the mornings, sometimes leaving as early as three a.m. to drive an hour north into deeper snowfall and more remote country. My mother worries about him in the cold. His circulation is reduced. She thinks he goes out when he can’t sleep, and pretends like he meant to go all along.

She makes tea for us, and we talk about what the people around here are up to. She positions herself so she can see the driveway, her eyes focused on the window above my left shoulder, but it does not compromise her forceful conversational style.

He really wants to get a deer because his old nurse, Judy (do I remember Judy?), has a grandkid in sixth grade. Every year on the last day of school before Christmas break, sixth graders dissect deer hearts. If you can’t bring your own, you have to share with a classmate. I remember looking over a friend’s shoulder, not wanting to want to look.

My father pulls up with a bloody doe in the bed of his pickup truck, her heart on the passenger seat in a Styrofoam cooler, packed in snow. This time I watch him string her up. I don’t like that I am over my initial squeamishness. It makes all sorts of death feel closer, as though the realities of the life cycle are a gateway drug to death, as though by never seeing or touching or acknowledging a corpse of any kind, as though by remaining pristine, I might have escaped.

When I ask how you remove a deer heart intact, he says that you cut through the diaphragm, reach up as high as you can to cut the esophagus and trachea, and pull the heart and lungs out all in one piece. He makes it sound reasonable and clean. Now his mouth stays open, even when he isn’t speaking. His jaw muscles flex and go slack a couple times a second. His physical movements are slow, and when we are walking together I feel like an actress in a chase scene who has to pretend to stumble so she can be overtaken.

His hands shake, but there is still power in them. He builds a chicken coop when my mother, on a whim, brings five chicks home. One grows up to be a social outcast. The other four peck her to death, which my mother tries to stop but has, in the end, to witness. The cold-blooded killers lay eggs until a fox gets in. She calls me, crying. I think something’s happened to Dad before she tells me about their bloody feathery bodies strewn around the yard. Secretly I think she’s making too big a deal out of chickens. They have eyes like dinosaurs.

As I watch him skin and carve the doe, I think, He isn’t frail yet.

……

Our calendars count down the winter. I come through the garage one day to find him sitting on the back porch, wrapped in a flannel blanket, holding a pellet gun across his lap. His jaw works as he scans the brick borders of the garden. It looks like he is having a silent conversation with someone I can’t see.

New gun? I ask.

Yeahp—word drawn out until the end of it goes stale. Chipmunks are eating his damn carrot plants.

Inside, Mom and I huddle over the kitchen table and watch him through the screen door.

How does Dad seem?

He swore.

I know, she says. It’s like his inhibitions are disappearing.

I remember his beard and his old thick glasses, the crisp smell of his office, his comfortable belly before he began to lose weight. How bloodthirsty was he, all along—behind his inhibitions?

My mother has a dimple in her right cheek that doesn’t show when she smiles. It prefers to express disapproval. I remark that a wild shot from the pellet gun could hit somebody’s kid. She says she told him that, but he went ahead. He was so excited to go buy the gun. It was weird.

Does Parkinson’s affect personality?

She shakes her head, dimple dug in.

Later I take the pellet gun from the garage and hide it in my old room in the secret space behind my oak headboard. My father mixes me an old-fashioned, the neck of the brandy bottle tick tick tick against the shot glass as he measures. Something comes back to me, a memory of his office: digging my chin down into my sternum so hard it feels like my neck might break in two, eyes wide as polar ice caps, watching my father shave a discolored mole off the soft breast below my collarbone. Tiny drops of blood well up from nowhere. He taps the ragged mole off the blade of his scalpel into a specimen cup, my little blood-blooms flattening into pink streaks on the fingertip of his latex glove. He says that, just for fun, we’ll give it to the lab to test.

……

The next morning there is a five-gallon bucket in the middle of the yard. A long board leans against it, making a ramp up from the grass. Inside is a floating carpet of black sunflower seeds and a drowned chipmunk.

He could buy a live trap, he says, but what’s the point? We let them go, they get back in the garden.

I can drive them a few miles away and release them, I say, no problem.

OK, if I want to. It doesn’t matter to him.

I insist on the live trap because it’s humane, but my insistence is also an underhanded attempt at caretaking, and my father is having none of it. So he humors me, acting like the soft Dad who used to wait patiently for his children to jump over every crack in the sidewalk, to pick up every acorn in the yard—caretaking right back. It reminds me of a game from elementary school, our hands one on top of another, and the lowest hand pulls out to cover the top, faster and faster, until the tower of hands collapses.

His jaw talks to the person I can’t see.

The trap is made of galvanized steel, a slanted door bisecting it like one of those magic tricks where half the woman disappears. We smear peanut butter on the trigger plate and leave it at the edge of the woods, near the garden. Soon I begin to chauffeur chipmunks. Where there used to be a blur of summers and school years, there comes to be each doe, and now each chipmunk, each discrete time I see him.

Eventually we arrive at the skunk.

Dad takes the dog out one last time, comes back to the house, and crawls into bed next to my sleeping mother. She wakes up, her eyes watering.

She has trained herself to lie on the edge of the bed, her arms stuck to her sides, as immovable a part of the room as the heavy walnut wardrobe: her way of leaving my father’s struggles with the sheet, his nightly comings and goings, to himself to deal with. Even so, she is getting less and less sleep.

Pat, she says, Pat, something’s on fire. Something’s burning.

My father tells her about the cat he saw startle in the woods. No cat. And this is how we find out that he’s lost his sense of smell.

My mother throws the clothes and the bedsheets out a window and washes the dog with hydrogen peroxide. She goes out the next morning and comes back with a bigger live trap—I tell her I will risk the drive into the deep woods. But before I can come fetch the skunk, my father has already thrown a wool blanket over the trap and sealed it off with duct tape and hooked up a rubber hose to the exhaust pipe of his truck. He is sitting in the cab, running the engine, when I show up.

Don’t lose any sleep over this, he tells me. Skunks like to dig under porches, deep down near the foundations and make their burrows, and eventually they die and the smell is awful and there is no end to it.

……

The time comes when he has to sell his truck and most of his sports equipment. They aren’t being used. It is winter again, the chipmunks hibernating. I come in through the empty garage. He’s watching TV in a motorized easy chair. His eyebrows arch on a face otherwise blank of expression. We watch game shows and play hangman during the ad breaks; he is the guesser; he can’t write legibly anymore.

I ask him if he’s sold his crossbow.

He says he’s given it away to someone or other, no one I know. He hasn’t actually handed it over yet. It’s packed into the trunk of Mom’s car. He could sneak off hunting if he wanted to.

I say that’ll be nice for him, he loves murdering innocent animals. He laughs silently.

I hold my hand over the paper, tip of the pen making tiny dots as I wait for him to guess another letter. His neck is stiff, his head pointing at the TV, but his eyes are looking at me. His mouth opens and closes like a confused garage door, less and less and less and less safe.

He tells me it’s a fact of life I’ve never managed to learn. Certain situations come up that are uncomfortable, but we have to deal with them. If we ignore them, things get worse for everybody. They didn’t need to get that bad. Sometimes we need to take an action for the greater good. That’s all it is.

I look hard at the paper.

He says it’s very important to him that I understand this.

……

Imagine a morning in early spring: the air tastes thin and a little sweet, like white wine. We don fleeces and clip the dog’s leash to the collar. She is already sniffing around the door. We are wearing hats and mittens, even though the day will soon warm up. Our shadows slant across the lawn.

I tell my mother I want to walk to the park, where there is an old playground and a butterfly garden. She says she doesn’t want to be out of the house for that long, but it is such a nice day. You don’t get too many of them, this time of year. She glances back several times, but after we turn the corner onto the next street there are cars and the dog pulling at the leash and other people out walking.

Some kids are climbing trees, and there are not many flowers yet, no butterflies. We sit on a bench and look out on the field and the old wood-and-steel playground, which everyone agrees is a death trap. The boards are warped and full of splinters. The slides are too fast. I remember the feel of my legs skidding and burning, but I’ll be sad when they tear it down.

Mom uncrosses her legs. Her shoes look big and wary on her feet, and we should be getting back to the house.

No, I say, just a few minutes. It’s such a nice day.

The kids start a game of tag. One climbs up into the playground to hide; I see four tiny fingers clutching a weathered railing. A jogger circles the park. From where we’re sitting, we can look down a hill over the roofs of ranch houses in the next neighborhood.

Finally she checks her watch and says we really do need to go.

We come home to find a doe hanging in the garage. Deer season is over—she has been killed without a license. Her limbs are still limp, her joints lissome and peaceful, as though they have wanted to be in just this position, floating in thin air. The head is the part that is so wrong I have to look away. Almost immediately I turn back again, wanting to see it even though it is dead. Layers of me separate: my skin is horrified, gasping, while underneath, smaller organs think quietly that this doe is a gift, and I am not going to be allowed to say it. My mother runs into the kitchen. I can hear her talking on the phone on the other side of the door. Everything is like a dream. I take the doe down as I’ve seen my father do. There’s already a sheet laid out on the floor. I touch her eyes. They close beneath my fingers.

Photo of Alexandra Munck
Alexandra Munck is a writer living in Chicagoland. Her fiction has appeared in The Southampton Review, Invisible City, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and is forthcoming in Boulevard. She is currently at work on a children’s novel.

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