Deer, Girl; Stephanie Parent
After ten years in Los Angeles, Megan’s body couldn’t handle the cold.
Megan went jogging after dark, in the suburban Maryland neighborhood where she’d grown up and, at the age of thirty-two, had now returned. The frosty air invaded her lungs, penetrating each bronchi, icing over every tiny bronchiole as surely as it had the branches of the bare trees she ran beneath. When she forgot to wear gloves—which was most of the time—her fingers tingled and the little bones turned brittle as the twigs that crunched under her sneakered feet. She’d have to hold her hands over the heater a while, if she wanted to draw or paint tonight.
Since Megan’s boyfriend had broken up with her a year ago, she’d jogged every evening after the sun went down. Trading the comfort of a couch and Aaron’s warm arms for the soft susurration of sneakers on sidewalk. Jogging had been easy in Los Angeles, with the mild breeze and the palm fronds watching over her. Lights on every street corner.
Here, though, the cold burned and the blackness nearly swallowed her. Especially when she left the sleeping houses behind and headed close to the woods, where eyes gazed at her from between the densening tree trunks. Deer eyes. Does and adolescents, and occasionally a stag with antlers rising like a spiked crown.
If the deer could withstand the cold, Megan told herself, she could too.
Megan began to look forward to those wide, staring animal eyes. If she did not encounter the creatures, an empty feeling overcame her, an ache in her freezing chest; and so if the deer were hiding she would run further into the woods. She’d come across them eventually, even if it turned a half-hour jog into a forty-five-minute one, and led her deep into the chilled thickness of the trees.
Sometimes, when she found the deer, she felt such relief that she wished she could walk right into the herd and stay a while, soaking in their quiet, their peace. The way they stood in the frigid air without shivering at all. But whenever Megan tried to get too close, the deer scattered and ran.
Better the deer abandoned her, Megan supposed, since she couldn’t be out too long—her mother didn’t approve. Unlike the wide-eyed deer, Megan’s mother had beady eyes that had grown smaller and sharper as she’d gotten older; as the skin of her face had pinched from all the years of contracting her features in disappointment. Disapproval.
“Don’t be too long,” her mother had said as Megan left for her jog, tonight. As she’d said every night since Megan got the call about her father’s accident. Since she’d hopped on a plane only to find that by the time she stepped out into that cold, cold embrace of the East Coast, she was too late to say goodbye. Since she’d abandoned her LA apartment without even returning to get her things, the half-finished paintings and sketchbooks. She knew if she went back she’d stay in the warm, warm arms of Southern California, and she couldn’t do that because now her mother was alone, and needed her here.
“Don’t be too long,” Megan’s mother had said, but on this night Megan ran past tree after tree and couldn’t find a single deer. The sidewalk had turned to a dirt path, dangerous to navigate beneath the crescent moon and dim stars; Megan nearly tripped over a tree root, caught herself on a knobby trunk that scraped her bare palm, and slowed to a walk. Now she could not outrun the cold, could not keep it from enveloping her like a cruel lover, like the icicle opposite of Aaron’s embrace.
And then, there: in the distance ahead of her, further from the houses and the street, a blur of nimble legs and hooves. Moving too fast to catch.
Ignoring the stings of the scrape and the cold, Megan hurried after the creature. She needed to see—to feel—the deer watching her, with their wise, wild eyes that knew nothing of human concerns, before she could face her mother’s judgmental gaze. The mother’s eyes that said: Where are your husband and your child and your respectable nine-to-five? The eyes that spoke loud in the empty house, in the vacuum left by the absence of Megan’s father. The eyes that reminded Megan why she’d spent years and years running from her childhood home and hadn’t made it back in time.
Now, Megan ran toward the deer. A few times she lost track of the animal, but it always reappeared. Sleek muscle and brown velvet and—
Something slippery and loose, a long, undulating skirt, and beneath it the vulnerable, human curve of a bare calf.
Not a deer. A girl.
A girl who must be lost. And freezing. Megan forgot about the cold chilling her own insides as she yelled, “Hey! Hey, are you all right?”
The girl looked back toward Megan, a flash of wind-whipped hair silvered by the moon; then she turned and disappeared between two trees.
What was she running from?
“It’s okay,” Megan called as she followed. “Are you lost? You must be half-frozen—”
Megan sidestepped rocks and roots and remembered the night Aaron broke up with her, after that party and the fight in Malibu. She remembered the long, silky dress with the matching wrap she’d bought just for the occasion, before it all went wrong.
Megan had thought that night was cold, as she’d thrown her wrap off and ran barefoot across the beach, welcoming the wind that buffeted her, thinking she could run and run and run right into the waves and never re-emerge. But that had been California cold, not a deep freeze like the air that blanketed the forest now.
Megan caught another flash of hair—no, that was the deer again, the arch of an elongated neck and perked ears.
Where was the girl? Was she still running and running, the way Megan had for so long?
Megan followed the deer, or rather the sounds the animal made, crunching twigs and heavy breaths—
No, those noises had to be the girl. A human girl who made breath-clouds in the cold, like the ones before Megan’s face now. Although Megan couldn’t feel the cold so much anymore. Her blood pumped hot with the desire to find the deer, the girl; her skin felt protected from the world, as if she were shielded by a layer of fur.
Megan saw skirt and hair and soldiered on. She thought of calling out again, but she didn’t want to spook the girl, and besides, what were words anyway? When did they ever mean what they pretended to?
“Don’t be too long,” Megan’s mother said every night, as Megan laced her sneakers and went for her jog. But what her mother’s words meant were, I wish you wouldn’t go at all. What she meant was, You already ran to the other side of the country and left me for far too long.
“I have to jog after dark,” Megan had explained, when she’d first come home. “I got addicted to it, out in Los Angeles. It lets my mind wander; it’s how I get inspiration for my art.”
What Megan’s words meant were:
I started running because Aaron hurt me. The same way you hurt me, back when I was a child in a grown-up’s body and I tried to show you who I really was, the art I made, the paintings and the pictures I drew, and you said it was nice, you guessed, but not a way to make a living. You looked right through me and didn’t understand. You didn’t know me at all. So I ran all the way across the country. I searched for warmth and love and I thought I’d found it but in the end Aaron looked right through me, too, and now all I know how to do is run.
Words were useless, the spoken and the unspoken ones. Worse than useless—they were a coldness that crept inside your bones and reminded you that the more you tried to reveal your true self, the more you ended up alone.
Ahead of her, Megan saw the dark flash of the deer’s light-landing hooves.
Deer didn’t need language, didn’t need to justify their existence. Deer simply were, their perfect wild, wordless selves.
Megan trailed the deer and the girl farther into the forest, where the branches were so thick even the cold couldn’t intrude, and she began to wonder what would happen if she never came home. Would her mother sit on the sofa till morning broke and the day came and went and night returned, eyes on the front door, refusing to see the passage of time, refusing to see the truth? Would she keep telling herself cold, useless words—
Megan will be back any minute now. I know my daughter. She’s a good girl.
Guilt and resentment twisted inside Megan, spiking like antlers. Still, she followed the sounds of feet and hooves. And then, suddenly, she stepped between two trees into a clearing, and the wisps of clouds fell from the moon, and the vision of her mother faded from Megan’s mind as she saw what stood before her.
It was the deer.
It was the girl.
It was both.
The long, lithe figure tossed her hair over a shoulder, and it dissolved into an animal’s velvety neck; Megan blinked and the hair was back, but beyond it extended the deer’s upturned black nose. Megan’s gaze ran down, over the old-fashioned, bell-sleeved dress, below the hemline to where pale-fleshed calves narrowed—elegantly, grotesquely—into cloven hooves.
This creature could not speak, with its animal snout, but within her mind Megan heard words like the rustle of dead leaves over frozen earth.
Stay with us, it said. Here where you don’t need words, where you won’t feel the cold.
And then, from the far side of the clearing, behind the creature who was both deer and woman, the rest of the herd emerged. Quiet as ghosts, stepping on four legs that appeared too slender to support their magnificent, muscular forms. The hard, spiked feelings inside Megan dissolved; her heart swelled with the desire to belong here, among these wild creatures. So sleek yet strong, invisible when they wished to be, but so lovely you might forever chase after them in the dark.
Megan stepped forward, toward the deer woman looking dark-eyed right at her. The deer did not turn and scatter, as they always had before.
They see you as one of them now.
The deer woman inclined her snout downward, toward Megan’s arms. Megan followed the wide doe gaze to her hand—
It was thickening, cleaving, becoming strong and unfeeling enough to withstand frozen ground. No wonder Megan was no longer bothered by the cold.
Megan stepped closer, closer to the deer woman who lifted her arms in their bell sleeves, reached for Megan and revealed hands that were hooved. Strange and stunning. Megan could paint that image; she could spend all day perfecting the soft drape of the sleeves against the sharp lines of the cloven toes.
Megan looked down at her own hand, the bones of her thumb and second finger already welded together, the other three fingers meshing, combining, the flesh turning to some stiff substance before her eyes.
Megan couldn’t paint without her fingers. A new spike awoke inside her:
The doe lady opened her jaws in what seemed like a smile. She stepped forward on her hoofed feet, and Megan turned to run.
Megan had hesitated too long, though, and after only a stumbling step or two—why was she so clumsy, all of a sudden?—insistent limbs wrapped around Megan’s torso and stopped her short.
The left side of the deer woman’s embrace was cold, so cold it left Megan gasping, immobile, her bones tight enough to snap. The right side was warm, warm as the California ocean, warm as Aaron’s arms.
One side Megan couldn’t escape, and one side she didn’t want to. One human, one animal.
Which was which? Who could tell?
The doe lady’s hooves dug all the way through Megan’s coat and sweater, pressing against the ridges of her spine, drawing Megan so close she could smell the musky animal odor beneath the dress. The deer woman pulled Megan closer, closer, mashing Megan’s head against her long neck. From afar her fur had looked like velvet, but now it pricked needlelike into Megan’s flesh.
Closer, closer the deer woman pulled her, till they could almost meld, become one.
Here in the woods, in the dark, Megan wouldn’t need to paint. It would be easier. But oh, what a picture the two of them must make. A picture for canvas and paint—
Megan used every ounce of strength she possessed to push against the deer woman’s chest, the wiry fur palpable beneath the fabric, and she managed to free herself, and turn, and run.
Megan plunged forward, into the trees, not caring if branches clawed her cheeks. If thorns grasped her ponytail and kept some strands for themselves. Or maybe those weren’t thorns, but the doe lady’s teeth—maybe she was that close. So near Megan felt the heat of her breath on her neck, smelled it rancid and rotten.
Megan tried to run faster, but her feet wouldn’t work. They were frozen, clomping down in awkward, stamping motions. They tore through the rubber soles of her sneakers, till she heard the uneven, unpracticed clop, clop, and looked down.
They weren’t feet. They were hooves.
Megan ran faster, faster, her heart bucking with such strength it had to belong to a wild creature. Her heart so close to exhaustion, extinction, it had to belong to a weak human. The faster Megan ran, the more unsteady she became, boomeranging from tree trunk to tree trunk, until finally she reached the spot where dirt path returned to pavement and the lights of the houses glimmered from far off.
And then, the rank breath of the deer woman was upon her, ancient and animal and wild, and Megan fell, hard, to the ground.
In one version of the story, a girl sits in her childhood bedroom before a blank canvas, trying to bring images to life. She’s not sure she has enough talent for this. She has the drive, though: the memory of one crescent-moon night and a forest she will never again enter after dark; the determination to depict what happened there. No matter how long or how many tries it takes.
Across the hall, the girl’s mother sleeps in her own bedroom. Never imagining the nightmares of cloven hooves and moon-beamed hair her daughter creates from paint and brush.
In another version of the story, there is a new deer among the forest herd. Her eyes are as wild and all-knowing as the other creatures’, but every once in a while she shivers, the way a human would in the winter woods.
A few miles away, in a silent house, an old woman sits watching the door.
Stephanie Parent is a graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at USC. Her horror fiction has been published by Cemetery Gates Media and Skullgate Media, and her poetry has been nominated for a Rhysling Award.