Words By Ryan Francis Kelly, Art By Emily Y. Chan
At the corner of Cedar and Green, Norma encounters a creature from another world.
It’s just a deer, really. But in the middle of the suburbs, it might as well be a mastodon or sabertooth tiger.
The beast gallops right across the intersection, only ten minutes into Norma’s typical morning delivery route. It’s a big hulky stag with stringy foliage dangling from its horns. More like a moose or reindeer—far too large to be gamboling around the Heights. It seems to appear out of thin air, materializing just in time for Norma to brake and swerve the Grumman mail truck onto the median. After the near collision, the stag cuts through the warm air and vanishes into the fog on the other side of the street.
It’s the foggiest morning that Norma can remember since her husband Chuck passed away. Early in their marriage, they hit a lone doe on the highway during the wee hours of a road trip. At first they thought the doe was dead on impact, until they started hearing its terrible cries—a yodeling death dirge of high-pitched warbles and breathy honking. Back then, you couldn’t just call someone for help, so her husband took matters into his own hands. Well actually, he took a tire iron into his own hands. Thankfully Norma’s vision was obstructed by the hood of the car, but the sound was distinct—the blunt thudding of steel on skull, punctuated by the eerie silence of night.
As Norma carefully backs the Grumman off the median, she breathes a sigh of relief. Splattered roadkill and a dented fender would’ve been too much to handle on the anniversary of Chuck’s last dance with lymphoma. Lately she’s been finding solace in the consistency of her daily route. A stag through her windshield would certainly have disrupted that comforting monotony.
Norma knows these neighborhoods all too well after seventeen years of dedicated service, and she’s beginning to sense a disturbance in their rhythms. The weather has turned screwy, for starters—unexplainable fog in the midst of a summer drought. The local media calls it a “haze.” But who ever heard of a Cleveland summer with no humidity? Always this strange brightness in the afternoons, intense and sterile, like the sun is voiding into white-hot fluorescence. Lake Erie is slowly evaporating into a gigantic crater.
There have been numerous reports of possums and raccoons scurrying about in the daytime, getting as close to people as pigeons in the park. Several fire hydrants have burst all on their own, popping their lug nuts with powerful jet streams that flood the tree lawns and sidewalks. And now Norma can add the Stag from Another World to the long list of oddball happenings.
Norma stops by Vince’s Barber Shop every day to grab her morning paper. Vince is old and doesn’t get much business due to the Great Clips across the street, but Norma can tell he’s too proud to retire. Today she finds him sweeping up invisible hairs on the checkered tile floor.
“Grazie, grazie,” he says, as Norma drops his mail on the counter, along with a few dollars for a copy of The Plain Dealer.
But as she approaches the newspaper rack, a headline from the local tabloids catches her eye instead. DEER-ASPORA: WHY BAMBI IS MOVING INTO YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD. Below the headline, there’s a picture of several deer camped out at a children’s playground. Norma might be embellishing, but she thinks she sees something stern in their eyes, judgmental, very undeer-like.
She flips open the tabloid and reads more about the ‘deer-aspora.’ Norma thinks it’s a little offensive that they made a play on that word. But if the situation is as bad as the article claims, then maybe the choice is apt. Apparently, deer have been popping up in strange places all over Cleveland—the Rock Hall, the heart of Little Italy, the middle of a night game at the Jake. Sightings in the suburbs are even more numerous. Some reclusive residents have reported bizarre deer behavior during the day, when most people are working. A Lyndhurst man claims to have witnessed a massive, organized meeting of 50+ deer on a local abandoned soccer field. All grass and vegetation were consumed within a few hours.
“It was a little biblical,” the man said. “Plague of locusts kind of thing. One thing’s for sure…they’re moving in.”
Community leaders and scientists believe the deer migration is a response to the destruction of the animal’s natural habitats. They blame the expansive shopping malls and parking lots that recently replaced several of the city’s metro parks, which were already suffering as a result of pollution and climate change.
“Tsk tsk tsk, piccola,” Vince says. “Are you going to deliver the mail or read that junk all day?”
Norma giggles as she pockets the tabloid and says farewell to the old barber. During the rest of her route, the haze gives way to afternoon brightness. Norma throws on Chuck’s old pair of aviators to ameliorate the menacing glare. She keeps an eye out for deer throughout the day, with a level of attention that borders paranoia. On multiple occasions, she pulls the car over at the sight of fur in her periphery, only to find shiny, happy people walking their Dobermans and greyhounds.
When her shift is over at 3:30, she makes a stop at Home Depot before heading home. Despite the drought and PSAs about preserving water, Norma can’t help herself when it comes to her lawn and garden. Today she purchases a brand new sprinkler apparatus designed to detect “dangerous levels of desaturation.” With a small amount of shame, she also leaves the store with Vigoro and other enhanced chemical fertilizers. It’s not cheating, she thinks, when you’re battling apocalyptic weather and hordes of deranged vermin.
After getting home, she unlocks her gated fence and carries the Home Depot bags into the backyard. She first decides to feed the goldfish in her pond, which is as large as the local government will allow. Norma feels a twinge of guilt every time she hears the churning gurgles of its filtering system. While tapping flakes of fish food into the pond, she surveys the rest of the yard: the large oak trees, the patches of ivy, the porch and chair swing. But she fails to see the most important thing until it’s right in front of her face.
As she turns her head, she spots a fully-grown male buck, crouching in the ivy only a few feet away from the pond. Startled, Norma takes a step backwards and drops her bags. The first thing she notices is the foliage strewn about its antlers, just like the stag she encountered on the road. It’s staring directly at her with dark almond eyes. There’s a slight squinting to its glare, as if to say, Finally. I was wondering when you were going to notice. The buck lowers its head to grab a mouthful of ivy, all while maintaining eye contact with Norma. Then it blinks a few times, dismissively, chewing the leaves like a cow at its cud.
After a round of chomping, it spits out a sinewy blob of green mush, and then immediately starts gumming another leaf. He’s not even eating it, Norma thinks. Just chewing it to death.
Norma hears rustling in the brush. Two more deer—a doe and another buck—flanking her from both directions, create a triangle formation. They’re mangier than the leader, with scabbed patches of furless skin, half-bitten ears, and a few puffy black warts. There’s something more sinister in their demeanor, more hyena-like. Norma thinks she sees a flash of snarled teeth. One of them kicks up a splash of dusty soil.
Norma’s cockapoo, Bosco, is completely losing his mind inside the house. He’s running back and forth on the carpet, barking, jumping on and off the old radiator. This seems to agitate the deer, which spin in circles and kick up more dirt. Norma wishes Chuck were here; he’d bust open the screen door and fire off a few shots with his old hunting rifle, send the posse scattering. Instead, she’s left with little choice but to back away slowly toward the porch. She’s not sure if a deer would ever attack a human, but why chance it over a sprinkler and some lawn steroids?
The deer watch her the whole way, even as she kicks Bosco inside and closes the screen door behind her. Norma draws the blinds and peeks out at them, wincing at what she sees. They’re pillaging her yard without hesitation. One of bucks dips its face into the pond, bobbing for the helpless fish. It comes up with two wriggling, golden tails hanging from its mouth, then throws its head back and glug-glugs them down its gullet. The doe pulls at the Home Depot bags with its teeth, until all the contents have spilled out on the grass. It cracks the sprinkler’s plastic under its hooves and disregards the Vigoro. The other buck leans back onto its hind legs and tears down the bird feeder. Two of them gobble down the seed, while the other spits it aggressively in Norma’s direction. She swears it can see her, even through the tiny slit in the Venetian blinds.
“Shut up, Bosco,” she says. “Here, eat a treat.” Bosco inhales the Snausage, leans against her shin, and whimpers nervously.
Norma pours some brandy, and then digs through the hallway closet for her old megaphone. She’s trying to work up the courage to make her stand. When the stag leader rips open the Vigoro and starts pouring the chemicals into the fishpond, Norma snaps.
“That son of a…”
She pushes open the screen door with a baseball bat and the megaphone, blaring the most ear-piercing awooga noise the device can muster.
“Get off my lawn you filthy beasts!” Norma screams into the megaphone. “Go back to the hellhole you came from!”
The deer stand at attention and register Norma’s bravado. They take a few steps in her direction, but then back away when she starts swinging the baseball bat back and forth. She can tell that the megaphone’s sirens are bothering their sensitive ears.
“That’s right, you bastards. I got technology on my side!”
The three deer eventually retreat in the opposite direction, looking back momentarily before easily leaping her fence into the neighbor’s yard.
Once they’re gone, Norma cools her nerves with another pull of brandy and a smoke from Chuck’s old tobacco pipe. After a few inhales, she lays off the smoke out of wooziness. She cleans up the mess left behind by the deer, but most of the damage is irreparable.
After some deliberation, she calls her neighbors to warn them about the wandering deer. The calls don’t go very well, especially when Norma explains the deer’s disturbingly human behavior. Her neighbors accuse her of being intoxicated, of exaggerating things, of getting scared for no reason. When she mentions the tabloid article, they scoff and hang up the phone. For a moment, Norma considers calling the police, but then decides to save herself the embarrassment. Who’s going to believe the widow with booze on her breath, megaphone in hand, making claims about a pack of demonic stags in her backyard?
Instead, she calls Home Depot and requests a few repairmen to install a taller fence around her lawn and garden. They arrive the next morning and spend a day and half erecting a 12-foot iron fence, with reinforced stanchions and a thick coil of barbed wire wrapped around the top. Norma spends the weekend spraying her plants with pesticides, making sure to wear a protective mask. Let’s see them chew on this, she thinks.
For half of Saturday and all of Sunday, Norma serves guard duty alongside Bosco. She only gives herself breaks to eat and tend to the yard. After stripping Chuck’s old tool belt, she fills it with her survival necessities: baseball bat, megaphone, spray can of mace, flask, pipe, whistle, bag of Corn Nuts, Bosco’s leash. She lugs its weight around while patrolling the living room, cordless phone always within reach, waiting to call the authorities at the slightest sign of the deer’s return. She feels a bit like the kooky man from the tabloid, a witness to something unthinkable, something too farfetched to be taken seriously. Norma wants to prove—mostly to herself—that she’s not going crazy.
But the deer fail to show up for three full days. The wait is killing her, especially when she leaves the house behind during her route. If the deer are as smart as they seem, then they’ll choose their next visit wisely. She imagines them sneaking through the fence (Picking the lock! Who knows?), and then ravaging whatever’s left of her precious lawn and garden. With growing paranoia, she envisions them with torches in their mouths, setting fire to her porch. Whenever she returns home, she performs a thorough inspection of every nook and cranny in the yard. Sometimes she does a round inside the house, too, just for good measure.
There are no unusual signs until Thursday afternoon, when suddenly she notices a small animal prancing around the side of the house, near the hedges between her and the neighbors. It’s a tiny deer! One of those mouse deer that only live in Asia and Africa. Norma’s been reading up on deer a lot in her recent, ample free time. At first she’s stunned, but then there’s no denying it. The little creature is right there, snuffling in the grass and nosing its way up to the NID phone box attached to the house’s brick facade. To Norma’s astonishment, it uses one of its skinny legs to pry open the box and then starts gnawing on the cables inside.
She bursts into the backyard, screaming obscenities and waving her baseball bat. But it just keeps snuffling and gnawing until she’s too close for comfort. Then it dashes several feet in the opposite direction, snaps its head back, and breaks into a squeaky, high-pitched yodeling.
He’s laughing—Norma thinks—at her. This little piece of shit is laughing at her.
When she gives chase, the mouse deer scampers away and disappears into the neighbor’s brush. Once she’s able to break through the hedges and reach the clearer patches of grass, there’s no sign of the little bugger anywhere.
“Can I help you?” says a voice from a nearby porch.
It’s one of her neighbors, drinking tea in his bathrobe and reading a thick novel. He gives Norma’s tool belt and frazzled hair a dubious look.
“The deer,” Norma says. “Did you see the tiny deer? He just chewed my phone lines to shit!”
“Oh,” the man says. “It’s you.” He clearly remembers the lunacy of her recent phone calls.
“You have to trust me! Come look at my phone box if you don’t believe me.”
“Get off my property,” the man says. “And please don’t make me tell you twice.”
Norma returns to her yard feeling dejected and a bit manic. She immediately checks the status of her phone box by running inside and trying to make a call. No dial tone to be found. Norma curses the tiny deer yet again. It’s too late in the day to get a repairman, and she would need her phone to do that in the first place.
To prepare for the night, Norma double locks every window and door of the house. Then she retrieves Chuck’s old hunting rifle and box of bullets from the attic. Bosco has been freaking out ever since the mouse deer’s visit, and the sight of the gun puts his canine instincts on edge. He growls at Norma’s attempts to placate him with a Snausage. Rather than gobbling the treat, he tosses it across the room and barks at it like an intruder. When she bends down to pet his haunches, she can feel the tiny vibrations of his shaky nerves.
After a stiff drink, she manages to doze off in the living room armchair, only to be awoken minutes later when Bosco has to pee. She’s been training him to use one of those pee pads for dogs, but so far all he’s done is scratch it or sleep on it.
When Norma cracks the screen door, Bosco goes about his business promptly. There’s none of the usual sniffing around and posturing. Norma can’t help but move her leg restlessly, like she’s the one who needs to pee, surveying her dimly lit yard with apprehension. Bosco is pissing like a racehorse, then streaming, then trickling. It’s the longest tinkle of all time. He might be setting a personal record.
“Damn it, Bosco,” she whispers. “Hurry up, will ya?”
That’s when she hears it. The distant, hollow clunking of hooves on asphalt. Arrhythmic thuds working in offbeat percussion, drawing nearer, until they’re loud and close like rapid gunfire. Norma scurries through the ivy to pick up Bosco and then carries him toward the gate, looking out onto her driveway from behind the fence.
It’s the deer horde, gathering near the fringe of her front lawn: several dozen, all male, with prominent, jagged horns. Each set of antlers is adorned with honeysuckle vine and verdant strands of ivy. It looks like they’ve put a lot of effort into the decorations. They soon coordinate into a phalanx formation, positioning their antlers outward as both weapon and shield.
As they start their slow march up the driveway, Norma takes a few steps back, hoping she’ll disappear into the shadows. She ponders trying to escape while she still can, but she’s frozen in the moment, enthralled by what’s to come.
Six of the deer in the frontlines suddenly spring from the herd, sprinting toward the gated fence. When they strike the barrier, it’s with violent, reckless abandon. One of their skulls makes audible contact with the fencepost. That deer doesn’t rise. A few others get their antlers caught in the webbed slats of twisted steel. They’re desperate, as if there’s something behind them, preying on them, pushing them to these drastic measures. Norma knows they won’t stop until whatever it is stops chasing them.
The next line of battering-ram bucks quickly replaces these wounded deer. Their sequential blasts do equal damage, contributing to the slow erosion of the fence. When they’ve gone through their ranks, the structure is barely standing. But the deer also look tired from their sieging. Norma hopes they’ll retreat for the time being so that she can make fortifications to the boundary.
But then one of the larger deer leans back onto its hind legs and kicks the air. It crashes back down onto the driveway with a clip-clopping sound that ripples through the air and sends shivers up Norma’s spine. She can’t be totally sure, but she thinks it’s the deer from the road, the massive one she nearly clipped with the mail truck. They’re comparable in size—downright mythical—to the steed of a Norse god, or some living relic of a distant ice age.
The animal trots to the bottom of her driveway and lets out a few gruffly snorts. Then it breaks into a gallop, heading toward Norma like a rippling, muscled bullet. The rest of the deer watch from the sidelines and cheer it on with a horrible cacophony of rabbled cries. When it reaches the halfway point, she realizes what’s happening.
It’s going to jump, Norma thinks. Over her 12-foot fence? She can’t believe it.
For a moment, things seem to occur in slow motion, which Norma always thought sounded cliché until now. The deer’s epic jump reminds her of when she used to play softball. Like seeing a deep fly ball the whole way off the bat, but still somehow managing to drop it.
From the moment the deer leaves the ground, she’s transfixed. It springs from the asphalt with an explosive dismount. Norma cannot fathom how it soars through the air, to such incredible heights, as if lifted by a massive tailwind. She just stands there, stupefied, as it reaches the apex. It tucks its legs in, close to its body, and just barely clears the barbed spikes at the top of the fence.
The creature lands only a few feet away from her—the dropped fly ball—and then everything speeds up again, with the impact and subsequent sprinting from its momentum. As it rears back and collects itself on the grass, Norma clutches the silent-but-shaking Bosco to her bosom. She remains perfectly still in the shadows, and luckily the preoccupied deer fails to notice her as it returns to the fence. It begins biting and kicking the gate’s lock, and Norma knows it’s only a matter of time before the interior latch gives way.
She takes a deep, silent breath and then sprints toward the house. It’s the fastest she can move at her age—the half-run-half-waddle of a frightened penguin. She makes little noise other than the brushing of grass, but that’s enough to alert the deer and send it in pursuit. She can hear it thud-thudding its way, closer and closer behind, until Bosco suddenly turns his head and wriggles from her grasp. She hears him snarling and scuffling through the ivy.
“No!” she yells. “Stop!”
But it’s too late. Bosco charges the deer and sinks his teeth into one of its forelegs. He takes the larger animal by surprise, but it’s not long before it shakes him off. Norma doesn’t even get the chance to call her dog’s name one last time. The two animals engage in awkward choreography, until Bosco receives a swift mule kick to the ribs. With quick, horrific precision, the deer spins in place and gores Bosco through the neck with its antler. All the layers of fur, tendon, and cartilage—pierced with the squishy ease of something liquid.
Norma retreats to the porch, swallowing down the acidic, coppery fluid in the back of her throat. Bosco must have been enough for the deer, because it doesn’t bother chasing her inside. It just stares her down, occasionally prodding the dog’s corpse. As she locks the screen door behind her, she watches the beast return to the fence and resume its attack on the lock.
She takes a moment to lament Bosco’s death, choking back tears and cursing his foolish loyalty. It’s now an easy decision for her to bear arms, lifting Chuck’s heavy rifle and dusting off its long-unused parts. She tries to recall his rare hunting lessons about how to load and fire the gun. But she’s distraught to discover that the box of bullets contains nothing but empty shells. She’ll have to rely on the rifle for intimidation purposes only. She wonders how long it will take the deer to figure out she’s firing blanks.
Her concentration is broken by the final crack of the fence’s lock and the creaking whine of the gate. From the window, she watches as the horde infiltrates her backyard and prances around triumphantly. They do not hesitate to have a late-night snack of the flowers and root vegetables lining her garden. A few of them slurp up the old, stagnant water in the birdbath, and then topple it over like a dictator’s statue. Same goes for her charcoal grill, whose bricks spill onto the porch steps in an ashy cloud of debris.
For a while, it seems like an extensive stakeout, with the deer lounging and periodically patrolling the grounds. They seem quite content with their newly acquired territory—marking the bushes with their urine, playfully head-butting one another, hurdling over various obstacles. Every now and then, a scout leaves and returns minutes later with some prized loot from a neighbor’s trash—a half eaten salad, a ripped sofa cushion, a burlap bag full of hedge trimmings.
But the celebration ends when a handful of deer suddenly keel over. The others rush to their side and bend down to sniff and lick their faces. From their reaction, Norma can tell that their deer brethren have died, and she remembers the pesticides she sprayed on her plants throughout the week. Before she can take sickly pleasure in the results, the deer begin reorganizing their ranks. They start making the same terrible sounds from the driveway—that chorus of wet, guttural noises—but this time they’re angrier.
Their cries give way to the rumbling boom of thunder, and soon the summer drought is broken by a deluge of heavy raindrops. Bolts of lightning flash across the horizon. This is too much, Norma thinks. Too cinematic, too apocalyptic. She’s half-expecting frogs to fall biblically from the sky. Of course it would thunderstorm on this particular night, of all languid summer nights. Perhaps the world just needs a good flushing.
As the rain intensifies, the deer seek refuge under the protective awning of her porch. It’s beyond creepy, downright disturbing, to see 25-odd deer all crammed into that small space. After Norma peers through the blinds and sees two of them sitting in the chair swing, she refuses to look again.
For a while she just stands there in the living room, deliberating her next move. Then she hears a terrible crash near the front door, on the other side of the house. It’s loud enough to penetrate the pelting splatter of rain. She tiptoes toward the front door, peering around each corner along the way. When she looks through the peephole, she sees a deer—the jumper who gored Bosco. It’s thrashing around inside the mud room—the small space where she keeps her boots, the dog’s leash, and other outdoor items. The deer has made short work of the screen door—the glass panel continues to crunch under its hooves. Now the only thing separating it from Norma is the wooden front door.
She steps backward and fires a warning shot with the rifle. It’s a blank, of course, and the deer seems to sense that it’s all for show. Norma can hear its antlers scratching and scraping against the wood, accompanied by the occasional kick to the baseboards. Luckily, the mud room is too small for the animal to rear back and get any leverage. But she knows it won’t be long until the beast wears down the wood and breaks through.
Norma’s not a violent woman, but she’s always been stout and hardy—capable of throwing her weight around when necessary. In a moment of inspired malice, she opens the door and sprays mace directly into the deer’s eyes. After letting the rageful, half-blinded creature stumble into the foyer, she rams her shoulder into the back of the door, striking the deer and catching it off guard. It lets out one loud yodeling cry, perhaps as a warning to the others, but Norma is already choking up on the baseball bat and taking her backswing.
When she makes contact with the animal’s temple, she’s reminded of the horrible thud she heard that one night on the freeway. Chuck would be proud of her right now, with the way she handled herself. But Norma can’t stop looking at the heap of deer at her feet, the crimson dent in its face, the protruding bone, the utter blankness of its one visible eye. It’s not long before she drops to her knees and vomits in the wastebasket. After reaching up to close and relock the front door, she feels her way along the wall, breathing heavily, crawling toward the garage. She retires to its dank, cool sanctuary and hopes that it will soundproof her from the outside world.
After grabbing the tire iron from the back of her mail truck, Norma collapses against the brick wall of the garage. She clutches the tire iron’s metal ‘T’ to her chest, like an oversized cross. Her prayer is nothing more than a series of sputtering sobs, a snot-nosed purging of uncontrollable tears. She cries for Chuck, and for Bosco. She cries for her tiny private world and the world at large, both on the brink of implosion. She cries for the deer too, and for the manmade evils that pushed them into their whirlwind motion. Her tears are a long-overdue ritual—a sacrifice to the gods and forces she doesn’t understand.
Norma gasps and holds her breath, swallowing down the mucus and phlegm.
It’s the hollow, atonal ring of her doorbell. This is it, Norma thinks. This is the place where fur and pelt meet brick and mortar. The middle point in the ‘X’ of evolution, where man and beast cross paths and slowly morph into one another.
Nature is calling, she thinks, and eventually she’ll have to answer it. At this point, she can only ignore it for so long.
It knows where she lives, after all.
And it knows she’s home.