The Vanishing Point

Diana puts on the deer head when she gets home from work. She’s constructed the steel frame to rest comfortably on her shoulders. The felted aluminum plates lend her face the contour of an airplane hangar. At first, the snout tubes were uncomfortable, but her nostrils have toughened. She gives Jehovah’s Witnesses a shock. 

She’d toyed with the idea of moving to Canada—but she’d done the moving-for-a-new-life thing before. New places quickly become old, as do clothes, habits, and men. She always returns to herself. Diana needs a change she can’t come back from. 

She’s modeled the head on a vision that keeps her up at night, one she pulls tight around herself as she sits in rush-hour traffic. She longs for silence.

The vision burrows into her and spreads as she eats lunch at her desk, as she revises a research paper she’d hoped would help earn her tenure, as she locks her biomechanics lab for the night. She sinks into the deep velvet woods. 

The fawn had appeared in the untamed field behind her childhood home. He’d grazed in the shade of the magnolia tree, one hind leg pulled up in pain. As he had tripped after his mother, Diana and her father had mourned his certain death. 

Their grief was premature. He returned the following spring, and though his wound had healed, he still hitched up his hind leg. As he grazed with his mother and sure-footed sisters, he bowed his muzzle, revealing the buds of antlers. He’s a survivor, Diana’s father said. 

Diana studied the fawn through her father’s binoculars, his flanks rippling as he shivered off flies, the white flash of his tail, the way his legs tucked up as he leapt the stone wall like an ocean wave. She watched him from her bedroom window.

The fawn, now a stag, returned every spring. His sisters started their own families and moved on. His mother stopped accompanying him. 

Diana constructs a torso with materials she’d used to design a durable exosuit for soldiers. She builds outward, adapting her S-shaped spine to the deer’s rolling curve. She sets the torso at an incline, repositioning the foramen magnum, the “great hole” through which the spine connects to the skull. The frame relieves the stress four-legged motion exerts on her joints and enhances her muscle propulsion to rival a deer’s. She runs bicycle brake cables down the lengths of her legs, tipped with steel hooves. She fabricates sensors for her eyelids to open and close her deer eyes.

She preps her gut for a deer’s diet by boosting her roughage intake, swapping out Lean Cuisines for salads. After a week, she ditches the salad dressing. Then the croutons and nuts, and finally the bacon bits, until all that’s left are greens. She mixes in some grass from the esplanade and shredded maple leaves with an aftertaste of decay. 

Last year, she’d almost completed the kale and cauliflower diet—but this is worse. The leaves stick in her teeth. The grass bunches in her throat. 

To enable digestion, she considers fecal transplants that would boost her microbiomes, but a consultation with a biologist yields a more elegant grazing method: She masticates the grass into a pulp, which she spits into a tube connected to an artificial stomach converted from a colonoscopy bag. There, the grass is broken down into a smoothie of volatile fatty acids and cultured microbes, which Diana consumes through a straw. 

She still doesn’t enjoy the taste of grass, though she’s tried every local variety from the sweet lawn outside her lab to the nutty scruff along the I-93. She has become accustomed to the bitter hint of insecticide.

Diana studies YouTube videos to practice the deer dialogue of threatening snorts, jovial bleats, amorous wheezes. The stomp and pant of alarm and the white tail of retreat. She rigs her own tail with a pulley connected to her pointer finger so she can raise and lower it at will. To offset the suit’s mechanical nature, she applies synthetic fur to every inch of hide.

She orders a vial of Stag Stink from a hunting catalogue. Bottled from hormones distilled from buck urine, it’s guaranteed to mask human odors, allowing her to infiltrate a herd. 

She’ll have to stop showering eventually, but for now she’s still a professional. The lab director intends for her to take over the department after he retires and has already outlined a ten-year-plan for the transition. Phil has been at the university for thirty-five years and is the last to leave every night. He steers every conversation to his latest research; currently, the neuromechanics of flamingo balance. It would be so easy to bide her time until Phil retires and slip into his office, and his habits. 

Diana cuts back to two showers a week, then one. It becomes harder to invest in empty routines. 

Her grad student Lou molds the suit to her specifications. A chemist studying the composition of snail mucus, Lou 3D-prints prosthetics for wounded wildlife in his spare time. An eagle’s beak, a dog’s leg, a bat’s wing. He prints plates of armored bone to fit over Diana’s augmented musculature. 

“It’s kind of like Pups,” he says, kneeling to take the measurements of her inseam for Nylon panels to prevent chafing. “You know, those guys who wear dog costumes? They eat off the floor, sleep in crates, play catch. They even have handlers. Sometimes they have sex.”

“It’s nothing like that,” Diana says. “I don’t like dogs—and there won’t be any sex.”

“Not a dog person,” he says, as if cataloging this new fact about her. 

In exchange for Lou’s help and discretion, Diana had promised he could document her transformation and publish a paper upon her return. 

“What does Kevin think of all this?” he asks, careful not to look at her while he records her measurements, his laptop balanced in the crook of his arm. 

“It doesn’t matter,” she says. 

Lou turns to her with the full force of his concern. 

“I’ll stop pestering you,” he says. “Just promise to bring a phone for emergencies, and give me a call every few days so I’ll know you’re alive, okay?”

“Fine,” she says, to shut him up. She would feel bad deceiving Lou, if he didn’t already have it made. At just thirty, he’d arrived at MIT with a fellowship and a baby on the way, while Diana had to put her life on hold for postdoc after postdoc, sucking up to male researchers just for the chance to pursue her work. 

Every time she got close to promotion, some fresh heartbreak had derailed her; she took a leave of absence when her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and another to care for her aging father. Now she’s finally an assistant professor, but she’s got nothing else to show for her sacrifices. Lou doesn’t need to know she’s not coming back.

Diana stands four-legged in the alley between her apartment building and the neighbor’s house, cultivating a deer’s quiet mind. She’d studied meditation at the monastery in the strip mall. The teacher had instructed the class to pick something on which to fix their gaze and focus their chi

She stares at her license plate, ignoring how silly she must look, the ache blooming in her lower back, the quaking of her arms and thighs. Something is digging into her palm. A shard of glass, maybe. It could slice her hand, injecting bacteria into her bloodstream. She can feel the bacteria pushing up into her wrist, her inner arm. Her veins are bulging. She is going to die of infection before she even leaves home. 

She flexes one knee, then the other. Rolls her head, scraping her spine against the great hole. 

The neighbor’s shade is lopsided, and her windows are streaked with small handprints. Rain skates down Diana’s neck. Kevin had wanted kids. 

He’d described their hypothetical children as if to tempt her with their genetic superiority. Their aptitude for music and math, their curly hair, their predisposition for glasses and braces. She’d insisted again and again that she didn’t want them, that she’d never wanted kids. He began heading to work earlier and coming home later. He brought little gifts and picked big fights, and wore her down until she stopped arguing. He’d taken her silence for consideration. That’s what he said when he left her. 

She’d never swayed in her conviction. He’s the one who’d changed his mind—who said, early on, that he would be happy either way, as long as he spent his life with her. But she hadn’t been enough for him. And that was the end of it, because she deserved to be enough for someone. 

When he left, months ago, he’d stripped his belongings from their apartment—his grandparents’ furniture and the framed blueprints of condos he’d designed, his flannel sheets, his pots and pans. He’d left the rooms practically bare. In the two years they’d lived together, she’d never realized how few possessions she’d brought into their home; how little they’d bought together. 

She takes what’s left to Goodwill—until she’s cast off everything, along with Kevin and the person she’d been—and comes away with herself alone.  

Diana leaves her car, with the keys in the ignition, at the end of the road whose name she occasionally writes on government documents by mistake. The crabapple trees guarding the mile-long driveway are overgrown, and the house’s trim is flaking. The porch boards are buckling. The bushes have blinded the kitchen windows. 

For two years, she’s been promising to put the house up for sale. Bracing herself to sort through her family’s things, her old treasures still arranged in her bedroom like a memorial to her childhood. She used to come home just to sleep, to feel like herself again. She hasn’t been home since her father died. 

He had taught art and painted portraits on commission, and his home was as meticulous as his craft. He didn’t make a mess, only a little dust that she vacuumed twice a week. When he was too frail to play tennis, as he had every Tuesday and Thursday, he followed her around the house straightening the paintings she disturbed with the duster. When he died, she didn’t change a thing. 

Diana dons the exosuit under the magnolia tree where as a girl she’d built a fort. Its soft-furred buds are folded tight. 

Her hooves are designed to absorb the shock of her tread. Still, the impact hums up her shins, through her knees, up the highway of her back. She lingers at the boundary where field meets woods. The biologist had said deer live at the edges between worlds, along highways and in suburban backyards. As if they can’t decide where they belong. 

The air is crisp with pine and the vestiges of winter. Mt. Greylock is still capped with snow; the water it sheds into the creek behind the house is so pure she and her mother had used it to make lemonade.

Her hooves sink into the damp grass like high heels at an outdoor wedding. She pushes into the woods, tamping down her unease, the archaic dread of straying too far from home. 

Her mother had forbidden her to pass the creek, where a swath of ground drops off into a trench. She’d dutifully remained in the shallow woods. As a teen, she’d rebelled by exploring along the creek—but had never crossed over. 

How foolish, to still feel bound by that decades-old directive. But she feels the eyes of the house on her as she plunges into the creek, savoring the shock of water on her flanks. The creek invades the gaps between her bodies, dousing her human thighs. Her wet skin slaps against the insides of her deer-body’s haunches. 

The snout tubes condense the air into purified pine. The dying winter exhales wood smoke and musk. For the first time in years, Diana can fill her lungs. She hadn’t realized how deprived of breath she’d become.

Diana breathes deeply, as she learned in meditation, relishing the silence, the separation of mind from matter. She sidles up to squirrels, a hesitant hedgehog, a clutch of rabbits who startle and flee. A chipmunk skitters to a stop before her, and she extends a foreleg in greeting. It bolts, screeching, Abomination! 

She loses sight of the house beyond the tangle of trees. It doesn’t matter if she never finds her way back; the forest, in all its majesty and mystery, is her home now. 

At first the woods seem quiet, but she soon finds that the silence is all her own, a symptom of her human shortcomings. The woods resound with the breath of trees. Leaves crashing into each other. The apelike shriek of the barred owl. And the air! She had never thought of it as alive. But it is joyously, calamitously alive. The wind strokes her flanks, buffets her ears, plays across her pelt. She is mesmerized by the catastrophic violence of the forest.

Here are remnants of the logging trail her great-grandfather and his horses had used to drag trees off the mountain and into town. Diana follows its ragged outline until it erases itself. She grazes below a stand of birches whose bark is stripped from branch to root. She scans the woods for her brethren, but there is no one. She savors the sour grit of stiff grass, grinding it between her molars and spitting the juices into the tube that runs into the digestive chamber. Her first meal in earnest. The grass gives her cramping gas, but there’s no one to mind. She relishes her freedom from humiliation. 

Diana is dismayed by how quickly she fatigues, despite her preparations. Her human shoulders and wrists ache from bearing her weight, and her hooves are already rubbing her heels raw. She tries to give herself over to deer-body and abolish the inadequate human one. 

The night brings relief. She’s survived the first, day. Her joints ache. Her bodies are so heavy she can barely stand. She turns in place, seeking direction. But she’s lost.

She can’t be lost, she tells herself; the forest is her home now. She scours the impersonal trees for a sign that she hasn’t made a terrible mistake, but they pull their shadows close. She turns in a clumsy circle, her legs rattling the joint bolts. She fumbles at her chinstrap, dizzy with mounting panic. A stag emerges from among the trees.

The failing light slides down the curve of his chest and catches in the well between his trunk and thighs, turning his fur from brown to gold. His beard lifts in the breeze. His eyes are dark and calm. His brow is crowned with dagger-like horns from which his rack ascends, curving to embrace the bowl of the sky. 

His haunches are tensed. His ears swivel toward Diana, but he does not run. She longs to slide her fingers down the slope of his antlers, to their base where the softest fur grows. To press her cheek against his neck. 

His head whips toward the trees, and he flicks his ears in the direction of his gaze. She squints to see what he might be seeing, hear what he might be hearing, but her ears, even amplified, are ineffectual.

His tail quivers in warning and fans like a white flag as he darts away, one back leg pulled up to his belly. 

The darkness seems to rise from the ground, obscuring her path as she follows the flash of his tail, the gleam of his antlers among far-off branches. Reeling on her spring-loaded legs, Diana trips over roots and rocks. Branches thrust between the chinks in her armored flanks, the seams that connect her parts, to scrabble at the human meat underneath. 

She shakes off the assault, stumbling after the stag who melts through the trees like the stags in the Renaissance painting her father had used to teach perspective to undergraduates. In it, the deep wood teemed with bounding dogs and men and horses arched in urgency, and stags careening toward the painting’s vanishing point.

 The creek licks her flanks, and her hooves find purchase on the logging trail. There is the dim regularity of the field behind her house. She emerges from the woods where the cedars stand sentinel along the boundary. Her knees give out under the weight of nostalgia. The feeling of returning for summers and holidays, and in those last damaged months, to the home that had so deeply shaped her.

She could sleep in her old bed tonight, warm under the blankets despite the spring frost. It would be so easy to take up residence in her childhood again. 

She curls into the roots of the magnolia tree, breathing in the musty scent of bark that brings back to her the summer afternoons she’d wiled away in these branches. The silence is thick and pungent. In those last months with her father, she’d slept with a white noise app programmed to “Urban Rain,” reminiscent of a downpour on rooftops and T tracks. The April chill digs into the gaps she’d missed when insulating her hide. Her shivering rattles her leg joints, pinching the skin behind her knees. An insect treks up her human spine, but she accepts the intrusion as the natural order of her new life. She fixes her gaze on the house, the center of her chi

A light turns on inside. 

The violation is breathtaking. She should barge inside and confront the trespasser. But she has not lived here in earnest for years. 

The light flickers. The television, maybe, but the living room curtains are drawn shut. Her mother had sewn those curtains from a colonial pattern book—the same one her father had used to stencil the flowers on Diana’s bedroom walls. As a child in bed, she had listened to her mother washing dishes and her father locking up the house, the radio on in the background. 

Even as she vows to hold vigil over the house that is no longer her home, her eyes close. 

In fairy tales, a stag eludes a prince, drawing him deeper and deeper into the forest. There, the prince finds a maiden: a swan princess, a sleeping beauty, a girl dressed as a beast with three dresses folded into nut shells. He finds her in a lake, or a hollow tree. Although he doesn’t threaten her outright, he rides a stallion and carries a bow or a gun. Often, there are dogs. He bears her back to his palace, assuming that she yearns for domestication. She grieves her wildness, even as she bears the prince’s children, maybe even comes to love them.

Scents start low in the morning, ripe and full along the ground. They rise throughout the day until she wades through them, chest-high in mushroom funk, the smoky tang of moldering leaves, oily pine, sweet earthworms, her own wild oat stink. She claims certain trees, rubbing her forehead and lips against their trunks. As she gets to know the world of the woods, so she learns her own body and strives to mold her soul to it. 

Three deer graze at the creek. Diana longs to be folded among their warm flanks. She hesitates, stalled by the same humbling panic that had made choosing a seat in the middle school cafeteria so daunting. 

She snorts softly in welcome. The smallest doe looks up, her tail quivering in alarm. Diana meets her eyes, willing her to sense the kinship between them. The doe stamps, and the others glance up. They balk, and dart into the trees. 

Diana extends her tongue-straw at the creek. The water stings her teeth. Her breath circulates inside the deer’s head, the earthy odor of a refrigerator that’s lost power. 

She looks up, her snout dripping, to find a hound glowering at her from the opposite side of the creek. It peels back its lips, baring its teeth at Diana. Her first instinct is to run, but she’s forgotten how to move the deer’s legs. A whistle shrills from the direction of the house. With a snarl, the dog bounds past her, snapping at her hooves.

Though she strays ever farther from the house, Diana always circles back to it by nightfall. She sleeps below the magnolia tree in a nest of its roots. Its buds have half-split to make way for furled petals. The TV flickers in the dark. She falls asleep comforted by the light. 

Her old skin swells, shoving against the new. Her feet bleed and blister; bleed again, and scab over. Shit encrusts her hind quarters. Her inner thighs are marbled with blood, her second period in the wild. Fleas ravage her scalp and pubic hair, and the sun shreds her skin where it peeks through the suit. Unceasing hiccups leave her stomachs tender. She dreams of burgers.

She lies in the creek. The current churns debris around her. Bugs tangle in her hair. In rejecting her human body, she has become more miserably aware of it than before. The duality is disorienting, the vertigo slide of being two bodies at once. 

Diana shakes dry at the creek side, rolls in moss to get the wet patches on her back. She flips to her side, savoring the length of her limbs. The stag stands a few yards away. 

He turns his head sharply toward the trees, pointing his ears. His tail flips up. She follows his gaze to the logging trail, where a hunter tows a doe out of the woods. Her legs are slung over the hunter’s shoulder, her long neck drags in the leaves, her open eyes are caked with dirt. The stag watches them pass by, unblinking in bland alarm. She has read that deer do not recognize death. 

She charts the stag’s wreckage. He’s defrocked trees and shrubs, leaving ragged shreds of foliage and other scars: his incisors and antlers score the trees, his urine carves rivulets through the dirt, his hooves raze the grass. She memorizes the musk of his prints. Grinds her hooves into piles of his smooth pellets, dark and fragrant as coffee beans. Diana counts her days by glimpses of him.

Rain lashes the trees, flinging their leaves across the forest floor. Diana huddles against the magnolia tree, wincing as a gutter pipe clangs against the side of the house. The least her squatter could do is to fix the damn pipe. A growl brings her skittering to her hooves. 

The hound crouches just a yard away, his ears pulled back, his tongue hanging red and wet. She looks for fear in his eyes, but there is only hunger. He scrapes his belly along the ground, whining with greed, and lunges. Diana closes her eyes. 

“Heel!” 

He spins in midair and lands on all fours. The hunter ducks under the tree’s rain-heavy branches and grips the dog’s collar, yanking him down. He turns to Diana.

She blinks back tears. The sensors taped to her eyelids open and close her deer eyes; their long fringe lashes float shut, like moths. 

“What the hell are you supposed to be?” the hunter says, striking a note of wonderment. It’s a woman’s voice. 

She wears a leather duster like the one Diana’s father had worn. It had smelled like him, like shaving cream and turpentine. The huntress smells like wet dog and peanut butter. Her damp hair is gathered into a knot at the nape of her neck, and her eyes are outlined with sweeps of kohl that lends her otherwise rustic face a hint of glamor. As she takes a step toward Diana, the hound breaks free of her grip. 

Diana hurtles across the stretch of yard to thicker cover. With the dog yipping behind her, she vaults over the creek in a single bound, pushing off with her hind legs and drawing her forelegs to her chest. Her breath catches, her stomach lifts in exhilaration. She imagines herself as the deer in her father’s painting, plunging into the woods, pursued by snapping dogs. She revels in the reason to run. 

The hound howls. As she rears to leap again, she looks back. Her body twists, and she lands on her side, tumbling into the trench. She instinctively reaches out with her hands to catch herself, but there are no hands, and she plummets, smashing her knees, her elbows, her jaw. 

Diana opens her eyes to the night. Her human head feels too big, bulging against the deer’s skull. Her left leg is nauseatingly hot. She moans, curling into herself to avoid witnessing the extent of the damage. 

A shift in the darkness. Her eyes adjust, aching, to pick out the stag among the trees. He bows his antlers to the ground. She dreams of riding him.

Daylight filters through the branches. Her head echoes with pain. A sharper hurt digs into her hoof-seam. Her snout scrapes dirt. The stag rests beside her, the rise and fall of his breath pressing his ribs against hers. He turns his lonely eyes to her. 

It occurs to her that she has never seen him with another deer. He lowers his head, gently maneuvering his antlers to the side, and nips at her hoof. He licks her ankle with his rough, warm tongue. The gentle pressure dulls the pain, calming her nausea, like the coarse washcloth her mother had used to cool her face when she was sick. The water had collected at the corners of the cloth and slid down her neck like tears.

The stag bounds ahead of Diana as she staggers out of the trench. The pain in her ankle sears up her side, making her stumble as she wades into the creek to numb her battered bodies. The water runs away with her blood. 

While she rests beside the creek, the stag brings apples and flowers in his mouth and leaves them at her hooves. A dead bird. Shining candy wrappers scavenged from the huntress’s trash. Diana likes the way his expressions alter his face, wariness flickering into interest, hunger pulling up the corners of his lips. She is awed by his capacity for stillness. 

From the forbidden side of the creek, Diana watches the huntress watching her, kneeling on the porch with raised binoculars. The human gaze is heavy with appraisal, colored by too many shades of want. But she lets the huntress look. Being observed makes her feel closer to the stag. 

Diana tries to imagine herself as the huntress sees her, up close from far away, between the fissures in her suit to the woman underneath—if there’s anything left of her. 

The stag’s bellow rings through the trees. He mounts Diana from behind and thrusts into the suit’s vaginal crevice. The impact rocks her forward; her front hooves drive into the dirt like spades, straining her wrists, vibrating up her forearms. She is docile at first, for fear of impalement, but his antlers never get in the way. She gives in to him, to her own animal desire.

Diana watches through the cover of the trees as the huntress collects her scat. The stag returns to her again and again, his tail flashing white in surrender. 

The huntress places a basket of apples at the forest’s edge. The dog snuffles them and growls. As the huntress watches from the porch, Diana gathers an apple between her steel-trap jaws and, tripping a spring with her tongue, crushes it in a spray of pulp. The huntress whoops, as if Diana were putting on a show. Maybe she is. 

The overgrown field sparks with fireflies that illuminate the tall grass. Diana and her mother would sit in the field at night, watching. No, we can’t catch them, her mother said, because they should not die in captivity.

The stag rests his head against Diana’s side. His eye rolls up to meet hers, and she calms in the contours of his gaze. She’d never imagined intimacy with another being could draw her closer to herself. 

“I love you,” she says. 

He startles at the sound of her voice, rusty with disuse. She nuzzles him calm again. But she’s cracked open the gap between their species, and she’s not ready to close it just yet. She wants the stag to understand her fully. She tells him about the paper she’d been working on, and as she explains how to perform three-dimensional gait analysis, the stag maintains eye contact, his head tipped in interest. That’s more than she could say for Kevin, who changed the subject whenever she tried to talk about work. Now, there’s no one left to find her uninteresting. She’d thought that would be more freeing. 

The stag’s hot flank twitches, a romantic gesture to keep off the flies. She tells him about her parents and the summer nights they’d picnicked outside, and about her father’s failed garden—the stag’s fault, Diana reprimands him, because he’d eaten everything her father tried to grow.

But her father had waited for the stag year after year, cheering when he returned after the hard frost. She tells him how her father had said he’s a survivor. And how he’d watched the stag from the Adirondack chair in his last days. How the stag had helped her father have a peaceful death. 

She tells him about Kevin and the life she’d left behind. How she’d started to project into the future of their life together, their house in the suburbs, their dog. She’d started to want these things—to be disappointed that she didn’t have them—even at the expense of everything she’d wanted before she met him. Her career. Her independence. And Kevin was right, she admitted to the stag, to herself, she had started to want children. 

And then he’d dared to say she wouldn’t compromise, although she had already compromised every part of herself. She’d already compromised just by being with him. 

The stag’s stiff lips shift against her tarsal gland. She welcomes his urgent warmth, and she loves him. Oh, how she loves him, although he is—and ever will remain—a mystery. While Diana has laid herself bare and found so much less mystery than she would have hoped. It’s taken so little time to plumb the deepest parts of herself. 

The stag comes and goes, but never far. He brings her earthworms. She can see him through the trees. Hear him in the creek. He always comes back to her. 

The stag’s breath is warm along her neck. She is too hot, too cold. The stag is gone, but just there, grazing in the field. It hurts to turn her head. Heavy in bloom, the magnolia drops its petals over her. The huntress stands on the logging trail, restraining the hound at her side. She’s too tall for the leather duster that slaps at her knees in the wind. Her knuckles, popping against the dog’s collar, are cracked. The stag surges to his hooves.

“Get up,” she orders Diana. 

The stag turns his ears to her, flips his tail. The hound squirms in the huntress’s grip, but she holds him fast, her boots planted on either side of his belly. Diana pushes up onto her hooves, every muscle quaking. The ache has spread up her leg, her side, and into her neck. The ground tilts. The dog begins to pant.

Diana leans against the tree. For the first time, she recognizes the clumsiness of her construction, the looseness of three leg joints, the stiffness of the fourth. The stag lowers his rack at the dog and stamps his hind leg once, twice. The huntress jerks her chin at the woods. 

“Run!” she commands. 

The stag startles at her voice and sweeps toward the creek. Diana throbs with the need to follow, but her limbs threaten to fold. 

“I can’t,” she says, ashamed of the despair that cracks her voice.

The huntress clicks her tongue in displeasure and releases the hound. He bolts after the stag, yowling. Diana cannot move, cannot fall. Just leans against the tree. Her nostrils hurt, her stomach is sour. Her hide is threadbare. Her hair has fallen out in clumps. 

The hound heads off the stag at the creek, crouching before him with his lips and ears back. The stag swings his antlers. They leap for each other, clash and break. The hound skitters around him, baiting him, as the stag thrusts his antlers again and again, kicking at his chest. The hound dodges his blows. Diana shouts, an involuntary, wordless exclamation that does nothing. 

The hound tackles the stag’s good hind leg, shaking his head, tearing at the bone. The stag stumbles, dragging the hound on his belly along the creek bed, but the stag’s front legs give out and he collapses, screaming. To Diana’s relief and humiliation, her senses seem altogether to fail. There is no sound, just an absence of air. She turns away, her final betrayal.

As if to comfort her, the huntress runs her palm along the planes of Diana’s snout, the felted armor of her breast, the machinery of her flanks. The huntress leans in to look through the eyeholes, deep into Diana’s eyes. The huntress’s eyes are brown, flecked with green and pity. She hooks one finger under Diana’s jaw seam. 

In the fairy tales, the princess or the wild woman or the swan does not resist. She obeys because she knows she doesn’t stand a chance.

The huntress cleans Diana’s wounds by the living room fire. Diana lies on the Persian rug, where she’d watched TV as a child while her mother made dinner in the next room. She’d traced the patterns in its weave, the angular goats and zigzag streams, the red hills. 

The huntress washes Diana’s bodies and towels them dry. She administers something strong-smelling from a jar that makes her wounds burn. The huntress wraps her leg in gauze and places a pill on her tongue. Diana swallows without question.

The huntress awakens her only for more pills. She sits by Diana’s head, stroking her between the ears. Details come into focus through the fog. The dog eats out of her father’s cereal bowl. The huntress hangs her coat and cap on the hook by the door where Diana’s father would hang his coat. It is his coat, she realizes. 

The huntress has mounted the stag’s head above the fireplace. His glass eyes look nothing like his own. The dog growls at him. At Diana. 

Although nothing has changed—even her father’s paintings remain on the walls—the house is made strange by the presence of the huntress. By her scent, warm and scalpy with an undertone of baking bread, a bodily, deep-down smell that emanates from between her legs, which she plants on either side of Diana as they sit by the fire, blazing despite the feverish summer heat. 

The huntress wears Diana’s mother’s nightgown, her father’s sheepskin slippers, drinks from her father’s whiskey glass. She sits in Diana’s father’s chair in front of the TV, watching Jeopardy, I Love Lucy, and Diana’s family home movies. Her middle school chorus concerts and high school gymnastics routines. 

The huntress kicks back with a shot of Johnnie Walker, watching Diana’s fourth birthday party. There is the unicorn cake her mother made from scratch, the crowd of kids she doesn’t remember, and Diana in a white dress, ruffles brushing her bark-scraped knees. 

The huntress strokes Diana’s head while she dozes beside the snoring dog. There is peace in confinement. 

When Diana has healed enough to stand, the huntress puts her bowl—her grandmother’s wedding china—in the kitchen next to the dog’s. The dog snaps at Diana when the huntress isn’t looking. 

The huntress oils her joints with AstroGlide. She brushes Diana’s flanks and polishes her hooves. Purees lawn in the blender and adds a little something to make it more palatable: smoky mushrooms, sour berries, truffles. The huntress washes Diana’s ass and thighs and applies diaper ointment to the trouble spots where suit meets skin. When Diana’s eye sensors stop working, the huntress secures her eyelids open with duct tape. 

As Diana becomes stronger, the huntress begins going out during the day, taking the dog with her. He wags his tongue at Diana, as if laughing. 

Diana stands at the kitchen window where she’d stood as a child. She can barely remember that Diana. Or the Diana who had brunched with Kevin on Sundays. The Diana who’d stayed late at the lab to finish up grant proposals and enjoyed it. The Diana who had watched bad TV for two weeks after calling things off with Kevin. None of those Dianas matter; none had followed her home.

The huntress begins to makes demands of Diana, entreating her to return to the wild, to find another stag for them to hunt. Diana doesn’t argue; she doesn’t speak. She pretends not to understand the huntress, who grips Diana’s deer head between her chapped hands and bellows. 

The huntress’s heavy tread paces the upstairs rooms. The dog is snoring by the dying fire. Diana levels a kick at his ribs, and he skitters upstairs with a yowl. 

The huntress seethes with restlessness; kicks off Diana’s old pink rain boots and bangs pots around the kitchen. She drinks more. She starts out earlier and comes home later. 

Every night when the huntress and her dog are asleep, Diana roams the house, noticing the parts of it she’d stopped seeing when she lived here: The closet under the stairs where her mother had stored her own mother’s clothing. The living room window frames gnawed by a trapped squirrel. The floorboards that creak in the middle of the night, and their constellation of knotholes. Her father’s first portraits, his own family members executed in gentle strokes, tucked into corners and behind doors.

Diana relearns the house room by room, fitting it over her childhood memories whose corners still show underneath. The stag’s eyes follow her mournfully, as if to say, “Is this my fate for loving you?”

The huntress brings back fireflies in mason jars and lines them on the mantle below the stag’s head. She gazes at them from Diana’s father’s chair until they perish, one after another, like flames extinguishing.

Lara Ehrlich

Lara Ehrlich is the author of the short story collection Animal Wife, which was selected as the winner of the Red Hen Fiction Award by New York Times bestselling author Ann Hood, who says the book “made me dizzy with its exploration and illumination of the inner and outer lives of girls and women.” Lara’s writing appears in StoryQuarterly, Hunger Mountain, and The Massachusetts Review, among other publications. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and daughter. Learn more at www.laraehrlich.com and find Lara on Twitter @EhrlichLara.

Daniel Reneau

Daniel Reneau is a Denver-based illustrator skilled in digital and traditional mediums, and who specializes in horror, fantasy, science-fiction, and comic book illustration. He is the co-creator of the graphic novel Zombiraq, a winner of the 2013 L. Ron Hubbard Illustrators of the Future Award, and a graduate of the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Learn more at www.danielbdemented.carbonmade.com.


First Featured In: No. 14, summer 2019

The Survival Issue

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