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YarrowWilliam 06/21/2015 (Sun) 13:06:55 #59160062



There's a place in the forest by my town where the deer don't die. Time and time again, hunters talk about it, eyes full of darting, half-lidded suspicion. A stretch of roadside south of town, around the Appalachians but not quite in them, where the hunters don't go. You'll hear stories about it if you listen long enough.

Rambling tales of deer that keep on living when shot through the heart, the head, splattered on the windshield of a car, shrugging it off and darting back into the forest. Trappers never seem to catch their quarry there, and the number of times I've seen a car veer off the road in the last twenty years, faced with something that didn't seem to catch the headlights quite right, I can't count on one hand.

I never believed it though. A particularly rough patch of forest, where the animals are healthier than the weak, stick-legged things that walk along wherever humans have gone by. Thin black ice on the road, reflecting starlight to go where it shouldn't. They'll blame it on the Indians, but these folk blame them for all sorts of things. Never actually go and look.

That's where my uncle differed. He was a savvy hunter, a taxidermist too, never really believed in those things. His garage was full of trophies, some of them half-completed, and whenever someone said he couldn't do something, he took it as a challenge. He caught wind of the stories, and one day made it a goal of his to get one of those deer, and bring back its head in the bed of his pickup. We drove there, one night, in his old beatup of a Dodge Dakota. I was the spotter in the back, hid his drink, told him where to stop.

It felt strange, stopping by a roadside most people just drive past. Out-of-staters usually took this route, eyes on the road in front of them. On the ground below me were pebbles of all sizes, tire-worn, dusted with the black coating of rubber that you see on these older stretches of road. Forest was thick, but didn't look unusual to my eyes. There was a smell, though. Barely noticeable through the doors of the car, it still pervaded, a stench seemingly wafting out of the wall of trees to the east and over the asphalt. If my uncle noticed it, he didn't say. Something was dead nearby, was my first thought. Too sour for that, a part of my brain told me. I started to speak up, but a grunt from my uncle told me to keep my mouth shut.

He disappeared into the forest, and it was an agonizing fifteen minutes before he came back out again, slightly agitated.

"I found something," he said. "Tracks. Bigguns too."

He ushered me to follow him, and I did, over roots and sumac. I didn't know what to look for. I could carry a gun, but I couldn't track.

Soon though, clear as day, I saw them. My uncle's flashlight darted across the forest floor, illuminating depressions in the soft earth, cut deep enough to lay a finger in, pooled with water from the recent rain. They leaned long and skinny, close together but far from front to hind, and something had dragged along in the dirt to the side of them, leaving a wavy trail. The spoor was wrong in a way I couldn't pinpoint. Uncle identified it though. Hooves weren't splayed; the deer was lighter on its feet than any this size ought to be. It had moved quickly, too, given the density of the underbrush. Starving, he said it was, probably too sick to move properly. I didn't buy it.

I gripped my rifle more tightly as we continued on. The tracks stayed prominent, ours sinking much deeper into the mud. The stench was hard to ignore, now, although my uncle was indisposed to mention it. It had gained a tinge of sweetness, somehow, like burning honey mixed with sewage. Water dripped.

Our stakeout spot was unwieldy, in the lower branches of a stout white oak. My uncle's breath heaved hot on my neck as we watched. A sick deer couldn't travel far, he reasoned, and the head and bragging rights would be worth more than any meat it lacked. Long minutes passed, the hidden moon failing to give any indication of time. I was about to try to persuade him to call it quits when something moved. My uncle, holding the rifle, didn't hesitate to shoot. A low, dark shot rang out, and whatever had been moving stopped.

Quickly, Uncle dismounted the branch and started walking. Wherever it was, it was distant, and the flashlight's beam didn't penetrate the low branches. The stench was overpowering now; it seemed to come from nowhere in particular, but the air was warm and still. Holding my breath, I continued after him. In moments, the flashlight hit something, and Uncle stopped. A dark figure, lain over in the groundcover as if injured, sat at the edges of the flashlight's beam. It somehow still shown in silhouette, as if the flashlight hadn't touched it. One eye gleamed, the other shot through with a bullet, and the point where its antlers stopped and the branches began wasn't clear. It breathed slowly, steadily.

In a careful, practiced, almost deliberate fashion, the thing that was not a deer got up, turned backward, and started walking away. My uncle was silent, quick to follow.

At that moment, the forest seemed to melt around me as I ran. Sharp thorns and branches blocked my way where Uncle's steps were swift, the flashlight in his hands waving wildly. I gave chase, now acutely aware of my lack of gun, and managed to follow him into a small clearing, a place devoid of trees where a creek must have once flowed. His flashlight tilted up and I stopped in my tracks.

The deer stood before us, gazing intently. The right half of its face was caved in, and from the wound, antlers grew, extending up and into the branches above it. They billowed thick and gnarled, like frozen smoke.

Around it, from either side, heads of deer hung like trophies, encrusted down to the eyes in the same dark material, not quite catching the light. I stood, delirious with the smell, under a canopy covered in the stuff. Hard, finely twisted antlers gnarled together into great burls, half-forming the shapes of heads, or hooves.

Uncle turned my way, looking back to me, smiling.

"You look sick, what's wrong? It's only a deer."

I bolted wild through the night, and woke up sometime later by the side of the road, surrounded by paramedics. My memories for the next few weeks were fuzzy, full of hospital rooms, and doctors, and tubes.

Suicide, they said. Evidence was found in a nearby section of forest. Chunks of brain matter, splattered by gunshot on nearby trees. A flashlight, and some clothes, a couple scattered bones. As for his body, they said the scavengers must have come after it. My name was cleared quickly enough, as it went, after they learned what was inside of my head. Some kind of poison, biological in nature, neurotoxic. Said I was lucky I came out with only minor brain damage. Only thing that saved me was that I was found unconscious on the roadside days before his estimated time of death.

I sometimes hallucinate now, seeing antlers, trees, hearing the clicks of hooves. They blame it on brain damage, but these folk blame that for all sorts of things, never bothering to go and look. On warmer days, through the humidity and the still, heavy air, a smell sometimes wafts into my yard from the south. A sweet smell, like honey, like taxidermy and rot. That still, in that direction, my uncle waits, among the crown of horns.

I take up the scent deeply, now, as repulsive as it once was, and know, quietly in my heart, that my uncle did not die.

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