CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
Deer Song

Melanie Rae Thon


In your father’s house, you and your father and your father’s wife and their children, your sisters, Juliana and Roxie, ate venison steak and mashed potatoes—green beans, sweet carrots—bread torn from the loaf, apples baked with raisins and cinnamon: earth and air, root and animal.
      You remembered the deer hanging in the shed, belly slit, blood dripping—now her flesh was here, taken inside you and your people. Griffin’s deer—how could you not love, how could you not want her—this one, the doe your uncle tracked five miles through snow until she stopped and turned as if listening. They stood so close he saw her ears twitch, felt her huge lungs swell with breath, and his own breath rise out of him.
      Snow began to fall as clouds watched them.
      Griffin might follow an elk three days, climb four thousand feet—up one ridge and down another, sleep in a cave of snow—melt snow and drink it. The elk might circle back to follow the man, bring him within a mile of home, slow their pace, appear and disappear, turn as if to say, We’re almost ready. Griffin could hold the animal in his sights and still decide, Not this one.
      He can’t explain why he returns with two grouse or one rabbit.
      The doe left her tracks fifty feet from his cabin. She used her hooves and nose to dig down to sweet roots and lichen. She tore at the bark of fir, and ate the needles of juniper. An easy day—he thought he’d kill her within a thousand feet and was almost ashamed to follow.
      Branches snapped and snow whispered.
      He entered a warm space between trees, the pulse of her body still lingering. He lost her tracks twice—once where the earth lay bare and hard, and once where the doe bolted in thirty-foot bounds across a meadow. Easy to lose him now—if she chose, if she wished to do so. She could leap an eight-foot fence, fly above a gully.
      Foolish to come so far for one like her: men shoot deer in their back yards; girls with guns kill from their bedroom windows. The deer have grown dangerously tame, grazing in gardens, stealing apples from orchards.
      He followed because she led, because the crows flew limb to white limb, seeing her from above, urging him along, waiting for the man to open and offer her.
      He’d climbed two miles from the cabin before he found fresh tracks, ones not blown by wind, not half full with snow whirling. She was close, he knew it—maybe standing just ahead, stopped in her tracks, sensing the shape of him in air, warm ghost of a man pushed forward.
      Griffin—he’s afraid in the grocery store when he sees skinned meat pale in plastic, spare ribs of one being, pink loin of another—breast of a bird cleaved, two dozen legs in one package. Where are their heads and necks? Who pierced their hearts and livers?
      Almost dusk, five miles from home, and Griffin knew he’d be spending the night here, gathering sticks, starting a fire—scooping a cradle in snow, sleeping on soft boughs, wrapped in a silver blanket. Yes, all this way—she wanted to show him: You might be the one to die; I might choose not to save you. She was gone in the dim light, ghost gray in gray woods, the shapes of trees already blurring. Even the crows had abandoned him. But might return if I return and use my hooves to open you.
      Why did she wait when she could have slipped free, one last sprint, ahead of all parting? You are the one. He couldn’t believe. Even when he saw her standing still, he thought, No, dreaming. Snow swirled down, flakes spinning and touching, five becoming one, two bouncing hard and breaking. Was she as stunned by snow as he was, seeing how sometimes it rises up, catches a gust of wind and twirls?
      In that moment, all things still possible:
      flight or death, the rifle raised
      or the man
      charged and trampled.
      No words, no thought in words, only snow falling faster now, snow falling on pine and spruce, fir and hemlock—snow drifting down on a man’s face, snow touching softly the face of the animal. And later: blood frozen in the snow, crows squabbling, crows heavy with the heart of her, full at last in dark trees roosting.
      Was he afraid to kill?
      Yes, always.
      The voice of the gun filled the forest. Even now if you stood in this place, you might hear strange music: every ring of every tree somewhere deep inside trembling. Such a song in you: rush of blood in the vein, aria of cells dividing.
      Griffin slit the belly of the doe, touched lung and rib, bowel and bladder—dragged her entrails across the snow, let the birds take these parts of her.
      Never gone, never not with you: crow, tree, snow—always.
      All night, Griffin stayed close to her open body, drifting in and out of sleep, listening for coyotes.
      Light released him. She was cold now, no longer herself, no longer waiting. He made a sled of sticks and twine and dragged the body down the mountain. You are the one. Even dead she might have killed him. Dawn to dusk: the man had no choice now that he’d taken her.
      Days later, Griffin and your father spent four hours in the shed, slipping their hands under skin, sawing through bone, cutting sinew from muscle. You remember how dark she was inside, the flesh firm without fat or gristle.
      Three months since you took her into your own mouth, into your own body—now she’s flesh and bone, every cell transfigured. You’re everything she was: clear water from a mountain stream, wild onions dug from a meadow—bark, seed, root, needle—mushroom, apple, corn, clover. She’s Angie and Dad, Juliana and Roxie. This small doe fed your mother and Theo—your uncles Griffin and Roy, your cousins Tulanie and Iris. She fed the crows. She flies over you. This one bounds through snow, hidden in you, disguised as Talia. She’s barking in joy, the deer in the dog, Griffin’s doe alive in the world.
      What is there to love if not the one who gave her life, whose body has become yours, whose spirit now sustains you?