O ur woods were the ones where things went to die. Deer and rabbits and songbirds of all kind would come to our woods and die there at night. We all thought it was a blessing at first, a secret for me, my brother, sister and father to enjoy privately. It was about the time my mother got sick, I guess. It was around the time of her second stroke when it all started happening. My dad, well, he would find the animals dead back along the woods, and since he was pretty good at dressing them, we would have venison and rabbit a few nights a week. We felt special. We had a beautiful secret all together. We thought the reason they picked our place was because that spot of woods had the natural comfort of a cemetery. If you stood down right by the crick, you could feel the sound of nothing, echoing like a solemn vigil right in your teeth, all along a grove of white birch trees. Once a buck dragged itself from where it had been shot eight miles away to our woods. It made the local papers. My dad didn’t mention anything about the other animals dying there; he didn’t want anyone calling us crazy. You know, it happens. In small towns, someone says one thing and then you say, “Oh, that’s the lady who saves Christmas paper,” or something like that. But the secret began to over-take our lives. Bodies began to pile up in our woods quicker than we could find them. It’s a form of endearment, my dad said. It means they trust us. But I wasn’t so sure.
I began to think of the thing as a curse. In summer, dozens of soft-feathered skeletons would be hanging in the trees. My older brother and me would spend days clearing out the woods and burying the dead in big holes at the edge of our property. I would never walk over those spots again. It’s all for your sister, my dad would say. She can’t sleep knowing some animal is lying with its eyes open out back. It’s un-hospitable for us not to take care of them. Eventually, he had a change of heart. When they began to lie themselves down close to the house, my dad put up a wire fence to keep them out, afraid my mother, listless in her bed, might see them, I guess. The fence went all the way down to the crick. It worked for a while. Well, until last night, at least.
It was my own luck for being thirteen and not having an after-school job like clerking at the grocery store or working at the lumber mill because I work for my dad on our own land. I wouldn’t ever have been out there fooling around in the first place, but it was getting dark and cold and so I went out back to find my little sister who had a hiding spot right along where the crick bends, right where the very edge of our property ends. It was a little white spot made out of birch branches like a house. There was a soft carpet of snow that glistened all around it like a sloping porch. She had my mother’s old silverware hanging like chimes from some low branches and that was how I would always find her. It was like magic. I would hold the cold in against my teeth and listen to where the wind was whistling and there would be a tune like “Mary, won’t you get up in the morning?” in a soft key and you’d be able to find her. Even if it was pitch black out, you could hear her whistling along with the spoons just as gentle as you pleased.
“Dad wants you back.” I said it and then thought about it, shaking my head. That wasn’t right. I hadn’t thought about what I was going to say and it just came out. My dad was over in Sioux City, with my mother in the hospital. She had had complications again. It’s not looking good, my dad said. My older brother, well, he had been gone for four months now and we were all still waiting to hear from him, seeing as he never wrote us a line or anything. “It’s time to go back,” I said. I pointed at my sister and she stuck her pink tongue out. She was eight. She was curled up in some faded green military blankets my mom had let her use, bundled under about ninety degrees of blue and pink scarves and mittens. Her eight dolls were all bundled-up, too. My sister got up without a struggle, which was a real first. I helped her carry some of her dolls, dropping one; a dirty-faced baby with plastic eyes that opened and closed when you laid its head back. Watching those eyes made you kind of nauseous. It made you think what was going on inside with your own eyes and head, the mechanics that must have made you blink. I imagined it was some kind of strange golden pulley, even though, I knew it was muscles and tendons and everything. I liked to think what was inside of you was some very elaborate machine, like clockwork, with gears and wheels. Sometimes, I imagined something in my mother had run on down, or a spring had sprung and that was what was causing all her misery.
We made our way along the low wire fence towards our house and just about as soon as we were out of the woods, the wind began to whip so hard that tears began to cross down my face. My little sister howled. I just kept tugging her. That’s when I saw it. Well, she had seen it first. It was a doe lying right in a kind of culvert, which had iced over, and it was on its side. My sister howled again and I turned quick and saw it, its breath coming in out of its black nostrils like the sound your own heart makes late at night, crystallized and blue, foaming like smoke, like every bad thought you ever had about touching some girl’s breast. I guess I’ll admit I got scared, scared the way you get when you think someone’s standing over you in your sleep, which Hal had done all the time, big dumb brute. I got scared, I guess, because it had been lying there so quiet and watching us the whole time without a sound, without any indication of heat except its breath. It was bad luck, all right. A doe dying right on the edge of your property was trouble; I was old enough to know it would look bad if anyone would happen to see it. I let go of my sister’s hand and just as I thought, there was a big red opening along its neck, leading down its back. It had been winged, by some kinda’ buckshot, probably. Whoever had hit it had been a real lousy shot. Some kid, some kid most probably, out scouting around the woods after school, looking for anything to shoot, blue jay, muskrat, beaver, anything. It had probably cut across the corner of his eye, cut right through the woods and he had squeezed the trigger before he had had a good look, the branches making it look like a five or six-point buck easy. He had let off a wild shot and winged it and it probably took off running right through the woods, and in a second, the kid had probably seen he had made a lousy mistake. As soon as it had cleared the woods, slipping in the snow and ice, he had probably felt like nothing in the world. He probably felt like flinging the Winchester or whatever it was right in the snow and going up to his room and crying, thinking how that doe looked like a lost fairy-tale princess running out the woods, scared and leaving a speckled red path to find its way back. Believe it or not, he probably didn’t have the heart to follow after it and put it down, instead of letting it suffer. Heck, I had hit a doe once. I had been out back and scouting around and I didn’t look and I hit the thing right in the heart. I ran straight up after it fell and when I saw what it was, I started to cry right away. You don’t imagine a boy crying over hitting a doe, probably. Probably, you’ve never been knocked-up side your head by your old man for doing such a fool thing in the first place, most probably.
My sister was standing right beside the thing. It was breathing quick now, not moving, but breathing, breathing, plumes of the blue smoke rising from its wet black lips and mouth. “We got to get it out of here. We can’t let it die here,” I said. The ground was too cold. There would be nowhere to bury it until it thawed. It might be days, weeks. We had to get rid of it now because someone was bound to see it. People cut through our woods, all the time, hitching to and from the mill, someone was bound to find it lying there. The first thing anyone would think was some kid had gone and winged this poor creature and then they’d scratch their heads and look around and realize I was the kid that lived the closest and then that’d be it for me. I’d look awful guilty. I had to do something. And quick.
“Whatcha’ gonna do?” she asked.
“I guess I gotta put it down.” I expected my sister to argue, but she didn’t say a word. “I’m gonna go get dad’s gun. You stay in the barn until I come get you, O.K.? Don’t make a sound.”
At night, the barn seemed haunted, I guess. We all thought it was; we had both seen things moving through there, shadows that looked like people, silver lights that flashed out of nowhere, once we heard someone, someone like a woman in there, singing. At night, none of us kids would head anywhere near the barn, even my older brother, Hal, even right before he left for State. I always blamed my mother, for the barn being haunted. I always thought strange things happened on our farm because she was always sick. I don’t know how to explain it. If you know what a cold spot is, like when you walk over a spot where someone was shot or murdered and your hair goes up, well, you might imagine what walking around our farm and into that barn at night might be like. But my sister, my sister just nodded and headed towards it anyway; trailing her dollies like lost little limbs along the white snow bank. Me, I strode off towards the house, my feet getting cold already. I went down the cellar from the backway, switched on the light, found my dad’s Remington Model 94, and slid one round into the magazine. My plan was to put the animal down, then drag it off somewhere, across the crick to the Southern’s maybe. They had a boy, Bill, about ten who had held my little sister at rifle-point one day last spring. She was playing dolls by the crick and the kid came up and started showing his gun off, it had been his birthday and all, and he made her cry something awful, aiming it at her and her dolls and all. He didn’t hurt her at all, just scared her, I guess. I figured he was the one who had winged it in the first place.
I closed the cellar door, crossed back over the field and walked from the back fence about thirty yards to where it had been lying. It was getting dark, real dark. Some stars like pin-holes in a blanket began to break through overhead. Whatever light crept past shined like glass along the silver field all around me. I had a feeling someone was watching. I thought it was the deer, lying there still in the dark, its black eyes blinking. I slid around a little, trying to make out its shape. All I could see was a black lump right along the ice and I just kept etching toward it, not sure if it might start at me or cry out or something. I stopped about ten yards away and began to take aim. I put the cross-hairs right above its front quarters, where I could imagine its soft red heart, like a kind of golden pump, opening and closing magically. Then I noticed it wasn’t breathing anymore. I lowered the rifle and crept close to it, frowning. It was dead. Its soft eyes had gone gray. It didn’t look like an old woman or any nice thing like that. It was a mess. It had bled out from its back. It was dead.
Everything was getting darker around me by the minute so I started to get nervous. I started worrying about coyotes coming around and even ghosts, ghosts like Mr. Walter Winchell, a guy who walked in front of his own thresher because his son had been killed in a train wreck, real people ghosts, not phony ones, the kind I’ve been told about all my life. I’ll have to admit, I was getting all clammy. I had the wrong kind of gloves on, and the cold was whipping up my shirt and right down my back. I guess my plan was to drag the deer by its hind legs, but I hadn’t thought about having to carry the rifle and all, so I slung the gun over my shoulder and grabbed the back hooves and started dragging. It was like trying to move about ten bags of wet flour at the same time. It slid smoothly with strange uneasy weight. In a few moments, I got it down to the crick, through the brush, and then onto the ice. It was about then that I dropped the rifle and ended up in water up to my waist. I had stepped in a soft patch and pitched forward and my hand had found the same soft patch and punched right through the ice and the rifle was gone and I was on my knees and cold and wet all over in a flash, and the sad-eyed doe was heavy against my left side, its neck and loose head and front quarters sliding into the water so gently beside me, and it was dark now, darker than I could remember, and my hands were scrambling around for the rifle and I was starting to cry, I don’t know why I started to cry, I was cold and scared, scared I’d get caught red-handed by some fellah cutting home from the mill and something else, I guess. I guess I had been trying to do what my dad would have done if he had been there and it was coming out all wrong and my hands were so cold and somehow I started thinking how my sister was sitting in that barn all alone, in the dark and scared, but she was a good kid and did whatever you told her, so she’d be sitting in the dark, hearing all the animals making noises that sounded like they were ghosts and she’d be sitting there cold and crying and holding her dollies and not uttering a sound herself, and then I thought about that kid, whoever had winged the poor deer in the first place, and he’d be just sitting down to dinner, and his mom might make him lead grace and he’d have to mumble through it and he might even start to cry, too, if he had any heart, I guess, and I was wondering what I was gonna say to my old man about his rifle getting all wet and how he’d never believe the story I was going to tell him and I’d have to take whatever he dealt me, innocent or not, and I imagined him standing beside my mother, who had stopped breathing years ago and the way the church would look whenever she died, all white and cold and empty inside, the paint flaking down like snow from the steeple maybe, because it had just started to snow and most of all, I was sure of something somehow. I had tried to think what my dad would have done and I couldn’t, so everything was going to be rough for me now.