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ISSUE III

Hannah Collins

DOE EYES

            Junior watched the doe through the underbrush. She was stretching down her long neck to lap at one of the puddles full of muddy water and sopping autumn leaves spotting the forest floor. She hadn’t seen him yet.

            His hands trembled on the polished stock of the rifle his father had given him for his tenth birthday. He was a man now, he’d said, and he ought to know how to use one. The look on his mother’s face was grim, and he thought the gun must have been expensive, but she smiled at him anyway when he looked at her, so maybe it wasn’t all that bad.

            The doe stepped forward on thin but strong legs. Up close, she was a massive creature, and Junior could see muscles roll beneath her short, wiry coat. Her pink tongue flickered up to the tip of her nose before she started to drink again. Her eyes were huge and glistening, and the tips of her ears twitched and beat once, like butterfly wings.

            Pit-ka-chow! Pit-ka-chow! Pit-ka-chow!

 

            Horror gripped Junior’s heart as smoke flooded his vision. He would have missed the bursts of fire if he weren’t watching so hard. The doe rocked to one side and then the other until she tipped over and hit the mud hard. Her body didn’t move, but her head and neck and legs all jerked and seized without rhythm. Junior wondered if everyone died that way.

            If the doe made a noise, he didn’t hear it over his father’s roar of victory. John Sr. hooted and hollered on his way down from the stand. The barrel of his rifle gleamed as he slung it over his shoulder. Junior crawled out slowly from the bushes, the knees of his jeans damp and dirty, and stood gaping over the doe’s body, unmoving.

            “See that, boy? Your old man’s a good shot, ain’t he?”

            Blood leaked into the mud puddle in little crimson clouds.

            “C’mon, Junior.” John Sr.’s grin was wide, exposing red gums that cinched tight around each broad tooth. “Let’s get her loaded up.”

 

            The doe’s head hit the bed of their beaten pickup truck with a thump. John Sr. breathed heavily as he slid her carcass, muscles limp and unresponsive, onto the towel he’d set out. Her eyes were dark and glasslike, staring forward no matter how she moved.

            “There we go, Junior. Isn’t she a beauty?”

            John Jr. was silent. There were two holes in her neck and one in her skull, each one red and raw. He imagined the spray of blood he hadn’t seen through the smoke and wondered if dying had hurt. His father patted the thick fleece of the cap on his head.

            “You’ll be eating good tonight, kid.”

            Junior watched his father light a cigarette with stiff, red fingers. He stuffed his own aching hands into his pockets and wriggled them around. There was a hole in the left one. Snot dripped down his upper lip, salty when he licked his chapped mouth. He tried his best to sniff up. The doe watched him.

            “C’mon, Junior,” John Sr. said. He slammed closed the rust-red tailgate, climbed in the driver’s seat, and shut the door. The truck came to life with a kick after two tries, a smack to the dashboard, and John Sr.’s loving, ritualistic, “C’mon, you old son of a bitch!”

            Steam rushed from the exhaust pipe, warming Junior’s knees. He stared at the big white letters striping the tailgate in half– FORD– but still saw the carcass. He thought of a game he once played, squishing ants with his thumb, frying their limbs until they stuck to hot asphalt with a magnifying glass. Even then, he’d never seen anything die so up close. John Sr. stuck his head out the window.

            “Let’s get going, boy,” he called, snapping his palm on the driver’s door. Junior scurried around to the passenger’s side.

 

            The ride was uneven. If Junior looked over his shoulder, he could see the tip of an ear at the back window. It almost seemed to tremble against the glass.

            The radio was turned down low. It was the same story all the time now:

 

            “Regretfully… the end of an administration now being hailed as Camelot… Oswald was confirmed dead at Parkland Hospital… some hailing Jack Ruby as an American hero…”

 

            Junior knew the dead man was important, sure– dead men always were.

            “Daddy,” he said, “what do we kill deer for, anyway?”

            “Good eating,” answered John Sr. with a rumbling laugh. “And for the sport, too. It’s exciting, bringing home a trophy, ain’t it? Besides, deer have a lot of babies if you don’t control them right. They get to gettin’ in your gardens and in the roads and everywhere else.”

            He paused, pinching his cigarette as he sucked it in deep, then blew a line of smoke out the window. The smell was thick like summer barbecue.

            The truck jolted hard when they crossed over the tracks. Junior gasped as one of the doe’s black eyes caught his own in the rearview mirror.

            They rolled past three signs: “POPLAR WOODS,” “DEAD END,” and “STOP.” John Sr. never stopped at “STOP.”

            “Besides, Johnny,” John Sr. went on, twisting into their yard, “a man’s got to provide for his own. No matter what. If you don’t remember nothing else I’ve told you when I’m dead, remember that.”

Junior saw his mother’s face appear in the front window and go away right after. She had a strange look on her face, like she was relieved and worried all at once. John Sr. sat in park for a second with a hand braced on his hip, staring down the radio.

            “If I’d got my hands on that sick bastard,” he said decisively, “I would’ve done worse.”

            Junior didn’t answer him. The radio droned on.

 

            “Justice served… karmic vengeance for those who threaten the integrity of the greatest nation on earth?”

            “John, look at your son’s nose! He’s freezing. Didn’t you take some mittens with you, Johnny?” his mother fussed. She tipped Junior’s head up to face her and used the hem of her apron to pinch and wipe his nose. “Your face is a mess.”

            “Mama,” he whined. She let go of him, because he was a man, after all, but she looked sad to do it. She turned back to work mixing a big bowl of batter for a skillet of sweet yellow cornbread. The whole house smelled like collards, slow-boiled with a ham hock.

            John Sr. opened the refrigerator and tugged out a bottle of beer. Junior caught the door before it closed and peered in, but only found a block of cheese, a carton of eggs, and a half-jug of milk left. It was almost grocery day.

            “C’mon, Johnny,” John Sr. said, patting his thigh as he made for the back door. “We’ve got work to do.”

            “You’re not going to skin that deer in front of him, are you?” his mother asked. She picked up the mittens Junior had left sitting on the counter and handed them to him. He stuck them in his coat pocket.

            John Sr. pried the bottle cap off with his belt buckle. “Why not?”

            His voice was low and dangerous, like it always was when she asked him questions.

            “He’s just a little boy.”

            Junior frowned. She had forgotten again. “I am not.”

            “He’s ten years old, Dorothy!” John Sr.’s voice climbed higher. “Hell, my old man must’ve taught me when I was half his age.”

            “Johnny, do you want to help your daddy with the deer?”

            John Jr. looked at John Sr.’s hand dwarfing the doorknob and the grimace curling his lip, then to his mother’s pursed brow. He thought of the doe’s dead eyes staring.

            “Of course he does,” John Sr. said finally, throwing the door open. His creaky gray work shed beckoned from the yard. The old wooden doors were padlocked shut.

            “Your mama just can’t stand you becoming a man so fast.”

            Junior met his mother’s eyes. Dorothy put a hand on her hip, squinting at him, and then smiled slowly and waved her hand towards the door.

            “Go on, Johnny. Don’t you boys stay out too long. Lunch will be ready soon.”

 

John Sr. hoisted the doe onto his worktable, shoving aside a spool of fishing line, a Phillips-head screwdriver, and a half-jug of motor oil. The blood was crust in her fur, now. Junior watched his father pull his knife from the sheath clipped to his belt. The blade’s metal was dark and old, but the edge was still sharp. A draft blew in from beneath the splintering wooden doors, and the floor groaned under their weight.

            John Sr. moved the doe so she was belly-up with her legs splayed, head rolled to one side. His big bare hands floated white above the dust-brown corpse for a moment. He looked like a wizard preparing to cast a spell.

            “You gotta do this quick,” he told his son. “After this, the rest comes easy.”

            He brought the tip of the knife to the belly and slipped it beneath the skin, pulled it so it split away from the hide all the way up to the base of the throat, then all the way down.

            Junior watched the skin slacken and pull away to bare the white muscle and threw a hand over his mouth when the knife dipped again to open the stomach. The coppery stink of blood seeped into the room. John Sr. slipped two fingers beneath the muscle and pulled it away to bare the wet bulge of organs. His son stared, white in the face. His throat started to burn. John Sr. took a swig from his beer.

            “We gotta take out all the parts we don’t need,” John Sr. said, pulling a five-gallon bucket from under the table with his foot. He lifted a crowbar from a nail on the wall and handed it over to Junior. “Why don’t you use that to hold her open for me?”

            Junior hovered the bar over the doe’s prone body. The tool trembled along with his fingers. John Sr. put his hand, wet with blood, on top of his and used the bar to tug back the skin and muscle. “There, just hold it like this.”

            Junior fought back a gag, pushing a rush of acid back down his throat. His father had left a slimy smear of red on his hand. He stared into the doe as John Sr. cracked open her ribcage like a walnut and began to pluck out the innards with his bare hands and the sharp point of his knife. He swallowed hard, over and over, and tried to fix his eyes on the bare light bulb fixed above their heads, but the dark pits of the stomach and the eyes drew him back. His head felt light, and the back of his neck was hot, despite the chill blowing in around his ankles.

            His father’s face was soft and tranquil while he scraped the excess tissue from the bones, snapped free what clung to the flesh, drew out the guts in a swollen rope that spooled slowly into the bucket.

            “I’ll have to get you your own hunting license when you’re big enough,” John Sr. was saying, carving at something deep in the cavity.

            “What’s that?” asked Junior, glad for the distraction.

            “It’s a piece of paper that says the government will let you go hunting. It’s how they get in your backyard.” He snorted, chucking a fatty crimson chunk into the bucket. “A real man teaches his boys himself, starts ‘em out young. Never too early for you to learn.”

            He reached above the worktable for a bone saw next. “Now, pay attention.”

 

            That night, Junior dreamed of how his father cut up the doe in the old wooden shed behind their house. As the knife slipped deep into her throat, she came to life again. She threw back her neck and screamed with the metal-on-metal ferocity of a machine with sparks flying. Blood gushed down the stained white t-shirt stretched tight over John Sr.’s belly. The doe’s wet innards shone in the light of the overhead bulb, and then the light caught her eyes, and those eyes were Junior’s eyes, and he stared up at his father lifting the knife over him. He woke up sweating.

            Junior padded into their little kitchen and tugged open the freezer. There was the doe, all thirty-five pounds of her, each piece wrapped in foil, then smooth brown paper. The freezer was crammed near full. There was enough to last them a month. He reached out to touch one of the crisp paper packages. Just hours before, after she’d been gutted and dismembered, John Sr. had hung what remained of her body from a heavy hook in the backyard. She’d swayed there a minute, headless, limbless, the long pink underflesh exposed, before going still. It wasn’t so long before this that they were close enough that he could see her breath in the cold.

            He pressed his hand to his chest beneath the flannel of his pajamas and felt his heart lurch beneath it, and yes, he was still alive, and warm, and a man, and he couldn’t be afraid. Not, at least, of the things he killed.

            A light snapped on and the boards in the hallway creaked.

            “Johnny?” Dorothy’s voice floated in from down the hall. “C’mon, Johnny, you go to sleep. Get out of that freezer.”

Hannah Collins (she/they) is an MFA student currently haunting the University of Baltimore in Baltimore, MD. She is an incurable thrift shopper who collects unique editions of Hamlet and The Picture of Dorian Gray and plays way too many video games. Watch them rock the mortal coil at @hlcollins64 on Instagram and Twitter or at hlcollins.com.

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