Off Island

by David Ackley

There were only six passengers aboard the small ferry when it came about from the island dock and began to beat thickly through the cold grey November swells toward the main. Waiting at the landing, the four who lived on the island year-round had exchanged greetings, two old women and a burly man in cap and wool plaid jacket using each other’s first names—Edna, Coretta, Rodney –but calling the fourth, a woman in her thirties, “missus.” The three were lifelong islanders, she a newcomer, Cleo Lansman, dressed in a vaguely English manner in Shetland sweater, waterproof jacket and slacks, who’d moved to the island the previous May with her adolescent daughter.

But when the boat pulled away, the four, and the two off-islanders who’d waited off from the others, spread through the cabin warmed by the big Halliburton diesel. The island fell behind, a dark mound in the mist. Cleo and the two older women faced each other from benches along the starboard and port sides while the others chose spots among the double row of benches faced forward like church pews; they could see through a half-door the pilot’s broad back and a bit of dash, gauges and lights, and quarters of the wheel, rocking in the pilot’s hands. It was the slow season and soon this mid-day ferry would be shut down leaving only morning and evening runs, primarily for the kids who attended high school on the main. “Weather Permitting” warned the schedule, indicating less willingness than the island lobstermen to front gale, rough seas, blizzard, or killer fog. “Pickled in brine,” the islanders joked, “tough as a fuckin’ boot.”

The two old women were clad alike in faded print dresses with hems that fell below orange slickers like the ones their husbands wore on their boats—or had worn, in the case of the widowed Edna Bingham, who also wore Harold’s black rubber boots. Her companion was a few years younger than her cousin, smaller and less imposing, and was helping Edna to her appointment with a rheumatologist in Devonsport.

In a middle pew, a young man with a nylon briefcase shuffled through the papers inside, his complexion suggesting he might soon need to remove to  the narrow deck cabin-side, wind or no. Taking note, Edna nudged Coretta and tipped her head his way. There was a woman, in jeans and parka with a small pack beside her on the bench, from which she presently took an apple; an offseason day-tripper, of no interest to the others. In the back, from the moment he sat, Rodney had begun to doze, swaying forward and back to the rise and fall of the bow, more at home than in his own bed back on the island.

The island was a few miles off the mainland, and the blunt little ferry beating against the tide made slow progress. Cleo took a paperback from her coat pocket, opening it to a marked page, and Coretta attacked a purple swatch and yarn from her handbag with her quick knitting needles, her eyes darting here and there as she worked, though never falling on her deft, independent fingers.

After a few minutes, Edna Bingham began to speak, at first in brief murmurs to her companion, then louder, so as to benefit all the other passengers.

“Been on that island all my life, that’s the fact of it. Won’t be long I’ll be up to the graveyard with Harold, my husband that was, lookin’ down on God’s house and the boatyard.” Coretta nodded and glanced toward her cousin, with a musical hum, brief and supportive, that Edna drew from her now and then, like a chorus. Edna coughed. “About all I know’s that island. Some might call that plain ignorance.” She barked a laugh–possibly at her own expense.

It was hard to tell where she was looking, with her fleshy features folded among mounds and ripples, her eyes all but buried, with only an occasional blue glint like water through trees. Her head was tipped slightly toward the deck though she would lift it regularly to look through the glass next to Cleo, monitoring the blow in the way of those who take their living at the pleasure of the sea. “I ‘spose it’s better to know one thing pretty well than a pittance about half the clutter goes on these days.”

She paused, foraging in her coat pocket for a pack of Camels, from which she tapped one, circled the cabin with a challenging look, and lit it with a paper match. “Course they’s plenty as thinks they knows the island.” Coretta gave her little hum and her needles clicked audibly.

Cleo pressed her book a little harder into her lap: a copy of Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa which she’d picked up, amused by the thought it might cast refracted light on the tribe she’d found herself, mystified, living among.

“We was even studied up by the university, some mucky-muck professor, come after us with all these questions, then wrote us up. All about kin and such, who was married to who. Who’s goin’ to stay in such a place ‘cept them was born to it? I says to him. Who they going to marry but someone else raised there? They’s families go back two hundred year and more on that island, all twined together like squid in a bucket.”

Cleo’s own family, smaller and of briefer duration, had been sundered by a savage divorce; the friends all went to Douglas, leaving her only Melissa, fourteen then, whom she’d wanted to distance from all that mess and had brought somewhat kicking and screaming to the sanctuary of the island, where Cleo could paint and hide and Melissa would adjust, as kids do. As, in fact, she had–in so short a time it seemed to surprise her too.

Coretta leaned toward Edna, murmured a few words and Edna barked again. “Goddam right… Coretta can give her whole genealogy by heart, name every one of them five generations back… Kin and kind is what a island is. And how it gets on under the hard life we chose….Not that I got anything against a newcomer. Hell, their money’s good as anybody’s.” She laughed her hard laugh again. “Don’t hurt if they know what they’re gettin’ into. You hate for someone to be thinking they can wall off a piece and call it their own island. Hiring on carpenters and masons from off island when we got men right here could use the work.”

Across from her Cleo’s head moved slightly, though she didn’t look up from her book.

“Not that it’s any business of mine. I’m not one to put my nose in other people’s business, no matter what some might say.”

She paused, puffing on the cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth, its ash growing dangerously longer, until she tipped the ash into her hand and ground it and the butt under her rubber boot. For a time her head sank lower toward her ample chest, as if she had lost interest in her own conversation. There was a sense of relief; her voice intimidated with its roughness and confidence.

The wind’s wail had grown steadier, and there was a slight yaw to the boat, as it fell off to one side of a rising wave now and again.

The young man rose from his seat, said, “Guess I’ll step out for a breath,” and opened the cabin door which blew in hard against his grasp. Feeling the gust, the pilot turned, then shrugged and went back to his wheel. The passenger went out, yanking the door shut behind him.

“‘Spose we ought tell him ‘bout not puking to windward,” Edna said, reviving. She was leaning forward, speaking again loudly but with a confidential air as if what she conveyed was not for all. Her legs were spread and her right arm rested across her thick right thigh. “He’ll have to figure it out his self. And course some never does. Always gazing the other way, painting their pictures of the sunset and such.”

Cleo raised her head, smiling a gentle, placating smile at no-one in particular and lowered her gaze to her book again. The smile meant to soften the atmosphere on the boat. It said, I know I’m different, I know they don’t like me. But it’s all right. It’s their island. I have no claim. I just want to live on a small piece and look at it, the sky, the sea.

“All the same,” the old woman resumed a bit later. “It’s nice when a new child comes, gives ours someone fresh to know. I like to see them waiting on the ferry for school, playing and fooling around. Not naming any names they’s one girl, cute little brown-haired thing, goes to the tenth grade with Bobby Colter and his cousin Dennis.” With an inner start, Cleo recognized Melissa, recast as a stranger in the old woman’s description of her. Coretta smiled and nodded, her needles unceasing.

“Me and Harold wasn’t lucky in that way. Don’t know whose fault it was. God’s will, I ‘spose. But, way it is on an island, sometimes it feels like they’re all mine anyway. Come Halloween they’re at my door in their costumes and I give them as much candy as they can carry off. I get to know them, watching from my window every day…I see them growing up, the boys and girls apart, then after a while starting to take notice of one ‘nother.” 

The young man came back inside and re-took his seat. The wind had begun to abate, and the swells were lower, less abrupt from crest to trough; they were coming under the modulating influence of the great continent.

“They’re good kids, island kids, good as any off-islander as claims to look down on them. You take my nephew Ralph Taylor’s son, Peter, in his senior year already, been hauling’ traps on Ralph’s boat since he was twelve. Plays the high school basketball. Big strapping, good-looking boy. I seen the Pittman girls get into it over him, Peter standing by, laughing his ass off. But the boy’s got his head turned now, ain’t for me to say who. Whoever she be, she ain’t got a worry with a serious boy like that. Not one to run away, he ain’t, even if they’re wishin’ he’d a tied a knot in it.”

She paused again, sensitive to the boat’s lunge as it turned from the channel and the fast, outrunning tide into the easier waters of the inner harbor.

“And they’s other things I see,” she presently resumed, “like how a girl’s coloring will sometimes change. I ‘spose cause it never happened to me I’m always watching for the signs. Like when she starts to favor certain clothes, wearing a sweatshirt, or a big coat even on the warm days. I ain’t usually  wrong.  I ‘spose someone else mightn’t notice, thinking she’s just dressing like the others do, to fit in — even someone close…if the girl didn’t want them to know …”

She’d shifted slightly to the right, her eyes on the woman reading her book. Coretta mirrored the look, her needles stilled, and even big, laconic Rodney, who rarely attended to the talk of women, had wakened to watch Cleo from under the bill of his cap. “I guess that’s why some people comes to an island, so they can pick and choose, closing their eyes to whatever ain’t so elegant.”

Cleo’s head was still bowed, but she gave the impression she was no longer reading the words, that the page had gone blank on her.

“Course there’s one telltale as never fails. You won’t see a woman do it much ‘cept them that’s carrying. Can’t help it I ‘spose — always folding their arms tight across their bellies — wanting all the time to be feeling what’s growing inside…Can’t miss that, ‘specially if you carried one of your own, can you, Missus?”

Missus. Misses. Missed…

They felt the engine begin to throttle back.

 “Coming into the main,” she said. “Time to go see some young knowall thinks he knows from books what it’s like to get old with the arthritis.”

Very carefully, Cleo had closed her book and put it back in her coat pocket, her head raised, looking straight at the old woman but seeming not to see her, as if someone else stood between them. Her fine hands were twisted together in her lap. She was seated by the door to the deck on the starboard side, and, when, one by one, the other passengers moved past her to debark, none but the old woman was able to refrain from glancing at her as they went by, her face taut and pale, gazing straight ahead, her lips silently forming words they were just as glad not to hear.

She stays until they’ve all gone ashore, then leaves the ferry for a picnic bench by the landing. The harbor is calm out to a band of turbulence along the channel, as if something is swimming just under the surface. A pair of gulls kite to the water and settle without a splash. How easily they change state. She hasn’t found it so.

The old woman’s words have the blunt force of a mugging, reducing Cleo’s feelings to a numb prickle, her thoughts only to reclaim her daughter and get away, quick and far.

She’ll wait until the kids come down to the landing, waylay Melissa with cheerful lies about a mother-daughter night in town, shopping, maybe a movie, a sleepover in this neat bed and breakfast she knows: It’ll be fun! They’ll watch Melissa’s friends pull away on the boat, in their rough play pretending to shove each other overboard, the tall boy a little apart on the deck, looking back at them. Melissa waving goodbye until they’re out of sight. In Cleo’s vision, the tall boy, Peter, doesn’t return the wave, sensing that they won’t be coming back. When the boat has passed from view, she’ll tell Melissa that she knows and that it’s okay.

She’s the mother. She’s fought this battle before and won against an enemy fiercer than any tribe of throwbacks dying out on a pile of rock. Try a desperate, scheming ex-husband with pots of money and a school of Great Whites for lawyers. There will be time to decide, time to grow up. If there’s to be a child, they can bring her up together—two mothers quite enough, no villages need apply, thank you very much—loving over her watchfully until… but no use to plan that far, which is like trying to look beyond the point where the harbor ends to the invisible sea beyond, the island out there somewhere in the mist. For now it will be enough that the boat leaves and that they’re behind on the shore.

In that invisible beyond there will be objections, arguments, recriminations, self and otherwise. Love might be offered in counter-claim, oh all sorts of things will try to pull her child from her arms. So was first roused the fear, choking and irrational, walking along the sidewalk in the crowded city, the air cold and filled with dread, that in the next moment some stranger might come from the crowd, tear her baby from her arms and disappear. How tight she’d clasp her, eyes on each passing face. Through all the years of Melissa’s growing up, her fear awoke with each threat, real or imagined. For herself risk could be taken in stride, at times welcomed. But the fear could own her, and she, a free woman, didn’t like it. To be yanked bolt upright from exhausted sleep, senses vivid as a hunter’s, at what? A held breath, a stitch in the silence.  It was hyper-alert, clamoring at hints, intimations, nothings: the slack manner and glazed look of a babysitter; the sudden churn of the plump little legs toward the curb; the airy, too-precocious “Oh, he’s harmless,” for a sullen, knowing friend; the junior high cheerleader who let slip the phrase “blow job;” the older boy with a fast car, resplendent to the fear’s hound nose with tequila, vomit, weed. Most of all a constant, anxious whine, warning of the soi-disant father grooming his pubescent daughter, like the call girls he patronized, opening his wallet to every teasing caress, happy to pay for what he chose to call love. During the warfare of the divorce proceedings it grew, taking almost all the breathing room.

It crowded her from the inside.

And then they’d moved to the island, she woke one morning and it was gone. She could breathe and reclaim herself. The island coiled around them.

Occasionally, in a seascape, she’d paint a few stripes of white for a lobster boat, adding dabs of orange for the slickered lobsterman. They must have loved that. To be “picturesque?” To have all the grind and struggle stilled in a few dabs of orange? No wonder they hated her. She’d seen only the serenity, the verities of sea, rock and sky and the enduring islanders who seemed to partake of them, and looked away from whatever wasn’t that; the charge is just, even from the vile mouth of an ignorant old woman in black rubber boots.

It pants at the edge of awareness, feeling for a way back in. Her attention drifts away, allowing it closer. She recalls reading of an island overrun by a predatory species, where the mothers lie awake at night, machetes at hand, watching over the children, at risk even asleep in their beds under the teeming rafters. She’d sought to separate herself from her fear and leave it whimpering on the shore when she went away. She wonders if she should have held it close, her very child.

Natural History

by David Ackley

Three deer have come out in the open to feed in alfalfa along the pasture woods, across acres of new-mown ground from the boy at the barn window. The cuttings are stubbled and strewn with yellowish chaff. Heat waves rise like spirits under a white mid-day sun. The deer are the color of dead leaves on the green. Barbed wire mostly keeps the cows out of the clover, but can’t hold the deer. It doesn’t matter. If cows get in the hayfields, Grandpa takes after them swinging a pitchfork handle, swearing in English tailed with the old country: Goddamshi Sonuvabitchtu!  But he doesn’t mind the deer. When the hunters come in the fall with their high-powered rifles he runs them off. He never says he likes the deer, but he lets them be. His land, he ain’t required to say if or why.

Woodchucks a different matter.  Grandpa reasonably hates a woodchuck. If a milk cow steps in one of their holes and snaps a shin, that’s it for your milker, a bullet in the ear for a mercy death and dumped into a seven foot pit by the front-loader that had dug it beside where she lay bawling.

The boy liked the fields better with the grass tall and the wind carving long arcs in the golden tips. Deep among the stalks, the woodchucks fattened up until the busy teeth of the mower laid the hay down in lapped bands to be gathered and piled in the barn. Afterwards, the boy, his uncle and Grandpa harvest the chucks nosing glumly through the stubble, picking them off from the barn window with twenty-twos. The rifle is steady in the old man’s hands. Grandpa was in the Russian army in the Great War, she’d told him once. Five of his own lifetimes ago. He imagines the white-haired, overalled farmer a young man in a foreign uniform and pointed helmet, holding a bolt-action rifle, waiting for other men to show their heads. Like the boy and his uncle wait in the old blue Plymouth for the one that ducked into its hole when it saw them bearing down through the cuttings. A few yards from the hole his uncle shuts off the engine and they sit with barrels out the windows.  It must be that a woodchuck always has to have another look. Soon, a brown head grizzled with white pokes up, one brown eye on the thing too hugely there to believe as the black eyeholes of the bores stare back. It sits up tall on its hind legs to take in all of whatever this is, big and bluer than the sky, death’s own taxicab parked on its doorstep. They pull at the same time. Get out and stand over it, his uncle toeing skin loose as a hand-down coat before tipping it with his boot into the dark hole it had dug to live in as lesson or warning. “Killed his self,” the uncle says, turning away, not seeing the boy flinch. Or maybe not caring. Another lesson.

Down there in the dark it would become what he once saw in a low hollow, a thick, twitching white pelt over the small mammal consumed with avid tremor and the seethe of small chewing. Such as Grandpa might have seen on the battlefield, best kept below ground.


A year from his last life, life now is the farm, with his Grandpa and young uncle. Herding cows up from the pasture for the sundown milking. Haying. Cleaning gutters. Feeding a scoop of grain to each cow each evening, with their dark, bottomless eyes, lowing and banging their horns against the stall. What do they see when he comes? Him? Or a scoop of grain? All winter long they were pinned by the neck in their stanchions, able only to stand or lie, dropping their great thumping weight on the hard oak floor to rest, standing to shit, piss, be milked and fed. He pulls their long teats like soft fingers, hissing milk into the pail between his knees, ducking the slap of a shit-soaked tail, cautious that the cleft hooves loaded with all their weight miss his feet. “Easy, Boss,” patting the warm hide. The first time they were let out in the spring, they thrashed and bucked, swollen bags flopping, wild and free. Remembering maybe another life when they were the deer.  His, before, feels like it was lived by someone else. Things left from it buzz around, at the edge of his attention, his mind like a loose screen door about to bang open and let them in. Captain Blood, the Crow brave and Deerslayer, his allies, his other selves, close ranks to hold them off.

Grandpa has gone out to the second barn to tend his heifers and bull calf. The only life visible now the distant deer, the blue swallows that nest in the loft and fly in and out through the missing panes above the barn door, looping low over the stubbled fields to pick off bugs, the cattle in their pasture. Not far from the deer, Belle, the lead cow, threads the piebald ribbon of the herd through maple and oak. Their hides flicker lighter or darker in the shade. He marks their course in case they stall and need to be chased up for the evening milking.

Though he has this urge to perform great feats, the results are usually paltry. The truth is he’s no good at most of the things other kids can do, good only at hunting and the games he invents, stories or plays of Captain Blood, high on the yardarm of the big pine tree, coursing over the bounding main to rescue the fair lady Ann from the clutches of doom. Or the lone Crow brave, hidden in a rank, fresh buffalo hide, stalking the herd over the open plain.  At least, in his year on the farm, he’s turned into a pretty good shot with the little Winchester twenty-two pump. He’s killed rabbit, woodchuck, even a pheasant. Doing it well, he wishes he liked it better.  He sometimes wants to take it back, to return the tenant of the small house gone slack in his hands.

Once, his shot missed a red fox, which slipped away in the woods. His uncle ran a trap line and could have sold the pelt to Joe, the Algonquin breed who lived in a shanty ripe with salted hides curing on stretchers along the smoke-blacked walls. But he was glad he’d missed once he came on her furball kits, too young to fend for themselves, tumbling and play biting at the mouth of their den. He’d watched them play for a while, then moved on so as not to drive her off for good. In his mind, he saw her trotting up, slumping in the den to let them suck and fall asleep against her warmth. He has the hunter’s eye but not the heart. He hears his uncle—if he knew: Jesus! Toughen up!

The deer have come deeper into the field, opening space between them and the cool shade of the pasture.

He’d left his young uncle at the kitchen table—only three years beyond him, but older yet in experience and knowing, shirtless, sun darkened, with his wrestler’s shoulders, and fierce blue eyes glaring at nothing, drinking coffee, thinking about girls or fighting or whatever he thinks about. Play some catch? Nope. Want to go up the big pine tree? He grunts, kid stuff. Even though they’d once done it gloriously together, his uncle leaving him behind to scale higher still to the very top and stand on a fragile branch holding the now slender trunk by one hand as it whipped in a gusting wind: He, the real, true Captain Blood, who I will follow to the farthest shore. Not this day, though, midnight tomcatting having left him slumped over his coffee and short with his answers.

The boy has yet to see a deer up close. Not alive out in the open like this, anyway. Once in a museum she took him to, there was a life-size buck hiding in a bush next to an Indian camp where a woman with a baby on her back bent over a fire next to the teepee and the brave working on his bow.  A deer wouldn’t be that close. It was all behind glass, still and unreal, glass-eyed and unseeing. Real deer like birds jitterly flush at nothing. Smells of danger. Sounds you can’t hear. They have to live ready to jump. All year round, the quiet is blasted by gunshots.  Every pickup holds lever actions; pump guns, lovers of venison. Even the dogs are hunters in their spare time:  He has seen a buck in a snowfall ahead of a pack of mongrel farm dogs fade into the whiteness. Chin on arms he watches. Starting them in the woods his breath would catch at the shapes they sketched on the air.

Before long, the day will be mowed into the past, and he will have done nothing to save it from joining all the other days of milking and lazing and dreaming he’s now forgotten. Across the plains, the Crow brave moves only when the buffalo graze and freezes when they lift their heads.  The skill was in stillness, soft movements, blending in. Is this something he’s good at? In school he sits near the back and practices the inner quiet that will make him invisible. Hide him from having to answer with clogged mumbles and hot face.  “Louder, Stevie, so we can all hear.” His voice fades to a choked whisper, his ears buzz.

He has a vaguely forming idea that he’d like to come to the deer unarmed, just to see how close he could get. Would he test himself, their sharp senses, or something between him and them? He doesn’t know yet but anyway goes out of the dusty shade of the barn between twin silos filled with the fermenting silage that smells like bourbon whiskey and into a fierce blast of sunlight, needing to move.

He is brown after standing atop the swaying loads of hay he drew underfoot with his fork fed by the loader in one long gold tongue from rows he’d turned with tractor and hay rake. Now brown after being burnt and peeled and darkened, his skin is armored to the blazing heat. He’d come here sniffling, pale and weak. Tender white rabbit.  The dust under his toughened soles now pleasantly hot and soft, fine from wheels going to and from the fields over these sixty years. Now all tractors, trucks, hay loaders but in the beginning, rakes, harrows and wagons pulled by big farm horses. She’d ticked off their names for him on her thin white fingers: Bud, Clarence. Pausing to breathe.  OneEye.  He slams that door shut.

The curve of the road hides him from the deer along a wooded low spot where the well that fed water to house and barns had been dug over a spring. Dropping into the deep shade down to the well is like entering a cave with blind worms and moles and woodchucks feeling their way along in the dark. Black mud squishes between his toes while he moves aside the wooden lid and dips the tin cup full and drinks. The water is cold as ice melt and tastes of iron.  He pours another cup over his head and rubs it through his hair. The cold pulls the skin of his scalp tight.  Back in the hard light, blue-fringed sunfish swim lazily across his vision. Dust cakes the wet black mud on his feet and then comes off a little with each step, the coarse rubbing pleasant to feel.  In breaks of the foliage he can make out the deer more clearly, a doe and two fawns coming into their growth.  He stops along the bushes that have hid him. The doe lifts her nose higher and gives a little hop. That is me she smells, this person watching her. At this distance they still seem like toys, pieces in his game.  He instructs them to ignore him. They drop their heads to feed.

A shallow gully runs away from them between mown ground and the tangled alfalfa they graze.  It would be the longer way, but if he takes it, the whisper of breeze will carry his scent away from them.  At the far end, when he turns toward them, it will put the pasture woods behind him and they might not pick him out from the backdrop of trees. He’s not sure, but thinks deer are keener to movement than shape. He drops to his bare belly and slides across prickly stubs of cut hay.  On hands and knees crawls along the gully’s sandy bed until he meets a spoked wheel of silk sewn from bank to bank. Sunlight glistens on the yellow spider tensed in the web’s bull’s eye. He could easily sweep this small monster from his path but is sworn not to take life without just cause. He crawls up the bank and around. The fair young girl in the tower smiles. Where the cleft deepens he stands and walks in a stoop, brushing through milkweed whose white-feathered parachutes drift lazily to ground in the still air of the gully.  He steps carefully over a sandhill and a file of red and black ants toting a dead comrade toward a small hole in crumbled ground. In the ant fortress they will fire ant volleys and play taps on a tiny ant bugle and fold the ant flag for the mother of his aphids.

The heat smears across his naked shoulders. Salt stings his eyes.  At the far end, one bank of the gully folded toward the pasture fence and when he reaches it, he sneaks his head up for a peek. It would be funny if they’d run off while he’d been blindly circling.  Circling nothing. But the three graze quietly just where he’d left them.  His heart thumps.  He wiggles under the barbed wire around the prison camp. A tine scores his back. A little blood and stinging. The wound to bear under the very noses of the vicious guards and cold-blooded commandant.  Cool green shade flickers around him like water.  He wants to pause and rest but his quest tugs him on. He makes his way through brush and trees until he can turn toward them with the woods at his back and slides again under the fence into the alfalfa. Rises to his feet slow, slow as a plant growing and begins his stalk.

Everything not in his field of vision fades away, the world narrowed to what belongs to the quest, time linked to his stops and starts, now quick, now labored, now stayed mid-step.  The stealthy Crow brave, alone with his prey. Clover blossoms pluck between his toes.  He shivers at the thought of the black snake he once stepped on, thick and charged under his bare foot. Goddamn!  Didn’t he jump!  Honey smell of clover blossoms and fat bumblebees circling his knees with a low rumble.  They won’t sting.  If they do he can stand it can stand anything now.  While the deer feed he slides forward one foot, then the other, not taking his eyes off them. Blue deep of the sky the high white sun hot on his neck the breeze that comes and goes shivering the leaves along the fence. The deer look up at him. He might be a tree that had grown in the field.  How long had it been there?  If they looked up and it was already there then it had always been there. Nothing to be scared of.  It is there. It doesn’t move. It is a tree. Their heads go back down. They have forgotten the tree.  Each time they look up it will be the same new puzzle. What is it? Does it move?

A black crow beats across the blue calling car car while a little bird dives at it driving it off that had tried to take her eggs. He is caught with one foot up and has to balance on the other while they stare stupidly, their ears stuck out to the sides. He thinks they know something’s there, but it tricks their eyes, like a heat wave, both seen through and botheringly seen. This is a new kind of game for him, where his opponent isn’t made up but real and alive, with the pleasure of the hunt and not the sadness of killing. The pleasure lies light and chill in his stomach, lighter than air, as if he could float up out of himself. From far above, the boy in the middle and the three deer at the end would be four specks, one nearing the others across the green, from three and one into four.

Closer. Their hides the color of dried leaves in the dust, the fawns’ white-spotted, on long spindly legs, knobs of bone showing under tight skin. They graze behind, slanting their ears back. But the mother’s ears turn separately on her skull, pointing here and there as she feeds.  She has the face of a large goat, a neck long enough to reach the grass without bending her forelegs, high shoulders, a knobby ridge that curves down then up to the muscled rear haunches, around which her tail flicks at stinging flies.  Carrying the two babies has swayed her back. The hair has pale thinned patches. Her knees are worn to the cracked, scabby skin. He urges himself closer, avid to know more.

Duke barks on the next farm over. The deer listen to that side. If a hunter with one bullet and you saw a dog running a deer, which would you shoot? The barking stops and their heads drop.  He tries to go quicker and freeze just before she looks up. He seems to be on a track through her mind, one she doesn’t know is there. Her hide shivers and flies whirl out from her side. She rolls her upper lip to crop. This close she is heavy and tired and as earthbound as a cow.  Not as he’d expected with the lightness of their movement. Her hard life chased and running. She raises her head with both ears cupped toward him. I am not here. No one is here.  She drops her head again. She has a long, pointed slab of a tongue like a cow’s that twists into the clover and pulls it between her square yellow teeth. He moves three steps then two quicker now. The ending seems near but he still can’t see it. If he gets close enough to touch, then what?

The doe’s head snaps up. She stretches her face toward him and takes his scent into her. In her plum-dark eyes swim a pair of small shirtless boys, white-haired and tanned. He is twice-born from the transparent air. For a fleet moment he feels what together courses through them invisibly, like the wind that bends the grass. But behind his floating reflections the dark bulbs swim deep back into darkness. She is big and close and when she stretches to smell him she is too big and too close with a flooding life of her own that scares him. His helpless hand moves. Scuts raised white, they loop and touch, loop and touch and are over the fence and gone. He is there with her in the light springing through the trees feeling how she runs.


The sound claps and is gone, sudden, dire, final. Knowledge rushes in on the smell of burnt powder. A twelve gauge. Time bumps ahead and recoils at once, thrusts him toward the fence, dragging his resistant self. This is what has been left out: His uncle at the kitchen window will have seen him walking through the fields and gone into the barn to watch for a while more, figuring. Moving through the woods at a dog’s lope, shotgun hanging in his left hand, he will have taken the short side of the pasture along the creek to wait inside the fence where he knows the deer will break.

Under the trees, his kneeling uncle has already turned the doe on her back with hind legs splayed on either side of his hips and drawn a long maroon stripe in the pale belly. She just now looking at the boy from deep in her own hidden life now this thing. This meat. That the life flies out of something so big so quick. His uncle has brought empty feed sacks. The fawns—yes, them too—flown on a sure and treacherous way that ends in the yelps of slobbering hounds. Hand over hand, his uncle hauls out of her wet pink ropes. The filled sacks will be sunk in the creek until nightfall. When milking is done and Grandpa has gone to bed, his uncle will retrieve them and take her hide and meat to the Indian who will buy the lot to sell to whoever he sells to.  Good going, Stevie, don’t tell Pa, his uncle says, grinning up at him over his knife work. The boy sickly knows he has brought this on. The buzzing outside rises to a shrill insistent whine. His forces have fallen, the door will bang open and all let swarm. From now on he can leave nothing out.