The Pull of the Herd

- by Suzan Palumbo -

5725 Words

 

My doeskin calls to me from under the woollen blankets in the cedar chest at the foot of our bed. Diya murmurs beside me, eases back to sleep. I cling to her; try to calm the panic welling in my chest by inhaling her cardamom scent. The metallic taste of a skin thief lingers in the air this morning and, though I’ve sworn never to return, every nerve and sinew inside me is screaming: get back to the herd.

I swing my feet onto the wooden floor. Human soles are weaker than keratin-covered hooves—less sure, though they suit their purpose. I undress, then pad over to the trunk. My fur stirs as I lift the lid and pull it from beneath the blankets. It twines up my forearm, grip like hardened horn sheathed in fraying velvet.

It’s humid when I open the front door. Other than the birds, I’m completely alone. There’s no guarantee the doefolk will heed my warning. I smother my doubts. I must get to them.

Pulling the pelt over my head and torso is familiar but restrictive, like a bra that supports but cuts too tightly against your ribs. It winches my back forward, conforming my body to its shape. A jumble of scents: musk, dirt, blood, excrement, and something out of place, something heavy, town-like, collide around my muzzle.

Layers of fur envelop my front quarters; tension builds in my hinds. A muscle snaps. I dart into the back woods—an arrow zipping through the trees.

The terrain is uneven but my hooves pivot and pick, flying over crumbling logs and brambles. I can’t remember the way. The limits of human locomotion have tainted my visual spatial perception, but my legs carry a compass of their own. They propel me deep into the bush.

How long do I run? I can’t tell, time is measured in heartbeats.

Then all at once, the air is cooler. I’m at the edge of the old clearing. The darkness has become a greying haze. There are figures with hands thrown in the air, legs kicking in abandon. Their doeskins are strewn on an outcrop of jagged, white rock nearby. I inch toward them. They are performing the Matutinal: a farewell to the night and a greeting of the day, sung in syllables as old as the trees.

They embrace me, to my surprise, aunts and cousins patting my neck and back, and for an instant I’m doused in the warmth of their welcome. Then my sister Vashti fixes her glare on me. The granite glint in her eyes strips me of any comfort.

I’m an outsider.

In spite of her, the convergence continues. Not even Vashti’s disdain for me can halt the sunrise.

The herd presses against me, compels me to join, even before I can transform. I scan the perimeter of the clearing for the threat I’d sensed earlier, but they sweep my caution aside–pushing me toward the centre of their circle. I’m caught in their torrent, bucking and prancing. My doeskin chafes against my limbs while they contort around me in their bipedal forms.

A twig snaps during a lull in their song. My ear twitches. I jerk my head toward the rocks in time to catch a pair of hands snatching a buff-coloured pelt. I crash through the circle, bounding after the man, his legs pumping like fury toward the forest’s edge. He’s downwind but the heavy odour of iron and oil trail behind him. It’s the same scent I’d caught earlier, near the cabin. Halfway across the clearing, he glances wide-eyed over his shoulder and trip-tumbles onto his back.

I’m over him before he can inhale. I trample his left hand, relishing the satisfying crack of hoof crushing bone. Then I straddle his torso with my hooves, pawing at his chest. Pinning him.

His hair is thick and coal black. Despite the grease smeared across his forehead as camouflage, it’s clear he’s young, perhaps a decade younger than Diya.

Like everyone from town, he’s known of the doefolk’s existence since childhood. He’s been weaned on stories of shapeshifting women in the woods who will submit to anyone cunning enough to steal their hides. It is an unofficial rite of passage for him to try and steal a wife.

His pupils constrict as the herd comes up behind me. They’ve seen his pained expression many times before:

He was prepared for the fight. He never expected to fail.

A cousin, Neelum, crouches next to the thief and tears her skin from him. The acrid scent of urine mingled with fear wafts up toward us.

“I will take that,” she says through clenched jaws. She grabs him by the chin and jerks his head to the left so she can look him in the eye. “Wanted a silent wife, huh?” She pushes his head away and draws herself up, stepping back. I follow her lead. “Get up, skin thief.” Her voice cuts flint rock spare. “We’ll kill you if you come back.” She’s beside me, clutching her hide tight to her chest. The herd is a breathing wall at our backs.

For a moment he’s frozen, caught in the creeping daylight with his sin plastered across his face. Neelum doesn’t flinch, doesn’t look away. She gazes at him as he’s probably watched her for days, perhaps weeks. The weight of her stare is caustic without the shield and shadow of darkness to protect him. He pushes himself away crabwalk style—a papery cry escaping his throat as he twists to get up and limp-runs back to the forest, clutching his broken hand. We watch him until all that’s left is the hint of movement in the under-story.

The women accompany me to the clearing’s edge, pelts slung over their shoulders. Their collective heartbeats slow as they embrace, reassuring each other in the tactile language of muscle and bone that they are safe, accounted for.

“This is the third time in as many full moons a skin thief has tried to take one of us,” Vashti says as she walks up beside me. Her posture is commanding. “Now this one has discovered the clearing, the abduction attempts will increase.”

An anxious murmur ripples through the herd. It’s been decades since a human, emboldened by the fantasy of a submissive wife or servant, has successfully kidnapped a doe. I don’t count, of course. I left on my own. But this man had come close. He’d held Neelum’s skin in his hands. If he’d escaped, Neelum would have been bound to him forever.

“I’m safe, thanks to Agni,” Neelum says, her onyx eyes slick with gratitude. “We’ve beat them back every time. If we’re vigilant and stick together, we’ll be safe.”

I soften at her words. Though, I mustn’t let myself confuse her appreciation with acceptance. I’m not one of them anymore.

“You reek of human,” Vashti says to me. Her voice is low. No one else can hear her above the continuing discussion of the herd’s safety. Her words coat me in a thick shame that’s eaten away at me since fawnhood. She hasn’t forgiven me for being who I am, for leaving. Nothing’s changed.

The women are deciding their next course of action when I turn to the woods to leave.

The journey back home is slow, painful. My doeskin cuts into my joints, like shrinking elastic, tightening with each successive hoof fall.

Unlike the others, I’ve never been able to wear it for long. As a fawn, I’d sneak off to a thicket near Diya’s cabin to pry myself from its grip and wander among the trees—press my feet into the leaf-carpeted dirt and trace the textured branches with my fingers. I could breathe there; enjoy a careless moment where the tension of holding myself together for everyone else dissipated.

But the herd would eventually notice my absence, and my mother, in her human form, would come to drag me back.

“There’s a time and place for everything, Agni,” she’d said once. “When you run off like this, there are fewer eyes to keep watch. It puts us all in danger, especially you.”

“It doesn’t fit, Mama!” I’d choke in anguish, fur catching in my throat as she jammed my doeskin over my head. The herd was an ever-watchful witness, complicit in my distress.

I tried to grit my teeth at constricted limbs—tolerated the bite of strangled circulation. I existed for the fleeting freedom of the Matutinal each morning when I could stretch my hide loose, to please my mother and our kin.

Until two years ago, when the resident wolf pack ambushed my mother and I, and tore Mama’s throat out.

I couldn’t force myself to wear my ill-fitting pelt after that. Couldn’t wash the ferric scent of Mama’s blood from my muzzle. It lingers there now, threatening to stifle me anew.

As I hobble toward the cabin’s clearing, my last argument with Vashti echoes in my ears:

“If you abandon us, don’t come back.”

“I’m not abandoning you; I can’t live like this.”

“You’ve always put your freedom above the herd’s safety. Even Mom’s life.”

“I’m not free.”

On the cabin porch, I peel the pelt off, stretching it loose in the sun. Inside, my toes splay across the rough ridges of the floorboards, savouring the luxury and release of relaxed muscles as I move through the rooms. I fold the fur into a rectangle; force it into the cedar chest in our bedroom.

Diya has left for work at the park and our bed is rumpled and empty. I slide on a shirt and a pair of loose cotton pants; go into the kitchen to pour myself a cup of coffee from the batch she’s made for us to share.

“It’s okay,” Diya had said my first night indoors as she handed me this very mug. “You’re safe, here. You can be yourself.” There was a soft depth in her eyes that made me trust her, that made me think she understood how difficult it was to let go of the unbearable.

I take my mug to the back porch. The bench there offers an unobstructed view of the forest. I sit and listen to the birds bicker.

By now, the herd will have moved deeper into the woods to bed down for the day. They’ll masticate their cuds and doze in the shade until dusk, when they’ll wake to rejoice in their unity. Without me.

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The woods are submerged in shadows when I finish washing up after dinner. Diya’s already in bed, reading. She closes her book and slings her arm around me when I curl up next to her.

“You went back this morning?” The muscles in her arm are tense.

“Yeah.” I look away from her, not wanting to see the frustrated disapproval sweep across her face. “I caught the scent of a skin thief. He’d snuck up on them downwind. I helped fend him off.”

“Did they thank you?”

“Yes.”

Diya doesn’t relax. “Did your sister apologize?” She takes a lock of my hair and twirls it around her finger when I don’t answer. “You don’t owe them anything because you left. You know that, right? I wish you hadn’t gone back. What if the skin thief—” She doesn’t let herself continue.

Her words prickle my arms. There’s a cold liberty in knowing I can live without them, that the herd needs me more than I need them.

“It’s hard.” I say, looking at her pinched expression. “Sometimes, I still forget where they end and I begin.”

I wrap my arms around her and shut my eyes, remembering the afternoon I came to live with her: the crisp blue sky, the crack of her laundry flapping in the summer breeze.

I’d stolen her clothes—ripped them from the line and donned them as I broke free of the herd.

She found me skulking at the edge of the yard in her outfit. It was a size too large.

“I-it’s all right,” she said with her palms held up. “Keep the clothes for as long as you need them.” Her voice was tinged with curiosity and fear. I stepped toward her, forced myself to meet her eyes. She considered me for a moment then invited me in.

Diya’s drifted off to sleep now. I climb out of bed. The canvas pants and jersey I took from her still hang on my side of the closet, next to the entire wardrobe we’ve bought for me to wear. I slip the old clothes from that first night off their hangers, then fold and shove them on top of my doeskin in the cedar chest, easing the lid shut.

I strain against the tug of my fur as I crawl back into bed with her. It calls to me with a strangling familiarity, a cloying ease that never relents. I’ll always have to fight against it.

I settle under our light summer sheets and let the sound of distant hooves lull me.

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“Could you come into town with me?” Diya asks two days later. Her breakfast dishes are in the sink and she’s dressed.

“Why?” I can’t blunt the sharpness in my voice. Town has always meant the weight of iron, servitude, and death to doefolk. I’ve only gone with her twice: once to buy my clothing; the second time, I’d asked to stay in the Chevy while she ran errands.

“We need some plywood and sheet metal. The roof on the back shed’s leaking. I’ll need help loading the truck. Gonna get the oil changed, too, while we’re at the building supply.” She must sense my apprehension because she adds: “It’ll be okay.”

I nod. I can’t bring myself to say no after all she’s done for me.

We drive in. Down the hard-packed dirt of our hidden drive and onto the sharp gravel road that leads to the paved outskirts of town. The building supply is at the far end of Main Street. It’s a quiet town. “Typical of any small backwater,” Diya had explained during our early days together.

Diya had never been in step with the town folk. Said she’d never wanted to grow up and marry one of the football boys and raise a brood or go away to secretarial school like the working girls. When her parents passed, she took her inheritance and built her cabin in the woods. “I needed to get away,” she told me. “You and I have that in common.”

We park the truck in front of Anderson and Son’s: Mechanics, next to Wilson’s building supply. I wait for Diya in the lot while she goes in the storefront to drop off the keys.

An hour later she’s pushing the listing dolly while I steer the front of it toward the truck. As we get closer, a man in blue cuffed coveralls limps out of the garage. His hair is slicked back in that greaser style Diya says the city kids are crazy over. He’s favouring his left leg. When I see the cast on his hand, my stomach lurches.

“Hey, Diya. Truck’s done. Dad changed the spark plugs for you, too. Do y’all need help load . . .”

The scent of metal and oil tendril off him and slithers up my neck. I inhale and it crams its way down my throat, making me gag.

Skin thief.

My heart is pounding. It’s him, here, mid-morning, chatting with Diya, and there’s nothing I can say or do to get away. I knew I’d cross paths with one, one day. It’s why I hadn’t wanted to come into town: there’s nowhere to hide. I grip the front of the dolly to keep myself from dashing out of the parking lot. The metal biting into the insides of my knuckles keeps me tethered.

“Thanks, Zander. How’d you hurt your hand?” Diya asks, taking the keys from him. He accompanies us back to the truck.

“The deer women.” He’s shaking his head as he speaks. “I found one of their skins and they attacked me.” He pauses to help Diya load the plywood and sheet metal into the truck with his non-broken hand. “They cracked Michael Wilson’s collar bone and three of his ribs a few weeks ago. Threatened to kill me.”

Diya flicks her eyes toward me.

“The mayor’s called a meeting for tomorrow. It’s not like the fairy tale they tell you when you’re a kid. Guys are getting hurt. The women take their skins off then attack you for falling for it.” An earnest look splashes across his face. He’s a victim.

“I’m sorry about your hand, Zander,” Diya says. She’s placid, betraying nothing. “How much do I owe you?”

“Let’s go in and get that settled with Dad.” He looks over at me, eyes appraising. “Does your friend want to come in, too? We’ve got coffee.” His smile is practiced. “I’m Zander. Sorry, I didn’t introduce myself earlier.” He holds out his right hand. I glare at it like it’s a sharp-toothed bear trap and force the corners of my lips upward. My grip on the dolly tightens.

Diya steps between us. “Zander, this is my cousin, Agni. She’s staying with me for a bit. She hasn’t been feeling well. I’ll pop in and we’ll be on our way, if that’s okay?”

“Cousin, huh?” Zander smirks and folds his arms across his chest. “Nice meeting you, Agni.” He tips his head. Flashes another smile.

I manage a rigid nod. Diya walks ahead of him into the shop. When they’re inside I let go of the dolly, fling the passenger side door open, hurl myself in the cab, and slam the door.

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“He’s a liar,” I yell when Diya gets in and closes the door. “He didn’t find any skin.” I’m shaking as she eases the car out of the parking lot onto Main Street. “He tried to steal Neelum from us. We were protecting her. We have the right to defend ourselves.”

“You mean they have the right to defend themselves.”

“I’m them, they are me. No difference.” I spit the words out as I watch the drab town slide by through the window.

“There is a difference. They’ve never accepted you.” Her hands are stiff on the wheel.

“That doesn’t mean they deserve to be forced to marry.” I can barely talk around the knot in my throat. “Raped.”

We’re silent for the rest of the ride home.

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Diya leaves at six PM the next evening for the meeting in the church basement. I watch the cloud of dust billow behind the truck as it turns down the bend toward the gravel road. We agreed it was best for me to wait at home.

“What if they decide to put up a fence? Let’s not panic,” she’d said in an attempt to calm me before she’d left.

I pace back and forth between the bedroom and the kitchen. My doeskin is battering the lid of the trunk in our room. Each knock sends a shudder through my ribcage. It knows I’m anxious. It wants me to alert the others and disappear into the shadowy safety of the woods. I want to disappear, too. I’m weary of the burden of fight or flight. I’m sick of the world falling apart the moment I stand still.

I go out onto the back porch, try to divert myself with some of the books Diya gave me for reading practice, but I spend the entire time straining, listening for an errant hoof fall or the swish of a tail. As the sun sinks, the pounding inside the cedar chest intensifies.

The stars are out when Diya pulls into the drive. I run to the front porch to meet her. Her face looks wrung out. Her lips are bloodless.

“What did they say?” I ask, following her inside.

She’s stone silent as she grabs a can of beer from the fridge. She sits down at the kitchen table, cracks the can open, and takes a thirsty swig before she speaks—like the drink will fortify her for what comes next.

“Council said they’ve ignored the deer women situation for too long and now the herd’s a menace.” She pauses. Takes another drink. “They’ve injured five men in the last two years. One critically. The council’s organized a hunting party for tomorrow morn—”

I’m out of my chair, bounding toward the cedar chest; tearing my clothes off before she can finish.

“Wait!” she says as I fling the chest open. My pelt slams into me and clamps on to my arms in a death grip. Diya grabs me by the shoulders and spins me around to face her.

“Wait for what, Diya? For them to murder everyone I’ve ever loved?” My voice is falling apart around the words. I’m trembling. I push her away. “I know you don’t care, but I can’t let them die. Even if they hate me.”

“Listen.” The artificial calm in her tone is infuriating. “Help them. You’re going to go no matter what I say, anyway.” Her eyes are brimming with fear.

“Good.” I turn from her again. She flips me around. Her fingers dig deep into my fur-clad arms. Bruising.

“Let me finish.” She’s stronger than I am in my human form. Struggling only tightens her hold. “Zander said there’s a clearing where the doefolk meet. Said he knew how to get to it without being seen.” She swallows. “The hunters will make their way to that clearing an hour before dawn and ambush the herd. Do you know where they are now?”

“No.” Acidic defeat floods my tongue. Sweat trickles down the back of my neck. I want to collapse. I want to run—to do anything but stand here logically discussing the premeditated killing of my entire family.

“The hunters will meet here,” she continues. “You leave ahead of them. Get to the clearing to warn the herd. I’ll stay with the hunting party.”

“You’re helping them?” Any hope I had left bleeds out of me.

“No.” She’s surprised by the question. “Zander was asking about you. Wanted to know what town you’re from. I offered to let them meet here to get him off my back. I’ll stay close to the group so I can alert you if they get to the clearing and you’re still there.” Her grip on my arms becomes loose, hesitant.

I want to trust her judgement, but my pelt is wailing at me: This is the end if I don’t warn Vashti and the others now.

“Okay.” My knees are on the edge of buckling. She walks over to the door, picks up my clothes and gives them to me. We cram my unwilling fur into the chest. I dress and then lie motionless in bed, letting the chirps and calls in the forest engulf me.

“Get some sleep,” Diya whispers. She lays down next to me. “We’re going to need all of our strength in the morning.”

But in the dark I can only relive my mother’s death—

I’d returned to the thicket. She’d come to fetch me. Her pelt was draped over her shoulder, the ebbing sunlight casting a golden edge around her silhouette. She was transcendent—graceful and seamless both as doe and woman. I ache even now, knowing I’ll never be like her.

“Agni, come on!” Her whisper was urgent. “The pack’s close.” Then she’d cocked her head to the right, looked me in the eye, and put her index finger to her lips. We both knew I couldn’t stretch my doeskin out in time. I’d never outrun the wolves. “It’s not your fault,” she said before she flicked her wrist and her pelt cascaded over her. “We should have let you be.” She bolted away, making as much noise as she could to draw the attention of the pack away from me.

I hid until the bloodthirsty barking was sated—until a cloak of silence blanketed me.

I found her afterwards. Disembowelled. Lifeless. What remained of her mangled fur was slick with fluid. Her pupils were blank, beginning to cloud. Grief stung my eyes but I couldn’t cry. I lay next to her, soaked in her blood, chasing away the crows that came to pick at her body—brushing away the flies ready to gorge on her flesh, until the moon was high and the wind heavy with the baying of the wolves come to reclaim their kill. I fractured inside after I left her.

When I told the herd Mama was dead, Vashti turned her back on me. She wouldn’t look at me even after I got on my hands and knees and begged for forgiveness. She didn’t speak to me again until the day I left for Diya’s cabin.

I check the clock. It’s four am. Time to go. Diya gets up to make coffee for the hunters. I strip off my clothes and retrieve my fur, stretching it as much as I can. I numb myself to all that could go wrong and focus on the adrenaline coursing through me. Diya follows me to the door. The transformation is barely complete before my hooves yank me toward the forest.

“Come back safe,” Diya calls.

I don’t look back.

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I’m there before the Matutinal. Alone. My pelt has already shrunk. I wait, motionless for an eternity, muscles trembling from exhaustion.

I hear them. Faintly at first: the snap of a branch, a shift in the taste of the air. They emerge en masse from the other side of the clearing, ethereal, as if from the realm between waking and sleep. I wait until they reach the white rocks and remove their pelts before I creep out of my hiding place.

They freeze at the noise I make, ready to pivot and flee. But they recognize me as I hobble toward them.

“Why are you here?” Vashti’s question gores my chest. I step on my left fore hoof with my right and tug my left leg. My pelt slides away. I straighten to stand in my human form.

“You’re not safe.” There’s an involuntary quiver in my voice. The doefolk gape at me.

“What do you mean?” Her claw-like stare rakes across my face.

I exhale. “The skin thief we stopped, he’s rounded up a bunch of hunters from town. They’ll be here soon. They’re going to kill you.” The end of the sentence catches in my throat.

The collective intake of breath is destabilizing. Neelum steps forward to address the herd. “We have to leave,” she says. “It’s not safe to perform the ceremony.”

“How could you do this to us.” Vashti’s shaking her head. It’s an accusation, not a question.

“I’m telling you to run.”

“Why should we trust you? Look what happened to Mom.”

I crumble. My sister’s always known how to wound me the deepest. “I don’t want you dead, Vashti, even if you don’t care if I live.”

There’s rustling in the forest on the far side of the clearing behind me. “There.” Diya’s voice wafts toward us on the breeze.

“Go!” I say.

The women slide into their pelts like liquid. Scatter for the trees behind them.

Only Vashti hesitates. She looks in the direction of Diya’s voice then back at me. She believes me. “No one’s skin fits perfectly.” Her anger disintegrates into fear. These may be the last words we say to each other. “If you’d try, Agni. Mama always said we were safer together. We could be whole.” Her lips are in the shape of a plea. “Just come with us.” She looks over her shoulder. The skin thieves are close. There’s not much time.

My loyalty to the herd and my life with Diya are splitting me apart. I want Vashti’s words to be true—that if I adjusted my posture and held my breath long enough, my pelt would magically fit. I could vanish into the woods. Leave the hunters and the wolves and the guilt behind. But she isn’t offering me forgiveness or an apology. This is an invitation to a covenant I’ve never known how to keep.

“I am whole,” I whisper. And for a flash, the memory of my mother’s blank eyes transposes over Vashti’s. The back of my throat sours. I look away.

She gives me a curt nod. “Goodbye, sister,” Vashti says. She sprints to the woods, leaping into her fur and transforming mid-stride.

I’m alone in the clearing when the crack of a rifle rushes toward me. The bullet ricochets off the rocks. I huddle behind the outcrop, trying to stretch my skin loose. It’s so tight. It rips when I pull it over me.

Bang.

The impact in my lower left flank is like being hit by a baseball bat. A dull ache radiates up and down my leg. I make for the tree line. My leg collapses in the underbrush several feet in. I lie there trying not to move. Voices: Diya . . . Zander . . . skin thieves thrashing in the woods nearby. Be quiet. Be quiet. The air is saturated with blood. If the hunters miss me the wolves won’t.

This is the death I deserve.

“It went that way!” Diya’s voice? More crashing through the underbrush, moving away from me. Deeper into the forest.

“This is as far as I go.” Diya again, quieter, almost to herself.

She’s next to me. Her familiar hands pull at my hide. I shift and step on my fur with my foreleg, help her shuck it off. I bite my lip, holding back a screech.

She takes my pelt and wraps it around the bullet hole in my leg. The pressure jolts me, intensifies the ache. “It’s so cold here,” I chatter. “I don’t remember a summer morning feeling so cold.”

“Stand up,” she whispers to me. “We’ve got to get you home.” Her voice is splintering. “There’s blood everywhere.”

I lean on her. We stumble in the direction of the cabin along the edge of the clearing. I’m so tired. I want to lie down. Everything’s blurry. The forest is whirling green.

“Agni.” She sounds so far away. “I need you to . . .”

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I wake in our bedroom, dressed in a loose shirt and underwear. My leg is bandaged and elevated. Diya’s sitting next to me on the bed.

“Did they get away?” I croak.

She puts her hand on my forehead. “Here, take these and drink this.” She offers me some pills and a glass of water. Her eyes are red. I sit up and wave the glass away. She puts everything on the nightstand.

“Did the skin thieves get them?”

She clears her throat and looks out the open window. “Not all of them,” she says. “They shot—” She clears her throat. “Zander and his friends got three. The rest of the herd escaped across the river. You helped most of them get away.” She gives me a weak smile.

“Did they get Vashti?” The bullet hole in my leg throbs.

“Sleep,” she says. Her face is pained. When I don’t lie down, she looks at her palms. “I don’t know, Agni. I don’t know what Vashti looks like. They couldn’t get their pelts off clean. They tried. They had to . . . they cut them down the middle. All of them were indistinguishable from regular deer on the inside.”

My stomach churns. Bile burns my throat. An aunt, Neelum, my sister Vashti. Flayed and gutted for wanting to stay free. For defending themselves. I clear my parched throat. “Gone.”

Diya purses her lips.

“I want to be alone now,” I say.

She puts a hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she says. She turns off the bedside lamp and leaves the room.

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Next morning, Diya’s slumped in the bedroom chair watching me. She leaves when I move and returns carrying a tray with toast and juice. She sets it down next to me.

“Thank you,” I grimace. I’m still in agony. She waits until I’m finished eating then moves the tray aside.

“Doctor Hayward from town will be back this afternoon to check on you.”

“Town?”

“Don’t worry. I’ve known him since I was little. He’s a good man. We can trust him.”

I nod. I don’t trust him, but I believe Diya.

She reaches behind her and holds out my doeskin. “I thought you’d want this back,” she says, setting it down on my lap. I stare at it. Why hasn’t it called to me in the last twenty-four hours?

But there’s the pull again. It’s changed—it’s weaker, less insistent. The pelt coils up my forearm as I hold it up to inspect it. There’s a circular hole in the upper left flank. The fur is matted and stiff with dried blood. The inside of the right hind leg is torn, and the earthy smell of the woods is smothered by a pall of lead and copper.

I’ll never be able to stretch it out to wear it again.

“Do you want me to wash it? Put it away in the chest for you?” Diya asks.

“No. I’ll keep it with me,” I say.

“Okay.” She nods. “Get some more rest.” She picks up the tray and closes the door.

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My doeskin clings to me. Its embrace is tender now. Soft. It knows I’m alone, the last of my kind this side of the river. A breeze blows through the window and fills the room. The air is light and filled with chatter. The sound is familiar and yet it feels thinner, as if the herd’s absence has muted the core of its tenor.

I close my eyes, let the fur envelop my chest while Mama’s words ring in my ears: There is a time and a place for everything, Agni. Her smooth voice transports me to the clearing deep in the woods.

I stroke the fur, soothing it, soothing myself. When I’m stronger, when I can walk there on my own, I’ll find my way back to the clearing.

I’ll hold vigil at dawn and welcome the Sun, for the herd and for myself.

 

© 2018 by Suzan Palumbo


Suzan Palumbo lives in Canada. Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, she is an ESL teacher and a New Wave enthusiast. Her stories are often inspired by clashes of culture and the gap between expectations and reality. Her work has been published by PodCastle, Diabolical Plots, and The Colored Lens.