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Deer Collage

by Carol Reid

  September 2011 Fiction Anthology  |  Contents  |  Authors  |  echapbook.com 


At the top of the trail Arlo wound Shadow's leash twice around his hand to keep her still. He felt for the collar buried in the ruff of ginger fur around her neck, found the ring and leaned closer to spring the clip. The toe of his boot bumped up against what he expected was a tree root, but when he looked down he saw a perfect little ebony hoof and tawny stalk of foreleg. No trace of crusted blood remained. Not a tick or fly moved between the fine brown hairs. It lay on a bed of crumpled ferns, rimmed with crystals of frost.

Shadow was way ahead already, baying at the remembered prey of her youth. Her setter nose was gone and her eyes were going, but the terrier in the mix kept her moving. He let her go off into the woods alone and remained where he was, studying the cast-off piece of the deer carcass.

 Arlo could feel the damp cold seeping through the soles of his boots. After a while he trudged down to the clearing and found Shadow standing stock-still next to the old rabbit hole, her useless snout planted in the earth. It was dim under the canopy of old cedars and quiet. Arlo felt tight and edgy, but couldn’t make sense of why. He clipped the leash back onto Shadow's collar and walked her back up to the road. She took no notice of the deer leg, none at all.

Arlo’s wife, Liza, had a lot of questions when he got in later than expected, but he didn’t want to answer, so he told her about the deer.

“Where exactly?” Liza asked.

“Near the top, near the road.” Arlo shook his head before she asked the other question. “Not in the gulley, no.” He tapped his own leg at the knee. “Just the lower leg and hoof.”

“Where’s the rest of it?” she asked him and when he didn’t answer, she asked the dog.

Arlo poured himself a cup of tea and sat down in his chair. His wife slung her camera over her shoulder and headed out to get a shot of the deer leg. Last fall she had found most of a black bear low down on a logging road, dumped just a few steps into the bush. Not once but on three occasions. The pictures she had made of the mutilated bears were published by the Outlook Community Journal and many letters to the editor ensued. Arlo didn’t know who to blame for the bear situation.

He watched her jog down the driveway, brilliant in her cherry red duffel coat, round as a teapot. In the summer she had shaved her head for the cancer charity at her office and now sported a gray-white bristle on the crown and iron grey tufts around her ears. He ran his hand over his nearly bare scalp and kept looking out the window until she was out of sight. He would have liked to say that he had her beat in the hair department but it wouldn’t be true.

He could hear Shadow in the kitchen, her tongue sloshing through the water bowl, then her creaking sigh as she tried to settle down comfortably on her rug. A thought that crossed Arlo’s mind sometimes was that either men live too long or dogs live too short. Today however he thought about the piece of deer and the little mushroom caps of bone that seemed to sprout from the branch of fawn-colored hair. Shadow had been a hundred yards ahead, deep in her old-dog memories. How long had he stood there?

The dog had been hoarse and played out by the time he came for her. A crust of muddy dirt ringed her nostrils and she coughed and rumbled in her chest. And now she wheezed in her sleep. Flecks of dirt drifted from her muzzle onto the rug with her every breath.

Arlo sat up a little straighter as the sound of an axe splitting wood carried over from his neighbor's back yard. Neil had a shed full of split logs and kindling already, Arlo thought. He must have got accustomed to heat in the house while his partner Step faded away. For the three years that Neil and Step had lived in the big A-frame next door, Arlo had respected their privacy and was glad enough that they’d done the same. In the weeks since Step’s passing Liza had mentioned several times that Arlo could feel free to go over there if he wanted to.

Arlo heaved himself out of his chair and put his teacup in the sink. He felt there must be plenty he could talk about with Neil, once he broke the ice.

Liza was back already, holding up the camera like a trophy.

“Got a bunch of great shots. And I got an idea,” she said.

The idea was that she would print out these shots and the ones of the bears. Then she would cut up pieces of the prints, lacquer them together and take a shot of that.

“With any luck it’s going to look like a deer,” she said as she kicked off her boots into the corner. One boot bounced off the wall and Shadow flinched and half-raised her head.

“Sorry, dog,” Liza said, rubbing Shadow’s patchy old ears.

Arlo wondered if his wife noticed the gristly lumps that had formed along the old scar on Shadow’s neck, where the footpad of Cody's dirt bike had caught her. He didn’t mention anything. Shadow was too old to put under the knife; her heart and lungs would never make it through the anaesthetic. Quite often he checked the calendar to make sure Liza hadn’t made any appointments with the vet. The last thing he wanted to know was the date when Shadow might die. He was afraid that he wouldn’t resist wanting to go down with her, although he was convinced there would be no happy hunting ground afterward. If he’d believed for a minute that he could be with his son again by dying he’d have checked out long ago.

He heard the printer in his wife’s office chugging to life as he went outside. The weather could be worse, he thought. No snow yet and the pearly grey sky was breaking up a little, allowing some brightness through. He raised the door of his shop and took down his Makita from the shelf. He set up the workhorse on level ground and unspooled the extension cord. He could see Neil clearly though the leafless tangle of blackberries that made a hedge between their properties.

Neil was sending up steam from the exertion of splitting wood. His blanket coat hung from the bare branches of an apple tree. A ring of rough-cut kindling lay scattered around the chopping block.

Arlo went back into his shop and pulled an old soft towel off a length of mahogany, then carried the board carefully outside. He ran the back of his hand down the grain, just once, feeling the satiny warmth of the wood. Then he took a ruler and flat pencil out of his pocket, just as Neil plunked himself on the chopping block, taking a break. He looked over into Arlo’s yard and raised his chin in greeting. Arlo responded in kind, then followed the line of the extension cord and pushed it solidly into the outlet to the side of the shop door.

He sneaked a look over at Neil’s house as he walked back down to the workhorse. All the curtains were drawn, except over the big picture window on the ground floor. The glass looked nearly opaque, most likely from grease and wood smoke from the stove.

Liza had talked about going over there and helping Neil out with the cleaning, but if she had, he must have turned her down. When Cody died all those years ago, when Shadow was still a puppy, Liza had cleaned house with a vengeance, making it so bright and sanitized it brought tears to Arlo’s eyes. Thank God she had eventually let it slide, especially since she took up the camera.

He flipped the power switch and positioned the router over the length of mahogany. The motor buzzed, whiny like the dirt bikes that day in the bush. There were two schools of thought about those dirt bikes then, especially with the use of helmets, which made fathers foolhardy and sons cocky beyond reason. One was that you couldn’t get hurt bad on such a little machine; the other that if you wore a helmet and kept an eye out there was no problem whatsoever.

No question, Cody lived for speed, for the gut-dropping thrill of jumping the logs, throwing up arcs of dirt and mulch from the spinning tires. Taking the puppy along had been an out-and-out mistake. Arlo suspected it then and knew it now. It had been a harsh way to be proven right. He caught a whiff of burnt and refocused on the board. Scorched, goddamnit. Goddamn.

Inside, in her office, Liza arranged the prints on the worktable and looked for images in light and shadow. Fern shapes mimicked antlers, shriveled berries became eyes. The little hoof, quadrupled, would pretend to be itself. She scissored out the necessary pieces and fixed them to the backing, growing less satisfied by the minute. And she could hear Shadow in the kitchen, yipping in her sleep. She wished Arlo would just let the old girl go. Two years ago Dr. Barnes had said with authority that Shadow was on the outs. Thirty dollars would buy her an easeful passing. Pain, he said, is the interest on borrowed time. Dr. Barnes should have been a poet, Liza thought, as she swept the unfinished collage into the trash.

Arlo had put Shadow back in the truck that day and from then on had seen to the dog's ailments himself. Nothing he did made up for Cody's death. How could it? He carried a load of guilt on his back, had carried it for more than a dozen years. But she had never taken anything out on Arlo. Never taken it out on Shadow. She hadn't forgotten Cody's loopy grin when he strapped on Arlo's old Bell helmet. Too big by miles but it satisfied the law. She hadn't forgotten his skinny arms, tea-brown downy sticks revealed by the cut off sleeves of his Harley sweatshirt. She hadn't forgotten the pride and terror of knowing that her son had no fear.

The memory of the bear carcasses, ravaged for snippets of their organs, rose up and pushed away other thoughts. The conservation office still hadn't pressed any charges, an outrageous thing. Half the town knew who was responsible. It was only a matter of time before it happened again.

She went to her pictures file on the computer and brought up the images on the screen. Mounds of once-sleek black fur, now dull as slate; the noble heads, eyeless and slack-jawed as if frozen in a final mournful moan.

She printed out a stack of flyers and arranged them neatly on the kitchen table. After her nap she would tack one to every telephone pole in the neighborhood. She would paper the window of the corner store and let them dare to tell her to take them down.

Liza stretched out on the daybed and pulled the granny-square blanket over legs. She put on her music and let the gentle guitars lull her away. At least Shadow was resting quietly now, she thought, as she drifted asleep.

When Arlo came down for another cup of tea the house was silent and cooling fast. He glared at the kitchen window and pulled a roll of weather stripping out of the junk drawer, then set it down on the table. The chunks of wood in the stove were smothering each other, so he rearranged them and the fire caught again. His wife was still on the daybed, pulling deep sleep sighs out of her chest with every breath. Shadow was stretched out on the kitchen rug, not breathing.

Arlo watched the dog for a whole minute to make sure, and sometime during that minute his eyes overflowed and he bit down on his thumb to get a hold of himself. Then he folded the braided rug around the dog's chest and carried her outside.

Neil could see him through the naked brambles and stood up from where he'd been sitting on the chopping block. Arlo walked through the dry blackberry canes with Shadow in his arms. It wasn't that hard. Most of the canes snapped and yielded. He caught a couple of scratches on his cheek and the bare crown of his head, but the rug protected Shadow's body. In seconds he was on Neil's property. He sat down on the cold stone steps and told Neil about the day Cody died, tossed over the handlebars when he swerved to miss Shadow and hit the fallen cedar trunk at full bore.

“Dog was just a pup then. Goofy pup…”

Neil nodded and leaned his weight on the axe handle, listening. When Arlo was finished talking, Neil knelt down, lifted the corner of the rug and stroked Shadow's muzzle.

“Thing is,” Arlo said, “I don't want to just take her to the dump.”

A little later Neil said, “Step had this footlocker from when he was in the Navy. I've been hanging onto it but the damn thing's musty as hell.”

Neil brought the box outside and Arlo tucked Shadow and the rug inside. The two men each took a handle and carried the box to the burn pile. There was a tent of evergreen boughs and garden debris there already. They re-arranged the boughs so that the box was heavily covered with the driest branches. The evergreen scent was clean and fresh and Arlo felt a touch of unfamiliar lightness around his heart.

It was beginning to get dark by the time they got the fire going. Arlo looked over at his house and saw the light go on in the kitchen window, a pale yellow glow against the gray-yellow backdrop of the November sunset. The darkness seemed to take on substance, like a long telescopic tunnel focused on a little square of light. It was like looking into a dollhouse, constructed perfectly to scale. He could see the breakfast table against the far wall and the spindle lamp in the corner, wearing its shade slightly askew. He could even see his tiny wife, wandering up and down the length of the kitchen counter, stopping in front of one cupboard, then another, opening and closing the cupboard doors.

end of story

© 2011, Carol Reid

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