Until that night, they never saw the doe, only the damage she left in her wake: the tulips chewed to ragged stalks, the azalea stripped of all its buds.
Now she stood, her silhouette tinged silver in the moonlight, the plume of her tail erect, milk-white. The man and woman watched from the window. Look. The woman gripped her husband’s hand, and they saw: the long, limp forelegs of a calf dangling from the doe’s swollen rear. They watched her strain, the muscles twitching in her legs, the backs of her ears jewel-studded with ticks. She shook her head from side to side. Little by little, then all at once, the fawn’s pale body slid to the ground. It lay like a crumpled garment in the grass. The doe turned away and ambled off into the trees.
They stared after her, not daring to breathe. The fawn gave a plaintive, feeble cry. They crept outside, approached where it lay, and stopped.
The thing in the grass was no fawn.
It squirmed, slick with its birth: a baby girl with bright, staring eyes. A wrinkled berry of a face, hands curled into fists, dark curls plastered against her skull.
Trembling, the woman picked her up. The warm weight in her arms made her blood run hot. The man drew close, took the baby’s small hand, her tiny fingers closing around his thumb. He could feel her pulse, or maybe it was his wife’s, or his own, a current moving through all of them. In that moment, the woman felt an unfamiliar ache, her breasts swelling suddenly and painfully with milk. Overflowing, soaking through the front of her shirt. What are you doing? breathed the man as she undid the buttons, spellbound by the sight of her full, engorged breasts. Neither of them could take their eyes off the child, nursing in fervent, rhythmic gulps.
It didn’t seem strange to bring her inside, to unlock the door of the old nursery. Her hungry eyes drank everything in: the curtains trimmed with canary-yellow lace, the soft plush toys and cream-colored walls. They lay her down in the cedarwood crib. She gurgled, reaching up towards the hanging mobile, a flock of wooden birds suspended in flight.
The days and nights blurred. They awoke to her cries. They guarded her in a sleep-deprived haze, drunk on her milky, intoxicating scent, double-checking the doors to make sure they were locked. By night, the lawn was a pool of black pitch, bristling with sounds, crawling with life: a fat skunk rooting around in their pansies, a masked raccoon scuttling up the old oak. Stationed by the window, the wife kept watch. So what if she comes back? her husband said, peering out through the half-closed blinds. In the morning he drove, bleary-eyed, into town – spit-up curdling on his shirt, stubble darkening his normally clean-shaven jaw. He returned with planks and a roll of hog wire, and erected an eight-foot fence around the yard.
Within its walls, the child grew. She learned to coo and laugh and sit up, and in no time at all, she was crawling about – grunting, determined, chin shining with drool, propelling herself across the freshly mowed grass. At the fence, she hooked her fat fingers through the mesh and used it to pull herself up to her feet. They clapped when she took her first toddling steps, and picked her up when she fell down and cried. Soon she was running, turning cartwheels across the lawn. The man installed a swing set for her. In the afternoons, as the woman worked, pruning the bushes, pulling the weeds, she grew accustomed to the squeak and sigh of those chains, the pendulum sway of the airborne girl. Like a tethered angel in her white sundress, long legs kicking towards the tops of the trees.
One day, on her hands and knees in the dirt, the woman noticed how quiet it was. Rising to her feet, sweat glistening on her brow, she saw that the girl was gone from the yard.
She found her husband repairing a hole in the chicken coop. He frowned and said, I thought she was with you. They searched the garden, the shed, every nook of the house. The daylight was waning when they spotted the girl, emerging from the trees on the other side of the fence. She strolled through the gate, mud caked to her shoes, strands of lichen and bits of dried leaves in her hair.
Where were you? they cried.
She blinked in confusion. In the woods.
They had already warned her about the wolves. Did she not remember how they’d come in the night and ransacked the chicken coop, leaving feathers and blood?
Oh don’t worry, she said. I can outrun a wolf.
They hustled her inside, sent her straight to the bath. The filth of her left a brown ring in the tub. Toweling her off, the woman checked for ticks and found one embedded behind the girl’s ear: tiny as a freckle, not yet engorged. The girl shivered, wet hair streaming down her back as the woman extracted it with a pair of fine tweezers. You see? The woman held it up to the light, its arachnid legs still waving in the air. She could not keep the tremor out of her voice. This little bitty thing could have made you very sick. She had seen it happen to a girlhood friend – bitten by a tick, bedridden for years, left weak and palsied, unable to speak.
The girl looked at her with big calm eyes. That won’t happen to me.
A memory rose, unbidden, like a specter she could not shoo away: those long ears mottled with fat, pearly ticks, that voluptuous form in the pale moonlight. Flustered, the woman flushed the tick down the drain.
You talked to her? the woman’s husband asked, later that night as they lay in bed.
Yes. She felt weightless, more air than flesh, but he reached for her and squeezed her hand, the pressure of his fingers dispelling that ghost. She listened to the comforting sounds of the house: gurgling pipes, the settling of walls, a muffled, cozy, amniotic hum. Her breathing slowed in time with his. She could almost hear the girl, breathing in sync with them through the wall.
In the morning, the new chicks arrived in their crate. The girl helped bring them into the coop, lifting each one – a chirping ball of yellow fluff – with gentle hands, giving each its first drink. In the house, she swept the floors and dusted the lamps and did her reading and arithmetic lessons at the table. In the afternoon, she went out to play. The sun was shining, the grass emerald green. The woman, busy laying down mulch, looked up and noticed the empty swing.
She can’t have gone far, her husband said. He put on his cap, took his rifle from the case and set off to find their reckless girl. Stepping through the latched gate in the fence, he found himself in a thicket of weeds: mugwort growing in feathery spires, spiny and erect, like a hedge of flames. He waded through it into the woods, called her name until his voice grew hoarse. He listened, but he seemed to hear her everywhere: in the rustling foliage, in the chattering of birds, in the needle-thin whine of mosquitoes in his ears. He followed these sounds through the dense undergrowth, tripping over roots, branches snagging at his clothes. He grew thirsty. The daylight filtering down through the trees began to wane.
He stopped walking and realized he was lost.
Squinting up at the shimmering canopy of leaves, he couldn’t tell which direction the light was coming from. Everywhere he turned, his surroundings looked the same.
He heard the crack of a twig, and raised his gun.
Something streaked past, a sleek brown blur, tail flickering. He stared at the spot where it had been: a branch still swaying like a pendulous arm, leaves swishing in the draft its body had made. He followed in its invisible wake, stumbling through the prickly brush, the trees thinning to reveal a familiar clearing: the mugwort silver-green in the dusk, then the fence – and beyond, the silhouette of his house.
Inside, he found his wife and daughter in the kitchen, chopping carrots and potatoes for the evening stew. The girl in a clean ironed blouse and skirt, rosy-cheeked from her bath, her curls still damp. They startled at the sight of him – his trousers ripped, his shirt drenched in sweat. Are you alright? His wife put her hands on his cheeks that were welted with angry mosquito bites. I’m fine, he said, avoiding her eyes, and pushed past her to the washroom, drew a bath of his own. His muscles ached. The forest still droned in his ears, mocking him over the rush of the tap.
He dried himself, donned a starched white shirt, buttoned it up with pruned fingertips. He tried to smooth the tangled frizz of his hair, and joined his family at the table. He watched his daughter eat. How pretty she looked in the light of the lamp, how delicately she held her knife and fork. So much like her mother, with those good fine bones, the long, thoughtful oval of her face. He faltered, and forgot the stern words he’d prepared.
In the morning, he walked across the yard to the fence and secured the gate with a padlocked chain. When he turned around, he noticed the girl, watching him. She turned and ran into the house.
She stayed in her room and would not come out. The man and his wife ate dinner alone, though the woman had set the table for three. They watched the casserole congeal on her plate. He picked at his meal, ashamed of what he’d done. He thought, Tomorrow I’ll take her to the fair. They would ride the carousel as many times as she liked, and eat cotton candy, let it melt on their tongues.
At bedtime, the woman went to check on the girl and found her asleep, hair fanned across the pillow. The mobile turning over her head, the shadows of wings caressing her face. Even in the dark, the woman could see how much the girl resembled the man. That rash of freckles on the bridge of her nose, those ebony curls that resisted every comb. She was theirs, more than the first one had been, that creature-child born with no pulse: spindly as a frog, with beet-red skin, the eyes swollen shut in its pinched little face. Light as air in the cup of their hands, a spirit in the guise of their own flesh and blood.
She brushed a ringlet of hair from the girl’s warm cheek and decided, Tomorrow, we’ll bake a chocolate cake. She cradled this thought as she lay beside her husband, imagining the girl licking batter from the spoon, beatific, drunk on sugar and cream. Her husband snored, but she could not sleep. An owl cooed in the darkness, so close to her head she was sure it was perched right there on the bedpost, peering down at her. She heard a noise that seemed to come from the walls, as if the house’s bones were rearranging themselves. She shook her husband awake. It’s nothing, he said. But when he checked the nursery, the girl was not there.
Through the window, she looked so tiny on the lawn, like a slender moon, her edges blurred. They stumbled outside, and at the clamor of their shouts, she shot off – not a girl but a sleek young doe, airborne, her body arcing over the fence, the crash of her fading into the trees.
They hooked their fingers in the mesh, stared into the black. They screamed her name, but it sounded like the wind, and the rasp of crickets, and the patter of rain. The loamy darkness held them there, and it held her too, in the belly of itself.
They watched the sunrise bleed over the trees. They dismantled the beams and tore down the mesh, pried the fence posts out of the ground, leaving holes. Over time, weeds sprouted in those holes and spread, sweet red clover, tender plantain, chickweed and sorrel pushing up through the grass. Ivy crept up the sides of the house like a pelt of green fur. The dandelions grew tall.
Do you see them in the garden, stooped with age, finding delight in the smallest clues? Like children on a scavenger hunt, they search for bitten-off leaves and decapitated blooms. When the blackberries ripen, they will leave them on the vine, and rejoice to find the bush nibbled bare.
See them kneeling as if in prayer, relishing deep hoof-prints in the dirt. In their dreams, they follow her scent through the brush – walking on paths worn down by her tracks, scrambling over rocks. She is just up ahead. They follow the ripple she makes in the trees, clambering after her like two speckled fawns.