It took Boyd Lawry a moment or two before he could comprehend the image of the dead deer. He’d been at the kitchen sink scrubbing plates crusted over from that night’s chili when he’d looked out the window and seen it speared through its fleshy gut by a metal spike. He thought that maybe his aging eyes were deceiving him. Maybe he was seeing an animal in a most private moment, striking out against its grounded destiny and trying to fly. Then he’d noticed the hard spike of the fence bursting from the deer’s meat, a jarring marriage of metal and flesh.
First, before the horror set in, he felt a sense of bemusement and the wretched animal vaguely reminded him of a chicken skewer, like the kind he was planning to make in a few days for his daughter’s farewell dinner. He’d been asking her for a while what she wanted to eat and he had finally wheedled an answer out of her. But after staring at the eviscerated body of the deer in his backyard, he didn’t think he could make the skewers after all.
That was the backyard where he’d wanted to teach her to kick a soccer ball as child, but never did. Whenever he tried to teach her, she’d run back inside after five minutes, complaining about the heat. Now at sixteen, she was on the basketball team at school, but he had yet to see a single game. Bleachers always made his bad back act up.
Boyd glanced back at his daughter, Bix, sitting at the kitchen table. She was tall for her age, taking after him in that one aspect. She was painting her nails blue. For most of his life, Boyd hadn’t realized nail polish came in any other color besides blood red.
At that thought, his mind travelled back to the deer. Bix’s head was still bent over her hands, which meant she hadn’t seen anything yet. He flicked off the faucet and made his way outside and he knew her eyes wouldn’t follow him out.
He wasn’t a squeamish man, had worked in his twenties and thirties in construction, where he’d hurt his back slipping from a roof. He had been lucky; he’d seen men fall from rafters and lay sprawled on the ground in twisted angles, but standing in front of his fence brought forth a visceral reaction that stunned him for a moment. The deer was suspended in the air, neatly bisected by the seven-foot fence, the spike at the top painted a shiny crimson. Its front legs were draped on one side of the fence and its back legs on the other, a few fall leaves still clinging to the soles of its hooves.
It had been trying to jump the fence. He had heard about the same thing happening to his neighbors’ fences, but in all the years he’d lived in this house, it had never happened to his. If only the deer had gone a foot or so higher, it would have made it.
He was reminded of something Bix had said to him only a few months prior. Life is just a series of endings. She was sixteen, full of sulking silences and scorching stares, and such a statement would have been overly dramatic of her, except for the fact that they were coming back from her stepfather’s funeral. She had lived with the man since she was three, and, Boyd could admit it, even if only to himself, that he’d been more of a father to her than her own. He had succumbed to a heart attack at the age of sixty while Bix was away on a school trip, and Boyd’s ex-wife was left unmoored, too busy wading in her own grief to contemplate her daughter’s.
Boyd offered to help with Bix any way he could, despite them only seeing each other a few times a year. She had always been somewhat unknown to him no matter how many times he saw her. When she was six, he’d taken her to the county fair, where she wailed for a five dollar plastic ring with a fake ruby gem affixed to it, and when he bought it for her, she twisted it so hard on her finger in her excitement that she popped the gem right off.
As Boyd studied the deer, his daughter’s line came to him: Life is just a series of endings. He wondered how long ago the deer had made its fatal jump. He was glad he hadn’t had to watch its hind legs twitch, see its deep brown eyes dull as it stared down at him from atop its perch. Life was a series of endings, true, but as long as he didn’t have to bear witness to such endings, that was fine by him.
He moved closer to the deer. Its fur was the color of his daughter’s hair. She had pulled it into a ponytail the day she first came to stay with him that summer and hadn’t let it down once since. She would be going back to her mother’s when school started in a few days. Once, when he was plopping down clean laundry on her bed, Boyd caught a glimpse of a calendar lying open on her bedside table, with red slashes through most of June, July, August. The last day of her summer break was emblazoned with stars.
Boyd had tried. He’d asked his ex-wife for suggestions. His poker buddies told him all the boy bands that their own daughters listened to. When Bix came for the summer, they’d gone to the movies, seen all the fast car and pale vampire movies he could stomach. They’d gone to her favorite bookstore and the makeup store at the mall. They had even tried the county fair, but they only stayed fifteen minutes before she rolled her eyes enough times for him to get the hint. He’d done what he could to make her see him as some kind of father, but found himself unable to talk to her, except in short sputtered bursts.
Out in the backyard, Boyd decided the deer had to come down. It couldn’t stay up there on the fence, surveying the land like some sort of lord. Boyd could still remember how he’d felt slipping from that roof decades ago. Just before the endless sinking, his body hung weightless in the air for a flash of a moment. Boyd wondered if the deer felt that too, right before it met the fence.
He grabbed a pair of old work gloves. He found an empty wood crate in the garage and dragged it to the fence. Except for the death next to him, the view from atop the wood crate was pleasant. He could see through the trees that lay beyond the fence to his neighbor’s lush lawn, still bearing the bright green of the summertime. That may have been where the deer was heading as it made its last leap.
Standing on the crate, his forehead was level with the deer’s midsection and he glimpsed its white belly. He hesitated for a second, then pulled off a glove. He brushed one finger along the deer’s downy stomach. It was soft, like a woman’s hair. The deer was still a little warm, despite the brisk early autumn air. He put the glove back on.
That night at the dinner table, Boyd had tried to talk to Bix about school. ‘You have a favorite class?’ he asked.
Bix picked at her chili bowl, a slight sneer on her lips, but then caught herself and shoved a spoonful into her mouth. She was distant, but Boyd knew her mother had raised her to be polite, and so Bix had merely shrugged. ‘I don’t know really,’ she said amiably. ‘Since classes haven’t started yet and all.’
He felt his face redden. ‘Yeah.’ He gulped down a glass of water. ‘Right.’ Once, when she had visited him at Christmas when she was around ten, she had carried around a notebook everywhere, jotting down observations in secret. She had said she wanted to be the next Harriet the Spy. Boyd swallowed some more water and then said, ‘I bet you’re real good at English. Writing.’
Bix shrugged. She made circles in her bowl with the spoon. ‘Not really,’ she said. ‘I liked Biology last year.’ Her face was unreadable to him. They were both quiet the rest of the meal.
Now outside, he took a breath, and gripped the deer’s hind legs. The body had not yet begun to smell of decay, but rather contained only the smells of sweat and warmth. He slung the legs over his shoulder and pushed upwards, intending to shove the deer over the fence. But its stomach was being held intact by the fence spike, and it wouldn’t go overboard without leaking its insides everywhere, so Boyd stopped.
He considered climbing over the fence and trying from the other side, but knew he would only encounter the same problem, if he could even get that far; at fifty-seven, he was no spring chicken anymore. His back couldn’t handle the strain and the deer would split in two if he tried that.
When Bix first moved in with him at the beginning of summer, she was cordial. She treated him the way you would an elderly relative, one twice removed. She didn’t call him ‘Boyd’ or ‘Dad’, but instead avoided calling him anything at all. She wore jean shorts with holes at the pockets and walked barefoot till her tracks were black. One Saturday in June, she came back to the house with a bright ring on the round of her ear. It hadn’t been there when she’d left, and Boyd was so astonished at its sudden appearance that he didn’t know what to say except, ‘Well, that’s a new one.’ She had let out a noncommittal huff and disappeared into her room.
He had finally understood that the things he actually understood were few. This included his daughter, who was as unknowable and at once familiar to him as his own shadow. The deer made much more sense to him. It had wanted little in life and had ended up with even less. He felt a kind of duty in tending to what remained.
For a moment, he stood still, clutching the deer’s legs, his head bowed as if at an altar. Then he let go and stepped off the crate. He walked inside and stood at the kitchen table, where his daughter still sat, blowing on her hands. He noticed then that she had rings on nearly every finger, though none were ruby.
Her head was down inspecting her nails, but he saw her tense when he entered the room. ‘What?’ she asked, something like fatigue creeping into her voice.
Seeing her, her deer-brown hair pulled back in a swift ponytail and her long legs scrunched underneath her on the chair, he hesitated. He debated turning around and marching outside alone, but then he remembered Bix saying she liked Biology. Perhaps the deer would intrigue her, excite her scientific curiosities. Perhaps she would be disgusted with it, with him, with their life together. Either way, he knew the poor animal had to come down and that couldn’t happen without an extra set of hands.
When Boyd spoke, his voice sounded unlike his own. ‘I need your help with something.’
She raised her head and stared at him cautiously. ‘Yeah?’ she said.
He had gone to his ex-wife’s house once to drop Bix off after a three-day weekend when she was twelve, and he saw this scrapbook Bix had made. It was sitting on the coffee table and it was no macaroni-letters, glittery-beaded, little kid thing. She’d glued pictures on the pages with patterned borders, she’d done calligraphy with a sure hand, she’d picked a heavy strong binding with enough weight to hold all that was inside. He had taken a peek when no one was in the room and saw the scrapbook contained pictures of Bix and her parents, the ones she lived with anyway. There was a photograph of her and her stepfather. She was looking at him with a wide-toothed smile. Boyd had thought back to the bottom drawer of his bedroom dresser where a bundle of Father’s Day cards was buried under his socks.
Now in the kitchen, Boyd set his jaw grimly. ‘Put some shoes on, okay. A deer. It got stuck on the fence. The backyard fence. I don’t know. I don’t feel right about leaving him up there. But I can’t get him down alone.’
‘Sure, whatever, I’ll help.’ She pulled on some sneakers and tied the laces in the way that he had taught her years ago, the bunny around the tree, only she did it so slowly, deliberately that Boyd wondered if she was pulling his leg, before he remembered her nails were wet. When she stood, she appeared disinterested, but there was a certain gleam to her eyes that he recognized. He’d seen it when she’d held that ruby ring right before she ripped the red off.
They headed towards the backyard, but when they reached the fence, Bix came to an abrupt halt and let out a shaky breath. ‘Oh,’ she said. Her ponytail loosened in the breeze.
Boyd was surprised to see his daughter’s white face. ‘I’m sorry, sweetie, I should have, I didn’t mean.’ He could have kicked himself. ‘I thought I'd said it. What I meant was that the deer was gone already. Nothing we could have done. It’s dead, Bix, it just happened when we weren’t looking, but now we’ve got to get it down.’
She nodded, blinked hard. She let out a shiver, but he didn’t think she was afraid. ‘Yeah,’ she mumbled. ‘What do you need me to do?’
He considered the deer for a bit. ‘Well, what I think we need to do is push up at both ends of the thing at the same time. Any other way and it’d split right in half. It’s not going be pretty.’ Boyd knew this was an understatement, but he didn’t want to gross her out. There was something in him that felt he owed it to the deer to get it down, at the very least. He hoped Bix felt the same way. ‘What do you think?’
‘Sure,’ she replied, and shrugged as if it didn’t matter to her one way or the other. She bit her lip and didn’t look at him, but at the deer.
By the time Bix was born, he and his wife were already almost finished splitting in two, but had only held off on that final break for the child’s sake. It hadn’t worked in the end and bitter things were said on both sides. But when he first held Bix in his arms, Boyd found himself stuck in her brown eyes. He promised himself he would be good to her. He paid his child support on time, he sent her birthday presents, he saved up for her college fund. He had been happy for her when she had found another man to call ‘Dad’.
Boyd passed her another pair of work gloves and she put them on, her blue nails swallowed up. ‘How’s this going to work?’ he said, more to himself than to her. He stepped on the crate again and peered as far over the fence as he could. Boyd looked down and considered his daughter a moment. ‘I’m going to need you to hop the fence here, Bix.’
Her eyes bulged. ‘What, me?’
Boyd nodded. He didn’t think he was agile enough to cross the fence, and the back end of the deer would be heavier so it would require his greater weight. She hugged herself, but her gaze was steely. ‘Think it’s the only way, sweet bee.’
It was a name he had called her as a child and he saw her nearly smile before she didn’t. He guided her towards the wood crate and she gripped the metal fence tightly. She was close to the deer now, though she didn’t look at it, but rather at the trees in front of her. Crossing the fence was easier than it had seemed. Boyd pushed her upwards as she hoisted herself to the top, moving gingerly around the spikes. She swung one of her long legs over and straddled the fence, stuck for a moment in the face of the deer. She let out another barely audible ‘Oh!’ and seemed to lock eyes with the animal. Boyd could see its dead gaze reflected in her pupils.
‘Honey,’ he said softly, and she swung her head away from the deer.
She continued her descent and reached the ground. He pointed to a large boulder near the base of the fence and she took a step towards it. He stood again on the wood crate, and when they were both on their respective shelves, they were almost at the same height through the fence. Boyd could only see a part of her right eye, clouded by the metal of the fence and by a flicker of anxiety. Her other eye was hidden by her hair, which had come undone. He flashed her a small smile, but he didn’t think she could see it through the fence.
‘So we’re going to have to get under it, really under it, and push it forward. Maybe put our hands right up near the spike, you see it?’ Bix looked up and nodded. ‘And when we get it up off the fence, it’s going to be heavy, so we’re going to have to do it quick. I’m going to throw my weight forward and I’m going to sort of toss it over, okay? So it’ll be coming over towards your direction. I think the best place for it is over the fence, out towards the trees. Okay?’
‘Yeah.’ She blew her hair from her face.
They both placed their hands under their ends of the deer. For a moment, they stood transfixed, each on their side of the fence, and he thought this may be the longest amount of time he’d spent really looking at his daughter. Her face was thin, with no trace of the baby fat she had once held onto. The shape of her nose reminded Boyd of her mother, but her chin was sharp like his. Then she broke her stare and pulled off one of her gloves. His breath caught in his throat as he watched her brush a finger along the deer’s belly. She put the glove back on.
‘Ready?’ Boyd whispered.
Then they began to push upwards, feeling the benignity of the animal fall away as its innards squished and sloshed and splashed down both faces of the fence as the spike hammered into the animal’s frame gave way to nothing.
For a millisecond, Boyd and his daughter held the deer, wrenched free from the fence, above their heads. His arms twitched. She crinkled her nose. Though leaking red, the deer was still whole. Boyd took a breath and shoved the weight in his arms as far as he could. It sailed over his daughter’s head and landed near a tree with a final thump.
Boyd and Bix stood facing one another, she on the rock and he on the crate. They both breathed audibly. Her brown hair was loose and covered her shoulders.
He looked at Bix. ‘We did right,’ he said.
She pulled off the gloves and passed them to him through the holes in the fence, then rested her fingers on the metal. He noticed the blue of her nails, smudged and blurry. Her rings were intact though, all silver and gold glinting in the light of the falling sun. He tried to see the deer down on the other side of the fence, but could only see its outline through the mass of leaves.
‘We did right,’ he said again. He looked up and found himself held by his daughter’s brown eyes.
‘Yeah,’ she said.
The air was still and cool, and in a moment, Boyd knew he would try to clasp onto the light coming from those rings. In a moment, he knew he would reach forward to her through the fence.
But for now, another breeze swept in and a few leaves crawled towards the deer’s remains, the burying already begun.
TAYLOR KOBRAN holds an MFA from Hollins University. She was a runner-up for the 2016 Andrew James Purdy Prize for Short Fiction and was the recipient of the 2013 Moorehead-Timberlake Award for Creative Writing at Dickinson College. Her work is forthcoming in Lunch Ticket Magazine. She lives in New Jersey.