The Fawn by A.L. Hodges
Dad insisted that a pack of coyotes was responsible for mauling Grayson to death. Only two weeks after the incident with the fawn, we found him lying in a ditch covered with bite marks. Grayson’s demise was only the latest in a series of horrors destined to escalate into a crescendo of terror that, even then, we could not have imagined.
At the time, my family lived on a farm that we had inherited from my late grandfather. When he passed, he left my father a plot of idyllic farmland that had been cleared for raising beef cattle. The whole property was surrounded by untamed hills and tucked away in a sleepy little valley. It was a little paradise sequestered from civilization, with only the main road serving to connect us to the rest of humanity. There were only four of us, including my parents, myself, and my little sister. The fields were home to a large herd of some eighty heifers and their calves, all protected by our stoic bull Manny. My father did most of the labor, and as his male protege, I was expected to help him whenever I wasn’t in school. We worked ourselves half to death making the old place run, but I never felt unhappy there. As a family, we functioned as a cohesive unit, and daily life had a comfortable consistency that I have yet to experience again.
My father knew the purity of his profession and had an intuitive grasp of where he stood as a human being in the face of something far greater than himself. Agriculture, to him, was the sacred art of straddling the thin line between the needs and comforts of modernity and the will of almighty Nature. He approached his fiscal plans and monthly schedule with an awe for the will of those forces which were completely outside of him and to which his success was utterly beholden. He dwelled on a delicate precipice, as a mere man trying to make order in the face of forces almost holy in their complexity and power. I never spoke much to my father about anything, but we shared a silent band mutual dedication to our little family unit and its success. I recall my father as an arch that hung over our family, holding up the very world around us. Perhaps he was only getting old, but that year was the first time I ever saw cracks in the man that I once considered unbreakable.
Part of the reason I remember that summer so well is because of the prodigious heat wave that plagued the entire state. North Carolina summers are not the hottest in the country, but they can turn into a proper swelter under the right circumstances. That year we blistered for five months straight, from June into October, in an endless succession of ruthless days and sleepless sweaty nights.
The working hours were almost unbearable, making that hay season the absolute worst I can recall. The nights were just as bad, and I remember lying awake until dawn as my chest heaved and the sheets clung to my flesh.
My sixteenth summer always dominates in my mind whenever I think back to my time on the farm, despite the many previous happy years we had there. We enjoyed a beautiful spring that year, and the fields flowered almost uniformly. Dad and I used to go on hikes with my little sister, with her riding on my shoulders. In the spring we took her to pick blackberries, and on hot days we would all go wading in the little creek that ran parallel to our property. But that year the heat escalated quickly and dried out most of the greenery by June. The creek receded to mud, and the daisies withered away in the heat. My sister, outdoorsy as she was, didn’t care for the swelter and started spending her afternoons at the house. This left me spending all my time helping my dad, who was in a hustle to get the hay cut and dried out. He possessed an innate and almost oracular sense of things that I did not always understand, and his predictions were almost universally correct. He sensed some catastrophic winter ahead and wanted to do all he could to prepare food reserves for the herd.
Toward the end of June, we started in on a fresh field of grass by the hillside overlooking our house. We were accompanied by our three dogs, who typically assisted us in herding and protecting the cattle. Betty and Barnie were our pair of dim-witted border collies, and Grayson was the family guard dog. They all typically divided their time between watching the cows in the lower field and getting under our feet, but that day they confined themselves to sitting in the shade on the borders of the field. Betty and Barnie were never terribly bright, but even the normally diligent Grayson seemed dull and groggy due to the oppressive heat. If they had been more alert, events might have unfolded differently. As it happened, they were extremely lethargic that day and left us to toil in the field. My dad was pulling the large hay cutter on the tractor, and I walked ahead of him, removing rocks and other obstructions.
While the tractor skirted a copse of trees in the middle of the field, I saw it give a peculiar jolt. The oblong hay cutter gave a shudder and the shuffling blades clanked over something lying in the grass. My initial speculation was that dad had hit a rock or a groundhog hole, both common enough occurrences. I walked closer to investigate and saw something splayed out on the ground in a puddle of blood and gore. Grayson left the sanctity of the trees and nosed about the broken thing tentatively as was his habit. My next assumption was that dad had run over a possum or groundhog, a tragic occurrence that was also more or less common. Our fields were a frequent haunt for wildlife from the surrounding woods, and our equipment sometimes crossed paths with Mother Nature’s more humble creatures. Whatever it was, the poor thing had been thoroughly eviscerated by the cutting machine. I tried to flag down Dad, who was still on the tractor. It took me a lot of frantic waving before he finally took notice and brought the machine to a stop. He climbed down to join me, and we went together to investigate the corpse.
What we saw was not at all what we expected.
Dad had hit a fawn. The poor creature had been crouching in the tall grass, awaiting the return of its mother, and had remained perfectly still even as the machine pulverized it. It was only about two or three months old, its frame still petite and its flank speckled with white. The creature had been viciously mangled by the blades of the hay cutter, which had flayed the skin in angry zig-zagged gashes. The head was nearly decapitated through a deep slice in the neck that left the noggin lolling to one side at a perpendicular angle relative to the rest of the body. I recall thinking that the tractor wheels must have gone over the delicate legs because they were broken and bent at sharp angles. There was something distinctly profane about the pitiless wounds, and I felt the creature’s eyes interrogating me to find a reason for the pain that we had brought into the world. Its opened-mouth expression stared up at us in a look of helpless accusation, with both the nose and ears splashed by angry fantails of blood.
For the first time in my life, I saw a man I considered invincible cry. He fell to his knees and threw himself onto the fawn, gathering the destroyed creature in his arms. Tears were running down his red cheeks, and his whole body was shuddering pathetically. He cradled the dead animal as if it were a small child, his strong hands clutching the tattered remains to his bib overalls. The sobs that erupted out of him had a distinctive mass that battered against the world I thought I knew and smashed it to smithereens. I felt more helpless than I ever had before, watching my old man be prostrated by the world.
Dad insisted we stop everything and bury the eviscerated fawn immediately. He cut me off sharply when I attempted to protest, and his tear-streaked face finally motivated my compliance. We went into a clearing adjacent to the lower fields and dug a grave at the foot of a tall maple tree. The spacious hole I ended up digging was practically a tomb for such a small creature, but Dad insisted we keep going until the grave was big enough for a small child. He lowered the broken fawn delicately into the ground before ordering me to cover it up. While I filled in the hole, he sat on a nearby tree stump and sobbed. The change in my father was extremely disturbing, but I assumed he was merely victim to an unusual surge of sentimentality. Something of the mysticism surrounding fatherhood fell away from him in that moment, and my adulthood began to blossom in earnest.
That night, I was awakened by a bout of howling from the woods behind our house. As I lay awake on my sticky mattress, I listened as the terrible cry wrapped itself about the house in one long, mournful note. It sounded more like a drawn-out sob than anything else, the scream of an abandoned baby alone in the darkness. Like a wind from the icy planes of the tundra, it spoke of distant lands and far-off worlds where mankind held no sway. It rose and fell, a primal shriek from the throat of something ancient and purely animal.
It lasted about ten seconds in totality before dying out.
And then a second howl came, as long and terrible as the first, chilling my blood to ice. A third quickly followed, rising to a high-pitched shriek before slowly falling away. After that, silence reigned.
I lay in bed and listened as the howls came and went. Shudders passing up my spine every time those oscillating screams hit a high note, and I felt my flesh rouse into a multitude of goosebumps. I even recall hearing my breath rattle in my ears as my heart knocked furiously against my ribs. Only when stillness returned did I dare go to the window and look outside. Through the glass pane, I saw nothing but the impenetrable shadows of a tree line and the silvery outline of clouds passing over the moon. And yet the darkness itself seemed more terrifying than any possible revelation I might perceive through the windowpane, making me wonder if the shadows were purposefully concealing some hidden danger.
Within minutes, my sister burst into my room with a hurricane of hysterics. She was crying, practically screaming, and appeared to be in a state of stark terror. Between sobs, she babbled wildly about “wolfies” and declared that some horrible beast was about to come charging into the house after us. Afraid she would disturb my parents (though I suspected they heard the howling too), I did my best to comfort her. I quickly realized that she had no intention of returning to her room, so I allowed her to share the bed with me for the night. Ironically, it was she who dozed off while I lay awake for the rest of the night and waited for more howls to come. Thankfully, none did.
Over breakfast the next morning, I saw that my father had dark circles under his eyes and looked uncharacteristically haggard. We all ate together as usual, and my sister talked frantically about the howling and its implications. Dad assured her that it was probably just coyotes, which typically avoided people. He also said that we would be carrying a shotgun with us to the fields and would put the creatures down if they proved troublesome. This seemed to satisfy her, and she dropped the subject for the rest of the day. Once my father and I were away from the women, we talked more extensively about the implications of the howling. Dad said wolves were not likely, and he had never heard a coyote make such a sound. Either way, he kept his word to my sister, and we brought a double-barrel shotgun and a rusty six-shooter with us as protection.
For about four days, we heard nothing more. The herd remained placid and our bull Manny maintained a tranquil mood. In contrast, the dogs became increasingly restless as the week wore on. Grayson was particularly antsy, and we would often find him pacing the porch at night or barking into the darkness at odd hours of the evening. The work during the day proceeded unimpeded, though Dad and I were both being sapped of strength day by day. I was never a big kid to begin with, but I must have lost a good ten pounds that summer alone. Dad was floating in his clothes, and his age had started to show on him more every day. The lines around his mouth and eyes began to deepen into crevices, forming thick flaps that made him look ten years closer to death.
It was on the night of the fifth day that I heard another round of howling. The rhythm was the same as last time, three terrible cries followed by utter silence. My sister did not materialize this time, but I badly wished for her company. Laying there alone only made me feel more isolated and vulnerable, with my imagination molding the ominous darkness into moving shapes. I interpreted every creak of the floorboards as some creature prowling the perimeters of my bed and every glimmer of moonlight as a pair of eyes staring at me from some corner of the room. Though nothing else occurred, I still didn’t manage to get any sleep.
The following morning, of course, was when we discovered Grayson. We were riding out to the field in the truck when we saw him lying alongside the gravel drive. He was lacerated to shreds by a multitude of bites, and his head had been almost completely severed from his broad shoulders. Dad insisted it was coyotes, but I was no longer so sure. We wrapped Grayson’s ragged corpse in an old tarp from the truck bed and took him back to the house immediately. The two of us dug a grave for him in the backyard, and though my sister insisted on seeing him, we flatly refused to let her look under the tarp. So she simply stood nearby and watched us work, looking uncharacteristically philosophical as we put Grayson in the hole and filled it in. Once the mound was patted down, she placed a cluster of daisies she had picked on the grave. She then said a prayer while we all hung our heads in reverence.
That night, I heard more howls coming out of the trees and it made me weep as I huddled up in my bed. The pattern repeated itself as always: three howls ringing out in succession. I tried pulling a pillow over my head, but it did nothing to drown out the noise. My skin crawled, my heart raced, and I felt my body tremble. This time, however, the third howl ended in a terrible shriek that made me jump from my bed and run to the window. I saw nothing, but that scream had set my heart skipping. My sister joined me this time, for which I was grateful. She was still grieving for Grayson, and the howling of the things that had killed him was not pleasant to hear. She cried in my arms and I embraced her while she shuddered with sobs. I tucked her in and watched over her until she finally drifted off, then spent the night pacing the room and staring out the window. If only things weren’t so silent: if only something would manifest itself conclusively.
The next morning, I noticed that Betty and Barnie were not at their usual post on the porch. I never saw them again, and it was not until a few days later that I dared guess their fate. It’s entirely possible that my suspicions are wrong and that they were simply chased away by the creatures now stalking us. I highly doubt this to be the case, but it is an explanation I prefer to the more obvious conclusion. Dad and I never discussed their absence, but it was clear that we were both under the same impression. I knew he also listened for the howls at night, and he too must have heard that anguished scream the previous evening.
We decided that the only thing we could do, considering everything that had happened, was to check on the cows and try to move them to another pasture. Dad wanted to get the cows moved farther away from where we had found Grayson and closer to the house where they could be watched. Our bull, Manny, was good at killing snakes and foxes, but a pack of coyotes might be beyond his capabilities. Plus, we could neither call animal control nor attempt to handle the problem ourselves since we had not yet actually seen our tormentors. Dad was still hoping that we might be able to manage without government intervention, believing that it was only a matter of time before the creatures were forced to reveal themselves.
We found the herd restless. They too heard the lonesome howling at night and instinctively recognized the danger they were in. Manny, normally a neutral guardian over the heifers, was singularly aggressive and restless that day. We saw him prowling about the edges of the herd with an angry look in his eye, which by no means was abated by our presence. We and the dogs had always been on good terms with Manny, who was more like a pet than livestock. Yet that day, he gave us snarls and snorts that I had never heard him utter before, and we were both tentative as we approached the herd. We knew that driving the cows upfield was going to be hard without the dogs, made doubly complicated by the herd’s uneasiness and Manny’s grumpy demeanor.
My father planned to lead the cows toward the fields closer to the house using one of the tractors baited with a bale of hay. Dad hated to waste resources but considered it a necessary sacrifice in the context of our current situation. The next obvious consideration was the most critical one: who would stay behind and watch the herd and who would commandeer the tractor and collect the hay bale. It was finally decided that dad was the one who should stay with the cows: he was better with the shotgun, our primary weapon. We both knew that the herd was unlikely to be attacked by daylight, but neither of us wanted to take any risks.
I put the pistol in my belt and drove the tractor out to the other field. The machine moved at a plodding pace, which only heightened the tension that hung in the air. I was constantly watching the tree line and half-expecting to see eyes observing me from the bushes or a moving body dart across my line of vision. The absence of snarling mouths and glittering pupils only seemed to confirm my worst suspicions rather than relieve them. With no definable target for my paranoia, my feeling of being watched only grew worse. I wondered if this was how my father felt every day, running purely on instinct and calculating every move.
I skewered a bale of hay on the tractor spike with very little difficulty and started back to the field where the herd was grazing. I tried to focus on the weight of the pistol in my belt, which made me feel less vulnerable and more in control. I tapped my thumbs on the steering wheel and chewed my lower lip, all the while peeking over my shoulder as I made my way back. I knew I would feel better when Dad and I were reunited, our combined wits preferable when dealing with the unseen threat.
Arriving back at the other pasture, I saw that all was well. The heifers were restless, but the herd remained stable under Manny’s supervision. My father was standing on the periphery, the shotgun in hand while he watched over the cows. He seemed antsy, and though not actively patrolling the herd, he was still constantly shifting his weight nervously. As I crossed the fence gate and drove onto the field, one of the heifers bellowed loudly. Her companions lifted their heads, then slowly made their way as a unit toward the tractor. I cast a wave at my father, and he waved back with the shotgun clutched in his free hand. The cows swarmed the tractor, and I started to turn around to lead them out of the field. We needed to safely guide them about half a mile to the other side of the farm, which would be difficult without the help of the dogs. My father was already taking up the job of monitoring the herd’s periphery by calling “Ya! Ya!” and shooing stray heifers toward me with the gun.
What occurred next is difficult to reconstruct, much less explain. I’m certain I saw something running along the ground, but I never got a good enough look at it to decipher the specifics. It was large, far too large to be a coyote, and closer in size and shape to a dog or even a wolf. The creature moved with incredible speed, and I don’t remember it even making any sound as it darted under the bellies of the herd. It was just a flash of fur and legs, something animal running on all fours and dragging a bushy tail behind it. I only spotted the one but judging by how quickly the herd fell into disarray, I assume there must have been more. The fur was a glowing green color, with strange splotches of crimson, yellow, and even blue splotching along the flank. Before it darted into the pool of shadows under the herd, I remember seeing its face as it looked back at me. Its eyes locked with mine for only a second, and I saw a canine face that blazed with the pure and predatory fury of the untamed wilderness. To this day, I wonder if it was only my imagination, or maybe even a trick of the light. What happened next, in any case, was all too real.
One of the heifers suddenly uttered a guttural moan of distress. This cry was answered by a scream from a heifer standing a few feet away, higher in both pitch and urgency. Another moan followed, then another, spreading like wildfire across the herd in a series of high-pitched shrieks. I turned my head in the direction of the commotion just in time to see the shotgun barrels shoot flares. My dad’s body jerked from the recoil, the gun jolting into the air. He pulled the discharge and sent the empty shell flying, and within seconds was taking aim to fire again at a spot only a few feet from the last. I tried to follow his gaze but I couldn’t see anything: the herd was scattering in all directions, calling out in their throaty and somehow helpless voices. There was something at their feet, but the ground was obscured beneath the hurricane of moving bodies. The panicked heifers were slamming the tractor with their bulky shanks as they ran past, threatening to topple the machine in their panic. I called out to my dad, but he clearly couldn’t hear me over the noise of the screaming animals and the roaring tractor engine. I saw him trying to reload the gun, the barrels open on one forearm while his other hand dug for ammo in his pants pocket. His face was slicked with sweat, his eyes darting back and forth.
Before I could call out again, I saw Manny come charging out of the chaos, slobbering and baying from the depths of his chest. My father stood in his way for a moment and then he was suddenly gone. I watched him engulfed under a raging stampede of baying heifers, drowning in a pile of writhing bodies. I badly wanted to go to him, but I didn’t dare leave the tractor for fear of being submerged in the maelstrom of clomping hooves. I called out to him again and again, pulling the tractor away from the lethal moving mass. Manny was nowhere in sight, but his terrible bellow still echoed in my ears as my eyes searched the ground.
The herd began to thin out as its members all streaked off to somewhere else. I leaped from the tractor without thinking and began to run pell-mell across the field toward him. I had the pistol in my hand, though I don’t even know what good I imagined it would do me. Drawing close to where my father lay, I saw immediately that his limbs were twisted into odd angles. I should have looked away as I came to stand over him, but something compelled me to absorb the vicious scene in its entirety. As I finally got a good look at him, all the adrenalin drained out of me and my limbs went numb. The pistol slipped from my fingers, and I only vaguely heard it thud against the ground. The baying of the cows seemed distant and unimportant, no more threatening than the drone of cicadas.
My father was on his back, his chest caved in where numerous hooves had stamped him into oblivion. All four of his limbs were broken and bent like snapped toothpicks. He had been crumpled like a bit of wastepaper, crushed and kicked about as a piece of cast-off litter. What remained of him was splayed out, his head wrenched to one side where the neck had been broken and knocked askew. Beneath him and around him was a growing pool of blood slowly increasing in diameter. Strangely, though, his face had been untouched by the helter-skelter of hooves and left in pristine condition. Though his cheeks were splattered with mud and blood, there was no apparent damage. His dark eyes were wide with terror and directed up toward the infinite blue sky overhead. The last expression chiseled on my father’s face had been something between anguish and wonder.
I felt all the life rush out of me as I fell to my knees. A scream rose slowly in my chest before flowing out of my lungs and over my lips in a turbulent stream. The howl rose to a manic pitch before falling away as the air evacuated from my torso. Directly on the heels of the first scream, I summoned a second with such force that it tore the inside of my throat as it blustered out. I hitched in my breath with what little energy I could still summon and then unleashed the third. Tears ran down my cheeks and dripped helplessly off my chin as the final scream tapered into a protracted moan. I heard the echoes vibrate through the air, bouncing across the fields and ascending into the sky.
With everything gone, I collapsed on the body and wept.
A.L. Hodges was born in Suffolk, England but spent the majority of his time growing up in Virginia. He has been a paint contractor, a biology teacher, and an emergency room volunteer, all of which are experiences he draws on for his writing. He lives in Kentucky with his wife. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.