Photo: Bill Strain
Photo: Bill Strain

The Mule Deer

When my oldest son is the size of an apple, my belly begins to push out against my overalls. It is late summer, and the monsoons have brought a week of night rain in the Arizona desert. The water sounds like stones being thrown against the tin roof. I lie beneath it, trying to imagine what the baby looks like—whether it is getting fingernails yet, whether it is a son or a daughter.

I have surrounded my body in pillows. I am an island of bloat, ligament pain, and nausea that never seems to fully subside. I am vaguely aware of the husband, sleeping restlessly on the other side of the bed. He wakes in the middle of the night listening for summer hail—the kind that costs money and ruins butternut squash setting on the vine. A two-way farm radio sits near the bed, the green light illuminating the wall.

When he reaches for me, I pretend to be asleep. I feel the bed give beneath him as he rolls, irritated, towards the window. The water pounds the driveway, pools around the knees of our panicked goats. The flood covers the chickens that are sleeping on the ground.

In the morning, there are black feathers, dead eyes, mud-filled beaks. There must be thirty birds drowned. We bury them before the heat comes.

 

Weeks later, I am weeding the flowers near the fence line when I hear a wailing. It is the sound of a baby animal in pain. Across a sea of tomatoes is the husband, inspecting flood damage and pulling out diseased plants. We are separated by a fortress of summer squash and rows of waving okra. The plants are so tall that we must bend them towards us to harvest the pods, as though we are pulling them down for a kiss. Harvesting okra means itching for days, a rash on our arms, angry and red.

Perhaps because I am an almost-mother, I do not think before scaling the fence. I am running into the open desert surrounding the farm, stepping across deep grooves the water has cut. The creosote bushes wear layers of sparkling silt. By the time I reach the clearing, the dogs have torn a hole in the side of the baby mule deer. Her round glassy eyes are wide, and she is screaming. The sound is almost human. She goes silent when she sees me.

Our dogs loll their pink tongues at me, sides heaving, drunk on the chase and the catch. They are saying, Aren’t you proud of us? Aren’t you? The alpha female, a gangly white giantess, stands nearest to the deer. Our two beloved mutts stand a few feet back in the brush, watching.

A fly lands in the open wound. It is a pallet of blues, pinks, whites, still surprisingly unbloodied, the ligaments stretched and severed. The insides are on the outside. The muscle constricts. I scream at the fly, swat at the dogs. The deer’s ears swivel towards my voice. My baby flips and twirls in my belly.

 

My mother nearly became a veterinarian. It is family legend that in school, she slit a pig’s throat and removed testicles from a sheep. My mother is the one who teaches me how to approach a stray dog, about not minding blood, how to meddle in things that are not my own.

She has worn the same navy blue coat since college. It appears repeatedly in grainy photos from the ’70s and ’80s—the ones of my parents perched smiling on a wooden fence and unloading bales of hay from the bed of a pickup truck. On a weekend morning when I am seven, I am following my mother in the blue coat through the woods at the end of the cul-de-sac. Last night’s rain drips from the trees. Sticks crack in half beneath our boots. It is early spring, and the leaves are a new fluorescent green.

Can you smell them? she asks, and she means the turtles.

I nod. The smell of box turtles is something like the sweet stink of hay, wet leaves, decomposing logs.

There is a rustle of leaves. We turn to see a box turtle ambling through the woods—her steps are labored, her belly drags. When we come closer, she stops abruptly, pulling her limbs into the dark of her shell with a hiss. We catch her.

I already keep a dozen turtles in a pen in our backyard, and this is one to add. It is not just turtles that I keep. Once, I remove a heavy iron grate and climb into a storm drain to retrieve a litter of kittens. There is a paralyzed iguana, a terrier rescued from a busy road after school, shoe boxes of broken-winged birds.

In the woods, my mother crouches next to me. She smells like Oil of Olay. Here, she says, taking the turtle in her hands.

There is something about a turtle, we agree: the darting eyes, hooked yellow nose, armored legs. The prehistoric manner in which its neck cranes when a ripe tomato is placed in its path. Inside the shell are gleaming eyes. With one finger, my mother traces each segment of shell, counting the rings to determine the age, as though turtles are trees.

 

After a monsoon, the desert becomes wildly disfigured, and it is easy to become lost. There are upturned cactuses bearing roots, familiar landmarks washed downstream. Across the road from the farm is a channel of water where once was only dust. This is how mule deer mothers sometimes lose their babies, the ones still too new to know how to follow in the water. The rain washes away all scent of mother and baby, replacing it with the antiseptic stink of creosote. This is how babies end up lost, going in circles, until they are found by a pack of farm dogs.

The baby deer blinks. We stare at each other.

What should we do? I imagine her to be saying.

It’s all going to be okay, I say, placing a hand on her shoulder. She flinches.

I am unable to simply leave the deer to die. The dogs approach us, and I growl at them. I throw a rock to scare them. And then, without thinking, I gather the deer against my chest.

Her knobby legs bump against my thighs as we stumble through the desert. The dogs follow behind, sniffing the air, soaking in the smell of the blood rising to the surface of the wound. Red streaks across my overalls.

For the briefest moment, I regret looking into her eyes and taking her into my arms and running—as though I could outrun her impermanence. The baby deer rests her head in the crook of my arm. She has the longest eyelashes.

 

Months later, I will scream like a wild animal and wonder if I am going to die. It will feel like I am splitting open. And then a baby will slip out into the water, and a cloud of blood will envelop us both. After the divorce, I will look at photos of the birth. I will notice the husband’s dim eyes, his face almost expressionless. I will wonder why I did not notice then.

The morning after the birth, everything smells like blood and the frankincense that the midwife has dabbed on the baby’s head. The husband makes me a smoothie, and I feel like the most accomplished person in the world. I savor it, lap it up like a dog. Each time the baby turns towards my swollen breasts, his mouth pulling against the flesh, I sink into another after-contraction. We are an island.

The baby sleeps soundly in the middle of the bed. I lie in my robe and inspect his ears, which are still filled with waxy vernix. I watch the soft spot pulsing beneath his wisp of hair. I notice that his tiny fingernails have begun to cover his cheeks in scratches, and so I fumble with the baby nail clippers. I am trying to be a good mother when I clip my son’s pinky finger by accident, wounding him on the very first day of his life. Guilt burns stars in my chest.

 

One spring when I am ten years old, a robin pushes two blue eggs from her nest. They land in the soft green of the backyard where my mother is doing yard work. My little brother is wearing tall socks pulled up to his knees, and I am wearing an oversized t-shirt. Through the slats in the railing, the hydrangeas bloom blue-pink.

My mother explains how baby birds are born naked, their eyes sealed shut. She says that their beaks still feel soft when they are new. But these birds—our birds, we say—will not be born at all. They are already dead, and so we will open the eggs as an experiment.

The eggs feel cool to the touch. The air stinks of cut grass and gasoline. I watch as pieces of blue shell fall away—an entire world cracking open.

We are all surprised by the baby bird that is craning its neck, hoping for mother, for warmth of feathers. My mother cries out in surprise and calls for my father. She begins to peel away the second egg. The second bird is alive too, and I am suddenly crying and getting a shoebox and a warm light and heating wet cat food in the microwave.

The baby birds live, even though my mother warns that they might not. For weeks, I hear them flopping in the box, find them curled together sometimes. When I hold one in my palm, I can see a blue heart beating and tiny bones beneath its skin.

 

The spring after the baby is born, the mesquite trees have dropped yellow flowers everywhere. They cling to his diapers and settle in his eyelashes. The husband walks the perimeter of the farm with a rifle, waiting for jackrabbits and javalina that try to sneak beneath the fence. The dogs cower at the sight of the long black barrel.

In the mornings, I strap the baby to my chest. We milk the goats and then strain the warm milk into jars. I take him to the hammock that is strung between two trees at the top of the field. Inside the pocket of the canvas, the baby sleeps across my chest. I can see the tiny red veins in his cheeks, the blue ones mapping his eyelids. Though he is getting stronger, able to lift his head for longer periods of time, I am consumed by his fragility.

When the gun goes off, we are cocooned in the hammock. The explosion reverberates from across the farm. I freeze. There is no danger, but if I could pull the baby back into my body at this moment, I would. I don’t dare move. Beneath us, the ground is almost entirely yellow. We are held by the trees; no one can find us here.

 

The driveway to the farm is a long dirt road, newly sawed in half from the storm. The dogs trail behind us, growling, fighting with one another. The deer shifts in my arms.

The husband is a gray shape climbing down from the tractor. His work pants are caked in mud. His glasses covered in dust. I know that there are tiny black dots of dirt trapped in the pores of his nose, in the creases of his neck, under his nails. Sometimes it’s like he’s made of desert spores, the way he has crawled into my lungs and stayed.

He yells. Get it out of here. What the fuck were you thinking?

The deer sinks into my chest, as though I am a nest. Both of us recoil. This marriage has rendered me a child; I cannot do anything right.

I consider my options. I think about putting her in the barn with the goats, tending to her wound day after day, making night visits with a headlamp. But then I remember our newly-planted lettuce. A deer that considers our farm to be her home could be disastrous. I imagine the husband shooting her when I’m not looking.

I don’t know what to do, I tell the deer. She is quiet. I walk blindly back into the desert. We stumble over roots and gopher holes, and I struggle to hold her. She is resting her head against my chest. I accidentally brush my arm against her wound.

I’m sorry, I must say to her a thousand times.

 

When our son is three months old, I pull the wrong bed of onions for the farmers’ market and the husband chases me through the barn. I am clutching the baby to my chest, a muslin swaddling blanket draped over his blonde head to avoid the sun.

Don’t walk away from me, he demands, and pushes me backwards. I go flying past the wooden milk stand. The baby’s head wobbles like a doll in my hands, and I cry out. When he reaches for me again, I yell obscenities at his puffed-out chest, at the dust floating in the air.

I’m holding our son! I scream. He is standing inches from me and his eyes are rage-filled, like he wants to fight. There is potting soil from the greenhouse in the creases of his fingers, under his nails.

What are you going to do about the fucking mess you’ve made? he says.

Our wedding reception was held in this barn. Our friends camped out for a week before the wedding, helping us weed and paint and haul junk. Here in the barn, they climbed ladders and hung quilts to hide the chicken processing equipment and the manure. I wore peacock feathers and flowers in my hair. A friend made my dress from a three-dollar lace curtain. There were mason jars everywhere, illuminated paper stars, two lambs turning slowly on a spit. After the toasts, when we were all a little drunk, my cousin pointed up at the moon, the tiniest crescent, and said, This will always be your wedding moon.

I am running through the barn with the baby, away from the husband who is shouting after me, past the goats chewing their cud. There is adrenaline surging in every part of my body. On the other side of the barn is the river, marked by a line of cottonwoods.

 

I circle back to the clearing and lower the deer to the ground. I curse the husband and the dogs. I curse my own meddling, the way I have never been able to let something die.

The deer relaxes in my lap. I stroke her face and she does not flinch; her eyes are the same gentle eyes of cows. Next to us, a lizard is doing push-ups in the dirt, and harvester ants are carrying mesquite leaves through the mud. I follow one ant for as long as I can before I am blind with tears. The sun makes colors and shapes on the insides of my eyelids.

I cannot save her. I cannot put her in a shoebox or bind her wings. But the practice of leaving is foreign; I do not know how to turn my back and walk away. I do not know when a life is too damaged to keep. I spend half an hour pretending that I am not about to abandon her. As soon as I stand up to leave, the wound draws flies again.

I am trying to forget her when I find my way back to the flower bed. Without gloves, I pull amaranth, stubborn globe mallow, tumbleweed. Fall is coming; the ravens have eaten the black seeds from the sunflowers. Through the fence, I see the dogs go bolting back into the desert, and I do not go after them.

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