Anna had no one to tell. Her day would just go on as if there had been no affair, no funeral, no Levi. Her mother would whistle to the birds and carry a salt lick out for the deer, and Anna would ache, her bones stuffed with secret. “They love the salt lick,” her mother said. “And sometimes, I throw apples over the deck into that spot over there, and the next morning, they’re gone.”
“It’s illegal, Mom,” Anna said.
“What is?” her mother asked in that bristled manner, as if criticism was to be survived. “Feeding animals in my own backyard? That’s nonsense.”
“Yes, feeding deer. They’re not your pets.”
Anna was simply repeating her husband Stephen’s lecture, one she had heard often. When Stephen first saw her childhood home, a brick colonial from the 70s, he declared it a victim of suburban sprawl. Newer neighborhoods, seas of unshaded pink brick McMansions, sprung up around hers, choking it. Animals fled the new construction to find shelter, and the small patch of woods with a pond behind Anna’s home was the best they could do.
“Deer kill more people every year than any other animal,” Anna said. Again, Stephen's line.
“Oh, please. My deer would never do such a thing,” her mother said.
“They’re not your deer,” Anna said.
Not her deer. But dear. Anna remembered being dear. She never felt so much care from her mother than when she was sick as a child. A dutiful, makeshift pediatric nurse, her mother doted on Anna. Stomachaches meant ginger ale and saltines. Fevers meant wet rags. Anna was not to move from the couch until it was time to move to the bed for the night.
But when Anna noticed her nipples poking through t-shirt fabric, a twisting in her gut just below the bellybutton, and a russet stain on her panties, her mother stayed in the next room mumbling that there might be tampons under her sink.
Anna drifted into the hormonal tide alone.
She could not tell her mother that on a night Stephen was out of town, Levi slow danced her around the coffee table while singing Van Morrison in her ear. That when he took her from behind in the shower, she made him laugh because her moaning was too theatrical. That she had let loose just to see how it felt.
“My deer would never harm a soul,” her mother said. She used her foot to make a place for the four-pound block of salt.
“They don’t mean to,” Anna said. And despite herself, she leaned down to scrape away rocks and sticks. “They run out into the street and mangle a car.”
Like Levi, who had wandered out into the road, perhaps drunk. High. Both. He had been struck, hit and run. The driver must have hauled his body into the field on the side of the road, not to be found for a week. The thought of his battered body made Anna’s throat close.
Stephen knew only that her friend had died. First, Levi had gone missing from rehab, where he had checked himself in ten days before. After the police found Levi’s body in a field along Highway 109, she told Stephen, crumpling to her knees, head on the coffee table. Stephen stood staring at her, a freshly poured whiskey in his hand, and asked if she needed a drink, too.
As her mother stood up from the salt lick, Anna heard quacking.
“My ducks,” her mother said. “They heard me. They want a treat.”
And sure enough, two mallards, a male and a female, came waddling up from the pond, right up to Anna’s childhood driveway, where her mother got some old bread from the garage and crumbled it onto the driveway’s edge.
The ducks pecked around at her mother’s feet, certain she would not kill them. She was like a Disney princess, able to communicate with the gentler creatures of the world. She loved the deer for their eyes used in metaphors. She loved the ducks for their absence of ill will.
Anna wished she could put her head in her mother’s lap. She wanted her mother to stroke her hair, lull her to sleep.
Instead, Anna clapped at the ducks as they finished the bread. She was yelling and stamping her feet.
“What are you doing? Stop scaring my ducks,” her mother said. “What’s the matter with you?”
“I have to tell you something,” Anna said. She said it loud. Angry. Her mother straightened her back, eyebrows raised.
“What?” she asked.
Anna breathed and watched the ducks waddle away. They examined her with one eye, tilting their heads to look her up and down. Wondering what kind of predator she must be.
“You’re hurting them,” Anna said. “You think you’re helping but you’re hurting."
“Oh, stop it, Anna,” her mother said and headed for the house.
“You’re hurting all of them,” Anna said. “It’s cruel.”
“That’s a terrible thing to say,” her mother said.
“It’s true, mom,” Anna said.
“I don’t care what’s true. You should know that.” Then her mother started for the house and called over her shoulder, “I’m going to heat up a lasagna. Do you want some?” She asked this like a threat, daring Anna to call her names again.
“Are you listening to me?” Anna asked. When her mother continued to walk away, Anna ran growling at the ducks, who took flight and soared toward the pond.
She was a predator, so she might as well act like one.
“Anna,” her mother said. “What’s the matter with you?”
The stems and sticks beneath Anna’s feet crunched with just a shift in her weight. There had been no rain for a couple of weeks, so the leaves seemed jagged and threatening. An ocean of paper cuts.
“I hurt someone,” Anna said.
Her mother put her hands on her hips as if preparing herself for more. When Anna said nothing, she sighed.
“And I’m the one that’s cruel?” she asked.
“Everyone’s cruel,” Anna said.
“Well, that’s why we say sorry,” her mother said. “Did you say you were sorry?"
“Sort of,” Anna said. After a month of ignoring Levi’s calls, she had sex with him one last time to tell him she could not have sex with him anymore. She knew how it felt now, to let go, and it terrified her. She was a rule follower and good at following them, the ones that were supposed to matter anyway.
So she lay on his bed one last time, her only time to lay naked in moonlight.
Afterwards, he fetched them both coffee cups of wine, but he almost dropped them as he stopped in the doorway, looking at her there.
“I never forgot how beautiful you are,” he said.
She could not tell her mother that Levi was the man who paid her the finest compliment of her life. That as they buried him, there would be no seat reserved for her.
“Then say you’re sorry,” her mother said.
“One of these days you may have to. Now, come on, I’m hungry.”
“Don’t you want to know why?” Anna asked.
Her mother sighed, letting her arms fall to her sides.
“What do you want, Anna?”
“I want you to care,” Anna said. “That’s what mothers do. They want to know."
“Why would I want to know?” her mother asked.
“To help me,” Anna said.
“Help you what?” her mother asked. “Help you forget?”
“I can’t ever forget.”
“Then why do that to me?” her mother asked.
Anna was stunned. Her mother looked tired and older, and Anna saw her for who she was in that moment instead of the image of mom that still tricked her brain when she looked at her. Her neck, a wattle. The backs of her hands, crumpled cellophane.
“I don’t know,” Anna said.
“I don’t want that kind of stuff in here.” Her mother said and pointed to her head.
“Ok,” Anna said.
“I’m going to get something to eat.”
Anna watched her mother walk to the house then she sunk to the ground, near the salt lick. She knew what her mother meant, because she had often wondered about Levi’s body lying in the field, exposed. Horrible thoughts of decay and twisting and animal appetites.
When her imagination got the best of her, she would try to think of his curly hair or the smell of the dirt or a breeze. Those things must have been there too, and she could think of them instead.
She may have fallen asleep while pretending to be dead with bugs crawling around her and grass tickling her cheek. Her mother’s voice stirred her.
The smell of lasagna mingled with leaf rot.
“I brought you something to eat,” her mother said, her voice close.
Still lying on the ground, Anna opened her eyes, looking up into the trees. The sun cut through the branches as it leaned on the west.
She felt her mother’s palm linger on her forehead before brushing hair off Anna’s temple, scooping it behind her ear.
“Anna, you need to eat.”
Anna had to squint, because the leaves, red and yellow, glowed in the fiery light, seemingly more alive because they were dying.
K.K. FOX has an MFA from the University of Memphis. She currently lives and writes in Nashville, Tennessee. Her writing has appeared in a handful of publications including Memphis Magazine, Echo Ink Review, and Straylight Literary Magazine.