deericide (noun): the killing or killer of deer
After the last exam, Gemma sat with her father in the pebbled garden and looked up at the pine trees on the hillside. The last of the sun squinted through. Her father sipped on a beer, but she shook her head when he offered it.
‘I know the last year’s been tough,’ he said. ‘At school.’
‘Not just the last year.’
‘All of it,’ he nodded. ‘I know.’
Gemma tried a smile; no-one could ever make her go back.
‘I’m proud of you,’ her father said. ‘Your mum would have been too. For making the effort. Those kids… life isn’t like that. You’ll find friends, there’ll be folk who’ll share your interests.’
‘My interests?’ Gemma frowned.
‘Not all of them. But board games or history books…’
‘Ah, the normal ones.’
Her father took a drink of beer. ‘You remember that hideous deer-thing you found when we first moved in. Grotesque bloody thing.’
‘Yes, you called it Darren.’
Gemma had found Darren on the shelf in the cluttered shed. He must have been left by the previous owner. He was a tiny fallow deer, the size of a kitten, curled inside a sealed bell-jar and preserved in some greenish liquid. You could see the outline of the muscles, of the jawbone, beneath orange and white fur. The ears were exquisite. And his eyes were closed, as if in sleep.
‘What made you think of him?’ Gemma asked.
‘I worried… for a spell… about the attachment you had to it.’
She had trundled Darren around the garden in the wheelbarrow and taken him down to the burn. There they used sticks to build a raft that wouldn’t float and then a pyre that wouldn’t burn. At night, she placed him on the windowsill so that he could see the stars; if he ever opened his eyes. Gemma lay in bed wondering what the greenish liquid would smell like, if she opened the jar, or if, once it drained away, the deer would shake itself and rise unsteadily on stick-thin legs. Like Bambi finding his feet on the ice.
‘That was the summer after your mother,’ her father said. ‘And I worried that you might want to take it to school – you took it everywhere. Things were bad enough, I’m not sure anyone could have protected you if they’d found a taxidermied deer in your schoolbag.’
‘I don’t think Darren was taxidermied.’
‘He wasn’t stuffed, he was preserved. He was whole.’
Gemma nodded, accepting the word. She took a twist of her hair and set it between her teeth. Then she let it fall, because her father hated that habit. She looked across; he hadn’t noticed.
‘We got through it,’ he said. ‘All of it. And now you can go off and find something you want to do. With decent people, folk who’ll just leave you be.’
‘What can I do?’
‘Well, what would you like to do?’
Gemma had once thought of working with animals. Not as a vet, but in a cat shelter or a pet store. Darren had been supportive, but he wanted her to aim higher. Maybe History at university, if she could avoid group-work and presentations.
She’d taken Darren on the bus, in her schoolbag, to Glasgow and found the building where they taught it. She didn’t speak to anyone, but she got a leaflet. Then they’d wandered in the Hunterian Museum, where Darren’s brethren stared down from the shelves; dozens of bell-jars with all kinds of different animals, both taxidermied and embalmed.
‘He wasn’t grotesque,’ she said, to her father.
‘It was a tiny deer in a jar, Gemma.’
‘If he had been a doll, though, or a cuddly toy…’
‘Then I’d have accepted you taking it to bed with you, or setting it on the table while you ate. A cuddly toy in your bike basket is normal, a dead deer is not.’
‘There’s that word again.’
Gemma placed some strands of hair in her mouth. Just a few. This time, her father saw. He gave her a look, so she let them fall. The look softened.
‘Listen honey,’ he said. ‘I was genuinely worried about that deer. And there was enough… I thought it was worth your being upset for a few days if it spared you some torment at school.’
‘What do you mean?’
Her father sipped his beer. The sun had gone. Gemma felt it not as a single shiver, but as a spreading chill. She remembered the morning she’d lost Darren; the search starting as frantic, switching to methodical, and then reverting to frantic.
‘What did you do with Darren?’ she hissed.
‘I took it up into the woods. The idea was to empty the jar, so the thing could rot naturally. But the seal was tight. And when I tried to smash it, the jar just bounced up off the pine needles.’
‘So I buried it. In the jar.’
‘You know where he is?’
‘We’d never find it now.’
Gemma waited until her father met her eye. ‘You’re sick,’ she said.
Her father raised himself from the seat, lifted the empty beer bottle. Before he turned his back, Gemma took a fistful of hair and stuffed it into her mouth. He passed no comment on that.
‘It was for the best,’ he said, instead.
Gemma shook her head, kept her stare focused on the silhouetted trees on the hillside. She heard her father’s sigh, the crunch of his shoes on the pebbles.
Tomorrow was the first day. She wouldn’t spend it typing up a CV or searching online for college courses. Instead, she would go into their neatly-ordered shed and look out a spade. Then she would go up to the woods and start digging. Hole after hole. And when she found him, she’d tell him all the things she’d saved up over the years. Things that would finally open his eyes.