It is enough to say there has been no carcass I’ve ever stumbled upon whose gape did not portend some gaping in me, a maggot-crawl I’ve felt on the hottest days in the palms of my hands that never quite leaves but burrows deeper and carves along my bones until I am sure I will cave around it. That summer day spent in the woods, when I found what was left of the stillborn fawn, I realized I was all that was missing of the stillborn fawn, and at once I could say I knew myself. I have learned that the stink does not always follow the rot, that some skins ask to be stripped, and there are creatures who are all but split and strung from the trees before they can drag the last wobbly knee from their mother.
The barn cat, who thought I was not eating, arranged animal parts on the doormat each morning after hunting all night. I made sure she was not around when I shook the mat clean off the porch railing: tawny fur, heaps of entrails, liver and lungs licked clean and gleaming. But then came the morning the cat left the small eye, which might have belonged to a rabbit or a fox, a clouded jewel placed in the very center of the mat. This, I think, was the one thing I could not let drop from the railing, and though I did not touch it or carry it inside, it kept appearing in dreams, set in gold like a ring, so that I could not imagine it anywhere but around my finger.
When I was a girl, I walked into the morning after the coyote tore through the chicken coop, when the ground seemed hallowed with hen fluff and the dew anointing the grass had yet to dry. I remember thinking this was how prayer must feel except I wanted less to shut my eyes than to follow the strewn path of feathers wherever it might lead. And though I never found even one bloodied bird, I did find that I was less interested in heaven or hell than this space in the middle where I could slip inside the cloaks of ghosts or try on the jowls of the killer to know which one fit best.
As we walked the property’s edge, where the woods opened to sloped pasture, my father urged me to walk quickly by the brown calf on its side whose abdomen appeared to have been gnawed away. I told him it did not matter how broken it looked or how fast we passed by because the stink spun the story of the day the calf fell to the ground with sickness and could not answer its mother when she called at dusk, and at night it gave in to a sharpness it could not see. My father walked far ahead the rest of the way down the mountain, and I lost sight of him as it grew dark, as if it would be enough to say the woods swallowed the girl without taking the time to turn up the dirt.
I grew to know my mother as a woman whose panic could conjure danger before it ever really was, as if by fearing it she created it: the wolf spider perched on her arm when she woke to check her wristwatch, the hawk that snapped its neck against her bedroom window and left a spreading crack, the rattlesnake poised to strike her ankle one of the few times she walked in the backyard. When my mother left, my father revealed that she had suffered from severe panic disorder when I was born and began having visions she confused with what was real. When my father confronted my mother about having found a kitchen knife in my nursery, she sobbed and said lately the changing table has seemed so much like the cutting board.
I felt most drawn to what I can only think to call the dark on the summers spent at home with my brother, the child who followed me into the woods if I told him to, with eyes as blue as mine, but warmer somehow. We came upon a fallen doe once, all that was left of what the hunter stripped away, and I pulled my brother down to kneel beside me, beside her, and reckon with the insides, memorize them, watch the squirm of them. And when he said he wanted to run away, I pinned his wrists to the ground. Though I’d like to think I made him look because it was the realest thing he could ever see, and I was beside him and could tell him not to be afraid, I really did it because I liked to watch something of him break down.
The baby rabbit was still alive when the barn cat brought her into the basement. The cat pinned the rabbit to the stone floor gingerly, with no indication she had stuck its fur with the claws I knew must be plunged deep. They might have been two stuffed-animals tumbling together in a child’s room: no sound but the soft thrusts of the rabbit’s back legs against the cat’s jaw. Then the bite, a single pop of the rabbit’s neck, and in minutes the cat had swallowed it whole, along with every bone, and retreated into shadow. I saw the cat had left something when I walked closer to the spot, had somehow managed, in the frenzy of killing, to leave a single eye.
Soon it was no longer a coincidence that when the man came over the hills to visit, animal carcasses lined the only road by which he could reach me. He took its sharp turns at high speeds, tires screaming black lines on the road. I never thought to tell the man to slow down, to give the curves their full berth rather than cut them down the middle, but if I had, I might have thought to turn from the man in the driver’s seat and look out from the passenger window, beyond the blur of branches, to the bodies the wilderness had opened for me, asking me to mind the entrails, to consider what might be nudging inside them, to be honest when it felt familiar.
The diamond I wore for five years had been plucked from a ring of my grandmother’s, in which it had served as an accessory stone for a much larger emerald in the center. When my mother gave me the ring as an heirloom, she called it cursed. She remembered watching her father one night at the Greenbrier, stumbling over to her mother in a deep blue gown and shoving the ring on one hand while she held his glass of bourbon in the other. My mother says they met the eyes of everyone in the room but each other’s. My mother says it was the last gift her father gave before lightning struck him from the sky.
The deer, ribcage yawning the evening dark, looked to have been scraped across the asphalt since dawn, hours of cars streaking in both directions, and whatever might have spilled from her when she was first hit had been sipped dry by the heat. I did not tell the man driving to stop, though I thought only of the deer for the rest of the night, how the day might have scattered her pieces. I wondered at her heart, how many hoods she met before she felt the beating stop, and if her hind legs, bounding to the last pulse, ever wanted to run on without her.
You need something underneath it, my mother-in-law had said. When I stepped into the hallway wearing the white skirt, when I placed my glass on the wooden side table, when my makeup could no longer hide how sallow my face had become. Something underneath it: the ways she would deny who I was before I met her son, pulling him aside to say my hem should hit my knee and no woman worth having should show the skin above it. Something underneath dreamt of running through the briars and leaving my skirt behind when it snagged, blood dripping from the prod of branches to prove I was not porcelain and there was something underneath.
I think of my mother when I turn into the gravel drive of my childhood home, where she and I no longer live. Where my father lives alone, where brush and briar have overtaken the hill in front of the house so that each time I visit, it becomes less visible from the road. My mother and I had turned into the same driveway together fifteen years before, and when our car had crept up the gravel slope, we surprised a grazing doe and her two fawns. Look at her tail, my mother had said, and I saw it flicker to reveal a shock of white that sent the fawns wobbling over quickly to gather behind her back legs. Unlike those fawns, I do not remember seeing any signal from my mother that it was time to flee before she bounded away somewhere I could not follow. Though it is possible I was never really looking, did not care if she disappeared.
During sacrament service, I watched women cover little girls’ shoulders when they wriggled from the sleeves of their cardigans and pin their knees together when their small legs splayed. When the tray of broken bread was passed down the row, the well-behaved girls barely opened their lips to place a piece on their tongues, chewed slowly with downturned eyes as if comprehending sin. Once, I saw a girl fill both of her small fists with bread and refuse to release her grip when her mother tried to pry the pieces into her lap. I could still hear her screaming from the hallway outside of the chapel, telling her mother again and again that she was so hungry and wanted to be let go.
I should say that when the man slid the ring on my finger for the first time, I sensed something about it didn’t quite fit, and later when I twirled it off and on to examine what about it seemed wrong, I could only think of how unlike the diamond was to the rabbit eye. I wondered what of the eye belonged to me, what of me belonged to the eye, if it was the part that seemed to spread like ink in the water when the man tipped me backwards to baptize me months before, if it was resting by the drain in the bottom of the font, and if I had stepped from the water without it, had I stepped away without sin?
It was the third time the man had strung me to the bedposts, and by then I had taught myself to follow a trail I kept behind my eyes which led to a dappled clearing in the woods I discovered as a girl. My spine had relearned the mattress as a patch of moss, my arms and legs had slipped the restraints and stretched wide in the spots of sun, mirroring the trees that held their limbs above my body, reaching to touch me or shield me from sight. Something broke the spell that third time, and I knew it when I opened my eyes and did not see the bedroom or the ropes or the man, but could not stop seeing a deer above me dangling from its hindquarters in the trees, stomach split, something dark dripping from its hooves.
In our sixth and last summer together, we walked out onto the porch one Sunday on our way to church and found a rabbit’s head resting at the top of the stairs. Whatever had removed the head from the body had torn it away cleanly: its ears were soft and groomed to rich velvet and its eyes, glossy and deep brown, had yet to be eaten from their sockets. I did not realize I had kneeled next to it in my dress and was reaching to stroke its ears with my fingertips until I felt the man grab me by the elbows and pull me to my feet. He knocked the head into the bushes, called it filthy. I never wanted to follow something into the dirt as badly as I did then.
Because I was so close to their age, these young women in the church class I had been assigned to teach when I was nineteen, I knew they imagined someone like myself when they thought of who they might grow to be. I thought of how different I was from these girls at thirteen, when I was in the habit of kneeling in the woods at night and casting circles with salt, learning the language of birds whose wings I imagined when it grew too dark to see. I thought they should never know that girl, would find nothing to admire in her, and so I kept telling them to seek only the light and make temples of their bodies and not to speak loudly else they do not hear their Lord when he whispers.
The afternoon following my baptism, when the diamond would soon present itself, I stretched out alone in a hammock and convinced myself that it felt pleasant outside and the branches stood crisper against the sky than I had ever seen them. But there was no denying that this sun was an unfamiliar sun, could be said to own very little of its former brightness, and I began to think it was withholding its fire from me. I remember being terrified that I could no longer feel my shoulders bronze beneath it or hear the rustle of heat across the valley that made late June recognizable. His mother had said that to be in possession of the Spirit would be like nestling into a soft blanket, but I only felt weak, wrapped in gauze like something had been severed from me, and I could not account for what.
Since I left the man and that church, there have been a few nights in which I have dreamt that I am looking down from the pulpit where the bishop might stand preparing to address the congregation, but when I open my mouth, I do not share a message from the scriptures and instead begin to tell the girls that they should no longer think of themselves as fawns mute and creeping in the wood, and the mothers should know what they are afraid of before flicking the white of their tails, and above all, the men should remove the knives hidden within their blazer pockets. But as I speak to those gathered in the pews, their smiles begin to fall and their faces droop until the skin pulls from their cheekbones and suddenly it is not a chapel at all but a gaping summer wood.
What remains to be said and pains me to admit is that I went through with it all. It is not someone else’s story, someone whose motives I do not understand. I cannot just deem this someone short-sighted, cannot write her off as someone who got what she deserved. But suppose I do it anyway. Suppose I do not even want to remember her, cannot see how she could ignore the signs that seem unmistakable. I want to pin her down and make her watch what she would not confess was withering away. I want her to know that she tied the knots in every rope by which she felt bound.
When I finally woke, it was a slow waking over years of fever dream, and at first it ached to look anywhere beyond the scriptures in my lap, the measures in the hymnal, the hands reaching through white curtains in the temple. On the highway back from a day spent at the temple performing baptisms for the dead, the driver of a chicken truck ahead had forgotten to latch one of the cage doors. We followed clumps of white feathers in our car for nearly an hour before I saw something on the side of the road so broken it could not be called a bird. But when I looked closer I saw it had spread a single wing, lifting in the gusts of cars as they sped by.
Amanda Mitchell is a James Dickey Fellow at the University of South Carolina and studied English and Creative Writing at Hollins University. Her work has appeared in The Journal, Classical Outlook, and Damselfly Press, among others. She currently serves as an editor for Yemassee.