They say that death comes quickly, that your whole life flashes before your eyes and then you know peace. It wasn’t like that for me.
The day started like any other. I opened my eyes to birdsong, enjoying the breeze flicking my ears. I walked with my family to a nearby clearing where the grass is sweet and plentiful, my little brother prayfully prancing around my legs and nearly tripping me over once or twice. We arrived in the sun-kissed meadow and began to graze, the sun hitting my back and warming my bones.
There was a smaller group of us lately than I’d been used to. Some of the other members of the herd had been missing for a while now but that wasn’t completely unusual. Herd mates come and go after all. But still, this morning there were only a handful of us. Never mind, that meant more grass for me. Still, I wish dad were here. Hopefully he’d be back soon.
Two familiar faces feasted greedily near the treeline, the long branches casting their backs in stripey shadows. My little brother was more than just a little energetic this morning, his clumsy little legs bouncing him through the air after a particularly colourful butterfly. My mother wasn’t far from him, always keeping him in her sights. He had led them both to a shaded area on the far side of this beautiful field of flowers.
Then there was me sniffing at the ground for another bite of delicious greenery. My brown eyes scanned the area in front of my hooves, hunting out the juiciest of grasses. Then my eyes flitted on to a particularly large chunk of green. That looked delicious.
I hastily made my way over there, flicking my tail in anticipation. This was going to be good.
Then it happened.
The first thing I registered was a loud bang that echoed around the clearing, bouncing off the trees and ringing painfully in my ears. In an instant, my herdmates scattered, turning tail and plunging into the safety of the nearby trees just like we had many times before. I tried to follow suit but for some reason, I just couldn’t keep up. My front legs seemed drowsy and slow while my back legs were beginning to drag. The gentle leaves which brushed against my back did little to soothe me.
Then I became aware of the pain. A hot, fierce pain was piercing my ribs, making my whole body tremble. Heat radiated as did the white-hot agony, my legs shaking in an effort to keep me upright and moving. I found it more difficult to breathe and I could taste something strange in my mouth.
It wasn’t long before I collapsed in a heap, my heart beating in my ears so powerfully it was making my vision swim. My breathing had become laboured and I no longer could raise my head.
If I would have been more alert, I might have heard the two men approach earlier. They weren’t being subtle, their feet pounding loudly on the ground as they rushed over to my position in the foilage.
“Damn it Ron, what a shit shot” A gruff voice said to my left, a little out of earshot. “At least make it painless and quick.”
“I’m sorry uncle. I guess I’m not as good as you yet” A higher voice responded, seeming to shake a little. “Poor thing. I thought it would be easy. What do I do?”
“Well ya need to put it out of its misery, boy. A clean shot to the neck should do it.” The gruff man said, stones crunching beneath heavy feet.
“This is horrible” The other man said, sucking in air through his teeth. He came into my field of view but my sight was beginning to blur so much I could only make out a dark shape looming above me. He crouched down near my head, my heart spiking in fear.
“What did ya expect? Sunshine and rainbows? This is where your meat comes from.” The first man growled. “Make it quick.”
I felt something cold press against my neck but I was too weak to react.
“Sorry little deer.”
Another flash of burning pain ripped through my body. I bleated weakly in protest.
“What the fuck?” The second man’s voice wobbled as he fell backwards, red and orange leaves puffing up around him. “Uncle! It’s still blinking at me!”
“God damn it boy! Give it ere!” The first man grumbled, snatching something from the first, “Can’t even trust ya to finish the job.” He crouched right in front of my face, pressing the hard object to my temple. The third bang came quickly, that familiar pain searing itself deep into my brain. But still I remained.
“This… ain’t normal” He stammered, standing quickly and stumbling backwards, almost falling over the younger man who still remained on the cushioned forest ground. “We need to go.” And with that, he turned, succeeding in tripping over the other this time, crashing to the floor with another plume of leaves, scattering in hypnotising clouds above their heads. He hurriedly scrambled to his feet, dragging the other man behind him as they clumsily fled, leaving me once again all alone.
By this point, I was too weak to do much of anything except watch the colour fade from the world around me. I slowly blinked a few times, my eyelids growing heavy, my long eyelashes brushing my cheeks as I did so. The pain wasn’t so unbearable anymore, my body either climatising to the sensation or the wounds themselves diminishing – I wasn’t sure which was more plausible. The only thing on my mind was rest.
My eyes fluttered closed as my breathing steadied and I plunged into a long, dark sleep.
I woke up.
I know enough to know that waking up shouldn’t happen after death. Dead things lay still and time eats them away. So why was I awake?
My eyelids slowly opened, the scenery the same as I remembered. Beautiful reds and oranges of autumn sheeting the ground, the sweet smell of flowers on the wind. Things seemed slightly different though. I could see the pretty splashes of colours around me but they were muted somehow, duller. The scents seemed to weaken somehow too.
My dark eyes widened as I remembered what had happened to me when I realised… the pain was gone. Completely gone.
I shook my head, my ears fwipping in the wind, testing my reflexes. Everything seemed strangely normal, almost like the last moments of my memory were just a waking nightmare.
I gingerly placed my front hooves to the ground and pushed up, wobbily getting on to my feet but still, miraculously, there was no pain. I shook my tail, attempting to remove any fallen leaves from my body before steadily making my way back the way I had come. My family would be close but not immediately so as to be safe. Once I find them, everything would be back to the way it always was.
Twilight had darkened the sky by the time I reached my herd. A few heads rose questioningly at me before returning to whatever business they were doing before my arrival. My mother and younger brother immediately galloped over to me, my brother prancing around my legs as a way of telling me he missed me. Mother seemed relieved, trying to herd us both to where we would be sleeping tonight. It felt good to be home.
Sleep would not take me. I laid there all night with my family but I just couldn’t fall asleep. It was bizarre. This is not something that happened with us, even when one of us was giving birth the rest could still sleep soundly all night. It was boring, it was weird but most of all, it was worrying. I kept my eyes closed, willing my body to rest but it would not yield. All night, I blinked up at the shining moon and waited for the sunrise. A sunrise whose colours had dulled along with its beauty.
Eventually it came but strangely I could not feel its warmth. My body remained as chilled as when the moonlight owned the sky. I clambered onto my feet and stretched when the rest of my herd began to stir, trying to convince myself that last night was just a result of the trauma I endured yesterday.
My little brother bleated with impatience, deciding to help himself to mother’s milk while we waited for the rest of the herd to ready themselves for today’s wanderings. Once everyone was gathered, we journeyed to a popular spot where plenty of grasses, shoots and woody plants were available for us to munch on. Nobody hesitated to get stuck in. That was, apart from me.
I lowered my head towards a large stem and sniffed at it. Although my stomach was empty, this didn’t incite the regular mouth-watering reaction it usually did. I pulled my head away sharply when I realised the scent was sour. This one was bad. I slowly made my way across to a leafy shrub, dipping my nose into its leaves to find that same sour scent there too. Was this whole area bad? Poisoned?
I lifted my head in alarm, scanning over my herdmates. Everyone else seemed completely unaffected, tucking in to grasses and leaves like they were the most delicious things in the world. No one seemed sick. To them, everything was normal.
I pawed at the ground, giving my head a shake. Everything was okay. I moved towards a herdmate who was nibbling away at a huge patch of grass. Grass was a safe option, grass was always good.
I once again lowered my head, my nostrils filling with the familiar sour scent. I decided to ignore this, ripping out some grass with my teeth and munching slowly.
It was awful. There was no pleasant earthy taste, just a horrid tang. I spat the grass out on to the forest floor, shaking my head back and forth with disgust. My herdmate lifted her head briefly before going back to her meal.
What is wrong with me?
A couple of moons have passed and I still haven’t eaten. I’ve tried but the tastes are somehow worse now, my body reacting as if these things I usually enjoy should absolutely not be consumed. Like they would poison me.
My stomach growled painfully. I’ve tried different areas, different plants. I’ve even resorted to trying the bark we only eat when we have no other choice but the flakes on every single tree sting my tongue with vile acidity.
Things have started to smell worse too. Even more sour, even more unappealing. The sweet autumnal wind I remember is long gone, replaced by a rotten gale.
The landscape is pale and muted. Sleep still evades me.
I am so hungry.
Another dawn has gone by. The others look at me differently now, eyes wider, ears back. Like I’m no longer one of them. Like I’m a predator. Mother and brother are the only ones who still approach me and even then, she keeps a wary distance. I managed the whole day with their stares and with my painful stomach growling before something horrible happened.
With everything going on, it would be reasonable for me to feel a little grumpy. But what I’ve been beginning to feel is more than that. It’s anger.
He was only playing like he always does. My brother was frolicking around my legs, excited that another sunset was upon us. I could feel an ebb of rage churning inside me. Couldn’t he see I’m not well? That I need my space.
He bumped into my front leg, nudging me to one side and this turned the ebb into a wave of red-hot temper. Before I knew what I was doing, I slammed my leg down, toppling him over on to the once green grass. Then I bent my head and sunk my teeth into the back of his little neck.
His sharp cry of pain brought me back to my senses. I released him immediately, feeling warm blood trickle out of my mouth. He scrambled away the best he could, crying for mother. And that’s when I set off running.
Because what scared me the most about that whole awful moment was that he tasted absolutely delicious.
I thundered through the forest until one of my shaky legs was snagged by some shrubbery, sending me skidding on my front into a heap of leaves. I took a second to gather my thoughts. I couldn’t possibly return home now, I’d done the unthinkable.
I shook my head with a soft bleet, getting rid of the rancid-smelling leaves that clung to my face, glued there by my brother’s blood. And then… I caught a whiff of something sweet. Something mouth-watering.
I looked around desperately, attempting to find what had finally piqued my interest only to find a dark hole in the ground, just by my left shoulder. I hurriedly shuffled my body to face the small opening, curious and very much hungry. I nuzzled the dirt, my nose following the increasing scent into a pitch-black opening. I could sense warmth in there and the smell was sending me into a frenzy. All I could think about was stopping the pangs of starvation that wrecked my body. And so I did.
I moved my head around to gather one of the things in there. It was warm and fluffy and tried to scamper away but I would not let it. I bit into the thing as it squealed, a gush of juiciness exploding in my mouth and immediately making me crave more. Bones crunched under my teeth and blood spattered on the impacted dirt.
I ate everything in there, gnashing and thrashing in desperation to consume as quickly and as much as possible. I didn’t stop until I’d licked that burrow clean.
After I’d finished, I slowly rose on my hooves. Things seemed clearer now I was no longer ravenous. I felt great!
I wandered over to a fresh puddle of water and peered over to take a drink, the soft taps of rain sprinkling my back. I looked at someone who vaguely resembled me but also someone very different. She had tufts of fur missing and flakes of skin were beginning to peel. Her eyes were wide and bloodshot. Her face covered in dark splashes of red.
I dipped my lips into the puddle and drank, lifting my head to watch the once-clear water turn red too.
I honestly don’t know why I was so upset about this. I feel so much better now. I feel stronger and more energised than I have in a long time. I think I’m going to go back to my herd after all. Then they’ll see there’s nothing wrong with me and everything can go back to normal.
I began to slowly walk back the way I had come.
I am still hungry.
Credit: Decayed Doe
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