By Patricia Ljutic
[Second Place Winner, Show Us Your Shorts 11th Annual Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition Collection, Published by Writer’s Digest, 2011, IBSN-13: 978-1-59963-407-4, Pages 8-11, Short Story, Freedom Gate.] Copyright © 2011 by Patricia Ljutic
Vince shakes his head. His heart aches, seeing another doe and her fawn trapped in the backyard. He wants to charge out there and free them, but he’s not sure he can make it. Smoking has coated his lungs with tar, transforming flesh into stone. He can travel only as far as his oxygen line will stretch, as far as his labored breathing will allow.
Damn shame the kids left the gate closed. Again. Vince knows, for certain, he told his granddaughter to leave it open.
“Stephanie,” he remembers saying, “This time of year the does forage with their fawns. If they jump the fence they get stuck in the yard.”
Fawns can jump over the back fence, because the slope of the hill minimizes the height of the fence. Once they cross over, the slope works against them, increasing the height of the fence and trapping them in the yard.
“Please, honey,” he said, “When deer get stuck in the yard, they panic, and hurt themselves trying to get out. I already saw one get hung up. A broken leg is death to a wild thing.”
He remembered feeling helplessness, as he searched Stephanie’s face for signs of concern for the deer. She seemed interested, but it didn’t stick. “Yes, Grandpa.”
Vince still prides himself on being able to solve a problem.
But, unlike the sharp recollections he treasures of his wife, Mary, his most recent experiences wander the edge of his mind as transient impressions. He knows his memories have gone mushy, like the bank of a river after a spring rainstorm: muddy and foggy, slippery and soft, so he can never quite get a sure footing. His thoughts flitter, like hummingbirds, stopping at one flower, then—before he can track their movements—darting away, vanishing like blinking phantoms. Some days his mind is like a whole flock of hummingbirds.
Lack of oxygen makes it hard to think, but now he has a plan. He pulls a fifty-foot coil of tubing out of his dresser, sits down and fumbles with the connection, wrapping masking tape around, where the tubing and the connector join. He tugs on the oxygen line and walks back-and-forth with it, folding the tubing over on itself, judging its length against the distance from his room to the gate. He calculates he’ll need another fifty feet.
When he finishes measuring the line, he sits and opens his mouth wide in an effort to suck air down into his lungs. His chest heaves, and he adjusts the prongs of the oxygen tube on his nose.
As he works, the memory of baiting his fishing lines along the Espohus Creek emerges from his fingers and hands. He’d arrive before dawn and set himself up. He caught his own baitfish: dropped a flat net into the water, sprinkled a little cornbread onto the surface, and watched as the minnows came to feed. When he lifted the net, a dozen shimmering silver miniature fish twitched, struggling to escape the net. One by one, he hooked them just in front of the top fin, in the meaty part of the back, avoiding their backbones and organs. He wanted the fish to bleed a little–but live on the hook–able to swim as an invitation for a predator to gulp them down along with the hook.
The mist rising off that creek shielded him from the world. He preferred to be far from civilization, listening to the drone of insects, the splash of a fish breaking the surface, or the plop of a turtle launching itself into the water. If he got lucky, otters appeared on the opposite bank, kissed each other with impossibly thin lips on whisker-covered cheeks, made a slide of reeds and mud, and plunged into the water. As they played, they almost laughed. He sat quietly, waiting for deer to step into view and dip their muzzles into the creek. He considered himself a connoisseur of dragonflies, crawfish and trout. He lived in paradise and had the good sense to know it.
On mornings like that, he saw himself as a tiny spec of inspirited protoplasm, less than a grain of sand compared to all God’s creation. That gave him a feeling of belonging and comfort that filled him with gratitude and awe.
But, today he is not free. He shakes his head. “Trapped,” he whispers. “Useless.”
His daughter, Barbara, runs a chaotic house, papers stacked everywhere—the kids’ rooms a confused jumble of toys, clothes and bedding. Life doesn’t need to be this disorganized, but Barbara never embraced routine or order. Vince tried to train her, but she never seemed to realize that not having to think about the small stuff made life 110% easier. Routine functions as the axle upon which the wheels of life revolve, he’d always said. If he were a stronger, healthier man, he’d educate Barbara’s kids. God knows his grandchildren think of disorder as normal, which brings him back to those poor deer and the gate.
Back in the one room he occupies, Vince continues extending the oxygen line. This takes some time. Exchanging slippers for shoes requires more exertion, deep, gasping breaths of it, but he needs his footing to be steady, so he can move quickly if need be. The thought of moving quickly makes him smirk. He feels rickety, like a building with its foundation gone to dust—not quick about anything anymore.
If all goes as planned, he thinks, I’ll open that gate and release the deer.
A fantasy forms in which he also removes the hinges from the gate so it can never be shut again. The way Barbara and her husband take care of the place, the gate will rot before they re-hang it. How many deer will taking down the gate save? But, he has no tools in his bedroom, just a small refrigerator, a bathroom, and family pictures—the most important taken of his wife, Mary, on their fortieth anniversary. She died just after their forty-eighth. Back then, on their fortieth, he never thought about being this infirm, or that he’d leave his New York home to live in California with Barbara. He’d hoped to have more to live for than the struggle for breath, more to think about than not tripping over his oxygen line.
Vince pushes the sliding glass door open a couple of inches, pushes again to achieve a foot-wide passage, then braces his back against the frame and uses the leverage to help him slide the door open. Before stepping into the yard, he cautiously coils the oxygen tubing and pokes his left arm through the hole in the center, pressing his arm against his body to secure his lifeline. As he walks toward the gate, he unwinds the tubing a foot at a time, like an astronaut tethered to a spaceship. He hasn’t lost everything. Yes, he lost his wife, their home, his health, his independence—but he still has heart. He can still free a deer.
As he walks into the backyard, the doe sees him. She moves in a series of jumps, all four legs stiff so they hit the ground in unison. The doe bounds up the hill and springs over the fence. That’s the trouble. Left on the down side of the slope, the fawn can’t jump over the fence to join its mother. It runs back and forth along the fence line and bleats. Only once before in his life has Vince heard a deer scream. The doe shrieks, “Blaaatt,” a cry so shrill it echoes off of the house. A mother’s wail.
Vince shuffles on the cement walkway—can’t go faster. Knows he’ll make it. He reaches the gate, unlatches it and walks it open.
“Done.” He grins with satisfaction, as he clings to the gate catching his breath. The fawn can escape now. Ready to return to his room, he turns.
Not two feet away, the doe faces him. He recognizes that during the time it took him to open the gate, she crossed back over to protect her stranded youngster. For a moment he studies her, captivated by the detail of her head: the white patch at her throat, moist nose, the darker patch on her forehead contrasted against her lighter face, the downward curve of her eyelashes—the deep black universe of her eyes.
Because the brain rallies against trauma, blocks its entirety, he never recalls the deer rearing up, its hard hooves striking his head with force greater than a sledgehammer, fracturing his skull. He loses consciousness instantly. He doesn’t know that when he hits the ground the back of his skull crashes onto the sidewalk, or that she pounces on him with all fours breaking his sternum and puncturing his brittle lungs. Before she does all that damage, he is gone.
The last thing he remembers, the image he carries into eternity—her beauty—the doe-eyed face of creation, the split-second awareness that she has freed him.