When Susan was seven, they were only nubs. Her mother, Marge, took her to the pediatrician. He performed a biopsy. He sent her to a specialist. The specialist deemed the growth benign, though unusual, and recommended monitoring and periodic tests. Marge took her to more specialists. They did every kind of blood work and scan in their arsenal, and tried some new ones. Two projections of keratin and proteins that were not cutaneous was the first assessment. It was like saying to someone with flu symptoms, “your nose is running, and you seem to have a cough.”
The growths were generally explained (or rather unexplained) as “harmless”, but strange – undocumented in any medical journal – “only in folklore” said one doctor. No signs of radiation poisoning. No other developmental abnormalities – “removal not recommended and possibly dangerous”. An examination and tests at the Mayo. Not an osteoma. Not a mere excrescence – they were horns. Antlers, to be precise. Susan did not have headaches, pain, or an infection. Doctors conferred. Antlers implied they would be shed naturally, if they followed the normal pattern found in male cervids, though that was speculative and a question for a specialist that didn’t exist. There was no one to examine a girl who was human and yet, in part, was not.
At eight, Susan did shed her antlers but, by the next year, they were back. A flight to China and an unorthodox, and probably unauthorized, surgical operation only delayed the inevitable, and the antlers grew even faster after that. Susan was pulled from school, because of bullying, took medication for depression, and was tutored at home. Marge was a single mother, working two jobs to pay for Susan’s medical care and education. There were no siblings to stay with her during those long hours, and Susan spent her most of the time in her room, online, pretending to be a grown woman of thirty one with a law degree. She read voluminously on the law to support this habit. Marge knew nothing of this.
By eleven, puberty hit, and Susan had a full rack. In desperation, Marge turned to animal specialists, but they routinely informed her that only males grew antlers like Susan’s. Her daughter began to shed the outer layers, seasonally, but there was no time when they were not at least partially visible. Hats were insufficient, ‘unless you were a Dr. Seuss character’, Susan pointed out, and beehive hairdos had gone out in the sixties.
Marge refused all offers of money from news organizations, power bloggers, and tabloids for the story. That didn’t stop the story getting out, and Marge alternated between fits of rage and her own depression when noticing clandestinely taken photographs or outlandishly exaggerated sketches at supermarket checkout counters. She was the “Deerchild’s” mom. She hadn’t even wanted to be a ‘mom’, but could never tell Susan that.
When Susan was thirteen, she tried to commit suicide – first with a kitchen knife, though she cut her wrists ineffectively, and then with the pills her mother used to bring on sleep when she couldn’t, even as exhausted as she was. Marge suffered from sporadic insomnia, and the rozerem made Susan ill, but did not kill her. Her mother quit her second job, dismissed the tutor, and home schooled Susan. They lived with the shades drawn, heavy curtains over those, and stayed away from windows in general. The house felt dark, even with extra lighting installed.
At fifteen, Susan tried once, defiantly, to go outside. She stayed in her own back yard. Neighbors, apparently looking over the fence, called the police, and there was a traumatic experience at the local station, prompting Marge to put the house up for sale. It was their one asset, mortgaged twice, and she didn’t get much money for it.
They moved to rural Kansas, buying a property surrounded by woods, twenty miles to the nearest gas station, and even farther to a small town grocery market. Marge drove forty five minutes every morning to work as an accountant. Susan ran away from home at seventeen. Her mother found her shivering in the woods, thirsty and spent. After that, they stayed up nights reading to one another or watching comedians over satellite. They lived with no further incident until Susan’s 23rd birthday, when Susan completed an online degree, a JD from Taft, in record time.
Susan could not take a job in a firm of course, and the state did not offer the bar exam at home in any case, but Marge had deemed it a constructive use of time and far better than previous years, where merely keeping her daughter from falling apart as a person were the priority. They relaxed into their lives, with Susan running a web site for legal professionals that offered remote virtual assistance. Her photograph was carefully “Photoshopped” to remove any signs of abnormality. She had work, good work, and almost a life.
Bringing in an income took pressure off of Marge, who started dating again, though she never brought men to her home. She hadn’t spent any time on herself in years, and it was hard enough to meet someone living in the middle of nowhere, but Susan introduced her to a series of candidates through an online service, and Marge went out dancing or to dinner a couple of nights a week. If Marge was mysterious, it made her all the more attractive, and there was no shortage of suitors who had similar trouble meeting people in so remote a place.
Susan expressed her own interest in men mainly through chat rooms and online forums, always men in far off places, big cities mostly, with whom a visceral relationship was unlikely. More than once, she broke it off when one of them insisted on paying airfare in either direction, just for the opportunity to take her for coffee. She wanted to go, and that was the problem. She wasn’t hideous, she wasn’t sexless, she was just unusual. “Extraordinary,” her mother had begun to say. “Amazing.” But this was little comfort. Marge had someone, and Susan did not. The online relationships were important to her, but they weren’t the same thing.
It was when Susan was twenty six that she heard the man of her dreams in the woods outside their home – heard him before seeing him. Her mother was out with Steve, the man she would probably marry, once he got past the obvious hurdle of having an oddball in the family. Susan had met Steve, which Marge said was a huge step. The fact that he didn’t “high tail it” afterward was to his credit, she said. He had become more cautious and distant-seeming for a week or so after, Marge felt, but he was warming back up. He loved Marge, and anyone might have the same reaction, she said. It was understandable. The first time hadn’t been dinner – just a brief visit – but he was coming for dinner the next week. It would be the first time a man had sat at their table since Susan’s father left.
Susan had heard the voice in the woods every night for a week, sometimes far away, but lately drawing closer. She thought of it as the man of her dreams, because she had heard him so often in them that, at first, she thought she was still dreaming. Wide awake, staring out her window at a night lit by the lidless moon, she resolved to go. It was less a decision than an awareness that she had already made up her mind, and waiting, alone, was only habit.
Her suitor’s moan grew closer, longer, more forlorn. Susan felt him calling her, wordlessly, with a slow, howl. Just as once, years before, she took no coat or robe into the woods, but went only in a shift and with bare feet. Those years ago, she had tried to escape her life, but now she was running toward it.
It was in the exact spot where her mother had found her freezing, and had carried her back to the warmth of the house, that her man, her beast, came upon her, eyes glowing hotly out of the darkness. He was a man, the only man for her, and yet he was also a low to the ground, hackles raised, naked and needing to eat.
There is an apocryphal story of Cleopatra – Susan had found it once by following a link in one of the social networks. Men would compete for a single night with the ancient queen, the price being their execution the next day. Scheherazade faced a similar fate, prompting the one thousand and one Arabian nights. What one would do for passion or for life were often the same, and Susan told herself a story then. A magnificent creature, sleek, horned, at one with the world under the moon, and yet not complete, not without someone to explain her existence.
Susan would hold nothing back from her lover, not of her flesh, nor of her intentions, but the answer was not merely to give herself, like some flower wilting at the first frost or scorched by too much sun, able to open only in the gentle warmth of a Spring day. Her horns were tall and she shook them and stamped her feet.
In all the nights she lie awake asking “why was I made this way?” she had only on this night come to the answer, and it was one she could accept. To be prey. Not frail prey, but prey. As he stalked closer, his jaws open, his teeth showing, she did the one thing you are not supposed to do in the woods on a dark night when faced with a dangerous and desperate creature. She ran.