Tensions rise when a family attempts to nurse an injured fawn back to health.


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When I was 17, my older brother came home one night from his job at Fish & Game talking about an injured fawn that’d have to be put down. A UPS truck had skidded on black ice near the Pittsfield exit of the Mass Pike, striking the fawn and killing its mother. All the local animal shelters were full, so Fish & Game had no other option. My brother never got emotional about his job, but I remember how he walked to the back kitchen window, looked out at the woods behind our house, with its dense rampart of bare oaks and dark green arbor vitae trees, and wiped his eyes on his sleeve.

My father stopped stirring the spaghetti sauce he was making and asked Todd a half-dozen questions about the fawn, including its prognosis. A garlic press hung from the pocket of his apron, and flour dusted the elbows of his sweater. “Bring the fawn here,” he said. “I’ll nurse it back to strength.”

My mother had been washing dishes and listening quietly as the two of them spoke. She turned off the faucet, hurried to the back door, and rounded on my father. She didn’t even bother to dry her hands. “How’re we going to care for an injured fawn, Randy? You can’t even keep it outside with this much snow.” This was three weeks after the blizzard of 2007, and we still had two feet of snow on the ground, even though it was mid-March.

When my mother got mad at my father, she had a habit of going outside for a few moments. I realize now that she often got mad at him about me, but I didn’t recognize that then. I only thought of myself when I was 17 and had no idea how much conflict children could cause in a marriage. Now that I’m a father myself, I see that my parents tried their best in their own ways, but there were things they couldn’t control.

Can any parent control what happens to their child?

* * *

The next day, Todd carried the fawn in through the basement door of our hillside ranch house and laid it on the blue yoga mat I’d once used for my leg exercises. The fawn couldn’t have weighed more than 15 pounds. Its ribs were gaunt and ghostly, and its fur was speckled with mud. Worse, one of its legs was bent and weak. No animal could survive in the wild with a leg like that.

Todd took a baby bottle and a container of goat’s milk out of his bag and asked my father to heat four ounces. When my father went upstairs, I knelt near the fawn. “Let’s give him a name.”

“Dad already did. It’s Django.”

When my father returned with the bottle, my mother was with him. She’d just gotten home from the hospital and was wearing her light blue scrubs and her white nurse’s shoes. She reached up and pulled several pins out of her dark brown hair, allowing it to fall loosely around her ears. She always let her hair be more relaxed at home than at work. “You shouldn’t have done this,” she said to Todd.

“I’m glad Todd told us about the fawn,” my father said. His gray eyes blinked slowly. “He couldn’t let the poor animal be put down.”

My mother took a pen out of her pocket. “Can’t the SPCA take him?”

“I called,” Todd said. “They’re full.” He raised the fawn to its feet, and my father eased the bottle into its mouth. Django took hold and pulled hard on the nipple; it whistled and squeaked. “Easy now,” my father said in a gentle voice. He held the bottle with two hands and smiled at Django.

My mother sighed; whether out of sadness or irritation, I couldn’t tell. She was a nurse at Berkshire Medical Center and had developed the hard shell required to handle a job in healthcare. As a teenager, I didn’t understand that, but I understand now that if a nurse allows all the pain and suffering she sees each day to penetrate her shell, how can she go on? The only time I ever was aware of my mother letting down her guard was when she told my father about a family of five from Ohio who’d had an accident on the Mass Pike. The father was in a hurry to make the 6:15 ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, swerved around a piece of truck tire, hit a bridge abutment in Stockbridge, and the wife and two children were killed. My mother didn’t share this story with me. She told my father, at eleven o’clock one night, while the summer insects in the woods around our house crackled and squeaked and buzzed. I stood on the other side of their bedroom door and listened to her sobs.

My mother waved the pen at my father. “Randy, when are you going to stop taking on hopeless projects?”

* * *

In the beginning, none of us knew if Django would make it. He was unsteady on his feet, and he slept a lot. His eyes were dull and listless, his right haunch was missing a large patch of fur, and his front right hoof was cracked. Still, my father built a plywood bed for him and attached a childproof gate at the bottom of the cellar stairs.

We fed Django eight times a day. My father and I agreed to share the work, but he ended up doing most of it. With quiet joy, I might add. It made me happy to see his delight since he often seemed preoccupied. He bought the goat’s milk, sterilized the bottles, and did the night feedings. He cleaned the basement, washed Django’s bed, and handled the waste. Sometimes, when he was preparing a bottle, he hummed to himself.

Our fourth night with Django, I couldn’t sleep. I’d left my bedroom door open, and around four in the morning, I heard the fawn whining. When I went down to the basement and stood by the gate, Django was pacing in circles and trying to climb out. My father must have heard the noise because he joined me a few minutes later.

“He’s lonesome,” I said. “Can’t I bring down my sleeping bag and keep him company?”

“That’s not a good idea,” he told me. “Django needs to learn to calm himself.”

My father warmed a bottle of milk, and I fed Django. As we sat on the stairs, with the fawn nursing on the other side of the gate, the animal looked at me. Recognition seemed to flicker in his dark eyes, but it disappeared so quickly I doubted I’d seen it. I wish I’d told my father that. I think it would’ve consoled him.

“I named him for Django Reinhardt,” he said. “He was a French guitarist who was badly burned in the 1940s. The doctors said he’d never play again, but Django proved them wrong.” My father buttoned the cardigan he’d put on over his pajamas. “I was very moved by Django’s faith in himself.”

“Why didn’t the doctors have more faith?”

My father didn’t answer. Instead, he put his arm around my shoulders and gave me a hug. We sat in silence until the furnace clicked on. Finally I asked, “Where was he burned?”

“All over. They wanted to amputate a leg and two of his fingers, but he said no. He taught himself a new way to play the guitar.” He pointed at Django. “Don’t you think his leg is getting better?”

“I hope so.” Django didn’t limp all the time any longer, but his rear leg was still swollen. He wasn’t out of the woods. In my experience, swelling meant infection, and infections could go either way.

* * *

After the first week, Django began to eat more, and he stopped falling when he paced around the cellar. This made my father optimistic. But then our hot water heater sprang a leak and the basement workroom flooded. Our usual plumber was unavailable, so my father called a new person.

“What are we going to do with Django?” my mother asked as soon as he got off the phone.

“Bring him upstairs.”

The plumber showed up after dinner. My father helped him bring in his tools while my mother and I put a blanket on the dining room floor and stood guard over Django. But as they were carting out the old hot water tank, the fawn got away from us, ran down the cellar stairs, and scared the plumber, who dropped his end of the heater. My father asked the man to keep Django’s presence to himself, but a few hours later, I got a call from my friend Rafe accusing me of “kidnapping Bambi.” I asked what he was talking about, and he laughed. His brother had already told him about the fawn.

The next morning, my mother got a call from her cousin, who’d heard the news at the Price Chopper. As soon as she hung up, she sat at the kitchen table where my father and I were eating our boiled eggs. “It’s time to release Django.”

“He’s too weak,” my father said. “We’ve got to get him on solid food.”

“He needs to return to the wild.”

“Let’s call a vet,” I said. “He can take a look at Django’s leg.”

My mother frowned and held her coffee mug with both hands, her knuckles going white. “Jeff, we don’t have the money for that.”

“We had the money for a hot water heater.”

“That’s different.” She paused. “Nature needs to take its course.” I remember her words clearly because she spoke in a tone I’d never heard her use before. It was a mix of regret and determination.

On Saturday of Django’s third week, my father and I went for haircuts at Rocco’s. When we walked in, the place fell silent. A few minutes later, a bearded man in the barber’s chair said to Rocco, “What’s the deer population this year?”

“Who knows?” Rocco said. “All I know is there are too many.”

A customer wearing heavy boots and a quilted vest snorted. “My wife’s garden was decimated last summer.”

The shop was quiet for a few moments. Rocco turned to my father. “What’s this I hear about you rescuing a fawn?”

“It was just for a couple of days,” my father said. “He’s gone now.”

My father’s lie shocked me. He was the most honorable person I knew; more honorable even than the heroes I read about in history. I buried my head in a comic book.

At dinner that night, my mother announced we had to release Django by April 5th. We were eating spaghetti and meatballs I’d helped prepare, and I was proud because they weren’t too dry and had just the right amount of garlic and oregano.

My father dropped his fork. “Django’s not ready. He’ll die if we don’t keep him until the end of April.”

“Django isn’t helpless, Randy. I heard what happened at the barbershop. I know you’re attached to the fawn, but you have to release him.”

My father folded his napkin and laid it next to his plate. “So you’re going to stand by and let Django die?”

My mother’s face took on that same look of regret and determination. “Randy, he’s eating solid food now. He won’t die; he’ll learn to live. Let him go.”

“He’s not leaving!” my father shouted. I’d seen him raise his voice once when they’d argued about hospital bills, but that was the only time. No matter what was happening at home, he was always patient and kind.

My mother picked up a meatball and threw it at him. It bounced off his shoulder, leaving a large red dot on his white shirt.

* * *

Two days later, when my father was working late at the rehabilitation center, my mother and I came home in the afternoon and heard the sound of a lamp crashing. It was silent for a few moments, and then we heard the icy tap of hooves on tile.

We walked into the living room, and my mother turned on the overhead light. Her oak lamp lay on the floor, its shade ripped and the bulb shattered. The deck of cards I’d left on the coffee table the night before was scattered over the rug. By the door to the kitchen, there was a small puddle.

“I knew this would happen!” my mother said. “Where is he?”

We crept into the kitchen. Django was standing by the wastebasket, trying to nudge the lid off. When he saw us, he bolted toward the front door, his hooves skittering on the smooth floor. My mother chased him, but he was swift despite his bad leg. “Django!” she shouted after the fawn made a deep scratch in the dining room floor.

I blocked the hallway to the front door, she barricaded the door to the dining room, and we forced Django down the cellar stairs. When we looked, we saw that he’d knocked over the barrier.

As we walked back up from the basement, I said: “Why didn’t you open the kitchen door and let Django go?”

She reached the top of the stairs and turned around. “I respect your father too much to do that.”

* * *

At dinner that night, my mother pushed her meatloaf around her plate, took a breath, and closed her eyes. She’d had to work an extra two hours in the ER that afternoon and still had marks across her nose and cheeks from her mask. “Randy, we’ve got to release Django. What if he jumps the fence again?”

“There’s still snow on the ground,” my father said. “He won’t survive if we release him now.”

“There’s got to be room at a wild animal shelter.”

My father started gathering Django’s bottles and formula. “I’m moving down to the basement.”

“You will not!” my mother shouted.

He went into the hall closet and poked around. “Where are the sleeping bags?”

She pushed back from the dining room table and started toward the kitchen. “Why do you always do this? Why won’t you accept that some things can’t be fixed?”

My father froze. He didn’t move for the longest time, and then, with a motion that made him look as old as he did the year he died, he bent over and pulled out a sleeping bag.

“Jeff,” my mother said to me, “Would you mind going down to the 7-Eleven and picking up some milk? We’re almost out.” She didn’t say this with anger. She said it with a depth of resignation and fatigue that I wouldn’t understand until I was much older.

When I returned, my mother was on the phone telling Todd that the family had to make a decision about Django by Monday. But at dinner the next day, Todd showed up and said there’d been a fire in his apartment building and he had to move out. The renovations would take at least two months.

“Stay with us,” my mother said.

I sat up straight. “Where?” Todd and I used to share a bedroom, but now I was 17 and deserved my own room. I didn’t want my brother taking over the closet and cluttering the floor with his gear.

Nobody said anything for a few seconds, and then my mother looked across the kitchen table and told Todd he could live in the basement if he’d take Django off our hands.

My brother nodded. “I’ll bring my stuff home this weekend.”

I expected my father to argue, but all the energy to fight had drained out of him. That upset me as much as my fear about Django and I felt some dam break inside me. I didn’t know anything about the dams inside people and what they kept back. I only knew that the dam in me needed to be released. I held my hands out, palms up, toward my mother. “Django isn’t healthy enough to go back to the wild. He’ll never survive on his own.” I shook my head. “Do you have any idea what it’s like to have two good legs one day, and then, through no fault of your own, you have to get around on a bum leg? It’s the worst feeling in the world to be hurt and abandoned.”

My father’s face crumpled and my mother started crying. My brother tried to explain to me that Django was a wild animal and needed to go back to nature, but I wouldn’t listen. I was so upset that my father had to take me out for a drive, which was what he used to do after my accident.

Todd arrived on Saturday, inspected Django, and said he was strong enough to be released.

I was expecting him to say that, so I stood in the basement, blocking the door to our lower lawn. “He’s not ready.”

“Jeff,” my mother said, her voice soft but resolved. “This has gone on too long. A wild animal is not meant to be kept in a basement.” Her eyes were red, rimmed by blue-gray semi-circles.

I ran to my room and slammed the door. My father joined me a few minutes later. I don’t recall everything we discussed, but I do remember him telling me to have faith in myself, no matter how grim things looked, which is what he said years later when he was in hospice and asked to speak with me. He said things would get better and to stay positive. He told me not to give up.

“I’m going to the basement,” he said. “Why don’t you join me?”

We made our way down to the cellar and I watched while he gave Django one last feeding on my yoga mat. I’d stopped using it after my fourth surgery, because no matter how many exercises I did, they never seemed to help. My father had told me not to get discouraged, that healing was complicated and our next stop would be New England Baptist Hospital, no matter the cost, but I stopped anyway.

My father led Django to the door. It was a warm afternoon in early April. Melting snow dripped off the woodshed roof and along the edges of the stone wall. In the nearby woods, a white throated sparrow made a high, lonesome trill from inside one of the arbor vitae trees. I stepped onto the brick terrace and tried to locate the spot where the sparrow was making its brave song, but the dense branches blocked my view. My father and Todd nudged Django onto the terrace, where he sniffed the cold air with eager caution and then looked around. His fur shivered as he stepped into the mud and snow. He wobbled for a moment, and then he walked across the lawn and disappeared into the woods.

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  1. This is the best short story SEP has published in a long time. The plot is down-to-earth and relatable. The style is straightforward. The story particularly resonates with me because of the deer and other wildlife I see daily in my suburban yard. Mr. English’s writing hints that the fawn’s injury recalls for the family some type of physical trauma Jeff has suffered in the past. This element imbues the story with an even deeper layer of meaning. I agree with Mr. McGowan about the artwork – it’s lovely. Although there is conflict, I really like the gentleness of both the story and art.

  2. An excellent, realistically well-told story. I could see all of the points of view here, each legitimate in their own ways. They made the right decision in keeping Django for the time they did, nursing him back to health to the degree they could. I’m sorry the fawn caused a rift between the parents, but glad it wasn’t too severe.

    It ends with father and son releasing the fawn. He wobbled at first, then walked and disappeared into the woods. We’re left with a feeling of uncertainty, but leaning more towards the animal being alright after all. I hope so. The opening artwork chosen is beautiful.


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