When I gave birth to my daughter, she turned sideways inside me and tangled the umbilical cord around her throat as my labor worsened. Every time I tried to push her into the world, her heart stopped.
The doctors hummed around me in an anxious hive, whispering about options and decisions, but all I wanted was to get her out of me. I knew she would kill me. As I worked in the bed, sweaty, fevered, I saw the vision of the whitetail doe. Her belly distended, she stood beside my hospital bed, witnessing the birth of my daughter as I writhed. An omen my own mother saw, and hers, and hers. The deer bent by my bed, brushed her black lips over my slick forehead, and I began to go under. Her lips were soft as velvet by my ear, whispering a secret I used to know and I swear, I tried to understand.
When I came back into myself, someone handed my daughter to me, all of her gathered in a soft pink blanket. I brushed away the damp curls that crowned her, looking into her unfocused eyes and wondering how something so tiny could be my death and life. I wanted to tell her she was perfect, she was beautiful, she was the first and last that I would ever love, but first, I ran my fingers over the skin of her temple. Beneath her skin were two hard, smooth masses. Two matching rounded hills on either side of her pinkish-gray brow.
I held her tightly to me and I wailed.
I remember that my mother told it like this: I started teething the same night my antlers broke my skin. She told this story to anyone who would listen: I woke my parents up screaming, and when they ran to my crib, they found me flailing, blood on my sheets. A gleam of white nestled in my gums, and the skin of my forehead split with two small antlers like hard curls of hair.
They looked like bare thorns, a half-inch long, smooth and ashy brown and covered in velvety down. My father tried to pull one out before my mother stopped him, and I howled and howled, gnashing my solitary tooth. They took me to the hospital, where the doctors and nurses could not explain to my father the bone-like shards exploding from my head, leaving the skin around them tender and bloody. They were fused with my skull, and to try to remove them from their base might mean death or irreparable damage. They could still try, the doctors said, but there would be no promises. So my parents went home and my mother began to cut holes in all the winter beanies she’d knitted through her pregnancy.
That part always made people chuckle. The audience to this story was just about anyone we ran into whenever we left the house, as young as I could remember. No, they weren’t fake, and no, we didn’t know why. Waitresses, nannies at the park, aunts with pursed lips, shelf stockers at the bookstore who jumped when they saw me and my antlers. My mother owed everyone an explanation for why I was this way, why my antlers grew from small thorns to branches, from velvet-fuzzed to bone-strong. Why they grew at all.
I remembered her telling the story more than the people she felt compelled to tell it to. The way she paused to let the impact of my antlers sink in, the way she put her hand over her heart when she described my father grabbing my antler and pulling so hard she thought he’d snapped my neck. A performance to explain me, and one that got the response she wanted: the sideways stares slid away from her and toward me, judgment muted to pity. Poor baby.
I hated it. I remember when I first became cognizant of that change in expression, the way someone would double-take and stare at me and my mother would take that deep, preparatory breath. I was four and we were in the grocery store. I sat in the basket of the cart because the seat for babies was too small for me, but I wanted to feel transported and borne like I was an egg in the carton my mother handed to me to settle at my feet. And while she looked over cantaloupes, I scraped my antler against the edge of the cart. Sometimes they itched, and my fingernails were too soft to scratch them properly. A woman browsing the honeydews clasped her daughter’s hand, a blonde girl, bigger than me and walking alongside the cart with her fingers tangled in the mesh basket.
My mother heard me scraping my antlers against the cart and told me to stop without looking at me. The stranger sucked in her breath when I scratched at the base of my antlers with both hands, picking at the dry skin there. My mother turned, saw the other eyes watching me, and I remember her inhale, how she didn’t look at me as she began to explain again to a stranger why I was the way I was. I remember the way her voice met the familiar pitches, how I realized I had heard her speak these words many times before. This was a performance, a speech, and it was for them. So they wouldn’t be angry at her.
I sat in the cart, scratching at the base of my antlers, listening to my mother explain me and wondering if there was a part of the story when she would look at me again.
Everyone looked at my daughter, too, everywhere we went. First at her, at the antlers, and then they would peer curiously at me. I turned my nose in the air. When she was younger, I could make her headbands to wear that slipped around the antlers and helped her seem normal at a glance, if eccentric. But as she got older she complained that the headbands irritated the base of the antlers, always sensitive with the new growth splitting the skin. She would tear them apart in her fingers, unraveling all the work I’d done to help her.
My daughter was such a beautiful girl, other than the antlers. She was observant, bright dark eyes noticing every little detail of her world, and her hair grew out thick and black. I couldn’t bear to cut it. She was so brilliant, too; I swear she started talking back to me when she was only nineteen months, full sentences by two years old. My husband didn’t believe me when I told him of her uncanny ability to repeat back words I said, not until she did it to him.
She didn’t like the dresses I bought for her, but when she could stand being dressed up nicely for church, so many people told her how beautiful she was, how sweet, how precious. The people there knew about the antlers because I told them that the doctor said they could never be removed. This was a lie. What she said was that the longer the antlers grew, the more likely they could be removed without injury. They would simply need to be careful, cut close.
Medical advances and all.
I was too cowardly to make the appointment then, even if it would have improved her life. What would be lost, when she lost the antlers?
Before she began school, I met with all her teachers to warn them about her condition. Doctors’ notes in hand like angry yellow flags, I explained to each teacher that no, they weren’t fake and yes, they were still growing. I told them about her headaches and how she might ask them for pain relievers, then I showed them the notes and what the pills looked like in my palm. And still it made her feel separate, different, even just the warning that her difference would follow her into the public world of school. She blamed me for the way people treated her differently after I told them what to expect.
If the teachers had listened to me, I could have made the school like church for my daughter. Where they would have told her she was beautiful and even wanted to reach out and touch the antlers like they were holy. But the teachers heard me out, exchanged looks when I left the room, and I knew that it would be hard for my daughter there, harder than it needed to be. At home my husband chuckled, like there was any other way the situation could have turned out, and I asked my daughter if she was excited to go to school, to learn to read. I had looked into homeschooling, but she wanted to be like the children she saw on TV, friends and school and normal. I threw my hands up and let her go.
When we dropped her off for her first day of kindergarten, I wept and my husband put an arm around my shoulder, squeezed me like he could compact my anxieties down. My daughter told me firmly, before she left, not to follow her, and went inside, her black hair shining in the sunlight, the antlers polished to soft white-brown for her first day. The other children looked at her with interest, but she didn’t seem to notice.
“It’s good for her to get out,” my husband said, and he kissed my temple and drove us home. But I worried every moment she was gone, out into a world that could hurt her without me even knowing about the injury. When I picked her up that afternoon, I shook while I held her, wrapped her in my arms.
“Mommy, they like me,” she told me, and I breathed a little easier, for a time.
When I began school, my teachers found me irritating, antlers notwithstanding. I never wanted to sit still and sometimes threw fits when I was asked to share. Being an only daughter, I had to learn for the first time that some other children would ask for my belongings and I was supposed to give them over, just to be nice. My antlers made it difficult to deal with me. They were around two or three inches by that point, beginning to branch into different paths, and other children liked to try to pull on them, even when the teachers told them not to. I’d yell and kick them and then I’d get in trouble, too. Somehow, I never learned anything from that.
Despite my restlessness, my grades were fine, though I got notes home about my temper problems and my refusal to share nicely. My mother began to ignore me when I brought her these notes, her face going still and distant. I knew, and I know, that I was not the daughter she wanted. I was loud and tomboyish, and I bucked her insistences that I be quiet, be still, be good. I didn’t want to learn her method of sewing buttons back onto my dresses; I wanted to catch salamanders with the other neighborhood children and skin my knees and let my hair burst out in a wild, bright cloud.
I was in the third grade when she gave up on me. I had ruined my only nice dress running around before church, and I yelled at her for fussing over me. I was a cruel child; I couldn’t see that she just wanted me to look nice, to behave for her in front of her friends.
“If you can’t be good,” she said, “I don’t know what I can do with you.” I wanted to explain to her that it wasn’t that I didn’t want to be nice, sometimes I did; it was that there were people who refused to leave me alone, who tugged at my antlers or my hair when they thought I wouldn’t notice. It was that there were children who thought being nice was giving up what you saved for yourself. Children who picked on their siblings, I imagined, and took the biggest pieces of birthday cake. I didn’t want those children to think the whole world was that way, so I made it hard for them to do that to me while I could. And if they pulled my antlers, I chased them and pushed them down into the grass.
My mother stared at me, and I knew that all she wanted was for me to be good, that untouchable, unsullied ideal that I did not know how to live inside. I told her I was sorry, though I was not sure what I was really apologizing for. After that, she stopped explaining my antlers to strangers, stopped scolding me for tearing my skirt or losing my hairbrush.
And every time she cupped my head in her hand after that, every time she asked about my day at school or said my name, I could feel her letting go of me. Except, she would grip the base of one of my antlers while she combed my hair, and while she never gripped hard enough to hurt, she was always, always impossible to escape.
If I could have, I would have wanted more children. Some younger ones than my daughter, children I could love without panicking. My daughter’s antlers seemed to grow every day, stretching out and away from her head like tree branches growing into the air around her, like hands reaching out. She began to decorate them, embracing them in a way that drew attention to them. She dangled necklaces or earrings from the branching arches, plastic flower crowns that appeared on her dresser, though I’m not sure where she found them. She pulled her hair back into ponytails more, emphasizing the alarming jut of the antlers, like she was tilting her chin up in a challenge.
We fought more and more frequently, usually when I tried to shift emphasis from her antlers. “They’re mine,” she told me, spitting, her face red, her voice shrill, near shrieking. “They’re me.”
She thought I was being cruel, wanting her to leave her antlers plain or hide them, as much as we could hide them at all. I didn’t want people staring at her or treating her differently, and I know they did. I knew that the other children at school giggled about her, that she was more alone than I could bear for her to be. She still got into fights, mostly with boys who took harmless pranks like tugging hair or snatching a trinket from her antlers too far. Now and then my husband and I would be called into the principal’s office, told in no uncertain terms that while those boys were being rude, our daughter could not retaliate with physical violence.
“Especially not with those being so sharp,” the principal said, pointing at the antlers like an accusation. My daughter scoffed and rolled her eyes, tilting her head back with a soft jingle from her decorations. But my heart beat faster. I knew her antlers could be dangerous, could so easily be stained.
They said that I hurt the boy from school without warning. That I lashed out so fast, that the attack was unprovoked, and even if he had done something, I gave him no time to apologize or pull away. But that’s not true. I told him so many times to stop, I lost count.
Everyone in my class told me he liked me, which was why he tried to bother me so much. For a long time he was harmless, taking my books off my desk and setting them on the floor or poking me in the back of my neck with the chewed eraser of his pencil. Things that I would roll my eyes at, but nothing that hurt me, not until he started grabbing my antlers every day. I never decorated them, left them plain and stark. The older I got, the more they embarrassed me. I had learned what it meant to stand apart and I desperately wanted to appear normal, like my mother said I would.
But this boy who grabbed my antlers made me angry, and what was worse was when I’d snap at him, glare at him, he would laugh. Laugh like it meant nothing, like I was overreacting to something harmless. Because he looked calmer than I did, he never seemed to get in trouble, only me for being rude, for disturbing class. I gained a reputation for being not merely loud or high-energy but for being a troublemaker. I was the girl who could be teased into a fury, and I was the girl with the antlers. I wanted to seep down into the earth every day.
My antlers were six inches long when the boy tried to snatch one and missed, hitting me at the base of my antler, the most sensitive boundary. I felt a sharp tear at the skin, splitting open, bleeding, and I howled in the middle of class. My ears rang with the sound of my pulse and it felt like my antler would come loose, and I was turning my head to face him, to curse, to make him leave me alone.
He’d leaned forward to grab my antlers. Leaned up over his desk, his face almost beside mine as I turned.
Just exactly the wrong angle. He screamed and I felt the flesh of his cheek give way. The tips of my antlers had narrowed over the years, closer and closer to shards of bone. To spears. He pulled back and blood poured from a gap in his cheek, a sucking black hole where I could see his teeth, his tongue as the flesh pulled open.
I swear it was an accident, the gouging, and I swore it then. But maybe what made that so hard to believe, for the classmates who were in that room, the teacher, is how I told him while he sobbed, “You should not have tried to touch me. Never touch me again.”
My daughter turns twelve tomorrow. Her fights at school are getting worse, and one little girl’s mother is threatening charges. “That monster,” she said, she used that word. And I saw the principal shake her head in the way that meant she knew she shouldn’t agree, but she did.
“They were making fun of me, Mom,” my daughter sniffles from the backseat on the drive home. Her fingers run over the base of the antlers out to their tips like stroking a pet, fingers tangling in the necklace chains. “I only told them to leave me alone.”
I try to count the deer on the side of the road and at the edges of the empty cornfields as we drive. For every roadkilled deer, I look for a survivor, one close enough to the trees to slip into hiding. If the living outweigh the dead, is that a sign that she should keep her antlers? I can’t keep track of all of them, can’t be sure there aren’t great herds I am missing in the forests, hiding in the trees, brown enough to blend into the bare trunks of early winter.
My daughter has not hurt anyone yet, not badly, not really. Her antlers are a hand’s length shorter than mine when I lost them. When they told me I had been armed long enough. It was cruel of me to let her keep them, remember them. I won’t let them take her from her room under the cover of night; I won’t let her wake up in a hospital bed alone, without anyone to hold her hand and cry with her, to say I know, baby, I know.
I call the doctor as soon as we arrive home.
The next morning before dawn we arrive at the hospital, my daughter not knowing why, asking, asking. I don’t lie to her. I don’t tell her what is happening. But I don’t lie.
She curls up in her seat, sleepy, trusting. Like when she was a baby and I carried her to the car for long trips, bundling her in her blankets so she wouldn’t have to wake up.
They give her anesthesia and she sleeps deeply through the sawing, the careful beeping of the monitors to tell us if her heart rate grows too quick, if it stops. The sound sets me shaking; I, too, was asleep when I lost my antlers, but something in my bones remembers the noise of it. That awful buzzsaw screaming. I tremble in the observation deck.
The surgeons set the antlers to one side and continue sanding the roots back down. They grind them down to smooth round nubs, like snow-covered hills on her temples. Her bangs will almost completely cover them, unless you know what you are looking for. When she is used to the lighter weight of her head, I’ll show her how to grind them down herself with a scrap of sandpaper. She can use a nail file in a pinch. I’ll show her how to keep them so flat against her head that most people will never know she once had antlers at all.