“Don’t tread where the deer dance as men, for they are neither.”
That was the last thing my grandfather said to me before he passed away. He was feverish and suffering from pneumonia stemming from lung cancer, and I was lucky enough to be in Harlan County, Kentucky on a project with the DNR when I got the call that he was in the hospital.
My mom’s family is spread all across the US, but they all trace their roots to Kentucky. Only my grandparents stayed in the state, but everyone would meet up in different states for the occasional wedding or family reunion. Because the pneumonia struck quickly, only my grandmother and I were there for the end.
I was never close to my grandfather, not due to any animosity or anything like that, but because he was such a quiet man. He was a coal miner until he had to stop working due to getting sick, but before that my grandparents ran a horse ranch out in some of the more remote hills and woodlands. My mother speaks of it fondly, recalling it as a gentle green sea of grass where waves in the fields rolled with the wind. From what I’ve gathered the move to Harlan was tough on her, it’s rare to get her to talk about it. Apparently the horse ranch was profitable for the area, and my grandparents were relatively well off. According to my Mom however, something happened with the bank or deed to the property and the land was lost.
Sitting in that hospital room, with the strong smell of antiseptic and harsh fluorescent lighting, I heard my grandfather speak more than I have in all my years alive. He spoke of long lost friends and family, how to properly break a horse, and just how dark those mines got. I don’t think he even really knew who he was talking to when I sat with him, just that he had to get the words out. I never even thought to switch on the voice recorder; I just sat in awe, letting even the most mundane of stories reveal to me the true man my grandfather was. He was witty and boisterous, completely different than the humble, quiet man I remember from my youth.
He started to come around for a bit, and finally recognized me and asked about me if I was married yet. Then, does your mother still go to church every Sunday? How’s your father? Where do you work again?
We had a brief, and long needed conversation before I began telling him about my work. My grandfather was a man of the land, and it showed whenever I mentioned the different places around the States I’ve been. I figured he’d get a kick out of the project I had been working on, but midway through the smile dropped from his face and his eyes glassed over once more.
“Don’t tread where the deer dance as men, for they are neither.”
I had no idea what that meant, but figured it was some it was some kind of folksy saying he had grown up with. He didn’t speak again until my grandmother returned from the hospital cafeteria. I left the room to give them some time alone with each other.
I was sleeping in the cafeteria when he passed. My grandmother was an absolute wreck, and I stayed a few days to help her out around the house. I also wanted to make sure that she had someone to talk to, apparently he had passed away quietly and what appeared to be painlessly, so that was some relief to her.
We had just gotten back to her home after I drove her to finalize the funeral plans when she broke out a bottle of bourbon and two glasses. We toasted his memory, and I told her about the conversation I had with him. She smiled, and her eyes began watering as I told her about the fond family memories he had related. She elaborated or corrected some parts and we talked well into the night.
We were about four glasses of bourbon in when I asked her about the phrase. I told her about my project and she listened intently, not saying anything but not dismissing it either.
“Grandma, the last thing he said was ‘Don’t tread where the deer dance as men, for they are neither.’ Is it some kind of local saying? Honestly I can’t figure out what the lesson is supposed to be.”
Her eyes were bloodshot from the tears and the whiskey as her smile quickly disappeared into a grimace. Time seemed to stop as she looked down at her hands. I noticed they began trembling, and she clenched them into tight fists in response. “It’s not a lesson, it’s a rule,” she said eyes still facing downwards.
I’m not saying I’m a professional reporter or anything, but having interviewed multiple people for my project I’ve seen the signs of this internal conflict before. She hid her eyes from mine, did everything possible to hide the signals her body was giving as she relived whatever was behind that story. I knew she would tell me, and I she confirmed it by refilling our glasses.
Without a word she motioned for me to follow her to the basement. I picked up both of our glasses and we steadied ourselves on the old wooden bannister, feeling each step of the stairs moving. The staircase was due to be replaced, and the bourbon in our veins didn’t help matters either. I had never been in their cellar before, but it was sparse. There was a small workbench for my father with a few chairs, a few boxes of what must have been financial documents from when they ran the ranch, and a beaten up old trunk.
We pulled the chairs up to the workbench and set our glasses down. This time I remembered to switch on the tape recorder and just listened while she talked.
“Your grandfather and I lived in a holler many miles west of here on a horse ranch. Now, it was actually my daddy’s property. He started it and practically ran the place single handed with occasional workers being hired on if the herds got too big or something else needed to be built.
“Now, your grandfather John absolutely hated horses, but he had just gotten back from Korea and was looking for work. John ended up meeting my daddy in town one day. Both just goin’ into the post office to mail some letters or packages or some such, they struck up a conversation and before you know it John was at our ranch. When I saw John it was love at first sight for both of us. My daddy kept a close eye on him, but hired him full time when he saw how hard he worked. He didn’t look it when you knew him, but when he returned from the war he was built like a, well like a brick shithouse like my daddy used to say.
“He drove a Pershing tank for the Army and was later transferred to Infantry when his tank was knocked out. Your granddaddy liked tanks, but he hated Korea. John told me once he was happier as an infantryman because it was easier to walk over that rough ground than drive a tank over it. You can imagine how quickly I took to him, considerin’ he was a strong, funny, war hero. We were married in six months, and he moved onto the farm permanently.
“John preferred driving the tractor over riding a horse, and my daddy would give him shit for it. John called him a fool for voluntarily riding something that could throw you and kill ya’ whenever it had a whim to. They had a good relationship, but sadly John was right. My daddy was trying to break a new horse that had been trouble for some friends of ours when it bucked and he hit his head on the well. There was no use tryin’ to save daddy; he was dead as soon as he hit the ground.
“The ranch was left to the two of us in the will, so I had to teach John how to train horses. Eventually he warmed up to them and before you know it was riding his horse Black Jack up into the hills every couple of weekends to camp under the stars.
“One night it was a full moon and he packed his saddlebags for the night, heading out to one of the hills overlooking our property. After he left I did the rest of my work and fell asleep. During the night, the sound of a horse panicking woke me up, and I grabbed the shotgun I used for hunting and headed outside. Black Jack was in the yard, buckin’ with foam coming out of his mouth. I thought I’d have to put him down, but he saw me and calmed some. There was no sign of your grandfather, so I went to get a flashlight and change into my riding clothes. Suddenly, there were screams of pain from the yard so I ran downstairs to find your granddaddy crawlin’ towards the house.
“There was a piece of antler stickin’ out of his leg, so I dragged him inside and called Doc Fletcher and he came out and took care of the wound. John wouldn’t tell us what happened, because he knew it would terrify the children. He forbade them from leaving the cleared grounds of the ranch. Told ‘em it was because there was an increase of bear attacks in the woods, and that we would have to be careful until he had killed them all. I knew he wasn’t telling the truth, but I knew he’d tell me when he was ready. John didn’t sleep too well after that, never did again actually. I’d find him sitting by the front window with his Winchester until sunup.
“Finally, his leg was healed and he was moving around normally again. That’s when he told me what happened that night. John had settled down and tied Black Jack to one of the trees on the highest hills of our property. After a quick dinner, he laid out under the sky to watch the stars. That’s when he noticed a faint glow of a bonfire in some of our woods to the north.
“Now, we had problems with poachers in the past trying to hunt on our property, so John saddled up Black Jack and they rode out to chase the men off. When he reached the edge of the forest he climbed down and walked Black Jack, yelling out that he was the property owner and just wanted them to leave. The one thing he didn’t want was to get shot by someone who thought he was wild game, or be shot by someone scared and just lookin’ to defend themselves.
“So as John gets closer he hears antlers rattling together, like how hunters will hit antlers to make it sound like bucks fighting each other, trying to draw other deer out. He calls out again, and the noise stops. Black Jack starts to go crazy, tugging at the reigns and breaks free. So, John is standing alone out in the forest, and the air gets still. Curious now, he creeps forward and breaks the tree line.
“I still remember to this day what he said to me. ‘Mary, you wouldn’t believe it. It was the worst thing I’ve seen. At first I thought they were men in deer costumes, or when deer stand on their hind legs when they reach for something high up. They stepped towards me and into the light of the fire. They were taller than deer on their back legs, and they all had something wrong with ‘em. With some of them their legs were different lengths, one had a 3rd antler growing out behind the right one. A couple had what looked like the hands of men, but they didn’t grow right. I started backing up and panicked. I had to get out of there.’
“’In front of the fire was a thing screaming like the baby of a man and woman but with the face of a fawn. Mary, I’ve always tried to be a good Christian, and that moment I knew I was looking at things that were the work of the Devil. The biggest one charged at me and I ran. I could hear its uneven footsteps catching up to me and small trees getting torn out of the ground like wheat. It was speakin’ some language, but not one I ever heard, and I could hear it foam and spit as I ran. Then all of a sudden I was in the air, and there was a horrible pain in my leg. It tripped me and stabbed me with its antlers, and tried dragging me back towards the fire. I did the only thing I thought of, and grabbed the biggest rock I could grab and bashed it against its skull. The antler cracked and the thing screamed and spit and stomped and I ran.’”
Grandma stopped for a moment, took another slug of the whiskey, and continued.
“I didn’t believe him. People’s minds do funny things when they get scared or hurt. One time my uncle had come over and was kicked in the head by a horse. Nothin’ to kill him or hurt him permanently, just enough to jostle him a bit. He was speaking nonsense for about four days and refused to leave the house, and asked my father and John not to go hunting. When they asked him why not he replied ‘Don’t tread where the deer dance as men, for they are neither.’ I remember that because I could see Daddy turn a bit pale and sweaty. John laughed it off and said my uncle would have to work on his poetry. My uncle didn’t remember any of it when he recovered.
“Your grandfather was upset that I didn’t believe him. He still forbade us from going into the woods, and later one night when I was getting ready for bed, he came upstairs and grabbed his pistol from his nightstand. It was the .45 he carried in Korea. He was dressed to go into the woods, and he simply went downstairs without saying a word. I chased after, yelling at him to stop and talk to me. He said it was just something he had to do. On the kitchen table was his wood axe and .30-.30 Winchester he used for hunting.
“John pointed out the window and I could see the full moon, and a distant glow in the forests. He had a look in his eyes that he would get whenever he talked about the war; it was a cold and distant look. I wanted to stop him but I couldn’t. I was convinced he was about to murder some poachers. Your grandfather opened the door and walked Black Jack to the edge of the woods; at that point he crouched and snuck into the woods, hugging the ground. Then I lost sight of him.
“I was beginning to think nothing would happen as a half hour passed. Then, I could hear his rifle firing very quickly. At night the sound of gunfire carries very far, and I could almost feel each shot going off. Then, I could hear his pistol firing. He must have shot so many bullets because I lost count. There were distinctive lulls where I figure he was reloading, but otherwise it was like a constant chatter of a typewriter. Then there was silence.
“It was the longest and harshest silence I have ever lived through. The children came downstairs, scared of the gunfire, but I told them that John was out chasing away a bear. I sent them back upstairs, and nearly jumped when the front door opened.
“It was John. He was covered in cuts and bruises, one eye had swollen up like he had gone a few rounds with a good boxer, and his right arm hung limply by his side. His left hand was carrying a large burlap sack, dripping with what I knew to be blood. He didn’t say anything, he just nodded to the barn and I followed. Black Jack waited outside, with the axe and rifle attached to his saddle bags. The axe was covered in drying blood.
“We got inside the barn and John looked at me, ‘I got every single one of the bastards Mary. Every one.’ He reached into the bag and I could see a gigantic set of antlers poking out. I still don’t know how I didn’t scream when he pulled the rest of it out of the bag. That’s when he said it to me, ‘Don’t tread where the deer dance as men, for they are neither.’ What he thought was some kind of joke from my uncle was some kind of warning. Maybe Uncle Robert knew about them or maybe something spoke through him, or it could have been something buried in our minds from when we were cavemen.”
My grandmother walked to the trunk and dragged it over, unlocking it with a key on a chain around her neck. She motioned me to it, and said she had to go upstairs for a moment. As the door closed at the top of the steps, I reached for the latch. My hand was shaking as I lifted the lid; a cloud of dust greeted me. Inside the box was a large, stained burlap sack.
I grabbed it hesitantly and pulled open the drawstring, seeing a pair of antlers poking out of the hole. My heart was pounding as I grabbed one of the antlers, and sat there for a moment. I had to work my way up to it, as though I knew somehow it was dangerous.
I pulled the bag off the rest of the way, and a gasp escaped my mouth as I dropped the thing on the ground. I was staring at an antlered skull, but instead of the slender muzzle of a white tail deer, it had a short, squat and overbuilt muzzle that reminded me of a Rottweiler. The muzzle itself was crooked, angled towards the left side of the skull as though it was a broken nose not allowed to set correctly. The mouth was a tangled mess of sharp canines and the large flat molars of a deer. The worst was the eye sockets. The right one appeared normal, but the left one had what looked like another eye socket that was forming below it and had merged together into one large figure eight sized gap. The antlers appeared normal though large, and there was a visible point broken off one.
“He made me swear not to tell anyone,” my grandmother said quietly, causing me to jump. I was so engrossed in the mockery of life before me that I hadn’t heard her come back. She was holding a piece of antler.
“This is what we pulled out of his leg the first day,” she walked over and lined the broken piece up with the rest of the antlers.
“We knew we couldn’t stay there anymore, no matter if it was safe or not. We sold the land at a loss and the only job your grandfather could find on short notice was down in the mines. It was only supposed to be a temporary thing, but, well you know how those things go.” She closed the lid.
For the first time in my life I felt my grandmother truly judge me, as she eyed me up and down, and then looked back at the box.
“Jesus… I had no idea,” I managed to choke out.
“No one does. We kept it a secret, and things seemed to go back to normal with the exception of one problem. I don’t know if it was a curse or if it was stress, but no matter what he ate he began to waste away, becoming thinner and losing muscle until he was the size you knew him at. From that day he was quieter. Quieter than when he had night terrors after the war. I suppose seeing something like that changes you.”
The bourbon burned as I threw back the last of my glass. There was a case I noticed leaning against the work bench as I flopped into the worn wooden chair. My grandmother lifted the case and opened it. Inside was a Winchester lever action rifle, and a 1911 .45 with ‘PROPERTY OF THE US GOVERNMENT’ stamped onto the slide.
“After what you told me about that project you’re working on, and the fact that he said that… phrase to you earlier. I’m thinkin’ he would’ve wanted you to have these. You have to help me do one thing first.”
We loaded the old trunk into my grandmother’s pickup and set off into the night. After about 45 minutes we came to the site of one of the more active strip mines and pulled off the road near a fenced off lake.
I pulled the trunk out and grabbed just the burlap sack. I would never be able to make it over the fence otherwise. As my boots sank into the soft mud, I pitched the sack as far out into the middle of the artificial lake as I could. My grandmother had explained it was a waste slurry pond. Filled with poisonous and toxic byproducts of the strip mining process, no one would see that skull ever again.
We drove back to her house in silence, and I left the next day with my grandfather’s old rifle case. As I loaded up my rental car in the garage, I could see a wood axe hanging on the wall, blade covered with what could be mistaken for rust.
My grandmother hugged me goodbye, and I drove off into the hills towards the airport. Since then, anytime I see a deer at night I think of my grandfather, and I think of his warning.
“Don’t tread where the deer dance as men, for they are neither.”