“Red” by Katie Knoll
The mark of a great story is one that changes the reader, one that forces the reader to see the world anew. “Red” is one of those stories. First published by The Masters Review and the winner of their Short Story Award for New Writers in the Fall of 2016, this story beautifully captures that moment when girls are yearning to be grown.
Part of the reason that the story is so successful is its insistence on mystery. Nothing here is quite as we know it to be, and yet somehow this is a familiar world. The use of the first-person plural point-of-view does much to underscore the shared understanding, inviting the reader into this fictional space that feels oddly real. “Red” also pays particular attention to the idea of craft, focusing on the work that’s done behind the scenes, the effort and love that’s needed to create a work of art. We hope you enjoy “Red” and, like us, see the world a little differently after you’ve finished reading its final words.
“Antlered does of the genus Capreolus usually bear small, poorly developed, irregular “freak” antlers which remain for the most part permanently in velvet without being shed.”
George Wislocki, “Journal of Mammalogy”
Before, we were blue. Bluer than robins’ eggs, bluer than the tiny veins in our wrists and some of our eyes. Even our skin was blue: palms, fingernails, elbows and knees. Our mothers weren’t as skilled before, and the dye from our clothes stuck to us. Then the dye ran out, and our skin over time unstained, and only our clothes were blue. Then the blue cloth and yarn and thread ran out too, after years, and our mothers carded, spun and pulled and wove, making cloth without color, until it all was ready. Today, our mothers make us a new color. Today, we become red.
The cart comes in early morning, when the sky is purple. It backs into the field our mothers share and opens like a mouth, and all the red comes out. Many of us have only heard stories of the dye mound, seen it in our dreams: the powder, finer than sand, red as the spices our fathers use to cook meat. A red hill, tall as our houses. Our fathers help our mothers haul the vats outside, fill and heat them. Soon the field is full of smell and steam. Our mothers bring the carts of undyed cloth and thread and yarn, roll back their sleeves, tie up their hair, set to work. They dip the fabric and churn the vats with heavy paddles.
We sit where they tell us to in the grass, away from the dye and the pots, watching their heads frizz in the pink steam, their arms turn red up to the elbows. We itch to help, do what our mothers do, but for now we must only watch. Wait a little longer. Red will be our color, our mothers have promised us. Red is what we’ll learn with, everything they know.
When we grow impatient, we walk circles around the dye mound. We lead the blind boy around and around to show him its size. Red as a berry, we whisper when he asks. Red as blood, as poppies, red as a cardinal’s feathers. Ours.
Our mothers have gods’ hands, our fathers say. They make yarn and fabric in wonderful color. They knit shawls and scarves and hats in intricate whorls, weave blankets fine as water, stitch veils and coats and gowns. Our fathers serve our mothers. They hunt and build and cook and teach so our mothers can sew, stitch, make amazing things. Our brothers learn what our fathers do, and we watch our mothers, wait to learn too.
We have options, they tell us. We can be as we wish. Some of us want to be sharp as needles, mean as a cooking burn. Some of us want to be wind-strong or rough like the hands of our fathers. Some of us want to be quick, gracious, beautiful. Some of us want to hunt, or build. Some of us want nothing we know, something else entirely. We do not want to be like our mothers, because we already are, we have always been like them: fingers nimble, eyes sharp, voices strong to sing through the long stitching nights.
You can be anything, now that the red has come, our fathers tell us in our beds. A knitter. A weaver. A quilter. A seamstress or a nurse.
A nurse? we say, and our fathers pull back our sleeves, tug our socks, part our hair: old scars, thin as thread, the long-forgotten wounds our mothers stitched so finely shut.
Today, we learn the words of our mothers: vinegar, mordant, tannin, vat, bloodroot, indigo. The wind blows grains of dye powder like fine pink sand on the air. Before long, it gets at us. Under our fingernails, red. When we blow our noses, red. When we spit like the boys do, red. The ones of us old enough to help our mothers already are stained for real, our palms when we hold them up red as flags, and the rest of us are jealous. We rub the dye powder in our hands, clap and scream, happy, when the dust explodes. We work and play, and when the sky is too dark to work, we celebrate.
While we learned, our fathers took our brothers to the woods, brought back some rabbits and squirrels, cooked stew. It’s meager, but we don’t care. We down the steaming bowls like animals, without spoons, hoot and caw when our brothers tell us the stories of how they killed. They are proud, loud, strong as men in their stories. They point their fingers like guns at us, puff out their cheeks in the firing sound when they kill us in pretend.
One of us, who has always wanted only to be beautiful, is late. She comes to dinner with her smile all gory. She wanted lips red as rose petals, like the princesses in stories. She rubbed the dye into her lips but stained her teeth, too, bright red. She terrifies the littler children, but the rest of us like it.
After dinner, we sneak to the powder mound. We take our own handfuls of dye, contemplate its grit, its possible taste, but our fathers find us first. They knock the dust out of our hands, sweep them clean.
Not to eat, they say. Poison.
Then we watch the girl differently, her shining mouth, her lips, teeth, tongue—all red. That night, when the moon is fat and yellow, she becomes the first to change her skin.
We know the deer is her because its teeth are red, because it is in the bed where before she was sleeping. She is huge now, bristly fur, tawny, sloe-eyed. Her antlers are small and fuzzed, but knock into the wall when she turns her head. She fills the room with heat and animal stink.
At first, we are afraid. Some of us want to find our fathers, bring our brothers.
Wait, one of us says. We can be anything, remember?
We hear our fathers sing in our heads, A weaver or a seamstress or a nurse!
The deer rocks its head, scraping its antlers into the wall. It sounds to some of us like nothing, bone on plaster. It sounds to some of us like Yes.
We take her to the blind boy, who loves her. We know the stories our fathers tell us, princesses turned to frogs and back with a kiss, killed but brought back to life with only lips touching.
She’s become a deer, we explain, and he says, Oh.
Change her back. Kiss her hooves, we say, and he does. We wait for her to shed her skin. Nothing happens.
Kiss her neck, we say. Her knees. Kiss her nose. Her ears. Kiss her red teeth.
We guide his fingers to where we want his lips, and he kisses the deer over and over. He falls asleep with his lips on her antlers, his arm across her great neck.
In the morning, she is herself again, and her legs are slicked with blood. We cry when we see it, and take her to her father, who laughs, blushes, calls her moon-girl. He explains in a clumsy way, because our mothers are already in the yard, pulling and dipping and dyeing cloth with no time for us, and then we’re all blushing, shoving her, calling her moon-girl too. When he’s gone, we ask her how it feels, the blood’s press down, the deer inside her.
Of the blood, she feels heavy, she says, and full. Either she doesn’t remember becoming the deer, or she won’t say.
We wait until our mothers’ backs are turned, until they are all looping skeins of yarn dyed red onto the drying line at the edge of the field. Then we make the blind boy scoop fistfuls of dye powder and hold it out to us. We eat it from his hands, one and then another, and lick his fingers clean.
The dust makes us choke. Some of us cough puffs of pink like a dragon’s breath. It tastes like boiled eggs, some of us say. Rust, others. We drink water until our spit runs clear. Our teeth and tongues shine red with what we’ve done, though our fathers, gone to hunt, don’t see, and our mothers have eyes only for the cloth. We should, too. To learn is all we’ve longed for, what we’ve been raised all our lives to want. But what is cloth, compared to fur? Dye compared to blood? When our mothers aren’t looking, we flash each other gory smiles like secrets. Eating the dye will work, we believe. It has to. We can think of nothing else that makes the deer girl different, except the blood between her legs. For that, our mothers said this morning, we can only wait.
At dark, we take blankets and pillows to the fields and camp. We want space for when we become deer. When we pull our underwear down to pee, we check ourselves for blood, but nothing. Still, we suck our teeth and wait for the change to come.
The blind boy asks what stars look like, and ravens, and so we draw things for him with our fingernails gently in the skin of his arms. He has promised to keep our secret, to listen, keep us close, to remind us in the morning if we don’t remember that we were deer.
When the moon has risen, we are all the same except the first girl, who is a deer again. The felt of her antlers is soft. It gathers the darkness, makes her beautiful. We want to cry and lash at her.
Why didn’t it work? we wail, and rub our red teeth. We crave her specialness. Her size and stink.
The deer has no answers. She walks circles in the field around our blankets, her thick hooves trampling the delicate yellow wildflowers. When we are calm, she lets first the blind boy ride her, and then each of us, our cheeks pressed against the heat and bristling fuzz of her neck, lulling us to doze until dawn comes and she is herself again.
Our fathers and brothers come home with little things: a couple of rabbits, a squirrel. No birds, they say. No fish. No big game. No elk, no bear, no deer.
This won’t last us long, our mothers say. They rub their red elbows as though they itch. There are streaks of red on their brows where they wipe at the sweat.
We tried, our fathers say. The woods were quiet and still.
We sew and we sew, our mothers say. Look at our ruined hands. Look at our tired eyes. Look what we make, day in and out. Then they snap whatever’s in their hands—a shawl, or a mitten, a cape or a dress. It cracks the air over our little commune, meaning everything—us, our brothers, our beautiful clothes.
Is it not our eyes on the children? our fathers say, or something like this, each time when their work is not enough. Is it not our stories in their ears?
We ask only food, our mothers say. They turn their backs. Pull at the weave of whatever’s in their hands so there is work to be redone. We ask only shelter. We ask only time.
We feel sad for our fathers, but our mothers’ anger has always been good, at least for us. After they fight, they call all us girls to them and sit us in a ring in the grass.
It’s time, our mothers say, and in our minds we are decked in red, red gowns like bloody water, red gloves soft as a doe’s cheek, red underwear of lace fine as a butterfly’s wing. We bounce, waiting, eager. We are ready. Happy to go hungry, to be red. Instead, they give us each scrap cloth and thread.
Cross-stitch, they say. Little exes.
We don’t understand, but we do as they ask, until our eyes and backs ache, until our fingers cramp and bleed red from pricking.
We want to make crowns, we say. We throw the scraps into the grass, cross our arms. Ribbons, capes. Where is everything fine? Where is the red?
They press the rough cloth into our hands again, the ugly thread.
Learn, our mothers say, and watch until we work again. Exes in rows, exes in columns, exes until they’re tight and narrow, exes until each one looks the same as the next. We stitch, and watch the woods grow dark, looking for deer. We search inside ourselves for antlers, some furred thing growing.
Learn, our mothers chant, soft as a song. We think they mean, Do not disappoint us.
Tonight, the girl is the deer again. We have all eaten the dye powder, stained our teeth, begged the place between our legs for blood, but nothing. Only her body ripples and blows larger. Only her head grows antlers.
She is restless. Her eyes are flatter brown, more animal than they have been. They seek the woods no matter where we turn her.
She wants to go away, someone says, grown bitter with her sameness. Let her.
We pull the deer’s head, grasp at her forelegs to keep her with us. It makes her kick and buck. When she rears, her hoof grazes one of us, a girl with one blue eye and one brown. The force knocks the girl down, leaves a bright red cut on her cheek. She turns mean when she sees the blood, slaps the deer hard in the mouth. Then its eyes when it looks at us are pure wild. The deer runs into the wood where as girls we are not allowed to go, her tail a streak of white in the dark.
You shouldn’t have done that, we tell the girl with different-colored eyes. We chase the deer, leave her to cup her cheek and bleed.
Half the night we call the deer’s name at the edge of the woods, saying, Come back! and We won’t hurt you! but we see nothing, hear nothing, and by morning, she has not returned, as girl or deer.
That day, only our mothers work. We are all too sad and fearful. We walk the edge of the woods, listen as our fathers and brothers make packs and head out. They search all day, and find her, at dusk, at the bottom of a ravine with her arm broken. She is in her girl shape but with a rack of stunted, fuzzed antlers still sprouting from her head, looking twisted and wrong. She says nothing, not to them, her father or brother or mother, not to any of us as they bring her back to the settlement, set her to rest in her mother’s bed, her arm wrapped and set up on pillows. We visit her, each of us, and stroke her antlers, and kiss her hair, and say, We’re sorry. We mean, Sorry for you. We mean, Sorry it wasn’t us. This wouldn’t have happened to us.
Tonight, our fathers want us in our own beds, where they and our brothers can watch over us, keep us from whatever magic took the antlered girl.
Our parents only care about shared blood—the lack of it—when bad things happen. We are none of us sisters, true family. This is good, our parents say. We are all family, and not.
We sleep most nights piled on the floor of one family’s living room, or in the soft green of the fields, or in our own private universes, the dark of our single beds in our parents’ homes. When we sleep in our own beds, like this night, our fathers tell us bedtime stories of our mothers: They started as a sewing circle, when they were only wives. They were sad, and at the time, they whispered this, only to each other. They were bored. Lonely. Desperate for change. The sewing gave them focus. A purpose. A beautiful thing to hold in their hands. Silent, shining, theirs. For a little while, it was enough. But one wife did a dark thing, and died, and so the others sewed faster, vigorously. They gathered under starlight, under lamplight, in the little loops and streets of their little towns, and made amazing things. They sewed themselves into happiness, into life, out of their dull world and into the woods, where their husbands built them houses, sheds to store their sewing, boxes for needles, looms big as bulls, where the seasons gave them color-rich flowers and fruit and they learned to dye. When they were ready, they sewed us into their bellies and they stitched themselves up when we came.
Your blood is mordant dye, our fathers recite, cupping our cheeks, leaning down for a kiss. We finish with them: Our hair fine thread. Our mothers, our makers.
We are heating the vats, dumping sacks of mordant, fine as powdered sugar, into the steam.
To make our colors flash like lightning, our mothers explain. To make it stick on the cloth and not to you. But careful, they say. They see our lips, our pink teeth. Don’t eat it.
The powder smells rotten, and burns our eyes and noses as it dissolves. We pick up the heavy paddles our mothers stir with, two girls to each paddle, and make whirlpools in the vat.
It was me, the girl with one blue and one brown eye whispers. The cut on her cheek glows, little stitches where her mother sewed her up. I changed last night.
No—we say, the first girl didn’t remember she was a deer.
She lied, she says. I remember everything.
Whispering so the mothers don’t hear, she tells us how it felt. Like power, she says. She felt the strength in herself, in places her human body isn’t strong. She could have run and not stopped till she was too far for her human legs to carry her back. Away from this place, our mothers, our fathers, us. She says she wept when she changed back. That she longs only for the dark to come, to become again what she has always been inside. She says she doesn’t know how the antlered girl could do it, not changing anymore. She’d want to die if she was her. That she deer-kicked the headboard off her bed, and she’ll show us to prove it.
If only you could feel it, she says to us all. She closes her eyes in remembering. If only you could know.
We must all want to do it, but the red-haired girl beats us to it—when the deer girl closes her blue-brown eyes, the red-haired girl splashes the front of her dress. The water is hot, but not boiling, and the dye powder hasn’t been added yet, so it ought only to frighten her, make her squeal a little. Show her what we think of her gloating—that it’s ugly, and we can be ugly, too. But when the water hits her, she screams, and claws at her chest, and screams again. Some of our mothers come running.
Stupid, careless girl, one mother hisses, thinking she splashed herself by accident. She points at the empty mordant sack. We told you to be careful. Get water, she says, and some of us go. Run now. Get your fathers. Cool water, buckets, cloths.
She helps the girl with one blue eye and one brown eye pull her dress over her head right where we stand, here in the field, our brothers watching. The girl’s neck, down her chest and stomach, between her legs is steaming. Her skin is bright pink and angry-looking. She sobs and moans. The mother blows gently on her skin. Like magic as we watch, little blisters bubble and rise.
Our mothers announce that the first of the red clothes is finished. It’s a red cape with a hood, embroidered with white flowers. There are two little holes left at the crown of the head. They present it to the antlered girl in her healing bed with all of us watching.
The girl who got burned is in a bed beside her. Where the mordant liquid touched her skin was blisters, but when our fathers rubbed ointment into her, the blisters turned to deer fur, coarse and short in a streak down her chest. We can see a tuft of it beneath the collar of her nightshirt where she lies in the bed. She glares hate at us, but we have eyes only for our mothers, their new red gift.
We say ooh when they slip it around the antlered girl’s shoulders and tie the ribbon at her throat. She blinks but says nothing still.
Her head now is too heavy for her neck. She leans back into the wall, or must hold her head with her hands when she sits up. We sigh louder for her silence like our mothers want us to, when they draw the hood up her face, help her fit her antlers through the gaps.
So pretty, our mothers say, we think meaning the cape.
So pretty, our brothers say, we think meaning the antlered girl.
Feel, our mothers tell the blind boy, who must admire their work too.
He runs his fingers along the embroidery at her shoulders, the ribbon around her neck. He skates his fingers up the hood, across her forehead.
Still silent, she reaches out to him, guides his hand slowly up to her antlers.
So pretty, he says, touching the velvet, the bone, her soft hair just beneath.
When the night comes, we sleep all in the same room again, and we bar the door to keep our parents out. We are afraid to turn, afraid we still won’t. We want it to be all of us, or each of us wants it to be her alone. We imagine it: a roomful of deer, our antlers knocking into each other, the heavy wooded smell of our bodies. The furniture, our blankets and pillows, all our precious things ruined under all our trampling hooves.
The red-haired girl, the one who splashed and burned the blue-and-brown-eyed girl, is the one to change. She is the third girl out of all of us, and though we hold our breath for others, it is only her. She tosses her head. Flicks her tail. Pulls away when we draw close.
Why are you like this? we ask her. We knot our fingers in her fur. Pull and then soothe. We pinch her furred face. Stroke her hooves, thick like bone and dark with dirt. What did you do that we didn’t?
We curl into her heat, press down to make her lie still with us. She is strong, but all of us together are strong too. We can make her do as we wish. We think of the three deer girls, one who bled, one who was kicked, one who burned another. Who felt pain, brought pain down on someone else.
The deer goes still, breathes, big chuffs in and then out again like our fathers in their sleep.
We think we understand now, how to become deer. We hold the knowledge under our tongues like a spoon of honey, let it soften and dissolve, spread through us.
You big dumb thing, we say. We run whorls in her fur with our fingers, but are gentle. We will none of us be the one to hurt her in front of the others, though all our thoughts swell big and dark. You big stupid. You big ugly.
In the morning, the red-haired girl walks our fathers and our brothers to the edge of the woods, where she stands on a tree stump, spreads her arms like an angel, and in her stillness and silence calls the real deer to her.
Our brothers tell us this story later, over cubes of meat, the grease shining on all our chins, bubbling red against our still-red teeth: How our fathers said, Be still, strange one, and crouched to shoot around her. How she didn’t flinch when the deer fell, and when they pulled her off the stump, her eyes were still closed, and she was smiling.
She’ll come with us now to hunt, our fathers say. They flock to her, clap her back, put their arms around her. They kiss her head where in the night her antlers sprout. Our mothers purse their lips, but say nothing. She has become a good spinner, strong with the yarn and the thread, and they want her for themselves.
Our good luck charm! our fathers call her. Lady Fortune!
Rabbit’s foot! one father says, and another corrects him, Deer hoof!
The antlered girl has stolen a handsaw from our fathers. We see her from the dyeing vats, sprinting toward the woods with the handsaw in the crook of her injured arm, supporting her heavy head with her free hand.
Should we go after her? one of us asks, and our mothers shush us, clap their hands.
Focus, they say, not seeing the antlered girl as she slips between the trees. Keep working.
We are not allowed to use the mordant sacks anymore, and not the paddles, either. Between us all we wring a sheet of red cloth almost as long as the field is, longer than our houses.
The rest of us shrug, shake our heads. We do not know all the rules. If one of us hurts another, she will change. But if the antlered girl hurts herself, then what? Could it be all of us, any of us?
She will be back, one of us whispers.
Maybe she just wants firewood, another says.
Maybe she wants to hunt, too.
Pay attention, our mothers snap. Don’t let the fabric fall.
A handful of us look back to the woods for the antlered girl, who has disappeared into the trees. Most of us have already forgotten her. The ones of us who haven’t pretend to, and wonder if neglect is its own kind of hurting.
We spread our arms, come together and apart to fold the sheet of fabric in on itself, drape it over the line to dry. It runs the length of the drying line like a long wound.
Our mothers have made the burned girl a red tunic, the front so deeply v’d her pale deer fur shows down to her belly button. The embroidery is in a paler red, and swirls around her tiny breasts and up her shoulders like a pair of arms wrapped around her back, folding her in like an embrace.
Beautiful, we say when she glares. So pretty, so fine.
We ask the questions our mothers want us to: Did you use a pattern? Did you fit it to her first? What stitch to fix the edges? What size to keep her itty breasts from popping out? They scold us when we shriek and laugh. We are meant to be learning. Absorbing what they know. Hungry for it.
Soon we will all be dressed in red, not just pretty pieces. Red scarves, red gloves, red hats. Red socks, red underwear, red bras. Red laces for our shoes, red ribbons for our hair. Red until the powder runs dry, until they’ve used what all they’ve dyed. There will be more than we can ever wear, more than there are people. There will be pieces too small for even the littlest babies, pieces too big, pieces finer than they’ll let anyone touch. And soon, though we don’t know how soon, we’ll make the red ourselves. We’ll know what our mothers know. We will step into skillfulness like into the dresses they save for us, waiting until our bodies can do them justice. They remind us now that even looking is a lesson in itself, so we look at the burned girl’s tunic, the red, its intricate pieces and stitching, but her fur draws our eyes away.
We have one more thing to show you, our mothers say, and lead us to the room we have never been allowed to enter, where they keep the clothes that can never be ours. They keep us standing outside until we’re bouncing, our pulses quick to see. To remind you what you can be, they say, and when they let us in, we gasp.
The walls gleam white with sun, all the blue so bright. There are shelves lined with mittens, socks, hats and scarves and shawls, the knit so fine it’s invisible or in intricate patterns. There are racks with pants and skirts and aprons, racks of dresses no one has ever worn, the bodices embroidered with tiny flowers or creeping vines or stars. There is a dress with the skirt darkly blue at the bottom, fading prettily to white at the top. There is a dress so crammed with embroidery it looks more white than blue. One dress has full sleeves, animals leaping up its side like a zodiac parade. We are allowed to look, to learn. We walk the rows and shelves like visitors at a museum. Already, we plan for later: how we will tell our brothers of this like they tell us of their hunting trips—the blue and white, the stitching that swirls and leaps and seems to breathe under our fingers.
See this stitch? our mothers say. See how fine?
Some of them lace their fingers together. They nestle their heads upon each other’s shoulders, touch each other’s hair, or necks, or backs. They sigh, smile dreamily. When they speak, it’s like a song, the ones we’ve never heard.
All this will be yours, they say. You will learn to stitch, to weave, to mend. You’ll learn to pull and dye and card. You’ll learn to sing yourselves together through the night.
They add the first shock of red: a deer’s head, sculpted stiff cloth. They’ve knit a rack of red antlers, wire inside to give them shape. They spread like twisted hands, ten points, larger and finer than the antlered girl’s own. One mother slips the head onto her own—it hides her, a perfect mask. She tilts her deer head, her antlers and thread eyelashes all red. They want us to admire them, clap and sing. But it’s all wrong. We’ve seen the real thing. We’ve run our fingers through deer fur, felt the heat from soft black nostrils. We know animal power, the smell of must and fern. Our mothers pass the head between them, each slipping it on, tilting to watch us like they think an animal would. It makes us shiver.
Help, the blind boy cries, and bursts into the room. Our mothers hiss and make to shove him away before he sees, but remember. His love has gone, he tells us, the antlered girl and the burned girl with her.
We remember: the antlered girl, the handsaw, her cape rippling behind her. Alone. The burned girl, none of us have seen.
Our mothers are not surprised. They turn from us. Some take each other’s hands, others lift a blue skirt, pull the blue embroidery under their fingers like the blind boy does to see. Then they’ve made their choice, they say, and shrug.
A choice? we whisper to ourselves, tasting the word.
We chose this life, they say. We chose you. To give you all this. We left our own mothers, and now so have they.
A choice? we say, as though it has heat to burn us.
Come with us now, they tell us girls, and promise us, finally, red cloth and thread and yarn of our own. Some of us do, the ones who truly forgot the antlered girl, her crown of bone and velvet, her cape rippling behind her. The rest of us choose different.
Some of us take the blind boy’s hands. Some of us hold onto each other. Some of us walk on our own. When we look back, there are the vats still steaming pink, our mothers far and small, the long red cloth that seems to cut our world in two.
She’s been gone hours, one of us says.
You saw her? says the blind boy, And you didn’t stop her?
They must be together, right? They weren’t before, but they must be now.
What if it’s nothing? some of us say.
Others say, What if we’re too late?
We do not have to walk far. We see her from farther than we should be able to because of her cape, the bright red where all else is green, brown, gray. She is on her knees beneath the pines, and the saw is in her hands, at the crown of her head resting upon a fallen tree, grinding at her antlers.
The burned girl is nowhere we can see, and we wonder if she has gone for real—we remember the way she longed for her deer legs to carry her too far to ever return.
A choice, we hear our mothers in our heads.
I want them gone, the antlered girl says when we get close. There is blood in her hair, on the sides of her face where she’s gone partly through the bone. She reaches for the blind boy’s hands. Please, I want them gone.
He touches her cheek and then her hair, the cape wet too. Some of us reach for the saw.
Don’t, the red-haired girl says. She steps between us and the antlered girl. Holds out her arms, her palms stained a faded pink now. You don’t know what it could change.
We look at the red-haired girl, who called the wild deer to die. Who splashed the second girl to change and burned her. Her freckled skin, her teeth, her eyes, her bones, all breakable. Each of us could do so little, and change so much. Any of us could be the fourth deer tonight.
Let’s go back, says the red-haired girl. We found her like we wanted, so let’s go back.
Back, to the blue clothes room, an empty red room for us to fill. But we don’t want just to be red, or whatever colors come after. We want our mothers’ secrets, their distance and silence, the songs they share only with each other. We do. But we want our fathers’ secrets, too. We want yards of seeded lace all red unrolling and we want to be the deer. We want the bone-hilt knives of our fathers and the moon blood of our mothers. And we want our brothers’ grace, and the blind boy’s lips, and the antlered girl’s hair under our hands. We want all that we’ve ever been promised and everything that isn’t ours.
Why would you want to be rid of them? some of us ask, but the antlered girl only shakes her head.
Where is the burned girl? we ask instead, and the antlered girl says, Gone. Long gone.
Some of us reach for the saw. Some of us reach for her antlers, to hold her down. The red-haired girl cries, No! and then she’s running toward home, toward our fathers and mothers, but we don’t care. We’ve made our choice.
We take turns holding the antlered girl’s head, wiping the blood off her face. We take turns with the saw, and hold it many of us together, grinding forward and back. One twisted branch comes away, softly like a tooth coming out, and the blind boy takes it in his arms.
They’re warm, he sighs.
The antlered girl sighs too, and touches the little thumb of bone left, and we begin again. We work, we saw, and thinking of our mothers, we begin to sing.
Change us, we ask the moon. Change us, we ask the blood inside us, the centers in us spinning, grown heavy with what we still don’t know. Change us, we ask the ghost-mothers and fathers that take up space inside our heads. Change us, we ask the blind boy, who kisses our fingers and our shoulder blades, our hair and our backs and our elbows. Change us, we ask the antlered girl as the last of her antlers fall away, and we wait for the dark to come down.
“Red” was originally published in The Masters Review in October, 2016 and was selected as the winner of the Short Story Award for New Writers in the fall of 2016.
KATIE KNOLL’s stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Black Warrior Review, and The Pinch, among others. Her work has been featured as one of Narrative’s 2013 Top 5 Stories of the Year, awarded a 2016 AWP Intro Journals Honorable Mention, and listed as a notable story in the Best American Short Stories 2017. Her story “Red” was selected for First Place in The Masters Review’s 2016 Short Story Award for New Writers, nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award, and appears in The Year’s Best Weird Fiction 2016.