The bath is a good temperature today—the blood steamy but not cooked. Also, the color is a rich dark red. To keep in the heat, he closes the glass doors to the alcove where he bathes and lowers himself slowly, enjoying the feel of the blood-water on his skin, the coppery tang in the nostrils. He remembers the first time, how it sickened him, but he soon got over that. He is sitting now, imagining he can feel the blood seeping into the pores of his genitals. He thinks of the wild stags, tossing their antlers, chasing the does, rutting—but no answering stiffness comes, and it is just as well. He must slide down to his chin and let the healing powers of the blood do their work to keep his body strong.
Soaking, he becomes sentimental, thinking of his family, the hard-working parents, the brother killed by the cruelty of the enemy. How his mother loved that dead weakling, even putting his picture up on a shrine with candles. When all the time her living son was the strong one who would go on to greatness and avenge the wrongs.
But that’s all lies. You weren’t even born in this country. You don’t know who your father was.
In a fury he submerges himself, closing his eyes but letting the bathwater enter his nostrils a little. Who was to say where the truth lay? The last great leader of his nation was also from a satellite country. Napoleon was not French. Perhaps all the truest patriots came from outside, but the people would never understand that. His “lie” is the only way to explain to them the depth of his patriotism.
He pushes himself up again, shaking his head like a bear, letting the drops spray onto the walls and floor. No one was a greater leader than he is, not even the last great one, who taught the satellites their place in the one true empire. He tastes an acrid drop on his lip. This current situation is all the fault of his generals. Closing his eyes, he sinks down again, remembering the trips to the mountains, where he saw how it was done.
He drifts into a dream of it. Everyone is yelling and screaming, herding the deer into ever narrowing chutes. He is looking through the slats of the chutes from the outside, but though they go in as deer, they are his generals when he sees them through the walls of the chute. He hesitates, but the men around him poke at them, driving them along, so when the generals turn their sad, desperate faces to him, he gives them a sharp prodding in their softer parts. They deserve it.
When the herd is through, he runs around the chute and enters the press. Only a deer is in it, held fast by the panels, his feet visible below the cutting platform, paddling in the air above the sunken floor of the press. The hearty mountain man puts his boot on the velvety muzzle, while his son bleeds the deer from the neck. Foam oozes between its clenched teeth, and its eyes roll back in fear, but the men are used to it and go cheerfully about their duties. After the circular saw has sliced off the antlers, the man’s son drains the antler velvet into a bucket while the father wipes the bloody stump with a rag. Finally, the creature staggers off, dazed and lost without its crown.
The father invites him, the leader, to cut the next one, and he says he will. He likes this strong, friendly man and his strapping son. He takes the saw, but when he turns back to the press, he sees his former friend, the general in charge of the latest failed siege. The man kicks his feet and rolls his eyes and grinds his teeth like the deer, but he is not nearly as useful. Also, he is begging. Luckily, the saw drowns it out. Still, is it right to cut into the man’s skull, even after the disgrace he has brought on himself, his country, and his leader?
This is left unresolved. The bath is growing cold. The leader rises, opens the steamy doors to the alcove, and admires himself in the mirrored walls of his marble bathroom. Bloody water runs down his face and torso, glistening in the light. He starts to close the doors again so he can rinse off, but just before their steamy opacity obscures the mirror, he sees something incredible out of the corner of his eye, something that adds to the chill of the bathroom, making him shiver and grab a towel. Surely, he did not see what he saw. But when he turns back, it is undeniable: he is crowned with antlers.
He slams the doors closed, forgets to rinse, and remains standing in the tub, huddled in his enormous towel. It is a vision, he thinks, to cheer himself up, and therefore a sign from God—but of what? His swiftness, perhaps, though that is now metaphorical: he is swift in attack, quick in perception and analysis. And don’t people in the Urals worship the stag?
Weakness, defeat, your true self exposed—prey, not predator.
One side of his mouth twists upward. He will show that voice, the whispers of his enemies, always in his ear. He will rain terror on them, stopping at nothing.
Maybe he should look again in the mirror. Perhaps his illness, or the pressures of the times, generated the hallucination. Slowly, he opens one door and peeks around it.
The antlers are gone. Throwing aside the towel, he rinses quickly and strides out to his bedroom like the conqueror he is.
“Alice,” he says to his device, “Show me yesterday’s work.”
The village appears on multiple screens. He can see the bodies: the bicyclist, the woman carrying groceries, the elderly massacred in their home, the child shot dead in the street.
Antlers, the voice insists, but he cannot hear it above the screams of the dead.
Lorna Wood @lornawoodz is a violinist and writer in Auburn, Alabama. Her literary fiction has appeared in Doubleback Review (Pushcart nominee), Courtship of Winds, and Jerry Jazz Musician (finalist, fiction contest), as well as on the Litro (USA) Lab Podcast and Kindle. She has also published poetry, creative nonfiction, and scholarly essays.