This is a chapter from my work in progress “The Gospel of the Deer” — stay in touch to read more.
The first time Rod knocked the shit out of me was on a Tuesday afternoon. I remember it distinctly being a Tuesday afternoon because I can remember sitting in the ER bed waiting and thinking how stupid it was to have a fight with your husband so severe that you ended up with a dislocated shoulder and three broken ribs on a stupid Tuesday afternoon. Fights like that should be reserved for a stoned Friday night or midnight Saturday after an all day drunk; but never on a meaningless, sober Tuesday at 4 o’clock in the afternoon.
Of course I never told the ER staff what really happened. I let Rod tell them a spooked colt ran me over in the hallway of the barn, knocked me head over teakettle into the corner of the wash bay. They believed it. Probably because it was a Tuesday afternoon. Probably because I’d had a couple of previous horse-related incidents. Probably because by the time the explaining got done the creature that had really run me down in the hallway of the barn and slammed me into the wash rack wall had turned back into my caring husband.
He was now so concerned over his wife around “those big, dangerous animals.”
I wanted to yell “BULLSHIT” out from behind the curtain when I overheard him telling this to the doctor and my brother with almost practiced precision. And right there, I did almost tell, but the truth closed up my throat and I choked on it. I was too embarrassed because, irrational as it seems, at that moment in time, I honestly believed it was my fault.
I had come to this conclusion on the ride to the hospital. As I sat in the truck seat, gasping through every pothole on our lousy country roads, Rod promised he’d never do it again — he apologized, he groveled and none of it was working on me — until he hit on the one thing I couldn’t deny: “You pushed me,” he finally said. “Why the hell did you have to push me!”
I could have answered his question right then and there — I wanted to answer him right then and there — but I didn’t. Being mouthy was now the second instinct I had when I wanted to express myself. If I would have answered, I would have said, “Because you pushed me first.” But I sat quietly, holding my shoulder, trying to sneak my breath past my broken ribs and realizing with an even more painful certainty that I had, indeed, pushed him — no matter who started it, I had pushed back.
What really happened went like this: I had been working Cody in the round pen and we’d had a great day. He was coming along nicely and I was rejoicing in the idea that I’d soon be able to ride him. I was high on my success and I was no where near tired. It was my day off and I was enjoying it to the fullest so I got Rod’s yearling filly Cricket out and worked her a bit. Then I decided to clean the barn aisle. The horses I’d had tied in there all day had left several fresh piles of manure and I didn’t want to have to fight that the next day when chores would be more hectic. My mistake was this: I had lost complete track of time. I was supposed to meet Rod at his work at the car repair shop at three and then drive him home so he could take the farm truck in for a tune up the next day. I hadn’t forgotten but there are no clocks in the barn and everything all day had been so easy it never dawned on me how late it was really getting.
I guess he waited about an hour for me. Me, out there in the barn, thinking I’m working miracles and moving shit around and not thinking about the time and then here comes Rod, pissed beyond repair. He threw the barn door open and marched up to me with a determination I’d only seen him display once before — and that was the night his mother died. It took me so off guard, I took a step back from him. He reached forward and grabbed my arm and pulled me up to him and said, “Where the fuck were you?”
I was speechless. “What?” I finally managed to mutter, confused.
“Where the fuck have you been. I waited an hour. I’ve been calling and calling. The house, your cell, your mother. Nobody knows where you’ve been. Where the fuck have you been?” He shook me a little.
“Right here,” I said. “What time is it?” I pulled my cell out of my pocket with my free hand. I looked down at it as I pressed the button on the side that would bring it to life. It was dead.
“It’s four fucking fifteen.” And with that said, he pushed me away from him like I was a bad taste and I stumbled backward into the wheelbarrow and sat my ass right down into the fresh manure I’d just been picking up off the barn floor. I felt it seep warm and green into my jeans and the anger swelled up inside me like steam.
“You prick,” I said and flew up out of the wheelbarrow and with both hands pushed him hard against the chest just like he’d pushed me.
“Don’t do that kind of shit to me.” I started to wipe at my butt, but my hand never made it that far around.
He didn’t say a word and all I heard was the rush of air as his fist hit me square in the ribs. All I felt was the impact of breaking bone. I hadn’t been prepared for that and it whipped me around and put me on the ground in a blur. It also knocked all the air out of my lungs. The pain flashed white hot with my next breath, but nothing had time to really register because Rod picked me up by the back of my shirt, whirled me around to face him and then threw me as hard as he could into the wash bay wall. I hit the wall hard with my right side and felt my shoulder give way. I cried out in panic more than pain. Rod wasn’t done. He came at me again, this time spinning me around by my shirt collar and slamming me backwards into the wash bay wall. I hit flat against my back that time. He got right up in my face, pinning me between himself and the solid wall. “You think you’re so smart, bitch? Learn this now, you don’t fuck with me. Ever.” He growled the words, low and mean through clenched teeth all while holding me by the collar of my shirt and all while staring directly into my eyes. I could smell his breath. I could feel the heat coming off his body. I could sense the anger pulsing through him with his every heartbeat.
The fear on my face must have been all penetrating because the next thing I knew a change came over him. His teeth unclenched and he let go of my shirt and took a step back. His face flashed red and his arms dropped limp at his sides. It was like he’d been possessed and now the demon had let go and let Rod step back behind the eyes that now looked out at me. “Oh, God. Ellie. I’m so sorry,” he said stepping forward a little and then hesitating. “Oh, God. Are you okay?” The change was so fast, so complete, I was stunned unblinking.
I didn’t answer. I only held my shoulder. He reached out to touch me and I flinched away from him. I wanted to run, but when I moved to step forward the pain in my ribs and the pain in my shoulder caught me and held me like a rope tied to a hitching post. Then my knees went weak and I let myself slide down the wash bay wall and onto the cold concrete beneath me.
“Please Ellie. Talk to me,” he said. “Are you hurt?”
I tried to speak, but nothing came out so I simply nodded. He reached for me and I heard myself cry out — weakly, hesitantly. It was so strange because I heard myself make the silly little noise but it didn’t sound like me. I wanted to get up on my own, to get away from him, to hide — and I did try but I couldn’t pull away from him. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t stop the pain that was now coming in awful, nauseating waves. I couldn’t move my arm. I could barely see what was in front of me. Everything around me felt and sounded miles and miles away. I was fading out of the world.
“Let me help you,” he said. And as gently as if I were a newborn calf, he lifted me up off the ground and carried me to the truck. I felt like
I was floating, floating on a cloud of sharp panic. “I’m so sorry,” he said again. And then the begging started.
I didn’t speak all the way to the hospital. He never shut up.
When we pulled into the parking lot, he stopped the truck and put it in park. I looked toward the ER entrance which was still about an eighth of a mile away and wondered if he was going to make me walk all that way. I didn’t think I could make it. I looked over at him. His arms were crossed across the top of the steering wheel and his head was slumped forward.
“I’m sorry, Ellie. I’ve said that and I mean it,” he said. “I need to know now, before we get in there, what’s the story going to be? What are we gonna say happened?” His tone was subdued and he never looked up as he spoke; he only stared down, blinking at the dashboard of the truck. I had the impression I could say anything, even the truth, at that moment and he’d accept it, take his medicine like a man.
“Tell them I got run over by a colt,” I said. I looked away from him toward the entrance of the hospital. I’d never wanted to get inside a hospital so bad.
He put the truck in gear and drove me to the ER entrance. “Stay here,” he said when he put it in park. “They’ll bring out a wheelchair for you.” He got out of the truck and walked through the ER doors without ever looking back at me. The tears finally came. I couldn’t stop them even though it meant the nurses would probably think I was a sissy.
We could lie to the hospital and to our families, but both Rod and I knew the truth and it was never more apparent than when I walked through our front door as Rod held it open for me. When I walked into the house that first night, my arm wrapped tightly to my body and every breath stabbing me from the inside out, there was something new and dark in my home, hidden, but watching me all the same — and at the same time there was something missing. The feeling was so clear and concise that as I walked through the house on my way to the bedroom, I moved my eyes around looking to see if maybe a piece of furniture had been broken and then replaced or if there was a stain on the carpet that had been created and then cleaned. I searched, but everything seemed an illusion now and I didn’t trust that I could believe my eyes even though everything looked exactly as it should.
I blamed it on the Vicodin.
In bed, I laid in the blackness next to Rod knowing he was awake and knowing he knew I was awake as well. And, there in the darkness, as he shifted uncomfortably in non-sleep, each time sending waves of ache the drugs couldn’t quite absorb through my body, I was thinking, of all things, of Red Riding Hood. I wondered if, when she slipped into the woods that fictional night if she could feel the monster out there even before he showed himself. If she sensed him stalking her, shrouded by the shadows of the trees, hidden, unseen, unrealized — but a the same time so palpably real she had to consciously ignore him to walk on.
I wondered if Irene had felt him shift inside of Rod’s father before the first blow landed across her cheek or if that first contact had taken her by surprise like it did me. Had she seen the shadow move behind his eyes when she looked there with love as they took vows at the alter.
I wondered what lie they had told after their first time.
And then I let myself wonder if I’d known the monster was there, stalking Rod and I both from a distance. Had I seen him there in the shadows and then walked on consciously, waiting until it was too late — waiting until we were both too deep in the woods and there was no where to run.
When the pain in my ribs finally became too much and after I had felt Rod reluctantly drift into a restless sleep, I got up and went to the spare room. At first I locked the door because I knew no rest would come with it open to allow the shadow in at freewill, but then I second thought myself into unlocking it. It seems I had a sense now, a new sense, one that warned of illogical possible dangers that I would have never thought about yesterday — and this new sense told me something as simple as trying to lock the demon on the other side of a door was asking for trouble — that by shutting him out, I was shouting loudly at him to come in and get me. Before I downed another pill, I sat in bed and, in my mind, purposely dressed my lie in a pretty red cape so I knew, should Rod ask, that I could say without hesitation that I moved into the spare room because I didn’t want to disturb him with my painful ups and downs all night – since he had to go to work in only a few hours and all.