2022 Short Story Competition Winner
The high brick wall that encircles the deer park is broken here by iron gates. The larger double gate that guards the road is still chained and padlocked – it is very early morning, and the ranger has not yet finished his rounds – so I turn my bike instead towards the smaller pedestrian entry. The metal hinge groans as I wrestle the bike through, ungainly on foot in the narrow space. Soon it will be too dark to cycle this way in the mornings, and I will be forced to ride to work on the road, a better-lit but longer and duller route. This morning I can still see my way, barely, and my eyes adjust as I pass into the darkness of the park.
The homely quiet of still-sleeping streets lit by yellow lamps is behind me now, and I am alone in a chill silence that is full of invisible creatures. The river is on three sides of us here. The Thames holds the park in a great bend of its ancient waters, flowing silver from Sunbury (where I am headed) past the monumental façade and stately gardens of Hampton Court Palace, before bending back on itself through Kingston and Teddington. At Teddington Lock, the river turns tidal, and widens on its journey towards the city of London and its salt mouth. As cool and smooth as the Thames, the road that bisects the park runs straight down a great avenue of chestnut trees. Their shadow lines are clear to me now against a lightening sky. Later this morning, the road will be busy and hot with cars, but now it lies untouched, with the last breath of night upon it. The gates behind me are still locked. I am the first to pass this way today.
I climb back onto my bike and turn my front light to its brightest beam. Now, in the pre-dawn twilight, I can see the movement of the deer. I hear the sounds of their awakening, the soft grunting and animal murmurs, the burry rasp of their tongues licking fur. When the park fills with people, and the road with cars, they will disperse, but in the early morning they gather beneath the chestnuts that line the avenue. They stand or lie, still half-asleep, in clusters all along the road, on both sides, each harem of female hinds watched over by a careful stag.
I strain to start the pedals moving again and begin slowly, with a crunch of gears changing, to pick up speed. Then I hear the first bellow. It is guttural and deep, the sound of something primal unearthing itself to surface, breaching the air, in the grey pre-dawn. It is so loud and so close that I am sure it is directed at me. I am suddenly very aware that I am alone, a human interloper in this unfamiliar world, and I am afraid. I pedal faster. I can see them now, the stags. They line the avenue, tossing their antlers and jostling their harems, mad with testosterone and raging against the season’s change. The kingly males maintain their little courts on one side of the road, or the other. The road seems as much a boundary to the deer as the brick wall, or the river; only rarely have I seen groups wander across, and never at this time of year. The stags cross at this time, though – recklessly, brashly, fearlessly, unpredictably, driven by the inexorable demands of the rut.
Another great roar, like the moan of a dying god, resounds from up ahead – from the other side of the road, this time. Ahead of me, on the grass at either side of the avenue, the two largest stags stand and bellow: not at me, I realise now, but at each other, across the separating distance of a few feet of asphalt. I am flying now, hurtling towards them on the back of my fragile frame of steel, hollow like the bones of a bird. It is too late to turn back, and anyway I can sense the deer behind me, too, roused by the sound of the wild and the breaking dawn. My bike makes me brave, and I soar where I could never have stepped, toward the lowering stags and then between them.
I have watched one of these stags by daylight, on foot, from a careful distance. He is huge. I recognise his wild roar, which I have seen lure hinds from the harems of his incensed rivals, into the kingdom that he fiercely guards beneath an ancient and majestic oak, where in spring some unknown supplicants will tie bright fluttering ribbons. I saw him in summer, too, when the velvet hung from his antlers in rags tattered and bleeding. But now he is beside me, in the full force of his muscle, in his great strength and powerful bellow, dominating the challenger who threatens him from across the avenue. For a moment I am part of his world, the park holding both of us: a creature of fluorescent yellow and metal and flashing lights breathing alongside this other creature of purple flesh and sinew and bone. I see the thick brown depth of his coat, and his eyes as old as the wildwood. And then I pass him, and I am flying through the gap and beyond it, young and swift and free. I circle the goddess fountain in joy and relief, and the dawn light glints golden off the roof of Hampton Court Palace, and behind me, where the stags rule, the sun rises.