Joyland

New York |

The Rut

by Amy Shearn

2nd Runner-up, Open Border Fiction Prize 2018

How she came to be living as a human in a city with a man was how anyone came to be living as a human in a city with a man: they’d met back home when they were young and he had either tricked her or she had fallen in love. She could no longer remember which.

She was a young faun then, barely out of her teens, both her cloven hoofs neat and trim, her waist slim where the fur gave way to skin. She had been frolicking in the woods with her girlfriends, aware as they gamboled in the wildflower meadow wearing nothing but the daisy chains threaded through their hair that they made a pretty sight. John, on a fishing trip with his erstwhile fraternity brothers, had spotted them and been shanked in the spleen by Cupid’s arrow.

The fauns were already wound up in a high pitch of excitement when they heard the young men tramping through the woods toward the lake, clad in fly-fishing pants and boots, like a waterproof army. It was the full moon, the day of the maypole festival, and now here came these foreign, irresistible creatures, with the faces of boys and the limbs of men, their pheromones wafting in the wind. John had been tromping along at the end of the procession, apart from the noise of the other boys; he looked around as he strolled, seeming to gaze thoughtfully at the trees, and ten years later she was still wondering if this was why she had believed he had the soul of a poet. Maybe he’d only been trying to stifle a sneeze and she had misread everything. With great concentration she could still recall that feeling, though: how her ears had perked up, how her bare nipples had hardened, how the fur on her legs and rump stood on end, how her tail quivered uncontrollably.

She jumped on a twig that splintered beneath her hoof. He looked up. Their eyes locked. He drew close, grinning, mystified. She looked at his shaggy head appraisingly, thinking, he is in need of a haircut. Or maybe that was only how she saw him in retrospect, with wifely eyes. The other would-be fishermen bashed on through the forest but he didn’t mind being left behind. In a moment he was seated on a tuft of grass between her friends, watching Fiona play a panflute while Fae stroked his mysterious feet.

“What is your name?” For some reason humans always started with this, as if it revealed anything. “Do you even have a name?”

“Sheila,” she had said.

“Really?” he had said, blinking.

“Really,” she laughed.

Even after a decade of marriage and a mortgage on a coop and serious talks about having a faunlet of their own, she knew that it had never been about her, not really. In that moment he had fallen in love with all fauns at once. He had wanted, more than he wanted the particulars of her, the world that had her in it. Sheila knew that apart from Fiona and Fae, out of the honeyed sunlight filtering through oak leaves, once her auburn hair was coiled in its customary knot, she was no longer the mythical vision John fell in love with. But it took him a good long time to figure that out, a good long time for either of them to fully ruminate on the nature of their mixed-ruminant relationship.

A few hours after meeting they were rutting in the woods, his hairless human dick probing her tawny fur, his eyes wide with fascination as he found the wet folds beneath her pelt, his large hands caressing her tail, which wagged with pleasure. His mouth was hot all over her, suckling at her slender fingers and pink breasts and horns which were still opalescent as mother-of-pearl, that’s how young she was then.

When they made love (as she girlishly called it in her mind), Sheila was transported to places beyond time: she was the goddess Fauna in primeval woods, nibbled by the crepuscular; she was the Michigan moss, ravaged by men’s boots and heavy hooves; she was riding Pan himself in a drunken frenzy; she was a goat being whipped by a farmer; she was the purple roil of Aurora Borealis: her fantasies were barely legible, so consuming was this sudden turn of events.

He didn’t fish much that week, barely saw his friends; instead John and Sheila met every day in the meadow and fucked in the forest. At the end of the week he proposed.

Her surprise was complete. Her prettier friend Fae was openly miffed not to have been chosen. Her more charismatic friend Fiona developed a theory that John was using Sheila as an exotic sex toy. It was clear to Sheila that she had merely been the easier mark, weakened by a plain faun’s shaky self-esteem and thrill at being noticed, but she also saw that John was a way out of the woods. Besides she was in love, or anyway fascinated by the humanness of him, by his fleshy legs and monkey-like feet with all those articulated toes, by his smooth, alien penis, by, too, the way he spoke about his life, when they lay uncomfortably on the moss after fucking, looking up at the stars, John swatting nervously at mosquitos. He had obtained something called an Embeeyay from an important university. To get food, instead of foraging (berry juice dribbling down chins, bark pulverized by pointed teeth) he went to work in a building where he made guesses about the potential of gold pieces (as far as she could parse it) so that he could receive credits to a ledger that he was then allowed to trade at a market where the food came wrapped up in packages. And he lived in a tall tower full of tiny homes, and the walkways were hard stone, and everyone was a human, except, she was able to ascertain upon detailed questioning, they also had dogs and cats they owned as amusements, and there was a kind of bird called a pigeon, and also, he remembered to add later, laughing at the idea of it, rats who lived on train tracks.

John’s stories ignited the restlessness in Sheila. She was the last faun anyone expected to leave the forest, a thoroughly unremarkable child. Or maybe it made perfect sense – the golden girls like Fiona and Fae were so adored in the woods, what impetus would they ever have to embark into the wide, wide world? Sheila was looking for something else. Her parents wept and her friends scowled as she waved goodbye from the back of John’s friend’s pickup truck, disguised in a long skirt and souvenir t-shirt (“Yes, Michigan!”) so as not to cause traffic issues on I-80.

The restlessness, however, had never truly been quelled. Like so many wild young things who come to New York City, Sheila soon realized that this “adventure” was going to involve a lot of sitting still in gray places, clerical work that made her fingers go stiff, bone-rattlingly crowded trains, cocktail conversations that began, “So what do you do?” What did she do? She mostly tried to fit in, which took so much energy – much more than her receptionist job – it was basically her career. Why had she thought she would feel any more at home in this strange concrete world than she had in the forest with the other fauns? But it was too late to go back. If she had felt apart from the other fauns then, she couldn’t imagine what they would think of her now that she was used to things like clothing and credit cards and Zabar’s.

John, to his credit, didn’t care what anyone thought. He was at home in the world, muscular with self-regard. They went out dancing and to a lot of parties on rooftops. He bought her dresses that felt wonderful against her skin, slit up to the thigh to show off her furred cannon bones. His urbane city friends (so different, at least externally, from the college pals she’d met back on that fabled fishing trip) complimented her energetic dancing and appetite for greens, avoiding mention of her horns and hooves with polite precision.

Now and then someone shouted at them on the street. A drunk would slur from a stoop, “Nice piece of TAIL!” or “Girl you make me HORNY!” Or it would be more subtle, a wife of a colleague eyeing Sheila’s fetlocks and making an overhearable aside about electrolysis. None of it seemed to sway John, who in relaxed moments polished her horns affectionately, who pulled off a hat or flicked up a skirt whenever she self-consciously tried to cover herself from stares on the subway. In a few years when the fire between them inevitably cooled, Sheila was comforted to know that even when he sought out pornography, it was of the ungulate persuasion.

It couldn’t be blamed on him, her loneliness, her feeling of being apart. Yes, he flirted at parties, and yes, he was less fascinated with her stories of the forest than he’d once been. Sure, they’d had a humiliating fight about rugs in the middle of IKEA, after he’d made a remark about the scuff marks her hooves left on their recently refinished floor; she’d been wounded, and offended by the proffered faux-animal-skin rug. But wasn’t that normal? Maybe all wives, all women, felt this restlessness stirring when they lay awake before dawn, listening to their husband sleep, watching car headlights ghosting down the street, fighting the escapist twitch in their calves, wondering what if anything was coming next, wondering if what beauty they had ever had was already gone, wondering if this was all life had to offer.

One spring morning it was so strong, the whatever-it-was, that Sheila couldn’t hold it in any longer. She stood up, dressed in the pre-dawn murk, and hurried out of the apartment and down the elevator. She raced past the somnolent doorman. She burst out of the lobby, trotting down the sidewalk, slick from a midnight downpour and glittering.

Soon she was running full-bore without caring who saw her, racing past the delivery trucks feeding dented boxes to bodegas and mothers with insomniac infants that populated the West 80s before 6am. She cantered past the two Starbucks at different ends of the same block, both brightly lit against the muddy morning, like caffeinated display cases. By the time she hit the park she was galloping, the sound of hoof on pavement clanging out in the still air.

Back home, over their blueberry yogurts and stovetop espresso, John eyed her. “Everything okay?” He was already in work mode, scrolling through his phone; Sheila knew human ways well enough by now to understand a real answer was not required. She also knew he was busily texting the female coworker with long, shapely human legs, the woman with whom he often traveled on business. “Of course,” Sheila said, a little more sharply than she meant, as she left the table and headed to the bathroom to shower. “Just getting some exercise.”

He left for work earlier than she did, while she was still in the shower; he peeked inside to get a kiss and to fondle her tail. He had a proprietary manner with the fluffy white appendage that usually aroused her. Today she twitched her tail away. “It’s sore,” she lied, “from running.”

“Aw, I’m sorry,” said John. “Do you need anything?”

She turned away as she soaped her horns. “No thank you, my pet,” she said. It was their joke ever since one of his old Michigan pals had made an unfortunate, drunken remark likening Sheila to livestock. “The Goat Girl,” they’d called her, making snide asides about tin cans and hoof-glue, refusing to remember her name.

She went running every morning but it wasn’t enough. Her hooves vibrated with raveled energy. When John slumped on the couch to watch television after work she stood stamping in the doorway, twitching with a feeling she couldn’t identify. During meetings at the office she had to abruptly excuse herself so that she didn’t butt her horns through the PowerPoint presentation screen. She cantered everywhere: to the salad bar for lunch, to the Anne Taylor Loft store to browse blouses, to the corner bodega to buy a half-gallon of milk. She paused now and then to nibble on the greens curling out of a window box, or through a community garden gate, but could never quell the hunger which was possibly not hunger at all. She didn’t know what it was. Every once in a while someone gave her a funny look but she was used to this, and the extra social discomfort garnered by sprinting and grazing was nothing compared with the itch in her metatarsals.

It was on a late September loop of Central Park when she first saw him. She ran right past him, though their eyes locked and their heads turned to follow one another; he was running the same path in the other direction. The old her would have stopped to say something, but she was a city lady now, used to willfully ignoring 90% of what happened.

For the rest of the run she galloped even faster, shot through with heat. She couldn’t get the image of him out of her head, couldn’t quiet the quiver in her tail. She went home and immediately got into the shower and as soon as she heard John leave she stuck her fingers into her pussy, something she hadn’t done since her teenage years rolling around alone in the forest. There it was again, only magnified, that transportation, transmogrification: she was a goddess brought to climax by the inner light of the universe; she was a goat being violated and videotaped for YouTube. She hardly knew what she was doing, rubbing her fur until it was matted with her own sticky sap, reaching around to rub her stiffened tail.

Sheila trotted through the rest of her day in a fog. One of the programmers she was friendly with at work – she’d been shuffled into the role of office manager when cell phones obviated receptionists– smiled at her in the supply closet. “You are positively glowing today, Sheila,” Marcy teased. “What’s going on? Is there a faunlet on the way?!” Sheila had no answer, having never mastered the high-octane banter of city offices, and scarcely knowing herself what this was growing inside her.

The next morning she was out the door at 4:15 am. She knew as soon as she opened her eyes what she was looking for. She knew she would gallop for the rest of her life seeking another glimpse of him – his sandy hair tossed back in the wind, his liquid black eyes, his granite-colored horns, his muscular, furred rump and legs and tail. As she ran she ignored the usual morning sounds of deranged squirrels and kvetching birds. She strained her ears for the clip-clop of hoof hitting stone. An early-morning carriage fooled her, she spit angrily at the horse when it lasciviously double-taked.

But then there he was. Her heart stopped. She kept running without it.

They passed each other every morning for a week without speaking. Sheila hadn’t seen another faun in so long she needed at least two days to fully believe it, two more to formulate what she might say to him. Every time they galloped past one another their eyes locked and Sheila was overcome with desire and hurried home to paw herself.

On Friday John was running late for work and she attacked him in the hallway as he was trying to leave, unbuckling his suit pants and lowering her sweaty body down onto his dick, avoiding his amused eyes as she rubbed her own horns in ecstasy. Afterwards they showered together, John teasing her about making him late to work and running up the drycleaning bill. “What was that all about?” he said, shampooing her rump. “You must have had quite a run.”

Sheila felt her face flushing. She loved John, of course she did, but there was a deep reserve of her that he would never understand. Was that a marriage? “I don’t know,” she said, but something flickered in his eyes that she didn’t like so she corrected herself: “I just really love you!” But then something else flickered in his eyes so she tried again: “I think we should try for a baby.”

She didn’t see the other faun for the entire weekend. By Sunday night she was enervated from despair, spent the evening sprawled on the couch consuming Netflix in a self-flagellating stupor, and when they were going to bed John said, “It was really nice to have you actually hang out with me for once.” Her nostrils flared but she said nothing.

Monday dawned fresh as a Michigan morning, the park sparkling with dew. Sheila ran, her hoofbeats thrumming in her chest. This time when she saw him coming she reached out. “Wait!” she said, her voice coming out wild, like a braying deer. “Wait.”

The faun stopped, trotted in place for a minute. She understood his need for movement. She understood everything about him, in the way she knew he understood everything about her, as they stood there facing one another in the dappled light of the Sheep Meadow. She reached out her hand, human-style. “I just have to introduce myself. I’m Sheila. What’s your name?”

He cocked his head at her. She realized in an instant that she had read him all wrong. In her desire to connect, she had imagined that he too had been living in the city for his entire adult life, that he too wore the trappings of the human world, had a job and rode the train and paid the bills and met other couples in restaurants they’d read about in the Times, that he too was exhausted from trying to pass. But seeing him up close she wondered.

He had a distractingly beautiful face, too beautiful for the forest-faun her, but now that she had learned about blow-outs and lipstick and dressed in expensive clothes it was easier for her to camouflage her plainness. He had the face of an alpha buck, the searching intelligent eyes fringed by thick black lashes, the regal nose, the sensuous lips. His horns were longer than hers and jagged, as if he had actually used them in the territorial head-butting of the fauns from her youth. He didn’t wear a shirt in the misty morning. In fact he didn’t wear anything, not even a watch. After a moment he broke out into a wide grin, revealing the yellow square teeth of a life in the woods.

They moved closer to one another, under an eye-scrapingly bright LED lamppost, and Sheila saw how his ear twitched. She remembered how the harsh sights and sounds of the city had assaulted her when she first arrived. “Come,” she said, and she trotted off into the woods.

John liked to steer clear of wooded thickets, possessing of a human’s terror of ticks, but Sheila knew the faun would like it among the branches and leaves; she knew his thirst for green as well as if it were her own. What she didn’t know was what to say to him. She stammered, “I- I’ve been in the city for ten years and I haven’t seen another faun since. I’ve been trying to be as human as possible for so long. It’s just – it’s just so good to SEE you. Where did you come from? How did you get here?”

He shook his head. He moved closer and, before Sheila could move away out of her acquired respect for personal space, he clinked his horns against hers. The reverberations vibrated down through her skull and spine, deep into the darkest part of her. She shook her head, about to say – what? Human things that would sound ridiculous to another faun. I’m coupled with a man, and we are not supposed to touch others. Or You and I are supposed to be in love first, or at least get to know each other. It would be stupid to say a single thing. He could smell the juices dripping out of her. Her lust for him filled the park, the city, billowing out through the air, cutting through the pollution like mustard gas. There was nowhere to hide. He nuzzled her neck, rested his hand on her rump, twirling her tail in a way that made her nearly come at once. Her pasterns were weak, her hocks trembling.

Of course. It was September. Mating season for fauns. Just the other night at a sidewalk café John had noted the brightness of the full moon. She would have to check her phone to be sure, but she suspected it was the 21 st, the equinox. Maybe this was why her chest thrummed so, why her loins ached. She had spent the mating seasons of her childhood watching the older fauns in heat, rubbing their horns against bark and moaning with desire; autumn had always meant faun pairs fucking everywhere you looked. It wasn’t like it was for the humans. The fauns would rut in front of everyone and then traipse off laughing. Was she really going to live her entire life having never mated with another faun? And if they mated, would she be with faunlet? And if she had a baby and it was all faun, wouldn’t John know it wasn’t his?

She sank down to the loamy earth, brushed a hand over the faun’s hooves, cloven like hers, but muddy from life outside. He sank down beside her. She reached out to touch the brambles lodged in his shaggy hair. Impulsively she pulled off her wicking thermal shirt, released her breasts from the sausage-casing of the sports bra. He smiled, pleased, but not shocked in the way a human would have been. She saw that he had become hard, his cock jutting out of his fur.

Sheila closed her eyes, leaned back against a tree trunk. She was hardly in control of her body anymore, her legs splaying open, the scent of her body in heat wafting up unmistakably. “No one knows what it’s like,” she said. “For me to be here. No one, not really.”

The faun drew closer. In ten seconds she would tell him she had to go. Maybe they could meet for coffee. She could show him how to order at Starbucks and it would be like some romantic comedy. Maybe he would like a movie! Had he ever seen a movie? The sky brightened all around them. Soon it would be dawn, and the human joggers and dogwalkers would populate the park. A hound would sniff her out and come barking; it always happened, and it was part of why she’d avoided running here for so long.

She opened her eyes and saw that he was self-annointing, the way she’d seen bucks back in the forest in preparation for the rut. He was grinning a slightly lurid smile. She watched his hands rub himself, watched his long, curved penis turn white with excitement. She forgot she was meant to feel anything other than wanting him; she was just another girl with the legs of a goat in that moment, just another animal in the forest.

He lowered his horns and flipped her around, pressing her against the tree. She pushed her rump out toward him, open, waiting, wanting. He shoved his furred dick into her, moving deeper and deeper until she moaned; his stocky fingers, fingernails clogged with dirt, squeezed her breasts, pinching her nipples until she thought she’d faint, before his hands moved down to her legs and pulled her fur hard. She had never told him what she liked or didn’t like and he didn’t care. She took it; she wanted to. Their hooves and horns clinked together. He growled deep in his throat. She growled deep in hers. She maneuvered them away from the tree and onto the mossy ground. He rubbed at her tail as he gyrated in and out of her, in and out, until she was dripping all over the ground and begging for more, for him to stay inside and go deeper, deeper. Just as everything seemed purple and velvety, as she knew it was about to end, she bucked up and pushed him onto his back, so that she could ride him. He opened his eyes at her, surprised. This wasn’t how fauns did it. But it was how Sheila did it, and she moved until his dick was in just the right spot and they both came, and she was full of his sticky junk, her tail tingling, her horns vibrating.

She stroked his furry rump one last time and then pushed away from him, yanking her running pants and bra and shirt back on. He looked up at her with amused expression on his face. She could have said something, but why? Those were humans who liked to chatter about feelings, not fauns. How could she put it into words anyway? That was the best I’ve ever had? I’ll never be the same? And I never want to see you again because it’s just too confusing and I don’t know what I am anymore?

A garbage truck growled in the distance. The human world was right there, waiting for her. Her hot shower with adjustable jets. Her office, with the individual coffee pods in non sequitur flavors. The Italian restaurant on the corner with the butcher-paper tables where the owner crooned to her and John, “My favorite couple in this wide, wide world,” he always greeted them, “Ah, the wonderful ways of amore!” Sweet John, with his closet full of shoes. When she had first moved in with him, she had stayed in the apartment after he left for the day and buried her face in his boots. She would find his dirty pants in the hamper and huff them, starved for the smell of his crotch.

Sheila took one last look at the faun, turned, and ran as fast as she could.

It was the worst thing she could have done, she remembered only upon beginning. He laughed and took off behind her at full sprint. It was the kind of game fauns loved, especially in mating season, and she was an idiot to think that her city-weakened haunches could outrun the powerful faun behind her. She could feel her tail wagging flirtatiously as she galloped, with its stupid fluffy mind of its own.

Sheila ran faster and faster, feeling his spunk drip out of her. She didn’t dare look back. Finally she reached the edge of the park, leaping over a stone wall and attracting the giggle of a toddler hand-in-hand with a joyless nanny; Sheila raced through the crosswalk and across Central Park West just as the light was changing, earning a honk and a “Move it, ya freak!” from a cabbie. Only now did she turn back, chest heaving. The faun paced by the crosswalk, flinching at the traffic blaring past. She almost felt sorry for him. She knew how the crosstown bus sounded to him as it sped past. She remembered how the hard edges and jerky movements of the city had alarmed her those first few months. But she also knew that she now found the forest scarier than the city. The cloud of passersby enveloping her as she moved toward her block felt like a comfort.

John was waiting with coffee when she got home. “Long run,” he said neutrally, but it was if he could see through her. She guessed even her human husband knew the scent of her in heat by now. Sheila passed him without a word and went straight to the shower, immolating her fur with a Body Shop loofah, as if all the peach-scented soap-scrub in the world would transform her into a human, make her John’s girl again, get her clean.