The air was still and carried with it the evening chill. It was going to be a damp night, and Kai knew he'd have to get started on lighting the fireplace once he was back inside.
Kai lived with his mother on their farm in his childhood village. Having lost his father two years ago, Kai has taken up most of the farm work. He would harvest their small crop and feed their chickens. It was hard work, but it's the life he grew used to.
Ever since he was a young kid, he heard all his neighbors telling stories of deer and how vicious they were to the townspeople. It was a superstition that was pounded into their young minds. So the villagers followed the same rituals for generations in order to deter the deer from returning. Kai remember’s helping his dad hang up a multitude of wind chimes in the forest around their property and bordering their crops with fishing line at night. His mother planted daffodils around their crops and chicken coop, which Kai later learned were poisonous to deer.
Everything he did to maintain the farm growing up was to prevent deer. He never understood the threat. From what he knew, deer were gentle creatures. How much harm could they do? He was just lucky he never had to travel into the forest to hunt them. His mother, though she was keen on keeping them away, was never one to advocate hunting. They were one of the few households in the village who did not live off of venison. Despite the anger towards deer, a good part of the village hunted and sold their venison; making a living off of the very thing they wanted gone. He remembers questioning his teacher about the irony of it when he was young and wound up in trouble. So Kai just kept his mouth shut and went about his days.
Shivering, the young man tried to finish his chores quickly.
Along the ends of their property, bordering the woods, Kai was lightly sprinkling hair along the ground. It was the last thing he had to do before he could retire inside for the night. He had a bucket filled with the leftovers from his last haircut. At the beginning of every month, Kai would line the area between the woods and his farm with human hair, another deterrent for deer. The home remedy was the oldest practice in the village, yet everyone still did it.
Looking at the snippets of brunette hair falling to the ground, Kai shivered as the wind caressed his now bare neck. At the moment, he wished he still had his longer hair to shield him from the chill.
Continuing along the edge of the forest, Kai thought about all the strange rituals they did to keep the deer away. He always thought it was ridiculous, but in all fairness he’s never seen a deer. All his time growing up, he’s never once witnessed the pesty herbivorous. Maybe all the paranoia was helpful. They never once had to worry if they had enough food for the winter because they never ran into any problems with pest eating it.
Kai chewed his lips as he thought about this. So deep in his own thoughts, he didn’t hear the rustling of leaves beside him. Throwing another clump of hair on the ground, he jumped when he heard a shy voice from within the bushes.
“Your hair smells nice.”
The young farmer screamed in shock at the random voice. Tripping on a tree root and falling backwards, he hit the ground the bucket of hair falling several feet from him scattering the rest of its contents all around. The voice on the other side also let out a squeak followed by some violent rustling in the bushes. Kai opened his eyes just in time to see a thin figure fall forward with a small “oof!”
Kai grunted as he sat up, rubbing his now sore back. The farmer looked at the strange creature lying on the ground in front of him. It looked like a man. He was thin with pasty skin and long tawny hair that fell past his shoulders. The brown tunic and trousers the man was dressed in looked a size too big for him. But the most outlandish thing about this man was the twigs sticking out of his hair.
The man shifted and lifted his face off the ground. As he started to dust himself off and sit up, Kai watched the branches that stayed in place on both sides of his head. They didn’t move or fall, and the longer the farmer stared at them, the more they looked like…antlers.
Kai’s mouth hung open as the man shifted to kneel on his knees. The stranger looked up at Kai, blushed and quickly averted his gaze. He hid his face behind the curtain of his long hair. A tense silence fell between them as Kai swallowed the nervousness in his throat and continued to stare at this stranger with antlers.
“What...um...your…” The young farmer desperately tried to collect his thoughts into coherent sentences. But all he could manage was a string of intelligible words and just ended up pointed at the top of the man’s head.
The stranger self-consciously ran a finger over his protruding horns. His cheeks flushed, he still kept his eyes focused on his own knees.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.” The stranger’s smooth yet meek voice cracked as he apologized. Shifting on his knees, he brushed some of his hair behind his ear. “I just...I smelled something nice and wanted to get closer to see what it was.”
The stranger looked like he was halfway to tears. It tugged at Kai’s heart making him feel the need to comfort the man.
“No. I’m sorry I screamed.” The farmer let out a small chuckle to try and alleviate the tense mood. “I’m Kai.”
The young farmer extended his arm forward, offering his hand to the distraught man. But instead of shaking it, the man just stared at his hand with wide eyes. An innocent look on his face. Now that his face was no longer hidden by his hair, Kai was able to see the features the man carried clearly. His face had all the normal shaping as a human; plump lips and sharp jawbones. His nose wasn’t anything like a human’s though. It was stout and resembled more of a deer’s snout. And his almond eyes were pure black, no irises or whites like a human's. The man's face was a mixture between human and deer.
"You're not going to shoot me?" The man's question threw Kai for a loop.
"What? Of course not!" The farmer furrowed his brows. "Why would I do that?"
"I'm sorry. It's just that your kind aren't too fond of us. You go to great lengths to keep us away." The stranger whispered and twirled a lock of his hair around his index finger. He seemed fidgety and uncomfortable the more he talked.
"You're kind?" Kai tried to follow the stranger's ramblings. His mind was working overtime to make sense of what he was saying.
After all these years, he wondered why his village acted the way they did. He questioned the extent of their daily rituals. And he never understood why everyone worried about simple herbivores. But, with this man in front of him, he started to question everything he ever thought.
"I'm a deer." The man questioningly look at the farmer. Speaking as if it was obvious.
Okay, Kai has a lot to think over.
Nighttime already arrived. And instead of spending anymore time outside in the cold than necessary, Kai snuck the deer man into his room. Once his mother went to bed, he lit the fireplace to warm their house, and made a small meal for his guest, he joined him in his room to talk.
The stranger revealed his name to be Uruha. He was traveling with his brothers, Aoi and Ruki, and got split up from them when they encountered some hunters. They were traveling to a neighboring shrine for protection. Uruha worried for their safety and hoped they made it.
"So why a shrine?" kai sat cross legged on the floor of his bedroom. Uruha was on the bed wrapped in a blanket eating a plate of cooked vegetables. Kai wanted to make him feel at ease after their earlier encounter. There was just something about Uruha that was so innocent yet friendly.
"It was Aoi's idea. He told us about a shrine that protects deer. Considers them a messenger from the gods." Uruha happily chewed his warm meal. He tried to decline Kai's hospitality and offered to leave. But when the farmer heard his stomach growl in angry protest, he couldn't deny his hunger.
"Are you?" Kai leaned his head against the side of his bed, looking up at Uruha with curiosity.
"Are you a messenger of the gods?" Kai asked delicately. If his kind were messengers, then what did that say about his fellow villagers. Surely no God would favor people who brandished their kin.
Uruha shook his head. "I don't feel like one. I just want my family safe."
The deer finished his meal. The dirtied plate sat on his lap as he hugged the blanket closer around him. He sighed and looked out the window. It was pitch black outside so his eyes didn't focus on anything in particular.
Kai felt pity for this strange creature. Despite his appearance, they weren't so different. Kai felt the same way towards his mother as Uruha did towards his brothers. Family was important to both of them. So it hurt Kai to see Uruha so distraught.
"I'll help." The human blurted out.
"Huh?" Uruha turned his head quickly towards Kai. His hair swishing around his neck, billowing around his face.
Kai cleared his throat.
"I'll help you find your brothers."
Uruha's eyes shot open.
"Why? You don't know me." The deer tilted his head.
"Maybe so. But family is important."
The room fell silent. Uruha looked down at the empty plate in front of him. Why would he help him? He was a human. They could not be trusted. Humans were the reason he's separated from his brothers. They're violent and hunt them. The antlers on his head made him a target. Something his mother and father told him as a fawn.
But sitting inside this small cottage being warmed by blankets and a fire, he was questioning what he was raised to believe. This human has been nothing but hospitable to him. Plus that was the best meal he's ever had. Maybe he could trust this human.
While he was deep in thought, Kai sat silently on the floor. Patiently waiting for the deer to speak up. When he did, Kai was relieved his offer was accepted.
"They'd be at the shrine. We made a promise that if anything happened, if we got split up, still head to the shrine." Uruha nodded his head and furrowed his brows with determination.
"Well, sounds like we have our goal already set in front of us." Kai smiled brightly.
They talked over their plan. They'd make arrangements the next morning and decided to turn in for the night. The farmer took Uruha's empty dish and washed it up before putting the final kindling on the fire for the night. Kai all but insisted that Uruha sleep in his bed, since he had a rough time in the forests. He set up a pillow and blanket on the floor for himself.
With lights out, the two men settled into a comfortable silence for the night. Just when Kai's was finally about to drift off to sleep, he heard Uruha shift in his bed and whisper.
The quiet gratitude was the last thing he heard before falling into a comfortable sleep for the night.