On Tarking Ridge

The shadows creep deeply along the ruts in the road and swallow the trees up whole as night falls. We stand beside my car, Harry and me, shivering, wishing it was really spring.

My mom says the mountains are hazing; that’s what she calls it when the buds on the trees make the forest on the ridge look purple.   When the magnolia in the neighbor’s yard started to bloom last weekend, Dad said the world really had gone to shit.  There would be a late frost and kill everything.

“Everything’s upside down these days,” he said. He hunched over his computer, tuning the rest of us out.  His style.

Maybe tonight it will frost. It’s cold enough or feels like it anyway.

Harry says, “You sure this is the place?”

He’s trembling and I put an arm around him. “This is where I saw him last time.”

We just have to wait.

Harry is patient and kind.  He would follow a friend anywhere rather than let them go in alone. Luckily this doesn’t seem too dangerous. I’d never want to see Harry hurt.  We’ve been friends since grade school. He helped me skip school when I had my first period so no one would see the blood on my jeans.  My mom and dad were out of town on business and I didn’t want to tell my teacher or the secretaries in the principal’s office. They’re all terrible. Harry never said anything about it afterward to me or anyone else.  He is good like no one I know.

The wind picks up on the mountainside, rustling the leaves on the ground, bringing a whiff of warm earth and new life.  There are soft disruptions in the shadows, nothing too loud, just squirrels scrambling around.  A few cries from birds. My mom would probably know their names.

“That’s a tufted titmouse,” she might say. “You can tell by the liquid notes.”

She was a nerd before it was cool, she likes to say. I always pretend it’s a good joke because I feel sorry for her. Humor is not her strength.

Then on the ridge above us, silhouetted against the indigo twilight, I see the stag man as clearly as I did the last time. Tonight I’m not high, though; I made sure we’re clean and sober.  My mouth goes dry, but I give Harry’s arm a squeeze. I want him to look but not to say anything.  His hair brushes my cheek as he tilts his head to study the ridge. I feel him stiffen against me.

So I am not crazy.

The stag man isn’t tall, but his antlers make him seem like a beautiful dancer out of a strange ballet. His legs taper down to a pair of hooves.  It makes him stand unnaturally, his butt stuck out a little more than normal, his shoulders thrown back, too.  It really is kind of like a dancer or this kid in school who everyone was calling gay a year before he came out. Danny. He always walked like that. It made some of the other guys look when they caught him out of the corner of their eye, then scowl and turn away, like they were tricked into it.  I know I saw that happen at least three times and it made me laugh every time.

But this isn’t Danny and I’m not laughing.

“I can’t believe it,” Harry whispers.

“Are you scared?”

“No. I don’t think so. Are you?”

“No.”

I’m not scared. I wasn’t scared the first time, either. He doesn’t seem threatening. He just looks sad, his head turning now and again to study the woods.  Now his head tilts toward us and while I’m not scared, I still find my stomach turning to jelly under his gaze.

The stag man turns his whole body toward us now, his hooves scratching the moist spring earth, one of them rasping along a vein of stone so we can hear the sound of it. Now his face is in shadow, his antlers and his lean, square shoulders trimmed in dim silver light.  If he approaches us, he will remain faceless until he is right on top of us, but out cheeks and brows, our noses and chins will carry those dim silver highlights. He’ll read us and see inside us maybe a little, the way no one else in ours lives ever can. I don’t know why I think this. I’m just tired of trying to make myself clear to older people who always turn my words and my thoughts upside down.

It doesn’t make any sense that I think he’ll understand, but it makes no sense that he even exists either. Harry and I link hands like we always have when we’re about to be swallowed up by mystery. With his nails biting into my palm, our breath curls up around our faces, and we wait without breathing as the stag man closes the distance.

 

 

Meatloaf and Tennyson

When I was ten I threw a dinner party for my grandmother and my aunt.  I had been given a cookbook for kids by my mother that year. It nurtured my desire to conquer grownup rituals like making food other than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or grilled cheese.

My grandmother was rather old by then and little did we know she was in a golden moment just before a series of small strokes would shroud her mind in confusion and weaken her body.  At the time she was still rosy cheeked, with a shock of white hair rising up off her brow and a whimsical wave over each ear.  She wore a double knit pantsuit when she was going anywhere nice; at home she wore printed cotton dresses under a faded apron.  I was pleased to see the pantsuit was trotted out for my humble fete.

My aunt was rather like my grandmother, only younger and more vivid, with dark hair that was just as unruly and only a little peppered with grey.  She wore lipstick always, although no other makeup.  She was the oldest girl in the family but she might have been the same age as any of her sisters. We always thought that having no children had preserved her looks.  Her name was Becky.

Becky had a lot of distinct peculiarities, among them rocking on her heels while she listened to you; grabbing a niece or nephew as they walked by to check that their ears were clean; and in later years blinking her eyes quite a lot while she spoke.  Someone said that was nerves.

For my dinner party, I insisted on doing all the cooking. I chose a recipe in which you made a meatloaf, frosted it with mashed potatoes, and put it back in the oven with slices of American cheese laid in overlapping diagonals along the top.  I thought it was the height of elegance. I probably heated up a can of green beans as a side dish.

I remember folding our printed paper napkins into triangles and laying them out alongside our Corelle plates with the little green flowers all around the edges. They were corny plates, but hard to break.

Everyone said dinner was great, but there was an air to the whole evening that I’ve never been able to put my finger on. It was as if Grandma and Becky had been placed in unchartered territory.  It wasn’t that they didn’t know my mother’s dishes quite well and there was nothing extraordinary about a meat and potatoes meal in our family.  It was more to do with who had orchestrated this event.  None of my uncles or boy cousins cooked, but I was quite used to my father’s delicious Saturday morning breakfasts.

I think I would say that Becky was taking in the whole thing with a mixture of confusion and amusement.  It was plain to them that I was not like the other boys in the family, but what exactly this dinner party meant was something that her personal life experiences could not quite reconcile.  We were family, and that went a long way to keeping the evening humming pleasantly. Not that our family specialized in uneventful gatherings; our default was typically at least two people leaving in a huff.  Yet still there was that elusive quality of unspoken surmising: a soft kind of astonishment and many things unsaid.

After dinner I read aloud to my aunt and my grandmother from a book of Tennyson’s poetry I had recently discovered.  I think my grandmother nodded off early on, not that she didn’t love the written word. It was something that was key to her life. Still, she was fading as the long summer twilight burnished the sky outside our picture window.

I stood before the glass and read from The Lady of Shallot with as much artistic lilt as possible. I enunciated every word with something that tried to be a British accent – but gently, as not to earn the kind of criticism that any act of pretentiousness was rightly apt to receive in my family.  It was a coup to even read a whole classical poem without eliciting sniggers from one of my relations, and there was a moment when my mother had a coughing fit that might very well have been a smothered laugh.  At least it sounded a lot like the way she stifled nervous giggles in church.

I had not yet discovered who I would become at that age, although the difference between who I felt like and what other people expected me to be had begun to cause me a lot of  confusion.  Yet on this night, despite that underlying sense of a secret not quite articulated, I was still a child in my family, with the women near me providing a sense of safety.  It surprises me to discover as I write this, that this would be the first of many coming out parties, each nudging me forward toward my authentic self.

That night I watched the taillights of Becky’s dusty little Pinto fade down the drive, still drunk from the thrill of what I had accomplished. The words of Tennyson expanded in my mind like a spider web growing bigger in the brewing heat of a summer day.  The crickets in the meadow outside the house were noisy; it was only about eight o’clock and there was plenty of time yet to clean up my dishes and wind down with a little television before going to bed with a book.  The night and I were still young.

 

Deer Feet

It was hard for Max to walk at first.  He was sure his ankles would snap under his weight. But that bastard Dr. Klinger said he would be fine and needed to exercise.  The doctor would protest being called names.

“I saved your life, young man,” he might say. His woolly eyebrows would escape up under his bushy grey hair, that tangle that spilled forward each time he raked it back.

What would Max say in return?  He might say that his life wasn’t saved, that he could have lived perfectly well as an amputee. They could have outfitted him with those blades like the Olympian who smashed through his bathroom door and killed his wife.  He would rather have metal arcs spanning the distance between his knees and the ground.

“But you had to be shown. The board had to finally see my vision, that bunch of number-crunching neanderthals. The accident happening on your way from my lab was providential, as my grandmother used to say. It was serendipitous. You coming out unscathed except for the hamburger meat that was your old feet. Meanwhile the deer beaten to a pulp but those feet as perfect as they ever were.”

The doctor might put a hand to his chest piously. “If anything I should be thanked.”

Max had thought a lot about his trip to the doctor in the last three weeks.  His employer had sent him out to announce formally that they were cutting funding to the doctor’s program.  There had been too many liberalities taken with his study of interspecies genetic co-modification.  When the doctor sent them a white mouse with the red wings of a Cardinal at Christmas, the board was deeply disturbed, if briefly entertained, watching the creature fly up and down the length of the boardroom table, snatching up bits of cheese off the lunch platter while hovering inches above the surface.

“But what would the press say if they saw this…thing?” the CEO asked.

There was a brief conversation, voices rising in anger at times, before they all fell silent to hear the chair speak.

“It will have to be incinerated.”

So it was done.  For good measure, they collected everyone’s cell phones and scanned them to make sure no one had taken a video.  Each person in the room signed a nondisclosure again, although from the beginning of the project, they had already signed dozens of amended and updated versions of the same.

Somehow it fell to Max to break the news to the doctor.  It felt wrong from the beginning. He was the youngest member of the board and some would say his greatest qualification was being a blood relation to the CEO.  It was a fool’s errand, to say the least.

The doctor had wept when he received the news.  But then he had pulled himself together, offered Max a lunch, as the journey from the remote lab to the nearest town was some distance, and the long roads twisting and still etched with winter ice.  All he remembered about the drive back to town were high banks of white snow on either side.  Then the stag, standing there in the middle.  If he hadn’t felt so tired after lunch, if it hadn’t been so hard to keep his eyes open.  In the weeks he spent lying in bed, he had plenty of time to catalog his regrets.

He should have headed back before lunch, when he was still buzzing from the thermos of coffee that kept him company on the ride in.

He should have refused the task; his uncle would hardly fire him for it.

He should have stayed in college and finished his MBA instead of being seduced by an offer for an immediate and easy windfall.

He should have studied dance, as he wanted to when he was sixteen, instead of being shamed out of it by his father.

He should have died in that boating accident at five instead of his cousin Katie. It always came to this; it was an illogical regret.  He had had many joyful moments in life between that summer day when the water off the Cape turned maroon all around them and the morning he woke up to find he had hooves instead of feet.  All the same, he couldn’t escape the thought that this was a long overdue payment for a debt he owed the universe. Somehow he had cheated that day, getting to walk away unscathed.

On the fortieth day after the car accident, the doctor insisted he walk.  It was hard to do because the small area of his new feet allowed him little wiggle room for balance. He found he wanted to spill forward.

“Well, that’s enough for today,” Dr. Klinger said. “The tenons are still knitting and I’d hate to see you snap them in a fall. I could kill the pain with morphine for your sake, but seeing my handiwork undone would be most unpleasant.”

As Max began to fall asleep, the doctor stroked his brow fondly.

“You really are a miracle. You’re the most beautiful creature ever designed by man. You just don’t see it yet.”

“I’ll never be able to balance on these deer feet,” Max said drowsily. The physical therapy was exhausting. Or else they were feeding him something in his IV to lower the veil. His eyes fluttered closed and he forgot as soon as he saw it that one of the doctor’s assistants was wheeling in a cart on which were perched a strangely familiar set of antlers. Eight points. Then Max could not open his eyes any longer.

“I think I know how to solve the problem of balance,” he heard the doctor say.

Then a voice, “Isn’t that what everyone wants?”

It may have been his own.