THE COUNTRY IS
BEREFT OF DEER
by Marcelle Heath
I didn’t like the boy. He came to my office once a week. Children played outside. I watched them from my window. After our appointment, the boy joined them, loitering on the periphery. Sometimes, he would look up and see me. A shadow of uncertainty would pass over his face, almost like he didn’t recognize me. Then the moment would pass and he would lift his arm and flap it up and down, in rebuff or greeting, I could not tell.
Radiators clattered when the snows came. I moved to this office in January. The children played indoors; their voices carried, bouncing off walls and floors like rubber balls. My assistant went north to care for her ailing father, an entomologist, which I pronounced e-ty-mologist before a comical exchange set me straight. A replacement from the agency was imminent; until then, I was left in charge of the mail and appointments. The calendar was an enigmatic wonder of pullulating codes, and I spent the better part of an afternoon trying foolishly to decipher it. When I looked at the months leading up to the New Year, it was incredible to me. So much to do! My eyes, tired as they were, played tricks on me. It can’t be, I thought. But soon enough, the numbers rearranged themselves. I knew where I was. I met with patients as usual, and at the end of each day, I felt a sense of accomplishment.
But then, as suddenly as winter engulfed our city, I fell ill. The days that followed were strange days of confinement. With every breath, a dagger ripped open my chest and I choked and wept and prayed for death to take me. In my feverish delirium, death arrived as a shape-shifter: first as a wolf, salivating as she regarded me from the window ledge, then as a swan gliding effortlessly across the floor. I blinked and she turned again into a beast with red eyes and bared teeth. Yes! I cried out, ecstatic. I wanted her to consume me. Take me, I whispered. I’m ready. My body broke out into a sweat and soon my nightgown and sheets were drenched. My fever absconded, and so with it, death.
When I returned, the boy awaited me. The agency had sent a new assistant, Juraine; she made a pot of tea while I showed him to my office. I was still weak and nearly out of breath when I arrived. The boy assembled himself clumsily in his seat. We were both, I saw with clarity, much changed since our last meeting. Whereas I had become brittle, the boy was bursting with life. His limbs had grown like weeds. His face was angular, masculine. When I looked into his eyes, however, I saw that he was no man-child. Not yet. He was a still a boy.
The boy began our session with a story I recognized from childhood. It was about a woman, M., who lived in the country. Her husband was dead. She had two small children, a girl and a boy. One day, a visitor arrived—L., an old friend from their student days. M. served her a feast fit for a king. Roasted pig and savory pies, plum pudding and gingerbread. This was during the war. “Where did all this food come from?” L. asked her old friend. The girl and boy exchanged looks. “Come, drink this wine,” M. said, filling her cup. After supper, M. put her children to bed and instructed L. to follow her outside. The night was cold, and L. said she wanted to grab her coat. “Leave it,” M. told her. M. led her to the back of the cottage where a ladder was propped against the wall. M. told her to climb the ladder and wait for her on the roof. “Are you crazy?” L. asked; but some instinct compelled her forward. She climbed the ladder to a precipitous slope. L. managed to hold onto the clay tiles. She called out to M., too nervous to peer down. There was no answer. She scolded herself for falling for her friend’s trick, recalling M.’s wicked pranks from school, how she used to put horse dung in their book cubbies and chase them with snakes she caught by the river. Now L. was stuck. Suddenly, she saw M. standing in the field. M. turned and faced L. Although the moon was bright, M. was too far away for L. to read the expression on her face. Was she smiling? Then, M. turned and began to run, her figure becoming smaller and smaller, until she seemed to be running on all fours. When she was about thirty meters away, there was a shot, and M. crumpled to the ground. L. scrambled down the ladder and ran to her. When she got there, a large wolf lay prostrate, whimpering. A rivulet of blood ran down its back. L. ran back as fast as she could. When she got to the cottage, she took a deep breath. She did not want to wake the children. L. grabbed her satchel and filled it with bounty from the cellar—fowl, rabbit, lamb, and what was left of the pig—and heaved it over her shoulder. When she turned to go, the children blocked her path at the front door…
“Our time is up,” I told the boy. Juraine was waiting in the doorway to escort him out. He stood up and stretched, reaching his long arms to the ceiling and twisting his torso with alarming flexibility. It was a crude display, almost as if, in flaunting his virility, he was mocking my feebleness. After he left, I wrote for an hour, maybe more, until Juraine kindly reminded me of the time. I offered her a lift to the depot, but she turned me down—not quite as kindly, I noted. I left with a hollow feeling in my bones, as if the very marrow had been scooped out of them.
After supper, I read by the window, but could progress no further than a few words before the boy and his strange tale disrupted me. I knew from experience that his anecdotes were trivial and useless; I would unearth no insight from their appraisal. I gave up on my book and retired to bed. There I lay, unable to sleep. People and places I hadn’t thought of in years came back and I was flooded with memories of familial connections, lost loves and past adventures. I saw myself at twenty-seven. Long legs and skin brown and smooth and radiant. My youth and beauty had lured admirers, yes, but it had been my work challenging the current trend of so-called positive psychology that made me a rising star in my profession. These reveries managed to sooth me and eventually I fell asleep.
I met with a new patient some weeks later. She was a bright-eyed thing with long, wavy hair. She wore a tartan frock and wool tights. I looked for her case file on my desk, but could not find it. I asked Juraine where it was and she told me there wasn’t one.
“A bit unorthodox, but we can make something work,” I said to the girl, who smiled. There was something about her that was familiar, but I couldn’t place it. I liked her immediately. She showed me pictures of a white colonial with a large, wrap-around porch.
“Is this your home?” I asked. She showed me more pictures of the house’s interior. The rooms were appointed with crowded bookshelves and massive paintings, ornate wainscoting and looming chandeliers. The girl pointed to one in particular. It was a photograph of a child’s bedroom. There was a white-painted dresser and canopied bed and a large window overlooking a field. The walls were painted with pictures of animals frolicking in a winter wonderland. Hare and hawk and deer and bear covered the landscape.
“Oh, how delightful,” I said to the girl. It was. “You have a lovely nursery.”
“It is nice, but it isn’t mine,” The girl said. I examined it more closely. The painted walls, the canopied bed, the field outside the window. I began to notice other details: a glass-knobbed dresser with the middle drawer ajar, a muddy footprint on the shag carpet. By the footprint’s rust-color it must have come from the vicinity; our region is well known for its red clay. I was so engrossed in the picture that I didn’t hear the girl leave. I asked Juraine to make a photocopy of the picture for a new file and placed the original in my desk drawer before meeting a friend for lunch.
“Do you get lonely?” My friend asked me. We were sitting in a small courtyard.
“No, I have my work to keep me busy.”
“But what about family?”
“The hen is roasted; the eggs boiled,” I said. I recounted the tale the boy told me.
“Her weakness was her pride,” my friend said. My friend had a peculiar habit of chewing on the ends of her hair. She would take one of her long, yellow strands and twirl it around and around before putting it in her mouth.
“Yes, that’s it,” I said. But the question still lingered. Why was it important for him to retell this story to me? I had no good theories. All patients were liars. Their stories were like watercolor pastels, bleeding into one another.
When I returned to my desk, the photograph the girl gave me was gone.
“Where is the picture? I need it at once.” Juraine handed me a glass of water.
“This will not do.” I stood at the window, looking at the passerby in the garden below. I dismissed Juraine and spent the rest of the day compiling notes. In the evening, I finished a case report involving a forty-three-year-old patient with psychotic depression, who complained that the media was reporting that she was a bad wife and mother, and that her gut was rotting away.
Afterward, I listened to the news on the radio, where protests had erupted in the city, and almost laughed when I realized that I was half-listening for the sound of my name. I thought of my friend’s question. I thought briefly I should get a pet to keep me company, but I didn’t have an affinity for animals. As a girl, I had a best friend, Christina Heppel, who had a little spotted terrier that followed her wherever she went. I thought the dog a nuisance, but Christina adored her, showering her with kisses and treats. Her name was Greta, after Garbo. We liked to go up to see the horses at Wolf’s farm and feed them apples we picked by the river. If it was hot, we’d go swimming and Greta would run up and down the river’s edge, barking wildly. “Come, Greta, come!” Christina would laugh at the stupid dog. “She doesn’t like the water,” I said. “It frightens her.” Christina only laughed and splashed water at me. One day, we were going up to the farm and stopped for some apples. It was the end of the season, and many of the apples had fallen and were rotting on the ground. It was overcast and cool, not a good swimming day, but I suggested we go in for a quick dip. Christina undressed and jumped in. Greta began to bark and nip at my heels. “Stop it, Greta,” I said, kicking her. “Miriam!” Christina called out. “It’s okay,” I said, “She’s fine, see?” I leaned over and picked Greta up. She was very light; she weighed nothing at all. “Here,” I said, “Catch!” I threw her into the water. Christina ducked. The dog landed near her, and Christina, frantic, reached out for her. They thrashed about. Christina called out to me. I stood, watching. Finally, Christina got hold of her dog, and managed to swim back in. She went home, carrying Greta, who was shivering and whimpering and looked like a wet rat.
The following morning, Juraine announced the arrival of a stranger at my office. I looked around and tried to see what he saw. There was a clock on the right wall, and the ceiling had cracks in it. My desk faced the door.
“I didn’t think we had an appointment,” I said, a bit terse, as he took a seat. Juraine came up and put a hand on my shoulder. The sleeve of her white uniform was stained with coffee.
“Why don’t you have a seat, Miriam,” Juraine said, pulling out a chair.
“Dr. Hottle. And I prefer to stand, thank you,” I said, though my legs were tired. After a minute, I decided to sit.
“Miriam, I think it’s time,” Juraine said.
“You have a stain on your sleeve,” I told her. Many years ago a colleague interrupted me in the middle of my argument to inform me that I had a lipstick on my teeth. He had been married to an actress. At their annual New Year’s bash at their country estate, they dropped gold streamers from the ceiling. I always drank too much, and was not good company.
The boy asked if I knew who he was.
“The question, my dear, is do you know who you are,” I said.
“Do you know who you are?” He aped. The boy looked like he had grown overnight into a man. His round cheeks were carved out, as if with a paring knife. He had an Adam’s apple. The boy, in fact, bore more than a passing resemblance to my husband, who had been a patient of mine in England after the war. My husband, a surgeon, suffered from panic attacks and noise aversion. I wasn’t able to help him, and he stopped seeing me after a few months.
By chance we met again at a party. His date was a tall, angular woman, whose face seemed as changeable as the weather. In a certain light, she was beautiful. But when she turned just so to pluck a vol-au-vent from one of the silver platters gliding about the hall, or tilted her chin downward, listening to her companion’s conversation, she was plain, even ugly. I knew about her; she was an anesthesiologist who worked at the same hospital. She had encouraged my husband to seek out therapy, and it was obvious by the way she looked at him, with her arm draped over his shoulder, that she was in love with him. My husband was not committed to her, and had slept with two other women since they began seeing one another. He did not feel remorse for his actions, considering himself a bachelor despite the fact that they had discussed marriage. When I asked him if he felt he was leading this woman on during one of our sessions, he acknowledged that he had not given her any reason to doubt that his intentions were serious. My date was an art dealer. I found him very sexy, but most of what he said was repellent to me. My husband and I made eye contact, and I excused myself to say hello, disregarding professional ethics. When I shook hands with him, his companion’s eyes flickered and drooped, as if in defeat.
We married a year later and had two children.
First, a girl. Then, a boy. Good eaters, both. They were devoted to one another. They had their own language, their own fantasies and inventions. The girl especially; she was like me at that age, always building things and devising fanciful schemes. My own childhood had been a happy one, save for one incident the summer before I turned eleven. We moved often as a family. I was born in New York, but was raised in England and Germany, owing to my father’s work as an engineer. At this time we were living outside Düsseldorf. My sister, Marie, became afflicted with a sickness that left her bedridden for weeks. Gradually she recovered but was left physically and mentally weak; even the smallest tasks—dressing, eating, defecating—were an ordeal that needed considerable time and preparation. She became the center of the family; all our focus was on her. Her disability made her resentful and mean-spirited. When she entered adolescence, I was spared the awkward period that so many suffer through, and emerged unscathed, with perfect skin and respectable breasts. Marie was not so lucky. She developed acne that exacerbated the rosacea she inherited from our father. She scrubbed her face with hot water and soap several times a day, to no avail. Her face resembled an open wound, red and raw and seeping. As if to protest against the injustice, she insulted me at every opportunity, deriding the style of my hair and clothes. I retaliated with the one thing I knew she’d hate the most: kindness. With every snide comment, I countered with offers to plait her hair, wash her bed, tie her dress, calling her “my sweet sister.” I made sure to have an audience so that she couldn’t refuse me.
Yet Marie rose up from the depths of frightful puberty into a pretty, albeit feeble, specimen. And, once more, she found a beau—a local cobbler named Christian. I imagined him holding her brittle ankle in his hands as he calculated the arch and heel’s measurements, his eyes glancing up her thin calf to her gnarled knee, and up, up, reaching her atrophied thigh, up to her slender waist, her small breasts, up to her long neck, her round face, up to her flushed and faintly scarred cheeks, up to her wide, blue eyes. Marie died in childbirth in 1938 not long after marrying. I left our adopted country full of promise, brimming with optimism, even as the world was on the brink of war.
The boy asked another question. I unfolded my hands, which had been neatly still on my desk, to open a drawer. I saw, to my dismay, that my desk had no drawers. Worse, I had forgotten to put on my stockings and my legs were bare.
“What do you remember about the accident?” The boy asked. I remembered the makeup stains on the ivory boucle gown I wore on New Year’s. I had tried to hide my bruises, and by the end of the night the neckline of my dress was smeared with powder.
“With that welt on your cheek, you look like John Garfield,” I remarked to my husband as he put on his evening jacket. He gave me a look. I held out my compact.
“At least let me try to cover it…”
“Leave it, Miriam.” I sat on the bed to adjust the straps of my heels and noticed that the carpet was muddy.
“I went for some air,” my husband said. I wondered if Natalie, our American housekeeper, had joined him, as was her wont.
I checked in on the children, who were being read a bedtime story by Mrs. Clairmont. My boy held a pillow in front of him. The littlest one rested her head against her nanny’s arm. Behind them, animals danced across the wall. The story they were reading was “The Wish.” It was about a girl who wishes for a friend and is given a dog who kills her pet rabbit. In revenge, she turns into a bear and eats the dog. The story was in a book I loved as a girl. One in particular haunted me during my first pregnancy; it involved a woman who wishes for a son, but finds herself unable to care for him after he is born. He sucks her breast but no milk comes out. He refuses the bottle and cries and cries, until finally, in terror, she shakes him to death. I had nightmares where my milk turned to blood and my baby bit off my nipple and slowly devoured my breast.
After Mrs. Clairmont was finished, the children begged for her to read another.
“Just one more,” she said. I stayed in the doorway to listen, lighting a cigarette. I didn’t recognize this one. It was about a mother who turns into a wolf to steal food for her children. A friend comes to visit and is struck by the feast she is given. “Where did all this food come from?” she asks. The mother laughs and says, “Come, I will show you.” She tells her friend to climb a ladder to the top of the roof. The mother turns into a wolf and runs across the field. The friend, whose full belly jostled from all the activity (it did not quite know how to receive the unexpected nourishment), knew that when she resumed her travels, hunger would be her sole companion. She saw her chance, and drew her firearm and shot the wolf. The beast fell, and the woman climbed down to examine the body. The bullet had hit her back. The wolf appraised its killer without fear, or hatred, or sorrow. I listened to the rest of the story before wishing them goodnight.
“Give Mummy a kiss.” As I bent down to receive their kisses, the animals above us appeared to watch. They kissed me dutifully and I inspected their faces, lightly touching their cuts from smashing into the back of the front seat.
“Here,” I said, pressing powder onto their wounds.
“It stings,” my girl said. The boy kissed his sister.
“Remember to say your prayers.” I joined Mr. Hottle in the hall. Natalie hovered on the stairwell.
Juraine handed me a cup of tea. I thanked her. I looked out at the children playing on the other side of the iron fence. I saw my friend just beyond them, looking out at the river, chewing a strand of hair. Sitting next to her was, coincidentally, the depressive with psychosis. Recently, her hallucinations had gotten better. The radio wasn’t bad-mouthing her anymore, but there was still a gaping hole in her gut.
“It was a minor scrape,” I said. It was the day before New Year’s, and the week had been full of holiday gatherings. We had been on our way home from dinner at Domenico’s; the roads were icy from a storm. I was driving. The children insisted there were beasts emerging from the fog. Mr. Hottle lit a cigarette for me. My gloves were wet. The windshield was clouding up. I turned up the heat. “Slow down,” Mr. Hottle said, “there are deer on this road.” There were no deer. Not once had I seen a deer. The country was bereft of deer.
“I’m leaving in the morning,” Mr. Hottle informed me. I put out my cigarette.
“Light me another, will you?” I switched on the radio.
The children counted fence posts. I fumbled with my cigarette case.
“Here, let me,” Mr. Hottle reached over and took it from me. He took out a cigarette, lit it, and put it in my mouth.
“Thanks, love,” I said, humming along to the song. “I never thought my heart could be so yearny/Why did I decide to roam/Gotta take a sentimental journey/Sentimental journey home.” I turned a corner. Another car was a few meters ahead. I came up behind it. I checked for oncoming traffic and moved into the other lane to pass. The children screamed in delight (this was another favorite pastime). I accelerated until we were parallel with the other car. I loved speed. I had been a thrill seeker all my life, excelling at competitive sports – skiing, running, tennis, show jumping, swimming, and of course, sex. There was so much I wanted to do. I wanted to climb Mount Everest, dive out of an airplane. The children screamed again.
“The New Year’s party,” I said, struggling to remember. Gold streamers falling from the ceiling. My ivory boucle gown. The band playing “Sentimental Journey.” My husband in his evening jacket. But then I was bombarded with other images. Limping up the driveway, my shoulder bleeding, my arms and legs scratched from falling in brambles, making my way up the stairs to the children’s nursery, the carpet soft on my bare and battered feet.
How long had it been? It seemed only yesterday, and yet it was another lifetime ago.
“You didn’t make it to the party, Miriam,” the man said. Headlights shone in the distance; I pressed my foot on the gas. In the rearview mirror, the children, now quiet, watched me, their pupils blacker than night.
“I think we’ve had enough for today.” He helped me up from my chair. My youth had been stripped from me. I was an old woman.
“Are you my boy?” I asked him as he led me to my bed. He smiled kindly at me.
“I am Doctor Fairfax.”
“You’re a fine one, indeed,” I said as I lay down and handed him my book. “Be a dear and read to me.” He inspected the cover before opening it to the marked page. The afternoon light sifted through the blinds, and I showed him the place where I left off.
“‘Where is our mother?’ The children asked the woman when she came back alone,” he began. “‘Where did she go?’”
A semifinalist for YesYes Books Pamet River Prize, Marcelle Heath’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Joyland, Kenyon Review Online, matchbook, Nanoism, NOÖ, Split Lip Magazine, Wigleaf, and other journals. She is Series Editor for Wigleaf Top 50 (very) Short Fictions, and Managing Editor of VIDA Review.