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First place winner of The Art of Reflection Competition 2022
I was ten when my father first spoke of the deer. He sat at the dining room table, a cup of hot coffee out in front of him, steam floating under his chin. It was autumn, the morning air was cold, the house drafty with the scent of dead leaves. My father’s eyes, a royal blue, were glowing as he talked about the deer. I watched hunched over my oatmeal, the smell of maple all around me, brown sugar coated the back of my throat.
It was white, my father said stopping to sip his coffee. He winced after swallowing, then put the cup back down on the table. She just stood there, he said. She stood there staring right at me.
I pressed my spoon down into my oatmeal. The chunky brown oats slowly flooded the spoon like quicksand.
My mother sat down beside my father, across from me and my oatmeal, a cup of hot coffee in her hand.
What did you do? My mother asked, sipping her coffee, her eyes on my father over the rim of her cup.
I reached my spoon up to my mouth, it was full of oatmeal, too full, and the thick chunks dripped back down into the bowl. I too, eyed my father over the spoon that was in front of me. I too, had my own question for my father to answer: How did he know the deer was a girl?
I spoke to her, my father said very matter of fact. We were the only ones out there, what else could I do?
And what did it say? My mother said with a playful grin.
My father paused, looked down. She said she was looking for her family, my father said, smiling into his cup.
During that time, we lived in a small town in Connecticut, right on the border of two separate towns, one no bigger than the other. Our home was settled in the woods with a long drive that led to our large, old white house. But the house was not our own. My mother and father worked there, hired by a surreptitious person before I was born, an employer I never knew anything about. It was a hunting and fishing lodge. Members-only. We lived on one side of the old house, the members stayed on the other. Naturally, the yard was full of woods to explore, the woods where my father spent most of his time clearing paths and checking for trespassers as the property’s groundskeeper, a dream of his to work with so much land. My mother spent her time indoors, the designated cook and maid, taking care of the interior of that great big house, a dream she never envisioned. There was one time my father came home after being outside all morning, his face was flushed from the chill in the air, but yet his skin was of very little color. I overheard him tell my mother he had found a man hanging from a tree, a rope around his neck, feet dangling inches from the earth. I froze in my tent, the sun passing through the white sheet that I hung above me, draped between two dining room chairs. The book I held, Goosebumps, lowered down to my lap as I listened to the quiet whispers down the hall.
Of all my father had seen out there in the woods, the white deer was the biggest mystery to him. And soon, it became a game. He’d go out there everyday to work, but also to see whether the white deer would find her way back to him. When she did, my father would come home with a smile on his face, gather my mother and me to tell us everything. How the white deer seemed to appear out of nowhere, how she’d watch him while chewing on wild berries. How after a while she’d move closer to my father, how my father would continue to go about his duties of planting seeds, digging up rotted plants, all the while feeling the white deer near. They were simply two creatures out there in the wilderness, equally curious about one another.
My father grew protective of the white deer, fearful of the hunters that might see her. You can’t kill an albino deer, my father told my mother in the kitchen one morning. I was in the laundry room across from the kitchen, hiding in the closet; a cave for my dolls. It’s against the state law, my father said.
My mother didn’t say anything in response, only the sound of her feet on the linoleum, skin sticking to the floor, a refrigerator opening and closing as she prepared lunch for the guests next door. I held the dolls close, their pointed feet dug hard into the tops of my thighs as I thought about my father’s white deer out in the woods, the hunters that might find her. The man that hung by his neck out there all alone before found by my father. Unlike my mother, I had something to say: How would anyone know if a hunter killed the white deer?
It had become an obsession, this white deer, for my father yes, but also for me. It was felt throughout our side of the old house. Words unsaid, sitting stagnant in the thick air, a secret kept. When will my father see her again? What will happen next? With death around us, that white deer gave us hope. A symbol of life, but also of magic. The excitement of rare possibilities, our imaginations soared of the unknown. I’d take this feeling with me wherever I’d go, even as I’d venture to the other side of the home. The hunter’s side where joy could easily be replaced with dread as the thought of the white deer getting hurt became more prominent.
I was only allowed over on that side when no members were visiting. That’s when I could slip through the white door in our living room that revealed a vacant dining room with erect chairs, a long table dressed for those who would return. The temperature was always colder on that side, much colder than our own, even with the sun crawling through all those windows.
During the off season or a quiet few days when the hunters went back to their homes Upstate or in the Berkshires, my mother would be left with a mess to clean. Blood-stained white towels, dishes crusted with whatever game was shot and brought back. After my father had to gut the fish, skin the animals, my mother would be expected to cook it all, to know what she was doing.
Sometimes when I’d slip through to that side of the house, I’d catch my mother upstairs stripping the beds or wiping down one of those old bath tubs with the claw feet. She’d be humming to herself in a world of her own, with no one to bother her, no interruptions at all. It was in those moments that the house, all of its entirety, felt like our very own. Us against the world, masters of the woods. We lived among ourselves and the animals. No one could bother us, no harm could come of the animals.
Then there were times I’d go over to the other side and find my father sitting at a small table by the windows overlooking the perfectly manicured lawn he created. It’s greenery a brilliant backsplash of color, more bold than any painting placed on those walls. My father would be sitting there with a cup of coffee without any steam. A cigarette burned between his fingers, smoke huddled around him. That toxic smoke that would someday kill him. He held a pencil to a pad of paper as he scribbled erratically, with such intensity that I was afraid if I approached I’d scare him.
During those moments, I’d wonder what was on those pages, never actually being able to see what it was my father wrote. He wrote hard and rough, illegible writing no one could detect. When he was finished, the pad and pencil would be gone, lifted up and away in a shirt pocket, guarded and protected near his heart. But even though I didn’t know what he wrote, I wondered if maybe it had something to do with the white deer. That maybe those scribbles were plans on how to keep her safe. A protector, like a father with a child.
When I stood in the spot my father sat all alone so many times, I’d stare out those windows overlooking the lawn and wonder where that white deer was, if she was ok. I had hoped she was not out there alone and scared, or worse, somehow hanging from a branch in one of those trees. I made up scenarios on my own, thinking of her picking berries with her teeth, bringing them back to her family, bouncing through the woods and making friends with other animals: a fox or raccoon, maybe an eagle. There were so many scenarios in my head I felt exhausted. I wanted to see her with my own eyes. I wanted to know she was real. My father was not a liar. I had no reason not to believe him, and yet, I needed to see her myself. I craved to meet her.
One morning over oatmeal and coffee, I asked my father to see the white deer. My eyes widened to take all of him in, his entire expression when he finally answered.
That all depends, Buckwheat, he said, eyeing my mother’s grandfather clock resting against the wall. The clock had not worked for several years and still it took up so much space in our home.
Depends on what, Dad? I said, pressing the bottom of my spoon down deep into my oatmeal.
It depends on whether we can find her.
That morning after breakfast, we went out into the woods while my mother was over on the other side of the house, dusting ledges and rearranging magazines on coffee tables, preparing for an upcoming arrival. My father and I were out there for what felt like hours, our skin growing pink and cold, our lips chapped from the wind. We were out there so long and saw so much: birds overhead, trees changing color. But we never saw that white deer.
She must be hiding, my father said, a stick cracking under his boot as he led us off the trail. Probably just hiding.
I nodded behind my father even though he couldn’t see, even though I was deflated. The deer always came out of hiding when it was just my father out in the woods. It was because I was there with him that she was not coming around.
That afternoon, I stayed on my swings longer than usual, my legs grew tired after all the pumping, but I was not ready to stop. I was not ready to go back down to the ground just yet. If I kept pumping my legs, the blue of the sky with its white clouds, feathery and barely there, seemed almost reachable. Each time I’d go high in the air, I’d tilt my body back, press my bare feet out in front of me, pretending to stomp on the sky, my toes dipping into the blue. And each time I’d come back down, I’d look out into the woods, my eyes roaming. Was she out there somewhere watching me?
I had wondered that day on those swings what my father had that I didn’t. Why a white deer would come to him and only him, and not me? I didn’t have an answer but I knew there was something. Creatures loved my father. Our cat, Tigger was always by my father’s feet, accompanying him on his everyday tasks like a best friend. Birds seemed to chirp louder when my father was around, singing to him high up in that old maple. Any dog who came with a member would find my father and beg for his hand, licking my father’s fingers until told that was enough.
I wanted to be like my father was with animals. I wanted all creatures of the earth to love me the way they loved him. When I’d tell him this, my father would laugh and rub the top of my head as though I was our cat who followed him, or one of the member’s dogs who begged for his attention.
It takes time, Buckwheat, my father said. It takes patience.
I nodded again without really listening, too busy concentrating on the next question in my head: When can we look for the white deer again?
It would be another week or so before my father and I would go back into those woods. After he cleaned up the trails, cut the lawn, raked the leaves. After the members came and went, we ventured back out there, walking along those very trails my father cleared, our fishing rods pointing high up to the sky. As we walked, we spoke very little, allowing nature to do the talking for us. The birds sang, the dirt crunched under our feet, the wind made the leaves on the trees clap as we walked by.
When we got to the river, my father helped me bait my rod before dropping our lines into the babbling waters, a language of its own.
You see that out there, my father said, pointing to his right. My direction followed his thick finger where an old, dilapidated stone wall stood.
That was here way before us, my father said, his hand now propped along his hip. It needs to be cleaned up a bit, those old rocks should be replaced and resealed, my father said, squinting. But it has potential, don’t you think?
I stared at the stone wall, imaging my father replacing each stone one by one with bare hands. I looked back at my father standing tall with one hand on his hip, the other holding his fishing rod. I didn’t ask what the stone wall was for. I thought of the other large wall made of stone by the garage, the one my father built himself and the sunflowers we planted growing along it. I knew this wall would have its own purpose, I knew my father would make it special. He loved it out in the woods, doing a job that allowed him to build and be one with nature. For that moment, it felt as though all of the woods were our own, that we owned that river, that we owned that stone.
I was in a daze staring at the old stone wall, watching the sunlight dance along its crevices. I glanced up at the trees, a golden white streamed through the branches thick with leaves. I thought of my father out here all alone every day in all this beauty, I thought of the man my father found hanging from one of these very trees, his body silently swaying in the wind.
When my father called out to me again, lost in a moment of stillness, I jumped when he touched my shoulder.
Tighten your grip, my father said, nodding his head toward the fishing rod held gingerly in my hand. The fish will take the bait and the rod too.
I turned my direction out in front of me. But it wasn’t the fishing rod that caught my eye.
It was the white deer. She was standing across from us. Her long white legs submerged in the stream. She stood silently, still, as she stared at us. As she stared at me. Our eyes locked, I held my breath.
Well, look at that, my father said over me. She’s taking you in. Just be still, let her see you. No sudden movements now, you don’t want to spook her. You don’t want her thinking you are a threat.
My heart was in my throat. I couldn’t move if I tried. My fingers gripped the fishing rod hard. The white deer was illuminant. So pure and white against the color of fall. The reds, yellows, and browns, all the remaining green. The white deer’s ears twitched, her eyes never leaving mine.
I was worried someone got her, my father said beside me.
You were? I said, a breeze tickled my skin, a mourning dove cooed somewhere far away and unseen.
I’m always worried, my father said.
I blinked at the white deer, finally turned to my father. He wasn’t looking at the deer, but down at me.
Then he turned, told me to look.
I did as he asked and looked back at the white deer. I sucked in a gulp of fresh river air when I saw the white deer had dipped her head down to the stream.
She’s comfortable around you, my father said, standing taller. She knows you aren’t here to hurt her.
I watched the white deer drink the water. Her long, slender neck. Her strong, lean body. She was at ease now, no longer rigid, and I too, felt my own body begin to relax as the three of us stood together by the river.
That night in bed, I retraced each moment in the woods. The white deer’s eyes on mine, were wide and brown, maybe lined in a shade of pink. Her body was muscular with strength.
That white coat so bright. I thought of her out there at night, hoped she was safe from whatever could cause her harm, which seemed like so much. Hunters, yes, but other animals that saw her as prey. Natural disasters that could take her, maybe even loneliness that could one day break her.
But after that day, the white deer was gone. Fall came and winter quickly followed. My father was outside almost everyday, but that white deer never came back. Maybe she got scared off, maybe she was impossible to place against the white snow. My father was disappointed even though he never said. It was in his face, the way his shoulders slumped slightly when he’d come back in from the outdoors. There were no more stories to tell.
Even years after the day my father and I saw the white deer in the woods, even after never seeing her again, I’d still find myself searching for her. No matter what I was doing –– walking, skipping rocks, writing feverishly about her beneath the Apple Blossom tree –– I’d find myself stopping to look around. Every snap of a branch, a rustle in a bush had me believe it could be her, that I’d find this white creature standing quietly beside me drinking from the stream, chewing on berries. But it would not be her, rather a small animal, a chipmunk or squirrel. It was the wind, an old branch that fell to the ground. It was my father raking leaves. It was everything but the white deer, and yet, she was everywhere. She was still all around me.
Even after we moved from that old house and it’s deep woods, well after I grew up and moved out of the country to the city, replacing the wilderness with high buildings and bustling traffic, even after all these years my father has been gone, no longer on this earth, I still think of that white deer. I think of her skin the color of snow out there in all that green. I think of her big eyes locked on mine, and I wonder where she went. I wonder if by any chance she is still out there somewhere roaming free in my father’s woods.
Carissa Chesanek is an NYC-based writer with an MFA in creative writing from The New School. Her work has been seen in the Los Angeles Review of Books, BOMB, Electric Literature, and The Brooklyn Rail among others. She was a 2021 editorial fellow with Guernica and a current member of PEN America's Prison Writing Committee.