Kremmy reached out, the setting sun making the red rock a richer shade. The grainy texture smoothed the pad of their finger as they counted the layers in the cliffside, imagining the thousands of years of sedimentation it took to build the towering structure. Loose rocks tumbling to the side caught their attention, and they spotted a deer with thick antlers. It stood still and sure, its black eyes staring into their own.
Kremmy let their hand fall from the rock. “Hey, buddy. Never seen one of you up close before.” They had just moved to Utah a few days ago for a research position at the Natural History Museum, and their boss had sent them to Kanab for research. Their new neighborhood sat on a long flat plot backed by a large sandstone effigy. When they’d first seen it, it was like a dream come true.
The deer took a step closer, its ear twitching. Did they usually come so close to people? Kremmy wondered. Looking up at the darkening sky, they figured it best to return home. As they picked their way down the gravelly slope and across the empty road to the neighborhood, they enjoyed the vast empty sky. Their back and neck ached from studying rocks all day, and they looked forward to laying down and falling into a deep sleep. As they crossed the lawn toward the front door the grass stirred behind them. They turned, and a thickly antlered deer bent its head down, nibbling at the green.
That’s weird, they thought. “You follow me all the way back?” The deer looked up, chewing. “Well, you can’t come inside with me.” Kremmy stepped backwards, their eyes still on the deer, and the deer stepped forwards with them. The hair prickled at the back of their neck and they rushed to the front door, slamming it shut. You’re being ridiculous, they thought. It probably isn’t even the same deer.
But as they brushed their teeth while scrolling through Reddit, not even their feed could distract them from the thought of the deer on the lawn. Kremmy thought back to the realtors, who warned them of the curse on the house. Curses aren’t real, they had replied. It’s probably just carbon monoxide. So they’d had the house fixed before they moved in.
A deer isn’t a curse, they thought as they laid in bed. They ruffled their Mohawk, then clutched the hair and pulled. You don’t need to look. It’s probably already gone.
Yet they found themselves getting up for a glass of water, looking out the kitchen window. The deer sat on the grass, its legs folded beneath its slight frame, staring at them. They gulped down the water quickly, returning to their bed. It’ll be gone in the morning, they thought, turning over to sleep.
The next morning Kremmy avoided the kitchen while they dressed in hiking gear, taking care to wear something long—they were brown, but their family always joked they were secretly Irish from the way they burned. There was a rap at the door, and when Kremmy opened it a stout man with a buzzcut extended his hand. “Hey, I’m your research partner. The name’s Ricardo, but everyone calls me Ricky. You ready?” Kremmy nodded, shaking his hand, and they both walked out towards his Jeep. To their dismay, the deer was still there, watching.
“I see you’ve got yourself a friend,” Ricky said, starting up the car. Kremmy felt safer in the Jeep, with another person. They did their best to act casual, glancing back at the deer.
“Yeah. I saw it up on the cliffs,” they said, waving off beyond their house. “Seems to like me.”
Ricky pulled out of the neighborhood, turning left. “You mean it followed you home?”
Kremmy shrugged, trying not to feel paranoid. They glanced at the rearview mirror and relaxed when they saw empty road. “Maybe? I don’t know if it’s the same one.”
“I’m guessing you’ve heard the stories about your house. That it’s haunted,” Ricky stated matter-of-factly. “Most people don’t last a month there; it’s always some animal or another. Bears, squirrels, birds, knocking in windows and doors. Stuff like that.” Ricky turned off the main road onto a dirt trail, and they drove across a flat expanse. Thin cows swatted away flies with their tails, grazing on the sparse shrubbery. “Seems to me there’s something in that house they want.”
Chills went up Kremmy’s arms, but they rubbed them away, laughing quickly. “What would they want with a house?”
Ricky shrugged. “Maybe there was a pond there once or something. An extra tasty tree. But they seem to remember, whatever it was.”
Kremmy switched the topic of conversation until they were at their destination: a dried creek. As they observed the rock’s wear and dug deeper into the earth, Kremmy heard the twiggy bushes rustle dryly, and looked up. Beyond the flaky leaves was the deer, its antlers branching out with the foliage. They looked back down at their work, trying to ignore its persistent black eyes. Ricky shifted next to them, placing his shovel down.
“Looks like you’ve got a visitor,” he said, nodding his head towards the animal.
Kremmy picked up a stone, wiping the dirt from its surface. “Yup.”
They worked in silence for a while, then Kremmy heard Ricky take a breath, holding it in. He took another breath, and with it came words to fill the quiet.
“You know, there’s a lot of… different energy out here. You have to be a special kind of geologist to get it—you gotta almost unscrew your head and screw it back on to get calibrated, you know?” Ricky shrugged, picking up his shovel. Kremmy watched him, his tan face flushed from the noon heat. “Just saying. Part of the job is learning what doesn’t make sense, then figuring out an explanation that makes it understandable.”
“It’s just a deer,” Kremmy said firmly. Ricky’s words rubbed them the wrong way, like he was trying to dumb down something complex to a little kid. They straightened out their bucket hat. “I think I found something interesting,” they said, changing the subject.
The deer stayed with them all day, moving with the shade, until the sun began setting. Ricky said nothing else about it until he dropped them off on their front lawn. He put his jeep in park, leaning towards Kremmy once they’d gotten out of the car.
“You gonna try and find what that deer wants?” he asked from the driver’s seat, the passenger window rolled down.
Kremmy shrugged. “It’s just a deer. It’ll get bored with me eventually.”
Ricky raised his eyebrows. “Alright. See you tomorrow.”
As Ricky pulled away, Kremmy resisted the urge to call out to him; they didn’t want to be alone when the deer arrived, its black eyes trained on the kitchen window. They rushed inside, locking the door behind them, and flicked on the light. They looked around, scanning the tv on its stand and the yellow thrifted couch, the pans that hung from hooks and the dark hallway to their left. Where would anybody hide anything here? they thought. They knew it would be fruitless, but they couldn’t help investigating the little house for something a deer would want—a piece of branch, maybe, or a bone of its ancestors? Did deer keep track of their lineage?
Kremmy looked under the bathroom sink, in the storage closet, beneath their bed. They huffed, raking their Mohawk from their forehead. Where would I hide something if I were a weird mystical animal? They looked at the bare beige walls, then down at the shaggy carpet floor. They stomped with their sneakered foot, but it sounded solid beneath them.
You look like an idiot, they thought as they stomped their way towards the kitchen, listening. Kremmy was blessing the fact they lived alone when the fake hardwood echoed hollowly in front of the fridge. They paused, adrenaline spiking within them, then crouched down. Kremmy knocked at the spot and it resounded. They tried wedging their short nails under a plank, but it was flush to the floor. They stood, picked a steak knife from the drawer, and kneeled back down, forcing the tip of the knife into the floor. The plank groaned, then lifted, snapping at the middle. Kremmy cleared the opening, then used their phone to shine light into the hole.
A wooden beaded necklace with a paper tag rested half a foot down. Kremmy grabbed it, the wood light and smooth. At the base was a carved medallion the shape of a deer’s antlered head. “No shit,” they breathed. The realtor was right. Ricky was right. Their house was haunted.
Kremmy flipped the paper tag, a message written in faded black ink:
Thee who finds it will unbind it;
Leave it lost and feel the cost.
What on Earth? Surely this was a prank; some kid left a message to spook out newcomers. But why hide something where nobody would find it if you wanted it to be found? They stood up, their knees aching, and looked out the kitchen window. The deer stood in the middle of their lawn, staring. Waiting.
Kremmy walked to the front door, reached for the knob, and hesitated. What if they opened the door and the deer was right there, staring? They took a deep breath and opened the door swiftly, flinging the necklace out onto the lawn and slamming the door closed. They locked it, then returned to the window to watch. The deer bent its neck towards the lawn and tried hooking the necklace onto an antler, but the necklace had fallen flat, and the thick grass blocked the deer’s efforts. The deer looked up at them and groaned softly.
For God’s sake, Kremmy thought. “You got this. This isn’t creepy. The deer isn’t gonna magic you or anything.” They walked towards the front door. “The sooner you get out there, the sooner it’s gone.” They opened the door and inched towards the deer. It stayed in place as Kremmy approached and bent down to grab the necklace. Arm outstretched, they looped the necklace onto its antler and backed away. They gasped as the deer transformed, remolding up and inwards until it was a man—well, almost a man, Kremmy observed. His body had begrudgingly transformed itself; a bit of deer lingered. His hair fell down his back, and his body was strong and slender like his deer form, but his face was the most deer-like. They couldn’t decide to run or ask him a question, and was trapped in place by their indecision.
“Thank you,” he said. His voice was hoarse, and he coughed against the brisk evening air. “I’ve been a deer for quite some time now. I’m afraid I’ve frightened away the others before you. This time I tried a more passive approach, and I’m glad to see it worked.” His ears, still tapered long, flicked in the night.
Passive approach? Kremmy thought. Poor suckers. “Uh, yeah. No problem.”
The man stared at Kremmy with the same black eyes, waiting. For what, Kremmy couldn’t tell. “So, are we done here? You seem to be doing… better, and I’m guessing the house isn’t haunted anymore, so maybe we should part. Ways.” They sounded ridiculous to their own ears. What if this was the being’s home, and he wanted it back? Would he be willing to be roommates? Could they handle a deer person roommate?
The being blinked. “Right. Sorry, I forgot I could speak for a moment.” He looked back towards the sandstone. “Actually, I need a willing person to possess the talisman so I can collect the others. I was hoping, now that we’re acquainted, that could be you.”
Kremmy didn’t know how to respond. They scratched the back of their neck. “Others?” The realization of what had happened started creeping up on them, and they laughed, feeling hysterical. “This can’t actually be happening. Jesus. I’m talking to whatever you are, and now you want me to take a weird necklace for you? I don’t even know you! I just moved here!” Kremmy paced back and forth, fear and stress whizzing through their veins. They could feel the being’s eyes on them. “And stop staring at me!”
He looked down at the grass. “Humans like names, yes? I’ve forgotten my own, but you can call me Deer, if you like.” Kremmy laughed, disbelieving. “I apologize. This has been my reality for so long, I forget what it’s like to be at the beginning. What do you wish to know?”
Kremmy stopped, turning to look at Deer. Where to begin? “How are you you? How is this possible?”
Deer nodded, his browbone protruding like antlers. “All living things are connected through Life. The talisman brings Life forwards, bridging the gap between Life’s forms. Those who become accustomed to its effects can learn to switch forms, though mastery of even one alternate form is a tricky thing. Life is stubborn—it prefers homeostasis. Constancy.”
“So what, you think really hard about living and you can transform into a deer?” Kremmy shook their head. “But only when you wear a magic necklace?”
Deer cocked his head. “It’s not a transformation, it’s a shift. Both deer and man think, feel, taste. They just do so in different ways.”
Kremmy sighed, the hysteria subsiding a bit. “So how did you lose the talisman? And how come you never just broke in while you were a deer?”
Deer smiled, but his muscles were unpracticed, and it came off as unnerving. “I never meant to part with it; a foe stole it from me, not knowing its curse but desiring its power. I tried gaining it back from him, but deer aren’t equipped for offensive measures, so I stalked him instead. It stayed in the family, slowly transforming those who didn’t return it.” Kremmy remembered the words on the paper tag: leave it lost and feel the cost. What would they have turned into? A lizard? A toad? They shivered at the thought.
“But you want me to keep it now. Won’t I just turn into something like you?” Kremmy asked, shifting their weight. “Not that it would be bad. It’s just…” They looked at Deer, his nose flicking at a wandering scent. “Not my style.”
Deer shook his head. “You have found the talisman, so the curse has been unbound. I give it to you willingly, so it is not lost. You will remain as you are.” Deer shrugged. “Although, it can be an enlightening experience to feel Life and shift forms.”
“I’m sure it is,” they said. They sighed. “And why can’t you keep it?”
“Man is ill equipped for the desert. A deer lasts much longer. And I will need time to gather everybody.”
Kremmy debated in their head. Did they want to know who everybody was? They looked up at the sky; the main street was unlit, so the stars shone bright in the deep dark. It was late, and they had work tomorrow. Best leave the Snow White experience for another day.
They extended their hand. “Fine. I’ll keep it for you. But I don’t know how long I’m staying here, so you better be back soon.”
Deer walked towards them, until he was uncomfortably close. “I’ll need you to remove it. The shifting process is tricky once I’m no longer in contact with the talisman.”
“Right. Totally normal.” Kremmy reached forwards, grabbing the necklace gingerly. Deer’s chest radiated feverish heat, and as they slipped the necklace over his head he began transforming immediately, shrinking and stretching until he was a deer again. He bowed with his antlers, then walked silently into the darkness.
Kremmy went back inside, the necklace still in their hand. They looked around, then hung it up on a hook next to a cast-iron skillet. They looked out the window again, and the lawn was empty. Too empty. Maybe they would get something for it—a garden gnome or a plastic flamingo. They yawned. For now, sleep.