He saw the white stag across his yard as the first snowflakes drifted down. He sipped his coffee and tried not to cry. He succeeded, but he knew what the white stag was telling him.
John Coltrane drifted from the speaker, an almost perfect soundtrack. The man rode the notes off to memory lane, as the stag stared from across the slowly whitening yard. Back to... happier times? Better? Quieter?
“Nah”, he said out loud. “Just different”.
He took a last swig of the coffee and walked to the study. The old desk still stood, where three typewriters and four computers saw all his books, articles, essays and poems go out into the world. But this time, plain old pen and paper. It was always amusing to him that people swore he had this fancy fountain pen, and no, this would be with a five cent Bic.
He sat and took a sheet. From the wall across, Stephen King, The Dude Lebowski and Deadpool stared with dead-eyed cuteness. The only Funkos he ever fancied to buy. Beneath them, him and her. Twenty lifetimes ago on the right, that day at the beach, when he proposed to her. God, she was hot, he thought with his usual teenage mischief when he thought of her. At the left, only last year, at the base of Angel Falls, celebrating their thirtieth and, turns out, last anniversary. God, she was beautiful, he thought with his usual mature romanticism. He sighed.
He caught movement through the corner of his eye and turned to the only window. When he wrote, there was a curtain over this window, so it was just him and The Words. But today, it was wide open. The snow was steady at work, pushing autumn out of the way, edging winter ever closer. And there was the white stag, with his golden antlers and peaceful, noble eyes. He slowly strolled at the edge of the man’s yard, his hot breath piercing the cold air. So he was real, the man thought. And he isn’t. But he’s here, and that’s what matters.
“Speak thy truth, o mighty hart”, he whispered. The stag flicked an ear, as if in response.
Should I be worried, Dad?, his son asked from the voice of memory.
To love is to worry, son, I always taught you that, he answered.
Stop that, I’m serious. Mrs. Gandry told me you haven’t left the house in a month.
She’s sweet, but she’s too young to be my mother and be in my business like that, kiddo.
She’s your next door neighbor and a friend for over twenty years. I’d say she’s earn the right to make you her business. I think she has a thing for you.
The man chuckled, knowing that Mrs. Gandry has been in love with a woman since the Reagan administration.
In any case, Dad, if she notices you haven’t left the house in a month, that’s cause for concern, don’t you think? I mean, have you even bought groceries?
Instacart is still a thing, son. Even Walmart delivers.
Ok, Dad. True. But you haven’t answered. Should I worry?
Do you still love your old man?
Then yes. Do you mean should you be concerned about my well-being at the present time? Mmmm... No, not really.
You’re not that convincing.
I can write you a 500-word essay.
He exasperated his son, he knew it. He had grown up so serious. Became a lawyer, of all things. Still loved his books and his video games and his own daughters, for sure, but he was not the clown his old man was. And he knew it. He was proud of his son, prouder than anything he had ever done. But he made an effort to tease him every time he could. Because he was a little... jealous of him?
“Have you seen him? He looks like a smaller Jason Momoa”, he told the Funkos. “But he has the charm of Christian Bale. That is, none. He’s a good man, but why? So? Serioussss?”. He ended this with his Heath Ledger impression that still amused him. His impressions had always amused her. How she tried not to laugh when she was mad at him for some minor mistake. One impression of... well, anything, and he was forgiven.
That’s how much she loved him.
The man decided he didn’t want to write. Not just yet. He opened his top drawer and took a crisp dollar bill from a wad he kept there. This was Folding Money, not spending money. He took a deep breath and started a pattern. Outside, the stag started to walk up to window, snorting. Impatience? Maybe.
“Hold on, right after this”, he said.
I remember when that maid unfolded your fish because she needed bus fare, she chuckled from another part of his memory. Both welcome and unwelcome.
I swear I wanted to kill her.
One man’s art is a poor woman’s salvation.
She could have asked for permission.
Remember your First Rule? Like that, with capital F, capital R?
If the door’s a-locked, you will die if it’s knocked.
And she didn’t want to die.
I spent two hours on that fish.
And she stayed with us for ten years.
“Until you left”, he said out loud. A dragonfly lay where the dollar bill once was. First the stag, now a dragonfly.
He turned to the window. The stag was halfway there, head down, scratching through the snow. He had never seen anything so beautiful. Except for her.
It was time.
He took the pen again and started to write.
This is not a suicide note, he wrote. Even though my life truly ended when she left, I have never wanted to live more. I feel like I have one more story to tell, maybe one more book, even. But it hurts. Life hurts more than I expected on my own. I don’t want to die, but I do want the pain to go away. I’m off to find that cure. I hope to return soon. If I don’t, you know I have failed. And I’m sorry I put you through this. Know that I love you dearly, and I am so proud of what you’ve become. Kiss your wife and my girls for me. I hope you will forgive me, not for doing what I did, but for writing this note for nothing, because I actually came back.
He read and re-read --he always did his own edition-- and folded the note in thirds. He wrote his son’s name on the note and placed the dollar bill dragonfly over it. Then he stood up, walked to the front door, took his coat and gloves, and went outside.
The wind buried knives in his face. How long since he saw the stag? As if to answer, the beautiful beast that was here but not here snorted to his right, not ten feet away. He did not motion to follow or get closer. This was the man’s decision. He had to make the call. And he did.
“All right, fella. Lead the way”.
He expected the stag to quietly amble away. Instead, the beast turned and bound eastward in big strides. What the?, the man had time to think. “Hey that’s not part of the deal!”, he yelled. But he started to run anyway. Time to find out if that Peloton really was worth it.
Lucky for him the stag only trotted rather than galloped, so he could sort of keep up. But after ten minutes of jogging, beads of sweat turned into frost over his forehead. And let’s not forget he was wearing a winter coat and gloves. He hoped that this quest would not end with him collapsing of a heart attack less than a mile from home. That would truly piss him off in the afterlife.
He finally reached the end of his first wind and had to stop and catch his breath. His lungs were on fire, his legs were a hotbed of cramps. And the cold air did little to help, as he felt he exhaled steam but inhaled ice. He got down on all fours to try and ease the Pain, capital P. The not-yet snow-covered ground did offer some comfort. so he turned and lay down on the ground, looking at the Sun starting to paint the sky orange.
Look! A shooting star!, she said from that beach. Make a wish!
I wish for half an hour to go by quickly, he answered.
Oh see, you do want to kill me, she giggled, panting, happy, depleted.
Hey, another one! OK, now you make a wish.
What was it?
If I tell you it won’t come true.
Oh, don’t tell me you believe that.
I don’t, but it’s nicer than saying “none of your business”.
Oh my God, look! It’s a whole meteor shower!
Oh wow! Guess we better keep up with the wishes.
There are so many! I don’t know if I have that many wishes in me.
I grant thee three wishes, then.
Oh so kind, milord. Fine, I shall grant thee three as well.
Yup, all of them. How about you?
All three. And I’ll tell you my last one. Because see, I’m better than you.
Mee mee mee, “I’m beeteer theen yee”. I don’t want to hear it.
I think you do.
No I-- um... what are you doing?
I’m about to tell you my wish. And I sure hope...
Oh, God... Wait... Honey, are you crying? Please don’t, you’re gonna make me... Oh God...
...that one of your wishes...
“...was this”, he said out loud, remembering how he pulled out the ring from under his towel. Yes, he was crying, and yes, she cried, too. And she said no. She got caught off guard. But then she said yes. She said she was sorry and she said yes. She said yes several times on that towel on that beach with no moon. It was so perfect it was almost cliche. But it happened. It happened to him. Not even he could have written that kind of story.
He was so grateful. But so tired.
He got up slowly when felt he could walk again. He wasn’t afraid he had lost the white stag. I mean, how can you lose something that is always there and never there? Sure enough, the beast was there a few feet away, waiting. He walked toward it, both unafraid. The glistening golden antlers were starting to become the only hint of color in the snowy wilderness. They were like a beacon that guided him to salvation... the light at the end of the tunnel.
Life had been good. Life had been more than good. But recently, he smiled for the world, but not for himself. It was a world that he tried to keep up with, but where he found less and less joy every day. His writing used to be so funny, but it was like the world forgot to laugh. The world, the world, the world... Even the word repeated itself in his head over and over. God, why can’t I edit thoughts? No wonder I took so long to write.
And also, he missed her. He missed her so much. He wondered if one could die by nostalgia. Wouldn’t that be an amusing autopsy report? Death by longing. That was it, though... He had forgotten that there might be life after a long love. He needed reminding. He needed... reasons. Reasons to keep going on.
For once, he wanted to find joy, to find beauty, true, unblemished beauty in the world. It had been a year by himself and it still hurt. And yes, 2020 had had something to do with it, and politics, and the weirdness of it all. But it wasn’t just that. He was... broken.
He looked up. He hadn’t realized he had stopped walking and had been sobbing. His tears felt cold against his face, like a plastic mask taken from the freezer. The stag was there, looking at him with eyes that seemed like pity. Or sympathy. He wagged one of his ears and blinked slowly, then turned a corner. The man dried his eyes and followed. He was close, he thought.
And he was.
The lake had frozen during the night, it seemed. Was it normal, when the snow had just begun? It didn’t matter. He had come to this lake almost every day in his daily walks, before he locked himself into his house and head. Before Mrs. Gandry told his son that she worried about him. It was a spectacular view in the summer and spring. He realized that in all his years living here he had never come in the winter. Well, here he was.
The stag was on the other side, maybe a mile away. He could see the golden antlers shining in the sun, like a single torch lit in memory of the fallen. Or, like he thought before, a beacon. He saw him walk up to the edge of the lake, a white frozen cloth that seemed both endless and very, very finite.
“So that’s it, huh?”, he spoke into the silence. Somewhere a blue jay beckoned, followed by a chickadee. Then a squirrel let her opinion be heard. And the man looked around. The trees stood there, naked but still firm. Life still pulsed within them, waiting for the sun. Waiting for the warmth.
Would it be enough?
The next day, he would be trembling in front of a furnace, very much alive, scolded by his son. But happy because her love kept him from seeking death anymore.
The next day, he would be found floating under the ice, but smiling, because he finally stopped loving her and it didn’t hurt anymore.
Only one way to know how this chapter ends.
He stepped onto the lake. The stag waited.