deer arrives for you in a yellow PT Cruiser. A woman slides out of the atrocious car, her face sun-freckled, her hair sun-bleached. She is no-nonsense about this deer. She says that she found him next to his mother, who was dead by the side of the road, and that the wildlife rescue centers would not take in a baby deer because deer are too common to protect. She says that she has already named the deer; his name is Star Wars. He is no more than five days old.
Will you take him, she asks.
You consider that your dog is named Han Solo and your car is called the Millennium Falcon. It feels momentarily like a collapse of reality: the molecule is smaller and more fragile than the atom. And then Star Wars mews from the blazing-hot cruiser. Eeeeee, he says. Eeee. He is hungry and very cute.
Of course, you tell the woman. Of course we will take the deer.
Thank god, she says, as you approach the PT Cruiser and lift the leggy, terrified creature from the car. Thank god, says the lady again. You are a saint. And then she drives off, and you realize as she peels away that you forgot to ask her who she was and how she knew that you would be the kind of loony to accept an orphaned deer. Eee, says Star Wars.
You do not know how to raise a baby deer. You know nothing about baby deer. For starters, you do not know how to keep the dog from eating him. You also do not know what baby deer eat, or how often. The Internet in your house is spotty; today it refuses to tell you anything. You have a friend who is a bovine nutritionist, however, so you call him on the telephone and he gives you instructions, as well as a warning: do not name this baby deer, because he is going to die of hunting as soon as he has antlers.
His name is Star Wars, you tell the bovine nutritionist.
Now that’s some fucked up shit, he says.
The psychologist B. F. Skinner conducted an experiment which involved starving caged pigeons. The hungry pigeons were taught to operate a one-button machine: press the button and a door opens to reveal food. The pigeons learned the machine easily; they used it often and became less hungry. Skinner starved his pigeons again. This time, he did not give them a button to press. Instead, he opened the door at random. He wanted to see what the pigeons would do when they were not in control.
The pigeons did not understand. They were caged; they knew only rules, causality. They still believed, in the way that pigeons believe, that they were responsible for causing the door to open. One by one, each pigeon began to fixate on whatever motion it happened to be making when Skinner opened the door. One pigeon squatted up and down endlessly. Another flapped its wings in a specific pattern. Another simply blinked at the door faithfully. This time, they believed, this squat, this flap, this blink, this time the door will open.
Skinner never let his pigeons die of starvation, but he also never let them in on the secret.
It goes like this: you lie down, and then the fawn lies down. You roll over—slowly—and turn the lights off. You close your eyes and wait.
The fawn gets up. His baby hooves clip-clop against the floorboards. He nestles his face into your face. He sucks on your ear for a moment, expecting milk. He trots to the far side of the room. As you drift off to sleep, you hear the hiss of a distant tributary, the trickle of a nearby stream.
You are not asleep; there is no stream. The fawn is peeing, steadily and unabashedly, all over the floor.
It happens like this every night.
You take a walk through the hunting grounds.
There are no hunters in the towers these days; there are too many fawns tripping over themselves, too many mothers. The hunters aren’t interested in killing women or children, and so they wait until the babies grow older. The grass in the grounds grows tall—majestic-tall, human-tall—so that when you go for a walk you are not actually walking; you are wading.
Today the sun is golden and threatening to set, and eighty thousand horseflies descend as you push forward through the grass. You’ve covered yourself in DEET, so they never land on you long enough to bite, but their drone accompanies you as you move further inwards, away from the path, away from your home. You think of Star Wars back in the house and wonder if he misses you. You wonder who he would have become out here.
A copse of trees rises up before you. You fear what is hiding within it. Even though you have spent your entire life wandering through the woods, there is something about the hunting grounds that feels different, awake and savage. The animals are on-guard; they live in the echo of gunshots.
The horseflies hum with possibility. The air is so pungent with earth that it eclipses your bug spray.
Something moves in the grass underfoot.
When you look down, you see that it is a fawn. It is strange to be alone with a fawn who is not your fawn. For the fawn, it is strange to see a human without a gun. You stare at each other, shocked.
The fawn bellows like an air horn.
Birds rise from the copse in one massive flock. Somewhere in the fields, the tall grass rustles. Drums sound in your ears as you think, this deer has a mother, the mother is on her way, she will be angry.
The hunting grounds come alive. You run.
SUPERSTITION: HOUSE CATS
After eight years of normalcy, a house cat refused to use his litterbox. The humans who cared for him were at a loss; he had always been a perfect cat.
In fact it was the humans who had ruined things—they had left the scooper in the litterbox rather than next to it, where it usually resided. Animal behaviorists will tell you that cats are very particular about their litterboxes. They will tell you that for some cats, even the slightest change can cause anxiety.
A smart follow-up question might be: anxiety about what ?
The humans who cared for this cat did not ask any follow-up questions except: how do we fix this? They believed, in the way that humans believe, that it was enough to name the condition. He was just a cat, after all; they were not going to send him to a psychologist. They imagined that perhaps they would have to buy a new litterbox or feed him kitty anxiety pills. They bought him tuna-flavored pill sleeves, just in case.
The humans did not understand that they had summoned an evil spirit. The litterbox was haunted; the house was haunted; the humans were haunted. They held out their fingers and the cat no longer trotted towards them to nuzzle. He just stared at them from under the couch in the den.
The unease spread out of the litterbox and covered the entire house. It was not long before the cat bolted out of an open door and disappeared into the night.
GENDER REVEAL PARTY
You are in the attic, rummaging through boxes. There are not many of them, because when you moved north you did so hastily. Eventually, you find what you are looking for: an old Nikon. Its only memory card is filled with pictures of a man smiling at the camera. You think, briefly, this is the most genuine smile I have ever seen, the truest expression of love. You delete all of the pictures but one.
Downstairs there are friends waiting. Star Wars is curled up in a woman’s lap. Another woman is spooning casserole onto plates. Han Solo is staring at the scene through the porch window. You snap a couple of pictures.
I don’t think this is a boy, says your friend.
How would you know? say the others.
I could be wrong, says your friend, but look at this. She holds Star Wars up, Lion King style, for everybody to see. The fawn’s underside is smooth. Star Wars kicks a few times. Eeee.
Your friends ask you why you never bothered to check.
You say, I didn’t want to invade her privacy, trying the new pronoun on for size. Your friends laugh and take pictures with the fawn. It is unlike anything they’ve ever seen.
Later on, as you settle in for bed, you kiss Star Wars on the nose. You feel badly for treating her like a party trick. You wish you had not let your friend lift her up and put her on display.
Star Wars sucks on your ear for a little bit. She still seems to think that milk will emerge from your lobes.
I’m sorry, you say to Star Wars, who doesn’t care. I’m sorry. This is just a thing that humans do.
Still, you are glad that she will not be hunted.
The bovine nutritionist calls you up to see how Star Wars is faring. He tells you to make sure you’re wiping her ass with a moist towel every time you feed her. Otherwise she will plug up and die.
This explains why she hasn’t been going to the bathroom, you say.
Get ready for a big one, says the bovine nutritionist.
You buy a large container of moist wipes. Soon you are no longer squeamish about fawn poop, and after a few days you notice that Han Solo looks less hungry and more lonely when he stares at you and Star Wars through the doggy gate. He seems so peaceful, so sad to be left out, that you take the gate down.
Han Solo trots up to Star Wars and begins to lick her anus.
You relegate the moist wipes to the pantry and think that your old sci-fi nerd friends would get a kick out of Han Solo licking Star Wars’s asshole. You get a kick out of it, too, but these days you barely remember that the names ever belonged to anyone besides a Belgian shepherd and a fawn.
You gather by the porch door and stare outwards, into the wilderness. This is your family, for now.
It is a well-documented fact that elephants mourn their dead. If a herd of elephants encounters an elephant skeleton, the herd will halt its migration to investigate. The elephants will run their trunks slowly and curiously along the empty bones. They will cover the body in grass as though they are burying it. Some enthusiastic journalists have written that the elephants will weep during these rituals, but nobody has documented such a thing.
If the bones belonged to a blood relative, the elephants will remain at the site for days, sometimes weeks. It is unclear if they do this because they miss their loved ones or simply because they are paralyzed by the concept of their own mortality. Others, the loony types that are easy to make fun of, believe that the elephants are communicating with the spirits of their lost kindred.
Star Wars jumps into the brush one day and does not come back.
You are not surprised, but you are sad. It reminds you of when you helped your best friend move away from his abusive lover and then he never returned your calls again. You have not spoken in six years. You do not blame him, but you feel hollow knowing that he has left you behind.
Years later, you have soul dysphoria. You have sold your home in the north country and now you live in the city. You could not explain to people what possessed you to move north, and now you cannot explain to people what has driven you southwards again. You work in an office, which to you is explanation enough for your deadening state. But there are others who stay bright despite the work, and sometimes you would like to hit them over the head with a saucepan. Jealousy is not a pretty dress, but seems to be the only one that fits you.
Luckily you are fired one day in early July. After some crying you return to your apartment and sit alone on your bed, contemplating what comes next. You consider returning north. You consider traveling further south, where people are supposedly friendlier. You consider sleeping until somebody forces you to move, but it is too hot to sleep.
It is tempting to think that if you had never been exposed to the joys of teaching a small deer to walk on hardwood floors, you would not spend every day knowing what you are missing. But you understand, elementally, that this is untrue. Our synapses long for the cosmos even if we’ve never seen them. It is why some people believe in God.
You find yourself inside of your closet, rummaging through boxes. Eventually you come up with what you were looking for: a worn-down Nikon, its battery nearly drained. You turn it on. The screen warms up. The shutter clicks once. You scroll backwards in time, both grateful and mournful for your haphazard deletions. Here are the hunting grounds; here is your house in the north; here are your parents; here is an old friend who came to visit; here is Star Wars; here, briefly, is a man who loved you. You continue to scroll, not caring when the cycle repeats and old images return. You let your eyes blur; the images move faster and faster. They are with you now, all of them, haunting you, holding you, whispering of pasts and futures that seem distant, strange, expansive—
—and you, alone in your closet, whisper back.