(Fiction) That’s When I Saw the Stag

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in this selection, the narrator is an 8-year-old boy


The day Mr. A. Tranjay came was the same day I saw the stag. That’s what they’re called. I looked it up. A male deer with antlers. It was in the hollow. I was looking for a place to hide the raven’s collection. I had put it all in a white plastic bag I got at the convenience store on Newcombe Street. The twine and the little twirly shell and everything. Everything except the Frisbee ring, which I think my dad threw away. I ate a chocolate bar and walked to the clearing in the middle of the hollow. I could hear the big freeway in the distance and the rustle of the leaves.

I stopped at the ring of downed trees, like a deer blind, and stared at the little flat triangular opening near the ground. It was pitch black. There was a room down there, I think. Underground. Inside the stone foundation was a bunch of fallen branches on top of a long piece of sheet metal. It was all rusted and reddish-brown. It had collapsed and left only the little opening. It was big enough for me but I don’t think my dad could get in. So that was a good place to hide it. No one would find it on accident and take it away. I tossed the bag into the hole without putting my hand in and ran back to my house. The trees rose up like giants on stilts. I had seen stilts at my school. A show came and we got out of class and everyone went to the auditorium. Men and women were on stilts and they did tricks.

That’s when I saw the stag. It was dead. There were only bones. I had seen a cow skull before but not a whole animal skeleton. I didn’t remember ever seeing it in the hollow. I saw the rib cage first. It was propped against a tree. It looked like it had fallen sideways against the trunk as it died. There were brown leaves all around. They were everywhere. And a few patches of snow. I wondered what killed it. I could see every rib. There were so many, all lined up neat and curving together, protecting the heart that had once beat inside. But now it was empty. A kind of ghostly greenish-white moss hung from its spine into the space between the ribs.

My eyes followed the antlers. I hadn’t noticed them at first because the head and neck were pointed to the ground, so the antlers looked like low branches of the tree, but they weren’t. It was a big rack, like a pile of spears. It was so big. They had some moss, too.

The skull moved. I stepped back and snapped a twig. The antlers rose up—straight up—as the spine bent and lifted the head from the ground. The hanging moss shook. I heard bones click against each other. The stag stood up. It took just a second. I wanted to run, but I couldn’t. I didn’t even want to believe it. But there it was. It was so big, bigger than my dad and my old teacher, Mr. Keany, who used to play basketball. I thought maybe it was going to hurt me, but it didn’t. It just turned to me and stood, like it was expecting me to do something. I was shaking. I was glad I had gone to the bathroom before I went into the hollow so there wasn’t any pee left.

Then it bellowed. It lifted its head and opened its mouth and grunted through bare teeth, like my dad when he wants to get up, but louder, like a big mountain horn. Three huge bellows, head raised, mouth open, one after the next. Like it was calling something. I ran then. I ran home and didn’t stop until I got to my dad. He was making dinner. He asked me what was wrong. He said I looked like something had scared me. He asked me over and over what it was. I think he was scared because I was so scared. He was always worried after “the incident.” That’s what he called it. And the nightmares. I wanted to tell him, but I knew what he’d say. So I sat at the table in my jacket and gloves and had dinner. I was shaking. But then I stopped. We had soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. I didn’t eat the crusts. I don’t like the crusts.

After school the next day, I went to the library. I wondered if the stag had something to do with my secret. And I knew that everything anybody knew was on the internet, and that if anybody knew something, it was there. It was good that our new town was so small and everything was close. Philly was so much bigger. Dad never would have let me go to the library by myself.

After the library, I walked home down Newcombe Street because it went under the big freeway, where all the high school kids got together and did graffiti, and then curved around the hollow to our road. I liked that way because I passed the convenience store which has candy. But that meant I also had to walk past a street where some mean kids sometimes called me names. I could cut through the hollow, but there was a fence that ran along the curb, and it was too big for me to climb. I tried once. We were at the bus stop and they were picking on a kindergartner named Trevor because his teeth were different and he didn’t say his S’s right and I told them to stop so they started making fun of me. Then they made fun of my dad’s eye. But I was happy because after that they left Trevor alone.

I was passing that road when I saw the police cars. Two of them. And an ambulance. They were parked on the street in front of a pale green house with brick on the front. Lights were flashing. A few of the neighbor people were standing around. I walked by and heard them talking. I saw the mom and dad come out of the house. The mom was holding a little girl. She was wearing a pink princess dress like I saw in the toy store once. There was lace at the bottom. And the top was shiny. Her eyes were open but she was dead inside. Gone. Forever, even. I think. The adults were silent. People covered their mouths or shook their heads. But everyone was quiet, like in church or at a funeral, as they put the little girl in the ambulance and drove to the hospital.

I saw her face. I saw her eyes. Black and empty like the little hole in the hollow. And I knew what happened. I had seen that before.

I had to find it. Soon. I thought maybe it would look for Pete the parakeet’s cage. Maybe it thought that was home since it stayed there so long. Pete’s cage was a big square thing with metal wires and an orange plastic bottom. After my secret left, I had set the cage outside the garage facing the hollow. I went right there when I got home, but it was empty. Mr. A. Tranjay was in the garage. He’d turned it into a workshop. It looked like the science room at school, with a microscope and everything. He had a bottle from the lot. It was filled with something black and speckled in stars, like liquid night. There was a knife and a wood block on the work bench. He’d been carving it. It looked like a flute.

I poked my head around the door to see if my secret was curled up in the corner. Mr. A. Tranjay looked sick. He was thin. He looked too thin, like the people on TV who have the cancer. Or AIDS. We learned about that in school, where your body can’t stop you from getting sick.

I thought he might notice me, but he didn’t.

At the library I had found a website that talked about animals and stuff. I had printed some pages and I had them on the kitchen table while my dad made dinner. It sizzled. And it smelled like fish. I don’t like fish. It was dark outside. He had a glass of wine. I must have been scowling because he asked me what I was reading.

“Just some stuff.”

“What kind of stuff?”

“What’s a second sight?” I asked.

“What?” My dad scowled with me. He wiped his hands on the towel over his shoulder and walked over to me. He picked up the pages. He read the title, which was printed in small letters at the top. His eyes moved back and forth when he read because of his lazy eye. “The Port Manteau Spirit Society Guide to Animal Spirits and Totems.” He looked at me. “Where did you get this?”

“From the computer. At the library.”

My dad looked skeptical. He scratched his beard. I knew what that meant.

He flipped to the next page and read. “The Stag stands at the gate between the tangible world and the realm of the Others, which aboriginal peoples have called The Dreaming. As such, it imparts special sensitivity to prophecy and intuition and enhances our innate second sight.” He stopped and read the sentence again to himself. “It often appears at the start of a spiritual or cross-dimensional journey.” He turned to me again. “Do you know what cross-dimensional means?”

I shook my head. But I thought I knew what spiritual was. That was what they wanted you to buy at church.

Dad kept reading. “The Stag is a powerful ward and grants special protection in times of transition. It is a masculine spirit and often conveys confidence or power. Since male deer use their antlers to advertise potency and fertility, antlers were believed to impart magical prowess, grace, and strength and were often worn as crowns by early kings before smelting technology allowed the casting of precious metals. Because they are conduits of growth and energy, they are still used by magicians and witches, both good and evil.

“The Stag is the most ancient of the shamanic totems, appearing in mankind’s earliest cave art, and is associated with death and resurrection—the ultimate cross-dimensional journey—since the antlers are shed each season and regrown in a repetition of the annual cycle celebrated by the deaths-and-resurrections of Osiris, Dionysus, and Christ. Due to its antiquity, the Stag’s appearance is unerringly significant and typically heralds a significant passing.” He stopped at that word. I think he read it again. Passing. “Why are you reading this?”

I shrugged.

My dad rubbed the bridge of his nose with his eyes shut. “I thought we talked about this.”

I looked at the pages with a blank face. I thought maybe if I acted innocent I would be in less trouble. Dad was already upset about the raven’s collection. He knew I hadn’t told the truth. And he was upset I had run home scared the other day and hadn’t said why.

“Didn’t we?”

I didn’t say.

“Ólafur, answer me.”

Whaaat?”

“Didn’t we talk about this? About ghosts and evil spirits and about how you were going to do what the doctor said and not think about those things and if they came up what were you supposed to do?”

“But this is different. There’s a stag in—”

“Ólafur!” my dad yelled. Then he caught himself. “Son, please answer the question. What were you supposed to do?”

“Tell someone.”

“Tell who?”

“An adult.”

“That’s right. And did you tell an adult about this?”

Of course not.

“I just did,” I argued.

My dad sighed and crinkled the papers and threw them in the trash. Then he smelled his fish burning. “Shit!” He glanced at me. “I mean, crap.”

He poked at the pan with the spatula. There was smoke. And a long silence. He drank from his wine glass.

“Are you done with your homework?”

I shook my head. But that was a lie.

“Then you need to eat and go finish. But we’re not done talking about this.”

I nodded.

After dinner, I sat in my bed near the window to the back yard and pretended to do homework, but really I was just drawing pictures of my secret. I knew that’s what had scared the little girl with the pink dress. I could see her limp arms hanging over her mom’s back. And her eyes. I knew she was so scared the only thing she could do was hide inside herself. Maybe forever. Like my friend Emerald. But I hoped she would come back.

I had to find it. I had to put it back in Pete’s cage.

And now there was a stag.

Dad was worried about me. I knew that’s what dads did and he would feel like he was doing a bad job if he didn’t worry so much. But it made everything so much harder.

It was cold by the window and my breath had covered a small patch of window in fog.

And I saw.

There were marks on my window. They showed up in the fog from my breath. Like finger-smears. Someone had traced a symbol on the glass. It swooped and curled.

I leaned closer and blew again, like my teacher did when she cleaned her glasses. It looked like a sideways hooked cross with a circle at one end. And there was part of another above it. A different one.

I stared at my window. I slid back closer to my pillow.

“Dad!” I called as I walked to my open door. “I finished my homework. I’m gonna take a bath.”

“Okay!” he called back.

It was just the two of us in the house so I had a fancy room with a wood floor and my own bathroom. I had my own bathroom in Philly, too. Sort of. It was in the hall and it was mine but my parents used it too sometimes. And guests. But at our new house it was only for me.

I closed my bedroom door and left the bathroom door open. I tuned on the hot water. I let it run and run. It took longer than I thought for the steam to get to the window. But after a while, a thin fog—a lot more than I could do with my breath—spread from the bottom corner up and over the glass.

There were lots of symbols. Six at least.

I was looking at them when I heard Dad’s footsteps on the stairs.

“Ólafur?” he called.

He must have heard the water running. I hadn’t thought about that. I ran to my bedroom and swung the door open and stripped my clothes as I hopped on one leg to the bathroom. I put the stopper down and climbed in, but there was only enough water to cover my feet.

I was sitting there shivering—Dad said it was a drafty house—as he walked into the bathroom.

He stood in the doorway. “What are you doing?”

“Taking a bath,” I said.

“Why was the water running so long?”

“I forgot.”

“You forgot?”

I nodded. I don’t think he believed me.

“Well, finish up. It’s time for bed.”

He walked toward the bedroom door. Then he stopped. I thought he saw the symbols. He would think I had made them. He would be angry. Because of “the incident.” And the nightmares. And the stag. And everything.

He walked to my bed and then I couldn’t see him. As the hot water came up to my belly button, I saw him walk out with papers in his hand.

He took all my drawings.


rough cut from Song on the Green, the fourth course of my forthcoming full-course occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS.

cover image by Anato Finnstark