Since February, three friends of mine have been diagnosed with…
Dalton stalked the white deer. It became his obsession, like finding that thing and owning it in a hard, bloody way would fill a hole neither of us could name. We were newly married then and him just back from the war. He’d been home about a year, but it always seemed like he was just back. For years. Even now. It was always lingering here, but our boys came back into their Stalking the white deer na talie sypolt 49 lives, all messed up—in body and in spirit—and went right back to it. Bury it in the mines. Cut it down with the trees. Drive, drink, drug, and screw it away. But don’t name it.
I told him to leave the white deer be and he laughed at me. “Jezzie, girl, did you get all soft on me while I was gone? Do you want to make a pet out of that deer?” Some men liked gentle and sweet women, but the Crystal men wanted girls who could never be called delicate. Maybe it had to be that way because of the kind of life we live. Some fragile little thing would never survive it, would end up in a crazy house or in the ground.
First Dalton only wanted the white deer—he’d seen it once, out behind his daddy’s house, and it had been so shocking that he’d blinked a few times to make sure that he wasn’t looking at a dog or a ghost. “When it ran away,” he told me, “it was like smoke or mist moving through the trees.” He wanted it so bad that he wouldn’t take any others, and I started to worry that we’d have no deer meat to put up for the winter. I didn’t have long to worry, though, because then Dalton got bad and started killing all those deer just out of rage. Our little yard was full of deer, hanging from trees, dripping blood. He killed them faster than we could butcher them. They started rotting, and the smell turned to something different than just death.
Dalton stayed out every hour he could, roaming along the ridges with his gun, searching for that white deer.
My belly was big then. We thought there would be just one baby, but when I grew and grew, we went to the doctor over in Oakland and he said that there’d be two. I thought about what my granny used to tell me about twins, how the old folks thought it wasn’t natural, and how some wouldn’t let both babies live. “I ain’t saying that’s right,” Granny said, “but I ain’t never seen a set where both turn out good.” Granny was old then, and her face was shriveled like a dried up apple, but she had these blue eyes that seemed almost to glow. I was only a girl, fourteen or fifteen, and she just stared right into me, like she knew one day I’d be sitting in this drafty old house, full to the brim with babies, dead animals rotting all around me.
When Dalton came in from the woods, he’d go back to the bedroom and strip off all his clothes, covered in blood and other dark stains that I couldn’t think about. He’d shower quick and then come out into the kitchen, where I’d have his dinner—little that it was—waiting. He wouldn’t put clothes back on, and I never could get used to seeing him walk around in the kitchen, pale and skinny, without a stitch on. It embarrassed me and I couldn’t look at him straight on, like some little girl seeing a man for the first time. Sometimes, he’d think it was funny, and laugh that mean little laugh he had, then press up against me, just to feel me try to squirm away. Other times he’d look at me with disgust. “You act like the Virgin Mary,” he’d say and sneer. “Well them ain’t God’s babies rolling around inside you.”
“That’s ugly talk,” I’d say. He’d shrug and sit down at the table, eat his dinner with that blood and mud deep under his fingernails and in the creases of his knuckles.
Rabbits, groundhogs, raccoons, lying all around our little house. Then that red fox. It had started to snow and his bright coat stood out among all the others. I saw it from the kitchen window and had to go out, a part of me maybe hoping it was still alive and that Dalton wouldn’t have killed such a beautiful thing just because he could, just because he couldn’t have what he really wanted. His work coat was hanging by the door, and I wrapped it around me. I was so big then with the babies that it would barely stretch across. I liked the smell of it that reminded me of Dalton—the woods and the grease from the coal trucks he worked on for Shaffer’s trucking.
More and more he’d been missing work, taking off all or part of the day to roam the ridges. They’d been understanding and old man Shaffer had grown up with Dalton’s daddy, but I 51 knew one day they’d have had enough and Dalton would have no job. Some nights, I’d look at his face as he leaned over his dinner plate, and I’d get so afraid of what I saw there. He could lose his job and not care a bit. Me and him and the babies could starve to death or freeze to death in the coldest days of winter, and still he would not care.
Dalton had tossed the fox next to the wood pile, already lower than it had been since we’d lived there. His eyes were open and as I got closer, I thought maybe he was still breathing. I am ashamed to say that then I started hoping and hoping that it was not so. I did not know how to take care of an injured fox. I did not want to try. The beautiful thing was dead, though, the tip of his tongue out the side of his mouth, the white scruff of his neck brown with dried blood.
Dalton was standing in our little kitchen when I came back inside. He had spent all morning since before dawn stalking that white deer, but must have come in from the ridge while I was out back with the fox. My stomach clenched, thinking about what new dead thing he’d soon have strung up in our trees, but then I saw that his hands were clean, and so were his clothes. Nothing this morning.
“What were you doing, Jezzie?” he asked. “I just went out to check the woodpile,” I lied. “It’s getting low.” He came toward me then and though he’d never hit me, someplace inside I always knew that he could, that all men could. I took a step back, my hand stretching for the door The beautiful thing was dead, though, the tip of his tongue out the side of his mouth, the white scruff of his neck brown with dried blood. 52 handle, but when Dalton reached me, he wasn’t angry.
He put his big hands on my cheeks and said, “Cold?” I nodded. He said, “Come over to the fire. Your feet—” My feet had been too swollen for weeks to put on my boots so I’d went out in my house slippers. The snow had collected around the tops. I hadn’t even noticed.
Dalton led me to the big chair next to the fire and kneeled down in front of me. “What were you thinking, Jezzie girl? Your feet are like ice.” He pulled the slippers off and began rubbing my freezing feet, blowing hot breath on my toes, and then kneading my skin with his strong hands.
“He is pushing life back into me,” I thought, as the burning pain of feeling poured into my feet.
“I’m sorry, Jezzie,” he said, so low I could barely hear him. When I felt his lips gently kiss the top of my burning foot, a jolt shot through me that nearly made me laugh and cry all at the same time. “I’ll go cut more wood for the pile. Don’t you worry about that.”
“I ain’t worried,” I said. I wanted to reach down to him and cup his face in my hands, but my big belly stopped me.
“I’ll go right now,” he said, but instead kissed my ankle.
“No, don’t go,” I said, and stretched my hand out for him, though he was just out of my reach. Dalton rubbed my calf and kissed my knee, pushing my house dress up over my thighs. A young woman still and here I was wearing a house dress and slippers like a granny. Dalton kissed the inside of my thigh and I thought about the boy he had been, the tow-headed kid who sat behind me every year in school because my last name started with a B and his started with a C. The boy with a daddy so mean he’d sometimes cut Dalton’s hair in an awful way to punish him for not doing something fast enough. He’d come to school with chunks taken out of the side—his scalp raw and pink underneath. I suppose his daddy was hoping to humiliate him, but the other kids were too scared of the Crystals to ever make fun.
Once, he’d saved a kitten whose mother got ran over on the county road. The kitten was so tiny, and he fed it with an eye-dropper until it got big enough to eat on its own.
Once, he gave me his lunch money because I didn’t have any.
Once, he took my hand and led me out to the cemetery and showed me where all the generations of Crystals were buried. “We’re all here,” he’d said. “Planted right here in this ground while we’re living and while we’re dead.” I knew he was telling me that he could never leave Warm, and if I wanted to be with him, I could never leave either.
He kissed the inside of my thigh and I remembered the girl I was, not some scared little mouse, shivering in a corner. I was a strong girl who chopped wood all those months Dalton was away, who worked at the five-and-ten in town and who hadn’t been scared of much of anything.
“He is pushing life back into me,” I thought again as he put his hands on either side of my belly. “I will do the same for him.”
“Don’t cut that wood,” he said into my ear the next morning before leaving for work. I was at that place of fuzzy awakeness and at first thought he said, “Don’t forget good.”
“I won’t,” I mumbled, and he kissed my temple.
“I mean it,” he said. “Don’t chop the wood. I’ll do it when I get home.”
He was the old Dalton, the Dalton before he left Warm for the war and forgot how to stop killing, but I knew it wouldn’t last. I’d seen it before—a day or even two or three of the boy I knew, but then the dark would come back into his face and he’d 54 start seeing things in his head again that I couldn’t understand.
I put on my heaviest sweater and found a pair of Dalton’s pants in the closet. Nothing I had fit me anymore—only those old housedresses, and I knew this was not a job I could do in a dress. I put on three pairs of socks, then shoved my feet down into his old boots. They were still too big, but would have to do. I smiled to see that he’d left his work coat hanging on a hook by the door for me.
If I’d had a brother, my daddy’s rifle would have gone to him, but since I didn’t, it had been mine after he’d died. I kept it clean and oiled, but I hadn’t shot it in years. I knew how, though, and that was one of those things that once you learned, you never did forget. When I put the butt up to my shoulder and looked through the sights, my finger curled around the trigger just like it had been waiting to do that for so long.
I thought about going back to Dalton’s daddy’s house where he’d first spotted the white deer, but that seemed too dangerous. His daddy or one of his brothers might have seen me. So I just started walking out of Crystal Holler, up Backbone Mountain. It was cold enough to see my breath, but not as cold as the day before. There was a dusting of new snow. If I got close to any animal, it’d be easy enough to see its tracks.
I can’t explain how I knew where to go. I thought maybe God had led me there to find that white deer, to take her life and save my own. But now, as an old woman who has seen a life of one hard, heartbreaking thing after another, I can say that if there is a God, he is a son of a bitch, and if that day in the woods was a test, I failed it.
I’d been out for only an hour or so, trying to keep quiet as I could. I slipped once and went down to one knee. I’m ashamed to say that I did not stop then to think about my babies and what would happen to them if I tumbled down the steep hillside. Throughout my life, I have always thought more about 55 my husband than those boys, and that is my great shame. That is what happens, though, when you love a boy from the time you were both children, when you can’t stand to love anything more.
She stepped right out in front of me, maybe a hundred yards or so ahead of where I had stopped to catch my breath. It was just like Dalton had said, a ghost deer so white I wasn’t sure she was real. She stopped when she saw me and just stood there, staring, steam from her nose floating out around her head.
What I should say is that she was so beautiful that I didn’t want to kill her. The truth, though, is that as I raised the rifle to my shoulder and put the crosshairs on the white deer’s neck, I could already see the red rose blooming through her coat, her falling to the ground.
“Good girl,” I thought, but did not say. I did not want to spook her. I was a good shot, and I knew where I should hit the deer to make it all quick and easy. I did not want to chase her through the woods, injured and frantic. I did not want her to suffer. A good hunter knows not to take a life for granted.
My finger squeezed the trigger and I barely felt the kick against my shoulder. Just as I imagined, the deer jerked and then fell. The blood, though, was not a bright red like I’d pictured. As I walked to her, I saw that it was dark, nearly black, and spread over her neck not like a rose, but like an ugly stain, spilled paint. She was not breathing or moving, and that at least was something.
I had not thought about what would happen next, how I would get the white deer down from the ridge, or if I should slit her belly there like I knew the men did. If you let it go too long, if you didn’t stick them and bleed them, the meat will turn bad. I could not imagine eating the meat of the white deer, or frying it in a pan. I gagged at the thought.
I heard a rustling over in the bramble, and then a crying sound, a scream almost. A sickness came over me as the knowing set in. There shouldn’t have been a baby now, not at this time of the year, but there it was, spindly legged and spotted. I now knew why she hadn’t run from me, smart girl protecting her little one.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said to the fawn. “I’m sorry, baby.”
“Jezzie?” I started. In my craziness—my exhaustion—I thought the deer was saying my name. “What are you doing? What—”
Through the woods behind me came Dalton, carrying his own rifle. He hadn’t gone to work at all like he’d said, but was up on the ridge, just like me. He looked from me to the white deer, and then to the bleating fawn in the brush. “Jesus Christ,” he said. “What are you doing?”
“I just wanted to help you,” I said. I made to touch his arm, but he pushed me away.
“Have you lost your fucking mind?”
“Go home,” he said, staring down at the white deer.
“I can help. We can drag her out of here, and then this can be over,” I said. I saw him look over at the fawn, still standing uncertainly in the brambles, wanting to go to its mother.
“Go home,” Dalton said again. “Go now.”
There was no use in arguing. Only more harm would come if I tried, so I turned and started carefully away from my kill. I wanted to believe that maybe Dalton would save that fawn, 57 coax it over to him and wrap it up in his big arms, nurse it with a baby bottle like he did that kitten when he was a boy. If he had done that, then I would have known this all could still be set right, and that our lives could take on a different shape— maybe a rose shape again, but I had only taken a few steps when I heard the crack of the rifle. For a crazy minute, I thought maybe Dalton had put the barrel of the rifle under his own chin. Lord knows it wouldn’t have been the first time someone from around here’d had a hunting accident like that, but when I turned, I saw his back, shoulders slumped forward, crying.
Some folks think it’s cowardly to kill a white deer because they’re so easy to see with no natural camouflage. Others say it’s bad luck. I don’t believe in luck, but I do know this: when Dalton came down from the ridge that day, he did not bring the white deer or the fawn. He did borrow his father’s tractor and dig a big hole. He spent two days hauling the dead animals into that hole, as I watched from the kitchen window. I couldn’t get the sound of that baby crying out of my head, or stop picturing the way Dalton’s shoulders shook after he killed it. Those were my burdens to carry, though, and I’d do it gladly if it meant my husband was fixed. What I did not know then, could not know, was that a human cannot be fixed. They can be patched, and soothed, and made to remember a little less, but fixed is something Dalton would never be.
When my babies came, they came early. Dalton drove me to the hospital in Oakland, his knuckles white where they clutched the steering wheel, and his lips a tight, thin line. He did not speak to me the whole drive, and stared only straight ahead.
Walker came into the world a screaming fire ball, but Sam was born quiet and with the caul covering his face. My granny 58 would have shaken her head with worry, but she was long dead by that time. The doctor said what good luck it was, and rare, to see a baby born that way. The doctor said Sam would be blessed his whole life. I wondered what that meant for Walker, the baby who always cried.
I watched my boys grow, loved them the best I could and I truly think Dalton did the same, in the only ways he knew how. Sometimes that was a backhand to the mouth, other times it was an arm across the shoulder. He helped them with the hard things, like burying their dog when it got run over by the mailman, then burying their grandfather when an aneurysm burst in his brain. I cooked them dinner, and washed their clothes, and gave them dollars at the end of every week, even when there weren’t many dollars to go around. I tried to help them be good boys—the both of them—and I tried not to notice the shining light around Sam, or the dark shadow around his brother. Sometimes I’d remember that white deer and the baby, screaming in the brush, and I’d punish myself by thinking, “Which one, Jezzie? If you could save just one baby, which one would it be?” On my most honest days, I knew it would be Sam, so I showered Walker with love. I made him special things for dinner, and snuck him an extra quarter or two when I could. Sam pretended never to notice or to care, because he was good in a way none of the rest of us was. He was a smart boy, and sweet. They both were so handsome. But they were Crystals, and even the good Crystals have a dark side that craves booze and drugs and driving fast and living hard. I knew this, always, and I chose it. Is killing the white deer what cursed my boys or was it marrying Dalton Crystal?
When Walker and Sam were fifteen, Dalton took them to the family cemetery and said to them, “This is your kin, boys, all of it. We’re all planted right here in this ground while we’re living and while we’re dead.” He was asking them to make the 59 decision, just as he had me all those years ago. Are you going to be one of us?
Dalton and me, we are here, together, for better or worse in the life we deserve. If I had it to do over again, even after all that has happened, I suspect I would do it just the same way. When people look at us, living here in this holler with not much money or anything else, and say, “What’s wrong with you?” I guess that’s the answer. We stayed, we stay, we always will. Through ugliness, and blood, one boy dead and one tattered, we are our stain, the stain that we made.