I wanted to know the truth, so I was given a vision. The trees were like the spears of giants pointed up to strike the sky. I loved the forest. I loved the stag.
But the stag moved incessantly like he was searching for something. He dashed through branches that scratched him. At last, he ran into a clearing, into a camera’s line of sight.
“Don’t shoot!” the stag shouted. I wanted to shout with him, but I had no voice in my vision.
The photographer had already set the camera’s timer. When the stag spoke, the photographer froze in fear.
The camera stole the image of the stag poised in mid-leap. It caught him in all his majesty.
Sometimes I wish I had never learned the truth. I had what I’d always wanted—a husband, good friends, and a job I enjoyed (not as a model as I’d dreamed of as a kid, but as a clerk at an upscale department store). I loved cooking and decorating and going to the movies. I loved waking up early and feeling the chill in the air, hearing the jangle of my keys and clomp of my shoes that announced to the world that I was going somewhere.
Things unraveled the morning Nixie and I were stacking and arranging berets—a winter trend.
“I hope you feel better soon, Megan,” she said.
“Better how?” I said, thinking she had something mixed up. She often mixed things up, but she was so sweet that our bosses barely complained.
“Sorry! I didn’t mean to embarrass you. Andrew told me about your”—she whispered—“UTI.”
“Oh.” I had had a UTI the week before, but why would Andrew tell her that? I wanted to ask when she’d seen Andrew without me, but I didn’t want her to know he hadn’t told me about the encounter. Probably he had run into her at the store and forgotten about it. Andrew was so private, though, so secretive. It wasn’t like him to talk to acquaintances about anything, much less about someone’s body.
I kept quiet and resolved to ask Andrew about it later. I sorted and folded and assisted my way through the day, trying not to think any serious thoughts.
That night, I made spaghetti for Andrew. I waited until he was about to eat and in a good mood to ask him about what Nixie said.
“She must have gotten mixed up,” he said, shredding parm high over his gleaming bowl.
I’d gotten the bowls on sale because a couple in the set were chipped. They were lovely dishes, and we could have a couple of dinner guests and seem really put-together. Andrew wanted things to seem put-together, and I wanted things to be beautiful. We mostly agreed on what we needed.
Andrew made more than me, of course, with his job at the law firm. He was just starting out, but his bosses said he had promise, and his holiday bonuses and my job afforded us some luxuries. Also, my job meant I could get nice things at a better price. Maybe our lives weren’t like rows of candles lit in an incense-filled cathedral, but they were beautiful in their own way.
“How did she know about my UTI, though?” I felt smaller and smaller, so I pushed my bowl away and stood up to show him I meant business.
“You probably told her and forgot,” he said, covering his bowl as if I was standing up to take his food.
“I would have remembered.” I lowered my voice to a whisper. “I don’t talk about things like that with other people.”
He watched himself twirl pasta around his fork. “I’m sorry, Meg. We all forget things. Anyway, it’s okay if you told her. Nixie is your friend, after all. It’s better that she knows about your problems.”
He’d always been kind to me, complementing everything about me, reassuring me when I was scared, giving me whatever I wanted. But sometimes I felt like I didn’t know him. When I asked him questions about his family and childhood, he gave scant information.
His parents had died when he was in college, he said. He had no siblings. Normal childhood. Nothing to complain about, boast about, or explain.
“You don’t know what you’ve done,” the stag said.
The photographer, a beautiful woman with dark, curly hair, backed away from him as if he was evil.
“I was coming to tell you not to shoot me,” he said. “That’s why the Lord sent me.”
The woman grabbed her camera and tripod and tried to run away, but the stag was faster.
“Stop and listen,” he said.
With his intricate antlers like towers of bone, he gestured towards a stump. She was pale and trembling, and she sat on the stump without wiping the snow from its surface.
“I came here as a sign to you,” the stag said.
Everyone who sees a sign must feel they’re on holy ground, must whisper the word “sign” when they finally see one. Anyone who can see a sign and meet it with a level gaze and a firm voice is someone I’d like to meet.
The stag preached a sermon.
“I am a sign of sorrows to come. I’m a sign of the hope that survives in tragedy. I came to test you to see if you would refrain from shooting when I asked. It’s an old method of testing saints. I run out from the cover of the trees. I’m so beautiful, everyone wants to shoot me, to take my body. Sometimes they have a knife, sometimes a bow and arrow, sometimes a gun. This is my first time to meet a saint with a camera. And my first time to be shot. Maybe the Lord made a mistake. Or maybe I was the one who erred. Either way, you’ve disgraced me, and now I will suffer, too.”
The photographer rose from her stump and walked closer to the stag. She was braver than she’d first appeared. Tears were in her eyes as she said, “I would never hurt an animal. I would never hurt anyone.”
I was bodiless in my vision, like a figure in a dream who sees without being seen. An observer. And yet, I was filled with physical foreboding while I watched the stag and woman. Although I didn’t have a heart in my vision (just as I didn’t have a hart), it burned.
It wasn’t that I didn’t trust Nixie’s good intentions. She was always apologetic when she forgot something important, and I often blamed myself for not reminding her of something in strong enough terms or reminding her enough times.
Before I talked to her openly about Andrew, I made her swear ten times that she wouldn’t tell anyone else. It meant a lot to me that Andrew and I look like the perfect couple. As a kid, I’d been confused and embarrassed by my own parents’ divorce, and I’d always sworn that when I married, it would be for good.
She promised and promised. “I have your back, Megan,” she said.
On our lunch break, I’d dragged her out for coffee. It was cold, and we were the only ones sitting outside at the cafe, but I kept my voice low anyway.
“The thing about Andrew is, you know, he’s a great guy,” I said.
“He’s a great guy!” She flicked both hands open suddenly like a magician making a bunny appear.
“But he’s actually kind of mysterious. He’s a little…strange.”
She nodded reluctantly before taking a long sip from the slit in her plastic lid. I could tell she already thought he was strange. Maybe everyone else could always see beyond Andrew’s veneer of greatness to his strangeness.
“He says he didn’t tell you about the UTI. He said I must have told you and forgot. Is that right?”
Nixie stared at me without speaking for a minute, and I could see her grave concern. Her pigtail buns had bobbed around all morning as she’d adjusted clothes and chatted with me and customers, and now they were perfectly still.
“He’s lying,” she said, and she looked so sad for me, I could hardly bear it. Nixie had never had a lover for more than a few months before someone broke things off. Everyone who knew her had always pitied her for it. Now I could see the same people probably pitied me.
“Where did you run into him?”
“It was weird, but I didn’t want to say anything to upset you. See, I was at church when I saw him.”
I was too stunned to respond right away. My hand shook a little, but I managed to take a sip of my coffee to cover my surprise. I was raised Catholic, and I went to church with my family from time to time, but Andrew never joined us. He always made up some plausible-sounding excuse about why he couldn’t go, but I figured he just wasn’t religious and didn’t want to deal with it. I didn’t worry him about it. I believed in God, but I figured that if God needed everyone to believe, then God would be a bit more obvious. I didn’t think Andrew was going to hell or anything. I didn’t know Nixie went to church, either.
“I haven’t been going for long. My mom was Russian Orthodox, you know. She made me go when I was a kid, but my dad didn’t go, and I guess she kind of gave up after a while.”
“So you missed her?”
She nodded, and she inhaled slowly and deeply to fight off her tears. Her mother had died the year before, and she’d taken off of work for several weeks. All our friends at work had been worried about her, and we’d brought her food and given her little gifts of money to get by while she wasn’t working. She’d finally managed to change out of her pajamas and come back to work, but she’d never really returned to normal.
When she regained her composure, she explained that when she missed her mom too much during the week, she’d go to the cathedral to light a candle for her. She’d seen Andrew exiting the cathedral as she was entering it on the previous Tuesday evening (a night he’d told me he had to work late).
She said that when she’d met him on the steps of the cathedral to ask what he was doing there, he’d looked so startled—like she’d woken him from a dream. Finally, he explained to her that he’d lit a candle for me. He’d said I had a UTI and that he was worried it was something more serious.
“Don’t tell her anything about this. I don’t want to do anything to upset her.” That’s what he’d told Nixie.
I cried. I couldn’t help it. Nixie began to cry too, either out of pure empathy or out of some deep well of sadness that had filled her since her mother’s death. A homeless man walked over to ask if we were all right, and we thanked him and each gave him a dollar. As he walked away, I saw pity in his eyes.
The stag and the photographer came to an understanding. He told her he would find a way to help her. I don’t know why he felt so sorry for her. Maybe he realized that modern technology created all kinds of new pitfalls for potential saints. I felt sorry for the photographer, too. She didn’t mean to take the picture. Her camera had a mind of its own.
The stag told her he that he wasn’t always a stag.
“I was once a man, though I barely remember those days. I’ve been a beast so long, wandering the wilderness. God changed me to a stag to punish me for something, some sin I no longer recall. I did penance by searching for saints and showing them signs, leading the way. There was a time when I spoke with the Lord every day, but something has changed.” The stag looked weak and old as he confessed this. He was carrying a heavy burden. “Now I receive visions I know are from heaven because they are always true, but I don’t come into the presence of God anymore. Once I witnessed a great battle in these woods. I saw the horrors of the world spread out before me, and I lost my trust in God. I wanted to see God, and yet I didn’t. I haven’t found my way back.”
His story seemed to calm the photographer. His troubles made her forget her own. She drew closer to him and put her hand on his huge neck. He bowed his head, and she petted him between his antlers. I couldn’t believe how close they were.
Had I been in the place of the photographer, I would have run away. I wouldn’t have kept speaking to a speaking stag. That is, before my vision. After my vision, I changed.
The day after my talk with Nixie was a Saturday, and Andrew told me he had to work late. I took the subway to the Cathedral, and the underground was a temporary respite from the lonely winter dusk. I’d been to the Cathedral once before for Nixie’s mother’s funeral, and I’d found it vaguely beautiful, but I’d been too sad to really focus on my surroundings. Being there felt like being inside a medieval manuscript, with characters on the walls waiting to tell me stories. At the funeral, I’d assumed the stories weren’t meant for me, that they were in a foreign language.
Andrew wasn’t there when I went inside, so I sat in a back pew and waited to see if he’d show up. It was dark inside except for many lit candles, and it took my eyes some time to adjust. I looked up and saw that the ceiling of the church was sky blue, and gold-winged angels had been painted flying across the expanse. Instead of an open altar, the focal point of the sanctuary was enclosed by gold-framed screens decorated with icons. Candelabras holding lit candles inside blue glasses (significant as lightning bugs) were scattered across the room.
I felt some sort of spark inside, something too strange to put into words. It felt like an angel had wrapped his wings about me, making a little cave where I could be still and safe.
When Andrew walked in, I didn’t speak, and he didn’t notice me. I think I was invisible then.
My husband lit a candle and knelt in a pew near the front. His shoulders shook, and I could see he was crying. In that angel’s cave, that safe place, I wasn’t angry with him.
The stag was transformed. I watched him change from a heroic beast into a small and fragile man. This must have been the man he was before God had changed him into a stag. Of course, he was a man I recognized.
In folk stories, it is a blessing when a man cursed with an animal form is restored to his human body. For this new man, it was a curse. He beat the packed snow with his fists, and his bare body grew red from the cold. The photographer covered him with her coat and led him into her house.
In the vision, I was permitted to follow them. I watched her draw him a bath and lay out warm clothes for him. I listened to her tale of her family’s fortune, now dwindling but still impressive. Her family had been wealthy for generations, and their wealth had survived every shock of social change in their country. They had always known the right people. They had palaces at home and abroad, and this small house in the Urals was hers.
I learned her name: Sonya. She said she was different than the rest of her family. She believed in equality. She felt guilty for her family’s excess wealth. She was an artist. She wanted to be alone.
“My father always said I lived in a dream,” Sonya said. “But he is also dreaming.”
“I was sent here to tell you. Your family will lose their wealth.”
She didn’t seem to care. “What is your name?” she asked him.
“I don’t remember,” he said. “I was a man once, but I was happier as a deer, as God’s messenger. I will miss the wilderness. I can’t live there anymore. If God has changed me back, it must mean I am finished with that. I must have displeased him.”
“It was my fault,” Sonya whispered, her hands covering her eyes, her dark curls covering her hands.
I remained still and comfortable in my pew. While I watched my husband weep, my inner vision took me to the Russian forest where I saw the stag who became my husband, the man I knew as Andrew. I knew absolutely that he would trade his life with me for his old life as a stag in the wilderness. In the soft, holy state I was in, I didn’t blame him.
Another person entered the cathedral, and I knew her, too. Sonya was older now, almost the age of my mother. Her curls were piled on top of her head. She joined my husband in his pew, and she put her head on his shoulder. She began to weep, too. How I pitied them!
They shared one kiss, and it was more a kiss of friendship than of passion. And yet, that was more than I could bear. My anger erupted into flames and demolished the peace that had surrounded me. I leaned forward in my pew and gasped for breath.
They turned around and saw me. They stood and left their pew and came to sit beside me, Sonya on my left and Andrew on my right. They reached for my hands, but I snatched them away.
“I was a fool,” Andrew said. “I knew you’d find me, and yet I didn’t know. I thought you were happy enough to wait for me and not ask questions. But it’s time you knew.”
“I have sinned,” Sonya said. “I’m a sinner. I’ve sinned.”
I shook my head. I didn’t want to hear it. Whatever they’d suffered, they’d dragged me into it, and now I was part of the vision, too.
In my vision, I could see they loved each other, yet they felt no passion. It wasn’t what my husband felt for me. Yet they were linked inextricably.
My husband was something ancient, someone forgotten, perhaps an angel or a saint who had erred and been spared by God as an earthly messenger. Turning from stag to man was a return. He remembered the taste of wine, and he asked if Sonya had some.
He drank until he was drunk, and he cried out to God as if God were in the room.
“Why have you punished me? What have I done?”
She comforted him, though they didn’t share their bodies. There was still something sacred about him then. He explained that since he was a message-bearer to saints and since he had been sent to Sonya, she could be a saint if she tried. Many saints were born into wealth and left that life behind. Many saints had stepped out of filthy piles of gold and given it away to the poor.
“None of it is mine,” she said. “Not even this place. I’m only permitted to live here.”
“You could leave it all behind,” he said.
As they spoke, I began to be more aware of myself—my hands and feet, my heart, how cold I was.
“Don’t bring me into this!” I cried to him. “Leave me out of it!”
I think he heard me. He stared in my direction, though he seemed to look right through me.
“You must decide,” he said to Sonya. “Your wealth will dissipate either way. I’m leaving now. There’s nothing left for me here, in this beautiful wilderness I once loved.”
She gave him money for his journey.
He told her where to find him if she needed him.
“You should have left me out of it,” I told him. He wouldn’t look me in the eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“You fell so far, Andrew. And you, Sonya—did you become a saint?”
I wasn’t proud of being cruel to them, but it was all I had left.
Sonya shook her head. “I waited and waited for something big to happen, a sign of what I should do. If God had sent another sign—an animal or man or even a strong wind—maybe I would have talked to my father, told him I was through with the family money, through with my little house. But I didn’t want to lose it. And I didn’t think he’d listen.”
“And now? What are you doing?”
“I’m not rich, but I support myself with my photography. I live nine blocks away. But there is no affair, trust me.”
I looked at Andrew, and he shook his head.
“How far you both have fallen,” I said. They hung their heads. I felt as righteous as God. That night, I asked Andrew to move out of our apartment. He begged me to reconsider.
“And in fifty years, when I’m old and you’re still young?” I said.
He laughed. He thought that was why I wanted him out.
“I gave it up!” he said. “I told God I was ready to grow old and die like everyone else. I’ve aged, Leslie. I’ve aged three years in the time you’ve known me.”
“You can’t expect me to believe you gave everything up when you met me.”
He smiled. He was a beautiful man, but he’d been a more beautiful stag. “I met you soon after I decided I didn’t want immortality. Even after I lost my life as a stag, I kept searching for saints. I thought I was changing lives. But it didn’t work. I lost my faith. I lost my way.”
“You met me after you lost your way?”
He had. He’d decided to be a man with an orderly life. He must have loved me because I was so boring, so mundane, so tidy.
“I loved you because I loved you. There’s no way to explain it,” he said. “I didn’t know I loved you until we were married. Now you’re all I have, all I know. If you leave me now, where will I go?”
I promised to go with him to the Russian forest, though I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to lose him. I didn’t know what my life would be without him. But I knew he wasn’t mine, and I couldn’t un-know it. So we flew together, then took the train, and he held my hand the whole way.
“Your body is a curse,” I reminded him.
“And your body?” he asked me.
“Not a curse. It keeps me like a vase keeps flowers. Your body is a prison. It’s holding you back.” I wasn’t sure if this was true, but I was so bitter and afraid, I had to say it.
We found the forest in spring, on the verge of summer, and it was gorgeous and green. Animals shifted all around us, and birds sang. We found Sonya’s former house, now a summer home for another wealthy family. We saw their maid sweeping the deck, and we ducked away.
“I can’t control it. It’s not my magic. I can’t be what I was before,” he said quietly.
“Ask! You have to ask.”
“But I’ll miss you.” Hs teeth were chattering, even though the sun warmed our faces.
“Do you want to go back?”
I was terrified of losing him, and I was terrified of living with a man who wasn’t my man.
He asked. He asked God to change him back. It felt like a vision, but I was there in the flesh. I saw him alter. It was torture at first.
He waited, brandishing his antlers. Once I grew calm enough, I approached him. I felt the rough fur of his neck.
He carried me out of the forest, and I went home again, weeping for my loss the whole way.
Without his salary, I needed a roommate, so Nixie moved in with me. We cry over our lost ones sometimes, and sometimes we hope for them and for ourselves. We go to movies, we cook, we decorate.
Sometimes, I go to church with Nixie, and I light a candle for Andrew. We saw Sonya there once, and she approached me with a sheepish look. I told her I forgave her, but she isn’t my friend. She’s a saint who might have been, and there’s no one lonelier than that.
Nixie thinks I could be a saint, too, since Andrew was drawn to me, and after all, he was a messenger to the saints. Certainly, the world needs more saints, but I don’t feel like one. I feel like an interloper, someone who crept to the edges of someone else’s dream.
I’ve never shot anyone or anything. In the middle of the city, how could a stag send a message to me?
I dreamed one dream about him, though. He was moving through the snow, and I felt his joy and his freedom. He shouted to a hunter, to a woman with an actual gun. He told her not to shoot, and she dropped her weapon.
Ivy Grimes lives in Virginia, and you can find her stories in Vastarien, Dark Matter Magazine, Tales From Between, Shirley Magazine, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter as @IvyGri and on her website at www.ivyivyivyivy.com.