It was winter when it came for me. A blizzard swept through our corner of Ohio that December, strong enough to close the schools and local businesses for an entire week. Snow drifted, swirling into dunes that blocked roads and driveways. Ice grew like stalactites on the eaves of our houses. We were warned to stay inside, but it was deer season, and many of us went out even though we'd been warned not to, some of us because we'd been warned not to. "Men are fools," my mother once told me. "They think by breaking rules they prove their manhood."
Although she loved my father, my mother did not love men.
Though the wind stung any bare patch of flesh, reddened my cheeks, and chapped my lips until cracks appeared and blushed with the beginnings of blood, I went into that storm with the others. Tucked up in my father's old place, a tree stand that hung suspended within the snow-laced branches of an old beech, I waited for movement, for a snort or a stamp of hoof, for the sound of antlers scraping against bark.
My father's stand was on a well-traveled route: a buck or a doe each year since I could remember, meat in the freezer, another rack hanging on the walls of our living room. If you're lucky enough to have an old man who's claimed a place that never fails to bring out the deer, you'll have that place when his hunting days are over. It's the way we do things around here. My old man had been dead and gone for eight years now, but what killed him had walked these woods for at least a hundred.
It came for me that year.
I spotted it out of the corner of my eye, my peripheral vision, stamping through the underbrush. I craned my neck slowly, trying to spot it, but couldn't quite make it out. The snow was thick, flying like confetti in the wind. But I heard it pushing through the brambles below, snapping dead spindly branches as it came toward me. I squinted against the wind, and then there it was. It drifted into the clearing below like an iceberg suddenly bursting through ocean fog.
At least five feet tall at its shoulder, it was a creature so ancient it had turned white. The only other colors on its body were the black orbs of its eyes and the rusty blood staining its antlers. And that rack—twenty points branching and rebranching from the crown of its skull like a twisted candelabra. A small beard dangled from its chin, stiffened with age and frost.
It paused below, no more than twenty yards away, and raised its muzzle to the wind, nostrils flaring. The holes its hooves had punched in the crust of snow were already filling again, disappearing, and as the evidence of its tracks vanished, erased by the falling snow, I remembered the day we found my father.
We found him here in Marrow's Ravine, face down in the snow beneath this stand. He'd gone out that morning, had risen when it was still dark out. The only light he had to see by was the swathe of his flashlight and whatever the moon by chance supplied. My brother Tobias had gone with him, but I was still too young to hunt. Toby was thirteen; I was ten. I spent the day with my mother instead, decorating the shiny needles of a Christmas tree with satin bulbs and gingerbread. It was nearly noon when my brother burst through the front door and startled us so that we almost knocked the tree right off of its stand.
Toby's face glistened with sweat. Flushed red, his cheeks were burned by the wind, and his eyes were filled with a wild terror. "He's dead!" Toby shouted. "Oh God, Mom, he's dead!"
My mother was not a foolish woman. She never panicked, never lost one ounce of control. When Toby disturbed our placid scene of decorating, she simply finished hanging the ornament in her hand—a red satin bulb—and went to the hall closet to fetch our winter coats.
Before we left the house, she phoned Mr. Barrens, the town sheriff. There were only a few tears in her eyes when she told him what had occurred. "Yes, well," she kept saying, over and over. "Yes, well, you know as well as I do, Joe, these things happen. It was only a matter of time. Laurence was aware of that." She finished the phone conversation by saying she'd meet Mr. Barrens down in Marrow's Ravine, then hung up.
Toby sobbed on the couch, hunched over, his fists tucked into his stomach. He wore a camouflage snowsuit and an orange hat and vest. I said, "Toby, what happened?" But he shook his head and sniveled snot from his nose like he was having a fit. His glasses fogged with his breath.
Toby didn't want to go back, but my mother convinced him we needed him to lead us. She didn't know the way to my father's place, and I'd only been there once or twice when my father took me on hikes. My mother hugged Toby, and he calmed down a bit, nodding. "Okay," he said. "Okay, I'll do it."
Marrow's Ravine is on the edge of our town, Temperance, nestled on the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania. The ravine is a convoluted cut in the earth, twisting and shifting through the woods. A shallow creek flows at the bottom, dwindling year after year, bearing no resemblance to what it once was, deep and wide and powerful. My father chose this for his place because it was difficult to reach. Especially in winter, climbing down the slope of the ravine is a dangerous task. It's a place seldom visited by people, even now at the beginning of the twenty-first century, when most places on earth are filled with too many people to count.
After two hours of drifting through the blizzard, lost and losing patience, my mother gave up on Toby. He couldn't help it. He was too upset to pull himself together. So she turned to me and said, "How about you, Aidan?" One eyebrow lifted when she spoke. I could tell she had no real hope in my ability to locate my father, but she didn't have any other options.
I nodded but didn't speak. I didn't know the way, so I just started walking, led by intuition. We stumbled through underbrush, licking our chapped lips, until finally I found a set of deer tracks. Paired holes punched through the snowy crust. I followed them without saying anything. My mother and Toby didn't seem to notice they were there. But after another half an hour of walking, we reached my father's place.
He lay face down in the snow, one arm flung out at an odd angle. Snow had begun to bury him already. A few feet away from his body we found his rifle. Blood leaked out of his mouth, freezing into a gelatin. I gasped and breath curled out of my mouth like smoke. I hadn't understood what I'd been tracking until I saw his body in front of me. Toby said, "He fell. He just fell, Mom. I swear. One minute he was in his stand, looking through his scope. Then next thing he did was fall."
"I know," said our mother. She put her arm around Toby and shook her head. Toby's stand was on the other side of the creek, opposite our father's. Our father had placed him there to keep an eye on him, this being his first time out.
The tracks I'd followed led directly to my father's body. I noticed a trail of blood in the snow between the hoof prints, leading further into the dark of the woods, an invitation to mystery. Later, after we led Mr. Barrens back to the body, when he turned the body over, no blood but the frozen bit in the corner of my father's mouth could be found. Internal injuries, Mr. Barrens murmured, and later, the coroner would confirm it. I asked my mother what that meant, and she replied, "He was all messed up inside, Aidan."
I still saw the trail of blood leading away from our father's body, though. Red against the snow, it wound farther into the woods. Since there were no injuries indicating that blood had come from our father, I asked Toby what he thought had bled the trail. Toby just shook his head at me. "There's no blood, idiot," he said.
But I insisted. "It's right there," I said, pointing.
My mother couldn't see it either. Nor could Mr. Barrens, who said, "Watch out for this one, Sophia. The white stag'll have him next."
My mother shot him a look, her lips pursed, her eyes narrowed. Mr. Barrens looked down at his feet and sniffed.
I bent down and scooped up some of the blood-soaked snow, the crystals dyed a deep red. I held it up for everyone to see, as if I were making an offering. "See?" I said. "Here it is."
Toby tackled me. He punched my face, fattening my lip. "There's your blood!" he screamed, and his words echoed through Marrow's Ravine. "I hate you! Hate you!" he shouted. Then Mr. Barrens and my mother got him off me, holding him back, one on each arm.
I didn't cry. I ignored Toby's muted sobs as he pressed his face into my mother's coat. In my mind I called him a baby. I walked a few feet away from everyone, sullen and rebellious, and started to follow the trail of my father's blood on my own.
"Wait a second there, Aidan," Mr. Barrens called out behind me. "Time to go, son," he said. I told him calmly that he was not my father, and he said, "I know that, kid. It's a figure of speech."
I stood shin-deep in the snow, flakes flying around me like the fake stuff in a glass globe. I'd have to come back later, I decided, without anyone to tell me what I could and couldn't do. That trail of blood was obvious to me, and I meant to find what it led to.
After that day, Toby refused to hunt again. He said there was too much between him and what had happened, that he'd rather not even think about it. I went back, though, a few years later, after I had my own license. I remembered the bits of advice my father had given Toby and me. Wilderness tips, safety precautions, trivial facts about animals. I remembered him explaining the difference between a predator and prey, that it was all in the eyes. A predator's eyes are set face-forward in their head, so that they see only what's in front of them. A sort of tunnel vision. The eyes of prey are most often set on either side of their heads, enabling them to see peripherally, to see all the odd angles from which they might be attacked. We were both filled with this sort of information, but unlike Toby, I decided to use it.
After I turned thirteen, I went down to Marrow's Ravine year after year and waited. Something inside me caught fire the day my father died and never went out, only grew stronger.
It was the white stag, I found out later, who took him. Once I started hunting, I was privileged to hear what the other hunters talked about. They spoke openly of the stag. Some spoke reverently, some jokingly. But even those who feigned skepticism wanted it.
That was what I wanted, too, I decided. The white stag had taken my father from us, and I would take its life in turn. I thought this was possible, even though others had tried before, most of them disappearing or dying in the attempt. But I wouldn't let that stop me.
I went out every season. I hunted when deer weren't even in season. I watched and waited, and passed on perfectly normal bucks whose racks would have made a fine addition to the walls in our house. But I never saw the white stag on any of my hunts until I'd almost forgotten why I hunted. I was eighteen then, full of nightmares of my own mortality. It came for me when I had nearly given up believing in it.
Here it was, standing below my stand, its muzzle lifted, sniffing the wind. Suddenly it tipped its head up and looked straight at me, its black eyes winking with refracted light. I froze, unable to move a muscle. I didn't know if I was unable to move because of the cold or because of the look in the stag's eyes. They hypnotized me. Had it looked at my father like that? I wondered. Had it looked at all the men who fell before it like it looked at me now? All of those men, obsessed, crazy for things, for power over something other than themselves. The white stag made the rules in the woods, and they were going to break them.
Suddenly it snorted, shaking its head wildly. Steam poured from its nostrils like smoke from a stack. It stamped one heavily muscled foreleg in the snow, kicking up a powder of frost, and its hide quivered as if a fly or tick had bitten it. Mobility returned to me in that moment, so I pressed the gun against my cheek in haste, the metal cold on my raw face.
The stag stood in the crosshairs of my scope. But in the one moment that I could have taken a shot, I felt myself lowering the rifle. My legs jerked uncontrollably, as if I were a marionette. I could feel it inside me, preparing to walk me off the stand and onto its rack.
I saw them all then. All of the men who'd fallen before me, swirling like ghosts in its black glassy eyes. And it was then, also, that I noticed the stag's eyes were set closer together than a normal buck's. They bulged out of its forehead, two convex mirrors, reflecting nothing back.
I cried out, "Let me go! I didn't mean it! I didn't know what it meant!" and my voice echoed through Marrow's Ravine, an endless call for help. Something inside me broke open, like a crack running through ice. Then I no longer stared into the stag's eyes, but saw it for itself.
I was not the predator, but the prey of a creature so ancient and wise, it had fooled hundreds into their own deaths. Foolish men, they stepped into its world and never came back. I shook my head, willing it to go away, but it remained in its place, unmoving.
Wind pulled tears from my eyes, and I started to sob like poor Toby. I couldn't stop. The white stag snorted another cloud of steam, then jerked its head up and down as if it were having a fit. My legs jerked with it. It seemed frustrated, somehow angry with me. I kept crying, my feet perched halfway off the edge of my father's stand, and waited for the end. In that moment I wanted to tell Toby I was sorry, but I didn't know what I was sorry for exactly. For not understanding him, I think. For not realizing what he had witnessed.
Finally the white stag turned its head in the opposite direction, its attention diverted by movement off to its right. A reprieve, though for how long, I didn't know. I let out a breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding. It turned away from me then, uninterested, and began to wander away. I almost cried out, "Wait! Don't go!" because part of me still wanted it. But I didn't say anything. I was receiving another chance. I'd let it go, I decided. I'd find something to want other than death.
It stamped the ground a few times, rooting around as if it had lost something in the snow. Then it lifted its oddly dainty tail, suddenly spooked, and reared its head up. A moment later, it bolted through the trees, away from me, back into the dark of the woods. Gone forever.