The afternoon of the day she dies, my grandmother reminds me to check the weather before driving home from the hospital, in case the growing thunderheads decide to unleash a torrential rain.
Some oil, a little water, and those bald tires of yours will get you into trouble, she says, straightening her wig. My mother, feeding her bits of ice from a Styrofoam cup with a small plastic spoon, nods. Think of the baby.
After a two-hour drive on dry roads, I arrive home with the baby intact and asleep. The phone on the kitchen counter rings. It is loud on the other end of the connection, as if my mother is eating the ice she recently fed my grandmother. Though by now, the ice is melted. The crunching sound is tears between receiver and chin.
Holding the baby, who squirms in her rumpled two-piece embroidered with daisies, I walk out into the backyard and stand in the shade of a sweetgum tree. A woman with the face of a deer steps out of the bamboo. I blink, and her face vanishes behind the wind. On the other side of the fence, our neighbors begin throwing empty beer bottles against their garage door.
When she returns home that evening, I run toward my mother, waving two tissues in the humid August air.
My grandmother was a deer woman, in that she hunted deer.
Before the poor circulation in her legs confined her to a wheelchair, she loved to pace the kitchen in a black slip. Wig askew, skinny brown cigarette ashing into a dirty teacup. This was after my grandfather, a Baptist preacher, died. When he was alive, he insisted she at least wear a robe and slippers around the house.
After a summer storm when I was five, my grandmother took me out to see oil glisten on the surface of fresh puddles. She called this hunting for rainbows.
It’s 2010. I do not own a black slip. I like to pace. I do not have the face of a deer, nor do I own a deer mask. I have shot guns at paper targets and the sky.
Later in the afternoon the deer woman reappears. With a hand on her face, she obscures her long snout. One empty hand extends, palm-up. She is naked. Excited by the sight of a fresh pair of nipples, my breast-feeding baby shrieks—one of those sudden and quick ascending outbursts of joy peculiar to infants. I shift her to my other hip.
That’s how you can tell a deer woman, my grandmother once told me, cleaning her rifle the year before she died. She offers nothing; she wants nothing.
Next morning, our dryer breaks. With no twine for a clothesline, I drape a damp blanket from my grandmother’s hospital room (Take everything, the nurse said. She paid for it.) over a plastic lawn chair to dry. The deer woman stands behind the chair.
It is fortunate my brother is up at a battle re-enactment this weekend. Otherwise he would probably be giving the deer woman a hard time, since he forced sex on two girls in high school. He would have gotten away with the first, if it weren’t for the second.
Pushed his luck, my grandfather had said, shaking out the Sunday paper.
Ought to cut his pecker off before he ruins the whole family with it, my grandmother had sighed, frosting a seven-layer coconut cake. Two deer steaks sat on a pale blue plate, thawing on the cook top.
What is it doing? my mother asks through the screen. Pawing the air? Her words start twisting up into unanswerable knots of velocity, the way they did before my father left. She closes the window. The lock clicks. Wearing flip-flops, the deer woman points at the chair.
When areas of low pressure build to an unstoppable point, the air takes on a green tint.
To ease my mother’s worry, I drag the chair to the front porch. The deer woman stays away for several days. Then she shows up, barefooted.
I take a step forward.
Raye-Lynn, think of the baby! My mother’s voice is loud through the window glass.
What does the deer woman want? I whisper into the baby’s red-blonde hair. My grandmother told me that deer women like rubies. I glance down at my ring. I have my own unanswerable panic; internal storms my husband had no calming agent for.
The deer woman crouches down, as though coiling to spring straight up into the air. Slowly I back up, until my feet are out of the grass. I sit down on the patio’s warm flagstones and set the baby on one clear of bird shit. She laughs and hits a small, un-used bedpan (also gathered from her great-grandmother’s hospital room) on the rocks, her brain and nervous system firing at warp-speed.
My grandmother loved Star Trek. What would Captain Kirk think of the deer woman? Of my 70-year-old grandmother exchanging a floral-print housecoat for a Vanity Fair-brand black slip as soon as her husband was buried?
When she jumps to the ground three days later, the deer woman again lacks clothes. Jet trails mark her quick descent. The air assumes a grey-green tone.
Holding up a picture of her mother from her days at the nudist colony, my mother says, That deer woman is starting to look familiar.
The nudist colony? I ask. But what about the slip? The robe? The wigs? My grandmother was a platinum blonde during the week, a redhead on the weekends, and a brunette at church. Lying on her great-grandmother’s housecoat laid in the grass, my daughter chews on a vanilla-scented rubber giraffe.
That thing smells like air freshener, my mother says, gesturing at the toy. What is it, French?
The toy is, in fact, made in France, but I say nothing to my mother that would cause her to shy away. Mosquitoes starting to bite, we head inside for a Tuesday dinner of hotdog quesadillas and lime-aid. Pausing at the door, I look back. The deer woman has exchanged the mask for a veil.
My mother slices up the tortillas with a pizza-cutter and hands a triangle to the baby. I mix cheap gin into three highball glasses of lime-aid and add extra ice before setting one out on the back steps.
If it’s cool in the mornings, the air takes on an amber tone.
The mask-less deer woman wraps her head and torso in the veil and steps forward. I am alone, as the baby is asleep and my mother is at the farmer’s market. I light a cigarette and exhale the smoke away from the figure nearing me. Once again, I am glad my brother is gone with his guns. Surely he would train his scope on this blurry animal woman.
Next door the neighbors start to argue, mother yelling at her teenaged son.
I know what three dollars is, he shouts. Three dollars is three dollars.
I go to the fence to tell them to shut up, it’s too early, the baby is sleeping and they might scare off the possible spirit of my grandmother.
In unison my neighbors say, Fuck off, Raye-Lynn.
When I turn around, the deer woman has retreated. She wears a pair of sheepskin boots. The veil drifts over her head, moving as though it is breathing on its own. She holds the deer head mask over her belly, like an empty bowl. Like armor.
Those are my boots, I say.
I bring her a chair so she can sit down and take them off. She hands them to me, as well as the veil. Moving the mask from her belly to her face she takes a pose in the chair that lets me know she is observing me as I am observing her.
Tu regardes, she says, which I find strange, since I am already looking at her. Also, the only foreign language my grandmother spoke was bits of Japanese she bothered to learn when my grandfather was stationed in Okinawa.
Tu regardes le masque, she says, standing up and moving behind the chair, as if height further emphasizes her point.
From inside I hear the baby cry in an urgent key. My breasts start to ache. She’s due her breakfast, I say in the deer woman’s direction. Forgetting her French, she makes a soft snorting sound, exhaling quickly through her nose.
My mother’s royal blue Chevy truck pulls into the driveway. I got some berries, she says, stepping out of the cab and reaching into the bed. Think your grandma will eat them?
How do you know she’s hungry? I ask.
My mother and I sit in the lawn chairs I carried out of my brother’s garage apartment. The baby is heavy on my lap. The nylon webbing of the seat cuts into the back of my thighs.
Where’s the mask? my mother asks.
I think she threw it in the bamboo, I say.
I didn’t realize spirits liked to play with costumes, she says.
Maybe it’s because she was naked so much when she was alive, I say.
My mother nods, sucking on a piece of horehound candy. The baby stares at my mother’s mouth, reaching her hands toward the sound of the candy against her grandmother’s teeth. The baby is a constant mix of anticipation, contentment, anger and joy. The baby is a weather system.
I’m glad he’s in the mountains staging re-do battles, I say to my mother, of my brother. She nods. It would be uncomfortable, she agrees, watching him try to sex, or hunt, a spirit.
The deer woman, wearing only a veil, begins to pace. The baby pukes down the front of her red gingham dress and over one of my bare knees.
Whew, my mother says, fanning her face with a paper fan from the funeral parlor that buried my grandmother. I’m not sure how much longer I can take this heat.
Even when my mother tosses a strawberry over the grass, the deer woman remains still.
She’s done this before, I say. I have the sense she is testing the air. Trying things out.
Is she becoming see-through? My mother squints, and then sighs. Your grandmother was always so hard to pin down.
Perhaps to retrain a degree of opacity, the deer woman discards the veil and pulls on the black slip. She steadies the mask on the back of her head, because she is a deer woman in all directions.
The baby, sitting on the warm stones, tries to pet a neighborhood cat. Her small fat hand comes down in short slaps against the rock, sounding sharp as when storm water spills from a leaf-choked gutter onto the asphalt drive.
Fleas, my mother says. That thing is surely full of fleas. She leans forward to shoo the orange cat away, but I put my hand on her arm.
Just wait, I say, looking at my ring. Just let them be. I remember the faces of the fathers of the two girls my brother messed with, showing up three months apart on our doorstep, my grandfather putting down his paper and talking to them both in low voices on the front porch while my grandmother funneled black powder into brass casings.
Listening to the weather report, we learn about a hurricane pressing on our borders. The sky goes green. The deer woman straightens her head.
Inside, the baby cries. I hear my mother calming her, singing a song my grandfather made up, about a woman who turns into deer after her true love dies. Or is it a song of spirits that become deer once they reach the afterlife and find their loved ones absent? Maybe I’ve misunderstood.
I do not know what my grandmother has or has not found as a spirit, or did or did not find as a living being who sometimes was a nudist and who sometimes wore a black slip. Who loved a quiet smoke at dawn. Who hunted deer every autumn. After all, I was ten before I understood rainbows are usually sought not in water, but in the sky.
The deer woman walks toward me. I know she will pass straight through me and travel down into my daughter’s voice, carrying the spirit of every deer she hunted, every love she embraced or bore.
My mother raps her knuckles against the glass behind me. I turn. Through the kitchen window I watch her raise a hammer and a box of roof nails. We got to get these windows boarded up. She traces a circle in the air with the hammer’s heavy head and then points it at me. That deer can take care of itself.
Laurie Saurborn Young is the author of Carnavoria (H_NGM_N Books), and a chapbook, Patriot (Forklift, Ink). Her second book of poems, Industry of Brief Distraction, is forthcoming from Saturnalia Books in 2015. A portfolio of her photography work can be found online at lauriesaurborn.carbonmade.com. She lives in Austin, Texas.