A Winter’s Tale
Full moon, first snow sticking to the pavement like confectioners’ sugar on a jelly doughnut. After midnight, snowquiet, and Celeste walking right smack- dab down the middle of Little Indian Creek Road, making a track like a rip in a long roll of gauze bandage. She could hear a car engine or the scrape and ring of a snowplow a mile away, plenty of time to get off the road, onto the berm, she reasons, and here in the center she’s safer than out on the edges, where the woods spread out deep and dark before the entrance to Johnson’s Orchard, the housing development where she lives, two or so miles up ahead. Celeste isn’t afraid of people anymore — not like she was when she was young and lived in the city — not out here on this cold December night. Just the wild things alarm her, like the deer that scared the bejesus out of her when it hit her car a few minutes ago.
She’d seen the buck standing way in front of her, in the middle of the road. She could still picture him. Big rack and heavy, dark body — too dark almost, it seemed, for a deer — dark and big like a centaur. He was captured in her headlights with his body in profile, his elegant head turned toward her, a perfect shoot-me pose like on the cover of Sports Afield. At the sight of him, Celeste stopped and turned off the headlights, remembering what Graham had told her that time they were driving through the Poconos soon after their wedding: turn off the headlights to break the hypnotic trance of a deer blinded by brightness.
Celeste lit a cigarette and waited a minute or so and then turned the headlights back on — all clear — and started out again, but she hadn’t gone very far when: thunk! A deer (the same one?) hit the car, slamming against the hood. Its head smacked against the windshield right in front of Celeste’s face, cracking the glass and making her scream. When it hit the car and landed on the hood, Celeste saw the deer’s face in the moonlight — its big, terrified face. Its imploring eye, the size of a yo-yo, winked slowly, like a doll’s.
She slammed on the brakes. The car skidded. The deer turned and looked right at her before it slid off the hood, scraping its hooves on the bumper like fingernails on a blackboard and sort of kneeling against the fender with its head bowed and front legs awkwardly folded, as if saying its prayers.
Celeste thought she heard the poor thing moan. Amen.
It snorted and struggled to its feet and then ran off at an angle into the black woods, its white tail waving bye-bye like a mittened hand. Celeste wondered if now the deer was sitting alone some place under a tree, stunned, too, and if it had seen her face as she had seen its — if her own terrified face loomed distorted and hideous on the silver screen of its memory.
When she tried to drive away, a hissing-dragging-scraping sound stopped her. She rolled the window down and leaned out, but she couldn’t see what was the matter. Snow was still falling, coming down steadily and heavily like in an animated Christmas movie. It was the only time Celeste had ever wished she had a cell phone, a thing she’d resisted adamantly. She always hated people with cell phones, all the private conversations rudely going on in public — in stores and checkout lines, on commuter trains and planes, in restaurants . . . everywhere. People laughing and chitchatting and arguing, talking about the most intimate things — relationships and yeast infections — and making the most annoying small talk, right within earshot of everyone. Had they no manners? And all the cell phone towers poking out of the landscape everywhere like cowlicks. She hated talking on the phone. Why would she want to carry one with her?
But now, on this snowy night, what a relief it would be to pull out a little toy-size telephone and call someone for help. But what good would it do? Whom would she call? She could call home, but Julian, her son, wouldn’t be there. He’d be off somewhere with his friends, and if he was home he wouldn’t answer. He’d be sleeping; that’s all he did at home anymore. She could call her friend Bobbie, but Bobbie lived on the other side of Indian Lake. It would take her a half-hour to get there. Celeste could walk home before that. Was there really no one else? Was 911 — a three-digit number — her only savior?
When she finally found the flashlight under the passenger seat and got out to examine the damage, the first thing she saw was a big smear on the road as if the deer had tried to make a snow angel, and a few round drops of bright red blood scattered like a handful of change. At the top of the rise, Celeste stopped to catch her breath and light another cigarette. She peered down the road to see if the lights oof her Civic were still in sight (no) and then looked down at her tracks in the yellow beam. There seemed to be some letters . . . a wooooord? . . . there in her footprint. What? She leaned in closer.
ES . . . what?
ESPRIT. ESPRIT, her footprints said.
“Goddammit,” she said out loud, smearing the footprints within reach with the toe of her boot. What a vulgar, sneaky marketing technique, Celeste thought, this branding of the sole. If she’d noticed the logo imprint on the bottom of her new boots, she’d never have bought them. She imagined herself breaking into the Esprit shoe factory like those radical feminists who broke into the Mattel factory in the seventies and replaced all the Talking Barbie voice boxes with the voice tapes from GI Joe.
“Let’s take the beach head!” postoperative Barbie shouted in her authoritative baritone.
“I love your hair!” GI Joe squealed.
ESPRIT. SUCKS. Celeste’s boots would say. Or maybe JESUS. SAVES. JESUS. SAVES. Ha-ha-ha! Tammy Faye Bakker boots. Seriously, though, why not something philosophical — CARPE on the left; DIEM on the right — or some lovely image? A snowflake, a ginkgo leaf, a Celtic cross. Or how about the lovely Chinese characters Julian had tattooed on his arm last year?
Celeste was startled when she first saw the tattoos. Julian had kept them concealed, but she spotted the black marks on his arm through a thin T-shirt one morning as he was going from the bathroom into his room. Her first thought: leeches. Then: melanoma. She never saw Julian anymore, she realized, when he was not fully dressed. For years now she’d seen him in nothing but baggy jeans and a T-shirt and a hooded sweatshirt over that. When Julian pulled up his sleeve at her request, Celeste was at first surprised and then suddenly disappointed that he’d never shown her the tattoos. For so many years she knew his little-boy body so well: every scar, every scab, every freckle, every slight imperfection — washing him in the tub every night with that washcloth mitten shaped like Bullwinkle. She’d do all the voices for him: Dudley Do-Right, Rocky the Flying Squirrel, Boris and Natasha. How Julian would giggle and hold his nose and go under the water, blowing bubbles. “Porpoise,” she called him for years, “my little porpoise.” Why had he never shown her the tattoos? He’d had it done last year, he said. What did she care? It was his body, he said defensively, before she even had a chance to respond.
“What does it say?” Celeste asked. The characters were beautiful — indigo, almost black — and looked like they’d been painted with a Sumi-e brush. She wanted to touch them, put out her hand to touch them, then drew it back.
Julian pointed to the first character. “Danger...