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The Stag  

Haley Pate  

It would be Jensen’s birthday today. I can imagine him now, yelling at me from his doorstep, waving his wrinkled hands at me.  


“Florence! Florence! Tonight is the night!” he would crow. He would be twenty-eight today, even though before he died he bore the scars of someone three times that age. He always loved his birthday. He would invite the entire neighborhood to his house. Together, we’d dance and celebrate in his garden. He’d take us over to the edge of the yard so he could show us the plants he grew. He’d point at one and say proudly, “This one was touched by the Stag!” He said that every year. A hush always fell over the party after that. Everyone would stare for a moment and then make an excuse as to why they had to leave early. Jensen never seemed to notice how uncomfortable it made everyone. 


I always stayed and looked at it from a distance. The plant he loved was once a flower. A simple lily. Soft and pink like a fading sunset. Then one day it started to grow differently. Heads of demons sprouted from the petals. The faces of previously unfathomable creatures from the deepest pits of hell. It grew tall and twisted, looping around itself. The heads drooled acid, pale purple and frothy. Their eyes flashed psychedelic colors with swirls and polka dots swimming around like koi in a pond. The ground beneath the flower was a sickening black with its roots like infected veins running into the dirt. How Jensen could live with such a thing, I’ll never know. 


The people of my neighborhood never like mentioning the Stag. Like somehow the absence of its name will make it less real. Its reality is a weight on our chests. A cloud laden with rain hanging above us. The Stag lurks about, a shadow around every corner. A beast from our nightmares that has escaped to the real world. We can only walk so far into the woods. Even in the daytime nobody strays too far off the designated trails. At night it is strictly forbidden to travel anywhere outside the neighborhood. There is a large iron fence running around the entire community. At the north end of the fence, facing the woods, there is a giant gate reinforced with steel beams. Nothing can leave when they are closed. Personally, I believe that the Stag gets in anyways. How else can you explain Jensen’s flower? I’d like to see the Stag someday, despite how everyone regards it. Maybe there’s something we don’t understand. 


Luckily, it is still a long while until the sun sets. The gates are still open. I walk out of them and up to the forest’s entrance. It is a gaping maw, large and dark. I continue on, walking quietly along the designated path. Vines wrap around the trees like leafy snakes. There are leaves crunching under my feet, it sounds like an animal crunching on bones. The streetlamps lining each side of the path are glowing a hazy yellow. Dull, flickering light bulbs. Nobody has come to change them. I am going to visit Old Man Bard. He lives away from everyone else, therefore everyone believes he is crazy. Out of his gourd, a man with a death wish. But he is a placid man, he does not care. Like sheep, the neighborhood finds comfort in flocking together. Bard is a wolf, watching from a distance till he needs something. I see his little house down the road. It is not much more than a wooden shack with a crudely made stone chimney tacked on to the back of it. In the front yard there is a sign with messily painted words: GO AWAY! Safe traveling. —Bard. I walk up to his door and knock loudly. I hear him muttering curses inside as he trudges to the door. 


The door swings open with a loud creak. Bard stands in a long brown coat and baggy pants of the same color. He gives me his signature annoyed look and ushers me in. The fireplace is lit. It is the only light in this one room house. There is an old leather chair in front of the fire. It is significantly worn, and it smells like smoke. Bard collapses back into his chair. He points at me with one of his long, tanned fingers.  


“Sit.” he says. I do as he says and take a seat on the rug next to the fire. Bard twirls his long, wispy beard and pulls a pipe from his coat pocket.  


“Now, wha’ do ya’ want to talk about?” he asks, lighting the pipe. I fiddle with my shoelaces for a moment.  


“Tell me about Jensen.” I say, knowing that it probably isn’t the best subject to ask Bard about. They were close. Almost brothers. Bard looks taken aback for a moment and then turns his gaze to the fire. He looks older with the dim light cast on his face. Each wrinkle is accentuated. Every scar faintly glows, each dip in his skin provides more shadow. 


“Jensen was always a curious fella’ as ya’ know.” he begins. “Always tryin’ to find out more about that dang Stag,” Bard chuckles weakly. He gives me a thin-lipped smile, “Like it be some misunderstood creature. Some horned Jesus.” Bard pulls the pipe from his lips, hands shaking slightly. I can’t decide if it’s from anger or sadness. “A loveable fool, Jensen was. He went travelin’ too far into these woods one day.” He gestures towards the one small window in the room. Outside the sun is falling. The warmth of day is quickly falling to the cold of night. “I saw em’ walk into the trees. Then I saw it, walkin’ in between them trees.” Bard rises from his chair as his volume increases. “He ain’t run fast enough. That Stag! Demon! Ran with silence like my huntin’ dogs do.” Bard’s eyes shine with tears. “Then a sound came. It was an inhuman cacklin’, it was laughin’ at him.” Bard pauses for a moment, then falls back into his chair. He continues in a low whisper. I almost can’t hear him. “I don’t know what happened to him. They disappeared behind the tree line. It was silent afte’ that. The coldest, bone-chillin’ quiet, like all the animals were sucked out of the woods for an instant.” Bard looks worn. His eyes hold an immense sadness. Deep black pools of regret. “I shoulda’ gone after him. Unlike y’all neighborhood sissies, I don’t fear that Stag. But I know—” he points a finger at me, “—you know too, that I wouldn’t be sittin’ here tellin’ you this story if I had.” He waves his hand at me, as to tell me to leave. I obey. It is the least I can do after getting him to reiterate Jensen’s death. 


I get up from my place on the rug. My shoes are covered in dust. I look at Bard for a moment and then leave without saying another word. I have asked him enough for today. As I walk down the path that leads back to the neighborhood, I hear Bard start playing Blackbird by the Beatles on his guitar, accompanied by his crackly voice, singing the lyrics brokenly. It was the song that he and Jensen used to play at the neighborhood parties. They’d sing loudly and passionately, dancing about in the street and waving their arms wildly in the air. It’s strange how fast things can change. I stop under one of the streetlights. Something is wrong. My guts begin to churn and the hairs on my arms stick straight up. Blocking the path further down was a large, black-furred deer. A stag. It seems to be in a state of torpor, curled up on itself. It has large white antlers with a red tint at the tips of them.  I take a step back as it stirs. It opens its eyes. They are milky glass, no pupils. They stare at me. There is no emotion. It rises like a corpse, heavy body standing up slowly from the ground. The Stag’s fur looks wet, slick and still against its body. It takes a few slow steps towards me and opens its mouth. 


“Florence. I’ve waited.” A deep, rumbling voice spills out. It surrounds me, like the sound is coming from all directions. I am frozen in fear as it walks closer. Each of its steps are jerky, like it doesn’t know how to work its own body. “Make a deal with me.” It commands. I go to shake my head no, but I can’t. I nod yes. “Good.” It coos. The Stag is standing before me now. It towers over me, tall and strong, with broad shoulders and large hooves. It bows its head towards the ground. A small paper bag appears at its feet. 


“Deliver this to Old Man Bard, and I shall grant you Jensen. That is what you want, yes?” The Stag says, its voice ringing in my head. I nod my head again and pick up the bag. My body seems to have a mind of its own. The Stag follows behind me, shielded by the trees. The sun has fallen at this point. The gate is closed, no way to get home. The woods are dark are silent. Bard’s shack is coming back into view as we walk. My steps are stiff and jerky like the Stag’s. My body is not mine. I am some obsequious puppet. 


I knock on Bard’s door. I feel the Stag’s presence in the woods far behind me. I see its milky eyes behind my eyelids when I blink. They are far from amiable. The color white usually represents purity, honesty. But the Stag’s white radiates pure malice. True, unfiltered evil. Bard vehemently opens the door. This time he is holding a gun. It is pointed at my chest. Bard looks surprised to see me. He grabs my arm and pulls me into his house. “Florence, whatchu doin’ back out here? You know DAMN WELL‒Ay’ whatchu’ got there?” he asks, his attention being taken by the small bag in my hands. I want to tell him what it is. How I got it. My jaw is wired shut and my arms stretch out to hand it to him. Bard takes the bag and opens it. He smiles. “Cherries? Why, ya shouldn’t have.” he says. How did the Stag know he liked cherries? Bard pops one into his mouth and begins to chew. 


His eyes begin to water, and he falls into his chair. He coughs and pounds his chest. He spits the cherry onto the floor where it turns black and dissolves into a black goo. Bard begins to choke, spitting a dark, tar-like substance out of his mouth. It is like he is drowning in it. I am glued to where I stand on the floor. Polka dots and swirls begin to appear on his skin, like a kindergartener's doodles. They spread under his skin, like infectious tattoos. Acid, purple and frothy, bubbles at his lips. His eyes flash pink, then blue, then yellow. And then they roll back into his head. Milk white and glassy. Dead eyes. The Stag is at the window, watching. Its lips are curled back in a disturbing smile. Its teeth are sharp. It leans close to the glass. In my head I hear its voice. “And now, I deliver you your reward.” The Stag steps back from the glass and fades into the dark woods. 


I grab the bag of cherries from Bard’s cold hands and run out of the house. I need to get home. Now. On my way out I see Jensen stumble out of the woods. He is holding his head in his hands. My eyes widen. Something is wrong. This cannot be possible. Jensen looks up at me and smiles. I turn on my heels and run. Faster and faster down the path, through the circles of light cast by the streetlamps. This is wrong. Wrong. Wrong. That is not Jensen. What have I done? I look at the bag in my hands. What can I do? I keep running. I see the gate to the neighborhood. It is closed, barred shut. Nobody can save me. Nobody is out here except me. I only have one way out. I take a cherry from the bag and gulp it down. It turns from sweet to disgustingly sour in a matter of seconds. I feel an intense burning in my throat, like hellfire is ablaze in my body. I fall to the ground. Jensen’s footsteps are behind me. They are heavy and slow. Like the Stag’s. Maybe Jensen was an illusion? Bubbles begin to form in my mouth. They spill out. I look at the mess on the ground. Purple and frothy. It burns. My flesh feels like it's swirling, collapsing in on itself. My vision flashes so many colors. Too many colors. The footsteps behind me quicken. But it’s too late. I fall. My world is fading to white. Pure milk white. Blank and dead. 

Haley Pate is a young queer writer and artist from the Southeast US, as well as an Alabama School of Fine Arts alumni. They are currently pursuing a BA in both business and liberal arts. Being rooted in Birmingham, the cultural hub of Alabama, they grew to become deeply passionate about the importance of community and the liberation of artistic expression. They have had their work showcased in Cadence, The Roanoke Review, The Sheepshead Review, and The Athena Review. Additionally, they have received awards from the Alabama Writer's Forum for both their poetry and nonfiction works.  

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