"Lila . . . Lila . . . Old Wooden Head's let me go. Light the fire for me. My feet are torn up with the cold." Standing in the open door, she heard the waving trail of his voice summoning her from across the white expanse. She opened her mouth, but nothing came. She didn't move, fearful that the rustle of fabric might deafen his hail, now an echo among the leafless trees. She closed her eyes, strained to hear more. The soft center of her belly lurched as she remembered the space between his neck and shoulder where she loved to lay her cheek. And here he was again, at last.
From somewhere, another voice entreated her. Smaller, anxious. A tugging hand at her side sought to pull her from the white rectangle of light pouring in from the outside.
"The fire's gone out."
She put her finger to her lips and turned back to the door.
Henry tapped her shoulder. After a quiet minute, he reached under the quilt to slip his fingers in the knife pleats of her skirt. One finger for each of four heavy creases. He ran his hand up and down while he waited, whispering to himself as his fingers trailed. He watched her chest rise and fall in quick succession, her eyebrows rounded with expectation, the inkling of a smile on her lips.
"Mama, the fire."
Lila shook her head and sat up. Henry ran the sleeve of his shirt across a seeping nose and waited as she came to consciousness; unwilling, heavy-lidded. She almost cursed him for disturbing her, but looking past his shoulder, she saw the fireplace was filled with shadows and soot.
She put her hand on his. "Thank you, pet."
Lila's next thought was the same as that of the last 50 or so mornings. The salt pork had been gone for weeks. What was left was some hard tack, a handful of potatoes, and a square of lard. Henry had stopped asking about their meals. The color rose in his mother's cheeks when he inquired on what there might be to eat, and so he dogged her instead about the fire. Stoking it forced her to remember that something ought to be put in the kettle above it.
Lila tugged on a shawl and pulled up her hair with a strip of muslin. She laced a pair of boots with worn soles, and set Henry to peeling two potatoes from a basket near the hearth. Then she heaved the door open, hunching her shoulders against an army of cold, that was, in an instant, everywhere around her: in her hair, her nostrils, under her skirts.
"Be right back, Henry."
Lila's steps made little percussive explosions in the silent wilderness as she cracked a single, unbroken pane of snow. At the woodpile, she snatched up the axe with a calloused hand. The cold pricked at her eyes, still warm from sleep.
In the moment before her axe left the ground, Lila noticed something ten yards or so from the pile. Two disembodied eyes, black as onyx, peered back at her. Lila squinted, straining to find the face that owned the eyes. From the snowy tract of the naked wood appeared a chalky form: delicate head, over-large ears, spindle legs, a twitching triangle of a tail.
Lila put the axe down.
What was left of the Chickasaw believed an animal like this was sacred. The "white ghost," they called it, the specter of one whose unblemished spirit had been snuffed before its time. Years back, Lila had overheard a drunken sharecropper in Franklin alleging to have earned $40 for the hide of one he'd felled. As he'd swayed with whiskey and bravado, Lila dismissed the animal as myth.
Yet here she stood: a contradiction of dark eyes and white fur, a patchwork of the too-large and too-small, nearly invisible against her backdrop. Her coat was taut from lavish grazing. Lila wondered where she'd found food enough to get so fat. She stacked a small pile of logs near the stump. The doe raised its head and met Lila's gaze. The skin on Lila's back prickled up. There was something she recognized in the animal, some unnerving familiarity.
The doe turned to the door when Henry appeared, no doubt drawn by the disappointing silence and the angry protests of his empty stomach.
Yes, something there. Not so much as a quiver when the boy appeared. Lila lifted the axe and began her work. The doe sniffed the ground and nibbled a patch of all but barren sod.
"Mama! Look at that! Have you ever--!"
Lila fixed on the deer as she answered him and reached for a log. "Get in the house, son."
Not even the volume of her voice across the yard, or the rhythmic thwap of the axe was enough to startle the doe. She kept on, eating and watching, undaunted, nearly arrogant. Lila watched, thinking it certain bliss to find food wherever one walked, never caring about what needed to be made, what would keep. How close the damned fire was to going out.
Positioned between the doe and the cabin, Lila caught sight of Henry out of the corner of her eye, hanging again in the door frame, transfixed by the animal. He was slack-jawed, one hand on his head, affected and incredulous at the same time. He clutched in his other hand a potato with yellow flesh exposed from a sizeable bite. Lila looked up again at the doe, grazing nearby in silence, stopping on occasion to eye them both.
In the next moment, Lila threw the axe to the ground and rushed toward the door. Henry dropped the potato and darted inside as his mother approached. She jumped the single step on the threshold, and made the fireplace in four strides from the door, snatching a confiscated Burnside Carbine off the rack above the hearth. She lowered the lever, exposing the breech block and the single cartridge inside. It hadn't been fired since he was last there. She wondered if the cartridge, silent and steady in its block, was still live. With quaking hands, she closed the lever and turned back toward the door.
Henry leapt at her from the corner, screeching and clawing at her skirts.
"No, Mama, please! Please!"
Through the window filmy with grime and frost, Lila could see the doe lingering.
"Henry, we don't have a choice."
"But you just can't!" he spurted through a mouth wet with wayward tears and the force of his words.
One fast breath filled Lila's lungs. She jerked forward and grabbed his arm in the tight circle of her fist. "Henry, the larder is empty! Do you know how many potatoes we have left?" Henry recoiled from her force; his body arced like a thrown horseshoe. Lila unclasped her hand. Her own yelling had surprised her and the hoarseness from it tickled her throat. She looked down at the boy who was on his knees. He sobbed a low melody with his head bobbing inches from the floor, a shapeless pile of denim and plaid, making more noise than she'd ever heard from him.
Lila closed her eyes. All this time without some loathsome outburst. And all the fortitude she'd had to muster, pulling at it like tree roots buried in places unknown. He wouldn't remember any of it now.
Lila touched the thread-fine hair on the top of his head. Her voice fell an octave, its hysteria gone.
"Henry, son, I suggest you wait inside."
Lila walked to the stoop and pulled the door shut hard behind her. She hoped the deer had heard the clap of the door and bolted. But the doe looked up at Lila, mechanically rounding grass in its teeth.
Lila stepped off the stoop with the rifle under her arm. She strode toward the animal, stamping hard.
"Yaw!" she yelled. "Get on!" She swung the rifle toward the deer, slicing the air.
Still the doe tarried.
Ten paces out, Lila raised the Carbine and pulled back the hammer.
The doe turned toward the tree line and began a slow retreat. Her tiny hooves beat the snow in an even refrain, steady and measured. She never raised her tail.
Steeling herself against a roiling stomach and the wails of her son from inside the cabin, Lila took a view down the muzzle and pulled the trigger.
The force of the shot sent her down onto her back.
Lila lay there in the snow, the ringing in her right ear cocooning her in a kind of silence. She faced the gray sky with its spotty interruption of black branches, feeling the stillness on her like a moss, listening to the tinny hum from the explosion rattling in her head, hearing her breath come and go, slower, slower. A black bird floated high above her, cutting the sky into circles. Slowly. No ugly, desperate flapping. Waiting to eat. Lila put her hand palm-up toward the sky as if to stop the bird's descent.
She listened to her son's fading cries and felt her body sinking down, fusing with the earth. She thought of Henry and the utter, menacing bonded-ness to him that had assailed her in the moments after his birth. Until now, she had forgotten the violent imprints of that day: the stench of blood and iodine, the urgent way she had grabbed the bedding, seeking something solid in her pain. The rough hands of the midwife and her curved needle. But she'd not forgotten the slow opening and closing of his tiny puckered lips. Not the pin-like daintiness of his long fingers in her open hand. These things were never neglected. She had called him her "terrible affection."
The snow had melted in parts under the weight of the warm rifle by Lila's ankles. It was running in tiny rivulets around her legs, soaking her woolen socks through to the skin. She began to shake.
She pushed herself up on numb hands and shook the snow and water from her skirt. In the clearing, she scanned for signs of the doe. No part of the whiteness was pierced by black eyes. Nothing but the tree line faced her. Sickness threatened its way to her throat. There was a thunder in her ears.
Then she saw it: something dark near the ground, nearly black but of a richer hue. It pooled near the trunk of a blackgum and seeped toward her feet, cutting over the clean snow in a thin line as she approached. Around the tree, she saw the source: a fine white head with two dark eyes, open and vacant, staring out.
Lila buckled and fell to her knees near the pool. She extended a hand to touch the doe's head. It was feathery soft. She hunched over the carcass, choking out uneven breaths as the trees overhead hustled the rising breeze between them.
Then she squared her shoulders and wiped her face with a dirty hand. Bending down, she grabbed a small, dark hoof and tugged. She heaved back with each pull. She grew tired with the effort and the knowledge that she'd need to gut and clean the animal tonight. The sweat rose on her forehead as she grunted and her efforts muffled the sound that was mounting on the ridge.
She turned back to the cabin. The window and door frame were empty. Lila exhaled. Henry was not there. He was not watching her drag the wet and bloody carcass across the trampled snow. She bent down again to take hold of the doe's legs.
She rose up once more and turned to the headland. Something was moving there. Something shuffled toward her that made the trees waver like smoke rising up from a pyre.
Through the trees, in gray jean cloth jacket and trousers that hung loose on a newly-slender frame, frostbitten face partly obscured by the leather brim of his wool forage cap, he emerged, a fat goose dangling from the bayonet at his side.
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