I went out to the mailbox in my bare feet. The mail just comes every other day. I was having some kind of fantasy about this being my last time out to the mailbox before Dad writes to say he's coming home from Texas, so my hair was loose and yellow and I'd put on a loose dress, also yellow, and my legs were bare too, except for the ankle bracelet Brenna made for me, which is a cord of tan embroidery thread couched in a narrow spiral like a backbone that never ends.
He sent me a pair of shed antlers when I turned twelve. I unwrapped them from the newspaper and for a few seconds I couldn't breathe. I hadn't told anyone what had started happening to me. At the bottom of the box was a letter. In it he wrote the highlights from the sex talk I'd already had from Grandma and from school. At the end of the letter, in handwriting scrunched at the bottom of the page like he was embarrassed, he wrote about what happened to him and to some other people in our family. He warned that it might happen to me. He must've forgotten when it happens for girls, or else it had started late for him. He said to not be afraid and to run as much as I wanted to and just keep my wits about me like I would anywhere else as a girl. If I see a gun, lie down or run away, depending on how close the hunter is. And keep away from bucks. That could get weird. Actually I hadn't thought about that part much.
I ran the crescent between the underside of my fingernail and my skin over an antler tip and felt a good pull. Then I nailed them above my bed. I noticed that Grandma never looked at the antlers.
He used to write me every week. He wrote that I should stick to our acreage as much as I could when I had to run but just be careful of the cars. A car ground past when I reached the mailbox. A few seconds later, it stopped. I couldn't really see the driver through the dust. Then it backed up. I took a step back. It wasn't time for it to happen, but I felt that way a little. Nervous. And like the boundaries of things – I mean the road and mailbox and even the blades of grass – aren't solid, but more like blur and flux.
The car stopped right in front of me. The driver rolled down the window. She was wearing purple sunglasses and her hair was black with grey in it. She'd braided it along the sides of her head kind of like the curls on a bighorn sheep, but the way pieces of hair sprang out of the braids made me think she'd driven all night. She looked at me for a long time. I couldn't see her eyes behind her glasses, but I could tell that she was looking. And I couldn't help it: I went back to the mailbox and opened the lid to check if he'd written me. But it was empty.
After a while, the driver smiled, but it was a sad waver and not a real smile. "You Colt?" she asked in a wavery voice.
"Ma'am," I answered into the black windows of her sunglasses.
She looked down into the empty seat next to her then looked at me again. "I'm looking for your grandma, Riley Crane. It's about her son. Your dad. Vance."
She smoothed back her hair with one hand. She kept her other hand on the wheel. I didn't know what to say. In 1971, Grandma got tired of being a famous artist and moved with my dad from New York to this house in Wyoming. She'd been very clear on what to tell the women who found out where we lived and drove up on pilgrimages hoping to meet her, that I'd call the police and so on. But none of them ever knew the name of my dad. None of them ever knew my name.
"Just a second," I finally said, and my voice came out like a squeak, and I turned and ran back to the house. Which reminded me of another thing he had written that I hadn't thought of on my own: If a hunter sees me and it's too late to lie down, do like I would with a mountain lion and move forward. Move right into them if I have to, because when I transform every part of me hardens into muscle and I'm stronger than any person. Charge, he wrote. But lying down – hiding – is always better, because someone might get scared if I was charging them and shoot anyway.
Dad had some women in Texas who knew all about the way he changed. They all lived together in the hills, grew their own food, and rehabilitated horses, which was what my mother had done before she died. Once a month, after dinner, they went together into the woods and the women watched him change. They'd invented a special chant that they did together just before it happened. One of the women had a baby and another was pregnant.
He'd written all this in a letter to Grandma in the same cramped handwriting he'd used in his letter to me about what to expect from my body. She threw our teapot through the window after she read it. Then she put on her shoes and picked up the window and teapot shards and we looked at the pile of them in her palm. She's an artist and her lessons are opaque. Her fingers were slowly becoming diagonal from arthritis. I kept thinking about the babies, wondering why he'd mention them if they didn't belong to him, and if they might have the deer gene too. I suggested that he didn't really care about those women and just wanted to make more of us. Grandma told me to go to my room. I lay on my bed and stared up at his antlers.
Grandma can't take care of the house as well anymore and I know she wants me to, but I tell her I have to do homework, and also when she was my age she was practicing for cotillion. I opened the door and went down the dark hallway. The leaves on her old ficus from New York and the bamboo were dusty. Books lined the hallway on both sides and all of them were dusty. I wondered what the woman would think if Grandma said she could come in.
Her studio door was closed, but I could see rectangular pieces of her through the clear parts of her long stained glass window, which is like a quilt made of glass. She was sitting in her chair and reading a book right up in front of her face. The window shuddered when I knocked our special knock. She lowered the book and smiled and I went in. I told her about the woman by the mailbox.
She laid her book in her lap and shut it around her finger. "We've had people before who said they knew about Dad, bunny. They say that to get us to let them in. Did you lock the door behind you when you came in just now?"
I nodded, though I couldn't actually remember. "But what if someone really does know about him?" I asked. "How would we know if we keep turning them away?"
There were some quilt blocks in front of her on the floor. The design was made from hundreds of scraps like brushstrokes: branches or antlers or coral. By now she mostly put her quilts together by touch. Even color she knew by touch, from the phantoms of dyes.
"Did she seem any different from the ones I told you about?" Grandma asked.
The woman's hair was silvery and her car was gold. "Her car has Texas plates," I remembered.
Grandma took off her reading glasses and folded them on top of the book. "I know you miss your dad. I miss him like crazy. But we have to start thinking what we'll do if he doesn't come back."
"I just really have a feeling about her," I tried. "She knows all of our names and came from Texas."
Grandma frowned. She moved her book and glasses onto the table beside her.
I was feeling more and more tense and was starting to think that when I feel like that it's because I wish I could stay a deer. The creek runs, freezes, floods. I can see every living thing and when something moves toward me I stop and watch it and it can't see me because my fur is the same color as the hill. My neck is lean and flexible. I'm energy. I run and jump. The ones of us who die give energy. Last year, I stopped eating all meat besides birds. I told Grandma it was because I was almost a teenager. She laughed and said fair enough.
She put on her other glasses, which were so thick they made her eyes look big and black. "You win. But the deal is you're coming with me this time." She'd never let me talk to a pilgrim before, or even see one, though I always ran to the window and tried. I smiled.
"Just do exactly as I say," she instructed. "When I go back into the house, you need to follow me right away."
I nodded and took her hand. We walked slowly down the hall and I wondered if the woman would even be there anymore. The sunbeam through the front window was in a different place than when I'd first come in. Grandma put on her coat and stepped into her shoes. Her thin socks were pulled halfway up her calves and her legs underneath them were skinny and dry. Her knees creaked when she bent them. She exaggerated her unease to deter the pilgrims, but I worried about those legs and how much longer they would hold her.
The car was still by the mailbox. The woman had gotten out and was leaning against the side, watching us. Even from far away I could tell she was very tall. Grandma walked straight toward her with her head up. Our shadows were long. The sun was moving behind the mountain and half the front yard was now shade. I wished I'd put on shoes and a jacket. She probably thought I was crazy all in yellow. She'd taken off her sunglasses and wasn't dressed warm enough either: she had on jeans and hippie sandals and an open blouse over a man's tank top.
She and Grandma stared at each other for a long time. Something was moving across her face like weather and it started to happen to Grandma's face too. Her blouse was printed all over with little falcons. Their wings were spread.
Her name is Eleanor Morris. We sat in the living room and watched it get dark. Grandma put on a record. I turned on the light and made us all some tea and flipped the record over. Grandma went to her room to lie down. I went up with her for a while and curled into the comma of her body and we talked about Dad in quiet voices. She said it hadn't hit me yet and that that was okay. She said I would have as long as I needed. She put her hand in my hair. Then she went to sleep. I stood on my bed and touched the tips of his antlers before I went back to the living room.
There wasn't enough in the refrigerator for dinner. I said I'd drive to the store. Eleanor said I was too young to drive and I reminded her that nobody here cares. Thirteen was almost sixteen, which was almost eighteen, and Grandma and I had agreed that it would be absurd for some woman from the government to come and tell us we couldn't live together anymore. Finally, Eleanor drove to the store and came back with enough food for the refrigerator, freezer, and cupboards. She set the grocery bags in a line on the counter and the paper crackled as we put everything away.
I said Grandma had plenty of money and to let us pay her, but she said don't worry about it, she was intruding and it was the least she could do. She asked if we'd thought about using Grandma's money to hire an aide to buy groceries, drive her to the doctor, clean the house. I said we hadn't thought of that and repeated what Grandma had told me about her identity being confidential. Eleanor looked at me with an expression I'd never seen. Her eyes were huge and her mouth crooked and she wrapped her hands around mine. I leaned into her shoulder. She smelled like sweat and horses. She smelled a little like what I remembered of my dad. I started to cry. She ran her hand down my hair over and over like she was petting a cat.
She would stay too long. She would help us hire an aide who didn't care at all about iconic feminist art. I would catch her late one night copying some of Grandma's papers by hand into a notebook and I wouldn't say anything about it. I would catch her taking pictures of the house and Grandma's quilts. A few days later, she would leave in a hurry. But at that moment all I thought about was winter and something Dad had written me. If you look at deer tracks in snow more than a few inches deep, they're stretched out from the way those pretty legs drag a little at the end of each step, and to the untrained eye they look nearly human. Eleanor Morris touched my hair like she knew I was an animal and loved me anyway.
This originally appeared in The Austin Chronicle as the third place winner of their short story contest.