Never fall in love with a deer woman. Deer women are wild and without reason. Their lips are soft as evensong, their skin dark as the mysteries of a moonless forest. A deer woman will make you do terrible things for a chance to dip your fingers inside her, to have her taste linger on your tongue. You will weep before it is over, the cries of one who has no relatives. But you will do whatever she asks.
“Tansi, Tansi,” my lover whispers my name. “Is it time to harvest the hearts?”
The horror of her question is always fresh, always a shock. I suppose in the daylight hours when she is not here, I am able to tell myself that it never happened. That her words are other than what I know them to be. As long as I don’t look at what we keep in the old cooler on the fire escape, as long as I ignore her bloody breath.
The hand she rests against my cheek is still damp and smells faintly of rot. The air clots my nose with a coppery sweetness that has become familiar. Her eyes meet mine, vast and luminous. They say that if you gaze into someone’s eyes, you can see their soul, but my lover has no soul. Her eyes are mirrors, showing me only myself, and I turn away from what I see. I reach for her instead, my hands compelled by something primal. If desire were a thing made physical, it would be the curve of my lover’s neck, the slope of her shoulders. It would taste like the salt of her skin. It would sound like the susurrus of her breath. So, of course I say what I always say, every time she asks me to kill for her:
“We only need a few more hearts now,” she says. “Two? Three? I’ve lost count. Are you counting?”
“Three.” Last week when she asked, it was five. The fifth we harvested on a Monday night in the empty parking lot of a deserted travel stop off I-95, a blonde-haired clerk whose steps were heavy with minimum wage and payday loan debt. Fourth was a grey-eyed mother of two, the backbone of her family. She fought hard, a strong heart, a worthy sacrifice, something to break the best of her people.
“They were monsters,” my lover says to me. “And it does no good to have mercy on a monster. They will not have mercy on you.” She tucks herself against my ribs and rests her head on my shoulder. The silver moonlight through the open window snags in her hair, the light of distant stars caresses her skin. She tilts her face up for a kiss. I lean in, eager, but she moves away, laughing. She rolls to her feet, drags at my hand. “Let’s go!”
I go, stumbling out of bed, barefoot across peeling and cold plastic tiles, ignoring the residue of filth that sticks to my soles. I pull on my jeans, an old stained hoodie. Grab the black leather roll of chef knives from the console by the door. Hesitate at the feel of the leather in my hands, the blades of sharp steel unrevealed. And for a moment, I remember. A life before. Before I met my lover.
“It only has one knife right now,” my fiancé Jeffery explains as I open the brightly wrapped box. It’s a warm day in early September, the heat of summer still idling over upstate New York. He has obviously taken care in the wrapping of this gift, and my usually deft fingers fumble awkwardly with the green ribbon. When I finally crack open the box, I grin. The chef roll is the one I’ve always wanted, aged leather, smooth and supple with enough compartments to hold a whole catalogue of knives. Butcher and chop and paring.
“I could only afford one knife right now” he repeats, watching my face for disappointment. “But maybe after school, when you come back home. And we get married…” He pauses, waits for my reaction. When I offer him nothing but silence, he goes on. “I know one is not enough, but it’s a start, right?”
“One knife is a start,” I agree. I don’t mention the other thing. “Thank you.”
We sit a little longer in this impossible place. A bench on a sprawling leafy campus like something out of a movie about bright college years, a wonderland of green sloping hills on the banks of the Hudson. It is more water, and more things that need water to grow, than I have ever seen in my entire life.
“When will you come home?” he asks.
Home. A tiny reservation town that I outgrew the day I won a local cooking contest, then a statewide competition, and then it was a Food Network culinary cook-off show for teen chefs. The red-haired celebrity chef who hosted it took an interest in my talent. Then an interest in other things. Enough that when I demanded more of his time, he found me a scholarship to a culinary school on the other side of the country, far away from his wife and child.
I unfold the leather bag. Draw the solitary butcher knife from its sheath and run my hands across the silver shine of the blade. I press the tip of the knife into the pad of my thumb until blood rises to the surface. I suck the redness from my skin, eyes closed.
“I thought you weren’t doing that anymore,” Jeffery says, alarm in his voice and eyes on the bloody thumb in my mouth.
“I mean, it’s okay if you are. I just think maybe you should see someone about it? Especially up here. I bet they have great doctors in a place like this.” Jefferey babbles on some more about the superior health care available in the Mid-Hudson Valley, but I’ve already stopped listening. When he finally tapers off I give him a smile.
“I’m not trying to change you,” he insists. “I already told you that.”
The smile stays firmly in place. “Let me walk you to your car,” I say. “It’s a long drive back to New Mexico.”
Never fall in love with a deer woman. Deer women are cunning and can see the past and the future all at once. Their eyes are deep and still as well water, their legs as long and slender as the high aspens. A deer woman will make you do terrible things for a chance to stroke the back of her knees, to hear her whisper your name. She will promise you home.
We did not meet in a chance encounter in a moonlit wood, in the way of fairytales. I did not chase her fleeing shadow through a dappled grove of ancient trees to the banks of an enchanted pool. I was not lured away, as is the way of hunters who have, on a solstice eve, somehow become the prey themselves.
I met my lover in a bar on a weekend trip to Manhattan, an impetuous late train from my upstate culinary school down to the city, a solo escape from a mind-numbing week spent on gastronomy etiquette. Spirit dulled by the proper way to sit at a table, the hand to use for the seafood fork, the ordering of stemware. I am lost in this white man’s world, drowning in a sea of their buttery sauces and unfamiliar histories, wishing for something known, something to remind me of home. I overhear a boy in class mention a food truck somewhere on the Lower East Side that serves oven bread and prune pastelitos. It feels like a sign.
New York City is big, noisy, a foreign place. But I am not afraid of it. It beckons, asking me to let go, to become someone else. I wander, looking fruitlessly for that truck, until I hear a deep drum beat, a high wailing through the open door of a corner bar.
She is there, wearing white. A dress that leaves her brown shoulders bare, a skirt that gambols lovingly around her long legs to brush the floor. Another Native woman. In New York City? What are the chances?
She dances the kind of dance that draws stares. The dance that reminds you of the whirl of the starry heavens, of places that exist far away from concrete canyons. She is graceful and undisciplined all at once, an invitation to question one’s life choices.
When she stops, she falls into the high-backed chair next to me at the bar, laughing and flushed. She ignores the others, men and women, who crowd around her offering to buy her a drink. She looks at me.
And I make the mistake of looking back.
We drink St. Germain. Her, neat, in a shot glass, because she says it’s like a shot of summer straight to the vein. I take mine with gin and ice and lemon, and agree. We drink, and then we dance, until the night moves on without us until the bartender calls last call. And laughing, dizzy, reckless, we share a nectar-tinged kiss. I should have known then, but in the way of new lust, all I could know was the slip of her hips and the flirt of her long fingers. The flavor of white flowers staining her lips.
Now I understand, in the way of those doomed, that I was being seduced. But like all fools whose desires leave them dashed upon rocks or lost in a faerie’s lair, knowledge comes too late for salvation.
I never find that food truck that tasted like home.
The first time she convinces me to kill for her, it is a hot June evening. The sun has already set, but the oppressive humidity refuses to allow the day to cool, so we idle, naked, in my bed, eating ice chips and huddling in front of the fan. The first year of school is done; instead of going back to New Mexico and Jeffery, I’m working an internship at a prestigious midtown restaurant. Long hours of backbreaking work for almost nothing. I sleep days and spend my nights in the fury of the kitchen or, on my rare nights off, in her arms. I am in love. I am naïve.
“Why do you only visit me at night?” I ask her. I trace the delicate lines of her back with a finger, brush her hair away from her face. I keep my voice light, teasing. “Maybe we should try to do something during the day.”
She rolls over on her side. “Like what?”
“Go to Central Park. Catch a movie.”
She groans and flops on her back.
“It’s just a thought.”
She waves a hand weakly in the air, clearing away my “just a thought.” “Tell me about your people, Tansi.”
“What do you mean?” We haven’t spoken of our families, either of us. A strange thing for two Natives to do, but it seemed an understood condition of her attention. Until now.
“Your people back home in New Mexico,” she repeats. “Your family.”
“We don’t talk. They wouldn’t approve. If they knew about us—”
“My family is gone,” she says, her face focused on the ceiling. She pulls a hair from her head, stretches it out above her. “They were murdered. A long time ago. But sometimes, it feels like only yesterday.”
“I-I’m sorry,” I stutter out, shocked at her confession.
She drops the strand of hair and rolls to face me, her dark eyes intent. “Tell me. What would you do if people murdered your family?”
“What do you mean?”
“What would you do? Justice? Revenge?”
“Justice, I guess.” I’m still reeling, trying to find my way through the sudden thorns of this conversation. “Revenge sounds scary,” I add airily, a poor attempt to laugh off her black mood.
“Whatever you call it, you would make it right, wouldn’t you? If it was in your power, you would make it right?”
A trickle of fear now. Deep down I know that this is not a question lightly asked. That what I say now, it is an oath.
I should run. I should not answer. But I am frozen in the bright headlights.
Her nod is grim, satisfied. “Where are those knives, Tansi?”
“The ones you always carry. Your chef knives.”
“Here. Well, over there. By the door.”
“Tansi,” she says my name like an invocation. “I want you to do something for me.”
I don’t say anything, breath stuck in my throat.
“I want you to help me make it right.”
My hands up to the elbow are covered in blood. My heart is thumping wildly in my chest, but perhaps not as wildly or desperately as it should be for what I have done. Shouldn’t I be vomiting? Crying? Shouldn’t I feel more than a desire for her blessing?
She smiles and my spirit soars, giddy. She leans forward to catch the drip of blood in her small hands, brings it to her mouth and drinks. Her eyes are bright, dancing flames of wildfire. Her long hair catches the light.
“Did you know the Aztecs could remove a beating heart in less than two minutes? But that took a team. Two men to hold the body still and prone, at just the right angle. Two men to hold the legs.”
“I didn’t. Know, I mean.”
“But you and I, we only need each other.” She laughs and twirls, her long white skirt flaring around her, blood soaking the hem. She licks her fingers clean.
“What do we do now?” I ask. At least my voice has the sense to shake, to sound too high with fear. “Will the police come? Will I go to jail?”
“We leave the body here in the forest,” she says. “You’d be surprised what deer will eat.”
“And this?” I hold up the heart, still warm and pulsing in my hand. Just another piece of meat. Not so different from preparing coeur de boeuf. At least, that’s what I tell myself.
“We’ll collect them, Tansi. For my family. For…justice.”
I look at the dead white woman at my feet.
“Are you sure this is justice?”
She puts a finger to my lips, then her lips to mine. “I certainly feel better. Don’t you?”
After that I don’t see my lover for days. I start to forget the screams, the smell, the horror. I go to the movies alone. I wander through Central Park. At night, I am thrown back into the insanity of the kitchen, taught to master fire and sharp steel and the incessant demands of perfectionists. After two weeks without her, I can almost believe it never happened. When the chef invites us all out for after-work drinks, I go. But I am lonely in the company of my co-workers, a foreigner unable to follow their words, their jokes all spoken in a language unfamiliar. I make excuses to leave early.
She is waiting for me when I get home. She steps out of her white dress and parts her legs. Runs trembling hands over her breasts. “Please don’t leave me, Tansi,” she whispers, tears wetting her cheeks. “Please don’t leave me.”
I miss work the next day. And then the next. A terse voicemail from the restaurant manager, and terser message from the chef de cuisine. I delete them both. Finally, a concerned email from school about my internship status. I don’t answer.
We don’t leave my bed for a week.
“You’re ruined, Tansi,” she says, laughing. “Now all you have is me.”
Her face dips down between my legs and I shudder. She is enough. She is my work. She is my home.
After, she asks. “Is it time to harvest the hearts?”
We’re in a parking lot of a Quikmart. We have stopped to wash the blood from my hands, to clean my knives in the anonymous restrooms. The cooler in the back of the car is heavy and sated.
“Are we done?” I ask.
She nods. Somewhere in the distance, the sound of a police car streaks down the parkway. The summer has become one for the record books. The internet is splashed with the sensational story. Thirteen women missing between the City and upstate New York. All matching a description.
The streetlights flicker, casting shadows across her heart-shaped face. She sighs and runs a hand across my hair, tucks a strand behind my ear. I shudder down to the marrow of my bones. Even now, after all she has made me do for her, I want her.
“Let’s go home now,” I beg.
“And where is that, Tansi?”
“Wherever. Just…somewhere. We don’t have to do this anymore, right?”
She leaves her hand but turns her head away from me, eyes toward the dark night, the myriad trails that vivisect the forest beyond the parking lot. The call of the wind through the thick trees that line the parkway.
“Home,” she says, her voice breaking with sorrow. “I want my home back, too.”
Our last night together, while we’re still in my little Brooklyn walkup and whatever comes next is still a sunrise and sunset away, she pulls something from her bag. A notebook, its velvet cover the deep green of secrets.
“I’ve been keeping a list,” she says. “Of my family that were murdered.”
She thrusts it towards me. The pages are full of tiny practiced handwriting. Name after name. Wessagusset. Pamunky. Massapequa. Pound Ridge. Susquehannock. Great Swamp. Occoneechee. I flip the page, and then another. Another. Skull Valley. Sand Creek. Wounded Knee.
The roar in my head is grief, wide and vast enough to drown whole new worlds. I know it is not mine, but hers. The book tumbles from my shaking hand. “I’m so sorry…”
“I felt them all when they died,” she whispers, a hand to her heart, her eyes lined with tears. “Every one.”
Her dark eyes find mine and she whispers the truth.
I lug the full cooler across the National Mall, past the band playing the Star-Spangled, the screaming children with their Rainbow Rocket pops, the picnics and laughter and shouting masses waiting for sunset and the promised fireworks.
“What if this doesn’t work?” I ask, nerves making my voice rattle. “What if doesn’t bring your home back? What if it doesn’t quiet the dead?”
I watch her ponder my question and for a moment, the night holds its breath. On its exhale she laughs, as free and enchanting as a rushing mountain stream.
“But, Tansi, what if it does?”
I place the last heart on the grass. Turn to where she lies sprawled in the middle of the circle. Some curious tourists are already starting to come closer, to see what ancient conjuration I am working with blood and muscle and grief on this most American of holidays. It is only a matter of time now.
I stretch out beside her. Gather her close to me, breathe in her scent for the last time.
“Are you sad?” she asks.
“No,” I whisper, and it’s true, but not. “Only that I will miss you,” I say, picking words so inadequate they rise to the level of a lie. “Do I have to go?”
She draws a finger across my mouth and I taste the salt of my own tears.
I close my eyes and the children are gone, their melting popsicles only memories discarded on the lawn. The fireworks, reduced to suggestions of smoky trails in a blackening sky. The curious tourists, the monuments, the city. All vanished.
Time, rolled back to silence.
“Are they all gone?” I ask.
“Keep your eyes closed and they are gone.”
“And your family?”
“They cannot come back, but their children are still here.”
“Then we’re home?”
When she doesn’t answer, I open my eyes.
I am alone on the lawn. The crowd rushes back in, the noise, the children, the tourists, the smoke, the screams of horror, the sound of sirens.
Love a deer woman. Deer women are wild and without reason. A deer woman will make you do terrible things for a chance to raise up nations, to lie down with a dream. You will weep before it is over, the tears of the blessed, the cries of one who has found lost relatives. And if they ever let you out of your cell, tell them that you will do it again.
Originally published in New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color (Solaris). Reprinted by permission of the author.
© 2020 Rebecca Roanhorse