By Chris Biles
Sometimes if I go to her bed across the room at night and find her sleeping, a part of me is convinced that my younger sister is dead, lying there white and thin. Her skin shows the bones beneath, and her cheeks are drawn in around her mouth to emphasize the form of her skull under the pale, thin flesh. The sun never blushes her skin, and she is always a radiating white. If it weren’t for her dark brown hair and her black eyes, she would be the most impressive albino ever. But when I see her sleeping, I always know that she is not dead. I always know that there is life in her and that there will be for a long time to come.
About a month ago, Jenny gave me reason to worry. She plays the flute in the high school wind ensemble, and was in the car on the way back from Monday night band practice with our mother when she saw them: a herd of bright, white deer out in the field up the road from our house. She saw them out of the corner of her eye, and when she turned to look more fully, they were gone. After this first glimpse, she began to search the dark rolling grasses whenever we drove by the field at night, as if she had the ability to inspect each individual blade.
Last night when she returned home from rehearsal, she looked me in the eyes and quietly said, “There are seven of them, I think, Lily. Seven. I’m not totally sure, but I think that’s how many I saw. Seven.” I tried to reason with her, told her to stop bull-shitting me, to stop making up silly imaginative stories just to get some attention.
“Fourteen-year-olds don’t make up childish stories like this, Jenny. It’s not funny. People don’t believe you. It only makes you sound crazy, and trust me, you shouldn’t want to sound crazy to people. That’ll get you nowhere. And can’t you only see them out of the corner of your eye, anyway? You don’t know you saw anything. And seven? Really? You’re taking this too far.”
“I saw them differently tonight, Lil – more clearly, or something. There were seven. There are seven.”
I was getting annoyed. “Come on, Jenny. You should stop with all this. It’s stupid. You’re the only one who says you can see them. I think you’re imagining things. There aren’t any white deer out in that field. That’s just stupid.”
“They glow,” she said distractedly. “It’s so… nice…” Then she walked into the bathroom and closed the door. I rolled my eyes, shook my head, and returned to my chemistry lab homework, pushing all thoughts of glowing white deer from my mind. She was just being stupid. When I went to bed, I left her sitting at her desk looking out the window with the lights off.
Today she seems even more preoccupied than she did last night. She didn’t talk to me this morning on the bus and completely ignored me when we got home. I stare at her as we eat dinner, listening to our parents talk about the mailman’s annoying habit of pushing the envelopes all the way to the back of the mailbox. She picks at her food, slowly mixing my mom’s runny mashed potatoes made from a box with the peas.
My mom eventually notices and asks, “Is everything okay, Jenny?” Jenny nods, still staring at the green peas sticking out of the white potatoes. My mother continues, not amused: “Feel like sculpting your food tonight rather than eating it?”
Jenny looks up, hearing the annoyed tone in her voice “Yeah… I just don’t really feel all that hungry right now is all…” My mother purses her lips, nods, and then leaves it at that, turning to my father to bring up the irregular aim of the newspaper boy. She always finds something to complain about, something to start a bit of drama over. And my father always sits passively and listens to her, his mind clearly far away, up in the clouds. This is a common occurrence.
My father is not all that bad. He’s kind enough, although he doesn’t really pay any attention to what is going on in our family. He is a sci-fi writer, an eccentric, and is always in another world – one that he is most likely in the process of creating inside of his head. My mother on the other hand is always tuned in to reality, and often scolds our father for spending all his time making up fantasy worlds to write about. She is always worrying over something, and most of the time, the worrying involves complaining. It seems to me that her one hobby in life is to blow things out of proportion to get attention. This is why I feel uneasy about Jenny’s stories. I hope she’s not telling these tales just to be dramatic, like our mother.
After dinner, Jenny and I go to our bedroom and sit down at our desks to start homework. Once I complete my calculus assignment, I glance across the room and see Jenny staring out the window again. Her notebooks are out, but I can tell she hasn’t started on her assignments.
“Hey, what are you doing?” She jumps slightly and then turns with a hint of guilt to look at me.
“I just don’t feel like doing any homework right now.”
“Well, the teachers don’t care if you want to do your homework or not. Fact is you’ve got to. Simple as that.” She looks at the carpet, shrugs carelessly, and then turns back to the window. I shake my head and begin reading a few poems by Edgar Allen Poe for English class. When I see that Jenny is still ignoring her schoolwork, I decide to try to bring her back to reality by reading “The Raven” to her.
When I finish, she stays silent for a while, looking out the window. Then she turns to me and asks, “What is a raven exactly?”
Glad to have drawn her attention, I say, “Well, it’s basically like a crow – just a really big crow. And it has a lower-pitched croak than a crow, too.”
She nods, mutters, “Nevermore…” to herself, and then returns to silently stare out the window. I shrug and begin brainstorming some discussion questions.
We turn out the lights around midnight. Just as I slip into a dream, I hear the window slam. Startled, I sit up and look over to find Jenny crouched down beneath the now open window, staring at me with a look of self-reproach.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers. “I was trying not to wake you, but this stupid window was stuck… Hasn’t been opened in a while, I guess…” She stands and studies the window frame, looking defeated and clearly disappointed that she let herself get caught, then says looking up at me, “I was just going for a walk…”
“A walk? It’s after midnight! Mom would kill you. You were going to go look for those stupid white deer weren’t you?”
She looks down at her feet, discouraged. “Yeah…” Then she seems to gain some confidence and looks angrily up at me. “And I’m still going to go. You can’t stop me. I bet you’re actually just as curious as I am. You just don’t want to admit it because you think it’s childish.”
“Oh yeah?” I ask. “I will tell Mom if you go. Just try me. You’re being really stupid. There aren’t any white deer, okay? Believe me. Now just go to bed!” I turned to lie down, pulling my covers over me.
“I can’t! I’m too restless. I’ll be back soon. Maybe an hour or so. Don’t worry. It’s just up the street.” I sit up again, looking at her in disbelief. Jenny had never been like this. She was always the docile one, the pushover, the one who listened to me and acknowledged that I always knew best. But now she was going to sneak out in the middle of the night to walk around in an empty field on someone else’s property, without the knowledge of my parents? What had gotten into her? Our mother would freak out if she knew. She would over-react, maybe even put some bars on our window, or an alarm at least.
“Fine,” I say, “Do what you want. But don’t expect me to come looking for you if you don’t come back in an hour or two. I’m going to sleep.” With that I roll over once again and pull up my covers. I hear the window close most of the way behind me, a small crack left for her return. I am a bit worried about her, but sleep still comes fast and I am soon walking in rolling fields with her, hundreds of glowing, white deer as large as trees, then as small as ducks, walking around us, and then flying off into the night sky to become the stars.
Once a week Jenny sneaks out at night; then a few times a week; then every night. I grow more and more concerned. My parents do as well, for other reasons, especially Mom. Jenny’s not eating enough, barely touching her dinner, she ignores her schoolwork, and she constantly stares out the window at the sky, as if she were a doubtful Christian searching for some miraculous sign that God does exist up above. My mother decides that she is clearly depressed and needs to see a doctor. But she tells the doctor nothing. So my mother takes her to another doctor – same story, or lack there of – so then to another and another. I feel sorry for my sister and wish that my mom would just let her be.
Jenny is growing thinner and thinner and I am amazed that she can still walk and move like normal – there just doesn’t seem to be anything on her body that could make it move. My mother fusses over her constantly, trying to get her excited about this or that, a funny fact from the news, or a video of some silly animal doing amazing tricks. It doesn’t work, though. I overhear conversations, which mostly consist of my mother expressing exaggerated fears, about the possibility that she won’t recover from whatever this is, the what-ifs of sickness.
I neglect to tell them about her nighttime adventures. For some reason, it just doesn’t seem like they need to know about that. My mother would prohibit them, while my father would listen without interest. Jenny needed these deer. I could see that now. She lived for them. They were what she looked forward to everyday, what she stayed awake for, longed for. I wouldn’t let my mother take them away, ban them like a sinful churchgoer excommunicated. If I revealed Jenny’s secret, it would be a betrayal, one that would end up pushing her up to and over the edge. But at the same time, they were already bringing her to a different sort of edge.
One night as we do our homework, Jenny stands so abruptly that she knocks her chair over. I of course jump up, afraid that she might have passed out or something like that, which is entirely possible in her state.
“Crows!” she says. “Lily, there are crows! A huge, big flock of them!” I stand and stare with my jaw dropped down. I truly believe my sister has gone crazy. Crows? What was so exciting about a flock of crows? I hadn’t seen her this giddy or enlivened by anything in the past month. I walk over to stand next to her and look out the window into the darkness.
“What’s so great about a bunch of crows?” I ask. She looks at me with her black eyes, the pronounced dark circles beneath them startling me. Her lips curl upward in a trembling smile, like it is a great effort to move the muscles. She is quite simply wasting away. My stomach clenches, but then I notice the genuine enthusiasm on her ghostly face and I feel more light-hearted.
“They’ll be there tonight.” That is all she says, in a hushed voice, then she grabs her coat, opens the window, and climbs out into the night. I watch her go, completely dumbfounded. What just happened? Eventually, I manage to get myself to close the window, leaving a crack for Jenny to get back in. The clock says 11:43. I shake my head, moved by the liveliness that my fragile sister just displayed, and then I get ready for bed.
Two nights later, the same thing happens: “Crows! A flock of crows, Lily!” Then the next night after that, it happens again. All she says before she throws on her jacket and climbs out the window is, “They’ll be there tonight.” My curiosity grows, day after day. I decide to go with her the next time she sees the crows.
It’s 11:30 the next night and a chemistry lab is kicking my butt. We had been balancing redox reactions in class today, which was simple enough, but the lab took it all a step further, getting into a topic entitled acidic media, where hydrogen ions and water are added to half reactions in order to balance the overall reaction. Confusing is the only word to describe it. Just when I am about to give up, Jenny hops up from her chair, simply inhaling excitedly rather than exclaiming “Crows!” as she normally does. I smile to myself, my own excitement growing, and then I grab my coat as she grabs hers and open the window before she can get there. She stops in the middle of the room, looking at me with one dark eyebrow raised. Her pants hang loose, her open jacket is like the walls of a cave in which the form of her frail body is hiding.
“I’m coming with you tonight,” I say with determination. “I want to see them too.” I still do not actually believe that the deer exist, but Jenny needed to think that I believed if she was going to let me tag along with no regrets. “Will you share your secret with me?” I continue. She stares at me with distrust, like she thinks I am planning a prank or a trap for her. But I want to go with her, even if I don’t believe that the deer exist, and she realizes this. She nods slowly, and then walks to the window and climbs out. I follow, my heart setting the rest of my body to tingling as it pumps my blood faster.
We walk up the street, climbing the hill together. There are stars up above, but the moon is nowhere to be seen. Only a few lights remain behind drawn curtains of the familiar houses we pass. The air is cold and thin, and the wind blows so that my sensitive eyes water. When we reach the top of the hill, the field coming into view, I take a deep breath. There is nothing but the dark grass, knee high, bending in the wind. We continue out into the field, which is rimmed on one side by the road, on the other by a patch of woods, and ends far in the distance beside the manicured buzz cut of a golf course. Our feet lightly crunch on the thin layer of old, icy snow at the base of the tall grass.
After a minute, we stop. I glance over to my sister. She is staring intently out into the distance, her eyebrows furrowed in a calm, thoughtful way. Her hollow, white face is exposed, glowing in this night with no moon. She looks wiser to me, practiced in this art of watching. Where before her deep cheeks and skeletal eyes seemed sickly, abnormal, here they seem natural, even appropriate. I smile as I watch her. She may have seemed depressed at home, maybe even suicidal in my mother’s mind, but she is happy. Because she can come here each night and just watch in the quiet night, she is happy. This is where she belongs – out in the middle of the peaceful darkness, feeling the cold gusts lift the long black hair from her face, like the wind blowing a thin veil of clouds from the face of a full moon.
The wind starts to pick up, filling the air with the peaceful yet overwhelming noise of branches swaying. Then the crows come, a huge flock of them, a dark, croaking cloud swarming the sky directly above us. A chill shoots down my back and I stand tall, proud. Then a light catches my eye. As I refocus my gaze out into the field, I see them, about 50 yards away: seven glowing white deer. They are does, a normal size, but they are a pure, chilly white – and they glow: enchanting.
Jenny speaks to me in a hushed voice, her eyes still on the glowing deer: “I need to touch one, Lily. I’ve been wanting to all this time, but I haven’t had the guts. I just need to feel one, to touch that short, silky hair, to know that they’re solid and not just white light. They’ll let me come, I know they will…” At this moment, I realize that all along I had believed Jenny’s story. I had believed her story because I’d wanted to believe it – simple as that – even though I couldn’t admit it to myself. And I understand that she needs to go, to touch one, to feel their reality, their substance, their majesty. It’s the only option for her, the obvious path to take. I understand now.
My sister leaves my side, a calm look on her face, and walks slowly towards the herd, her footsteps, crisp on the icy snow, growing fainter. They are by the trees at the edge of the field now, standing still, bodies facing in different directions, noble heads turned to watch her. Their tails twitch side to side, but do not stand up in warning. She patiently walks into the middle of their group and stops, looking around her with complete confidence, a subtle smile on her face. After a minute, the deer move to walk about her, to sniff her, not quite touching. She does not reach for them, but follows each one with her eyes, quietly studying their magnificence. Then they stop their movements, standing still a few feet away from her, and look towards the woods.
There is another light there, the form of another deer, an eighth. It is a buck and as he walks away from the dense trees, his giant three-point antlers stand tall and dignified. The does make way before him, giving him the space to slowly walk up to Jenny. He stops two feet from her and they stare into each other’s eyes. I realize I have been holding my breath, that my heart is beating faster, that my limbs feel alive even in this cold night.
The crows have stopped their cawing and the wind has died down to leave a complete silence, or at least what seems like one. Jenny reaches out her hand to hold it palm up: an invitation. The buck does nothing at first, but then steps forward and gracefully lowers his head to rub his nose against her hand. They touch, and Jenny moves her hand down that glowing nose. I let out my held breath. The deer are real. I feel a childish delight. Without a doubt the deer are real, and they are the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my entire life.
The wind begins to pick up. Jenny is still rubbing the buck’s nose, and she too glows in the night. I glance up at the tree branches swaying with more and more force, and feel my hair lifted up once again. With a chill running down my spine, I look back to my sister. But she is gone; the deer are gone; the light is gone. The crows fly overhead, croaking in a tumult. I wait for them to fly away, to move on, and for the wind to calm down.
It does not surprise me that she went with them. And she did go with them – they didn’t take her. She wanted this, and somehow she knew it would happen. “I need to touch one, Lily,” she had said. She needed to. I understand now, and I believe her.
Our mother does not know where Jenny went, how she disappeared, if she is dead or alive. She speaks less and less frantically to the police and detectives every day, slowly losing hope. I did not tell her the story. I know Jenny is alive. I know she is happy. But our mother wouldn’t believe me if I did tell her the truth. It is a fantastical story and I would sound crazy telling it. No need to sound crazy to other people… She would tell me to grow up, to stop imagining such stupid, childish stories – just as I told Jenny when she first saw the deer…
I told the story to our father, however, in passing, sort of subtly suggesting the truth rather than declaring: Dad, this is what happened. There was a twinkle in his eye that reminded me of the light of a star, and the edges of his mouth twitched upward. He had no trouble believing. He never had trouble believing, like Jenny. And I have a feeling he knows exactly where she is, that he too followed the crows in a previous life to wander between the pines, over open hills of grass, his pathway lit before him in whatever form by the glowing white light of belief.
When the crows come at night, swarming above our house in their flock, I think of my sister. I know the white deer will be there, in the field. I can feel their presence as I sit and do homework, can feel the wind pick up even inside my room. They are there, and maybe Jenny is there with them, in the form of an eight doe, or in another form entirely, perhaps simply winking down when the moon isn’t too bright, a smiling star. I never go looking, though. I have seen them, I know and believe in their secret. Sometimes when I pass the field in a car late at night, I catch a glimpse of their glow out of the corner of my eye. For me, that is enough.