I have been the tour guide at the Stag for almost a year. To pass the time and to have somewhere to go. Only I call it the Stag, and only in my head, though I have slipped up once or twice in conversation. I’d say, “I’ll be back at the Stag by six o’clock,” and Martha would frown.
I came up with the name because a stag’s head hung in the living room of the house-museum. It stood out — not in the way that a dead animal’s head usually stands out — but in a way that it didn’t fit in with the rest of the decor. The house is Victorian. The wallpaper is original, Martha told me, and so is most of the furniture. William Williams really sat in that chair, she said. She said nothing about the stag’s head, though. I don’t know if that’s original. It looks fresh, unlike everything else that surrounds it, which smells of used towels. It’s not the eyes. The eyes are false, plastic, and blind. It’s the hide, sleek as if still nourished by the animal’s own oil. Its mouth half-open in mid-sentence. The antlers, of course, are beautiful and menacing. It doesn’t look like a severed head. It looks like a stag is passing through a wall, but time froze and it’s now stuck.
The handbook Martha gave me didn’t talk about the stag either, nor did it indicate William Williams to be a hunter. It talked about less important things in the house, and how Williams lived and died in it.
Time is slow at the Stag. Not much foot traffic at the museum, especially in the dead of the winter. The townspeople have seen it already, when they were children, and this is not a place to revisit. Things rarely change here. “They are kept just as they were when Williams still lived,” Martha told me, earnestly.
Sometimes we get road-trippers who happen to pass through. They follow the sign on I-55, a sketch drawing of the house with “five miles to William Williams Museum, exit A-45.”
A newlywed couple came to visit once. I took them around the house and told them stories, some of which I memorized from the handbook, others I made up. The guests are not supposed to walk into the rooms. All the doorways are roped off by a red velvet string. Martha wasn’t there when the newlyweds came, so I unhooked the barriers and took them to every room. We tip-toed on the carpet, giggling.
“Here is where Henry proposed to Jane, Williams’ only daughter,” I told them when we passed the piano in the sitting room. “He died before they could get married.”
The newlyweds moaned at that.
I’m very good at these stories. The bitter-sweet, could-have-been, wish-it-was-so ones that are prettier and more precious than happy-endings. Stories are better cut short, end before it begins, so there is no chance of spoiling.
I take the bus to the Stag. We only have one bus line in town, and most of the time it is empty. People drive, but I don’t drive anymore. I don’t really miss it. I’ve never understood the appeal, to grasp life in your hands like that. It’s too close for comfort.
Lin Fei usually drove when we went out. I was content to be on the passenger side. “You know that’s the most dangerous seat in a car,” he said, “because the driver would instinctively protect himself in an accident.”
“Will you protect me if there was an accident?” I asked.
“I love you,” he said.
People say that so freely here. Before we moved to America, Lin Fei had never dropped that phrase so often, without care, an afterthought. He had adapted more quickly than I. Whenever he said it, I felt naked and cold.
The stag’s head has no family, no one, so I offer what I can. I read the head stories from the handbook sometimes, which it enjoys. I imagine they’re all old news to it, but I understand the quiet delight in distant memories. As an exchange, I’ve told it my past as well. It is only fair.
In that sense, we help each other.
I wish I could bring it with me everywhere I go like a friend or a car.
After Lin Fei died, I had no one to drive me. The Honda Civic sat in the garage for months, along with his collection of Russian dolls I’d put up on a shelf. I’ve sold or donated everything else he owned, but the dolls are nice. I don’t take them out. I keep the smaller ones safely nestled in the bellies of the bigger ones.
I ran the car in the driveway every week to charge the battery. For twenty minutes or so, I’d read in the car as the engine breathed fitfully.
Only once I took the car out. People say that driving can be liberating, so I went for a drive. I should have done it earlier in the day when it was brighter, but I slept most hours during the day and would only wake in the afternoon when I got hungry. I went out at dusk. It was around Christmas time and the roads were empty. I drove by shining houses and saw Christmas trees through their front windows. The lights were glaring. I drove away from the neighborhood and through a forest preserve. Tall, dense spruce lined the road. It was getting darker, and I could only see as far as the headlights reached. Nothing existed until it came into view, then immediately ceased existing as it recoiled from the light. So when I saw it ahead of me, it was already too late.
I felt the impact a couple of moments after I hit it. For a long time, I sat in the car, like when I was waiting for the battery to charge. The engine was off and everything drowned in darkness. I didn’t realize I was crying until I opened the door and the winter wind froze on my wet cheeks. My knees gave out before I could step forward. Snow was bleeding through my pants. I held onto the door handle and pulled myself up.
In front of the car was a black heap. I turned the headlights back on and saw four legs. It wasn’t human. It was a deer. A dead one. Dead for a while now. Its body dried and deflated. The head was cracked open and the insides poured out like seeds from a rotten, broken watermelon.
Relief washed over me. Somebody else had killed it before me. I stepped closer to get a better look. Is this what the aftermath looked like? Instant death. With a head like that, it must have been. Was Lin Fei like a watermelon too? All popped and spilled. When the officer called about his death, he said it was quick. “No pain,” he said. “If it’s any consolation.”
The woman didn’t die. “Critically-injured” were the words. I wanted to ask how critical, but felt it wasn’t my place.
She was the one driving, the officer told me. Lin Fei was on the passenger side. I almost laughed.
The car was totaled after the deer incident. I’ve never driven since.
We had three groups in total for the whole of February. It’s Friday and Martha has already left. She has to go pick up the kids because she gets them on weekends. She told me I could go home too if I want. But I don’t. I don’t feel strongly about staying or going. It is no difference to be here or anywhere else.
I sit by the window in the living room to read. I picked up reading during the time I still charged the car battery. There is no joy in it, but it offers some alternatives.
It has started snowing again. It does not fall, the snow. It runs, wanders in all directions, can’t make up its mind. But eventually it lands, no matter which path it chooses.
My left arm is numb. I might have slept on it funny. Or maybe I have some sort of disease, and little by little I will lose all sensation in that arm, and beyond. Like that woman in the car. But of course I don’t know what exact condition she is in, or if she has lost any feeling. I wonder if she is Chinese like us, Lin Fei and me. I wonder if she cooks.
“She drives,” the stag’s head says.
“Not very well,” I say.
“Williams had three wives.”
“How tiring that must have been.”
“Not at the same time.”
“Oh, I hope not.”
It pauses, then says, “It’s cold.”
“I’ll start a fire.”
The fireplace in the living room still works. The stag’s head is right above it and it likes to be warm.
The windows are covered by a thin layer of sweat as the fire blazes.
“It’s getting dark outside,” I say.
The stag’s head doesn’t reply. He gets in a mood sometimes, and I’ll be the only one talking. But I don’t mind it. I think we have some sort of understanding.
“I was in Beijing once,” I say. “It was winter and snowing. Snowing so heavily. Like now, maybe even more. I had a fever and was lying on a hotel bed.”
The stag’s head is silent, so I go on.
“Lin Fei came to see me. He brought me some meds. I took them with hot water and was instantly cured. One moment I couldn’t even lift my arm and the next I was filled with energy. We went out into the night. We walked on a cobbled, bicycle-littered hutong. There were dangling, warm street lights every hundred meters, and a smell of braised pork floating in the air. I had bad shoes on and they kept slipping, so Lin Fei half-carried me on his arm. I put my hand in his coat pocket and felt the bumpy little cotton balls inside.”
“It snows in Beijing?”
“Yes. It was the first time I’ve seen snow. I’m not from there, you see.”
“You’re not from here, either.”
“Yes, well. I don’t, not really.”
“Where were you going?”
“A house. Somebody’s house. A set of stone lions guarded the red doors. Lin Fei knocked and we were let in. There were tables and chairs set up in a small, square yard. A fire going in a brazier. We sat down. Our host served us the most delicious food. Fish head, duck blood soup, and venison stew.” I glance at the stag’s head. “Sorry.”
“I remember when I was in love,” it says.
The fire is dying down.
“I should go,” I say. “Or I’ll miss the last bus.”
The snow is knee-high and still coming. The bus is late. I hop from foot to foot for another twenty minutes and still no sign of the bus.
Static buzzes from the rusty speaker hanging on a pole and a calm, disinterested female voice comes through.
“…vehicle collision on the bus route. The bus is canceled. We apologize for the inconvenience caused…Dear passengers, there is a vehicle collision…”
I can’t tell where the road starts and where the sidewalk ends. Snow settles on everything indiscriminately. I wait for the canceled bus for another ten minutes. It’s not as cold anymore now. My face is heating up. My toes are warm in my boots, the wet socks have dried, though of course, they couldn’t have. Snow shines everywhere and it is bright, almost blinding, under the sunny street light.
I’ve decided to go back to the Stag. I can stay the night there and leave in the morning.
I go into the house from the front door. This is the first time I’ve used it. Martha is very particular about only using the side door. “So as not to disturb the house,” she said.
But houses are better disturbed. A house that’s not disturbed is a dead one, which I guess the Stag is, but even so.
I open the double doors and step in. I’ve never noticed the small chandelier on the ceiling of the vestibule before. It’s copper-red, with rubies dangling on its arms.
“You’re back,” the stag’s head’s voice travels from the living room.
“Yes. The bus is canceled. I’m staying the night.” I sit on the bench to take off my boots. At that moment, I imagine Williams must have done the same thing, every night when he came home, sitting on this exact bench to take off his shoes as one of the three wives beckoned him in. A fire would blaze somewhere and it’d be warm in the house. Dinner would be set in the dining room, silverware laid on each side of the stacked plates. A smell of something delightful brewing on the stove.
“I’m home,” he’d say.
“He rarely came home,” the stag’s head says. “He had business elsewhere.”
“What about the food?” I ask. “It will get cold.”
“His wives cried a great deal.”
“I must not cry.”
But tears are slinking down my cheeks as I restart the fire, the smoke stinging my eyes.
The stag’s head seems to melt.
“Is it too warm for you?” I ask.
“It’s never warm enough.”
I touch its fur. A terrible and wonderful heat is spilling from it, and as I stroke it, it starts to tremble.
I must do something. I must make it feel the warmth.
I grab the iron poker, the burning handle sears my skin, and a pleasant pain blooms in my palms. I swing it up and hammer hard on the wall above the fireplace. It cracks, the wall. I keep going. Each time I strike something thaws within me, and a feverish tide is raging, rolling, rising in my chest. The stag’s body drives through the crumbling bricks, its muscles flexing and freeing from the feeble barrier that used to bind it. Inch by inch, it emerges from the yielding wall, hooves digging into the fire, neck stretching long, a roar releasing from the pit of its throat. It is charging forward, forward, forward towards me, and together we enter the home of eternal summers.