Versions Of This Year by R.S. Paulette

SOMETIME IN DECEMBER, the heater broke.

It wasn’t such a big deal — we had blankets and afghans — but still, it wasn’t the most pleasant thing in the world. Harry said we should bundle up and wear jackets and coats in the house, stay curled up in front of the fire. Said we should live like settlers and go hunt deer.

I said “bull,” and playfully hit him on the shoulder.

It was around this time that Harry and I bought the place down by the lake, and I took up sailing. As the sun would rise on placid Saturday mornings, I would take the little row-boat with the trawling motor out towards the east and wait there, still, letting the water ebb away from the boat in consistent concentric circles, lapping its way towards shore. Sitting there, an unread book in my hand, I would watch the sun rise along the horizon, begging me to follow it along until I struck land, or some other obstruction — but I didn’t listen.

Later on those nights, Harry and I would make love on the back deck underneath the stars where no one could see us, laughing and tripping over ourselves, keeping ourselves awake in the moonlit hours.

Harry saw enough of me that winter. He’d trundle off to the grocery store, his ballcap tucked tight around his ears as he’d drive off to the local Food Lion in search of sundries and alcohol, the mud clinging to his truck’s fenders like tiny, ink-flecked barnacles.

The Sunday morning before Christmas of was the last I saw of him — the last anyone saw of him — that year.

Later that week, the police came with their strobing red pulses and their official grimaces and stares. Said Harry’s truck ran off the road; said the door was found opened and hanging loose like a flap along the highway median. There were furrows carved in the earth by his tires, they said, and that there was obvious signs of distress on the front bumper, as if Harry had hit something.

They didn’t say what, though. Or whom.

It was New Year’s Eve, barely after midnight, when I heard a knock at the door — though knock is, perhaps, a charitable way of putting it. A less educated person might say a banging.

A banging at the front door.

There stood Harry, looking like hell. His eyes were sunken and emaciated; his skin pale; his face ashen and dirty. His clothes were nearly tatters, his hair a mess. Mud caked his jeans, his arms, his legs.

“Harry?” I asked.

He shoved past me, headed straight for the kitchen. When I caught up to him, he had carelessly ripped open a package of lunch meat from the fridge and had quickly moved his way through the honey ham, working to the pimento loaf.

“…Harry?”

“Dammit, Wanda, I don’t want to talk right now.” His mouth spewed chunks of turkey ham. “Just gimme a damn second, alright?”

And so I did.

When he finally told me, I didn’t want to believe him. It seemed…distant, somehow. Unreal. As if it had happened to someone else, and I was just saw it, helpless to react.

Like a movie on a movie screen, all I could do was watch.

His story went like this: on the Sunday before Christmas, he drove away from our cabin by the lake. The road out of the residential neck of the woods wound in twists and curves like a snake. Harry took these curves a bit too fast, sometimes — and I’d told him a thousand and one times not to, but he just didn’t listen.

And it was this one time, just as the road was opening up and growing wide enough for traffic in both directions, that he saw her.

The face of a newborn fawn, trembling and frightened. Her breath misting out from her nose and mouth.

Harry felt the impact from the car, felt the brakes engage with a frightening jolt. It was all he could do to keep the truck from careening into oncoming headlights. When he got out to inspect the damage, the fawn lay in front of the truck, bleeding and bleating in protest. So my husband did the only sensible thing he could think of.

He knelt down beside the still warm body and, incredibly, took her into his arms.

He said he walked for miles before he found the lake — he was disoriented, he said, and couldn’t think what to do. He lay the fawn down in the water, resting rocks on her torso and her head. To weigh her down, he said.

It didn’t work.

He sat there, until he saw her still form drift off into the sunset, into the far distance and the sky. He knew he couldn’t come home, yet. He knew he couldn’t face me.

He spent the next few days in the woods — building lean-tos like he learned in scouts. Laying quietly in the tall grass just watching as the life moved around him in such an ordered, understandable way. He didn’t know quite what to do, how to feel; he just knew it was important that he be there, that he understand this much about how nature moved.

After a day of doing this, he finally came upon a clearing. Towards the far side of the clearing, he saw a gathering of deer — a family, a school, who-knows. Anyway, he knelt down, and watched them — the way the momma-deer would nuzzle against her children, encourage them to chew on the grass at the edges, then lead them into the woods on a dart when they heard a sharp noise. He didn’t know for how long, but Harry watched them and waited, and then the impossible happened.

The mother looked right at him.

He stood up. Startling her, she shifted but didn’t run. Instead, she stared, her eyes boring holes into him, uncovering secrets about himself that he never knew. He told her about the time in fourth grade when he pulled a girl’s hair because he liked her. He told her about that summer in Rochester when he learned how to build a fire. He told her about his grandmother, and the way she smoked Virginia Slims in her rocking chair, her knitted quilt spread over her useless legs.

He said all of these things, whispered them, to this deer a hundred yards away.

He said all of this, and waited. And waited.

After a while, she finally looked down at her brood, then back at him. Then he whispered one last thing.

An apology.

She snorted. And she led her kin away, into the woods, to be forgotten. And Harry made his way back into my arms.

He told me all of this, and he cried, and I held him. Later that night, we drank champagne on the back porch of the lakehouse and watched the New Year’s fireworks from down toward Buffalo. They were tiny pinpricks of light exploding in the distance, but it was still a celebration. I wanted him to hold me, now, and tell me that next year was going to be different, but instead he finished his glass and refilled it and offered me the bottle.

I took it, knowing that this would probably be our last New Year’s together, and that was okay. Because I knew something about him, from this past year, that he couldn’t take away from me no matter what the new year brought. And he knew that I liked that having last swallow from the bottle, and that he would offer it to me like a sinner with a confession.

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