Dashiel Carrera’s debut novel The Deer, published this month by Dalkey Archive Press, formally resembles an album, with an LP's side A and side B. But the slipstream of unreliable, sometimes bizarre, memories in the wake of trauma brings to mind the films of Yorgos Lanthimos or perhaps Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. When the images are gauzy, they imply the fallibility of (re)constructed memory. When the verb tense jumps abruptly from past to present, it depicts how a potent memory can overwhelm our surroundings. Images are particle-like in Carrera's novel, and their flashes remind us that we see only a small fraction—a firefly light of the world—and we apprehend these partial flickers with minds that are at best changing but, more likely, disintegrating.
Eyes II. The dark
The trees are still. My heart is still. The leaves crunch under my feet and the branches rise in the wind. I am here, I say. OK. My legs feel sticky and the air brushes up over the hairs of my arm. I unroll my jacket and put it on. What would Finny do? I toss a rock into the creek. The path behind is too clear, they’ll see it—the pockets of air in between the trees, the little leanings of branches of the arbor under which I now pant. I kick over my tracks in the dirt and leap in the creek. Water and pebbles pour into my shoes. I hang my head and inhale, the cold water brushing my ankles. Chirp chirp—I spin my head. A bird stares at me from the branch, twisting its beak in and out of shadow. I lift my foot from the creek. The rocks pour in harder.
I am soaked under a tree, tracing the roots with my eyes. I fall back into the dirt and tangled moss. What would Finny do? I raise my arm and circle a star, poking through the leaves above. She’d get on a train away from here. Take me by the hand and say she had two tickets, fan them over me as I opened my eyes and smiled and twisted her legs around mine. I pulled up my mittens so the air couldn’t bite my wrist and she ran a makeup brush over the side of her cheek as I set my glass down and listened to the rain.
In the mirror, she smiled.
My legs are sore. I’ve been running for miles. There is a numb spot on the side of my ankle. I finger it and run my hand through my hair. Let’s run away, she said. The snow curls around my butt and I sink deeper. Run away from what? Her face a silhouette, breasts hung over my chest, hair over my eyes as the darkness spreads. Run from him.
The ridges of the bark wobble and distort. From him? I cannot see the roots. The darkness swells into my ear, wafts over my eyes, grips my face like a great pressing palm. From him? I rest my hand on my forehead and tremble and sink into myself, sink into the snow. Not from him, I say, oh no, not from him. My mother was very very sick. What has he ever done to me? I can’t find the roots. Finny’s nipples pressed against my chest. She whispered. I leaned in. A light pushed through the trees.
The train cabin rocked gently. Finny scribbled in her notebook. She met my gaze and smiled. We’ll be there soon, she said. OK, I said. The heat of her breath spreading mist along the window. I inhaled. He can’t get you here, she said. I know, I said, and my heart beat out of sync with the rocking of the train.
I am bursting through the woods. My legs are not my own—they move too fast, too fluid, like the running river. I am bursting through the woods. The leaves brush over my face, the thicket around my ankle. I am cut and spinning, stretched in the light. I can feel their shadows stretching before me. Can hear their arms brushing back the branches, flashlight combing over my hair, whirling through glistening cobwebs. I am losing balance. I’m spinning. Branches snap as I weave between trees and push out to the other side and push down the fan of a great blueberry bush and I am on a cliff, leaning, my toes curling as the dirt crumbles off the edge, stomach lurching in the weight of the drop.
For a moment I feel the silence of a backflip off a lake dock, when the blood rushes to your ears and your toes curl with the fear they’ll never land. And then the approaching voices hang back, swallowed in the roar of the wind and snow, losing strength as I step off the cliff, the spinning, twisting lights falling into the darkness.
Crash into rock. Roll over bushes. Hands sprawled grabbing for anything to break my fall, to land softly on grass and thud and hit the ground, to hit the ground and feel the thud, to feel the thud on the ground and her finger on my cheek whispering what is it darling, of course I love you, don’t you know anything as I shook and shook and grabbed hold of the pillow.
My knee bleeds; my ear bleeds; I stretch my palm out to grab hold—of something, some branch or—something and my hand bounced back between ear and a rock or a claw and she looked up sideways toward the light and smirked and said sure, closed her eyes and leaned back on the motel bed and I—my foot latching onto something, or something latching onto my foot, hooking around the laces, pulling them back, strapping me in, Finny tracing a path of dust through the motel room to the window where a little blackbird sits tilting its head as my shoe caught—
My sock is stained with blood and I pivot, the black smoke rising in my periphery. It’s going to be dark soon. The sheriff’s light will comb these woods and the shadows will cross over me and I can’t take that, can’t watch their shadows tangle like Finny and I. I pick at a knot in my shoe. What will I do—can I take the train? Can I roll down the hill again? Can I lean my head against the cold glass Finny’s arms wrapped around me telling me that it’s alright, I won’t have to see him anymore, her hand running down the edge of my cheek so slowly my breath caught between each bump and in the back of my head, knowing, in the back of my head, certain, as she pulled my eyes to hers, that I would have to leave her.
Eyes III. The fire
I gather bramble from the riverside. Could I make a fire? The lights are gone, now, shrunk into the dark. A shiver slowly rises from my foot, pulsing, jerking my leg and my hips and my hand and pushing up through my chest to my neck as I drop the twigs. I pant quietly. My hands are cold and aching.
My father showed me once—sat there smiling and smoking his cigarette and breaking up pieces of twine into bits with his great, burly hands and throwing them into a little pit. Arthur sat next to me looking at the ground, rubbing his shaking shoulders, hiding his bare hands in his jacket, while my father coughed, a cloud of smoke and frozen breath peeling back against his face, and tossed his cigarette into the pit. And my father watched the fire tear through the bramble, watched it catch the little moss on the sides of the branch and spit sparks and I closed my eyes and waited, waited for the crackling to stop, waited for the stomping and the peeling and the sparking of my father’s heavy breath to stop, tucked my ears under the collar of my jacket, threw myself into my thoughts and as the fire roared and bramble burned and crackled I could feel the heat against my cheek, like talons stretched to the edges of my face, pushing my head back and pinning me and I let go of myself and hours later I opened my eyes and there was father, eyes grey and still, embers trading glow at the heel of his boot.
Finny took a lighter from her back pocket and tossed her hair, glancing to see if I was watching her exposed neck, and flicked the flame on my picture of him, telling me that I would have to let go some time. And as the photo burned she ran her fingers over the bruise on my cheek and I wondered if this was for me or her.
I cringe as I tear dried grass from its roots and toss it to the dust. I stand and twist my head, my eyes dragging over the bramble. I walk low, hunched, my hands running over the tops of the bushes, my veins in the moonlight. I take a long stick from beneath one of the bushes and tuck it under my arm. The last ray of sun through the trees is retreating fast. I watch it run along the tips of the bushes. The cold is creeping in. It smoothes my forehead; crisps my eyes. I pan the bushes of the valley, stretching into the darkness.
Finny asked me if there was anything else I needed to burn and I told her no, I didn’t think so. She rested her head on my shoulder and flicked the lighter on and off. Isn’t it nice, she said, to watch it shrink away, and she looked out past the caboose railing, the little glow of my father’s burning picture shrinking. It’s just like a star, she said, and looked up at me and smiled and burrowed her face farther into my chest. And I told her when some stars fade they take everything with them, they pull everything. And she said yes, softly, wouldn’t that be nice, and I ran my hand through her hair as my breath shrank away.
I take a sharp rock from underneath a tree and grip it tight, the edges biting my palm. The stick stays strong as I lean on it, my hand shaking from the pressure. With my other hand I take the stone and peel the bark back, the rock cutting further into my hand, lifting my head into the buzzing night. The cold wraps around my ankles and up into my jeans.
The light—they might catch that, if they were still looking, still pushing those police boots over the roots of the trees, if they had one of those dogs out with their black wet noses that flickers pulses at the nostrils until something aligns and they flare their teeth and point their snouts straight through the trees, weaving through a gap between two boulders, wading to the other side of a small creek, down the side of a cliff, the shuffling boots of the men and the jangle of the collar straining against the dog’s necks and the little glow in the distance, pushing itself into vision, casting shadows of the bushes, shaking in the dying fire—fire which I twist the branch into until my fingers are raw, which peel away the center of my palm, which I carefully take the steaming charcoal from and place into the dried grass and pray will catch, which I hold up to my face like a father holding a child, blowing and blowing, the smoke plumes rising into my face as I cough and blow, more, holding the smoke farther back hoping it would grow on its own and twisting back and giving my last bits of breath with my eyes closed, the heat gripping my nose like a baby’s hands and suddenly the fire rages and burns and I drop it, the embers sprawling on the dirt, warm blood pulsing my burns.
I could watch this, she said, for hours. The glow trading in the darkness. The pooling embers. Yes, I said. And when it’s done, she said, you won’t have to worry any more. It will all be in the past. Yes, I said. But I don’t want it to end. And we stood on the caboose tossing little fires to the tracks below as a mother behind us wrapped a quilt around a crying baby.
I am collecting more twigs. My hands are stiff. I rub them and they pass each other like strangers. There are so few twigs. I see an imprint in the snow and scoop, snow falling from my sleeve. It is a good stick, but too wet. I roll the twig between my sleeves to dry it off and damp patches stain my shirt. Good enough.
I shove the twig in the fire and the glow thickens. I exhale. It flashes over my nose and fades, relaxes. I lean in close, watching the fire move from one leaf to the next. It grows across my nose, lingers on my cheek. I need more.
I am pulling a small bush by the roots. I can feel it budging, I am sure.
The branches crackle in my pull. I need more. The fire is fading. I pull harder and a handful of branches break loose. I look down and my finger is contorted, like the breaking branches. I crawl over to the fire and throw them in and it flickers, growing a little more. I stand and the snow shakes from the back of my jacket and I walk to a tree and try and peel away the bark. It is so hard and so cold but I need more. The glow is fading. Finny would say, Isn’t it wonderful? I dig my fingers deep into a crack in the bark and pry hard. Isn’t it wonderful, watching it fade away like this? I lean back and pull harder, putting my weight into it, my father standing over the fire with a cigarette. You’re so warm, she’d say, and hug me as I look out over the fire. Isn’t it wonderful? And my father sat down on a log and broke more twigs with his hands and looked at me with his cold grey eyes and I pulled harder and harder and looked back at the fading glow and the shrinking warmth and the falling darkness and lean back with all of my weight all my weight and it snapped free, chips of wood spraying as I launched back into the snow and scrambling, crawling, tossing the wood into the fire and as the embers scatter I run back and try to piece the fire back together but my cold fingers burn and spasm and I grit my teeth and the fire grows and I lay on the ground, panting, the warmth combing over my hair like my father by my bedside, smiling over me and tucking the sheets tight around my neck, softly whistling a jazz tune until I drifted to sleep.
Eyes IV. Traces
The sun beats through the tall oaks and the morning birds chirp, beaks to the sky, blue chests puffing, heads cutting back and forth. I kick dust over the fire and it disappears in smoke.
Finny turned to me on her pillow. She asked, you still have that thing? And I said, yes, I did. And she said we ought to throw it off the back of the train, after what he did. And I said I didn’t want to, I wouldn’t like to, he gave it to me when I was very young, it was one of the last things, I said, I had left.
The fire—I could bury the fire. Or I could try and move it to the river – but the grass, the dried grass. They’d see the dried grass, or at least the patch of missing grass in the field next to it. OK, so if I found more grass from far away and moved it to cover up the patch, then at least that patch would be covered; wouldn’t that make another patch, though? Wouldn’t that make another patch somewhere else and they’d find that and the dog would lower his snout to the ground and brushing over bugs and dried grass with his tail thrust in the air would come pushing through and when he could feel the embers underneath him his neck would tense and the officer with the leash would furrow his brow and tug and the dog would circle back, its tail weaving through the air, the officers towering over the little ember, rolling their thumb and index fingers over their guns, the dog picking at the ember and in the slow swaying of the breeze, wagging its tail.
You have to get rid of it, she said. She pressed her forehead up against mine and brought the sheet to my cheeks. How else are you supposed to move on? She smiled. I brought the harmonica up to my lips and blew as hard as I could. The metal squeaked. You can’t even play that thing, she said. No, he gave it to me, I said, and I traced the ridges of her forehead. He gave it to me when the whole force was over playing jazz and he saw me at the door watching and handed me this harmonica. I blew as hard as I could, I was so young but I blew as hard as I could, and he laughed and the party laughed. No, I said, I couldn’t leave it.
I toss what remains of the fire into the river. The wind roars and charred kindling flies at my face and I spin and tuck my nose under the collar of my jacket. It is cold. I will have to be fast.
I can hear them—that pushing of branches. That grazing of fingers over wood. That jingle of handcuffs. They are giants—once they find you they shake slightly, their moustaches brush back in the swelling wind. Then they lean toward, their walkie talkies whispering to one another on their shoulders. I fill the flaps of my jacket with wind. In the distance, tethered between two great pines, straining wood echoing off the ridges of the valley, is the tip of Finny’s tower.