Memoir Excerpt: The White Deer

I can’t exactly say why I went to church on Saturday for the five o’clock mass, but that’s just what I did. I don’t know why that feels like I’m confessing to some dirty impulse–maybe it’s just that I’m still drawn to the liturgy–the music, the patterns of it–in spite of my exasperation with the Church. I hadn’t gone to church by myself since my teens, and as I walked into the sanctuary, I thought, okay, I’m home. When I’m with someone else–for Christmas Midnight Mass, or a funeral–I usually feel some tug of loss, a loss I can’t quite explain. But not this time. Maybe it helps that the church is a progressive church–many gay and lesbian parishioners, people of all ages and nationalities. Think of it as a Unitarian Church–but with communion. 

I’m usually not so big on homilies. I usually think of that as the time when the celebrant makes meaningless noises in order to fill up some space; time to look at the songbook, but this was different. He was talking about hospitality–what does it mean to welcome the people we love? I was thinking on that, my arms outstretched on the back of the pew, when a line of his jumped out at me: "The closer we get to someone, the more we must stand humbly before his freedom." Every molecule in me was turned to him. He said it once more, as if he wanted it to sink in. "The closer we get to someone, the more we must stand humbly before his freedom." What on earth could such a thing mean?

Later that night a friend told me about a white dog showing up at another friend’s house. The other friend looked at the dog’s tags–the address was three miles away, all the way on the other side of town. There were fireworks in town, extravagant fireworks, and it was likely the dog had run across woods, marshes, highways to get to the friend’s house. The friend looked out the door and saw what she thought was a white deer. But it wasn’t any white deer. It was a dog, a white fluffy dog, who walked right into her living room and dining room, muddy paws and all. The dog looked around a bit, submitted to the friend’s petting, then slumped, turned on his side and fell asleep.

The friend called the numbers on the dog’s tags. No one answered at the numbers. The friend left a message, and when she didn’t hear back after a while, she started to get suspicious. Maybe the dog was hers, the mystery beast coming up the street in the dark, out of the briars, the woods.

The next day the phone rang. A terse, gruff boy on the line, and the story comes darker, clearer. The dog’s human, his protector, his mother, drowned in the pool the night before. Did the dog see it happen? Did the dog jump in the water after her, try to rescue her? Was it a suicide, a heart attack, a slip off the side while she was heading back into the house with armful of dry clothes? The friend didn’t feel she had the right to such questions, but she did ask the boy–the woman’s daughter’s boyfriend–if he’d be willing to let the dog stay with her for a while. "He seems so comfortable here," she said. And the boy agreed to that, if reluctantly. And who could blame the friend if she started to make plans, if she thought about driving to the store for dog food. Life with the white dog, the white deer–and wasn’t she already relieved that she had a reason to keep herself from going so many places? A root in her midst. Finally, after so much running around.

I suppose I don’t need to say that the family wanted the dog back the next day. I suppose I don’t need to say that the friend was inconsolable, as the dog jumped in the back of the family’s car, so grateful to be back with his familiars. Of course his mother wouldn’t be there at the house when he jumped out of the car, but he didn’t know that yet. And all the losses of the friend rose up before her like ghosts turning to flesh, needing to be dealt with.

"The White Deer" is from a memoir-in-progress tentatively titled, I’D SURE LIKE TO SEE YOU, and first appeared in the online literary journal Sweet.

Paul Lisicky ( is the author of Lawnboy, Famous Builder, and the forthcoming books The Burning House (2011) and Unbuilt Projects (2012). His work has appeared in Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, StoryQuarterly, The Seattle Review, Five Points, Subtropics, Gulf Coast, and many other anthologies and magazines.

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