By EJ Spode.
Chapter 23: The Deer Woman
I noticed that the rocks were cooling down, and I sensed that our time in the Inakagapi was drawing to a close. Before it did, I needed to get some resolution with my Penny situation.
“Uncle, about Penny…”
“Yes, EJ, what is it you want to ask?”
“Well, clearly my relationship with Penny would please the gods…”
“Very much so.”
“And I believe our story entertains my friends too…”
“I’m sure of this as well.”
“But I wonder if it is false …if it is driven by a false narrative.”
“Only you can answer that question EJ.”
“But I did feel a close connection with her … like-mindedness.”
Uncle nodded. “But you see, here the Lakota have an interesting observation. You can be like-minded with everything in creation – even these rocks if you are patient and listen to what they have to say. You were patient with Penny, and you listened to her, and you became close to her. But you can listen to others as well.”
“It seemed to come so much more naturally with Penny.”
“EJ, as you know I am blind. I have been blind for so long I can scarcely remember what beauty looks like. Now I only know it through stories. But from all that I have heard your Penny is considered a great beauty. There is a reason so many men come to the bar and sit at her station.”
“Yes, of course, women too. But do you not think these people feel a connection with Penny too?”
“You see, beauty can be a very deceptive thing. It can make you believe there is a connection – a truth – when there is not.”
“Hmmm, you know though, my friend Curly wasn’t buying the line about Penny being beautiful, and he saw her with his own eyes.”
“Interesting, how so?”
“In a nutshell, he said she was a skinny waspy out of shape train wreck with shitty hair and shitty teeth and bad posture and everything else.”
Uncle chuckled at that. “Well that is the thing with beauty. It is not an objective thing. We decide what we are going to call beautiful and different people from different backgrounds have different definitions of beauty. But the beauties we venerate most are the ones that have the strength of character to bend our definitions of beauty to accommodate them.”
“OK you completely lost me with that, Uncle.”
“Let’s start with the basic facts – the framework for what is beautiful.”
“First, of course, there is biology. We are wired to desire women that are fertile and capable of bearing offspring. We also desire men that are strong and virile and capable of providing protection for our offspring.”
“Yes, but we also know that strength need not be defined by physical traits – we humans have come to realize that wealth is a more reliable form of protection than is physical strength. Accordingly we can be attracted to someone when they bear the markers of wealth.”
“Well, this has changed dramatically during my life. I remember a time when being beautiful was understood as being fat and pale. Obviously, this is because only the wealthy could afford to stay indoors, avoid physical labor, and eat copious amounts of food. If you were fat and pale, you had wealth and power, and that signaled a desirable partner.
“But when work moved indoors – into factories and charterhouses and offices – the markers of wealth changed. Today, the marker of wealth is that you are thin, and tan and dress well.”
“Again, that sounds right.”
“You know, many years ago a friend of mine who was one of the leaders of the Cuban revolution told me that “beauty is the privilege of the rich.” His point was that money can keep you away from menial indoor work and it can buy you plastic surgery and a gymnasium membership. It can buy you beautiful clothes, tropical vacations and healthy, fresh foods. It can buy you tools for distressing, like massage and meditation classes. It can buy you the help of excellent physicians and expensive vitamins and nutritional supplements. But that isn’t the whole story.”
“Sounds like he had a good case though.”
“Oh he did have a good case, but all these things are not enough for one be seen as exceptionally beautiful. There are still things that are out of our control – our faces and our bodies, for example – there is only so much that plastic surgery and a gymnasium membership can do for us. After that, we need to bend peoples’ perception of beauty.”
“That sounds more or less impossible though.”
“It is difficult, but let me tell you something. My entire life I have known women and men who were able to make everyone around them think they were beautiful, and they did this by sheer force of personality. In part, it was how they carried themselves – with great confidence, to be sure. But it also had to do with how they diminished others. They criticized the dress and comportment of others. By making others feel small, they establish themselves as paradigms of beauty.”
“This is what we call the mean girls phenomenon, Uncle.”
Uncle chuckled at that one.
“I know you are referencing a movie, EJ. I know of it, and I had a friend read me the screenplay. I wish I was able to see it. But it is important to understand that being mean to others is not accidental – it is necessary. You must establish that you are the beautiful one, you must shift the meaning of ‘beauty,’ and you do this by dominating the conversation, as it were. In this case though, it is a visual conversation.
“Are we talking about Penny here?”
“One more thing EJ, if you want to establish yourself as an exceptional beauty it is also important to surround yourself with beautiful things, because our minds are weak, and we seldom are able to distinguish between a person and their surroundings.”
“So we are talking about Penny.”
“We are talking about all who are considered exceptionally beautiful.”
“Are you asking about Helena from the Weekly Drop? “
“Yeah of course, do you know another Helena?”
“This is true for Helena as well, EJ. Helena is exceptionally intelligent and is very confident and not at all afraid to make everyone know that she is the most beautiful of all.”
“Much to Penny’s chagrin.”
“Yes… I believe that Helena is the mentally stronger and possibly the more ruthless of the two. But notice that when she went away to Paris, she returned within two years. Why do you think that was?”
“Because they weren’t buying her shit?”
“Exactly EJ. You can manipulate people in South Dakota into thinking you are exceptionally beautiful, but doing the same in Paris is a much more difficult task.”
“So exceptional beauty is not the privilege of the rich.”
“No EJ, exceptional beauty is the privilege of the sociopath.”
“I have one more story for you which I will tell while the rocks cool. It is a very instructive story, but also a short one. It is the story of the Deer Woman.”
I kicked back again, my head more or less spinning from the conversation about beauty.
“Lakota hunters were often warned of the Deer Woman – she was called this because she was a shape changer. She could appear as a woman or as a deer. Perhaps she could also appear in other forms.
All I know for sure is that The Deer Woman would appear to hunters when they were out alone tracking – typically when they were having an unsuccessful hunt – when they were tired and hungry and far from home. I met a Lakota once, many years ago, who had met her. He said that while tracking a deer he came through some brush to a clearing on the Eastern side of a small lake, and he saw a beautiful small lodge. He called out, and a woman came out of the lodge. He said she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She had long shiny hair that hung to her ankles. She was tall and slender and had large brown eyes that sparkled and called to him. She also had the most beautiful smile – a smile that the Lakota said could turn the greatest hunter into a foolish child. And her laugh – she had a lilting laugh that sounded like a joyous spring brook.
As she was known to do, she invited this man into her lodge, which had a warming fire and many soft robes. She made tea for him, and they drank it. He spoke with her at length, and he claims that she constructed her sentences from the most expressive and suggestive words; he said her sentences were like poems, although they were not. That night he slept with her – made love to her – but when he awoke, she was gone. Everything was gone: The Deer Woman, the robes, the lodge, and the fire.
After that, the man became obsessed with the Deer Woman and could think of nothing else. He forgot about his village and spent his days searching for her. But as always happened with the Deer Woman, he never could find her again. What the Lakota wisely observed was that perhaps he was not in fact looking for her, but rather for his soul, because she had taken it from him. As the Lakota say, a man who has slept with her is never the same. He is always restless.”
Uncle paused. Clearly the story was over, and it seemed he wanted me to comment, and it is pretty clear that he was making the point that Penny was The Deer Woman. I decided it was time to call bullshit.
“As you know Uncle, folklore has lots of stories of witches that steal men’s souls…”
Uncle stopped me, raising a finger. “EJ, this is not about witches – this is about people who take and give nothing back, about people who offer superficial comfort but offer nothing of substance. That is not the way of the witch. Witches are very giving. They offer much to those of us who listen to them and pay attention. Witches are in harmony with nature and they are grounded in reality – in the world – not in ephemera.”
“Are you saying that Penny is all ephemera?”
“EJ, the advantage of being blind is that I cannot be taken by her beauty, by her eyes, by her smile. But I have heard her laugh and her lilting voice and her beautifully crafted words, so I can surmise that she has convinced everyone that she is an unimaginably beautiful woman. But the question is, is she giving, or is she taking?”
“Well, you told me that in your day with Circe you had many new experiences and had profound conversations about your friends, about her world, about politics, about sexuality, about people and their identities. You engaged in new and meaningful activities with her. Circe did not just take from you; she gave back. She did not dazzle you with her beauty she taught you things and helped you to grow and learn.”
“Fair enough, but Penny can be giving – she has this whole art community that she has built around herself.”
“EJ, The Deer woman was not alone in the woods but surrounded herself with beautiful trappings. A beautiful lodge – a warming fire – the softest robes. This community – is it for them or is it for her?”
“Dude, you are being harsh.”
“I understand this is difficult, but is she not at the center of attention? Is it not all to glorify her?”
“I’m sorry I am being blunt, but our time together is running short.”
“I’m sorry if I am being disrespectful, Uncle, but I must disagree.”
“EJ, how long have you been wandering, trying to catch up to your Deer Woman?”
“Uncle, she isn’t that bad…”
“What meaningful thing have you learned in your time with her?”
“What has she given you besides the privilege of standing next to someone beautiful – or should I say, someone who has convinced you that she is beautiful?
“But no… she has a good heart?”
“EJ, when your friend Kat killed herself, what did Penny do?”
“Well, Penny was very distraught.”
“Yes, but distraught for herself or for others?”
“What did she say to your friend Steady?”
I paused. My mind was racing. I felt trapped. How did he know what she had said? Did he know? Had I told him that? I didn’t remember doing so. Was this a trick? A trap? Should I tell him? Eventually, I spoke.
“…she said, ‘I forgive you.’”
“She said that to Steady.”
“EJ, I’m going to make a pipe for us. I want you to know that while your quest for the love of Penny would entertain the gods and it will entertain the mortals as well, there are more important things than being a character in a play for the gods. Penny may need you, but your friends need you as well, and those friends will be able to take your love and share it with others and help others. They won’t keep it for themselves. We need to start helping your friends now.”
Uncle handed me the pipe, and I hit it a few times. I couldn’t really make out what it was, although I was pretty sure it was hash or something mixed with tobacco. Within seconds, I was peaking on something, and then the ground started to soften and I felt myself falling through the floor of the sweat lodge. I fell for what seemed like days, and ultimately landed in a pile of cinders in the hellscape I had visited in my earlier dream.
I wandered a bit, this time not bothering with the collections of skeletons sitting and droning on about Subway sandwiches or whatever they were concerned with that day. After I had spent about a half hour stumbling around on piles of cinders, a man came towards me and called to me.
“Who are you?”
“My name is Vergil, with an E. I’m here to take you to see your friend Steady.”
I followed Vergil for another half hour, up and over piles of igneous rocks and around clusters of the dead engaged in their banal conversations when we came upon Steady. He was looking very gaunt, and I imagined he was on his way to being one of the skeletons that sat in groups and talked about turkey sandwiches. He was no longer crying, but sitting on a pile of cinders with his knees pulled up under his chin, rocking back and forth.
I sat next to him and put my right arm around him. Vergil walked off and left us alone. We sat for a long time without speaking. I felt that it was more important for me to just be with him. After about twenty minutes I realized I wanted to speak to him.
“So dude, I think I have a new girlfriend.”
Steady turned and looked at me. “No shit? Who is it?”
“Do you remember that Serbian exchange student Circe?”
“Yeah … I remember her, she was mad hot.”
“Yeah, she’s still in town. She’s mad fun too. Mad smart. All of it.”
“Cool bro. But… what about Penny?”
“Yeah, well, I’ve only just figured out that she isn’t a very good person.”
“You just figured that out?”
“After all the times she fucked you over?”
“And all the times she fucked everyone else over.”
“Pretty much, yeah, I just figured that out. Better late than never I guess.”
“Yeah probably. … Um, you said you ‘think’ you have a new girlfriend.”
“Yeah, well, that’s up to her I guess.”
“Sure, sure. Cool. Good luck then.”
“Yeah… The other thing is … the thing is…I’m sorry about what Penny said to you.”
I didn’t even have to explain that I was talking about the business where Penny “forgave” him for Kat’s death. Steady turned back to the ground, and I could see tears welling up in his eyes. I took my arm from around his back and held his hand.
“Dude, the thing is that I love you. We all love you up there. And we need you too.”
“It’s no good E;, this is my role. I failed. I have to pay the consequences.”
“Steady… you didn’t fail, and there aren’t any consequences to pay. It was never your job to save Kat, and it isn’t your job to be the sacrificial martyr for everyone else’s guilt. You aren’t here to remind us of what can go wrong in relationships. You aren’t a hero, and you aren’t supposed to be. You are just a guy that is loved and missed.”
Steady thought for a long time, playing with bits of cinder with his right hand. Finally, he spoke. “You sure?”
“Bro…it’s time to come home.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Image: Jana Astanov.
Chapter 1: Giants in the Earth:
Chapter 2: The Welcome Inn:
Chapter 3: Dimebag Bob’s:
Chapter 4: The Trojan Horse:
Chapter 5: The Turtle Diaries:
Chapter 6: The Cartagena Diaries
Chapter 7: Penny
Chapter 8: San Pedro
Chapter 9: Triggered
Chapter 10: Letters and Dreams
Chapter 11: Helena and Steady Eddie
Chapter 12: Circe
Chapter 13: Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Chapter 14: The Sleepover
Chapter 15: The Bittermilk Road
Chapter 16: The Rocket Sisters
Chapter 17: The Pelorum Avenue Street Racers
Chapter 18: I reconnoiter the Stockman
Chapter 19: The Prosetry Slam
Chapter 20: OG Homeboy
Chapter 21: Deer and Jaguar
Chapter 22: Iktomi and the Ducks
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, April 2nd, 2017.