came up to the front lawn and stared at the deer as though it were real. We watched her from the windows, from the sidewalk across the street, from a car stopped at a stop sign, and also from the bronze-trimmed benches — our reward of the sedentary kind for always passing the tax levies.
For years we had known her as a functioning alcoholic in Mary Jane tennis shoes. We’d see her walking around the neighborhood. Her jerky strolls were inevitably, at some point, arrested by a sudden stop-and-stare stupor. A weed bush or an arrowhead of poison ivy would grab her attention, or so it seemed. What it was that actually grabbed her attention was a topic up for grabs at the diner. Some said she was looking for her father who had returned as a woodpecker. Others said she was nuts. Since this was a college town, saying she was nuts was usually followed by an allusion to Occam’s Razor. In the next town over which was not a college town and which had not passed their tax levies, they also said she was looking for her father who had returned as a woodpecker and/or she was nuts which was followed by their version of Occam’s Razor which was “let’s just call a spade a spade.”
Every three years we were sure to meet her in the DMV where she administered eye tests and took the driver’s license photos. One year, so the story went, her job duties were expanded to include processing applications and handling cash, checks and credit cards. Upon that, the woodpecker’s daughter disappeared. It had been at least a couple of years since anyone had seen her and though nobody was her friend, everybody missed her. It was like having a hen run wild in the neighborhood. After a while you let it run wild. After a while you started thinking of it as a necessary part of the scenery. This had actually happened and the person who had killed the hen and put it in his cooking pot was new to the neighborhood and didn’t understand this. In a weird twist of fate, the hen murderer took over the job at the DMV vacated by the woodpecker’s daughter.
The deer on the front lawn had been put there by an in-law as a final punctuation to his hot-off-the presses finalized divorce from the daughter of the college bursar whose husband had died in office during his third term as mayor. So take that, you fucking town who raised this heart slayer, his deer was meant say. Why he chose a sweet little deer to deliver this message about the sweet little girl he had married and then turned on, rested on a psychological insight we could not agree on. This was August anyway, another 90-plus degree day, which is significant because one, most of the experts from our award-winning psychology department were still on vacation and could not weigh in, and two, the deer was actually a Christmas decoration. An electrical cord trailed from its behind. When darkness fell we tried plugging it in. All night long the deer’s head shimmered over our hostas plants. Perhaps it goes without saying that the lit-up deer didn’t actually eat the hostas, as a real deer would have. In fact, it actually seemed to keep the real deer away, so we kept it lit up day and night and our hostas remained safe.
Its beacon called to the woodpecker’s daughter.
She showed up one morning. She stood beside the deer and petted it. The deer lifted its head to lick her. This was her gift, we finally realized. There was something after all that the woodpecker’s daughter could do besides take good photos at the DMV. People used to come from other towns just so they could have a flattering photo on their driver’s license. Everyone had become a lot uglier since she had left.
The lit-up deer brightened and popped. A wincing flash of light shorted it out and the deer dropped to the ground. The woodpecker’s daughter jerked into motionlessness. There it was, that stop and stare stupor. We hadn’t realized how much we had missed her over the past 24 months until she returned.
Those of us talking to each other stopped talking. Those of us in cars turned off the engine. In the silence we heard it, the fast knock knock knock of a woodpecker. We stood and stared. We tried to locate the piece of timber receiving the taps. We didn’t dare move. We didn’t dare rummage for binoculars. We got lost in the quick smites, the pause, the quick smites. When we finally came out of our stupors. the woodpecker’s daughter had moved on.
Nancy Zafris is the former fiction editor of the Kenyon Review and The Flannery O’Connor award series. She is the author of The People I Know, winner of the Flannery O’Connor award for short fiction and the Ohioana Library Association Award, The Metal Shredders, and Lucky Strike. Her latest book, The Home Jar (2013), a collection of short stories, was listed by The Minneapolis Star Tribune as one of the ten best books of the year.