The Stagman’s Song13 min read
Susan poured tea and focused on kitchen sounds: the splash of water in her mug, the clack of spoon against ceramic. They didn’t mute her mother’s restless pacing, or the rattle of her uncle sorting jars in the basement. Too many of the jars were empty. Uncle George would come up soon, and ask her to go hunting with him. Susan didn’t know how to refuse. There was no one else now to go up the mountain.
Susan’s family made their money hunting stagmen on the mountain. After her Uncle George was rooted to the farm by the stagmen’s curse, Susan and her cousin Ronnie took deliveries down the dirt road to the interstate, pickup bed carefully packed with mason jars and coolers for the city alchemists. Then Ronnie went up the mountain in her turn, the family’s old rifle balanced over her shoulder. Susan watched as Ronnie came home marked and shaken, packed her bags, and left.
Susan eased out through the kitchen door and picked her way across the porch, wary of rotten spots in the unstained planking. Mist boiled off the hillside, revealing trees one by one like an ocean tossing back driftwood. The curse hadn’t rooted her yet. All that bound her to the mountain was love for its tree covered hollows, love for the family she shared it with.
It was just after dawn. The clear belled notes of the stagmen’s song were fading. She could almost make out words in the last distorted echoes. Her Uncle George swore the song was wordless, but Susan didn’t believe him. He never came outside until after it ended.
Bergamot scented steam rose from her mug in thin curls. Just outside the treeline, Susan spotted spreading antlers and a vertical stripe of tawny fur. Like her, the stagman stood to watch light creep up the mountain.
The kitchen door slammed. Roof slates knocked loose to skitter over tin and plastic patches and crash into the asparagus bed.
“That roof needs fixing,” Uncle George said.
Susan felt the weight of the house: slate roof, timber frame, walls plastered with handprints and memories. They couldn’t keep the house without the alchemists’ money. And her mother and Uncle George had both been on two hunts already. The first hunt’s curse marked them, the second bound them to the mountain, trapped like the stagmen they’d hunted. A third hunt killed the hunter. Susan didn’t want to go up the mountain, but she couldn’t watch her uncle or her mother die.
Uncle George leaned on the rail and a piece gave way, rotten wood crumbling around rusted nails. “Reckon we can’t put it off,” he said.
Susan went inside, closing the door very carefully, to rinse her mug and fetch the rifle from its stand in the cellar. She called upstairs, hoping her mother would come down to see her off.
She and Ronnie used to drive shipments into Boston together. When the radio went to static in the long stretch of valley, they passed time speculating about why the stagmen never left the mountain. Leclairs had hunted them for generations, but the stagmen never migrated. Ronnie thought the stagmen were waiting for someone they’d loved, someone who disappeared beneath the mountain the last time the borders closed. Susan asked her mother once, after Ronnie left. “They’re cursed too,” her mother said. New England to the bone, her mother didn’t waste anything, not even words.
Susan’s mother was more comfortable drawing than offering explanations. The Leclair family histories reduced fantastic creatures to names and prices tallied in faded india ink, but Susan’s mother drew pictures in the margins. Her delicate sketches showed perytons with their long deer bodies and outstretched wings, human shadows suggested in a wash of ink at the bottom of the page. Stagmen’s branching antlers mingled in a maze of tree limbs, smooth curling lines drawn on the backs of envelopes and the insides of grocery bags. Her mother pasted the pictures over the cracked plaster walls of Susan’s bedroom.
Susan waited, gripping the worn wood frame of the basement door. Her mother didn’t come. Susan swallowed clean air against the bitter taste in her mouth, then turned away to follow Uncle George up the mountain. Her boots pinched. They’d belonged to Ronnie. The folded tarp strapped to Uncle George’s back was a hand–me–down too.
Uncle George pushed aside a low branch with his good arm. Copper chimes rang as the branch snapped back into place. The Pelletiers didn’t trim the trees on their side of the trail very often, though they hung the branches with blue glass bottles and wind chimes strung together from copper pipe fittings.
Susan clenched her fists until the sound of the chimes faded. The Pelletiers came to the mountain each spring and left again in winter. They loved the mountain, but they came and went as they pleased. Susan couldn’t leave without abandoning her uncle and her mother.
The rifle strap dug into her shoulder. The alchemists paid Susan’s family to hunt for them. That sounded nicer than saying they paid the family to take on the stagmen’s death curse. No alchemist could function in society with the leaf–veined marks of a curse curling across their face like a tattoo, or work the crowd at a Manhattan fundraiser when they were bound to a rural mountainside.
Uncle George went on his second hunt when Ronnie broke her leg. The hospital bills had piled up on the coffeetable in drifts. Now he couldn’t travel more than a few yards from the mountain without getting sick.
The stagmen never left the mountain; the Leclairs couldn’t leave the mountain. That hadn’t bothered Susan when she was younger. She loved the cold water that worked up through cracked bedrock after each thaw, so that rivulets sprang between her fingers when she pressed her hand through moss and ferns. She loved finding the rock crevices where fir needles softened like spices ground in a slow mortar.
There must be something else she could learn to love. Chipped stone flaked loose beneath her hand as she followed Uncle George through a tumbled gap in the old stone wall. They came out into the same clearing she’d watched from the back porch.
On the other side of the clearing, the stagman brushed through low pine branches. The points of its antlers tangled with the wet needles. Susan let out a breath. Snow from a late storm clung to the shaded hollows of the clearing edge, soaking through her cracked boots and up her pant cuffs. This would be easier if they looked less like men. It would be easier if their songs didn’t haunt her sleep. Of course, if it were easier the alchemists would do it themselves.
Sunlight struck her through the chartreuse furl of new leaves. Behind the stagman a little seam of granite sparked with quartz. Susan lifted her rifle. The triangular notch of the sight lined up with the dimpled muscle of the stagman’s thigh. “Not too high,” Uncle George said. He’d said the same thing when teaching her to shoot tin cans on sticks, watermelon balanced on rails.
She wanted to drop the rifle in the cold grass, to walk into the woods and disappear. She wanted never to have seen the mountain she’d loved since before she could say what love was, the stagmen whose song was her first music, if it meant never having to stand here with the rifle in her hands. But she knew if she dropped the rifle, her Uncle George would pick it up. Their family had nowhere else to go.
Her bullet creased the stagman’s leg, knocking it off balance. She lowered the rifle. Her hands shook too much to chance another shot. She couldn’t risk damaging the head and internal organs.
“I didn’t come up here with Ronnie,” Uncle George said. “She dragged the body back alone. And then she left.” He reached out and took the rifle from her. “It only takes a moment,” he said, and offered her a knife. “It would kill your mother if you left.”
Susan pressed a fist to her mouth and bit down till she tasted blood. Ronnie moved to Boston after her first hunt, flaunting the green mark on her collarbone as she poured drinks in a college bar filled with tattooed scholars and would–be sorcerers. Ronnie called every week, sent money home, but she never came back.
The wounded stagman made a horrible sound. The broken, wavering note hung in the still air of the field. This hunt wouldn’t bind her, wouldn’t kill her. It would only mark her.
“Give me the knife,” she said.
The stagman’s eyes were brown, clear as the iron–rich water that ran through the brook in summer. It struggled to rise, and Uncle George knelt across its shoulders to hold it down. His worn jeans pressed into the tawny fur. “It’s easier if you don’t look at their faces,” Uncle George said.
The stagman brushed Susan’s arm with a callused palm. White scars patterned its fur, record of a life with no shelter but branches and caves.
Its chest heaved, the columned throat worked. His mouth opened, forming a word she couldn’t read. She stabbed through the stagman’s carotid artery before his song could break her heart.
Her ears rang. She fumbled at his throat, trying too late to stop the flow she’d caused. His blood shot copper bright through her fingers. Uncle George pushed her aside; his clumsy right hand shoved a plastic bag in place to collect the blood. Susan fell away from the body.
Plastic rustled as the bag filled. Her own heartbeat echoed in her ears. Susan turned away, frightened of what she might see in Uncle George’s face and terrified of what he might see in hers. Just for a minute she hated them both: him for leading her here, herself for following.
“We’d better get back to the house,” Uncle George said. She pushed herself up from the cold grass with numb hands.
It was a long walk back down the hill.
They dragged the body through the field. Susan could see the house ahead of her all the way. Rocks heaved up by the winter frosts caught at the tarp. Susan’s boots leaked water and sucked in rocks. Her thigh muscles spasmed and her back ached. Towrope dug into her fingers. The stagman’s body tipped loose as they went over a boggy spot, and Susan’s hands stuck to the bloody fur as she heaved his body back on to the tarp. Uncle George carried the plastic bags of blood in his sling. Dark stains soaked through the old cotton.
If Uncle George hadn’t reached out to stop her, she’d have gone on dragging the body till the tarp frayed and the rope snapped.
Her mother met them at the cellar door. Her face was smeared with ink where she’d rubbed at the shadows beneath her eyes. Fresh water boiled on the stove. Crumpled paper sketches littered the tiles. Drawings, like unspoken words, piled up around her mother wherever she sat.
Susan and her mother heaved the body down the cellar steps and onto the old worktable. Uncle George didn’t say anything, just squeezed her shoulder before heading upstairs. He’d brought her up the mountain, and he’d brought her home. Now he left Susan and her mother in the basement with the stagman’s corpse.
“So.” Her mother touched the body gently, brushed sticky lashes closed over the wide brown eyes. “I don’t know if I’m ready to do this again.”
Susan looked around the room. The little bone saws were clean and oiled, the skinning knives razor–edged. Sterile glass jars waited to hold the liver and heart. When they were little, Susan and Ronnie studied those glass jars with the fascination other children gave to antiques. Replacing a broken piece meant another hunt, a death that tied some other family member to the mountain.
“We brought him — it, we brought it back. Uncle George said you’d be disappointed if we didn’t.”
Her mother’s ink–stained hands stilled. “George never did know beans about anything.” She stepped away from the body to pick up a waiting knife. “Not much else we can do now.” Her back was stiff, but she cut with an artist’s precision.
The cellar was cold. Steam condensed on the stone walls. The stagman’s chest cavity was warm, and Susan’s hands trembled as she cut the liver free.
“Give me a minute,” Susan said, and leaned her head against the damp wall. A drawing of a stagman stared up at her from the floor, the fluid lines of her mother’s sketch more lifelike than the body on the table behind her. The edges of the room darkened. “Maybe more than a minute.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” her mother said.
Susan pulled herself up through the doorway and into the yard. She leaned against a birch tree to catch her breath. Thin new branches painted dark lines against the pale trunk, shadows edged her field of vision. She couldn’t let herself sit down. If she sat down, she might never stand again.
Afternoon light washed the mountain with amber and red. Susan’s eyes itched and burned. She raised her hands to rub her face, but blood smeared them to the wrist. She tried to think through the practicalities of contacting an alchemist, arranging a sale. A song kept ringing in her ears, high and clear like the echo of bells.
The body would sell for enough to fix the roof and pay next year’s taxes. Then bills would pile up again. Some morning she’d find herself on the hill again with a rifle in her hand. It would be worse next time.
Uncle George came out with a cup of tea. He’d washed his hands and changed into a fresh shirt and sling. Sparks glimmered emerald in his mark as she shifted her head.
“Sooner we get back to it, sooner we’ll be done,” he said. He led her back downstairs. Susan followed. She’d spent the day following him to places she didn’t want to go.
They worked together in the basement until dark. Her mother and Uncle George didn’t speak to each other. They passed tools in silence chilly as the stones.
It was morning before Susan saw her own mark for the first time. Dark green spiraled out from the bridge of her nose to her temples. The stagmen’s morning song had just ended, and salt tears blurred the lines beneath her eyes.
Susan’s mother came downstairs. “Morning,” she said, as if they hadn’t both been awake before dawn. Her stoneware mug was stained bright pink with last night’s hibiscus and rosehips.
They looked out through the doorway together. The pale green of new growth lapped the slope behind the house, a slow tide rising up the mountain.
“Ronnie must miss this, living in Boston,” Susan said.
“Could be,” her mother said.
Susan bit her cuticle, tasted soap and salt and mingled blood. She’d scrubbed her fingers but hadn’t been able to remove the last traces of the stagman’s blood from her ragged nailbeds. “Can’t see myself there,” she said.
Susan could move to Boston or New York and hope to find work that covered city rent. She might even make enough to send money home. But she wouldn’t watch blue–green shadows through her tiny window under the eaves. She wouldn’t hear her family moving slowly through the house she’d always lived in, or hear the stagmen’s morning song.
Her mother creased and re–creased a square of paper before passing it to Susan.
Susan unfolded a sketch of herself dressed for traveling, a bag at her feet.
“Ronnie left. George couldn’t deal,” her mother said. “Your father left.” They looked out the window together. Her father’s body might be somewhere under those trees. They would never know. “At least Ronnie can call.”
All these years, Susan had never let herself think about her father’s death as a kind of goodbye. He’d gone up the mountain and he hadn’t come down. That was all.
Her mother leaned against the kitchen wall and stared out at the mountain, careful not to meet Susan’s eyes. “Everyone leaves,” her mother said.
Susan’s thumb left a bloody print on the sketch. She’d worried about betraying her mother and never asked what her mother wanted. She folded the paper and stuffed it into her pocket. Her mother didn’t welcome words, but Susan had to say something.
“Everyone leaves,” Susan said. The Pelletiers left every winter, and every spring there they were, hiking up the road, hanging windchimes in their trees. “Some people come back.”
Leaving didn’t have to be a betrayal. The idea was tenuous as a held note or a curved line, not yet solid enough to stand against the weight of an old house, the smooth wood of an heirloom rifle.
Susan rubbed the mark on her face with stained fingers. She could hitch a ride north, head for New Hampshire or Maine. She’d like to watch the tide come in: salt water, cold rock, waves crashing against crags covered in spruce and fir. That night she packed a bag, left a message for Ronnie, arranged with alchemists for delivery of the latest shipment.
She left in the quiet dark. The house was heavy with sleep. She peered through open doors as she tiptoed down to the kitchen. Her Uncle tossed in his bed. Her mother lay with her eyes closed, the covers clenched between her stained fingers. Susan closed the kitchen door carefully, picked her way down the steps in the dark. She was grateful for the blue shadows. It would have been too hard to walk away in daylight. Even now, she didn’t dare look back.
She was a mile down the road toward the highway when the stagman’s morning song began. Susan sang along, desperate and defiant, high notes scraping against the inside of her teeth. Other families did things differently. She would find a way to take care of her family that didn’t involve death or bloody promises. And when she did, she would come home again.