Mercy – Jeff Smieding
fields, bleak on bleak. The land, his parents’ land, was a home for wayward winds, and it was all empty
cavity, no heart. Wide space going on forever, with anemic trees twisting over blanched tufts of dead
Carissa’s funeral would be like this, he imagined. He dated her for a handful of years in his twenties,
almost as long ago now as they were old then. They lived in Phoenix for one hot year. Way down there
with the saguaros and the palms, days like a furnace, nights like an oven.
That was a million years ago, and a million miles. His parents loved it here, the home they built for
retirement in rural Wisconsin. They were nothing if not like the land itself. Spartan and simple. The
home they build was large but unassuming, all earth tones and tasteful white flourishes. There were
wide windows, correctly placed to catch the sunlight in the winter. Dad said with confidence that this
place would last forever, longer than any of them.
Oren supposed he was right. He remembered bringing Carissa here once, right after they’d put the
finishing touches on it. He stood right where he stood now, and she was next to him, but out of reach.
She had always seemed to be a few feet away from him. He never knew why, or if that was even true.
thought about her in years, until he got the call.
A shot blistered out over the hills, pulling him out of his thoughts. It was sharp and deep, the sound
careening off the hard-scrabble trees surrounding the house. There was no way to tell exactly which
way it came from. Another shot cut the frigid country air, and then a third shot echoed back and forth,
tiny thunder rolling across the fields.
* * * * * *
meant him. Oren waited for some kind of follow up, taking off his glasses and cleaning them, and then
clasping his hands together, trying desperately to keep his leg from bouncing up and down in its
trademark response to immediate anxiety.
But his boss, Don Grant, inhaled deeply through porcine nostrils, and walked briskly out of the room.
Oren looked at his hands in front of him on the table. He hated those soft, small hands. They were not
the hands of a man, just the workless hands of a failure. He was just divorced, less than a year removed
from a starter marriage and renting on his own. By this point in his life, he’d assumed he would have
stepped up, not back. He had no idea how he would afford anything without his job now. It was the
only one he’d had for over a decade.
“What will you do now?” his mom had asked the next day. “Do you need money until you’re on your
“No Mom,” he’d said. He remembered trying to sound annoyed, though money was the only thing
really on his mind.
“Well, sweetheart, you can always let me know. Anything you need.”
Maybe he would ask her, after all. Once she and dad got back from Mexico. He was only staying here
for the funeral, but maybe that was the real reason he came back for Carissa’s funeral in the first place,
he told himself—to ask his parents for help.
* * * * * *
Carissa died from cancer. The last time he saw her, he had met her with her husband, Chris, out for
lunch. Oren and Carissa had always tried to do the whole friends thing, but it was weird enough as it
was, without Chris trying to play the good guy. With all Chris’ sighs and throat clears, it was pretty
obvious he didn’t want Oren anywhere near Carissa. But still they met. Chris was polite as he could be.
Carissa said she was worried about Oren. His marriage was already on the rocks, and obvious though it
was, everything about that lunch was a last goodbye from Carissa too. Chris left for a while,
conveniently going for a walk so Carissa could talk candidly to Oren.
“I’m worried about you, Oren. You know that?”
ago. Nothing magical. Nothing prophetic, or memorable. After that, he only tried to call her once
during his divorce, but by then her number had changed, and that was it. Then last summer, he heard
she was sick. He thought about going to visit, but even though he had nothing to do, there were always
other things going on. Only a couple of weeks after that, it was too late. Some weird thing was all he
knew. She went to the doctor with a headache, came out with weeks to live. And then none.
* * * * * *
was outside, shambling, brushing up against the side of the house. He waited for a while, motionless,
hoping that it had been part of his dream, before hearing a loud thud. The whole house reverberated,
and he sat waiting for anything else, mind racing, until he got up the courage to get up and turn on the
The lawn was empty. He couldn’t see anything except for the dry brown of the tall dead grass and the
thin white coat of snow and ice underneath that. One by one, he checked the doors and windows,
making sure everything was locked.
As soon as the morning light hit the bedroom window, Oren got up and put on some heavy clothes. He
found some of his dad’s old work boots in a closet and laced them up.
The January morning was empty and frigid, and a scattered army of clouds marched up from the south,
pushing back the sun and covering everything in grey.
Oren walked in a slow circle around the house, trying to find any sign of what he’d heard in the night.
He didn’t have a lot of time before he had to go. He would need to shower and get ready for Carissa’s
funeral, and get to the city by noon. He rounded the house again, passing the rusted out antique milk
jar that his mom had filled with decorative birch and pine branches for the holidays. Finally, near the
edge of the property, he thought he could see something, maybe. A barely discernable line, steps
The line was not perfect, or straight. Shuffling steps wandering haphazard into the trees, too small to be
a person or even a bear. Deer, he decided. He walked alongside the steps, every so often passing what
must have been drops of blood, deep reddish brown – a handful of muddy scarlet kisses on the
powdered face of the lawn.
Whatever it was, it had continued its wobbly gait into the woods, which made it easy to follow. The
briars were broken and bent aside, and Oren stepped through them easily, all the way to a steep ravine
that cut down through the forest.
It was clear by the broken ground that whatever the thing was had fallen here, trying to go down. Oren,
too, slipped almost as soon as he started to pick his way downwards. He tried to catch himself, but his
feet slid out from under him on the slick frozen hillside, and he careened down, frantically grabbing at
root and stem.
At the bottom, he hit hard on his back. Sharp pain erupted from his ribs and his right side, and he lay
there for a few moments, feeling the rest of himself, trying to figure out if he’d broken anything.
Around him, the trees were silent except for the chatter of the water bubbling away under the ice of the
Maybe fifty feet from where he landed, he saw it. A buck, with its head up, watching him. Oren wasn’t
a hunter, but he knew this deer was a trophy for somebody. The antlers flared out wide above its head,
drenched in blood, some of it still wet on the fur, stained black, spreading flower. It must have lost a lot,
and he imagined it was close to death.
Between himself and the buck was the creek, Stoney Creek, his dad called it. It was mostly covered in
ice but broken through in spots where the deer had crossed. It was maybe three feet at its deepest,
most days, so he eyed what looked to be the best way across, and then stepped up to bank, slowly. He
extended his hand forward, an expression of submission, he thought, even though he was still some
forty feet from the deer.
Each tiny step that Oren took, the buck watched, eyes intent, nostrils slight and flaring. But it didn’t
“I’m not going to hurt you, I promise,” Oren said soft as he could.
He stepped forward again, testing the ice. Almost immediately he crashed through, falling face first into
the icy water. He was able to stand easily, but he was still drenched. The shock of the cold air hit him
like a shotgun blast. He scrambled backwards, and when he looked to the other side of the creek, he
saw the deer, now standing, favoring its hind leg, watching him warily. It grunted and stamped at the
ground. Steam bellowed out of its nostrils.
Oren slogged his way up out of the water, and when he got back to the near bank, he slipped again,
tumbling into a thicket. He felt his face with clumsy frozen fingers, finding warm streaks of bright red
blood, cuts on his cheek from the thorns. Shivering violently, he half climbed, half crawled his way back
up the hill, defeated. He’d thought he had more time, but when he got back to the house, he knew
there was no way he’d get to the funeral on time.
“Shit, shit, shit,” he muttered, spilling out of the shower and throwing on the best clothes he had.
minutes late. He picked a pew near the back of the church, hopeful that no one noticed. They sang, a
song he’d never heard, about angels and love and Jesus. Carissa would have rolled her eyes. At least,
the Carissa he knew. Twenty years ago. Did she turn churchy, he wondered?
When the song ended, the congregation sat down, and Carissa’s sister, Jessie, stepped up to the pulpit
at the front.
“My sister was the most beautiful, supportive, loving, kind and caring person anyone could ever
imagine,” she said softly. She started choking up, and one of their cousins stood up and put her hand on
Jessie’s shoulder. Jessie pushed a thankful smile through her tears and continued.
“If you believe that, I have some ice to sell you,” she said, sputtering with a smile. “That was Carissa.
That was her favorite saying when we were kids. Even in the summer she’d say that.”
Oren could see Carissa’s mother and father, her mother inconsolable, her father with a vacant face.
“My sister and I didn’t always get along,” Jessie continued. “We fought all the time, even after we grew
up. But I’ll never forget the little things she did for me. Every year… Every single year for my birthday,
she would send me a card with a different embarrassing picture from our childhood. When I had a bad
breakup, she would call me and tell me horror stories about one or two of her exes that put mine to
she’d said that. Was he one of them? Had he ever done something so stupid or oblivious that he would
be the story that Carissa told her sister in consolation? For just a second, he felt something, down in his
chest. A flash of emotion, white hot, that quickly subsided.
Jessie went on, but Oren heard very little of it. His thoughts drifted, first to Carissa, times he’d spent
with her and Jessie and their parents – dinners, holidays, birthdays. They’d been together for almost
three years. But quickly those thoughts faded, and all he could see was the deer from this morning. He
saw the crown shape of its antlers, wrapping forward and upward from its head. He saw the fur,
chestnut or almond, the flared nose, obsidian eyes. He saw the place in its body where it was dying, a
black, ragged hole that wasn’t supposed to be there, life like some tangible thing, spilling out of it.
When the service was over, there was a reception in the basement, which smelled sterile and new, like
it had been recently refinished, now complete with a coffee bar and a multimedia station. Oren
intended to only go for a quick condolence to Carissa’s parents, ashamed to overspend his time there as
a reminder of a failed love in their daughter’s failed life. He went down the stairs, past the greeters, and
headed to the coffee table.
“You haven’t been back here in a while, have you?”
Oren turned to see Jessie standing there. Carissa had always had a love-hate relationship with her
younger sister, who was maybe not quite as pretty as Carissa, and a little taller and more awkward. The
two of them fought all the time, even when they were getting along. Jessie was thin, with long hair,
plain and parted down the middle. Contrasting that simplicity, though, were her wild blue eyes, always
searching, examining everything.
“No, I haven’t,” he responded. “Hey, look, I’m sorry. About Carissa.”
happy that you’re here.”
“I hope so,” Oren said, looking down at the lukewarm coffee in his hand.
“You were supposed to be my brother-in-law, you know?”
Oren nodded. He had talked to her, years ago, about proposing to Carissa. Jessie had been so excited
then, but barely 19. He stayed away from the family after Carissa dumped him, but he knew enough
people to know that Jessie was mostly ambivalent about Carissa’s eventual husband, Chris. The guy was
nice, but nothing to write home about.
“Yeah, I know.”
“Hey,” Jessie touched his wrist. “A bunch of us are going to go out to The Spike later tonight, if you want
to come. I think it would be good to see you. I want to talk more, you know?”
“Okay,” Oren said with a nod. “I’ll see you there. I have some things to take care of but I’ll be back
* * * * * *
When he got back to his parents’, Oren grabbed everything he could: dad’s waders, a bag of carrots,
some celery, a metal bowl, and an old heavy blanket. He stuffed as much as he could in a back pack and
carried the rest.
At the bottom of the ravine, the deer was still there, laying down again. This time its head rested on the
ground. The black apron of blood had spread farther out under its flank. Carefully, he found a solid
slowly approached, step by step, until he got near enough to fill the bowl with water, and slowly set it in
front of the deer. It raised its head now, and Oren pulled back, just barely avoiding the wide rack of
antlers swinging past his face. He took the carrots and celery out of the backpack one by one, and lightly
flicked them within the buck’s reach. Oren sat down in the snow next to the creek bed, eye to eye with
Besides the two of them, it felt like there was nothing in the world outside of this place. No one. Behind
Oren, the brook bubbled under the broken ice, and above, fat snowflakes drifted down through the
trees. A breeze over the top of either side of the ravine made a hush.
“It’s okay,” Oren said in as tender a voice as possible. “I won’t hurt you.”
The deer was silent, though its sides rose and fell in labored breath. It was a beautiful animal. Oren
imagined it bounding through a meadow, the muscles of its shoulders flexing powerful, eternal. Here,
now, it was too weak to stand; crippled by a movement that was not its own.
The snow started up harder now, and still the deer lay, eyes on Oren. Oren stood, as slowly as he’d
approached in the first place. He picked up the blanket he’d brought with.
“I have to go,” he said. “But I brought you this, too.”
As quickly and smoothly as he could, Oren opened the blanket and tossed it over the flank of the deer.
It wasn’t perfect, but it managed to get most of the haunches and some of its back as well. It flinched,
but otherwise did nothing. Snow started to coat its head and muzzle.
“I’m sorry,” Oren said. “I will come back, with help. I can’t do much else right now.”
Back at the house, he called a vet, who told him he’d need to call the DNR. When he called them, all he
got was voicemail. He tried the police, too, who said they’d try sending somebody out in the morning.
couldn’t, I was pissed off. We fought about funeral arrangements, and I was so pissed because I didn’t
want her to die. I didn’t think she would, even though she was so sick. I thought she’d pull through and
she didn’t. I didn’t get to say it to her. I didn’t get to say goodbye or tell her that I loved her or I was
sorry or anything. And now I can’t even say goodbye to a dying fucking deer.”
Jessie sobbed loudly. Oren wanted to reach out to her and hold her, be the comforting presence that he
should be, as a friend. Instead, he went tentatively for the rifle, fingers cold and numb as he picked it
up. He leveled the barrel at the deer’s head, and then remembered his dad telling him the best way. He
aimed straight toward the chest, where the heart was. He closed his eyes, counting slowly to three.
The shot cracked through the night, bright and agile, rolling over the ravine, following the course of the
stream, all the way out through the trees and across the dead fields and up, up, up into the icy tangle of
the January stars above.
Jeff Smieding has previously published short fiction in Revolver Literary Magazine and Volume One, and published a middle grade dark fantasy novel, The Salt Machine, with Red Sofa Literary. He has an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University in St. Paul, MN, and a BA in English from the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire.
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