Eli was in back, eating an apple in her car seat and listening to a Beverly Cleary book on tape. I couldn’t wait until she was old enough to sit in front with me. My most vivid childhood memories were set in the front seat of my mother’s Karmann Ghia: sharing a box of donuts, singing along with the radio, inhaling the smoke from her Virginia Slims menthols, feeling my cheek redden and sting where the palm of her hand made contact. Eli, by contrast, felt so far away.
“Keep your eyes out for deer,” I told her as we passed through the gate. You had to be careful driving through the park. The last time a coyote had run in front of our car. Time before that: an injured fawn. I’d hit a rabbit once, a year or two before, and it’d nearly killed me; looking back in my rearview mirror and seeing it lying there in the middle of the road, not quite dead but unable to move. I’d pulled over to the side of the road, considered going back. Going back would have been the humane thing to do. A guy I had a thing for in college told me he’d had to snap a cat’s neck once. He’d been walking home after the bars closed one night and found it in the middle of the road, flattened but still breathing. “I couldn’t leave it like that,” he said, which was when I knew I loved him or wanted to sleep with him, it was unclear which, and did it have to be one or the other anyway? The point is I couldn’t do it. Snap the bunny’s neck, I mean. I couldn’t even get out of my car. Which is why I drove so goddamn slow now. The speed limit said twenty-five but I never even came close to twenty.
You weren’t supposed to feed the birds or any of the animals you found in the woods or on the path. There were signs every few yards reminding you of this. But everyone did. You could barely walk ten feet without a squirrel or chipmunk harassing you for food.
“What do you say we take the longer route today?” I asked, turning my face upward toward the sun.
“Sure,” Eli said. She was already spilling food on the ground, leaving a trail of birdseed behind us as we walked.
It was scorching hot, eighty degrees in the shade. We walked half an hour, maybe longer. Eli’s face was pink and splotchy and I could feel the sweat running down my back, under my arms, across my forehead. We spotted a bench on the opposite side of a creek; began our way over. Halfway across the bridge we paused.
“Fairies sometimes hang out under here,” I said, peering over.
Eli bent at the waist, craned her neck.
“I don’t see anything,” she said.
“They’re nocturnal,” I said. “They only come out at night.”
Eli didn’t say anything to that. It was hard to tell what she believed and what she didn’t. And I was unsure how I felt about it either way. A lot of the parents I knew prided themselves on their kid’s disbelief, like it was some sort of proof of their burgeoning intellect or something. “My Johnny hasn’t believed in Santa Claus since he was three,” they’d say and you were supposed to look at them all wide-eyed and disbelieving, like you were real impressed with their kid’s cynicism or something. I thought it was funny because these were usually the same parents who were super religious and took their kids to church every Sunday and got all uptight about Christmas, it’s “true meaning” and all that business. I guess I was sort of the opposite. I’d never brought up God or Jesus or The Bible or any of that to Eli, but I didn’t see the harm in her believing in things like fairies and hobbits and ghosts. The difference was people couldn’t wait to inform you of the latter three’s nonexistence, to disarm you of your fantasies, so there was little danger you’d grow up actually thinking there were pixies sleeping under every flower petal, congregating beneath bridges, chasing deer through forests. Unfortunately, the same didn’t seem to hold true when it came to God.
Eli and I crossed over and sat on the bench. She poured a handful of birdseed into her palm and held it out in the air. You had to be patient. It could take fifteen minutes, half an hour, but eventually they’d come, eat right out of your hand, cling to the side of your palm before fluttering off into a nearby tree or bush, wait their turn and then fly back for more. Pretty soon you’d have two dozen birds waiting to take a peck at your hand. We sat there twenty minutes. Eli wasn’t having any luck. She stood up and walked closer to the bushes. She could name just about every bird there was. I only knew the obvious ones: the chickadees and cardinals and blue jays; the ones everyone knew. Eli took out books from the library; studied that sort of stuff: ornithology and zoology and the rest. I figured one day she would major in field biology or marine biology; work in a zoo or aquarium, the rain forest or the ocean. I planned on traveling the globe with her, following three steps behind.
I closed my eyes, spread out lengthwise on the bench. I was like a lizard on a heat rock. I was content to lie in the sun for hours. The next time I looked up Eli had a whole flock at her fingertips, flying in and out, landing on her arm and hand and shoulder.
“Come on, Mom,” she said, taking note of my vertical position, “You try.”
I stood, walked over, held out my hand. Eli poured what was left in hers into mine and I thrust it out from my body far as it would go. It didn’t take long. The birds were ready, waiting. I flattened my palm and they flew in, landed. It was an odd sensation, not unlike that of a fairy, or how I imagined a fairy landing would feel, at any rate: light, but noticeable, like a tickling only more magical, like Tinker Bell herself was dancing on the flat bed of your palm.
Soon we were out of seed. We were tired and thirsty. I hadn’t thought ahead. All of our provisions were in the car. We walked back over the bridge and down the path. We hadn’t seen a single person the entire time.
“Shhhhhhhh,” Eli cautioned, her finger to her mouth.
“I wasn’t saying anything,” I whispered.
“You’re walking too loud. You’re going to scare off the animals.”
“Okay, Jesus, I’ll try to be more quiet. Sorry.”
After that I was practically on tiptoe. Eli kept a running tally in her head of the birds and animals we saw each time we walked the trail. In recent months there’d been a fox, a raccoon, an owl, a snake, a pair of fawns, a muskrat, a hawk, a snapping turtle and a possum. I’m probably forgetting something – a terradactyl or an okapi – but you get the picture. So far that day we’d seen the usual handful of chipmunk and squirrels and a few hundred birds. Eli was not impressed.
We’d walked another ten minutes; were halfway to the car. I’d stopped thinking about animals, was no longer conscious of searching the woods and grasses for mammal or reptilian sightings. My mind had drifted. I’d found myself thinking back to the first time I saw Elvis, the day he and his mother moved into the complex. I’d seen him only once since – walking past our sliding glass door, a cigarette dangling James Dean style from his mouth, on his way to the trash – but had heard him through Eli’s wall a night or two afterward, arguing with his mom. It was Eli’s bedtime and we were halfway through a Roald Dahl story, the one about Henry Sugar, when his voice interrupted mine. It was deep and whining and full of curses and we scrambled to our knees atop her bed and pressed our ears to the wall in order to better hear it. Or, rather, I scrambled to my knees, pressed my ear to the wall and Eli quickly followed suit. I was desperate to hear what they were arguing about. It seemed to be something about the move – changing schools and so forth, a girl he’d left behind.
I was imagining her, this fantastical girl, envisioning her tangled, molasses hair, her tear-stained, baby pout. I wasn’t seeing where I was going. I was unselfconsciously taking steps.
“Mom!” Eli screamed under her breath.
Two steps to our right, in the grass that fringed the path, was a buck: massive, mythological, leering.
“Oh my god,” I said.
“Mom, don’t move.”
I couldn’t have moved even if I’d wanted to. I was held in my spot by the knowledge that any movement on our part would result in movement on his, on a vanishing one way or another, and I didn’t want that. For reasons I didn’t fully understand, I needed him to stay exactly where he was, a foot of unchartered territory between us, for as long as possible. It was the closest I’d come to a religious experience and I hadn’t come very far. I couldn’t tear myself away. I’d felt similarly the first time I saw Elvis: the fear of vanishing and all that. The egoist in me believed he felt it too: he, Elvis, he, the buck. I had a habit of misinterpreting signals, a tendency for finding or manufacturing unrequited love.
Before I’d readied myself for his leaving, the buck suddenly turned and sauntered off, back the way he’d come. We stood beside each other a minute longer, not speaking, watching him go. Then we turned and walked mutely back to the car.
We passed six or seven more deer as we exited the park, though neither of us mentioned them aloud. The words “false prophets” flashed in my head. I turned back on Ramona Quimby, in case Eli was listening; drove home.