Down the road a ways there is a branch where a graveled indent veers off the main route into unbroken darkness. It ends abruptly in a tangle of trees that gives way to a clearing in which running water can be heard. No river or creek is nearby. A single grave marker comprised of a half-shattered stone cross sits at the edge of the clearing. Nobody is quite sure who is buried beneath it. The only letters visible on the intact portion of the cross are an ‘i’ and a ‘d’.
Here is where she steals away to. She sits with her back against the grave and writes or daydreams. The clearing is quiet - except for sound of the water - and the still uninterrupted by man or beast. She sometimes searches for the water she can so clearly hear but never finds a source. She feels sometimes like eyes burrow into her and once she thought she felt a hand on her shoulder. She is unafraid. She closes her eyes and feels deliciously alone.
Tonight she finds a jar against the gravestone. It’s perfectly clean and empty.
She settles herself and listens to the far off scream of a bird. She sketches for a bit - ravens with hearts in their beaks - until her grip on the pencil slackens and she loses herself in a waking dream. In it she rides a black stag across a clearing scorched dead. The stag turns its head and its eye is a blood-red ruby, cracked. From the crack oozes ink. And the ink flows down the neck of the stag to scrawl across her bare leg the word ‘deliver’. She starts awake. The pencil snaps in her fingers, abruptly, and makes a sharp dry sound. She has written ‘deliver’ across her sketches.
The wind has picked up and carries a shrill cold note atop its bluster. She shivers, packs her notebook in her bag, and steps away. She stops then and, on impulse, grabs the empty jar and shoves it into her bag too. The wind shrieks, tearing at her hair.
Shut into the close dim of her home she sits poker straight on the couch. She pulls the jar out of her bag. Just a jar. Flawlessly clean. Two hand widths tall. Empty.
“Huh,” she says. She puts the jar on the coffee table and goes for a shower.
Later, in bed, she dreams. Footsteps in her hallway. She opens the bedroom door to see the black stag vanish into her kitchen. In the kitchen just the stag’s cracked-ruby eye remains, hovering horribly in mid-air. The eye blinks darkness. She looks down. Underfoot spilled ketchup spells the word ‘deliver’. It is ketchup? She wakes with a start.
In the morning the jar has a skiff of cream across its bottom.
She trudges to work and motions through the day. When she returns, the sun is already beating a premature retreat behind the city skyline. Snow is in the air. She sits on the couch with her dinner and notices that the jar is a quarter full with cream. It sloshes when she picks it up. For a long while she simply stares at it. Then she rises, puts it in the fridge, and shuts the door firmly. She finishes dinner, does laundry, watches some TV with only half her mind engaged. Her eyes wander to the fridge door. The door, black, seems to expand outward ever so slightly as though drawing a breath. She imagines she hears it sigh. She shuts off the TV and takes a shower. She crawls into bed and slips into a dreamless sleep.
Later, though, she dreams. The black stag stands in her kitchen. She pulls the jar of cream from the fridge and it is warm, almost hot in her hand. The stag’s ruby eye is broken and gives him the appearance of a jagged scowl. She pours the cream over his back and he screams, with a human sound, as the flesh peels off him. She wakes with a start.
“Crazy,” she breathes. She wills her heartbeat to slow then gets out of bed. In the kitchen she hesitates for half a moment before opening the fridge. The jar of cream is three-quarters full. She touches it, quickly, darting her hand in as though expecting to be bitten. It’s cool. She shakes her head and ghosts a grin. She shuts the fridge door. The magnetic poetry is arranged to say ‘jar cream deliver’. She dives back into bed but it is awhile before sleep claims her again.
In the morning the jar of cream is full.
She calls in sick to work.
She sits on her couch with the jar of cream in her hands. Her notebook is open to the page on which she wrote ‘deliver‘ over a pencilled raven. The sketched heart in its beak appears to throb, just once. She unscrews the lid of the jar and raises it to her lips. It’s cool. The cream smells fresh. Inviting. She stares at nothing, hesitating, and then tips the contents of the jar down her throat, drinking in long thirsty gulps.
She finishes her day. The jar sits, remnants of cream filming its insides, forgotten on the coffee table. She showers and goes to bed. She dreams fitfully, of stags and shattered rubies, of the clearing, of the word ‘deliver’ in bones on the ground. She wakes with a scream. Her heart is squeezing painfully in her chest. It seems to grow, pushing against her ribs, crushing her lungs. She clutches at her chest. In her mind she sees the stag and in its fractured eye she sees a thousand of herself reflected in ruby light. The stag bolts and she chases it, clawing at her chest in agony.
It flees down the road and she gains on it along the graveled indent. She can see where it crashed through the trees and she plunges after it, emerging with a strangled sound into the clearing. She crumples. Something, a shadow, an edged darkness, sucking light from the space it inhabits, red-eyed and half-formed, a stag or a girl or just an inky place in the air, smudges overtop of her. Her eyes snap open when it touches her. Deliver, her lips say. And then nothing rushes in on her and nothing claims her and nothing is all she has left.
Much later a man enters her home and shuts the door behind him. He moves with measured footsteps to the living room where he sits, poker straight, on the couch. He picks up the forgotten jar. It is flawlessly clean and empty once more. The man smiles. He is unbearably, horribly beautiful. His mouth is the color of rubies. He wears a black suit. His skin is the color of fresh cream.
- Corinne Simpson