Poor Deer

Claire Oshetsky

January 19, 2024 
The following is from Claire Oshetsky's Poor Deer. Oshetsky is the author of Chouette, which was a PEN Faulkner Nominee, the winner of the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, and a finalist for the Northern California Book Award and the Barbellion Prize. They live in Santa Cruz with their family.

I’ve done it. I’ve finally done it. Here it is: truth itself, written down on the musty old motel stationery I found in a drawer in this rented room. All night long I’ve been telling the truth in a scrawl so scrawling that it nearly rips the pages. I’ve written by the light of a garish neon sign shining in through the window—and I feel so peculiar. I feel weightless. I might go flying up into the air at any second. My mind is buzzing from so much truth-telling. I feel blessed. I feel absolved.

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But then—just that quickly, even before Poor Deer has the chance to tell me what I’ve gotten wrong this time—I begin to doubt. I’ve been telling made-up stories for so long that the unadorned truth feels ugly and ungrammatical and the facts feel like borrowed broken things picked out at random from a jumble of hearsay and old gossip. Once I tried to tell my mother the truth about the day of the schoolyard flood and she slapped me and said: “MARGARET MURPHY, YOU WILL NEVER REPEAT THAT AWFUL LIE AGAIN!” and I never did.

That’s when the old familiar voices in my head begin to speak to me, the way they always do. They’re trying to talk me out of what I remember about the day of the schoolyard flood. You were four years old. You were too young to remember. It didn’t happen that way. Your mother says you were with her all day and never left the house. She says you never stepped foot in that old toolshed. You’re remembering it wrong. What you call truth is nothing more than Ruby Bickford’s made-up story—her slander of a story—the lie she felt compelled to tell, because she couldn’t admit that she had killed her own child, through selfish neglect, and had then tried to blame the girl next door for her own, criminal negligence.

I’m innocent.

Maybe I’m innocent.

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Poor Deer has tucked herself miserably back in her dim corner of room 127. She has gathered her raggedy blue robes about her and covered her head with them. She is peering out at me with one moist eye. More of your lying lies, she says. There was no tumult of color and light in that cooler. That girl died in the dark. When they found that girl, she was blue in the face. Her nails were split from trying to scratch her way out—her toes were clenched—you could have run for help—it should have been you in that box—

I was four years old. I was afraid.

You wanted her to die—you hated Agnes Bickford—

No. I loved Agnes Bickford.

But Poor Deer persists in harassing and haranguing me until I’m almost ready to say—I give up—you’re right about me—

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And then, from behind the curtain, the first light of dawn begins to seep through, and I feel the creature in the corner diminishing. She is transubstantiating in reverse, from something supernatural, into something ordinary—a pile of old clothes, a shadow on the wall—until she is nearly transparent, and her voice is no more forceful than soft tears, when she says to me: Margaret Murphy, I am nowhere near done with you—

And then? There is no imaginary beast in the room with me.

Poor Deer has been defeated by the day.

Now it’s just the three of us in room 127 of Little Ida’s Motor Lodge.

Penny, Glo, and me.

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From Poor Deer by Claire Oshetsky. Copyright © 2024 by Claire Oshetsky. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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