Palo Alto Weekly 21st Annual Short Story Contest
Second Place Teen

Star Deer

About Camille von Kaenel


I gazed out of the window and watched the land I knew so well become smaller and smaller. Buildings shrunk into miniature doll houses. People were like ants, crawling around in what looked like aimless wandering. But for once, I wasn't part of their dance. I was in a plane for the first time, and California was waiting for me at the end of my trip. I bit my lower lip and tried to keep my homesickness inside. My hand reached into my deerskin bag and pulled out a clay figurine of a deer. I fingered its engraved spots, stopping at its shoulder, where the spots were arranged like the stars in the Big Dipper. My grandfather had given it to me as a symbol of my name, Leigh Spotted Dear Sander. For me it symbolized much more than that.

"Please buckle your seat belts, we are entering a turbulent cloud," a factitious voice droned monotonously. I clung to my seat as the airplane wobbled back and forth. A memory, a serpent of my childhood, hissed from the back of my head. I forced myself to block it out, but failed. I was awash in   memories.

It was in the hot days of July. The sky was a cloudless blue, a perfect, immaculate gown for the sun. Silence reigned in the forest close by, where the usual twitter of birds was subdued. I was four. My mother and I were resting in the shade of our hut. Hearing a moan, I turned around to see her sweating fiercely. Her belly full of child, she painfully made her way to her bed and plopped down, still whimpering. I rushed to fetch my grandfather, the village shaman, terrified for my dear mother. When I got back, my grandfather in tow, my father was already at my mother's side, his eyes clear for once. It was then that the earth started rumbling. The ground heaved up once, then down, like a breath. After a few seconds of silence, the Earth started shaking uncontrollably. In the midst of the terroe, I saw my mother, her eyes wild, her sheets soaked in red. My grandfather, always calm, was by her side, and I noticed a bundle in my his arms. Since my mother looked so sick, I concluded the bundle was a healing object, or one of the dolls that warned away evil spirits, rather than a newborn child. I shut my eyes tight, hugging myself for comfort since no one else was there to give it to me.

The shaking stopped. The dust settled.   I opened my eyes to look over to my grandfather, who was already organizing the frenzied villagers. I crawled over to my mother, who was slowly emerging from unconsciousness. She whispered something I couldn't hear. Overjoyed to see my mother alive, I grasped her hand tight.

"The baby," my mother croaked, this time a little louder. There was an uncomfortable silence as all the villagers looked at my grandfather.

"Stillborn," he whispered. His eyes, I noticed, were troubled, as if he carried a great burden. Hearing a noise behind me, I spun around to see my father escaping into the sunlight. That was the last time I saw him. When he moved out of the doorway, a deer was standing there, undisturbed by the recent shaking.

I used to dream that my father had escaped into the night with my sibling, and both had flown up on the dear into the sky to be stars, lighting the way for me throughout my life. I imagined that the deer in the stars was a replacement for me, and the deer sculpture with me was a replacement for my father and sibling. When I joined them, the separate deers would have completed their tasks, finally reuniting those whom they symbolized. When I received my sculpture and name soon after the earthquake, I felt that my grandfather had given me this name to remind me of my father and dead sibling, as though he too had seen the deer outside.

I remember that gamwing ceremony, though I was less than five winters old. Unlike most celebrations, almost everyone on the reservation had come to this festival,. There were many nights of dancing, singing, and feasting. On the last day, I remember my grandfather leaning over me, his face wrinkled like the creases on a mountain, strong but gentle. He had waved the figurine of the deer around and chanted to the gods for a name. With a burst of energy, he leaped around the fire, and when he was standing back in front of me, he handed me the clay figure. He revealed that my full name would be Leigh Spotted Deer Sander.

Suddenly a flood of memories overwhelmed me. Bits and pieces of my life erupted in a whirlwind of colors before my eyes. I held tightly onto my deer as I remembered days long past. I saw myself listening to the stories of the elders around a campfire from which a tower of smoke seemed to reach the heavens. I saw myself joking with my mom over the mischief of the young children, I saw the mountains which had guarded me all my life. Memories came with such clarity it was hard not to cry. I was climbing the Horse Rock again, named so because it reminded us of the shape of a horse's head, its mane flung back and stilled forever to make perfect footholds. My best friend Raccoon Tail's laughter when we ran in the clearing in the woods, butterflies flying around us like messengers of wishes being granted, echoed in my head.

I remembered the time my grandfather and uncle came back with a mother deer, with a foal in her stomach. I was around eight or nine. Deer was my special animal, so I couldn't bear to look at the skinning and preparing for cooking. Some time later, my grandfather offered me new moccasins, beaded so beautifully with porcupine quills that I almost cried. Colors twinkled on the soft chestnut-brown cloth, singing of thousands of rainbows. The stitches were straight and even. I felt the love that went into the making of them vibrating in my hands. I caressed them before gently slipping them on.

"They came from the foal," my grandfather said. With a cry of shock, I took the moccasins off and fell down in despair.

"Cry, baby, cry. The soul would have no rainbow if the eye had no tears. That foal gave its life for you in exchange for the honor we gave him. When we show our respect for other living things, they respond with respect for us," My grandfather soothed me. I gingerly took the moccasins back. They became my favorite ones, and when I grew out of them, I kept them close to me as a reminder to respect other living things.

When I arose from my reverie, I found myself clutching the moccasins. An air hostess was staring down at me, her eyes puzzled, but soft. I sniffed away my tears and made myself look straight back at her. I caught my breath. She looked so much like my mother I thought she had come back to Earth, summoned by my daydreams. Her dark, curled locks framed deep brown eyes the color of pine tree trunk. High cheekbones emphasized her small raspberry-red mouth. She was regal in her straight posture and proud gestures.    

"W...Wa...Water please,"   I stammered. The air hostess leaned down to grab a cup of water. When she straightened up again, her eyes, though still soft, had closed up, and the look I received was no more than a passing glance from a bored and tired air hostess who had better things to do than baby-sit a homesick child. My mother, if she had seen me in such a state, would have brought me close to her in a   soothing embrace, cooing over her precious child. But no longer could I snuggle deep in my mother's love. Only when I passed into the World of the Spirits would I see her again, and still, that was a long time away.

I remembered the plague that killed her. My mother had laid in bed with a strong fever for a week. One day, she told us she felt fine, her fever had gone. The next day she fainted in the fields. We had had to take her to the reservation hospital. She couldn't even recognize me, staring at me with blank, exhausted eyes. In her last moments, I saw a light of recognition in her eyes. She smiled and died. I felt her life slipping through my hands like water would flow between my fingers.

Many, including my grandfather, died of the same disease. But I, a turtle, had my own fierce spirit. The turtle is the one who holds the world on his back. He must keep steady and balanced so that life can bloom. I, too, am unwavering in the face of danger or fear. After my mother died, I did everything to keep our culture alive. Rejecting my jeans and t-shirts, I urged my friends to do the same. Raccoon Tail, my best friend, followed my advice, but she was the only one.

A white man appeared at our village, 4 months after my mother died, and gave me new pants and a t-shirt, the very same clothes I was trying to avoid. He ordered me into his truck and drove off with me cowering in the back seat. I stared helplessly back at my village. It was only after we were a far away did the driver finally talk to me- but only to inform me of the basic details. My father, hearing of my mother's death through some mysterious connection, had finally agreed to take on his role as my legal guardian.

I remembered my mother warning me about my father, relentlessly telling his story. He and my mother met one summer while out tending to the fields. He was an American man that farmed some of the land bordering our reservation. She was an Indian that stuck to traditional ways. He soon became my father. After a year of peace, he was getting tired of Indian rituals, and sneaked out one day to go back to his parents' home outside the reservation. There he was urged to go back to my mother, but my father only came back with a bottle of whiskey. He never left it. He was very often drunk, and the couple memories I have of him are mostly of an angry, flushed face looming over me and the cries of my mother when he beat her. He left us during the earthquake. My mother later learned he had moved to California, slyly and dishonorably.

Now I followed his steps to California, leaving the only home I knew to live with a near-stranger whom I had only known for four miserable years.

"We will soon be landing in California, so please buckle up your seat belts," An artificial voice intoned. I gazed out of the window, trying to pierce the clouds for a glimpse of my new world, in vain.

I felt a tingling in my stomach, eager to meet my father yet immensely afraid. What if he didn't like me? What if he still drank? What if I was to be treated like a slave? What if... My questions were cut short, for we had punctured the clouds.

Before my eyes laid a hustle bustle of activity. Cars were everywhere, houses crowded together to form ugly little clumps of brick. Skyscrapers loomed in the distance. A city of gray breathed before me. But to the right I noticed a forest extending for what seemed forever. My stomach tightened at the thought of my own dear village I had left behind. As we neared the airport, a clustering of dull runways and shiny planes, I shivered in anticipation. When we finally landed, I almost jumped out of my seat. Not before noticing a crowd of people welcoming the plane. A handful of people stood to the side.

I recognized a man with mosaic blue eyes waving to the plane. I gasped. Those same blue eyes had glared at me with drunken hatred when I was a child. I sat down with a thud and stared at my father. He was average-sized, but still he seemed to tower over the other people with a bold presence. His hair was brown, though it was tinted with gray at places. His delicate features declared that he was once handsome, enough for my mother. My eyes traveled down the line of people. My family? An old couple leaned on canes. A younger boy, looking bored, was staring intently at some cracks in the grounds. I guessed he was the son of my father's second wife, whom I figured to be that skinny redhead with fat freckles on her cheeks. And finally... I felt my heart stop beating for a second.            

I saw someone who looked a bit younger than me, but yet she reminded me so much of myself. She had soft skin that was a golden tan slightly lighter than mine. Blue eyes stared out of a beautiful face that made me think of a flower petal, so delicately molded it was. A small, pointed   nose stood out of her face. She stood tall, her shoulders back, her face expressionless. Could it be possible? Was the sadness I saw in my grandfather's eyes after the earthquake the sadness he felt because he knew the child lived? But my grandfather never lied. I gazed at the deer sculpture resting in my hands, searching for clues to the answer. A hint of a smile played across her face, a smile I had never noticed before.

"Welcome to California," I heard that artificial voice say.

I smiled back at the star deer.