Fiction: As Deer Search For Grass

Two fieldworkers found the blue boy in a field and carried him to the nearest holy place. When they found the lights off and the door to the temple locked, they walked the half-mile to the rabbi’s house. The rabbi of the town’s only temple opened the door to his one-bedroom wearing disheveled hair and a wool sweater. The holy man, who was not young, but younger than one would expect, was shocked by these two men in their worn overalls, one of them gingerly cradling a boy in his arms as the snow faded behind them. The boy was blue.

Marta Edwards, she of the wrong surname, would remember the silence. The steam from the rabbi’s abandoned tea looped and swirled upwards, the red kettle on the stove still perspiring. She tapped her manicured nails against the fired clay of her own mug, a slight clink as she frowned into her chai. She thought it was quite late for someone to trudge through the snow to a holy man’s door, but she could be wrong. It had been a long time since she had had any visitors to her own home.

Voices traveled. Curious as one would be at this hour, she leaned her chair back to peer into the visible sliver of hallway to the front door, but all she saw was the rabbi’s back. He held a hand to his face.

Marta also thought the blue boy was asleep when she first saw him, his robin’s egg pajamas soft against the cracked brown leather jacket of the man who carried him. She believed the fairytale, in which he was the sleeping prince, until she noticed that his blond lashes were brittle and frosted to his concave cheeks, his pale lips a chapped, dusty violet. Like an allergic reaction, Marta’s throat seized. This blue boy with the dirt in his wheat-colored hair was blonder than Alex, but he was just the same size, and for a terrible heartbeat Marta saw her six-year-old son in the arms of the fieldworker. She stumbled and reached for her neck, but it was bare. She had stopped wearing her crucifix some years before.

The rabbi, whose name was Benjamin, knew his friend and thus angled himself between Marta and the dead boy. The falling snow brushed his shoulders and the florescent light created a halo around him as he whispered for her to return to the kitchen. Marta’s breathing was shallow and quick, and the hallway curved beneath her feet. She focused on the uneven paint on the walls, the weight of Benjamin’s hand on her shoulder.

Benjamin had trailed her, and now he poured her a glass of water and asked her to wait. His hands kept worrying his short beard. When he returned to the cold, Marta darted to the phone between the sink and the pantry and dialed her neighbor’s number. She trembled to the rhythm of the ringing.

The neighbor woman, Letti, was used to Marta’s constant calls (the mother would sometimes freeze in the midst of paperwork to call the neighbor with some awful conviction that something terrible had transpired, which only her son’s voice could dispel). Even so, the neighbor was now taken aback by Marta’s piano-wire taunt voice. She passed the phone to Alex without question.

“Hola, Mama.”

Marta fell against the wall, tilting her head up to look at the water-stained ceiling. She tried to steady her voice, blessing the averted tragedy. “Hola precioso. I just wanted to make sure that everything was okay with you and Letti.”

“She said we could watch The Muppets before bedtime!”

“How nice of her…”

Once she had hung up, Marta retreated to the bathroom and splashed some water on her face, her bracelets jangling when she patted her face dry. She stared at herself in the mirror, the water returning some red to her whitened face. Her cheeks, usually so plump, looked hollow. She willed herself to breathe normally. She willed herself to be composed, willed her tears to dry. This was another child, not her own.

When Marta emerged, the house was warmer, the front door having been closed. She found the three men in the kitchen: Benjamin washing his hands with a ritualistic care; one of the fieldworkers at the table and other man, the younger, pacing behind him. Neither of them had removed their jackets despite the warmth of the house. They looked strange in this softened light.

Marta pushed her shoulders back in the bravery she’d learned in the last three years and set the kettle aflame on the stove. She hovered beside the rabbi, who was drying his hands as hers rested on the counter, seeking purchase.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“Yes,” the mother replied, reaching up and fluffing her hair. She did not know she did it.

Benjamin nodded. Paused. “The child is in the living room,” he whispered. “I’m going to call the police.”

Marta nodded and the man of God slipped past her to disappear down the hall. She wondered if the ice in the boy’s lashes had begun to melt. The melting would appear like tears.

She tried not to think, but instead performed a steady hand, pouring out fresh tea for the finders of the blue boy. The one who had carried the boy accepted his mug with a smile while the younger left his tea steaming on the table. He chewed a hangnail on his thumb as he paced.

Marta returned to the chair she had occupied before. The man across from her held the hot mug between his hands. His nails were brittle and black, his knuckles red, white skin flaking, but he held the mug delicately. His hands looked like bear’s paws.

“I’d thought he was asleep for a moment,” he said, a rock through the window of their silence. He did not look at Marta, and his companion behind him startled, and began to pull at a loose thread on his flannel. “I thought it was hypothermia,” the bear continued. “You fall asleep first, did you know? The Incas—they’d sacrifice children to their gods by leaving them at the tops of mountains. It’s a peaceful death. That boy, he just looked so cold and small, you know?” Those bear hands trembled, and so did his voice. “But when I picked him up…when I picked him up, I knew. But we couldn’t just leave him there, in that field. I couldn’t just drop him on the ground, in the dirt and snow.”

The boy had become blue, in the snow in his pajamas, waiting for the gods to take him home, to honor him. To pay him mind. But how fickle the gods were.

Benjamin reappeared in the doorway. “The police are on their way,” he said, buttoning and unbuttoning the bottom of his cardigan. “It may take time with the ice, but they asked that we all remain here so that we can answer their questions.”

The seated worker nodded: he knew to resign. His companion, however, shifted from one foot to the other, tugging at his sleeve. “Y si creen que lo hicimos nosotros?”

“Eso no va a pasar,” Marta replied. His anxiety was catharsis for her fears. He was not much younger than her, but in that moment, she felt old at thirty-five.

“Everything will be okay,” said Benjamin, the man who spoke no Spanish, but who read the emotions of a person the way a palm-reader interprets lines on a hand. He gestured for the young man to sit, but he pressed himself further into the wall, hoping the pale yellow would envelop him and take him far away.

The police would be making their way through the streets of black ice and salt while Marta and the two fieldworkers stared at the pockmarks on the kitchen table. The dust settled. There was silence but for the dripping of the faucet and the rabbi’s voice from the next room—whispered prayers for the dead.

When the police arrived at the rabbi’s house, they found a congregation of two migrant workers, a holy man, and a mother. They divided and conquered, questioned each of them until the night that had been meant for tea between two friends had transformed into a procession of police and medics, and a boy dead in the living room, covered in a thin white sheet that frayed slightly at the edges.

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The mother who lived in a small town where nothing happened beyond the implosive, intimate dramas that occurred within living rooms, was late to pick up her child. The roads were slippery with ice and she resisted her impulse to speed. She toggled the radio—the Beatles, a speech from President Carter given earlier in the day, a televangelist warning of the perils of Hell—so that she did not have to listen to the aching emptiness of the night.

She apologized profusely to the neighbor woman, Letti, as it was close to midnight when she arrived. Alex stirred only slightly when he was passed into his mother’s arms.

Once home, Marta wrapped him tightly in his blankets, as if this way she could protect him from the same frost that had taken the blue boy. She then pulled the comforter from her bed and slipped off her shoes before settling in behind Alex, gathering him up into a bundle against her chest so nothing could reach him.

Once upon a time, when he’d first been born, they’d slept like this: Marta, Alex, and Peter. Her husband had clutched her from behind, hip to hip (she felt certain that the largeness of men compared to women had been designed solely for this kind of comfort), as she sheltered their son in the cradle of her arms. He’d been so small; his nails, nose, and pink hands like seashells. His skin was so pale she could see his veins, his hair so fair it disappeared against his gentle, un-formed skull. The delicacy was unbearable.

“Who’d thought two people like us could have made that,” Peter had said, his lips kissing the back of her neck, and she didn’t feel like she was meant to answer. In those days, it had been enough to just be.

Now, her back felt cold and unprotected. Marta scooted closer to Alex, still soft and so small, and she buried her face in the space between his shoulder and the blankets, searching for warmth. She dreamed of the blue boy that night. She did not remember the dream in the morning, but she woke dreading to find frost in Alex’s hair. She begged the sunlight to slink over the blankets to him, to his rose-blush cheeks, and never let him grow cold.

Marta forced herself up, trudged to the bathroom, took her pills, washed her face, untangled her mess of hair. She pinned her curls back, smeared concealer, mascara, a hint of color, flossed and brushed her teeth. A ritual. A learned, practiced ritual. Of seeking. Of hiding. Of pretend. The bathroom was small, and she was not slender. She had learned to adapt to the space again and again, to not stub her hips or her ass into the counter or the wall. She had learned, despite these careful movements, that this weight was her health. No more sharp elbows to match sharp corners, like steeples piercing the sky. Her knees didn’t knock together. She could no longer see her hip bones protruding in that way that had made Peter retreat in disgust when he had tried to fuck the sadness out of her.

Her ex-husband, her coworkers, the whole town would have preferred her skinny. No, slender: the acceptable kind of skinny, with tits and an ass, not the kind she had been before Peter left—the counting-ribs kind. No, she was a woman who dared take up space and they hated that. She was a single woman who was not looking for a man. She was not white, she had given into her loss, she’d been desperate and had driven away her husband, and yet now she dared keep herself well groomed, her nails always perfect, and her gold glittering and rattling. She refused to disappear again. She refused to fade again. The skinniness had been her very body melting away while the rest of her felt like it had vanished months before.

“She’s not like us. And she’s tacky,” Marta recalled having heard Peter’s mother whisper to him when she’d left the table after a family dinner. Oh, if that woman could see her now. How she must hate her. Marta returned to the mirror, and added more rouge to her cheeks. Perhaps she did look tacky, but hollow, colorless cheeks frightened her so. With the precision of care, she rinsed the rose-blush from her fingertips.

Once Marta Edwardss had completed her self-creation, she set some coffee to brew and woke her son. Alex leapt from the bed, bouncing up and down before he sprang to the floor, still at the age when a new day was a promise.

The mother nearly forgot the blue boy as she bustled through her house, the fresh-fallen snow now gleaming in the morning sun, illuminating their home, light reflecting off the wind chimes outside of the kitchen window and the picture frames in the living room.

There were many photos—of family, of first steps, of Alex and of his grandparents a country away. Some of the photographs, to a stranger’s eye, would have seemed cropped at odd angles, as if they had been folded over or torn: a disembodied hand at Marta’s waist or the hem of a jacket falling into the frame. Marta had not cut her ex-husband out of all of the photos; she hadn’t wanted to destroy every evidence of Peter. She did not want Alex to grow up with the suspicion that something was missing, that there should have been another person to kiss and hold him…but she also feared the teenage years when her son would surely wonder who had given him his pale features, his blond hair. Peter had been the kind of man who bought his employees drinks; who knew the bartender by name and who would pause and talk to anyone, a hand on the shoulder and eyes only on them. He was the kind of man who’d bought her flowers on Valentine’s Day and who agreed to go to mass at the Catholic church instead of the Evangelical service his parents preferred. He hadn’t even believed in God, but sometimes he’d smile at her and says, “Lookin’ at you might be enough to convince me there’s some higher power out there.”

So she kept some of the photos, for the day when her son finally asked.

Having spied the blue skies and the smooth, glistening layer of snow, her son asked another question now: “Oh, can I get the mail?” He was already shoving his little feet into his rain boots by the front door, one hand braced against the doorframe for balance.

The mother began to shake her head, then realized, shuffled, and reached for her clogs by the door. “Okay,” she said, “but I’m coming with you.”

She pulled her sweater close when Alex flung open the door; the sharp, clean, cold air stunned her. She walked at a steady pace behind him as he ran, not down the driveway but through the snow, exaggerated, pretending that he was an explorer in the land of igloos and dogsleds, or caught in quicksand, searching for a vine for rescue. She sped up as he reached the mailbox, an isolated point where the driveway met the rail-thin line of a road. Alex stood on his tiptoes to peer into the mailbox and retrieve whatever treasures laid within, and Marta watched the road and the sparkling snow and the trees behind. Clumsily, the boy shut the mailbox, no knowledge of the dark of the woods, or the monsters his mother feared. He handed the stack of plain, uninteresting envelopes to her, keeping for himself the thin, twenty-five cent comic book that the mailman, a sympathetic, kind man, would slip in for him.

“Wait ‘til we’re inside,” Marta said, patting his head when he tried to begin reading the comic while walking. Her child looked at her, and for a moment, she thought he had caught her fear. She smiled, and clasped his hand, and they walked briskly back to the house, the mother with a straight rod for a spine, as if being watched. When they arrived back into the safety of warmth and walls, Alex kicked off his boots and shuffled in sock-ed feet to the couch, pulling the fraying knit blanket around him and forgetting all else but the colored panels on the thin sheaves in his hand. Marta sighed as she watched him, brushing his hair from his eyes as he dipped his head to read.

The coffee pot hissed and gurgled. Marta turned off the stove and braced herself against the sharp edge of the kitchen counter and shifted through the mail, still cool to the touch and slightly damp. Bills, ads, a paycheck—all addressed to Marta Edwards. She missed her maiden name. Her true name. Marta Sotomayor. She hadn’t realized until she lost it what a brazen name it had been in this place. The sturdy beginning and the demanding “yor” at the end. “Edwards” was plain, inauthentic, and belonged to a man and a culture she could never claim as her own. Yet…she was not divorced. And to change a name was a difficult thing.

But oh how she hated to see Marta Edwards, Marta Edwards, Marta Edwards, scrawled across the envelopes, one in handwriting quite familiar. The woman of the wrong name stopped and pulled the envelope from the pile. There was no return address. With a manicured nail, Marta opened the envelope without a single tear and found what she had expected, but which she had hoped would have been different, something new: a single, hundred dollar bill.

She glanced up, thinking the door must have opened again with the cold that came over her. Like poor Pandora, she closed the envelope, tried to seal it back up. Attempting to breathe calmly, she went to her bedroom, opened the top right drawer of her dresser, and added the envelope to the collection. A drawer of Peter’s guilt and dredges of obligation. All of them—all the envelopes of money he’d sent, without note, without care, as if she were a loan to pay off—remained in this drawer with their crumpled, dirty, monetary offerings.

She’d used none of it. She refused. She refused to allow him to take pity, for his guilt to motivate him to perform the bare minimum because he did not think her capable. So the money stayed, in the top drawer on the right, with her wedding band and the other old photos that she could not cut him from.

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More letters, to Marta Edwards, the woman who did not exist, or perhaps the woman who had taken the place of that girl, Marta Sotomayor. More letters, with cash—sometimes a fifty, sometimes another hundred, but never more or less: always a single bill. The easiest thing. More letters stuffed into the drawer, more mornings walking to the mailbox, telling Alex not to read his comic until he got into the house, holding his hand, holding the letter, and once—amongst the bills and the money from her husband-not husband—a pamphlet on stark white paper with a face of graphite so clearly rendered she could nearly see the frost in his hair.

Illustrations of the blue boy appeared in the newspaper, on street corners and bulletin boards. In her mailbox: a plea. The police were searching for leads, for anyone who could tell them who this boy was, this boy found frozen in a field as if he had been laid to sleep, waiting for those gods of old to claim him. The anxious mother woke every morning with dark moons beneath her eyes. She couldn’t sleep, couldn’t bear to leave her son alone. She was sweeping through bottles of wine more quickly than she knew was right and when she realized what she was doing, heard the bottles ratting in the trash as she dragged it to the curb, she poured the remaining burgundy down the drain, leaving the sink blood-splattered.

Three months passed and the little blue boy was still the little blue boy; no name granted to him. His body had been held on ice (how cruel a fate for a boy found in the snow) and autopsies performed. Marta had nightmare of scalpels and bloodless bodies cut open. Only to the rabbi did she confess that she hadn’t been sleeping well again.

“Me either,” Benjamin replied, leaning his elbow on the shoulder of her beige couch. “Sometimes I dream that I’m the boy, in the field. I can’t move. Can’t speak. I can only stare at the sky and watch the snow fall. I have to blink it out of my eyes.” He frowned and rubbed his jawline right where his beard began to thicken. “It almost seems like a sign of some kind.”

Marta pulled her knees to her chest, only to throw them off the couch and place them firmly on the ground. When the days had been kind and she still wore her wedding ring, she and Peter used to sit on the couch for hours. He’d watch TV and she would read, leaning against the armrest with her feet tucked under his thigh. The comfort of his warmth was far greater than the way his weight made her feet go static.

The man of god turned to her swiftly now. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean that—”

“It’s all right.”

“The death isn’t a sign,” he clarified, pushing himself off his elbow, his hands going wide, waving. He spoke with his hands when he grew emotional. “I only mean that these dreams feel like a sign.”

“It’s your job to find meaning in all this,” Marta said. Her voice took a tone of defense, and she paused. She pulled her hair into a bun, her bracelets sliding down her arms. “I am just the product of what your faith tries to save, but can’t.”

Benjamin sighed. “Oh, how that isn’t true,” he said, leaning back again. She watched how his Adam’s apple danced, and how his eyes seemed to soften on the wall. Marta ran her nails along the ribbed fabric of the couch. The true miracle was that she had not yet driven him away; he allowed her to return each time in faithlessness like a prodigal daughter, still, somehow, worthy of forgiveness. She did not know if this made him a weaker man or a stronger one.

Peter had grown tired of forgiving her. He’d grown tired of coming home from work to the curtains drawn and Marta a lump in the bed. Some weeks she wouldn’t shower for days. Others, she would scrub the house until her palms were peeling and raw. He was tired of her either frantic and demanding sex or refusing to be touched. He was tired of the way she took to red wine and scarcely to food; her words to him were just as sharp as her bones and her silences as vast as the weight disappearing from her body. She wasn’t the good Catholic girl or the sexy Latina her parents had told him not to marry—she had become skinny, greasy haired, and angry with God. Marta Sotomayor had nearly faded away, nearly disappeared between the folds of the wrinkled and stale bed sheets she burrowed beneath. Then, one day she reemerged and her husband was gone. He took his clothes, his wallet, and his car. He’d never said a word.

Benjamin tried to smile at her. “Hey,” he said. “What do you get when you cross an elephant with a rhino?”

Marta rolled her eyes. She’d never met a man who cared for bad jokes as much as he did, and he had yet to repeat any of them to her.

“What?”

“’el-if-I-kno,” he said, and then grinned like a little boy.

“That’s terrible,” Marta said, rolling her eyes and yet laughing despite herself.

“I know, but perhaps that makes it better.” Benjamin picked up his mug and both of their crumb-covered plates from the coffee table and walked them to the kitchen.

“They’ve decided to bury him,” he said, sober-voiced now as he ran the sink and began to wash the plates. “They’ve learned all they can from the body and it’s time to let the boy rest.”

Marta nodded. Bit her lip. “Where will they bury him?”

“The Pauper’s cemetery,” the rabbi said. He dried his hands and looked out the window. The sun illuminated his face. Young and so certain. She had been like him once. She forgot at times that he was older than her.

“We’re raising money for the service, the coffin, and the marker,” Benjamin said, crossing his arms and leaning against the counter. “Saint Mary’s is donating their collections for the next few weeks.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I thought you’d like to know. That maybe you’d want to go because you were there when they brought him to my home.”

The house darkened as a cloud passed over the sun, and when it began to brighten, Marta went into her bedroom, to the drawer, and shuffled into her hands the collection of envelopes addressed to the woman that was her and not her. On her bed she took out the bills, left the gutted envelopes, and in a new envelope of her own (bright yellow —she never sent her letters to her parents in white) she deposited the money.

“Here,” she said when she handed the envelope to Benjamin. “My donation. Please pass it along.”

He accepted the gift, the money she had not earned and refused to take for herself. He looked down at it and tapped the edge of the envelope with his fingers for a moment. “You should come,” he said.

She shook her head. “The most I can do is give some money,” she said, crossing her arms and rubbing her hands up and down, ignoring when the gold clasps of her bracelets caught on her arm hair.

“And that’s generous,” Benjamin assured her, “But I think it would mean a great deal for you to be there.”

“You know—”

“I know it’s difficult. I know it must be the worst thing in the world. But we can’t let him be buried alone like he was found in that field.”

Marta sat in the kitchen for a long time after the rabbi left, watching the shadows stretch across the floor, remembering the days when she could scarcely move. When she had been Rebeca of Cien Años de Soledad, her body the bag of bones she carried, haunted by death and half-starved. She thought she heard whisperings. Prayers. She thought she heard the snow crunching on the front lawn—deer passing through, so unaware of the suffering that occurred within these houses. That night she dreamed of a city of tombstones, amongst which silent deer paced, looking for a bit of grass.

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She awoke the day of the funeral with the urge to lean over the toilet. She nearly buried herself beneath the covers again, hid as she had so often, but then she remembered how cold and small the boy had looked in the fieldworker’s arms. He had been sleeping in a frozen pasture, alone. It is hard to forget such things.

Letti couldn’t babysit, so as Marta dressed Alex, she told him, in soft words, where they were going. Alex had seen graveyards, but he had never been to one. She hadn’t taken him to the cemetery by the church, for angels passing through did not need graves.

“You won’t see anything scary. You might see some people crying though, and there’s going to be a lot of flowers and stones and people dressed in black. But you won’t see a dead person.”

“How come he died?”

Marta paused. Abandoned, she thought, Taken from his home by someone he trusted and then left alone, forgotten. But she couldn’t voice her suspicions. Her son was only six. In the world of children, only the old die and go to heaven, and those who leave when they are younger as just passing angels. Wasn’t that what she had told him?

“Well…” She rubbed her thumb over the back of his hand. It always surprised her, how smooth his little hands were, as if the roughness of the world had not yet hit him. “I don’t really know, cariño. But we think that maybe he fell asleep outside when it was very cold and he didn’t have a jacket.”

“You can die from the cold?”

“It’s called hypothermia. But it only happens when you’re out in really, really cold weather for a long time. That’s why it’s so important for you to wear a coat, and gloves, and a hat,” said Marta, poking Alex in the stomach. “If you do that, you won’t have to worry about hypothermia.”

Alex stifled a smile and shooed her hand away. “Okay.”

Letting out a long breath through her nose, Marta pulled her son into her arms, patting down his curls and pulling at the soft material of his shirt. She gripped his little shoulder, so small she feared that anything could break it. When she pulled away, she saw that she had darkened several spots on his sweater with tears she hadn’t wiped away quickly enough. […]


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Cassandra Martinez is a Latina writer from Richmond, Virginia with a BFA in Writing, Literature and Publishing from the honors program at Emerson College. She currently resides in New England and works for an independent publisher. Her work has appeared in Stork, Flawless Brown, Concrete, Underground, and the Florida Review.

Cassandra Martinez was runner-up in the 2019 New Writer Awards (fiction/nonfiction).

Read More: A brief interview with Cassandra Martinez