Nathan Alling Long grew up in a log cabin in rural Appalachia, worked for five years on a queer commune in Tennessee, and now lives in Philadelphia. Nathan’s work appears on NPR and in publications such as Tin House, Glimmer Train, Witness, and Story Quarterly. Nathan’s collection of 50 short fictions, The Origin of Doubt, was a 2019 Lambda Literary Award finalist and a collection of essays titled As Is is due out this fall from Periculum Press. Other awards include a Truman Capote Literary Scholarship, a Mellon Foundation grant, and four Pushcart nominations.
Francis once thought of himself as the reincarnation of St. Francis, until the age of eleven when a dog bit him, and he decided then that the world was not made for anyone with the temperament of a saint. He would be more practical, more cautious as well. He soon shed Catholicism altogether, though his mother and his priest told him such a thing was not possible, but he held on to the idea that within him was a spirit of saintliness.
He thought of his Great Aunt Eleanor, who was borderline crazy, but also adorable, visiting them without notice in her old wood paneled station wagon from
Wisconsin, bringing him a garland of wilted flowers and a poem, or a velvet bag full of silver coins she insisted she’d found beneath an enormous oak. She was saintly though not slated for sainthood, Francis decided, and since she was also his godmother, he was destined to be like her, generous and always smiling wistfully, without a care about how others perceived her.
And so Francis, freed of religion, found a sort of spirituality modeled largely after his godmother aunt and how he felt when he sat on the only boulder in the woods behind his house and stared out at the trees, the sun pouring through branches and leaves, dappling the forest floor with light. Sometimes he thought of the boulder as his throne, though mostly he simply thought of it as his place, a secret he kept from his friends and parents even when he walked through the woods with his father, who once looked at it and said, “Strange that rock being here in the middle of the woods.”
He had learned enough from the dog that bit him not to think he appeared a friend to animals, but still he sensed a connection to them, one that was mysterious and needed to be revealed, much like his murky future. He spent his afternoons sitting on the boulder, thinking about school and his parents, about things his friends had told him in private, about his life in general, but really he was waiting to catch a glimpse of an animal. He often saw birds and squirrels and chipmunks, which did not really count, but occasionally he saw a garter snake or frog, and once a larger animal he could not exactly figure out—a woodchuck? A raccoon? A beaver? But what he was waiting for was of course a deer.
Other animals scurried and fidgeted, lived in a world of fear and flight, or at least flightiness, but the deer, he felt, was the noble creature of the forest, one that stood and moved gracefully, that looked about with large thoughtful eyes, that could stare at you and give you the feeling you were being seen, as a whole being, with all your faults and virtues, your insecurities and secret talents. A few times he saw a deer in the distance, half hidden behind the trunks and branches, a small pack of them—three or four—no five—a family that looked after themselves and took off over the ridge as soon as they sensed him.
But one day, after Francis had sat on the boulder for several hours, dissolving his worries and fears in the quiet clean air, letting the flutter of leaves and the soft clear light of the sun, filtering through the trees, calm him into a near silence, he heard a sound behind him, the cautious steps of a large animal he imagined was a deer, though he’d been fooled before by how much sound a chipmunk or bird could make, rustling in the woods. He did not turn or move. He would simply wait, though the anticipation, and a thread of fear, was excruciating, though this fear felt so much cleaner and more exciting than the fear of dealing with kids who bullied him, or not being prepared for an algebra test.
As the animal stepped closer, Francis’ mind grew wild imagining it was a bear, and then that it was his father or one of the neighbor boys playing a trick on him, though he had never seen any of them in the woods by themselves. At one point, he even wondered if this was the devil himself, come to test him like Jesus had been tested in the desert. He almost shook his head to free that thought from his mind but convinced himself not to move. He realized then that his mother and the priest had been right, that he could not easily free himself of the religion he’d been raised under, and this made a muscle in his face twitch .
Francis stared straight ahead at the low branch of an oak and concentrated on the light that grazed across it as the shadows of the leaves above moved in the breeze. He slowed his breath and listened to the sound of each step, some nearly inaudible and others sounding like the sharp crack of a stick. He felt the boulder beneath him, thought of how long it had lain in this very place, how long it had existed, and tried to imagine he was nothing more than an extension of the rock itself.
And then it was before him, a young deer arching its head and nose toward him to understand what this lump of cloths and flesh resting on top of the boulder was. Without moving his head, Francis lowered his eyes to watch its nostrils as they twitched, taking in his scent. Its ears perked up, then turned slightly in the air. And when he dared to look into its eyes—for certainly when he saw it, it would see him and understand what it had come across and know instinctively everything about him—he saw instead that it had no eyes.
The lids were sunken and remained shut, but from them beautiful long black lashes curved out toward Francis, as though they themselves could see.
Francis stared at the dark hollows of the deer’s eyes and cried. He had been so quiet and so still, but saw now how he had wanted something from the deer, for it to reveal to him who he was. The deer though was undeterred and took another step closer, rounding the boulder so its chest was in front of Francis, its head nearly in his lap. It looked up at him with its eyeless stare and sniffed at his hands.
Francis’ eyes glistened and the sunlight stretched out from them, blurring the forest around him. He thought of his aunt, who was no longer alive, though she seemed almost present now beside him. She would tell him not to be afraid, tell him that he was like St. Francis, able to sit silently in the presence of another creature.
He raised his hand, palm up, and reached toward the deer as if to bless it, and the deer came forth and rested its head in his palm, as if it were doing the same.