photo of an elk (from behind) in winter

Promises to Keep by Maggie Damken

That night, during the blizzard, my car got stuck in the unplowed road. 

I was five miles from home. 

I had two choices: stay in my car overnight and hope someone found me, or start walking and hope I made it home. I don’t like relying on hope. When my mother was dying all I did was hope: that she would get better (she didn’t), that I would have more time with her (I wouldn’t), that I’d hear every story she needed to tell me before she died (I didn’t).

We buried her two weeks ago. 

The headlights opened a path barely five feet ahead of the car. In the silence, surrounded by snowflakes, I was in a secluded pocket of the world. If death came, it would arrive flurry by flurry and entomb me in a black cold. I know better than to ask unnamed things for favors, but that night, out loud, I asked whatever might be listening to help me get home. “I’ll do anything,” I said.

I wasn’t thinking. 

And something heard me. 

Where the headlights expired into shadow, something stirred. A tree branch, I thought, until it lumbered closer. On National Geographic they never look so big, but this elk was larger than my car with antlers that spiraled upwards, unendingly, like coiled towers armed with spears. I turned off the radio. I held my breath.

It stopped beside my window and lowered its head. My mother told me you can discern the true nature of a creature by looking at the corner of its eye, but this creature did not have what I could rightly call an eye. Where an eye should have been there was an empty, featureless white gap that opened like the cap of a mushroom. This elk was more than an elk and not an elk at all. 

It wanted me to get out of the car. 

I don’t know how I knew, but I knew. 

I didn’t budge. 

Neither did the elk. 

And then the engine shut off. 

The keys wouldn’t turn in the ignition. I couldn’t pull them out, either. The heat in the car seeped out faster than I thought it would and now the choice changed: I could stay in the car because it provided shelter from the snow, or I could get out of the car and hope the elk-that-was-more-than-elk didn’t gore me. 

“You need to learn trust.” 

It spoke without speaking, the way things do in dreams. In dreams you survive on impression and instinct. Slowly, deliberately, I pushed open the car door against the heavy snow enough to slip out.

The first time I stood next to a horse, I thought: this is a reasonably sized animal. In Christmas movies, when the child discovers a reindeer in the stable, the reindeer doesn’t quite dwarf the kid in size. I could not tell the body of this elk apart from the colossal night. Swathed in shadow and untouched by snow, it existed in the spaces between each flake. Squinting against the bitter wind, I lost track of its edges, its dimensions. I could not see the black fur or the black antlers, although I could feel them near me. 

The only thing I could see for sure were gaps where eyes should have been. 

It began to walk and I followed. 

I was home within moments. 

We left no tracks in the snow. Like vapor, the elk disappeared.

In the morning, a friend drove me to my car. When we arrived, an ancient oak had fallen over it. Shattered glass glinted in the snow. Gnarled branches mangled the car into a heap of jagged metal. 

“Good thing you took a chance and walked home, huh?” 

Days later, an afternoon squall blew through and I saw the elk in my yard. Even in the gray light I could not discern the fullness of its shape. The longer I looked, the more my eyes lost the ability to focus. Static cluttered my vision. I dug the heels of my palms into my eyes and when I pulled them away, the elk’s antlers were pressed against the glass door. 

“You have promises to keep,” it said without speaking. 

I did not let it in. 

That night, although the refrigerator hummed on, all the food spoiled. As I poured the sour milk down the drain and watched it burble, I wondered how long I could resist. I wasn’t clever enough to find a loophole, the way heroes always do in stories: either I would give what it asked, or it would take my blood by force. 

The next day, while the elk rattled its antlers against the house’s siding, a slow leak began in the roof. When the heat failed, and the fire in the hearth would not take, and the matches would not light, and I found the extra blankets wet and half-frozen, I knew that patience and mercy had expired. The only choice was an illusion of choice.

On my threshold, the elk became a woman with tall antlers and no face. I thought, maybe, that I recognized her hands. 

“You promised anything in exchange for your safety,” said the elk-who-was-a-woman. “I want it to be your turn.” 

She pulled her antlers out of her head and offered them to me. It was futile to refuse her. I set the antlers against my hair and felt them latch onto my skull, bone taking root in bone. When my eyes were no longer human I could see the face of the creature that had saved me. It was my mother’s face, and it was no longer flushed from chemo or swollen from prednisone and her hair was her hair, not cancer’s hair. There were so many things I wanted to tell her, but when I opened my mouth, I didn’t know how to speak. 

“You have to take care of things,” she said, and I was no longer in my house but deep in the pit of a winter night, the world glittering against the cold flames of moonlight, alone. 

Maggie Damken is a librarian-in-training whose work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Strange HorizonsBreadcrumbs MagazineKaaterskill Basin Literary JournalThe Rising Phoenix ReviewGhost Proposal, and The Sarah Lawrence Review. Her short plays have received readings in New York City. 

Lead image: “Elk portrait from behind” (via Flickr user Yellowstone National Park)