The idea of vampire deer. The image of a grown man staring at the stars with his hands “pleated” over his eyes. Timothy’s phrase, “they’re lost in the headlights of your gaze.” These are the things that stayed with me after I read “Vampire Deer on Jekyll Island.” For me, the background, the failing relationship—those things, for good or for bad, barely registered. Mark’s story spoke to me about the ways in which we see the world, or in other words, the way in which we imbue the world with life.
Timothy and Courtney are both dealing with a failing relationship. Courtney drinks. Timothy, on the other hand, escapes into the world of imagination.
He maps his fancy onto everything. It’s not that the dumb deer have acclimated to humans, but that they are “caught in the headlights of [Courtney’s] gaze.” And those deer are not simply cud-chewing cervids, but lupine bloodsuckers, “vampire deer.” You can argue that his whole game of pretend is simply a gambit to get Courtney’s attention. He begins talking about the deer as “wolves” to make conversation with her, to back up his contention that Jekyll Island is “creepy.” But the very nature of the conversation suggests a particular way of relating to reality. He is not content to simply accept the world as he’s been told it is. His mind is active and creative and whimsical. He’s not prepared to accept a deer as a deer, just as he’s not prepared to admit “defeat” at the story’s end.
No, instead, like a child, he stares at the stars in wonder. He seems to find some sort of solace there. It might be a false solace—after all, his faltering marriage still waits for him when his sights return to this earth. However, you can’t deny that he finds joy in the firmament. Why don’t you take another look at that last paragraph. Chiusano’s understated, Carver-like prose doesn’t scream it, but there’s terrific uplift there. There’s the surprise of “he wasn’t used to something like that,” followed by that final sentence where we leave him “hugging” the air, but feeling—or at least, a part of him (“his arms”) feels—“entirely satiated.” Like so many other city dwellers before him, he’s taken aback and entranced by the full majesty of the night sky.
Such a lyrical ending might come under fire for failing to engage with the grittiness of life, eliding the real sorrow that Timothy must be feeling. You can ask, “Who actually will respond to marital strife by going, ‘Oh wow, that sky is beautiful’”? But, for me, personally, it made total sense. Timothy is constantly creating his world—naming and imagining it. In this final scene, he’s simply doing what he’s done throughout the story. This time, though, it’s just that he’s positing things onto the night’s twinkling stars and not telling us what they are.
Is that really so hard to believe? I think we all do the same thing. We all tell ourselves stories. We all dress up the world with associations and imaginings. We might not all have a failing marriage that we must confront, but there are bitter realities we’d rather not face. However, good stories—stories we tell ourselves, or stories like this one—whisper to us during the difficult times and permit us to persevere.