The Stag Who Lived Forever
by Bryana Johnson, illustrated by Zach Franzen
It was a matter of great importance, and the morning wind that carries the mist and the butterflies carried the news in a kind of dance, like the laugh of the first baby, when it broke into a thousand pieces and was the beginning of faeries. But what had been born was only a little stag, with wide, glassy eyes, uncertain on its knobbly legs. There were stags born in the forest every day, and doe-fawns too, with brushy eyelashes.
But faeries didn’t come to visit all of them, and a faery came to visit this one. She sat up on a spider-web and watched his wet coat dry as the sun came up. There was something very particular about his coat, for it was white, and a white stag is not born every day. Indeed, in those days, you might live to be a hundred years old, and never see one.
“Well,” said the faery to the newborn stag, “What a fine creature you are, little White Stag! What do you mean to do with your rare and exceptional life?”
“I don’t know,” said the little White Stag. “I am only very lately come into this strange world. May I have some time to think about it?”
“Think away,” said the faery. “I can wait.” And off she fluttered, like a band of rainbow into the fog.
The little White Stag began to think very hard, but his small head was mostly empty, for he had seen only the soft grass-nest he was born in, and his mother’s warm fur, and the white tails of two rabbits that had bounced past him, and the spider-web, and the flash of jeweled green on a dragonfly.
However, this state of affairs did not last long, for baby deer grow very fast, and the White Stag was walking in only a little while, and the next day he was so steady on his legs that he chased the rabbits all the way into their briar-patch, and stood blinking in the sun, disappointed.
“My brother,” said the little White Stag the next day to his brother, who was older by some months, and nearly full-grown, with small branches of antlers. “What is the best thing to do in all this big world?” (Meaning, of course, only the great forest they lived in, and not at all what you mean when you think about the big world.)
His brother raised his head and took a long snuff of the clean woodsy air. “There are three things,” he said. “You should smell every last drop of the pine sap and the rainwater and the big billowing grasses in the clearings. That is the first thing. The second thing is to grow strong and wild and majestic, and lock antlers with other stags and conquer them. The third thing,” he looked down on the little White Stag and grinned with a sort of vast delight, “is to run your heart out.” With that, he went bounding away into the forest, leaping over thickets and saplings and leaving the little White Stag looking after him wistfully.
Spring slipped away into summer and autumn, and the scent of white blossoms and the symphony of frog-songs on the creek gave way to musty leaves and the geese chattering overhead. And the little White Stag grew taller and firmer and sprouted a tree of bone on his own head, and took his brother’s advice. He smelled the pine sap and the rainwater and the billowing grasses, and a great many other things besides. He grew strong and wild and majestic, with long white hair that shone in the moonlight, and a chest like an oak-tree, and he bested all the other stags in the forest.
More than anything, he ran his heart out.
The peasants who lived on the edge of forest spoke of the ghost of lightning that streaked through the woods like a feathered white arrow, and the White Stag saw their wonder and reveled in his magnificence, and laughed.
And winter melted into spring and summer and cicadas tittering in the trees.
But one day when he was running, he ran into something that disturbed his peace, and spoiled the wonder of living forever.
In a thicket on the forest floor, he found a doe lying. Her fur was torn and bloodied, and her eyes sunken and still. And a great chunk of her body was gone, with only ragged edges of meat left, and the white bones of her ribcage. The White Stag felt a sick horror making a fool of him, and he fled as though the king’s hounds were after him, all the way to the little grass-nest where he was born. There he curled himself up like a baby fawn and tried to breathe quietly.
“Well,” said the faery, startling him.
“Faery, faery,” said the great White Stag, leaping up. “You must tell me what I am to do, for I have taken my brother’s advice to smell the pine sap and the rainwater and the billowing grasses and grow strong and wild and majestic and conquer the other stags in the forest, and run my heart out, but will it all end and come to nothing at last? Faery, faery, tell me what will happen!”
The faery’s twinkling smile faded into a solemn expression. “You will die, of course,” she said.
The White Stag’s breath came heavy and his heart thudded in his chest. A little diamond popped into the corner of one of the great White Stag’s big, black eyes. “But I don’t want to die,” he said. “I am rare and exceptional. I want to live forever.”
The faery thought for a moment. “There is a way to live forever,” she said. “If you are famous, you endure in memory. There are some mighty stags living forever in the castles of the world. If a king puts an arrow through you in the forest, he will take you for a trophy and hang you up in his hall, and people will see you every day and marvel at your splendor. Otherwise, you will just wear out one day in the forest, and the wolves will eat you up, and your bones will turn into dirt and the wind will blow them away.”
The White Stag raised his head with pride. “I am just the sort of creature to adorn a great castle,” he said.
After this, the great White Stag grew haughty and aloof, and as he grew bigger and broader every day, he thought only of how glorious his frame would look on the walls of a king’s castle. Each time he passed a mirror of pond-water, he relished the idea of the immortalization that was coming to him.
Once, a king came through the forest on a hunt, with baying hounds and a train of attendants thundering behind. The White Stag hung back in a thicket and watched them go by with fascination, their banners and plumes flying and their bodies decked with glittering jewels and flashing swords. “I am just the sort of creature to be the object of all that excitement,” he said to himself. “In a few years, when my antlers are just a little grander, I will be ready.”
That winter was the coldest that had been known in the forest since the White Stag had been living. The snow was drifted in heaps about the bases of the trees, and the world was a fantasy of white. One day, as he went threading his way through a fresh blanket, he came upon something he had never seen before.
A small fire was sending curls of smoke up into the colorless sky, and a young peasant stood beside it, with his face turned away from the ring of the fire, looking out into the woods. He was thin and bony, with a sharp chin, and hollow dents in his cheeks. His clothes were worn, and his lanky legs scored with scratches beneath them. Slung over his back was a little quiver with only one arrow nestled inside it, and a longbow hung on his arm.
“My love,” the young man was saying to a girl who sat huddled before the fire. But he turned away from her as soon as he had looked at her, for his voice was husky and wobbly. He paused for a long time. “My love, I think there is only a few days’ journey ahead,” he continued, when he was able.
“But they will not live a few days,” the girl broke out, sobbing. “They have had nothing to eat for two days as it is.” She clutched tightly at a bundle of wrappings and kissed it. “Oh, my babies, my babies, we would die for you if it would make any difference!”
Then he stepped out into the open. An arrow twanged. His bones turned into dirt and the wind blew them away.