by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Kaleidotrope, September 2016
The letter was sealed and stamped but had never been sent. Amelie almost passed it over entirely while going through her aunt’s old boxes of science articles and research notes. It was addressed to a professor at the University of Crosshatch, Maryland. Amelie didn’t think her aunt had ever worked there, but Aunt Jill had traveled a lot. She’d studied giraffes in Africa and wild horses in the Gobi Desert. She’d worked her way across Europe studying the few remaining bison, all kept in zoos. It seemed like there was nowhere Aunt Jill hadn’t been, so Amelie couldn’t be sure.
Amelie ran her hands over the aged paper and felt a small lump in the corner of the envelope. In the end, though, it was the handwritten address that saved the letter from being dumped, unopened on the discard pile with years worth of vet bills (something was going to have to be done with Aunt Jill’s pet pygmy goats, Fred and Ginger), paperwork, and the other detritus left behind at the end of Aunt Jill’s long life.
Amelie could picture Aunt Jill’s freckled hands scribbling out the address in that loopy scrawl, and for a flash of a moment, Amelie felt connected to Aunt Jill again, across all these years.
She opened the letter and tilted the envelope. A single white pearl rolled into the palm of her hand. Amelie put the pearl aside carefully in her pocket and pulled out the letter.
The paper inside was frail with age, and the handwritten lines were tight, squeezed up against all the edges, filling every inch of the page. The careful, cursive style spoke of an earlier time, but Amelie could read it. Aunt Jill had insisted she learn, even though cursive hadn’t been taught in the schools for years.
* * *
July 10, 1959
Dear Professor Kohensart,
I hardly know if I should write this letter to you — let alone send it when I’ve finished. My studies have taken an unexpected turn here in the Florida Keys. I came to the Keys on a three year grant, nearly two years ago, to study an endangered species of deer, a subspecies of the white-tailed deer, that lives only on these islands.
My grant supplied me with the funds for lodging in a small cabin on No Name Key and the assistance of one graduate student. I selected a young woman, Kara, from one of my upper division courses — the only other woman in my department. We came to our cabin on No Name Key with our bags filled with camping gear. As the entire island is unattached to the electrical power grid, everything in our cabin had to be powered by a small, diesel generator.
We began our work at the tail end of summer. Kara and I followed the Key Deer, watching the different herds, naming and identifying the individuals so we could track their changes and behavior. In the evenings, we talked and played backgammon by the dim, flickering light of a kerosene lamp in our cabin.
Summer waned into fall, and the warm rains warned us that it would be an El Niño winter. In order to increase our observations before the winter set in, I assigned Kara a herd of Key Deer on the coastline, and I kept track of a herd further inland. The long, lonely hours with nothing but deer through binoculars to keep you company and a notepad to tell your thoughts to would be enough to leave anyone feeling a little edgy. And Kara was already troubled.
Kara had recently separated from her husband, and she spoke of him frequently during our backgammon chats. She clearly still loved the man and was tortured by the scandal she’d caused by leaving him. I assumed that they’d fought over her desire to pursue her studies. I believed that she felt the same calling to science that I did.
Every night, before we played backgammon, I looked over Kara’s notes from the day, and we discussed the changes in our herds. The peculiarities in her observations started out small: she spotted an albino deer. It was odd that she hadn’t noticed the deer earlier, but albinism among deer is not unheard of. Several days later, she saw the albino deer again. This time, she insisted it was the same deer as one she’d been observing earlier in the month, a deer she called Chaplin. Kara was a fan of the moving pictures, and she named many of the deer in her herd after movie stars: Chaplin, Keaton, Garbo, Hepburn, and Astaire.
An albino deer is an oddity; a normal deer whose fur turned suddenly white? I was forced to begin questioning Kara’s reliability.
The next week, Kara told me that Chaplin had lost his antlers. Normally, Key Deer don’t shed their antlers until February or March. This was much too early. On the other hand, perhaps this development lent credence to Kara’s earlier claims. Perhaps Chaplin was a very sick deer.
Finally, on a particularly rainy night, Kara told me that Chaplin had begun to grow a new antler — a single, pearly spiral in the center of his forehead. I suggested that the rain must have obscured her vision. Kara insisted it had not.
Wondering if my graduate student had lost her mind, I told Kara that I wanted to come observe Chaplin with her the next day. I needed to know if any of her observations could be trusted or if I’d wasted two months of funding on a graduate student who was unreliable. Was she delusional? Incompetent? Or purposely interfering with my research?
Whichever it was, I knew I couldn’t use her work anymore. She wasn’t performing serious research. She was making up tales of unicorns.
Kara played the next several games of backgammon in silence. When she spoke, she pleaded for me not to interfere with the coastal herd. She could hardly deny her advisor the chance to monitor her research. However, she argued passionately that my presence might spook Chaplin at a critical time, disrupting the natural behavior of the herd. She knew that her findings sounded strange and hard to believe, but she assured me they were accurate and begged me not to make a choice I would regret, destroying both my research and hers.
I was taken aback. I didn’t know exactly what I was dealing with, but I tried to think through the possibilities.
If, in all unlikelihood, Kara had discovered a strange, rare illness among the Key Deer, then she was right: changing our routines now could disturb the gentle creatures, affecting their behavior. If, however, Kara’s work was corrupted by malice, insanity, or incompetence, then a few extra days wouldn’t substantially change the situation. And, finally, if Kara had gone mad, did I really want to antagonize her?
I promised Kara to wait at least a few days, pending her evening reports, before I interfered in her observations of the coastal herd.
Remarkably enough, for the next week, Kara’s evening reports no longer mentioned the snow white deer with a spiraling horn. When I questioned Chaplin’s sudden disappearance, Kara answered lightly that she hadn’t seen him. The next day, when I read over her notes, a single line stood out:
“deer with pale fur near the water — reflection off the ocean makes the light brown fur appear white — Chaplin? — can’t make out the antlers — the sound of a cracking branch — gone now”
After that a clear pattern developed. Any time I mentioned Chaplin, he appeared in Kara’s notes the following day, sounding increasingly sickly. Otherwise, he was gone.
I knew I needed to do something about Kara, but I had never fired a graduate student before. I didn’t want to shatter her dreams of earning a PhD and condemn her to the unwanted life of a housewife. I also didn’t want to waste my limited funds and endanger my own career. Fortunately, Kara handled the problem for me.
Without warning one morning, Kara told me she’d decided to reconcile with her husband. She intended to leave the graduate program and go home to him immediately.
Neither of us had been into the town to pick up supplies and check the post office for nearly a week, and there was no telephone in our cabin. So, I was unsure what had prompted her sudden change of plans, but I was relieved to have my problem solved for me. I wished Kara luck, helped her pack, and gladly walked her to the road off the island.
With Kara out of my way, I immediately changed my routine and began observing the deer along the coastline. Within two weeks, I’d spotted all of the deer she’d named, except Chaplin.
Would he have hidden from me forever? I think he might have, if he’d had the choice, but — I told you it was an El Niño winter — the rains came suddenly. I was wading through a marsh at the edge of the ocean. The day was almost warm, but the skies opened up with a torrent. Heavy, large droplets filled the air, splattered over me, and left me stumbling, blinded. I tripped, twisted my ankle, and fell into the water. I must have hit my head on a piece of wood, because I blacked out. The next thing I remember…
I’m a scientist, but none of this sounds like science. I can’t publish it. No one will believe it. They’ll say I’m a crazy woman, and women don’t belong in the sciences. Maybe Kara was crazy. Maybe I am, too. Or maybe it’s a secret of the old world — a secret not mine to tell — a secret the world means to be kept.
The next thing I remember, I floated above the water in a bubble, buoying me up and protecting me from the rain. The edges of the bubble shimmered and buzzed like millions of miniscule, iridescent wings. Against my prone back and arms, the pressure of the bubble tingled like my limbs had fallen asleep.
The bubble floated me away from the marsh and set me down at the edge of the forest. Then, the shimmering surface distorted, flew apart, and formed a miniature tornado mixed with the falling rain. The tornado twisted wildly along the tree line, moving away from me. I watched it go, and when it drew my eye to an albino deer with a single, twisting horn in the middle of his forehead, I wasn’t even surprised.
The mouth of the tornado lifted from the ground to the tip of Chaplin’s horn. Then the twisting, shimmering disturbance diminished and disappeared. A moment later, Chaplin disappeared too, a ghostlike figure hidden behind the pouring rain and the branches of the forest.
After trudging back to my cabin in the rain with an aching head, I might have dismissed it all as an hallucination. But, in the creases of my jacket, I found the crushed bodies of miniscule insects the like of which I hadn’t seen on the island before. I’m not an expert on insects, but they looked like cicadas, only much smaller and nearly translucent. I gathered the tiny exoskeletons in the palm of my hand. As I tilted my hand, their iridescent wings shimmered in the kerosene lamp light.
I had neither the proper equipment nor training to study the insects on No Name Key, but I carefully preserved them to share with the entomology department when I returned to my university.
Over the next few months, my work suffered. I’d lost my assistant, and then I lost my focus. I ordered entomology books to be shipped to me from the university library, and I pored over them late into the nights, straining to read them by lamplight.
The habits and behavior of the No Name deer no longer held any interest for me — except for one, and I’d spend days tracking him only to lose him after a single, short sighting. It was as if he purposely eluded me. Perhaps he did. I don’t know how much the changes in Chaplin’s physiology affected his brain and intelligence.
I did learn about his life cycle.
Here I come to the part of my story that pushes it beyond the implausible tale of a deer with a strange disorder causing it to superficially imitate the physiology of a — a unicorn — and into the impossible flight of fancy of a woman out of her mind.
I shall never trust my judgment or own senses again.
I tracked Chaplin every day until one day I caught up with him on a sandy beach. He was not alone. I was not alone. Waist-deep in the waves, a woman covered with her own long, wet hair held her bare arms out to Chaplin. He came to her, stepping gingerly through the surf. She must have been kneeling for the water only brushed the small deer’s belly as it crested by the time he reached her. He lowered his head and touched the tip of his pearly horn to her extended hand.
The air began to shimmer around them, growing outward from the tip of his horn. Tiny cicadas buzzed through the air around me, brushing me with their wings. Then the swarm withdrew, back to Chaplin’s horn.
“You’ve been following my unicorn,” the woman in the water said. Sunlight reflected from the water, glaring all around her. Chaplin’s white fur had never looked so bright.
“I’ve been studying him.” My voice faltered. “I’ve never seen anything like him. I just want to understand.”
The woman quirked an eyebrow. “You don’t have a wish that you’re hoping to make?”
I shook my head.
“I believe you,” she said. She beckoned for me to approach.
I walked up to the water’s edge. Chaplin stood his ground instead of bolting for the woods. I would never have an opportunity like this again, so I waded into the surf, paying no mind to drenching my clothes. Knee deep in the water, I knelt down beside Chaplin and the strange woman of the water.
“You can touch him,” she said.
I put my hand tentatively against Chaplin’s side, felt his white fur and the rhythm of his breath. All these months studying the Key Deer, and I hadn’t until that moment touched one of them. He showed no sign of alarm, so I moved my hand upward. I stroked his neck, let him nuzzle my palm with his nose, and then petted his long ears.
Finally, with a deep breath, I braved to touch his horn. It looked smooth like a pearl, but it felt bumpy, spiraled with ridges. Up close, it made me think of the sea shells of ladder horn snails. It was open at the top where I’d seen the cicadas come out.
“The insects,” I said, “they come out of his horn. It’s a symbiotic relationship, yes?”
The woman nodded. “The queen burrows into the forehead of a deer — or similar animal. Then she builds her home.”
“I’m here to harvest the eggs.” She opened her hand, showing me a cluster of what looked like pearls in her palm. “Their life cycle is long. These eggs won’t need hosts for decades.”
“You said something about wishes…” I felt like a fool as soon as I said it. Here I was, studying the most fascinating symbiotic relationship I’d ever seen, and I let myself get carried away by a superficial similarity to ancient mythology.
The woman’s face hardened. “Humans have slaughtered unicorns in the past, believing they granted wishes.”
“It’s a myth, of course,” I said. “It must be. I’m sorry I brought it up.”
The woman seemed placated by my apology, but something about the way she’d said humans had sounded strange to me, as if she didn’t think she was one of us.
I asked if I could examine one of the eggs, and, after some thought, the woman agreed. With three fingers, I reached into her palm and — making a choice that shall haunt me and cause me to question my own character as a human being until the day I die — carefully took two of the eggs, making it seem as though I’d only taken one.
Professor Kohensart, that second egg is included in the envelope with this letter. I don’t trust myself with it any longer. Part of me wants to cut it open with a microtome knife and examine it under a microscope. Part of me…
Let me tell you the rest.
After I returned the other pearl, the woman didn’t stand to walk away. I don’t think — I’m not sure — but I don’t think she was kneeling. I think — I can’t even write what I think. Insects that are symbiotic with deer are far fetched enough. Must I write words like unicorn and mermaid?
Suffice it to say, I think the woman swam away from our meeting.
Then, a few weeks ago, on my vacation home from the Keys, I met with my former graduate student Kara. She wouldn’t talk to me about what had happened to her on No Name Key, but she told me the real reason that she’d separated from her husband two years earlier. Apparently, Kara and her husband had wanted children, but they’d had no luck. The pain of wishing for something she couldn’t have had driven her away from him.
Yet, merely a year after inexplicably abandoning her studies with me on No Name Key to return to her marriage, Kara was the proud mother of a newborn baby named Charlie. She told me that Charlie was a wish come true.
Professor Kohensart, I know that anecdotes like these have no place in serious biological study. But what am I to think? Could the insect queen and her swarm of miniscule cicadas in Chaplin’s horn have somehow affected a change in Kara’s body to alter her barrenness? Was a swarm of insects truly strong enough to lift me and carry me out of the marsh? How can I even wonder at things so entirely ridiculous? If I do wonder, then must I also wonder what else that insect queen could do?
How am I to continue as a scientist?
I must know if I can trust my own senses, but my studies of the crushed cicada bodies that I preserved have taught me nothing. Perhaps with your expertise, Professor Kohensart, you can learn something from the enclosed egg. As the foremost expert on cicadas, there is no one more qualified.
You will tell me whether I’m sane or have lost my mind on No Name Key. That is how I will continue. I eagerly await your response.
Jillian R. Anders, Ph.D.
* * *
Amelie put down her Aunt Jill’s unsent letter. The memory of Aunt Jill’s voice echoed in her mind. Amelie remembered sitting on her lap as a child, listening to the stories of her many expeditions, and the many graduate students she’d advised. Amelie had never heard of Kara before, but Aunt Jill had worked with many other aspiring women scientists.
Somehow, Aunt Jill had found a way to remain a scientist without sending this letter.
Amelie took the pearl from her pocket. She placed it in her palm and pushed it around with a single finger from her other hand. It looked like an ordinary pearl at first, but the longer she stared at it, the more it seemed to swell and shrink, almost imperceptibly, almost as if it were breathing.
Decades had passed since Aunt Jill had sealed the pearl into that letter. If the story were true, it would hatch soon. It would need a host.
Amelie went to the window of her Aunt Jill’s study and looked out at the pet pygmy goats, Fred and Ginger, munching on the lawn. They were funny animals. Amelie’s mom had wondered why Aunt Jill had chosen goats, instead of a more normal pet like a cat or a dog. But Amelie thought it perfectly natural — a goat was an ungulate, like the giraffes, horses, bison… and deer that Aunt Jill had studied.
Amelie didn’t know whether pygmy goats were similar enough to Key Deer to be appropriate hosts, and she didn’t know whether the pearl was really a cicada egg. Or if it would ever hatch. She supposed that she ought to have it studied. If Aunt Jill’s story were true, it could be a treasure of science, and she’d never known Aunt Jill’s stories to be untrue.
On the other hand, the egg might also be a living thing, almost ready to hatch. It would be wrong to hurt it. Aunt Jill may not have sent the letter to Professor Kohensart partly to protect her reputation, but Amelie knew her well enough to believe there had been another reason. Aunt Jill studied animals. She didn’t dissect them.
Amelie slipped the pearl back into her pocket. She would keep it. She would need to look up the ordinances for keeping pet goats in the city, but she would find a way to keep Fred and Ginger, too. It’s what Aunt Jill would have wanted.
Then if the egg did hatch… Well… Amelie thought that Ginger would make an adorably funny unicorn.