Tien Shan Mountains, Kyrgyzstan. October 25, 2004.
The road stretches onward into twighlight.
There, a small figure walks. He is draped in a bear coat, shriveled and ragged at the edges with tufts of black fur, dark against the newfallen snow.
He is barefoot, and his breath clouds the frosty air, but he walks straight, with purpose, though the road seems to have no end.
Off the road, a thin creature watches the boy. She is the same color as the snow–pale and glittering–only her eyes betray her presence. She picks her way across the drifts, leaving pin prick hoof prints like dark stars in a white night sky.
The boy smiles when he sees her.
“Snow deer,” he says.
They walk together. He rests one bare hand on the base of her neck, soaking up the warmth beneath her fur. He is young and small, six or seven years old at most, though the boy doesn’t know his age for sure, but the snow deer is smaller. Her back comes up only to his waist.
She found him when he was just a baby, abandoned on the edge of a mountainside, and she kept him warm until the world melted into spring and she had to retreat into the far upper reaches of the peaks, where the frost never thaws. But she returned to him every winter, and he learned to watch for her after the first flakes filled the frostbitten fields.
She is a creature of solitude, a creature of snow and loneliness and thousand star skies. Soon the boy will outgrow her company. Soon he will desire to shout louder, reach higher, and run faster than the snow deer can bear.
“Come! I have something to show you,” he tells her, and she knows it is begun. He has found his family. She will return to the mountains this spring knowing he will no longer be waiting in the winter. But she steps quickly beside him, letting her eyes widen in expectation and joy. She will be happy for him. This is no time for sorrow.
They turn into a copse of trees so laden with heavy snow that numerous branches have broken. They stick up from the drifts like a litter of bones. In the base of a pine tree so tall the top disappears into the darkening sky, a warm orange light shines bravely against the blue snow shadows.
Snow deer soon understands that the light is a window, and the base of the pine tree a home. A home so tiny, the inhabitants must be no more than mice or ants! Snow deer stops suddenly, legs straight as the dead branches. He’s leaving her for a family of mice?
“Snow deer, what’s wrong?” He strokes her ears just the way she likes it, always back, never forwards, and she calms. She can never stay angry with him longer than a moment. She will look in the window. She will welcome these newcomers into the boy’s life.
The window is only slightly larger than her eye. She sniffs first, her small black nose catching the scent of apple. Her home is winter, and her tastebuds know only dead, rough, buried things: twigs and shrubs and decaying leaves. The apple smells like the first blush of orange in a morning sky. She has eaten shriveled fruits, seeds, and apple branches, but never has she even seen a full red apple like the one she peers through the tiny window. It takes up almost the whole room.
Around the fruit scurry tiny creatures. They seem to be people, but they were made to be the size of a proper person’s little finger.
“Look, they’re baking the apple for us!” The boy whispers. Sure enough, one side of the fruit is sliced open, and the smell wafting around the edges of the closed window into the chill night air is coming from a miniature pot over a tiny stove.
“They make all sorts of food, snow deer. Nut cakes and meat pies and blackberry jams and walnut breads, but baked apple is my favorite.”
Of all those words, snow deer knows only of apples and walnuts. And those she knows only in their most rotten, misshapen form. Fresh, warm, green foods are unimaginable.
Snow deer flattens her eyes and ears so the boy understands her confusion.
“Don’t worry, you’ll get to try it all. They’ve promised to share with you. I told them you’d come, just as soon as the snow fell! I don’t think they believed me.”
The boy knocks one fingertip against the window. “Hello? She’s here! Look! I told you she would come.”
Voices spill out of the tiny kitchen. Shouts and jeers and questions like the chirping of birds, high and chattery and impossible to follow. There are four figures in the kitchen, two slightly larger, and two so small the snow deer at first mistook them for insects. Of course insects would be terrible monsters to these people. Or maybe they speak with them. Or raise them for food. Snow deer wishes she had a mouth to make words like the boy, so she could ask questions. Instead, she lowers her ears as low as they could go. More confusion.
“Please don’t be sad, snow deer! Oh, I know the problem.” The boy kneels and wraps his arms around her neck, kisses her silky white ears. “I’m sorry, I never welcomed you back. I was just so excited to show you! And look, the apple’s ready! Try some.”
A tiny hand holds a tinier plate out the window, filled with a portion of red, steaming apple no larger than a snowflake.
Snow deer sticks out her pale pink tongue, and the boy laughs.
“Oh, you’ll love it! I know you will!”
It is better than the first orange in the morning sky. The taste is the color of the boy’s cheeks when she first warmed his infant body against her fur. The sound of his laughter when he learned to walk on his own two feet. The joy in his eyes when he made sounds with his lips and invented words for all the things he felt. That is the taste on the Snow Deer’s tongue.
I love you, she says with her eyes. The boy understands.
“I love you, too,” he answers. Then he turns to tap on the window and listen to the chatter chirping back and forth inside.
Snow deer slowly backs away, the taste of apple burning in her mouth.