Blood Moon

by Joseph Bathanti

Lorraine Venoble had insisted on driving home from the country club. She was angry and a little drunk, though not a whit drunk as her husband, Charles, known as Pink because of his complexion, who functioned well drunk, never speeding the way his wife sped, that night, along Cashion Store Road.

Beneath the sanguine moon, spreading ruby light over the heaving cropland, she welcomed the hot wind in her clipped hair, gone silver prematurely, something else she blamed Pink for. She flicked off her headlights. The gaudy moonlight washed the land incarnadine. Pink grinned like an idiot, threatening some boyish platitude to placate her: how beautiful she looked, an entreaty to pull over so they might undress and make love in a field of dying chiggers and beggar lice—his notion of romance.

Deep in the woods, at intervals, flame spurted in long skirmishes along the earth. Fire, more suggestion than fact—dream, even. But real fire, nonetheless, set by the county in controlled burns—an ironic way of appeasing the conflagration that threatened St. Joan’s County each drought-ravaged Indian Summer. The season when skunks, led from their lairs by the harvest moon scurried often in pairs through the fields and flirted with the road. Was the blood moon, however, that bewitched them to tarry that extra moment on the white line that spelled their ends. They lay like totems at intervals along the roadbed: elegant little muffs of plush black and white, fur ruffing as the gold sedan whooshed by. Their unmistakable yeasty smell like strong stout that Pink found stirring and Lorraine abhorred.

Lorraine shoved her silver shoe down on the gas. Eighty-five miles an hour on black aggregate lathered on with brooms and shovels by convict tar squads from the county prison at Coventry. But Pink said nothing, pulled a cigarette from the pocket of his tuxedo jacket, lit it from the car lighter, stared at the lighter’s tiny mandala of fire until it faded. His first impulse, when she had insisted on driving, was to hold his ground, but he had meekly handed over the keys and stumbled into the passenger seat. Not because he was drunk. He was invincible in his dazed inebriated innocence, but because his temperament was suited to acquiescence, and he reasoned that his wife admired in him this humility, this silent boyish contrition—as if he had come to her after clumsily shattering one of her cherished possessions and, before she had discovered its ruin herself, made a clean breast of it and begged forgiveness.

Perhaps if she drove recklessly, even if she managed to murder them in a crash, then things would be alright. Barring death, however, they would return home, scale the listing wrap-around verandah of her ancestral home, with its old rattan ceiling fans, a few paddles gone, a few dangling, and walk through the red front door, then up the wide, scored locust staircase to their bedroom.

Pink wanted to tell her to slow down—at least turn on the goddam lights. He had never wanted her to drive in the first place. It was his own pride: let her drive, let her wreck us. That kind of the-Devil-with-it ennui. He simply could not bring himself to speak. Could not—even when he spied the mammoth doe very deliberately beating down the brake and sedge fencing her from the road. Like some underground film with its psychedelic moon. Beyond what words could say about beauty.

Lorraine. Was that what Pink was thinking? Did he say it? Later he’d swear he’d called out. But, by then, Lorraine was in a trance, crossed over into speed and the pearly red moonlight. The deer’s destiny had somehow crossed with hers. The doe was intent on ending her life. Yet it was clear to Pink that, in those last seconds, remorse had tempered the doe’s resolve, that she’d rethought her decision, attempting to confound fate or even instinct, to turn back to the secret place, that other dimension never glimpsed, where deer abide and mate and live their invisible secret lives—to undo what had been foretold in the abiding writ of inevitable. He made out her face, long, sleek, alert, ears bolted and channeling the nocturnal voices urging her.

Lorraine. Did he say it? By God he wouldn’t say it. Let it play out. Not the word, Lorraine. Nor gasp nor hiss nor declension of any caliber, not even to close his hands over his face until suddenly the fabulous wholly unreal female creature in mid-flight appeared seemingly above the golden automobile. As if hurled out a myth, some insane allegory.

Lorraine was a careless driver. She sped in curves and habitually rode the clutch, gunned off the mark and braked heavily, skidding up to stop signs and traffic lights. On highways she never shifted out of the left lane. Nevertheless: the Blood Moon is famous for necromancy; and, while the deer had revealed herself to Pink, Lorraine did not see her until they were face to face: the doe’s imploring gaze as she looked deeply into Lorraine’s eyes as if there seeking benediction. Something. What a creature intuits at the moment of transmigration: metempsychosis. Imprinted forever in the shutter click of Lorraine’s turquoise eye. Then each instant doubled, then quadrupled, finally stilled like stop-action photography. The doe spooled out of the frame, as if summoned by the crimson ether on a steady line toward the shrinking lens.

Not Pink’s eyes. The doe did not look into Pink’s eyes. Blue like Lorraine’s, but diluted: a drop of turquoise liqueur in a glass of tap water. He was outside of it, wondering how they would survive, regretful he hadn’t shouted his wife’s name. He told himself there hadn’t been time as he exhaled a cloud of cigarette smoke and the 626 convertible plowed into the doe.

JOSEPH BATHANTI is former Poet Laureate of North Carolina (2012-14) and recipient of the 2016 North Carolina Award for Literature. He is the author of ten books of poetry, including Communion PartnersAnson CountyThe Feast of All SaintsThis Metal, nominated for the National Book Award, and winner of the Oscar Arnold Young Award; Land of AmnesiaRestoring Sacred Art, winner of the 2010 Roanoke Chowan Prize, awarded annually by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association for best book of poetry in a given year; Sonnets of the CrossConcertina, winner of the 2014 Roanoke Chowan Prize; and The 13th Sunday after Pentecost, released by LSU Press in 2016. His novel, East Liberty, won the 2001 Carolina Novel Award. His novel, Coventry, won the 2006 Novello Literary Award. His book of stories, The High Heart, won the 2006 Spokane Prize. They Changed the State: The Legacy of North Carolina’s Visiting Artists, 1971-1995, his book of nonfiction, was published in early 2007. His recent book of personal essays, Half of What I Say Is Meaningless, winner of the Will D. Campbell Award for Creative Nonfiction, is from Mercer University Press. A new novel, The Life of the World to Come, was released from University of South Carolina Press in late 2014. Bathanti is Professor of Creative Writing at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, and the University’s Watauga Residential College Writer-in-Residence. He served as the 2016 Charles George VA Medical Center Writer-in-Residence in Asheville, NC.