I first read Deerskin, by Robin McKinley, when I was 19. Rocky, my childhood dog, who I had lived with since I was 5, had just had to be put to sleep and I was wandering around in a grieving, weepy haze.
One day shortly after this I saw my mom reading a book with a beautiful girl on the cover, her silvery-white hair flying out in the way only a painted hair can, and an equally silvery-white long-nosed sighthound in the foreground. I was enchanted with the cover, especially the dog, especially after I had just said goodbye to the dog I grew up with.
I asked my mom about the book and she told me she was reading it because the way Robin McKinley wrote about dogs in the book made her seem like she would understand how devastated we both were over loosing our friend. I asked if I could read it when she was done, and she hesitated just a bit. She said yes, but warned me that some “bad things” happen in it.
And she was right. Bad things do happen. But the book is about the heroine’s journey through and past the pain of these events. It’s about wounding, but it’s also about healing. As the story unfolded over me for the first time I was brought to tears more than once, and for more reasons than just the heartache of what was happening on the pages. It gave me hope. It left me uplifted, feeling that I could conquer my own demons.
So let me outline the story for you, at least a bit. And yes, there probably will be some spoilers involved in this. Deerskin is based on an icky, creepy fairy tale called Donkeyskin by Charles Perrault. In Deerskin, we follow the princess Lissar through her childhood, as she watches her beautiful, popular parents from afar, being far overshadowed by the glamor of their reign. Her mother, the queen, is known as the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms, and for good reason, and her father, the king, is young and handsome and strong. When Lissar is a teenager, her mother grows ill, and when she realizes she no longer is the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms, she looses her will to live and she begins to die. The king is driven mad watching her die. On her deathbed, the queen makes him promise that he won’t marry anyone who isn’t as beautiful as she was, which he readily agrees to, and then the queen dies.
Lissar receives the gift of a puppy from a neighboring kingdom as a condolence, a fleethound puppy named Ash. They spend the next two years growing up together, mostly isolated still from the rest of the court and world; each others’ only friend. On Lissar’s 17th birthday a grand ball is thrown for her and her father dances with her all night. He refuses to let any of the other men, who are, after all, there to see if she’ll make a suitable wife for them, dance with her and looks at her in a way which she cannot name, but which she recognizes as a treachery. The next day the king announces to the court that he is going to remarry, and he is going to marry Lissar.
Half the court blame Lissar for somehow enticing her father into such a decision. The rest are embarrassed by the announcement and wish to make the whole thing go away as quickly as possible. No one will help Lissar. She locks herself in her bedroom but her father comes at night and breaks the door in. Ash tries to defend Lissar and is knocked unconscious and nearly killed. And then Lissar’s father beats and rapes her, leaving her and her dog for dead.
Lissar also nearly dies, but wills herself to continue on when she realizes Ash isn’t dead. But the trauma of what she just suffered is too much for her and her mind quickly blocks out what happened. She just knows she needs to go away. With Ash. Why she needs to isn’t important, that knowledge is enough. She and Ash set out on a journey which we follow breathlessly and tearfully.
It is a fairy tale, and one of the rules of a fairy tale is that you must have magical helpers. In Deerskin that role is filled by the Moon Woman, The Lady, who watches over the poor and hurt, the injured and abused and helps them. During one very dramatic part of the story, when it again looks like Lissar may not make it, the Moon Woman steps in. In a vision, she tells Lissar that she is giving her the gift of time… that she will have time to heal and be able to finally remember her past and be strong enough to face it, and that she is giving her other gifts as well. When Lissar wakes she finds that she is wearing a spotless, white deerskin dress (which never stains or gets dirty) her hair, which was black, like her mother’s, has been turned white, and Ash has grown a long, curly coat, unlike the short, fine-haired fur she used to have. And their injuries have healed miraculously.
But this is not a magic fix-all, this is still early on in the story. Lissar and Ash still have a long way to go. I have said more than I probably need to already about the plot, but I will say that it ends well, and that Lissar is able to find peace and happiness. She is able to heal. It is a long, difficult, awful journey to get there, but that’s what healing is. That’s the journey we all walk to get to our place of healing. That is why watching Lissar’s journey gives me such hope. Because seeing her transmute the pain and shame and terror and helplessness she was given into strength, courage, love and wholeness makes me think that I can too, with my lesser wounds.
Obviously this story has been incredibly meaningful in my life. I’ve re-read it more times than I know, and it’s come out frequently in whatever artform I’m engaged in at the time; drawing, painting, and now, photography. I’d been thinking for a while that I wanted to do a whole photo series on Deerskin, and I finally decided it was time. Since there will be lots and lots of photos taken for it, after much internal debate, I decided to cast myself as Lissar and make most of the photos self portraits. It just seemed like it would be too difficult to get the same model scheduled for tons and tons of shoots, especially since I’m eager to do this now that I’ve decided too. And it does feel quite satisfying, since it is such a meaningful story to me, to be able to participate in the creation of the photos on many levels. And of course I am using my dog, Calantha, as Ash, which also makes it easier to use myself as Lissar. Calantha is not the silver-fawn color Ash is, but she certainly has the right look and I can forgive the discrepancy.
Be on the lookout for photos in this series to turn up over the next few months. It is an ambitious project, and I am sometimes tempted to feel overwhelmed by what I’ve taken on, but I trust myself to do it. I hope that the series will inspire some people to read the wonderful work that is Deerskin, and perhaps even do something more meaningful and pass on the understanding and hope I get from the story. Understanding that I am not alone, that my pain and journey are not the only ones, hope that I will reach my own happy ending. I hope I can give that gift to someone else through these pictures.
This is the first photo I took, and yes, they will be sequentially out of order, since I’ll be shooting them as the opportunities arise. This photo is of Ash and Lissar after The Lady visits them, changes their appearances and heals their wounds.
The Lady's Doing
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