When the deer’s dripping blood slowed to a small pelting echo in the corrugated steel hut, I escaped the sweltering Quonset. I blinked back the August sunset as Mom came out of the house. She asked, “Is the buck let?” I nodded and waited for her.
Dad and Jud, constantly together in the two years since Dad lost his job at NG Taconite Mine, stood with their backs to us, busy placing butcher paper, the old shower curtain, and knives on the rotting picnic table.
“Fourth this year?” Dad asked.
Jud nodded. “The one we shot in the fall, the buck in the blizzard, then…the one before this one.”
He didn’t say, “then Helen’s.”
Mom headed to the Quonset and ducked her head into the giant freezer Dad salvaged from the junkyard west of Tamarack Lakes. She emerged with a huge bowl of ice cube-sized watermelon blocks, frosty and beautiful. She’d kept the first watermelon from our garden a secret, and we went quiet as our mouths filled at the anticipated sweetness. Mom pulled forks from her apron and handed each of us one. We sat at the picnic table just beyond the dripping deer, and a breeze blew the buck’s rigid, tinny smell away from us. The watermelon slushed against our teeth. Jud and I pinched our temples to fight off cold headaches. Our lips and chins were sheened with sticky watermelon drippings. At last everything was ripening, and I fantasized about fresh tomatoes, peppers, corn, and the meat we would soon eat again.
The deer would drain for an hour, but Dad assigned us our duties. “Rose,” he directed as he stood, “you’re in charge of cutting the meat. Mom’ll rinse and wrap.” Then he put his huge hand on Jud’s shoulder, which made him look even smaller than he was. “You’re in charge of skinning with me.”
Jud looked up and nodded. Helen, two years older than me and six years older than Jud, had always done the skinning. As the oldest, Dad taught her first. When she left for college in Duluth, which should have been this month, I was supposed to learn to skin. Dad skipped me.
I held a chunk of watermelon between my teeth, not biting down, not wanting to taste that sweetness and swallow the bitterness of Dad’s judgment. I cast my eyes to the picnic table and rolled the cube on my tongue, felt my chest burn, and smashed the watermelon against the roof of my mouth, tasting the pink juice as I swallowed hard.
After the watermelon, Mom and Dad headed toward the house: Dad to work on the engine of the truck; Mom to wash the sheets in their bedrooms—separate rooms, a new habit.
“You nervous?” I asked Jud.
He shook his head and continued chipping the old green paint off the picnic table with one of the knives Dad had pulled out for butchering.
“I hate that sound,” I said, hoping he’d think I didn’t care Dad gave him my job. He didn’t respond, and I was left thinking about the banging, tearing sound of skin from body. I imagined Helen’s skin, maybe still attached, maybe split wide open in some medical student’s lab.
When the doctors had told her she might have contracted the first human case of chronic wasting disease from the deer, she asked if she might die. They nodded. She wanted Dad to donate her body to science. She’ll be a cadaver. Or was a cadaver. I don’t know what she is now. Maybe nothing but a pile of used parts, messy ones like there would be tonight in the butcher bin, or like the pile Dad pulled out of the bin the night we first came home without Helen, before the DNR took the doe’s remains. She was still alive and Mom stayed with her, but the hospital made the rest of us go home. From my bedroom window I watched as Dad, lit by the warm fog of a kerosene lantern, set up a tarp, pulled on rubber gloves, and then gently dumped the butcher bin. I ran to him, worried he, too, would get sick from the doe.
By the time I reached him, he held the scrap piece of plywood. Pins stuck out like needles, a section of the doe’s spinal cord dissected. A crude autopsy. Helen’s handwritten identifications dug into the board: anterior and posterior spinal arteries, radicular arteries, gray and white matter.
From his crouch, Dad sank to his knees and forgot to make me go back to bed. I kneeled down with him.
“She would’ve been careful,” he choked, gesturing toward the used pair of rubber gloves lying half under the deer’s large intestine.
It was the doe I had asked for.
I nodded, unable to say anything. Even before we ate roadkill venison, Dad taught us to steer clear of deer’s nerves and the meat around it. He reminded us every time we butchered.
With the rotting remains spread out before us, I pulled rubber gloves from the box Dad had left by the butcher bin, took Helen’s autopsy from Dad’s hand with thumb and forefinger, placed it in the bottom of the butcher bin, and buried it there, covering it with the doe’s intestines. For the first time in my life, I saw Dad cry. I cried because he did.
Jud wandered into the field and caught grasshoppers. Though I couldn’t see him, I knew he walked to the creek and at the bank, pulled off bugs’ legs off and dropped the squirming bodies into the water. When he came back, he looked tired.
On the way into town, he had told Dad and me it’s no fun to feed the fish anymore.
Anything that was good, gone. That’s why today’s deer was such a surprise.
When we passed the barricaded mine road on our way to buy milk, eggs, and flour, the buck wasn’t there. After the mine shut down, other families left, but Mom and Dad decided we would stay in Tamarack Lakes, the town they were born in.
Now we eat what we sow and kill, or what’s newly killed.
On our way home from town, we passed friends’ vacant houses, one with boarded windows, two with abandoned junkers. Just beyond the mine road lay a deer, not quite off the shoulder. Jud and I spilled out of the car, and Dad came up slowly as we looked at the deer’s eyes, glazed but not cloudy. The blood congealed only on the outer edges of the pool from the buck’s mouth.
It was not a particularly interesting death, not like the last deer, which we watched get hit on a foggy night in April. That deer reared up in slow-motion in the dense mist, backlit by a truck’s headlights. I asked the driver if we could have the deer. The man, heading back to the cities, felt so bad he was happy to let us take it. He said he wouldn’t have to call the game warden to remove the carcass. He didn’t seem to care that what we were doing was illegal. That deer had fallen in a twisted mass, legs going all the wrong ways. Once we got the doe in the bed of our truck, and Helen, Jud, and I piled back in the cab, Dad put his hand on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze. The back left rump was ruined—the meat had turned to jelly from the impact of the truck. The rest, we thought, was fine.
But this new deer looked like it simply fell asleep on the side of the road. When I reached under its foreleg like Dad taught me, it still felt warm.
“Hit in the head?” I asked Dad.
He didn’t respond until I looked at him. Even then he just nodded.
With two fingers I rubbed the budding antlers covered in velvet. I laid my hand on the buck’s shoulder. The muscles hadn’t begun to harden with rigor, and his strong frame was the only part of him that wasn’t soft to the touch. Nose still moist—this seemed a safe deer.
When Mom and Dad returned from the house to the picnic table, we headed toward the low glow of the Quonset. The humid evening breeze felt romantic. On nights like this, I thought a boy—not from Tamarack Lakes, some new boy at college maybe—might want to kiss me as we walked across campus.
Those were the small thoughts I allowed myself about UMD. It was always going to be Helen. The oldest and smartest, it was the natural order. The Rural Education Foundation only awarded one scholarship per family. Only since April had the scholarship been transferred to me. Even in another two years it would be hard to leave—Dad without work and Mom’s seamstress clients still leaving town.
We examined the deer. Jud nearly bounced. “So the knife goes in just past the hide.” He flashed his blade, measured it out with his thumb, showing Dad.
Dad nodded and allowed a half smile. He was proud.
Mom and I sharpened knives while Dad backed the truck around. I wanted to be anywhere but here, so I didn’t have to hear the skin rip. Helen loved it. She talked for hours of tendons, ligaments, bones.
“All that revealed, Rose. Don’t you get it?” she had said as we walked to the house after Mom placed the final roast from the doe in the Quonset freezer, Helen’s cheeks flushed from the cool pump water we had washed under. At the pump, we’d all laughed, everyone tired and relieved, especially Helen since, for the first time, she directed the entire butchering. Dad had smiled and hugged her hard, called her princess, and then Dr. Helen.
I ignored her, not wanting to hear about her expert cuts, her careful incisions. I kicked a stone as we walked back to the house, bathed in pink twilight.
“Seriously, Rose. Forget the blood. It’s beautiful.”
“Yeah, but you want to be a doctor. You’re going to be.” And because I was feeling mean for the way Dad smiled at her, I added, “You’re the one that gets to go to school. Some of us can’t think about being a doctor.”
She stomped into the house ahead of me and let the door slam.
In the bruised dusk, Dad steadied the ladder for Jud. From where Mom and I stood, just outside the hut, the bare light bulb illuminated them and strewed enormous shadows. Jud began the slice around the buck’s neck. Jud’s little muscles bulged, tight pockets of skin and meat. The hide was tough, but once he realized he could use his weight to help make the cut, it went quickly. I clenched my teeth, forced myself to watch. Jud slit the buck’s fur along the inside of its legs so it would pull off evenly, a woman rolling down her long gloves.
Dad climbed the ladder and hung on the hide until he pulled it back several inches.
Jud handed Dad the golf ball he saved for skinning, the same one we always used. Tucking it under the pelt at the back of the deer’s neck, he covered the ball with damp fur, folding the hide over it. He secured the hide-covered ball with a slipknot at the end of a long rope, and then climbed down the ladder and knotted the other end of the rope to the truck’s hitch.
Dad got in the pickup, started it three times before it held an idle, and opened his door to make sure Jud was ready. Jud gave Dad the thumbs up, and Dad steadily gave the truck a bit of gas.
I turned my back. It smelled like musk and meat, gasoline and choking. Over the grumbling Chevy, I heard the hide rip from the buck’s fat, the sound of someone tearing soggy cardboard.
Dad turned the truck off; it sputtered, and then died. The deer’s tallow and flesh made it hard to breathe in the new quiet. Jud stepped to the animal’s forelegs and began final cuts around its ankles. A gamey incense seeped from the buck, and Jud’s hands, just big enough to wrap around the knife, shook as he held a black hoof. Only ten years old and proving he could do the job.
Together, Dad and Jud stripped fat from the deer. When Jud brought the hide to Mom and me at the picnic table covered with an old shower curtain, he was pale, but smiling. He set the skin down gently, as if he didn’t want to hurt it.
Mom and I prepared the pelt for freezing, and as we folded the hide, Jud proudly brought over the first piece of meat for me to trim. This job had always been mine. Dad said I knew how to make steaks from fascia.
After the first cuts, the blood soaked under my nails and into the cracks of my hands. The gamey smell rose, and soon I smelled the same as the venison. I thought ahead to washing up.
Dad brought over the tenderloins and dropped them on the table. Bits of blood splattered me. I wiped one arm with the back of my hand.
“Roger,” said Mom.
Dad stood frozen, staring at the meat.
Again Mom said his name.
He laid his hand flat on the pile of venison. “It looks good.”
The air around us got hot and still.
“No, I’m not sure.”
Jud paused his knife. I stopped cutting too.
“The last one looked fine, smelled fine,” said Dad.
“Just be careful. Don’t splash us.”
Dad exhaled hard. “Yes, dear.”
I looked out to the field. I wanted to lie down in the scratching grass.
“Is that really too much to ask?” Mom asked.
I willed him to walk away, willed her to stop, and squeezed my toes.
“No, whatever you say.” Dad turned to me. “I’m so very sorry I splashed blood on you, Rose.”
I studied my feet, choked out, “It’s okay.”
“Roger, don’t get mad at her,” said Mom.
“I said I was sorry.”
“Fine,” Mom said.
“Helen never cared about a little blood.”
His last words hung and I watched moths flick the bare light bulb. One flew near Jud’s face, and then his hand. He didn’t seem to notice.
“Roger,” Mom said in a hush.
I laid my knife on the table, took Jud’s knife from him, and put his limp hand in mine. The blood of the deer filled in the spaces between our fingers.
I stood in front of Dad and steadied my voice. “We don’t care about blood.”
He wouldn’t look at us. Instead he breathed hard and stared at the ground.
Still holding his hand, I steered Jud to my spot at the table next to Mom, put down his knife, and then walked to the buck in the Quonset. Without the fat, he looked more like a thing to be used, less of an animal with fur and deep eyes. I picked up the hacksaw and began Dad’s job of cutting the buck in half.
I careened the blade across the buck on the initial cuts, but once the blade sunk into the groove in the flesh, I ripped the saw across meat and tendons, working to separate the hindquarters from the rest of its body. My arm burned with my one-two rhythm, and I placed my other hand on the carcass to keep it still. By the time I hit the spine, I worried I might quit, but the stench of burning flesh smoldered, and I didn’t want to smell it any longer. The saw blade penetrated bone, and I forced my jellied arm back and forth. My sweat mixed with the meat, and finally only threads of tendons held the halves together. With one last slice, I cut the body in half. At the dull thud of the hindquarters falling to the tarp, I stepped back.
I set the hacksaw against the corrugated metal wall and wiped sweat from my forehead. I leaned over and put my hands on my knees, saw my legs speckled with pin pricks of deep red.
Everyone was still, but my breath came ragged. I ached and needed sleep. Even the katydids had quit and gone to bed. The dark screamed silence.
Jud came over from the table, and we squatted down and wrapped our arms around the half carcass on the floor. Part of the rump pushed against Jud’s cheek. Bits of hair still clung to the carcass; Mom would need to rinse this section particularly well.
When we humped it out of the hut and onto the picnic table, Dad looked up from where he stood, the same spot where he uttered his last words.
“I’m sorry,” he said to the ground.
I looked at Mom and Jud, still trying to catch my breath. I asked, “For what?”
Mom shushed me, but Dad stopped her.
“For all of it.” He rubbed his hand over the stubble on his chin. “You didn’t have to…” he started.
The night air was silky outside the Quonset. The breeze tried to pick up again, but couldn’t stir the shower curtain covering the table, and it died.
Once, on a still summer night like this, Helen and I had slept on the porch because our bedroom was too hot. We discussed the kind of man we wanted to marry. She talked about how he would say she was beautiful, put a flower behind her ear to make her smile, treat her as a treasure.
Helen rolled over to look at me. The darkness hid part of her face, but the moonlight revealed her shining dark eyes. “A man like Daddy.”
I nodded that night, but I wasn’t sure I agreed. That wasn’t the father I knew.
I wanted a man who would help me survive, make good from bad, and love me enough to let me make my own way.
Jud wiped the blood from his cheek with his shirt. Mom walked to the pump and filled the empty watermelon bowl with crisp water.
She set it down and handed Jud a clean rag. He washed his face with the new water, turning it a dusky pink when he rinsed the rag.
My breath evened out. A breeze cooled the sweat on my skin.
I went to Dad and hugged him hard, pushing my sweat and deer blood against his sweat and deer blood. The single light from the Quonset washed over us.