Here she is again.
Lying on her side, naked, beautiful, and completely still, as if sculpted by nature’s own hand. Her slender form, long neck, and giant, Disney-princess eyes—almost the black of jeweler’s velvet—are enough to enchant even the most stoic man. I approach her slowly, stupefied by her beauty in dream-like reverie. With her, every time feels like the first time. But she is nothing if not familiar.
As is her silence. I run a hand around her neck and down her back. My touch, on any other day, would surely excite her. But not today. Regardless, my connection to her feels stronger than ever. That might sound strange considering she feels nothing for me. In fact, she feels nothing at all.
Not just because she’s a deer. But because she’s dead.
I suppose there’s little romance in that. Yet for three months every year, the normally long-distance relationship we have with these gentle creatures turns, for me, into a kind of love affair. Which is the nice way of putting it.
“Butcher” is such a heartless word.
At just north of 150 pounds gutted and dressed, she put her fair share of stress on the water-stained beam that runs the width of my tumbledown garage. Come spring, it—along with the rest of the garage— will be gone, replaced by an attached 3-car with space above for family, friends or the shuffleboard table I’ve dreamed of building for years. Now, in late November, the beam is still here. And the space is uniquely suited to her: old and falling apart, it’s cold enough to serve as a fine meat locker. After she was hooked and hoisted to a workable height, I carefully removed the skin that held together an appreciable winter coat—reducing her to a more manageable weight, and rendering her, to the uninitiated, nothing less than horrifying.
See her now: Hanging upside down, skinless and lifeless, hind quarters splayed outward and pointing toward the sky—an ancient tribal warning for any four-legged pilgrims on the march that they have wandered into a place of death. She sways gently back and forth, producing the haunting, rhythmic whine of tightly wound rope twisting its way around dried wood. Swaying, like a grisly pendulum keeping time in a nightmare.
Step closer. The floor, normally reserved for sawdust and motor oil, is a surgical unit from hell. Littered with tufts of hair, soiled rubber gloves, blood-spattered knives, and twenty or so scarlet paper towels—soaked, crumpled and strewn about a green polyester tarp. It reminds me of roses in an emerald field, stretched open wide and full to catch warmth of the sun. Except there are three suns here, and no warmth to speak of. Just the cold, white, blinding light of fluorescent bulbs.
For the record, I didn’t kill her. I’m not a hunter, and find myself generally opposed to killing almost anything—unless that thing is trying to kill me. This one was shot by a bowhunter from Derry, NH, and put into my charge at some point the previous night. Tomorrow, I will return to him nearly seventy pounds of steaks, chops, roasts, trimmings and a handful of uncommon culinary treasures, carefully vacuum-sealed and frozen for freshness.
It’s not that I have anything against killing in principle. If I did, I’d never volunteer to do the autopsy—though, as far as I can tell, even that never made anyone complicit in the murder.
I just never had any real urge to do it.
Unlike insects or fish—or the lobster, a sci-fi monster completely at home in both categories—a deer doesn’t look alien. No coldness in its blood or deadness in its eyes. It lives among us, breathing the same air, eating the same food, drinking the same water. Just consider the Pink See-Through Fantasia (not at all what it sounds like) or the Squidworm (exactly what it sounds like), and you’ll soon realize a deer is, more or less, one of us.
Still, I keep my knives sharp. A responsible kill demands a responsible harvest. It’s how it’s been done since before “we” were an “us”—a ritual representing the sacred holism of nature and man. Plus, it’s only fair to honor and respect something that gives its life for you, even if it doesn’t do it willingly. Especially if it doesn’t. Or can’t.
All this to say I’ve never felt like I had blood on my hands. Though lately—and I can’t stress this enough—what little there is seems harder to wash off.
I learned my uncle’s trade—and my grandfather’s, before him—while in college working nights at a local supermarket. It paid for my first car, which I needed little aside from going to and from work. The money was OK. For a college kid, earning enough to pay for subs, booze and the occasional road trip north to Plymouth or Portland was a little better than OK. But the work felt far too industrial. There’s a good deal of craft—but not a lot of art—in commercial meat cutting. I’d heard legends about my grandfather trudging through a floor strewn with blood and sawdust, carrying a 300 lb. side of beef on his shoulder. How he would begin every day searing small chunks of well-marbled meat on a makeshift grill, creating an aroma that would waft through the Better Food Market bidding customers to make their way toward the meat counter, having become carnivores whether they entered that way or not. He would place to meat into the soft, still-warm pocket of freshly baked pita, hand them out, and sell his case empty by mid-morning. But this image of a meat-cutter was, like my grandfather himself, a relic of a past now gone forever.
A decade after I graduated, my best friend, a consummate hunter and outdoorsman, suggested I try my blade at his most recent trophy. A buck, who had wandered down the wrong path. Even though this was an impromptu job with dull knives on a barely sterile table, I found this style of butchery to be more authentic, intentional, and romantic. I had felt, for the very first time, what I grew up believing about the passion of my bloodline.
Not that taking apart an animal of some size with an industrial band saw doesn’t have its advantages. Doing it by hand is a primitive kind of thing. There’s not as much blood as you’d think; immediately after the kill, the majority is sprayed out in large, gushing jets by the final beats of a dying heart, painting a crimson treasure map along the forest floor. There are the copious guts, that somehow smell as warm as they do foul. Later, the sounds of stretching skin, cracking bone, and the sweep of steel slicing through cold, lean flesh.
Can you hear it?
(Stretch, crack, cut)
Primitive, indeed. But at the same time, sublime. I’m not talking about anything so mystical as—dare I say—enlightenment. But it has a certain appeal. Some people find it in knitting, the potter’s wheel, or casting a fly rod into a shimmering pool, hoping to awaken a sleeping monster.
(Stretch, crack, cut, repeat)
Yes, there’s something beautiful that happens when you give yourself to the rhythm of repetition. From it, I’ve learned that if you want to find the truth in anything, you need to do it over and over again. Which is why I know this: the first morning in that cold supermarket meat room didn’t make me a butcher.
You don’t get a lot from doing something once. But sometimes, as in the case of my one and only attempt at hunting, you get more than you asked for.
I shot her nearly three years ago from a tree stand at the edge of my property, overlooking the deer superhighway that connects a vernal pool to a hundred or so acres of conservation land.
In the summer months leading up to hunting season, the idea of shooting a deer came quickly and without warning. And with it, what can only be described as the inextinguishable curiosity of a child. You believe them perfectly well when they tell you the stove is hot, but you touch anyway. At least I did. Because you want to know what it feels like. For yourself. In this case, my curiosity had spared the cat. In its place, a much larger prize.
Besides, there comes a time in the intellectual life of any responsible person to challenge deeply held beliefs. In fact, doing so rather constantly is, in my estimation, the hallmark of true wisdom. Because, when you get right down to it, it’s a win-win. If your beliefs stand up to an onslaught of objections, then they—and you—are all the stronger. If they fall down, well then, they fall down. This gnawing curiosity became an uncomfortable yet unavoidable obsession. Everything I did became a preparation for a hunt I wasn’t sure would ever happen. But better safe than sorry, I always say. If I was going to do this, I was going to do it right.
So I began educating myself on the finer points of hunting deer in New Hampshire. The whitetail variety. And then applied my knowledge to the lay of my particular land—an L-shaped plot that forms a natural corridor between deep woods and water. Plenty of four-legged critters frequented the pools that formed along the border, so getting a deer to show up wasn’t an issue. Getting one to show up when it’s light enough to shoot and stand still while I decide to do it? Now that was a deer of a different color. They are largely nocturnal, and I’d have to train them.
I’d need the all proper equipment, which, in the simplest iteration, really comes down to a good bow and razor-sharp broadheads (the business end of the arrows). But then there were the accoutrements—ranging from the proper camouflage to a sensible tree stand, to all the smaller items that make the inherently awkward process of shooting a deer from up in a tree little more manageable.
And I’d need to learn how to shoot.
In the days leading up to my hunt, I became deadlier than I ever intended to be. A target was set up against a pyramid of hay bales in the yard, keeping stray arrows from finding their way through a silvering split rail fence layered with welded wire—perfect for keeping our hound mix, Tykhé, in and other large animals out. I practiced relentlessly
(Stretch, crack, cut, repeat…stretch, crack, cut, repeat)
until I could reliably hit a bullseye—just about the size of a deer heart, from 20 yards or so. Eventually, I would shoot from a lawn chair, leaning forward awkwardly over the armrest, preparing for the physical reality of shooting from a deer stand in a sitting position. I could try to stand, but why invite one of many possible deer-frightening sounds that might arise with me? With a little practice, I mastered this too. But as I did, every bad shot became seemed to raise the stakes. Raise the pressure, which was becoming more substantial with every passing day —until I began to feel a rope tightening around my chest, unable to breathe.
The reason was simple enough: I had to squeeze a lifetime of hunting experience and knowledge into just a few months. I had to. Well, I had to try. For one thing, being calm under pressure and perfectly accurate seemed like the only responsible course of action. Not because I was afraid of missing it. But because I was afraid of almost missing — and injuring instead of killing. When it comes to hunting, the only thing worse than a bad shot is a kind-of-bad shot.
But perhaps more critical to my experiment was this: I was still intent about confirming, once and for all, that this whole thing wasn’t for me. That I wouldn’t go through with it. In order to do that, I had to create the conditions where I actually could. Only then could I truly test if I would. On that day, I would only be held back by the force of my own will.
The day arrived without ceremony, like so many do at the edge of summer. I made my way into the woods beneath a thick canopy of pine and a sunless, gunmetal sky. It was mid-afternoon still, so chances were excellent that I would find myself alone. Nonetheless, I waded carefully as if through murky water—taking slow, lurching steps—dislodging the sweet, decayed aroma of the forest floor. Had I been hunting wabbit, I’d have made a perfectly serviceable Elmer Fudd.
I arrived at the old pine that held my new tree stand—a welcome island refuge in a sea of deer-frightening twigs and underbrush. It leaned slightly, (the tree, and thus the stand) allowing me a reclined position to await oncoming prey. Positioned with a perfect sight-line between two saplings, I would be able to shoot well obscured—yet unobstructed— toward a strategically placed heap of grain that hadn’t yet been disturbed on this day. My tree stand was a climber. In this particular model, the downward force created by the weight of the inhabitant secures it in place. Once seated, not even a charging buck could knock you loose. In other words, it only becomes safe once you’re in it. Which means that actually getting in is the only real dangerous part—except, of course, for the daredevil feat of getting out. In the dark.
As I began to climb, my normally steady heart followed step—its pace rising higher and higher with every rung. It’s just that I’ve never been fond of ladders. And, deer or no deer, I was out here playing the world’s oldest and deadliest game of hide and seek. Such things have a way of dialing you up, especially when you’re both the hider and the seeker. That was what I told myself then. Later, when I had time to examine the phenomenon, I would realize my anxiety had been mounting for quite some time. Long before I walked into the woods. By the time I reached the top and began working myself into the stand, I was trembling. The blood pumped hot inside my head like the feverish beat of a tribal drum. My eyes, burning from the assault (a-salt?) of dripping sweat, were reduced to visionless orbs.
And then I felt it: the carabiner on the safety strap. I worked it into my harness and took a break. Soon, I was making my way into sitting position. Bow loaded and laid gently across my lap. Every inch of me camouflaged. And perfectly still, save for the pounding heart inside a chest still rising and falling far too conspicuously.
I closed my eyes—a decision both a logical and absurd when you’re sitting in a tree—and waited for it to subside, which it eventually did.
Now nothing. Being content with just being is something of a requirement in hunting. As is doing it without moving a muscle. So I let my eyes wander with the freedom my body lacked. Back and forth they oscillated in stone sockets, as I took stock of my surroundings with a God’s-eye view of the woods and the world:
Here’s two chipmunks, having a spat over this or that. A wisp of a squirrel’s tail spiralling up the trunk of a sleepy pine. The lush summer fern and daffodil that line the shaded water.
And a murder of crows. How fitting.
I grew up in Stockbridge, Massachusetts—a picturesque place nestled quietly among the Berkshire hills. Mine was a town known for Norman Rockwell, Tanglewood, Alice’s Restaurant, and leading the nation in absolutely nothing.
Deer, like the summer tourists, were not uncommon. Our house was situated in the central valley of a 4-acre property, surrounded by densely wooded hills. It was generally a quiet place, but the deck that wrapped around our mid-80s country-modern home had endured too many New England winters to be silent. Guests of the our-legged variety would wander in often, and I had to be content to gazing at them from through a panoramic fishbowl of hand-crank windows. And through awe-struck eyes.
I am there again. A small herd of deer, so close I can almost touch them, is making its way through through a swatch dying grass painted with red, orange and yellow. Travellers from a parallel universe, brought here through a wrinkle in space time. The slightest movement would break the spell, dispatching them to some distant corner of the universe.
There were plenty of times, of course, when I did venture out. The majority of my childhood was spent in those woods—fighting dragons, casting spells, and learning the ancient wisdom of the tree with the eyes (an omniscient forest deity masquerading to the nonbeliever as an old pine riddled from top to bottom with woodpecker holes).
Every so often, on the advice of my father, I would gather a meal of acorns, wild berries and what I now know as greenbriar and plate it on old stump behind our house. Though generally wary of the outdoors himself (his self-professed idea of “roughing it” is a penthouse on Park Avenue with 5 bathrooms), he romanticized the human connection to nature with an odd mixture of transcendental reverence and superstition—one part Whitman, one part tribal shaman.
The stump was always empty the next morning. To this day, I don’t know whether the deer had taken the offering, or if—
Now what the hell was that?
The spell is broken, and I’m back again. Not a deer. Just squirrel, maybe. And an unannounced spike of adrenaline—a palpable reminder that there had been very few, if any, sounds up to this point. And the light was fading.
More seasoned hunters might shoot later into the evening, but this was the limit of my comfort. It had to be half-past six by now. Darkness would come soon enough. Then I’d descend, relief washing over me. I was actually already starting to feel it. I’d feign disappointment to my friend. And to my wife: “Maybe I’ll see one next time.” If there was going to be a next time. I highly doubted it.
I wasn’t going to see a deer today. And that was just fine.
With only my eyes uncamouflaged, sitting under the canopy of pine, I didn’t feel the drizzle begin, nor could I see it in my darkening field of vision. The tiny droplets found their way to the ground and softened a hundred years of dead leaves, moss-covered twigs and fallen pine needles.
It made her approaching footsteps virtually silent.
She appeared in much the same way they always do—which is to say, without warning.
And then she was…just…there. A mere 40 yards away, slowly moving into the frame. It was like watching a movie with no sound, giving it a surreal, dreamlike separateness. I wasn’t yet convinced this was real. Could this really be happening right now?
But it was. Meandering from branch to branch, leaf to leaf, she nibbled. It took her all of five minutes to find the fallen log with the inconveniently placed pile of grain on the other side. In fulfillment of the prophecy, she elected to go around instead of over, positioning herself perpendicular to me. I had seen this a thousand times before, rehearsed in my waking dreams. I now had a textbook broadside shot—a mere 22 yards away. She lowered the head at the end of her long neck and began to eat a meal of corn, wheat and sunflower seeds.
At some point—I couldn’t tell you when—I decided it would be her last.
My pulse had already dropped to a steady, rhythmic throb. And my hands were moving. The killing ritual, which had become an almost involuntary second nature, was underway. There was no stopping it. Later, I would realize that this was true from the moment I saw her. Once I had, I’d never once considered not doing it. Some intractable reptile lying dormant inside a million-year-old brain had awoken hungry—and hellbent on dispatching its prey with cold-blooded swiftness.
I leaned forward slightly, drew the bowstring back to it’s locked position and began to sight her down, my finger hovering over the release. As I found my way to the kill zone, all motion slowed to a blurred, underwater pace. I could see everything. Hear everything. Feel everything. I had her.
I exhaled deep and long, purging any unsteadying air from my lungs. Now perfectly still, my finger dropped to—
Barricaded deep screaming to be heard amid the droning din of a primitive death machine…and then I heard it:
The one detail I hadn’t planned for shot through my mind like…well, like an arrow. I had practiced for months shooting on the same vertical plane as my target. Under such conditions, shooting straight through the kill zone was pretty simple. But now, I was almost 20 feet in the air. And the math—geometry, in this case—was also fairly straightforward. I’d have to aim higher if I wanted the downward angle of my arrow to tag both of her lungs.
I had a bigger problem to deal with: my killing ritual was broken, and the trance washed away. In its place came a flood of fractured lines pointing from every angle toward organs now floating mid-air inside a living deer diagram. Where do I shoot? How high is too high? Where are the lungs again? What if I paralyze her?
Yeah, the math was straightforward, wasn’t it. Months of practice don’t add up to years of experience. And the number of ways to royally fuck up a process so tenuously put together? There were plenty.
I was in a landslide. A small pebble was kicked loose, and now I was losing my footing on ground crumbling beneath me. Breathing so heavy my bow quakes from the force of the avalanche. My eyes begin to blur from the sear of dripping sweat.
And I thought to myself: this probably isn’t how you should take your first shot. Or any shot, for that matter. Don’t shoot. Just don’t shoot. But the arrow was gone.
If I asked you to imagine what happened next, you might be picturing an arrow pierced through the side of a deer, stuck out of its side like an oversized skewer. At the risk of imperiling such a common notion, I feel obligated to inform you: the image of an arrow sticking out of an animal after it’s shot is largely bullshit. Maybe with a longbow, or a greater ballistic trajectory, sure. But at 400 feet per second and 20 yards away, a razor-sharp broadhead goes in one end and out the other. Even in the fading light, I could see the arrow there sticking out of the ground.
I waited for an hour or so in the tree stand. Waited for whatever I had just done, to be done. She was gone—launched away like she was standing on a spring, and would either be running free, dying, or dead. In the first and last cases, waiting wouldn’t hurt. In the second, it could only help. Spooking a dying deer only increased the chances of never seeing it again.
The rain was more appreciable when my friend arrived and began to wash away the trail of blood she’d left behind. Running free was no longer an option. He picked up the trail easily enough—and had to continue pointing it out to me as we tracked her through the woods, marking each splotch and spray of red with pink tape. They are still out there, hanging from the branches, leaves, and ferns, like hanged suicides.
We searched, backtracked, re-searched, split up, and searched some more. How far could she have gone? For two gut-wrenching hours, under the full dark of night, we found nothing. Even with a pair of military-grade thermal goggles he’d “liberated” from the defense contractor where he once worked. I assumed the worst. It was impossible not to. But I trusted my friend, and he was confident we’d find her—or at least he projected confidence. Either way, it helped me keep going. That is, after all, what friends do.
We decided to go back to the house, get warm, get dry, and venture out one more time. At around 11 PM, behind a giant fallen tree (and thus hidden from thermal imaging), we found her, just 40 yards from where it all went down. It was like stumbling on a crime scene. Not just because of the body, but because of the red jungle that surrounded her. Judging by the stiffness of her body, my friend was certain she’d been dead for quite some time—more than 3 hours for sure. And she hadn’t laid herself down gently, as if accepting her inevitable fate. One of her forelegs was broken. She’d crashed to the ground, dead as a doornail, mid-sprint.
A final inspection during field dressing revealed no hole in her heart, but two gaping, cross-cut holes through both of her lungs. She couldn’t have been running for more than a minute.
In the days that followed, I broke her down with surgical precision—processing the meat and creating a cache of coyote bait from her pelt and bones. That was delivered to a local farm and dumped in a field to make easy pickings of the menacing canines that stole sheep, chickens and created other mischief. The packages of steaks, chops, roasts and ground venison went to my chest freezer. It took nearly a year for our family to go through it all.
My older son—too young at that time to know (or care) where his food was coming from—devoured it with the greed typical of a then-3-year-old. As did my daughter, but in a more contemplative way. Aware of where her food came from and how it came to be on her Peter Rabbit plate. She was 5.
My wife, for her part, seemed to approve. Her father was a mite more than an occasional hunter, and this brought me one step closer, I think, to satisfying some part of a traditional male stereotype that he so well embodied and she certainly finds appealing.
And by so many others—including my friend the consummate hunter—I was lauded as a hero, having accomplished a feat of nearly mythic proportion. I was headlined as the one who done the unheard of. The unthinkable. I had killed a deer my very first time hunting. And with a bow, no less.
But none of it mattered. Once my arrow sliced into her side and burst flaming out the other, everything changed. Because for all the flesh I took from her, there wasn’t enough to fill the hole left by my arrow.
I suppose the arrow of time is equally merciless. It flies in but one direction, and can never be pulled back again (no matter how badly you wish it could).
It was Thomas Wolfe who wrote “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Because time marches on. And when you try to go back to that which once comforted you, so much has changed that it’s no longer home. But “change,” the ironic constant, only concerns itself with the future.
And so I lay bare my unavoidable dilemma: an altered past.
To be perfectly clear, the man I became as a result of the kill wasn’t actually the one responsible for it, was he? No. The blood in the woods, on that warm September day, was spilled by the man I already was. After all, a man’s actions don’t change who he is. They reveal it. So I am less concerned that I can never again be the one who hasn’t hunted. More so with the fact that I’ve always been someone who could.
Maybe the ancient philosopher Heraclitus captured it best: “No man ever steps in the same river twice. For it’s not the same river… and he’s not the same man.” I much prefer this to Wolfe’s half-truth. For it’s not just that things have changed, and it’s no longer home. It’s that you’ve changed. And you’re no longer you.
I’ll say. Who I thought I was is gone forever. All that’s left…is me.
And this deer.
As I lowered her off the hooks and lifted her onto the table, my fingers sank into the thick patchwork of milky white fat that covers much of her crimson flesh—a sign, no doubt, that she was well-prepared for the impending New England winter. The first snowflakes of the season are falling.
Before I begin, I’ll sharpen my tools. It’s just a cleaver for separating bone, a small fillet knife for skirting around it, and a larger utility knife for the bulk of the cutting. The rest of the work—a surprising amount, really—can be done with my hands alone.
Today, in this old garage underneath a false glow of flickering light, the sharpening only takes a moment. But in it—short as it is—I dream: That just once, her time isn’t really over. That just one, I don’t have to take her apart. That maybe I could put her back together. And perhaps, feel whole again.
You can see her now, can’t you? Crossing the sheep farmer’s meadow beneath a sleepy cluster of foothills, the only passenger on a freshly-fallen blanket of snow. Bounding over gullies and frozen streams, as if time itself had frozen with them. There she goes. Headed toward a curtain of slumping pine, leaving behind a twisting trail of delicate, half-set images that tell the story of her life. And my heart fills with joy—as it did when I was young, and never will again. Because in this moment, her shadow dancing on the sparkling white is the only darkness I can see.
My knife drops. The blade sinks in.
(Stretch, crack, cut. Repeat)