The Last Deer

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 The Last Deer

Papa came across from the ridge to the south of us. It was a quarter mile, but in the leafless forest, him with his orange hat and vest, we could watch him the whole way. He could see us just as easy and walked up through the dry leaves to where we stood. A little out of breath, he looked down at the dead deer lying on the ground between us. 

Uncle Charley and I had dragged it out of a ravine that cut the hillside, and waited for Papa to come help us drag it the rest of the way to the road. 

Papa coughed and spit. He stood there loading his pipe, lit it, and then squatted down to have a closer look at the deer. He waved some of the sweet tobacco smoke over it; conducting a ritual of sorts, but not making a big deal of it.

"Nice little buck, Charley," he said, looking up at Uncle Charley. "Good and fat."

They both looked down at the dead animal lying on its side with one front leg curled up, but still.  Papa reached over and twisted the head so that he could see the antlers: two odd sized spikes. 

"It’s legal," Uncle Charley said. "I measured."

"Well that one sure is," Papa said, pointing to the longer of the two. 

"They both are," Charley said. "The other one’s three inches."

Some intestines protruded from the deer’s side. "Is this the exit wound?" Papa said. He took a draw on his pipe, coughed and spit again. You could hear the clot of spit hit in the dry leaves. The woods were quiet. The ravens hadn’t smelled death yet. 

"Well I thought… that’s what I thought," said Charley. "But that’s the side I hit it on. He was moving, you see. I fired and thought I saw him go over. I thought he’d be right there, but nope. I couldn’t find him. The boy found him down here finally." He laughed, a bit embarrassed. 

We’d never seen Uncle Charley gut-shoot a deer, or have to go find it. He always dropped them where they stood, and close to the road. Since I could remember he always got his deer on opening day, and Papa and I helped him dress it out. We were all thinking the same thing now, standing over the animal on an autumn morning, patches of an early snow melting away.

"I guess I’m getting old," Charley said. He was nearly ninety. He had no top teeth in front, just like a deer, and he got his hunting license for free. Charley wasn’t really my uncle, or Papa’s. He was Papa’s mother’s second cousin or something. He had fought in World War II, and given me some of his souvenirs over the years: his K-bar knife, two Japanese bayonets, and a pair of German binoculars that he said he took from a Japanese officer on Okinawa. I learned the geography of the Pacific from him.

Papa tapped the ashes out of his pipe and put it in his pocket. "You got your knife," he said, looking at me. I started to reach for it, figuring he wanted it. He always gutted the deer.

"Get to work," he said this time. "I don’t feel like getting all bloody," he said to Charley. 

Papa seldom shot a deer; he’d been a commercial fisherman most of his life and came from a different world. It seemed like he had one foot in ours, and one foot in another all his own. I felt a little like that too. I got it from him and I guess he got it from his father, who was a Catholic priest up until Papa came along. 

Papa said these were the sacred moments, when the door between two worlds opened as the deer passed from one to the other. He said we needed to be careful in these moments. Reverent was the word he used. 

Uncle Charley reached down for one of the deer’s hind legs. Papa grabbed the other and they rolled it belly up. I stepped over the limp buck and put my left hand on the short white hairs of its still-warm belly, thinking through what I had seen Papa do the week before, on my deer—my first. 

"Just pucker up that skin and cut into it," Charley said. 

And so I began. I cut open the skin of the belly from the sternum to the groin and cut through the muscle. As soon as I opened the gut cavity the pungent smell of torn intestines and blood hit me in the face, rising on the heat of the animal. 

"Go on get those guts out," Papa said.

I watched my hands disappear into the blood, almost burning hot as I reached around the stomach intestines and liver; by feel, I tore them away from the ribs and spine. I lifted the mass of organs, heavy and slippery, and rolled them out of the deer. They slid a little ways down the hill collecting bits of broken leaf like a big gray slimy magnet streaked with shit.

"I’m not proud of this," Charley said as the smell of bile from torn up guts reached him.

"Ah, it happens," said Papa.

"The boy did a better job killing his deer than what I did on this one. No sir, I’m not proud of this." He shook his head. "I might have to take a break next year."

With one hand he took out a cigarette and lit it with one of those old steel lighters. I felt bad for him.

As I cut around the groin I sliced into the thigh. I looked down at the dark maroon of the deer’s flesh, our meat. I could feel Papa and Charley looking at it too, but nobody said anything.

"Be careful of the bladder," Charley said as I cleaned out the pelvic area. "You bust that and it’s not going to add anything we want to the flavor."

Papa, still holding the deer’s leg, pointed to its chest. "Now stand over here and reach up in there and get the heart and lungs." 

I did as he said, tearing the heart free. 

"I used to do this with swordfish out on the Grand Banks," Papa said. "By the dozen."

"Fish are easier than deer, Papa." 

"Damn straight."

Papa and I went home after we loaded the deer in Uncle Charley’s truck. The dead buck had a sprig of fir tucked in its mouth. Its last bite, Uncle Charley called it. He always put a sprig of spruce or fir in the deer’s mouth. I still do that. 

Uncle Charley took that deer down to the tagging station by himself. There was nothing in it to brag about, except it was his last, in the year I got my first.