Photograph by Levi Brown.
The hide is gone, the entrails are gone, the heart and liver saved for folks who like them—and now the shoulders, like wing bones, are cut away and laid on the picnic table beneath the oak, the powerful oak that has been fed over the years with the nutrients, the rinsed-away blood and tossings of ligature and scrap, from perhaps a thousand deer—and then the backstraps, the twinned and perfect symmetry running down the knobby keyboard of vertebrae, are removed, the knife working flat against that space, the red muscle pulling back to reveal white, the blade leaving no more meat in that space than the thinness of a sheet of paper—the paired ropes of the backstrap being laid out on the table, as the disassembly continues.
Next the hams, with the knifepoint finding the hidden ball joint and cutting it cleanly, and the feeling when it separates and you are left holding a hindquarter is yet another of about a hundred or even a thousand reminders that what you are doing is not artificial, that there is a responsibility in the day, the fact that you are continuing on deeper into life while the deer no longer is, though in at least two ways it is, the landscape that sculpted its red muscles and grace is still here, still going on, still shaping—sometimes gently, sometimes not—as are you, for a while longer—and the hams, the hindquarters, too, go on the table.
That’s enough to start with, there in the shade of that oak, with the sound of a football game coming faintly from the cabin, and your mind focused now on the craft of the task, cleaning the meat further, shaving off every wreath and filament of silvery fascia, de-electrifying those conduits that had housed and governed the once living, the knife and your hands unlearning or relearning the shape of every muscle large and small within those larger pieces—the meat in the cool autumn light looking almost iridescent sometimes, and so firm, like a beet, and with no fat.
You can’t help but think ahead to the black iron skillet, some olive oil mixed with butter, coarse black pepper, freshly ground, and kosher salt, some morels browning, and then the backstrap rolled in and cooked so quickly, seared on the outside and then taken out, the radiant heat of that brief time in the skillet continuing to cook the backstrap for a few minutes longer after it’s been put on the plate, the sear holding the juices in, maybe with some garlic-and-cream mashed sweet potatoes to absorb some of those juices, and then another, more delicate knife, cutting into the hot meat, and the juices coming out, and the steam—Focus. The best thing maybe is that there’s no hurry. This is what you’ll be doing today, and the meat, the work of the day, will last all year if you use it right, for the best meals, the meals of ceremony and greatest gratitude. You want to do a good job. You want to do a job that in some way acknowledges the finality of the decision you made earlier in the hunt.
You wrap each piece tightly within the freezer paper—the tearing sound as you rip each sheet from the roller eliciting memories from deep within you across all the years, all the wild game cleaned and wrapped—and you tape up each serving tightly, to preserve them in the coming deep cold of the freezer, stacked like bricks of gold bullion.
The day passes. Your knife keeps working. The bones begin to gleam like marble. You return for more—neck roasts, neck loins, tenderloins, butt steaks, flank steaks; rib meat peeled laboriously from between the so-slender ribs for chili. The shanks, so dense, carved off for stewing. The deer vanishing, eventually, into the future. The deer vanishing, eventually, into you.