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It was opening day, and just like that, the doe was on the ground. I shot her with the rifle my Grandfather had given to me earlier that year, at first light as he and I hiked up the mountain. She was the last in a group of does that was walking through a saddle. She made a mistake by stopping to look at us.

We found her lying in the leaves. After the jitters wore off, I realized I didn’t know what came next. Grandpa unbuttoned and rolled up the sleeves of his flannel shirt. Then he snapped open a Buck 110 folder and gave it to me. 

He stood, hands on his hips, pointing at where to cut, where not to cut, and telling me how deep the knife should go. He showed me how to pull the guts downhill and how to remove the bladder without spilling it. In the morning air, everything was steaming. 

Grandpa pulled the heart from the gut pile and wrapped it in a bandana to be carried back down the mountain. The doe, he said, would have to hang for a few days to age. We found a sturdy stick to splay the back legs and hoisted the deer into a tree so the bears couldn’t take her. 

At home that night, I laid in my bed with a belly full of fried deer heart, thinking about my doe hanging in the woods. For the first time, I felt something that I’ve felt with every animal since—a sense of urgency to finish the job. It’s hard for me to rest until an animal is butchered and in the freezer. Finally, near the end of the week, my dad and I gathered all of my mom’s kitchen knives and some Ziplock bags and carried them back into the woods to meet Grandpa. 

There may have been meat processors near the Depression-era farm Grandpa grew up on, but his family didn’t take their deer to them. After all, how different is a deer’s anatomy from that of the livestock they raised? They ate a lot of venison growing up, and butchering was just one more part of hunting deer—inseparable from pulling the trigger. 

It was cold in the woods that morning. I remember how the meat was so chilled that it numbed my hands as we broke down the deer. Grandpa had brought his four-wheeler with a piece of plywood on the back for a table. He cut hunks of meat off the carcass with his Buck knife as my dad and I trimmed and packed. With every piece Grandpa took off, he’d either say “steaks” or “stew” and we’d cut accordingly. When he took the backstraps off and laid them on the plywood, he stopped to show us the right way to care for them. We zipped everything into plastic bags and put the bags into a cardboard box. Then we rode back down the mountain with stained clothes and sticky fingers.

We gave the first bit of meat to my uncle who couldn’t hunt anymore because of an accident that had paralyzed half of his body. The next package was for Grandpa. My dad and I brought the rest home and tucked it into the freezer in our basement next to frozen pie crust and orange juice concentrate.

We made venison stew for dinner, and for the first time, I knew what it was like to have a deer—my deer—put away for the winter to help feed our entire family. I was 16 when I shot my first deer. I had few responsibilities. But sitting at the kitchen table that night with my mom, dad, and brother, I felt a little bit less like a kid.

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