Monday, December 2, 2013

Happy Hunting

The way my brother tells it, it was a quiet morning in the woods. Just him, his shotgun, a few cigarettes and a weak sunrise. From his old tree stand, he spotted a decent-sized buck, quietly took aim, and shot the thing in the pre-dawn light.

Unfortunately, the deer didn't drop to the wet ground. He ran. Fast. Bounding from bush to bush, staggering at times, and leaving a trail of blood and broken sticks for my brother to follow. Which, as any good hunter would, he did. The distance he covered to track the deer has been a subject of debate and memory for years. A mile and a half through the frigid winter. Where he found his target finally, and summarily dead. He should have been overjoyed...the smell of venison stew filling his nostrils as he hoisted the near 200-lb creature (again, this detail may be the victim of fuzzy memory) and dragged it out of the woods on foot. The entire time, while he is imagining the waft of venison steaks filling his kitchen, the deer had other plans.

"I noticed he didn't smell right," my brother recalled in his 50th retelling of the tale. "He stunk. Bad."

The stink didn't go away when they prepped the deer for skinning and butchering in the woodshed. His impressive rack was a footnote to the odor coming off of him.

"I knew it was gonna be bad," my younger brother chimed in. He was there in the tiny woodshed to "help" clean the impressive beast. "That smell was ripe. It had a tangy, piss smell. As soon as they opened it up we all ran out of the shed and started f***king dry-heaving in the snow."

It is unclear what the smell was. In earlier accounts, my older brother (we mercilessly refer to him as "the huntsman" for this and other tales of bad luck with deer, one involving getting a truck stuck in the middle of a cornfield, the other referring to a sheetrock knife that didn't quite do its job...)swears he shot the thing through its bladder. In other renditions of the story, the buck already had blood poisoning from a previous hunter's bullet, and my brother may have done the poor thing a favor.

Either way, the loss of all that meat was a tragedy. We all felt it because we were all guilty of smelling the imaginary venison wafting through our homes as we prepped a pioneer Sunday dinner. My brothers felt bad for the thing.

"I can't imagine running through the woods shot through the pisser," one said. "I mean, man."

Of course, given it's impressive antlers, my older brother did take one trophy from the ill-fortuned hunt: The head. Bucky is mounted on the living room wall. He looks a little greyish and mangy. Not the bright-eyed noble stag of cabin lore. He is a monument to an effort. And the only part of that deer that wasn't laid to waste in the woods behind my brother's house.

"Not even the huskies would go near it," he said of his pack of sled dogs who are opportunists when it comes to food of any kind.

It is the opening day of shotgun season here. I've already heard the irregular pops off in the woods. Our abandoned road is busy (sort of) with trucks full of hunters hoping to snag Bambi's father before the big freeze sends us all inside, unable even to hunt for root vegetables or anything wild. I hold out hope that I will be sizzling up some venison sausage in the coming weeks. But I know that food karma trumps my sausage and my desires for a hearty breakfast courtesy of nature's wild.

Food karma has been driving my eating habits for a long time, since I was pregnant with my first child nearly 14 years ago. It has become impossible to purchase meat from the grocery store. Even the Thanksgiving table is a source of anxiety, wondering where that turkey came from and wondering about the nature of his death (and life) and what kind of bad juju I'm putting into my body while trying to enjoy the tender dark meat. What if it suffered terribly? What if its life was one of complete misery jammed into an industrial pen, waiting to die? I think this. I feel bad. I say prayers of thanks to the turkey and hope that it hears me. And that my guts are not immediately entangled in a karma battle that plays out on the bathroom floor ('cause that's happened, too).

The food chain is exactly that. It is a chain, snapped snugly around our human wrists. If we pull on the chain too hard, it's gonna hurt like a bitch. If we don't pull at all, we starve in a sense. I am chained to the lives of these animals (and vegetables, let's not forget the karma of Monsanto that is spreading havoc across the world with cancer, dead honey bees, obesity and the ousting of small time farmers) and my need to know outweighs my longing for neatly packaged bacon.

We will make it through the winter, with or without Bucky. My freezer is full of meat from the farm just down the road and fish that we ourselves yanked up from the water (and I silently prayed over as their throats were being cut and their heads were tossed into the sea, chum for the birds). It's a small gratitude for a big sacrifice.

Bucky watches over us, his eyes seeking us out across the living room. Conversations over coffee are conducted under his nose. Birthday cake is devoured across the room. Meatballs are speared with toothpicks. As I am chewing on a hamburger, I swear I see him wince.

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