We lived then in Nebraska, 10 miles outside town, and when my father came home from hunting he’d hang his deer from a sturdy branch in the frontyard elm.
The entrails had already been removed, and my father used a pulley with rope and gambrel to hoist the deer into the air. The carcass would need to hang there with the hide still on it and the body cavity propped open with a stick, “aging” for several days before it was butchered.
When I looked out of my bedroom window I’d see it swinging lightly in the breeze. One night in November there was lightning and sleet, and I woke to see the deer revolving around and around in the lashing storm, the branches of the tree and the antlers and the body encased in a thin, shining coat of ice.
Years later, when I was in college at Northwestern, I wrote a poem about this image, and of course I was aware that it was macabre but I didn’t realize at the time how foreign my experience would seem to a lot of my fellow students. “Reminds me of ‘Deliverance,’ ” one of my peers wrote in the margins of my poem, and I blushed. Back home it was not unusual to butcher an animal — chickens, pigs, etc. But I was suddenly aware that it might seem trashy and even creepy. When I told one of my friends about wringing the neck of a chicken, he observed me warily for a moment.
“So,” he said, “did you guys have electricity when you were growing up?”
Thinking back on it, I guess it does give one pause. I’ve lived in the suburbs for most of my adult life, among doctors and lawyers and professors and so on, where we don’t have relationships with the things we eat. I haven’t seen a living chicken in quite a number of years, and a gambrel now looks like it belongs in a dungeon.
But I haven’t become a vegetarian, either. I often think with fondness of my mother’s recipes for venison. She would marinate cubes of the “round,” or haunch, meat in vinegar and brown sugar to get rid of some of the gamey taste, and then she would cook it in a crock pot with celery, carrots, potatoes, onions, parsley, a couple cans of cream-of-mushroom soup. This was one of my favorite dishes, though now it has been years and years since I’ve had it.
I never liked to hunt, however, and I’ve never been inclined to do so in my adult life. I was squeamish about it — which my father thought of as a mild personality flaw. “You won’t hunt it, but you sure like to eat it,” he would say, and I didn’t know how to respond to the accusation, or how to explain the contradiction in my character. I never did figure it out, and now that my parents are dead, I supposed I don’t really have to, though in some ways I feel as if I might forever be a person of two minds. I think of my teenage self, watching moodily as the dogs chased around the yard dragging a severed deer hoof; pacing through the kitchen, observing, vaguely judgmental, as my father cleaned his gun and my mother wielded her paring knife. Then at dinner I would find myself happily pulled up to the kitchen table, bending over my stew without a single question.