by David Flynn
The deer had begun to smell by time he had it on his table. Leaves
stuck to the wound, brown with dried blood. Eight points on the rack, a
young buck maybe 200 pounds. The head flopped to the side without neck
muscles alert to hold it erect.
"Damn bastard bolted the first shot I had on him," the hunter said.
He was a first time customer, with a beard and camouflage outfit that
looked new. "We had to track him most of a morning."
The man was excited. His address was in a rich suburb. First time hunting maybe. He left a deposit with his credit card.
When the taxidermist was alone in the dark of his workshop he looked
the deer in the eyes, round black spheres still full of sight. He
placed his lips next to the mouth and sucked in the stinking air.
Charles dropped to his knees before the buck and prayed.
"I apologize to you for the man who has taken the life from you.
Really, I do not know why he stalked you and killed you. I do not
understand why they do those things for fun, but I want you to know
that I respect your death. I will prepare your meat, so that your death
means life for creatures still living, his family. I also must remove
your head so that the hunter can keep a reminder of you in his house.
That is their way. Perhaps you can watch them and understand. I cannot,
although I take money from them so my family may live. Please forgive
me. Please be happy among the dead spirits, which are all around us.
Know that I envy you, traveling to a land where I too will travel later
Charles rose from his knees. He turned for his tools, a skinning knife, a butcher's blade, and a hacksaw.
The workshop door opened and it was his son. Luke was twelve and
hated to help. The father made him, so that he might know more than
television and shopping malls. He stood by the table in silence, a thin
boy with the same black hair as Charles. In a few years, when Luke grew
big and muscular, he would make him leave the school and serve as his
apprentice, even if the son did not want to.
They hardly said a word as Charles first measured the buck's head
for the form around which he later would place the hide and horns. This
deer was average; a #24 form would do. He kept a supply of black glass
eyes in a drawer.
Then, the boy holding the body, Charles cut the hide across the
shoulder with his skinning knife. Luke held the head while he had to
strain, even with a blade he kept sharp as a point. His tools also had
spirits, ones he prayed to so they would not feel alone. His ancestors
believed every object had a spirit. Though Charles was Native American,
his father had not known what nation.
When the hide was cut in a circle at the top of the shoulder, he
made a slice up the back of the neck, splitting into a Y before the two
stems of horn. Blood seeped from the cuts still, and below that lay the
gauze of tissue and muscle and meat that covered the frame of the
Now he had to take the skin from the ears, the most difficult part.
With a scalpel, he severed each ear, and then ran his fingers between
the hide and the cartilage below.
When he had the two ears ready, next came the eyes. Charles stuck
his thumb deep into the jelly of the ball, and cut as far back into the
socket as he could. That too came apart from the skull. Then the
nostrils, slicing deep as he could inside, and the lips, his hand far
into the hot mouth.
"Please forgive me these intimacies," he prayed aloud. His son's
face, pale and bumpy, could not be read, but the father knew he thought
he was crazy.
When Charles was finished with the detail, the hide stripped from
the body with a tearing sound, and he was left with a thick sheet of
hair and hide and blood. With his broad-bladed butcher's knife, he
scraped the inside clean of grizzle and fat and flesh. With Luke
holding the hide, he attached it to a sloping board and covered the
hide with salt. Liquids would drain and the hide would dry. This he
would repeat a second time hours later, until the skin was ready for
the tanner. Years before, Charles' father had taught him the old way,
making his own forms from wood and excelsior, tanning the skins
himself. Now, the commercial plants made the hard parts easier.
"You must be very strong for the next step," he said.
"It is good exercise," Luke said his first words of the morning in the dark workshop. "I want to play basketball this year."
And Charles smiled, because the boy was confident. Maybe he would
make a fine man, because the father would mold him as he wished. If
there was a war, the boy would fight the war. If there was no war, Luke
must let no man bother him, but would raise a family, love the solid
and the spirit world both. If only he could move the boy away from the
city. The white mother, too, loved things, and so Charles worked many
jobs. If only he could take Luke from the school, where the other
children corrupted him, and make him his apprentice now, but the law
said he could not.
"Hold the head with all your strength," Charles said, sternly,
because the father must be stern. His face, too, was hard to read, as
had his father's, and what he thought or felt did not change his
The boy did as told, while Charles positioned his hacksaw below the
horns. He sawed through the skull and brain. The blade came out the
other side of the head, and he lifted the antlers. Blood flowed onto
the table. Again, he scraped the underside, this time powdering the
horns with borax. The points the male was so proud of, his manhood, he
placed on a shelf to dry.
The boy helped him clean the table, which was sticky with the blood
of hundreds of creatures, deer and bird and fish. The carcass he
likewise skinned, slitting the hide first underneath from the anus to
the shoulder. The hunter had not mentioned the body hide, but it would
insult the deer if it should go to waste. With the hacksaw, he removed
the four legs, and then cut off the meat in chunks with his butcher's
knife. The boy placed the unused pieces in garbage bags, and helped him
take the meat to the freezer on their back porch. The businessman would
have almost a hundred pounds of venison.
Leaving the door of the workshop always was a shock for Charles. The
dark, odor-filled workroom felt as if he was deep in the woods, deep in
time. Outside stood the neighbors' fences and houses crowded in each
direction, a suburb. His house, a brick ranch style, was the same as
theirs. Inside, the workshop seemed silent, in which god and all
spirits of all creatures and things lived. Outside, the noise of the
streets, the barking dogs, and the wind chimes brought him back to
twenty-first century, which he hated.
His wife was still asleep, though it was nearly noon. She worked as
waitress at an all-night cafe. Charles looked down at her on the bed,
covered with dirty coverlets, and decided not to wake her. She was a
fake blonde, a woman he had regretted marrying. The house was never
clean; they argued constantly. She encouraged Luke in his modern ways.
Instead, he and the boy ate canned soup they heated.
"Two boys got into a fight on the school bus yesterday," Luke
remarked, just to say something. Father and son had been eating across
the table without a word.
"You must learn to fight too," he said. Every word he told the boy
must be a lesson. "Soon you will have to prove yourself, or the bigger
boys will not respect you."
His wife walked from the bedroom. She began making coffee at the counter without a word.
Before dawn two weeks later the deer's skin was returned from the
tanner, ready to reassemble. A box waited in his workshop with the
form, and he had chosen the eyes, but there was something about the
blackness, a Saturday, and the forecast for cool, gray weather, that
made Charles restless. He stood in front of the table, knowing he could
use the hammer, the needle, the glue, and the papier mache, and be
finished with the deer's head by noon. A strong call from the spirit
world made him stop.
When Luke walked in the workshop door, he told the boy, "Today will be a good day to hunt. I feel it."
The boy protested about meeting his friends, but the father would
not be disobeyed. When he closed his eyes, his hands on the horns, he
could feel the spirit of a waiting deer so immense there could be no
In the dark, the two traveled along the interstate in the black
truck, so old it leaned to the right, a collection of dents and
scrapes. An hour west of the city Charles pulled off and in another
thirty minutes parked on a mud road deep into the forest, his favorite
area for deer. The boy was mad and hardly spoke, but standing by the
truck, struggling into their camouflage coveralls, orange vests, and
rubber boots, Charles could hear the spirit world shouting at him. This
was a sacred day, one the boy would remember always. Today he would
learn the spirit of the deer, and be changed.
The forest surrounded them for a hundred miles. Instead of city or
highway was a wilderness, and in those trees stood a deer with many
points on its horns. Charles could feel the spirit between them. Could
sense the buck looking up in that startled way, knowing his death had
arrived. Today their souls would join, and the deer would become part
of the spirit world.
"When we are through, can we stop at McDonald's?" Luke asked.
"No, we will not," the father said, fighting anger.
They had never killed a deer together, and hiking through the woods
for a rustle of the leaves, for prints in the mud, for fresh pellets of
dung tired Luke. The boy believes we will hunt without result, Charlie
thought, and said, "This day we will meet your personal deer, and when
you have taken its spirit into you, you will be strong like the deer.
The deer will lead you into manhood."
He wanted to take his only son back in time, not forward into
computers and jobs in offices. His son must love the silence as he did,
and so the boy must learn patience this morning: cool, dawning, fresh.
They hiked into the woods without a trail, straight into the trees.
The first hour Charles looked for a twelve-point buck he had seen the
year before, a head among the leaves, but had not hunted. Deer remained
in the same area year after year, like people, so the buck would still
be there. Shots sounded from other hunters far away. Though he searched
the ground, littered with leaves or needles, he found little track, the
deer pellets, the hooved indentation in the mud from which he could
tell size and sex, and when the deer stood or ran. The boy grew tired,
carrying his rifle on his shoulder, and walked slowly.
"Now we must still hunt," Charles said. The good time for deer,
sunrise, was gone. "I will find a place for you and a separate place
for me. We will remain silent, for in silence is the spirit of the
deer. You must let yourself stop thinking. Then you will find him. When
you do, aim at the chest, where the heart is. Try to honor the deer
with one shot. Shout and I will come if we need to track him while he
dies. If my deer comes to me first, you will hear a shot, and I will
call to you. I have had dreams; I feel the spirit of my deer and your
deer in these woods. Today will be a big day."
"I don't know why I have to do these stupid things," was all the boy
said. He almost cried, like a child, and then looked at his father
defiantly. "This is boring."
Luke turned his head away and did not believe, the father knew. The
boy could not sense spirit, because his head was full of objects to
buy. Charles wanted to forget objects, and find a world of all spirit.
In time, they walked onto a small ridge. Behind was the rise of a
hill and below, after a drop of ten feet, stretched a ledge of tree and
"Here is where you will still hunt," Charles broke the silence.
He took a square of tarpaulin from his pack and laid it on the ground while Luke stood in irritation.
"To hunt the deer in an honorable way you must not be a child. You
must not make noise. You must sit in the same place, for hours maybe.
You must open your mind to spirit. Patience and calm must be your way.
Then, your deer will come, because the spirit world will send him. I
will still hunt on the other side of the hill, also waiting for my
deer, also patient and calm."
"I hate you," Luke said. "My friends think you're crazy."
"I give you no choice."
And the father, hurting and angry both, waited for the son to sit
against a tree trunk, as told. Luke did, a heavy weight, and then would
not look at him again. The father grabbed his son's rifle and pushed it
across his legs, in the proper way.
Then, so mad he could not keep the spirit himself, Charles walked
around the hill to the far side, a ledge also immersed in tree and
leaf, also dark and still, without even the stirring of a wind. There
he threw down his tarpaulin on a similar overlook. He sat against a
trunk, and tried to lose the anger that controlled him.
This day he could not lose the world. Though the spirit was strong,
the anger was stronger. His mind, rather than emptying so the spirit
could enter, remained filled with rage about his son. The boy was lost
to America. He was too old to learn. His only son was the same as his
wife, his neighborhood, and his city. The world of matter was too
powerful, even for the spirit world. Such thoughts came and with them
the curdling sharpness that ruined everything.
The ledge was cold, and when Charles realized that he too was cold,
an hour had gone by. He should have checked the boy, but had not moved.
Deer roamed around them. He could feel their bodies. Now he stretched
his legs, asleep because he had not moved them, and changed the rifle
from one hand to the other. He rose stiffly. Charles walked over the
hill through the trees toward his son's still hunt.
"Luke," he said, but there was no answer.
When he came to the spot, the tarpaulin still covered the dead
leaves, but his son was gone. The rage came again, full and red. Anger
howled like a wind in his head. The boy no doubt had returned to the
truck, sat there bored with the heater on and the radio playing that
music. The boy was not a hunter, and would never be a hunter. He had no
son, and would never have a son.
Charles returned to his still hunt on the other side of the hill. He
sat on his tarpaulin, rifle across his legs. The boy could wait in the
truck all day. He deserved punishment, and would be punished when they
returned to their house. He would beat the boy. Meanwhile Charles would
Immediately he felt the spirit of the deer.
He was the buck Charles knew would come. The buck was meant for the son, but it had come to him as more worthy.
Above the roar of the anger, above the sickness in his stomach, came
the spirit of the deer. Charles rose to his feet slowly. He must not
make any noise. He stood with the rifle raised almost to his eyes. For
minutes, he remained still. Only the moan of the wind in the tree
branches spoke to him. The feeling, stronger and stronger, of the deer
filled the trees. Then, the sound of steps on the leaves, slow,
They came from behind him, down on the ledge. Charles turned with no
haste. When he faced the steps, he aimed his rifle into the trees. He
emptied his mind, and did not see with his eyes. His mind and the mind
of the deer joined, a union between them. Then, between the trunks of
the trees, among needles and leaves on the branches, the black eye of
Charles did not will it, but his finger moved and the rifle exploded. Instead of the deer, came a human scream.
Just one scream, but Charles went numb with death. He did not move,
wanting the time to stop, but the seconds continued and with them the
thought: I have killed my son.
Instead of running to the body, he knelt on the ground. He clasped
him fingers together in prayer, and tried to pray the boy alive. The
spirit world remained hard. Charles prayed with all the might a human
could have, but the spirit world was empty. He prayed forever, but in a
few minutes knew prayer did no good.
He stood, rifle still in his hands. Even as a child, Charles did not
cry, no matter how hard his father, an alcoholic, tried to make him cry
with his belt or a piece of wood, he refused to cry. His face showed
nothing now, but inside he was insane. He walked through the leaves and
the tree trunks to the boy's side.
Luke looked up at the tall trees, a red circle of meat on his chest.
The bullet had entered cleanly, through the heart. A good shot. The
boy's face showed nothing.
Charles stood above his son, staring at every detail. He knelt, and
placed his ear at the boy's nose. No breath came. His fingers touched
the vein of the boy's neck, but no pulse throbbed. Luke was all body
now, his spirit in the air where human senses could not find him.
In time, Charles lifted the body, and draped him over his shoulder.
It was the only way he could carry the weight. In the truck, he placed
him on the seat, and drove from the woods with no hurry. He would never
drive nor walk with hurry again, because time was without purpose. He
felt hatred roaring inside him toward the spirit world, and hatred that
roared back, but he had much to do. At his house, he parked without
remembering the road there.
The father carried his son's body into his workshop. No other human
had seen him. The white mother was asleep, and then would leave for her
waitress job. His numbness left and a great need filled him. Charles
moved with madness. He laid the boy on the table, face up, and removed
his clothes. The shirt was sticky with blood.
He placed his mouth near the mouth of the boy. He drew out the breath. Then he dropped to his knees before the corpse.
"I apologize for taking your life, my son. May I draw your spirit
into me, so that we may be one. Though this deed was not of my doing,
but that of the spirit world whom I have angered with my life, I ask
your forgiveness for my deed. May you be in peace with the spirits
around you. May I travel to your world soon."
Very soon. For how could he live with this deed on the Earth.
"I love you more than the world, but I was not a good father. I let
you lose your soul. May I be a better father in your death. Please
Charles gathered his tools. He held the skinning knife, and went
cold. His son's black eyes stared at the ceiling, shiny with insight.
He made the first cut above the boy's shoulder, the knife slicing
through the skin in a complete circle. Then he cut his neck in a Y
shape onto the skull. Blood covered his hands and his face as he wiped
Crying, Charles took the scalpel and removed the boy's ears, then
ran his fingers between the cartilage and the skin. He stuck his thumb
deep into the jelly of the eyes, and cut far back into the sockets,
crying. He had to stop, hysterical for a moment, but then calmed his
spirit to match the boy's spirit. The nostrils and the lips he carved
out as well.
Luke's skin tore from the muscle with jerks and yanks in pieces, the
black hair intact. With the broad-bladed knife, he scraped the inside
of grizzle and fat and flesh. He attached the hide to the sloping board
and covered it with salt. This time he himself would do the tanning:
salting, degreasing, and fleshing as his ancestors had done, and as he
had done when he began as a taxidermist. Salt and alum for the acid
soak. He must remember how.
Then the body hide, and cutting off the arms and legs with his hacksaw.
I will be a horror to all ages, he thought. My father will not know me in the spirit world.
The skins mounted on boards, drying in the salt, he began building a
wooden frame. With no manufactured forms, he would have to make his
son's body the old way, the way his father taught him. A bag of
excelsior had remained forgotten in a cabinet for years. Charles stayed
up all night, making the wooden form. He was not satisfied with the
shape, but he could not stop.
And it was a day later, for he had not slept, that his wife entered
the workshop. Charles sat on the floor among the dried blood, the chips
of wood, and the trash. His eyes stared wide at the air. He did not
hear the entry of his wife nor her screams. As he had without stop, he
called to his dead ancestors.
"Speak to me, for I am nothing," he begged. "Please show yourself to
me. Tell me how I may cleanse myself of this death. Tell me how I may
live as the deer."
But they were silent.
© 2015 David Flynn
Bio: David Flynn’s literary publications total more than one
hundred and seventy. His background includes reporter for a daily
newspaper, editor of a commercial magazine, and teacher.His writing blog, where he posts a new story and poem every month, is at http://writing-flynn.blogspot.com. His web site is at http://www.davidflynnbooks.com. His last Aphelion appearance was If Pants Had Brains in our May 2015 issue.
E-mail: David Flynn
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