Cleaning Kill

 In the fall, over-ripe pears drop from the trees, and the fermented scent rises from the grass. Sniffing deeply and dizzy with winey air, I stumble on them. Sometimes I pick one up and stare at the oddly mottled green and gold skin. I pierce the soft pulp with a stick. I make little people of the pears with twig arms and legs on the green-brown pear body. The broken skin, where I add the appendages, releases the scent of fruit. I salivate and eat them.

The pear trees are old, planted by the original owners of the farm, and have been left to grow wild in our front yard. During deer hunting season, the hunters hang their kill from them. The branches are so high and thick, the dogs can’t reach the carcasses. All through the November hunting season, the men let the meat age. Because this spot is in the front yard, hanging the kill is also an invitation. Other hunters stop, pull their trucks into the driveway, their red and black plaid hunting overalls smudged with field dirt.

“Nice buck, John. Where’d you get it?”

“Out by Potawatomi.”

“In the swamp?”

“Yep, south side, just on the edge of thicket there.”

People liked to talk with my dad because he didn’t brag. He’d tell them the rack was ten points when they could see it was twelve, or he’d say the buck dressed at one-twenty when it looked and probably was bigger. He carried a small hunting knife tucked in his pocket, not the big, triumphant blades many men wore on their belts. Because he never made a big deal of being a good hunter, the hunters weren’t intimidated while looking at the kill or crushing the rotting pears under their boots. I loved to watch my father and listen to his talk.

On a late Thanksgiving afternoon, I wander out to the pear trees. I am scuffing through the remnants of fruit, looking for a pear that is not too soft or wormy, one that I can eat out here in the quiet because the farmhouse is buzzing with my mother, aunts, cousins, and all the hustling preparation for dinner. All day luxurious pumpkin and tangy sage have been in my nose. The younger cousins have gone to the barns while the women hold dinner because the men are still hunting. The men are in that stage of desperateness because one uncle, who has come all the way from Illinois, has not killed his deer, and he doesn’t want to go back empty-handed. If they are not lucky, they will come home at first dark. If they are lucky, it will be later (because they must drag it out), but my mother’s voice will be like fire.

I sit down at the base of a pear tree, looking around at the mounds of pears, yellow and black this late in the season. I pick one, frost bit and thawed. I bite it, and it tastes tingly. I chew, spit, and watch the road where the big pick-ups will come careering over the gravel.

It is not a long wait, not quite dark. The trucks, honking success, roar up the slope of the front yard. They pull directly under the bigger tree, tires sliding and spraying crushed pears and wet grass. One truck backs under a high, heavy branch, and one parks facing it so the headlights shine on the tree and the work. They plug utility lights into the cigarette lighters of the cabs and hang these lights on the trunk of the tree.

My little brothers leap down from the cabs and run to the house, announcing the kill. “Got ’em, right through the neck. Big buck.” They are screaming for approval from the women, and I hear shushing, the remark, “Aren’t we lucky?” The distant thudding of kitchen doors is renewed as the women reorganize the meal’s timing. My mother flicks the lights in the dining room to signal she knows.

I lean quietly against the fender. No one notices me. The men move with powerful, heavy steps, full of booted purpose and an authority laced with urgency. So many pears have been crushed under the wheels that the scent, resting quietly in the cold, rises sharply.

My father climbs out of the truck, a loop of rope in his arm. He pulls the tailgate down and leaps up to the bed of the truck. In the headlight of the other truck, he casts an enormous shadow toward the house. He bends, lifts. I see the flash of horns visible over the bed of the truck, and then he is looping an end of rope, tying and tying. He throws the loose end of the rope over the high branch, and the other two men catch it, their arms also casting huge, sharp shadows. They pull. The rope squeals as they hoist the buck, horns first, toward the thick black hand of the branch. The carcass rises slowly in the artificial light, joining the tree, hanging like a slim frost-killed blossom. Its legs dangle loosely. The deer has a wide, graceful set of antlers, a big gray ruff, and its hide is, even in this light, a warmer brown than usual.

“Been corn fed to get that color?” Uncle Eddy asks in his nervous way.

“Oh prob’ly, that or winter wheat, some kind of grain.” My father’s voice is steady.

The body twists in the light. I see for the first time the cut in the lower stomach the length of my arm, running parallel to the backbone.

My brothers come sliding back from the house. They see me in the dark and move closer, strange and wild.

“What’s that?” I ask softly, pointing to the opening.

“They took out the stomach and the ’testines already.”

“What are they gonna do now?”

“Gut it. They got to finish gutting it so it don’t get poisoned.”

My father barks some command at the boys, and they dash to him, slipping in the pears. Rick reaches out and touches the dark, perfectly shaped hoof. My father’s voice takes on a careful tone.

“Now watch. You ain’t gonna do this for a while yet, but you need to get how it’s done.”

The men in the bed of the truck lean against the buck’s backbone, stabilizing the carcass, and my father takes the small hunting knife from his pocket, unfolds and locks it. He cuts slowly, then reaches in and pulls out bulbous, dark, strangely shaped things.

“Now here’s the liver. It’s good we got it whole.” He sets it on a clean handkerchief on the side of the truck. My mother will slice and pickle all the sweetbreads.

He places the knife at the bottom of the cut, tips it precisely, rips all the way to the neck. Gently, he feels for bone, finds the rib cage and splits the ribs, spreading them. He begins to cut through thin gray tissue that looks like sheer fabric, “This here’s membrane and the diaphragm, you cut it out to get the lungs.” He removes the oddly shaped globules, gray and dark. Then he is holding something fist solid in his hands. He sets the heart aside with the liver.

As he and the men work, they drop the mess over the side, into a big metal cherry bucket. I sneak toward it, wanting to see, afraid and fascinated. I am drunk on fermented pears and an unexpected kinship with shadows, blood, and efficiency. I slip in the dark, bang against the truck and fall, smelling rotten fruit and frozen grass.

They begin the washing. My brothers have half-dragged, half-carried cherry buckets full of water from the well. My father lifts the buckets, spilling cold water on his pants and boots. He sloshes water into the cavity of the buck, rinsing the inside of the carcass, rinsing and rinsing and rinsing out dirt and chunks of flesh and fat.

Talk has stopped, but the work is full of sound, the slap of water, the odd gush as it sluices back from inside the rib cage, splattering their bodies and the bed of the truck, then dripping down the tailgate. As he flings the last full bucket of water into the cavity, I reach the pail. I bend over to peer at what they have tossed aside, and as I do I am splashed with the bloody water.

What is inside the pail is crawly and ugly with shapes that no longer have meaning. Whatever care the men took in removing these things from the body has been negated in the tossing aside. And it reeks. As I lean over, the smell of bile and manure, the underling scent of sour grain, and more than any other, the scent of blood, rises like a hand against my face. I am nauseous from the stink, and pull away, gagging. The scent is so strong and thick, I feel sticky with it. I sit back in the grass. I grab a pear and breathe it in deeply, wanting to chase away the death scent. But the pear is changed too, its scent mixed now with the stench of the offal pail, no longer pure, no longer soothing.

Huddled in the cold, I feel the deer hanging from the pear tree, the smell of manure and blood, the pears softening and freezing. The soft yellow fruit will always be mixed with killing. And the scent of offal is a broken blessing into my father’s way, the hunting, the butchering, the providing. I feel a hollowness rinsed with violence. I am washed out with the knowledge that what hangs in the dark also feeds me.T


Anne-Marie Oomen is chair of the creative writing division and an instructor of creative writing at Interlochen Arts Academy. This essay is condensed from her book of essays, =Pulling Down the Barn (Wayne State University Press).