Originally posted on Rose’s website, http://metraylor.com/.
I stare up at the dim ceiling of my tent and blink. The name that belongs to the voice does not belong here. Maybe I imagined it.
“There’s a wawaskeshi!”
“Alex?” I fumble with the zipper of the tent.
“Hey!” I hear his long lope beating through the earth. “There’s a deer.” Palming my eyes, the full realization that I am going to have to deal with this and no one is going to want to get up settling over me.
“I do not want to deal with this,” I tell his kneeling silhouette, pulling on a shirt over my head.
“Yeah,” he says, “I feel a little responsible, even though I’m not.”
“I know how busy things are at the support center,” I tell him, remembering all the times when I was the one bringing the unexpected news. “Okay, who do we have here… Brum.” My brain stutters for names.
“Marcus,” Alex points out.
“Yeah.” The gears are working again. “Maybe we can wake all the men. We’ll have to carry the deer back, gut her…”
“Brum needs his sleep,” Kerstin calls from her tent. I know she’s been concerned that he has enough energy to help her with their daughter. I realize the same concerns strike two more men off my list. “Okay, all the men except the fathers.”
“I’m going to take her out of the van and leave her at the trailhead.”
“Gimme a hug. We’ll take care of her.” I finish struggling into my pants and cumbersome belt and crawl into the night into a comfortingly familiar embrace, being enveloped by someone as wide as a bear and skinny as a toothpick.
I start at the edges of camp.
Fumbled words, all the edges blunted by a taste of the Old World.
“What is it?”
“There’s a deer. We need to go take care of her.”
“Can I get an answer? Fridolin?”
Irritated, I tell him to meet us at the hearth if he’s coming. Marcus appears, visible as a cloud of hair stuck under a cap.
“I hear there’s a wawaskeshi.”
“Yeah, I’m thinking we get all the men who aren’t fathers. Maybe we could carry her on a pole.”
“We could probably just gut her and hang her in the sweet forest,” Marcus points out. “Then we’d need fewer people.”
Relief as the idea takes hold.
“Okay. Yeah. I tried to wake Fridolin. I don’t know if he’s coming. I’ll go get Alexandros.”
Alexandros’ tent is on the opposite end of camp, and I feel self-conscious crunching and crackling around the tents of a small family and our resident grandmother. I find an empty tent, and I know that if Alexandros isn’t there he’ll be in the other one not a canoe length away. But somehow in two circuits I can’t find it, so I loop back around to meet Marcus.
To my surprise and gratification, Fridolin is there, dressed and alert. We grab a sheet of birch bark for cargo and set out for the trailhead.
There is no moon to paint our path, just a glare reflected downward by an overcast sky. Marcus and I have walked this trail for Turns, a narrow, three-quarter mile winding channel of packed duff as easy to navigate as a straight, paved road. I can feel my resignation lightening.
I am reminded of every book I ever read about elves or other fantastic, wood-savvy folk. I’ve ready hundreds of pages, written thousands of words, played video games of what I’m living right now. I love my life. I love it more each time I leave behind a little more of my conditioning about what comfort and effort really mean.
Fridolin, it turns out, is almost completely night blind. He can’t even see the silhouettes revealed by the cloudlight. Gamely he plunges on as we periodically stop to wait, guiding him back to the trail with pseudo bird calls. As the wood opens up into the sweet forest, I lose the trail, the duff suddenly springy with last autumn’s maple leaves.
“Wait, I’ve lost it.” Fridolin bumps into me. “Back up. Back, back… Okay. I’m on it.” I feel around with my feet, toes pointed like a ballet dancer until I feel packed earth. “There you are.”
We wander along blind to the trailhead, and can’t find the deer. I pull out the beeswax candle and matches I stuffed into a breast pocket. We’ve walked right past Mama Deer, and Fridolin holds the candle as Marcus and I drag her off the road, one of her legs shattered through by the force of the car that ended her life.
I step aside as Marcus pulls out a slender cord we hope will be strong enough to hold her weight, and step out of my clothes. In a world with no soap and no washing machines, clean clothes are valuable. Naked, I buckle my belt around my hips, bonier from the transition of sitting at a computer typing most of the day to walking three to ten miles hauling loads of fir boughs and firewood. I hear the drone of a handful of mosquitoes zeroing in on our carbon dioxide trail.
Marcus loops his string around the deer’s neck and he and Fridolin hoist her up far enough that I can wrap my arms around her bloated belly.
“Okay, one, two, three–”
We heave, she rises, we heave, so close but not high enough–
Something snaps, and darkness rushes in.
“Well, it was either the branch or the string.”
“Can you find the candle?”
“I haf de candle,” Fridolin says.
“I left the matches by a root over here…” I self-narrate, feeling around in the dark, naked but for a knife.
A rattling box, and the candle blooms to life, Mama Deer staring up at us.
“Looks like it was the string,” Marcus says.
“Ve can use de legs, no?” Fridolin asks.
“Oh yeah! I forgot all about that.” Squatting, I slip out my knife. I’m so used to hanging deer by the neck with the luxury of strong rope that I have blinders to other possibilities.
Taking her foreleg, I cut the tendon away from the bone and try to pull her other foot through. It takes some hauling, and finally I have to brace both feet on her leg to pull her hard, black-tipped toes through. We resume our positions.
“On three, one two three. Little more, little more– There! Okay. You can let go.”
There she hangs, neatly, no rope.
Stripping to the waist, Marcus takes the lead, always so surprisingly reedy under a bush of hair and beard and cheekbones that remind me of chipmunks. He delicately slits the thin skin over her sternum and I help peel the flaps back. A spurt of blood splatters my leg as he cuts open her belly, a bulge of stomachs and coiled mounds of intestines, blessedly intact.
Fisting his hands around the connective tissue holding the organs inside, Marcus tells me, “So if you can grab the liver so it lands on top…”
I take the sold, rubbery shape between my hands and the whole GI tract lands in a neat pile at our feet. We cut the liver off and place it on the birch bark.
“We’ve got one kidney… Where’s the other one?” I poke through the candlelit tangle, mystified. “… Maybe we can find it in the morning.”
Next come the heart and lungs, and nestled in the belly, a gift.
There’s a sadness there, and a reverence, as I see the tiny white hooves peeking out, for a life cut short as we gently pull the fawn out.
The night is cool enough to leave Mama Deer until the morning. We don our clothes and try to wrestle the organs onto our birch bark platter only to find they keep wriggling out. Finally I pull the fawn out of his placenta and tie his little legs together into a suitcase. He is such a perfect little deer, writ small and spotted, his hindquarters underdeveloped just like a newborn human baby’s. Abandoning the birch bark, Fridolin and Marcus take fistfuls of organs and I lift the candle.
“Are we ready?”
A puff of breath, and darkness swallows us again.
It’s darker now, an iron gray sky barely distinguishable from the tree tops. In consideration of our precious and ungainly cargo –and the fact that Fridolin is essentially blind– Marcus and I start narrating obstacles.
“Knee log… Ankle log… Eye pokers… ‘Nother knee log…” The fawn weighs surprisingly heavy against my arm.
As we circumvent the sweat lodge, a cry rises across the thick night from camp. I think I know who it is, a three year old who has woken the camp nightly for the past quarter of the moon.
The water at the swim area is a rippling sheet of black as we crouch to wash our bounty. The wandering bridge through the bog, two poles wide, feels too ambitious after our adventure. Ready for bed, we walk the last trail to camp, passing silent tents through a brushy corridor of young, anti-septic smelling balsam fir. In the bog near the canoe canal we pull back layers of sphagnum moss to bury our meat and keep it cool. A green glow reaches across the open hearth, a candle in a tent as two parents read from a journal to their wakeful toddler.
“I’m turning in. ‘Night guys.”
I lead Fridolin as far as the trail to his tent and hopes that he makes it, and crash in my sleeping bag, content.