By David Joy
When dinner is served, she sees venison tenderloin seared rare in cast iron and sliced into thin medallions. She sees morels cut lengthwise from cap to stem, the mushrooms hollow as caves, cooked tender in butter brought just to the point of smoking. She sees mashed potatoes whipped with heavy cream, asparagus broiled crisp at their crowns with a thin drizzle of olive oil.
When dinner is served, she sees deer cubesteak dipped in egg wash, rolled in yellow corn meal, and fried golden in hot oil. She sees green beans cooked low on the stove all day with onions and streaked meat sharing the pot. She sees the tomato that hung on the vine by the driveway that morning when she left for work, the fruit now picked and cut, sprinkled with salt and pepper. She sees a cake of cornbread wrapped in a checkered dishcloth to keep it just warm enough that it will still melt butter when she cuts her triangle and makes her plate.
When it’s early spring and the hill behind the house is covered with ramps, she sees meatloaf. In summer, she sees street tacos made simple like the Honduran woman who owns the food truck just down the road makes them—corn tortillas filled with meat, white onion, cilantro, and a spritz of fresh lime. I make ours with meat that I cut from the bone and canned in mason jars and we eat them on the porch in our rocking chairs with Coronas, Modelos, Estrella Jaliscos, the bottles sweating in our hands as the lightning bugs start to blink on the wood line.
Sometimes the leaves have the mountains afire and sometimes there is snow on the ridgeline and sometimes she walks into the house and is overcome by the smell of what has been simmering since the night before and she pulls the lid off the pot and sees a stew that started with bone stock and mirepoix—carrots, celery, and onion—finished with canned venison and kale, so hearty that it could float a car.
What she will not see is what came before. She will not see what I cannot stop seeing, what I remember when I take a bite and close my eyes:
Fifteen feet up a hickory, I watch a tree line at the edge of a clear cut. I hear heavy footsteps and ease around the right side of the tree for a look and there he stands. The buck walks to my left and I slip behind the trunk, shoulder the rifle, and balance the fore end on a tree step I’ve augured into the opposite side for a rest.
The deer is broadside when I slide the crosshairs onto his shoulder. The clear cut is too rough to track and drag, strewn with downed timber and studded with sawn stubs, so that I do not want to risk a shot for heart and lungs and have the deer run a hundred yards. I want to drop him where he stands. Pin his shoulders together and buckle him.
Just before the deer strolls behind a cedar sapling I touch the trigger and the .308 shatters the morning. A hundred and fifty grains of copper jacketed lead hit just behind the shoulder and bloodshot the backside to pudding.
The buck stoops forward and sprints, back legs driving him over tangled ground. He makes it forty yards before he crashes. From my stand, I can just make out the white of his stomach through the brush. I watch his ribs rise with each breath, that breathing slowing, slowing, then gone.
There is a sadness that only the hunter knows, a moment when lament overshadows any desire for celebration. Life is sustained by death, and though going to the field is an act of taking responsibility for that fact, even though this deer will feed us for the year, the killing is not easy nor should it be.
As we eat, I remember the killing and I remember the not killing. I remember the first deer that I ever saw in the woods, how I was set up directly on a game trail and how that young doe walked so close that I could’ve reached my hand out and touched her, how I was absolutely amazed that if I was still enough, I could disappear.
I remember the days when I saw nothing but squirrels and the days that I saw nothing and wished I’d seen squirrels and the days that I saw everything but squirrels—one time a cooper’s hawk that came out of nowhere and snatched a cardinal from a limb, the hawk flying away with a fistful of red as if it carried a poinsettia in its talons.
I remember the man who first handed me a knife and told me where to cut. I remember every bit of this moment, every last detail, from running the blade around the bottom joint of the deer’s hindlegs to the way the air smelled of pine needles and viscera to the way the sunlight filtered through the trees in bars. I taste this on my tongue as I chew that first bite and swallow.
My dinner plate is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed. I see it as a miracle. It is as if I have uttered the words of a prayer and those words have been answered. This is what I wish I could show her.
About the Author
David Joy lives in Jackson County, NC. His fifth novel, Those We Thought We Knew, releases August 1, 2023. Devil’s Peak, a feature film based upon his first novel, Where All Light Tends to Go, starring Billy Bob Thornton, Robin Wright, and Hopper Penn is set for nationwide theatrical release on February 17, 2023 and On Demand Video February 24, 2023.