Mercifully, during the beating the phone rang. His father dropped the belt in the grass and went in with a slam of the screen door. Cody slid his hands over the truck’s stable surface. It soothed him. Sweat slicked his backside and pain gave way to numbness. He felt faint, but as he stumbled closer to the house his father’s voice strained through: Don’t know. S’pose we could use the meat. Cody could picture the phone cord lassoed around his middle, the curl of his lips around the words Yeah, okay. Bring it over.
Some driver had hit a buck near 191, and their neighbor Antonio had decided to take the dead animal rather than let it rot on the road. His father let the dog out, repeating Antonio’s words with a laugh: Report it to the cops while we go hungry? Whatever, damn them, let them fine me over a heap of venison, we’re gonna eat. So there he was, Antonio clouding their driveway with dust in that beat-up Toyota of his. Cody watched from the fence as his father helped him haul an eight-point buck off the truck bed and onto the side porch, where they strung it up with a length of rope over a tarp, antlers pointing down.
Skinning and gutting it would take no more than ten minutes, but Antonio proceeded slowly. With his knife, he started under the tail, slit the fur down to the stomach and peeled it away. He then handed the knife to Cody’s father. Without a word, as Antonio held the carcass, his father made a deeper cut down its middle, pausing now and then to caress the animal as if to check that he wasn’t hurting it. Below the ribcage he gently pried the belly open, and with cupped hands covered in blood, unraveled the intestines for what seemed to Cody like forever. The windpipe came out last, until finally it had been emptied down to its muscles and skeleton.
Once, his father had described this whole process to him: something you just gotta do. But as they deboned the buck, Cody noticed how the men’s silence verged on reverence, how it didn’t square with the blood that wept from its body and pooled at their boots where it dried like ink. And he would carry this feeling with him into the rest of his life, along with the memory of a flayed back in the waning sunlight, his fingers woven through the chain-link fence, the flies murmuring around him, the silhouettes of a deer and two men blurring and unblurring as his dog walked up and licked the salt from his face.
Hannah Lee Jones‘ poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in Superstition Review and Orion, among other journals. She edits The MFA Project, a resource for writers pursuing their craft without an advanced degree, and grows vegetables on Whidbey Island in northwest Washington. Her website is http://hannahleejones.com.
–Art by Joanna Jankowska