Ritual by Kate Bolton Bonnici

1.         Jenny

Dad leans back in the low seat and closes his eyes. I’ve been reading The Master and Margarita for my literature seminar, but the light’s going now, and the little space in the tree stand—or maybe this one is a shooting house—is cold. We haven’t seen anything on the field yet except a few brown birds, and it’s almost too dark to shoot. Then, in the time of my turning from one page to the next—a deer on the clearing.

My heart gives a crazy lurch-loop. The deer’s got a jut of antlers, his ears twitching every which way, but he starts grazing and keeps on moving further and further out from the trees, like he’s feeling good there in all that grass with the sun sinking.

The gun rests against the open plywood window of the stand. I squint through the scope and try to line up the crosshairs right above the deer’s front leg and just over from his chest. Through the heart like we’d talked about. My blood’s slamming in my ears. I try to remember the instructions. Breathe in, breathe halfway out, stop breathing, squeeze the trigger, do not jerk, squeeze. I do. The deer looks at us. The gun fires. Sound cuts space. He does not crumple down dead; he runs—straight through to the woods, the tree line closes behind him, and he is gone, the sound of the rifle still buzzing.

“He needs time to lie down and die,” Dad says. “We’ll wait for full dark to track him but mark the place he went through. There, between the forked oak and that front pine that’s leaning some. Remember that place.”

We don’t talk any more, and I hear squirrels under the stand and birds shushing around, maybe landing for the night. Even looking through the scope of the rifle, which Dad said pulls in more light, I can’t see much. Everything is shadow. I don’t ever go deer hunting, but he asked me today and I’m going back to school soon, so I said yes. Nobody else from the dorms is doing this on their breaks, that’s for sure. Before coming out to the woods, we’d squirted raccoon urine on the soles of our boots to mask the scent and smudged olive paint across our cheeks. The urine came in a dark spray bottle like tanning oil.

Eventually Dad taps me on the arm, and we climb down the rickety wooden ladder. “Use this flashlight,” he says, handing me a silver tube. “The blue light will make blood glow.”

We walk across the field and into the woods between the oak and the leaning pine. The ground is grooved. We pan the lights around us, but it’s all dark leaves and gray trunks, heavier in here. Quieter. Nets of grass and sticks snag my ankles, a chorus of snaps and whispers. I walk as slowly as I can, afraid to miss the signs I might not know how to see.

A little wet shimmer bulges on a leaf. Blood. I shot the deer. I get a shaky feeling. What if he’s wounded, rushing further into the woods, bleeding and bleeding, and we never get there?

Another two spots of blood spattered on a pine tree.

“A deer can run fifty, sixty yards with a busted heart,” Dad says. “Running dead.”

I scan the flashlight around me like a lighthouse beam and see thicker blood clotted on one of the vines grasping from the ground up to higher tree limbs.

We find the deer. Face turned open-eyed in the dirt. His bent legs look like he dropped fast at the end. Closer, I crouch down. I want to touch him and touch what I’ve done, what I see now I’m capable of, but the warmth around him startles me into standing. There is a buzz in me—I need to move and keep moving.

We hold onto his antlers, which are ridged and warm, and try to drag him forward. The animal barely moves. We keep pulling until his body gives against the pitted dirt and begins to slide slowly over the ground. He doesn’t feel so substantial anymore, and I feel lighter. I have killed something, my hands hold the once living, only that doesn’t seem like the right explanation for this funny breath-skip or why I am warmer.

The deer’s tongue hangs from his mouth.

Dad breathes hard as we work, and sweat courses from his temples. His breath comes low, that of a twenty-year smoker before he quit.

“Let me do it,” I say after a while. “You take a break.”

He stands back. I can’t read his camouflaged face. Only his white beard glows. With gloved hands on both of the deer’s antlers, I pull, and I keep pulling. The underbrush scratches at my pants. My dad rests his hands on his knees. His shoulders move up and down with each breath as if there isn’t enough air here to take in. The deer does not move at all.

2.         Deer   

(outside trees a different wind blew straight without wrapping around limbs or trunks or vines blew noise and smell of squirrels and of the doe across from all this grass watching and of water and the dark bugs that skated it I did not smell what to hide from I did not hear what to hide from though I listened always listened only my own movement almost without and then the smallest tick click so little it was like a scratch a vibration I did not run but froze and the sound came everywhere)

3.         Father

I couldn’t believe Jenny wanted to come with me this time, but I didn’t question when she said yes, only felt the squeeze in my heart thinking my daughter wanted to spend time with her old dad, and I was glad I asked when I’d almost given up asking. Seems my daughter’s been walking away since her legs got strong enough to carry her at nine months old, younger than her brother or her cousins on both sides, and she always wanted to be holding something, walking away, until she got off to college about as far as a kid from here could go.

Today she held a Browning .308 rifle under her arm, had it slung down, casual-like. Won’t be much moon tonight, good for hunting, and the dirt is rutted after the rains this week. I can’t believe she shot so well, but I can, too. When we’re done and don’t need to be quiet, I’ll tell her about walking with my father without the waterproof boots we wear now, when we hunted squirrels in the swamps. I will tell her how if she thinks it’s bad to borrow Brett’s old camo shirt and belted-up army pants, I used to have my mother save the bags that sliced bread came in, and I’d put the bags over my socks and put a rubber band around my ankle and then put the boots on, trying to keep my socks dry.

I skim the blue flashlight over leaves and roots and chunked-up dirt, looking for deer blood. Swear when she shot, I saw that deer get hit, but you never know when a deer runs. You can only keep looking. Hoping it’s what they call a dead sprint.

Jenny moves her flashlight slow and deliberate. It’s thick in here, overgrown and choking now Forestry’s keeping the burns off, so I told her to shine the light hip level. She’s always been one to watch things hard, how she kept trying to read her book when we were waiting, even after daylight was gone, her eyes all squinted and concentrating. She’s got her brown hair in two braids hanging down from the orange cap. She’s worn it that way for this visit, long like my grandmother.

If she shot the deer high on his shoulder, he’ll run longer. I don’t tell her that when I was a boy and you missed a deer, the other hunters cut your shirttail off. There were not enough deer then for me to ever shoot, but my father missed once. His brother jerked the back of his shirt out of his pants and hacked at it with the saw-side of a buck knife. My mother had made that shirt same as she made all of our shirts. I did not see my father miss again.

“Look, Dad!” Jenny shines her flashlight on an oak leaf. The blood drop is the size of a shirt button. “There, I did hit it!”

I hear a thing like pride in her low voice, and I understand.

We fan the flashlights around the spot until I find two splotches close together on the ridge of pine bark, and she sees a long streak along a thick-stalked vine some three feet off the ground. Then, at the edge of a pine forty yards from the plot, the fallen whitetail. An eight-point with one broken brow tine. Jenny crouches down and reaches out to the deer’s coat. In the blue flashlight beam her hand is shaking.

“He’s a good size,” I say. “Nice work. Now we just need to get him to the shed.”

She stands up smiling a little and kind of bounces while we try to turn the deer’s body so we can get him to the edge of the woods where we could drive back with the 4×4 and load him up. She’s too bouncy to be helping much, and the deer is a good 180, so I’m alone really, trying to drag the dead body through briars and lespedeza shrubs and dirt that’s all tilled with the number of deer running here now. Coyote prints too.

She didn’t flinch at the blood already caking the deer’s mouth, and I think she’ll be fine with the skinning. I’ll tell her about each step how it was explained to me, so she sees each has a reason and a meaning. So she’ll come back again. Only it is slow-going moving this deer. I knew it would be. This is long work. Thirty more yards to the open plot. A big dead animal. I lean away from him, trying to hunch over the thickness in my chest that is a different kind of pulling. Like the squeeze that started when my daughter said she wanted to hunt today hasn’t let up. It’s tight and stinging down my arm, and me heaving is the loudest thing in these woods.

Jenny keeps looking back at the deer and over at me. She smiles again, close-mouthed. I think she might be glad she’s here. 

4.         Jenny

The deer is damn heavy. We’d been dragging him on his side, and the bullet hole is mottled and purple red. “What’s a bullet made of anyway?” I ask.

My dad’s teeth look tight like he’s clamping down his jaw. “Lead.” He takes a breath that is more of a swallow. The white of his beard glows and jumps a little. “Mushrooming lead.”

“Where I shot him makes a flower. The strange red ones that smell like rotting meat.” My voice is wrong in here, but without it the space between trees presses in. The vines stroke my hair. I heave the deer again but am only able to get his body a few inches along. The ground is swollen under my boots. “My roommate Mae’s in Thailand now. She saw those flowers.”  

Blood has gotten brushed back over the deer’s coat like paint from a paint roller. I lean down again to pull at the antlers, hoping I can dig into the ground for leverage. I think we’re still going nowhere, but then we’re moving, the deer and me, and I’m able to drag him a few feet. His four legs go straight back, aiming deeper into the woods as if he is swimming with one synchronized motion, then his shoulder catches in a clump of snarled plants, and we’re stopped again. I lay the head in the dirt. There is blood on my gloves and blood at my wrists in the gap where my sleeves have pulled up.

Mae has carpe diem tattooed in the inside of her right wrist and a small bird on the inside of her left one. The bird is a marzipan blue and looks edible. 

I squat down by the deer, lifting his head under the cheek and jaw, against a stubble of white hairs around the mouth, which is slightly open and pink. The nostrils are clogged, and I want to both clean them out and drop the head in the dirt.

“Brett and I killed a baby chick once. Back when we had those chickens. I remember it had a broken leg. We said it was hurt and hit it with a stick, but sometimes I think the leg was never broken.” I’m talking too fast and too much and I know that dragging this deer, I’m like a thief who prays before stealing from a church, honoring a space and still willing to violate it.

My arms are sore, the buzz flattening into nausea. I don’t remember what we did with the baby chick’s body. The deer has inch-long lashes. The eyes will get eaten by something or will decompose into another thing. The lines of muscle gone slack here in the dirt will feed us in different form. “Country stuff is bloody business.”

Dad does not answer. He seems to be waiting, reverent in the dark.

5.         Father

I’m trying hard to listen, and the deer’s bleeding out from the entry wound. I need to help Jenny get the body moving, because we should get it loaded and up to the shed and start skinning, and how will I cut the holes in the hocks and get the hooks in there under the back knee tendons. I will have to teach her how to cut the skin to the sternum and then the sternum to the throat, how to pull and cut and pull and cut. How to saw. I’m reaching to the deer or to her, only my arms are too heavy and tingling, and I think I might just lie down a minute beside the deer, sleep there at its coat, such an old coat.

6.         The Woods   

Each day is a small thing to a forest. Inside each day are smaller things. The bird in the hole of the heart of a dying tree. The tortoise in the hole of the heart of dying dirt. The bullet in the hole of the heart of a dead deer. Inside the hole of the heart of a small thing lies what is smaller. In the skin of the bird, a flea wearing plague. On the tortoise, carapace carved for fire. Deer, heart-muscle dead by the time gunshot-sound reaches the brain or is this the sound of a weak place in the plaque lining a man’s coronary artery? Sound of the weak place rupturing, calling platelets to go! go! to stop blood flowing, to close off the tissue beyond and let it get dusky, cells trying but unable to contract, and the man’s heart not getting the blood it needs and so wanting to squeeze itself into something smaller than muscle can shrink. If it is the man’s heart and not the deer’s heart, it is larger than the bird and smaller than the tortoise and paler than that beating inside the girl whose own heart is red yet and ruddy with blood, but his has faded like old meat left in the open cold, and the faded parts cannot breathe and cannot contract to make the sound the heart should make and must make, and the hungry cells are smaller than the flea wearing plague on the skin of the bird, which could be a cardinal. The deciduous trees have lost their leaf-skin, but not the pines or the other evergreens that keep breathing more green even when it is cold, and the man’s breathing is larger than the dead deer that does not breathe, and the man’s breathing is larger than the daughter’s full breath in her sticky blushing lungs, the daughter who only sometimes sneaks Marlboro Lights at the edge of the woods and more, without sneaking, outside her city dormitory, smoke dressing her alveoli, and the man’s breathing is larger in sound but not in weight, because it cannot clutch enough oxygen to feed the dying, faded-meat muscle that must pump him through this pulling, this walking, through this world, and through into the next.

Kate Bolton Bonnici grew up in Alabama and is a graduate of Harvard, NYU Law, UC Riverside, and UCLA. Her poetry collection, Night Burial, won the 2020 Colorado Prize for Poetry. She teaches at UCLA.