Douglas called the house the other evening to say he would be a little late getting home. I was in the kitchen fussing with supper when his old Volvo wagon pulled up the driveway. He hustled in and dropped a few bundles on the hall table.
“Get your coat on,” he said. He seemed a little wound up. Happy. Mysterious. Four years into our relationship and four months into our marriage, I’m still getting to know this irrepressible man.
I pulled on my old fleece jacket and followed him out into the dooryard. The back door of the wagon was standing open; I peered inside. A good-size deer was laid out in there, dead. There was no visible blood.
“I hit it a few minutes after I left the curling club,” Douglas said. “One jumped out in front of me and ran into the woods and I thought ‘Oh no, there’s never just one.’ And then, bam, before I could even step on the brakes, I hit this one, hard.”
The front of the car was pretty well smashed up, but Douglas hadn’t been hurt at all. The doe had rolled to the side of the dark road, thrashed for a minute and then died. A CMP truck stopped, its amber lights flashing. The driver called the Belfast police and stayed with Douglas until the cruiser arrived.
“The cop asked if I wanted to keep it,” Douglas told me, his eyes amazed. “So I brought it home.”
Douglas, while accomplished in many aspects of rural life, is not a hunter. Neither am I. We’ve both enjoyed a meal of deer meat here and there over the years, but neither of us had ever dealt with the actual animal, on the hoof and in the hide. We had only the most general idea of what to do. It was 8 o’clock at night, cold and dark. We hadn’t had supper. I felt suddenly whiney.
We went inside for a glass of wine. I pulled out my trusty Joy of Cooking, and sure enough, it had basic instructions for preparing game animals. It was clear we had to at least hang and gut the deer that night. It sounded complicated and technical and easy to make a mistake. And messy.
I called my brother in Rockland, who has done a little hunting. He was in bed reading. It was evident he wasn’t about to come to our rescue. “Check out YouTube,” he said. We did, and found a dozen videos on how to gut a deer, with or without skinning it. We started watching one. “You’ll need a sharp knife,” said the narrator, who sounded like he could do this in his sleep. My mind ranged to our knife rack, which holds what must surely be the dullest collection of knives in Waldo County. I shut off the video.
“I’ll call Doug,” said my husband, referencing our good neighbor who drives a big pickup and exudes a cheerful competence about life’s practicalities. A few minutes later his truck growled into the dooryard. He left it idling, the low-beams shining into the back of the Volvo.
He had two passengers with him, a young couple, Josh and Hannah, who had just rented the house next to his. We hadn’t met them yet, but I swear, they were like angels sent to us from heaven that night. Yes, they knew how to hang and gut a deer. It wasn’t a big problem. They were glad to meet us and happy to help us, and they set right to work.
Within a few minutes the doe was hanging by her hind legs from a timber in the barn. Douglas spread a big sheet of plastic under her, and then rigged up some bright lights to illuminate the scene. Working with their own small, sharp knife, our new neighbors peeled away the deer’s hide, neatly sliced open the torso and removed the innards. It took them a little over an hour, I think. They chatted quietly with us and each other throughout the process, explaining, problem-solving, reassuring.
My Douglas circulated with the lights and our neighbor Doug helped, tentatively, with the gutting, taking quiet direction from Josh and Hannah. I took pictures and tried to look busy.
I’ll spare my gentle readers the details – it was a gutty, steamy, bloody business, but skillfully accomplished and quite lovely to watch, in a visceral, anatomical way. At the end, the deer carcass hung from the beam like a side of beef – pure red muscle and white bone, almost no fat. The head, the front legs and the hide were bundled on the floor beneath; the guts had been captured efficiently in our Rubbermaid trash can. The scene was surprisingly tidy, considering. We turned out the lights, closed up the barn doors and went inside to wash up and warm up. The next day, Douglas delivered the carcass to be butchered into steaks and ground meat for the freezer.
We’re sorry the little doe died, but grateful that we can make good use of her healthy body. We’re looking forward to savoring some deer meat this winter and to sharing it with the neighbors who helped us.
But more than that, it was an amazement – a surprising opportunity that came up suddenly to see something fresh, to learn something new about each other, to ask for help and receive it, to strengthen an existing friendship and embark on a new one.
Life is full of surprises. Carpe diem, I say – and carpe Odocoileus, too. Seize the deer.