Well, lets do it right, the elder said. Come with us back down to the house and well get some warm water and towels, a saw and ax and a come-along.
He squinted at her, more curious than u nkind. What did you intend to do, after shooting this animal? he asked.
Jyl patted her hip. Ive got a pocketknife, she said. Both brothers looked at each other and then broke into incredulous laughter, with tears coming to the eyes of the younger one.
Might I see it? the younger one asked when he could catch his breath, but the querulous civility of his question set his brother off to laughing again they both broke into guffaws and when Jyl showed them her little folding pocketknife, it was too much for them and they nearly dissolved. The younger brother had to lean against the truck and daub at his rheumy eyes with a bandanna, and the morning was still so cold that some of the tears were freezing in his eyelashes, which had the effect, in that morning sunlight, of making him look delicate.
Both men wore gloves, and they each took the right one off to shake hands with her and to introduce himself: Bruce, the younger, Ralph, the elder.
Well, congratulations, Ralph said, grudgingly.
He is a big damn animal.
Your first, I reckon, said Bruce as he shook her hand she was surprised by the softness of it, almost a tenderness Ralphs had been more like a hardened flipper, arthritic and knotted with muscle and he smiled.
You wont ever shoot one bigger than this, he said.
They rode down to their cabin in the truck, Jyl sitting between them it seemed odd to her to just go off and leave the animal lying there in the field and on the way there, they inquired tactfully about her life: whether she had a brother who hunted, or a father, or even a boyfriend.
They asked if her mother was a hunter and it was her turn to laugh.
My father used to hunt, she said, and they softened a bit further.
They made a big breakfast for her bacon cut from hogs they had raised and slaughtered, and fried eggs from chickens they likewise kept, and cathead biscuits, and a plate of delicate pork chops (both men were as lean as matchsticks, and Jyl marveled at the amount of work the two old boys must have performed daily, to pour through such fuel and yet have none of it cling to them) and after a couple of cups of black coffee, they gathered up the equipment required for dissembling the elk and drove back up on the hill. The frost was burning off the grass and the day was warming so that they were able to work without their jackets. Jyl was struck by how different the brothers seemed, once they settled into their work: not quite aggressive, but forceful with their efficiency. And even though they were working more slowly than usual, in order to explain to her the why and what of their movements, things still seemed to unfold quickly.
In a way, it seemed to her that the elk was coming back to life and expanding, even in its diminishment and unloosening, the two old men leaning into it like longshoremen, with Jyl helping them, laboring to roll the beast over on its back, and inverting the great head with the long daggered antlers, which now, upended, sank into the freshly furrowed earth like some mythic harrow fashioned by gods, and one that only certain and select mortals were capable of using, or allowed to use.
And once they had the elk overturned, Ralph emasculated it with his skinning knife, cutting off the ponderous genitals quickly and tossing them farther into the field, with no self-consciousness; it was merely the work that needed doing. And with that same large knife (the handle of which was made of elk antler) he ran the blade up beneath the taut skin from crotch to breastbone while Bruce kept the four legs splayed wide, to give Ralph room to work.
Copyright © 2006 by Rick Bass. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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