Jyl marveled at, and was troubled by, this privileged glimpse at a life, or two lives, beyond her own a life, two lives, of cautious competence, fitted to the world; and she was grateful to the elk, and its gone- away life, beyond the sheer bounty of the meat it was providing her, grateful to it for having led her into this place, the small and obscure if not hidden window of these two mens lives.
She was surprised by how mythic the act, and the animal, seemed. She understood intellectually that there were only two acts more ancient sex and flight but here was this third one, hunting, suddenly before her. She watched as each man worked with his own knife to peel back the hide, working on each side of the elk simultaneously. Then, with the hide eventually off, they handed it to Jyl and told her it would make a wonderful shirt or robe.
She was astonished at the weight of it.
Next they began sawing the forelegs and stout shins of the hind legs; and only now, with those removed, did the creature begin to look reduced or compromised.
Still it rose to an improbable height, the antlers seven feet beyond the eight-foot crossbar of the trucks pole rack fifteen feet of animal stretched vertically, climbing into the heavens, and the humans working below, so tiny but as they continued to carve away at it, it slowly came to seem less mythic and more steerlike; and the two old men working steadily upon it began to seem closer to its equal.
They swung the huge shoulders aside, like the wings of an immense flying dinosaur, and then pulled them free, each man wrapping both arms around the slab of shoulder to hold it above the ground. They stacked the shoulders in the truck, next to the rolled-up fur of the hide.
Next the hindquarters, one at a time, severed with a bone saw: both men working together to heft that weight into the truck, and the remaining length of bone and antler and gleaming socket and rib cage looking reptilian, like some reverse evolutionary process, some metamorphic errancy or setback. The pile of beautiful red meat in the back of the truck, though, as it continued to mount, seemed like an embarrassment of riches, and again it seemed to Jyl that perhaps she had taken too much.
She thought how she would have liked to watch her father render an elk. All gone into the past now, however, like blood drawing back into the soil. How much else had she missed?
The noonday sun was mild, almost warm now. The scavenger birds magpies, ravens, Stellers jays and gray jays danced and hopped nearby, swarming and fluttering, and from time to time as Ralph or Bruce took a rest, one of the men would toss a scrap of gristle or fascia into the field for the birds to fight over, and the sound of their angry squabbles filled the lonely silence of the otherwise quiet and empty hills beneath the thin blue of the Indian summer sky.
They let Jyl work with the skinning knife, showed her how to separate the muscles lengthwise with her fingers before cutting them free of the skeleton, and the quartered ham and shoulder the backstrap unscrolling beneath the urging of her knife, the meat as dense as stone, it seemed, yet as fluid as a river, and so beautiful in that sunlight, maroon to nearly purple, nearly iridescent in its richness, and in the absence of any intramuscular fat. And now the skeleton, with its whitened bones beginning to show, seemed less an elk, less an animal, than ever; and the two brothers set to work on the neck, and the tenderloins, and butt steaks, and neck loins.
And while they separated and then trimmed and butchered those, Jyl worked with her own knife at carving strips of meat from between each slat of rib cage.
From time to time their lower backs would cramp from working so intently and they would have to lie down on the ground, all three of them, looking up at the sky and spreading their arms out wide as if on a crucifix, and would listen to, and feel with pleasure, the subtle popping and realigning of their vertebrae, and would stare up at that blue sky and listen to the cries of the feeding birds, and feel intensely their richness at possessing now so much meat, clean meat, and at simply being alive, with the blood from their labor drying quickly to a light crust on their hands and arms. They were like children, in those moments, and they might easily have napped.
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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