They finished late that afternoon, and sawed the antlers off for Jyl to take home with her. Being old-school, the brothers dragged what was left of the carcass back into the woods, returning it to the forest, returning the skeleton to the very place where the elk had been bedded down when Jyl had first crept up on it as if she had only borrowed it from the forest for a while and then they drove back down to their ranch house and hung the ham and shoulder quarters on meat hooks to age in the barn, and draped the backstraps likewise from hooks, where they would leave them for at least a week.
They ran the loose scraps, nearly a hundred pounds worth, through a hand-cranked grinder, mixed in with a little beef fat to make hamburger, and while Ralph and Jyl processed and wrapped that in two- pound packages, Bruce cooked some of the butt steak in an iron skillet, seasoned with garlic and onions and butter and salt and pepper, mixed with a few of the previous springs dried morels, reconstituted and he brought out small plates of that meal, thinly sliced, to eat as they continued working, the three of them grinding and wrapping, and the mountain of meat growing on the table beside them. They each had a tumbler of whiskey to sip as they worked, and when they finally finished it was nearly midnight.
The brothers offered their couch to Jyl and she accepted; they let her shower first, and they built a fire for her in the wood stove next to the couch. After Bruce and then Ralph had showered, they sat up visiting, each with another small glass of whiskey, Ralph and Bruce telling her their ancient histories until none of them could stay awake their eyes kept closing, and their heads kept drooping and with the fire burning down, Ralph and Bruce roused from their chairs and made their way each to his bedroom, and Jyl pulled the old elk hides over her for warmth and fell deeply and immediately asleep, falling as if through some layering of time, and with her hunting season already over, that year.
That elk would not be coming back, and her father would not be coming back. She was the only one remaining with those things safe and secure in her now. For a while.
She killed more elk, and deer, too, in seasons after that, learning more about them, year by year, in the killing, than she could ever learn otherwise. Ralph died of a heart attack several years later and was buried in the yard outside the ranch house, and Bruce died of pneumonia the next year, overwhelmed by the rigors of twice the amount of work, and he, too, was buried in the yard, next to Ralph, in an aspen grove, through which passed on some nights wandering herds of deer and elk, the elk direct descendants of the big bull Jyl had shot, and which the brothers had dismembered and then shared with her, the three of them eating on it for well over a year. The elk sometimes pausing to gnaw at the back of those aspen with roots that reached now for the chests of the buried old men.
Remembering these things, a grown woman now woven of losses and gains, Jyl sometimes looks down at her body and considers the mix of things: the elk becoming her, as she ate it, and becoming Ralph and Bruce, as they ate it (did this make them somehow, distantly, like brothers and sister, or uncles and niece, if not fathers and daughter?) and the two old men becoming the soil then, in their burial, as had her father, becoming as still and silent as stone, except for the worms that writhed now in their chests, and her own tenuous memories of them. And her own gone-away father, worm food, elk food, now: but how he had loved it.
Mountains in her heart now, and antlers, and mountain lions and sunrises and huge forests of pine and spruce and tamarack, and elk, all uncontrollable. She likes to think now that each day she moves farther away from him, she is also moving closer to him.
Copyright © 2006 by Rick Bass. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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