I wasn’t raised to believe in none of that hippie dippie shit. Recycling was as far as it went. And treating our dogs humanely. And occasionally hearing my mom sing “Give Peace a Chance,” except replacing “peace” with “peas” before serving them up for dinner. A rifle rested next to my parents’ bed for the ease of shooting groundhogs from the bedroom window, and all the area school districts didn’t bother holding session on the first day of deer season for lack of attendance. By the time I was in high school, my mother had burgered, steaked, sweet & soured, stir fried, chili-ed, and kabobbed venison with the mastery of Van Gogh– if Van Gogh only had one paintbrush. And the paintbrush was made from dead deer.
I learned to be a closet tree hugger too late, and was harassed accordingly. My Great Aunt Mildred loves to sum up my bleeding heart condition by telling every boy I bring home about the time my father shot the baby rabbits on the property, to which my 6-year-old self cried, “How would you feel if someone shot your babies?!” My flare for the dramatic didn’t help my cause, and my pleas were ineffective. So I stopped. And then things got weird.
Maybe it was the over viewing of Pocahontas, being the youngest of four with siblings who equated the idea of playing with me to eating their brussel sprouts, and spending nearly every weekend at a cabin on 80 acres of land and not a TV for miles. All that time in the woods can make any kid into a supernatural being who can communicate across time and space to the creatures that once inhabited the dead carcasses I came across. And there were always dead carcasses.
If I had to live in a world where a deer head was being hauled back home in the same vehicle as my library books, hung on the same backyard maple branch I climbed, and put in my stomach in a matter of days, the least I could do is try and explain this very complicated matter to the glazed, unseeing brown eyes of the slain.
I began dutifully watching early in the process, as animals were hung by their necks and slit longways, seeing, as my dad affectionately calls them, “the gut bag of a deer” fall on the ground. I pet their heads and asked them if they heard the one about the three guys who were going to the desert, touching their sides in hopes of still feeling them warm. I waited by the window to see signs of the blaze orange coats coming back around lunch time, and met my dad in the back woods ready for service. I learned to pierce the breast of a grouse without cutting the meat, and stick my fingers through to pull apart the feathered skin with a small popping sound, revealing the bright, shiny pink and white future New Year’s Eve dinner. And before we threw the rest of the deflated bird, I would take its little head between my fingers and stroke its cheeks and tell her she did everything she could. But I would never be part of the hunt.
There is a slight possibility I developed a teensy, unhealthy obsession with dead things, I’m sure my future therapist will tell me.
Something unmistakably otherworldly happened for me in those moments: getting to look at something so close, that was moments ago breathing and romping in the same woods I do, and have it not move or stare back or make me feel stupid for staring. To get to cuddle the things you ordinarily can’t touch, or even look at, as long as I want. And to believe that I was communicating in a language no one else could hear, and that these creatures were hearing it and appreciating it and taking it with them to the other side, where they’ll build an animal kingdom that I’ll find when I pass through, too, and they’ll greet me with high hooves and feathers and throw a raucous party where we all eat acorns that taste like butterscotch and speak the same language.
It’s easy to believe the best in creatures when they don’t talk back.
I gave up the ghosts, eventually. I learned to shoot guns just like everyone else, added bacon to my burgers, and even feigned a brief interest in getting my hunting license. It’s my heritage, after all. It didn’t occur to me to become vegetarian until my mid twenties, and even then, it was for health over the love of animals.
Still, there is something about a dead robin on the sidewalk that will give me the same sad-happy nostalgia. And just for good measure, I wish it well. I would hate to neglect my future welcome wagon.