by Amanda Hadlock
Outside, Father ties rope around a dead deer’s ankles. He and Uncle Rick sling the carcass over their shoulders and tie the body between two tree branches. Father pulls a big serrated knife from his boot and slits the buck’s belly. Light from the bonfire flickers against the shine of the deer’s entrails as they fall into the overgrown grass.
Sophie sits on a log by the fire and picks at a scab on her knee. Tomorrow is her first day of sixth grade at Mark Twain Middle School. It isn’t deer season in Missouri, but when she brought this up to Father at breakfast, he gave her the mean side-eye he gives and reminded her around a mouthful of eggs that he’s a man who does as he pleases. He reminded her this is how he puts food on the table for her and Mother, and shouldn’t she be grateful? Besides, nobody can hear a bow and arrow being shot. It’s only wrong if you get caught, he reminded her.
Uncle Rick eyes the dead deer’s outstretched body and lets out a long, low whistle.
“Hoo-wee,” he says. “Can’t believe you bagged a ten-pointer, given your usual luck with rack size.” Uncle Rick winks an exaggerated wink and his eye disappears beneath a bushy white eyebrow. He explodes into laughter and sloshes some of his Bud Light.
“Hey now,” says Father before shaking his head and offering a wheezy laugh of his own.
Sophie doesn’t quite get the joke, but she laughs along with the men since she feels like she’s supposed to. Something tells her the joke is stupid, but she laughs anyway.
The men stop laughing. They give Sophie the side-eye.
“Hey, girl,” says Father. “Why don’t you go see if your mother needs help in the house?”
Sophie stops peeling her scab, chucks the chunk of it she’s ripped off into the fire and does as Father asks her.
Inside, Mother covers thick cuts of venison with saran wrap. Her apron cinches her scarecrow-thin waist. The fabric is stained with blood where she’s wiped her bony fingers. She takes the time to slice off any excess fat before storing the meat. She stacks it in the freezer, angling, and angling again to make it all fit.
“Looks fun,” says Sophie from the spot in the doorway where she’s been watching Mother.
Mother jumps and drops her knife to the counter. “Jesus,” she says. “You scared me.”
“Father told me to come help you.”
“I don’t need any help,” says Mother. Then, after a pause, “Thank you.” She turns her attention back to the raw meat, picks up her knife and starts trimming fat again.
Sophie walks back outside. The men grin at each other as they peel the deer’s skin off. The sound is like shears running through wrapping paper, but with more resistance, Sophie thinks. The striation of the deer’s muscles in the firelight looks oddly beautiful. Carnal. Sophie considers its body a moment, then sits on the log and peels at her scab some more. She picks and picks until she rips away a slice of her healthy skin, and says nothing to Father as she watches the blood run down her shin toward the dirt.
Amanda Hadlock is a Graduate Teaching Assistant at Missouri State University. She has a self-erasure essay forthcoming in the erasure feature issue of The Florida Review. Her work has also appeared in Hobart, Wigleaf, New Limestone Review, Moon City Review, The Lindenwood Review, and other venues.