By Cady Vishniac
Featured Art: Hunters resting in a forest at night by Kilian Christoffer Zoll, 1830–60
At the Retreat for Warriors at the Blundsheim Nature Reserve, Pete watches Dave shoot one of the docile young Blundsheim bucks square in the chest with his crossbow, and the buck falls neatly on the spot. Deer, Dave tells Pete, are like women—even though this particular one was actually male—because they’re skittish and must be wooed with a hunter’s silence.
Pete doesn’t get it. The warriors haven’t been especially silent, and women, in his experience, like to be talked to. Still, he nods. Dave is the Elder in this Circle of Responsibility, and Pete’s father-in-law. This is Pete’s first Retreat.
Another man in the Circle jokes that he hopes the deer was a feminist, but Dave ignores the guy, instead looking at Pete directly and saying, “We are harvesting this animal, like a farmer with an ear of corn.” He’s always tossing out these nuggets of homespun wisdom, which, Pete thinks, are annoying enough to explain why his wife, Pete’s mother-in-law, left him. Maybe Dave wasn’t silent enough.
Next, Dave announces to the assembled men that he’s selected Pete to help with the honorable feat of field-dressing. “Here,” he gestures, “is the anus.”
Pete holds the back legs spread wide while Dave goes in and removes the puckered end of the digestive tract, ties off the intestine to prevent leaking. He remarks that if it were a doe they would also need to excise the urethra. Something about women being complicated.
“Don’t tell the feminists that,” says someone, and Dave responds that he used to hang out with feminists in college, but now he knows better. Pete knows Dave is lying—or he’s pretty sure, since Dave has told him he was a Young Republican in college, wasn’t he? Hardly seems like the feminists’ type.
For a second Pete considers ratting out his father-in-law in front of the whole group. But then Dave tells him to let go of the legs and shows him how to cut open the abdomen, inserting the knife deep enough to separate the muscles but not deep enough to puncture the intestines, which would spill fecal matter.
“Careful,” Dave says. The procedure reminds Pete of nothing so much as his own wife’s C-section. His wife, who encouraged him to keep her newly single dad company this weekend. He expects some sort of reward for listening to Dave’s hokum—permission to go catch a movie while she watches their infant, the homemade moussaka she whips out once or twice a year, or maybe a whole sleepless night of marathon sex, the sort of high-endurance activity they’ve all but given up in the exhaustion of new parenthood.
He probably won’t tell his wife about Dave’s thing with the feminists. He’ll probably say something like: “Your father looks well. I think he’s turned a corner on the divorce.” Pete is not great at delivering bad news, at coping with the conflict. On those rare occasions he and his wife have fought, she’s told him he’s too passive. Pete reliably agrees with this assessment, apologizes for his passivity on the spot, as a sort of reflex, which only makes his wife angrier.
When he’s done cutting the buck’s belly, Pete hands the knife back to Dave, who frees the buck’s innards by cutting off the sticky rope of diaphragm that keeps them attached to the wall of the abdominal cavity, reaching up into the chest to saw through the esophagus, which comes out with heart and lungs attached. “Nature makes these beautiful pockets,” says Dave. “The body is God’s own tool belt. Perfect organization.” The Circle grunts in solemn accord.
Pete grunts in order to fit in. It’s late in the day, and he’s disoriented from hunger.
The men lash the deer to a low-hanging branch with its head down and get out their short curved skinning knives. They start by cutting around the knees, below which there’s negligible meat. Dave says the bottom part of the legs are like a marriage, because who needs them anyway?
“Feminists need marriage,” someone says. “They need it real bad.”
Another man might change the subject, or throw the Circle for a loop by announcing that he, too, is a feminist. Another man might join in with some crack about what it’s like to marry a feminist. (Never get a blow job again. Stand side by side in front of the mirror every morning and shave your hairy chins together.) But Pete is not these other men. He disapproves inwardly, grins too wide. He feels sorry for everybody here, but they also make him nervous.
He’s imagined the removal of the skin as a simple peel, like taking off a Band-Aid, but in real life the layers cling together. Two Warriors pull while the others slice into the fascia that separates the pelt from muscles. Dave explains that this, too, is an opportunity to dirty the meat, because one slip of the knife might puncture the deerskin and spread fur. Getting the fur off raw meat out here, in the waning light and with no running water, would be kind of a pain.
“The carcass is like a family,” Dave says, “by which I mean it’s really easy to fuck up.”
When they’re finished skinning the buck, the men of the Circle remark upon the marbled flesh.
“Would you look at that?”
“Gorgeous. Gorgeous animal.”
“Is that all I am to you?” Dave asks. “An animal?” Laughter all around. Pete has to admit that was a good line.
Dave asks Pete if he’s enjoying the great outdoors, the camaraderie of other Warriors, his temporary reprieve from the constraints of society’s misandry. Pete says sure he’s having a good time, because what else is there to do? In his head he’s thinking of sneaky ways to fix Dave’s loneliness, ways his wife would call passive, because he still has no intention of calling Dave out. But maybe if they bring the grandkid over more often, maybe even a couple times a week. Maybe they could even leave the baby at Dave’s house sometimes, go home, and rip off each other’s clothes. Everybody would be so much happier.
As the sun sets, the Circle roasts the deer on a spit over a roaring fire—this part is illegal, but nobody catches them. The Warriors sit on some logs to eat. Everybody drinks Millers warm from the can. They discuss the gaminess of the meat, the relative athleticism or financial success of their sons, and the absurd ruination of divorce. At one point Dave turns to Pete and says, “Don’t let her tell you what to do,” and Pete says, “But what if she tells me to go hunting with you?” and Dave says that’s different.
Pete stays in his father-in-law’s spartan tent. The Elder lies down in his sleeping bag, shuts his eyes, and that’s it, he’s out, belching the fizz from his Millers as he snores. But come midnight, Pete’s still looking up at the army green nylon ceiling, listening to the sound katydids make in dark campsites, totally unable to sleep. He misses his baby’s intermittent screams, the jolt of his wife getting out of bed to breastfeed, their harried couplings. He’s grateful, more or less, for the comfortable life to which he’ll return tomorrow, his boring job in the HR department of a corporation whose inner workings have never interested him, a spouse who can stand his presence. There’s nothing wrong there, or at least nothing so wrong Pete would pretend to be a caveman in a national park every weekend.
He listens to a lone Warrior unzip the flap of a tent, stomp over to the nearest tree, and urinate against it. Pete feels blessed with normalcy, anointed. He feels, too, an uneasy tenderness for the whole Circle, these aggrieved, possibly contagious men, fumbling with their flies in the wee hours. They’ve got no control, no special insight. They’re adrift in every way that he’s, for now, anchored.
Cady Vishniac’s work has appeared in New England Review, Glimmer Train, Joyland, and New Stories from the Midwest. She received an MFA from Ohio State University on a Distinguished University Fellowship and is the editor-in-chief of The Workshop: a community for emerging writers.
Originally appeared in NOR 20.