Game changer

03 Oct 2019 | 02:34

“I want to see what Daddy’s doing with the buck!”

I’d heard something in the back – some cracklings, while I was out front in the garden, wearing the baby. Although I hadn’t consciously stopped to wonder what was going on, I’d assumed that husband Joe was doing something with wood: chopping logs, or making a fire in the fire pit.

I strolled around to the back deck to see what the girls were worked up about. What should I see but Joe standing over a gorgeous creature, an eight-point buck that outweighed him by a good 30 pounds, using his knife to separate the hide from the flesh. The meat along the back haunch was so dark it was almost purple. It glistened like sashimi. How could such a momentous act have been so quiet that I didn’t hear it 50 feet away?

Combining the scene in front of me with what the girls could tell me (Joe was clearly not giving interviews), I put the pieces together. While I was picking the last of the season’s tomatoes, a buck had wandered by. Joe had dashed upstairs, grabbed the compound bow I’d gotten him for a long-ago birthday – which he hadn’t had time to touch in years – and hit it cleanly with one arrow, which had gone through its upper torso and kept right on going, coming to rest somewhere in the leaf litter on our mountain. The buck had run 30 yards and collapsed.

Joe is part Native American – one-sixteenth Cherokee: more than Elizabeth Warren but not enough to qualify for the tax break. Or so I’ve been told. It’s on his dad’s side, and they’re borderline estranged these days, and before that, Papa Joe, a Vietnam-era vet with a penchant for fishing and Budweiser, never was the loquacious type.

It feels true, though. Over the dozen years I’ve known him, I’ve been struck at odd times by the impression that the Indian sleeping in the bloodline came out strong in Joe. In our clickbait culture where everyone is me-me-me’ing for attention, he prefers to be invisible, to express himself not by speaking but by cooking, building things, stacking rocks into walls or towers. And he is a dead shot.

Joe told the girls, who were variously running away and shrieking and coming back to stare mesmerized, to back off. I overruled him. They should stay, if they wanted. (Kai, 7, did not; Juno, 3, did. As did the baby and I.) What a lesson. If one day they needed to know how to field dress a deer, maybe they would be able to recall some version of this memory.

Joe knows by now what he's doing. He has slaughtered goats a handful of times, and we salvaged a roadkill deer once. It's hard to believe that it's been less than seven years since Joe first killed an animal: an aggressive rooster ironically named Angel. He looked up how to do it on YouTube, and when it came time, he cried. Then he made an incredible coq au vin.

Joe himself can’t eat venison – a tick bite years ago infected him with an allergy that makes him swell up and get hives when he eats the meat of mammals. That makes it better, he says. I guess the allergy sheaths him in a purity of purpose. There is no greedy appetite, no lust for flesh in his motivation. He’s taking a life purely to feed his family.

Joe hands me the liver, hot and dripping. I call to Kai to get a bowl, and in it I carry the liver to the kitchen sink. The colors are breathtaking: the lavender of the smooth, marbled liver; the crimson of the blood washing, washing, washing into the sink, until it’s like looking at the blue porcelain of the bowl through a rose petal.

The first time Joe had a shot at a deer, he was maybe 13. He tells this story later that night, after dinner, as he’s wrapping the meat into white butcher paper, to stock our freezer and give to friends. He was out hunting with his dad. His eyes had clouded with tears and he couldn’t see to take the shot. The deer bolted.

This was a moment to remain silent. I should take a page from Joe's book and simply hear the story, instead of trying to shove it into a narrative. “Did your dad know what happened?” I heard myself asking. Alas, I am constitutionally incapable of shutting up.

“I think he did,” said Joe. But I was missing the point, which was something larger, more nebulous. Not shooting the deer had marked an important moment in his life, I could sense, mixed up with “manliness“ and maybe how he didn’t quite measure up. How even before he grew his hair long, it was clear he was different from his dad, his brother. It struck me how boys seem forever to be struggling with the image they see of themselves in their father’s eyes. I wonder if our one-year-old son will somehow, with his charmed grin, wriggle free of that weight.

We ate that venison with friends the next night, including one – I realized halfway through dinner – whom I’d never seen eat meat. He was nibbling a piece thoughtfully when I remembered: aren't you vegetarian? It reminded him of morcilla, the pork blood sausage he grew up eating. “This,” he said, “I’ll eat.”

The next night we had another family over, and of course we had venison again. I overheard a conversation between Joe and the other dad, as they walked out to the deck. "Do you think you could feed yourselves?" I didn’t hear Joe’s answer.

I was curious. We grow a lot of our own food. Our goal each garden season is to put up 52 quarts of tomatoes, one to use each week as a simmer sauce, a base for soup, whatever. But we also eat a lot more than we grow. We’d have to devote the entire yard to potatoes just to keep ourselves in breakfast home fries.

Still, the windfall provided by the buck was on a different scale. Sixty pounds of meat would keep us in protein for months. For the first time, it was conceivable that if the grocery store shut down tomorrow, we would not starve.

What did you tell him? I asked Joe a few days later. Do you think we could feed ourselves if we had to?

“I don’t know,” said Joe. “But I told him it’s a game changer.”