Rut by Maria McLeod

I grew up next to a collection of shotguns, three brothers and a band of women who butchered freshly gutted deer on the kitchen table top. As they cut and sliced and sawed, the women went silent, gripping their cigarettes between their thin lips. They looked like men, all shoulders and arms and torsos, leaning over a body they were intent on taking apart.

On butchering mornings, the scent of animal blood filled the trailer, end to end. Sticky, raw, metallic. The men and boys stayed outside, in the barn, dropping hay, raking out the stalls, and, when their chores were done, shooting beer bottles off fence posts for target practice. The men could fill their rifles with shells, raise them up, and drag the limp bodies out of the woods. They could gut and skin their kill, but the butchering, that was women’s work. It was a ritual that marked the end of fall, venison for winter.

What I wanted was not so much to learn to wield those knives, but to enter the woods with my brothers whose hunting boots were bathed in the chemical verisimilitude of doe in estrus. They’d tromp through the woods and leave the doe’s scent clinging to weeds and underbrush, an act meant to stir stags in rut. When they told me girls weren’t allowed—just dads and sons—I arranged a demonstration. “Throw up a can,” I said, “and I’ll shoot that shit straight out of the sky.” I kicked at the dirt with the toe of my boot. Reluctantly, the youngest of my older brothers, Tommy, flung a can up. When I held up my Red Ryder BB gun and pulled back the trigger, the can left the trajectory of its toss, knocked into another orbit. I tried not to act surprised.

“Well,” said Tommy to no one in particular, “maybe we should tell dad to let her come.”

In the pre-dawn light, my brothers and I lined up with our cousin next to my Uncle Franks’s GMC Jimmy, which had an antler rack permanently roped to the grill and a raccoon tail attached to the hitch in back. We were a junior militia of five: the four boys in green and brown camouflage with orange vests, and me, a girl in a down-filled pink parka and oversized hunter-orange cap. I carried my beloved BB gun, with its rough wooden stock, smoothbore barrel, and iron sights. I liked to think it could be confused with the double-barreled 12-gauge shotgun my dad once let me shoot at an old washing machine that had appeared next to our creek one spring.

I had unclasped the safety of the shotgun—heart beating in my throat—cocked the handle, and lifted the butt to my shoulder just like I’d watched my older brothers do. I parted my feet, one leg forward and the other back so I wouldn’t fall from the force of the gun going off. I gritted my teeth to keep from accidentally biting my tongue. I squeezed the trigger and closed my eyes as an explosion of buckshot sprayed holes into the appliance. I would go back to that spot near the creek and study the circular pattern, rub my bare hand across it, count the delicate rusting holes. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to keep it a secret for myself or tell the boys at school all about it.

When our father and uncle dropped us off at the north edge of woods, they told us to keep twenty paces apart, to keep walking south no matter what. We were being sent in to flush the buck out of the woods, to drive it toward a clearing where the men were waiting downwind, up in their blinds. My dad and my uncle had gone out shining in secret the night before—shining wasn’t legal—with my eldest cousin, Johnny. That’s when they saw him, a giant stag, standing on the edge of the tall grass where the does and yearlings bedded for the night. He had steely eyes, Johnny had said, and a rack so big you could hang Christmas lights on it.

We stood on the edge of woods, shivering and passing around Johnny’s pint of peppermint schnapps between us. I watched my older cousin drink, and did it just like he did, tipping my head back and taking a big swig. Then, imitating the boys, I wiped my lips with the back of my hand. My oldest brother, Raymond, rolled his eyes at me, and I stuck out a peppermint tongue. Then we paced off from one another, as my Dad and Uncle had instructed, and went in on Johnny’s call. We made our way through the dense jack pines and scraggly birches, rabbits darting and crows flapping and following us from branch to branch. Our job was to drive the bucks forward, lay down the hint of doe—to tease and to flirt.

When we heard the shot, we broke formation and began to run, leaping over fallen limbs and jumping over ditches, forgetting what our fathers had said about how to hold our guns so we didn’t accidentally shoot ourselves. I ran with mine grasped in one hand, straight out like a bayonet, plunging headlong into battle. Tommy, running slightly ahead of me, clunked his head on a branch, and I saw him fall backwards with such force I thought he’d been knocked unconscious. I skidded to a stop and burst out laughing. He swore at me when I held out my hand to help him, then spat at the ground, before getting up on his own.

When we got to the clearing, the rest of them were already gathered in a circle, guns slack in the crook of their arms and pointed toward the ground. They had their backs to us. A morning mist was still in the air, the ground still crisp with frost. Nobody even glanced when I called out, excited, “Hey, is it the ten-point buck?” I pushed between them and saw her. A doe. No one was licensed for doe. It had been Johnny who made the shot. She wasn’t yet dead, but she was on her side blinking and hoofing the ground, like the fawn I had seen last spring dying on the roadside after its back end had gotten clipped by a pickup. Steam came out of the doe’s mouth. A cloudy film was forming over her eyes. For a moment no one spoke.

It didn’t seem right to just stand there and watch her die. So, I dropped down next to her and reached out to stroke her head. My uncle grabbed me by the back of my parka and pulled me off the ground, fighting my attempt to squirm out of his grasp. He dropped me on the outside of the circle of men and boys. Then he looked at my dad and said, without using my name, “you shouldn’t have let her come.”

My dad replied, “Well, Frank, your kid shouldn’t have shot a doe.”

They dragged her into the woods and made Johnny gut her, giving him instructions on how best to use his stag knife. They had him bury the entrails to hide the evidence. I wasn’t allowed to watch. Instead of tying her carcass to the top of the Jimmy, they moved our gear and threw her in the back and tossed a tarp on top. On the way home, my dad seemed to suddenly realize what still needed to be done. “Shit,” he said.

“What?” said Frank.

“Betty and Jean,” said my dad. “They’re going to be pissed about this.”

“Christ, you sure you’re not part woman? You sure do cry a lot.”

My dad fell silent. I was sitting between them, fighting back the sting of the insult, arms folded over my still-flat chest. I wouldn’t cry about it. I never cry. Could they shoot a beer can out of the sky? In the back, my cousin Johnny squirmed, and my brothers pulled away from him. We had tried to help him clean off with douses from our canteens, but the shadow of blood and guts had stayed with him up to his elbows. He was like a sticky brown stain, a turd of a teenager nobody wanted to befriend.

When we got home, my uncle pulled alongside the farmhouse. He’d string her up and skin her in the cellar, not the shop, which was viewable from the road and within sight of the game wardens. By the time I made it to the trailer, the women already knew. My mother shook her head, and said of me, “They should have given Mary the gun. She, at least, knows the difference between boys and girls.” I pulled my orange hunting cap down tighter and flicked a burr that had stuck to the seam of my jeans, avoiding my mother’s sideways glance.

I left the trailer and tried to follow my brothers to the barn, but they waved me off. “Mom’s calling you,” said Tommy, over his shoulder. My other two brothers wouldn’t even look at me. I felt like I was the bad omen, like they thought that doe’s death had something to do with me.

Uncle Frank had dragged Johnny to the cellar with him while the rest of us had trailed off, silent, heads down. I didn’t want to go back to Aunt Jean and my mom and listen to them complain about my Dad and my Uncle. Instead I circled back. I crouched down quiet, watching from a crack in the stone foundation. The cellar flooded every spring. It wasn’t much of a cellar. It was a dirt hole beneath the house, with exposed floor joists from which the beheaded deer now hung by her back end. They had sawed her off at the knees and put a split between her legs, creating a wide dark gap of torso. They had already bled her in the woods, but had saved the skinning for home. Her body still steamed as they rolled back the fur to expose the veined-crossed muscle clinging to the bones. I wondered, seeing her exposed flesh, about what it was going to be like to eat that meat, if we would taste the difference between buck and doe.

Maria McLeod writes poetry, fiction, monologues, and plays—three of which have been performed on stage. Honors include three Pushcart Prize nominations and the Indiana Review Poetry Prize. Originally from the Detroit area, she resides in Bellingham, Wash., where she works as an associate professor of journalism at Western Washington University. McLeod has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Pittsburgh.