By January of my first winter on the farm, snow covered the entire fifty acres, smoothing out the bumps in the dry, dead grass, obscuring the twin ruts of the dirt driveway, and whitewashing the red–brown duff in the woods. The snow was a gift, a clean canvas for animal tracks.
My tracking book suggested that the best way to learn was to watch an animal move and then look at the marks it left behind. I practiced stalking, sitting still for long periods of time, and softening my gaze to highlight movement rather than form. In the beginning, I mostly saw squirrels and chipmunks, watching as they climbed down tree trunks or emerged from piles of brush. They left neat little footprints, five tiny toes on the back feet, four on the front.
Before long I was familiar with the animals most common to my property: mice, chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, foxes, turkeys, grouse, and deer. I learned to tell the difference between walking and running gaits, and to read basic stories in the tracks. Here, a squirrel climbed down from a tree, hopped over the branch, dug through the snow to the dirt. Then he bounded—long strides—back to his tree.
Beyond these basics lay the truly interesting information; I knew what to look for, but so far my eyes failed me. When the squirrel sat up, all his weight shifted to his back paws: the prints should be deeper. I looked, but it was hard to say. Was that track three– or four–sixteenths of an inch deep? I couldn’t tell just by looking. When he turned to one side to look for danger, his weight would have leaned slightly, deepening the track on one side. I rubbed my eyes; maybe someday I would see it.
I watched wild turkeys fly clumsily over the fences, landing heavily in the snow and planting footprints of unequal depth. Wing marks ruffled the snow to either side as they regained their balance, then steadier twiggy–toed prints followed as they walked between the rows of lilac bushes, dropping dark splotches of waste here and there.
When I lacked the patience to sit and wait for animals to put on a show for me, I looked for tracks that had already been made and tried to work backward, imagining what had happened. In the cultivated fields, among the lilacs, I found holes the size of silver dollars, where field mice burrowed out of the snow. From the holes came lines of tiny footprints, complete with miniscule toe prints; squirrel paws looked huge in comparison. Even an inch of fresh snow was chest deep on the mice; they left a slight trench where they passed, plowing through the powder; in packed snow, the prints sat on top, tiny claw marks scratched in the surface. Once or twice I found the abrupt end of a mouse trail flanked by parallel crescents—lines skimmed across the surface of the snow by wingtips that had touched the surface and flicked a touch of snow as the hawk snatched the mouse and flew away.
My dog, Shayla, was more interested in sniffing the trails than looking at them, but her style of investigation ruined the tracks for me. We worked out an arrangement whereby I went first and studied the prints as long as I wanted. Shayla followed behind, sticking her nose into each track, blowing out through her nose, and obliterating the signs. What she didn’t erase with her nose she trampled over. Sometimes I gave up and tracked her instead, trying to see the evidence of acceleration and deceleration, weight shifts and pauses after I had witnessed her playful moves, meandering from bush to bush, tree to tree, digging briefly at a mouse hole or swerving to stalk a squirrel.
Deer tracks were a special find inside the property because the fences existed specifically to keep them out, but deer are agile and fences flawed. I found hoof prints strung along between the rows of lilacs, and I found the frayed twigs where the deer’s blunt teeth had ripped off leaves.
My arrangement with Ed was informal, to say the least. When I had approached him about setting up a yurt and living on his land, he saw a chance to have a pair of eyes and ears on his satellite farm; his main operation was on top of a mountain in Roxbury, where it was too cold for lilacs, and most of the year the lilacs fended for themselves. Once I was established on the land, Ed called every week or two to ask about snowdrifts and downed trees, the state of the fences, and whether or not I had seen any deer. I never lied to him, but I often waited until after I had read the tracks to call.
Spring came, melting the snow and forcing me to look for subtler signs from the animals. I still found good tracks, especially in the soft mud at the edge of the pond, but more and more I had to look for signs like a tuft of hair caught on a knee–high strand of fence wire, or muted depressions in the marsh that fell in an orderly line (too neat to be random). Shayla and I played games in the fields: follow–the–leader and hide–and–seek. Crawling through the lilacs while Shayla raced up and down the rows looking for me, I found deer droppings scattered in the grass like handfuls of large raisins. From time to time I saw deer bounding away through the upper fields and jumping the northern fence, or pausing in the lower hayfield, their eyes reflecting the beams from my headlights when I returned home after dark. At least one deer came and went through a crooked gate—the trespass revealed by a staggered row of tiny arrow–shaped nicks in the hard dirt, where only the tips of the hooves had registered.
On one of my walks, I found the sharp edges of hoofprints cutting across the driveway. The line of tracks revealed a detail I had read about, but not yet seen— the hind prints overlapped the front prints, falling slightly to the outside, hips wider than the shoulders; my visitor was a female. I lost the trail at the edge of the driveway and dropped to hands and knees, pawing through the grass in search of the next print. I stepped forward with my right hand, and my three middle fingers landed precisely in a heart–shaped depression. I couldn’t see the hoofjrint unless I pushed aside the grass, but I could easily feel the shape pressed into the soft dirt below. Crawling forward, I found more hidden tracks. The deer’s stride was the same as my own on all fours. I studied the marks, noting the subtle creases that remain in blades of grass sprung back to standing after the deer’s hoof has lifted.
I found the doe in the lower hayfield. Shayla and I sat at the edge of the driveway and watched her graze. She bent down for a mouthful of grass, flicking her ears backward for a moment, then forward. It was evening, and the light was fading. It grew cooler, and the air just above the ground became blurry with moisture. I told Shayla to stay, and I crept closer to the deer. I moved when she looked away, feeling the ground with my hands and knees, alert for the feel of brittleness that preceded a snap or crunch. I froze when her head was turned in my direction. When I reached a slight mound thirty feet away from the doe, I lay flat on the ground, watching her through wavering blades of grass. She looked out over the pasture, turning her head and neck in a slow semicircle, then reached over her shoulder and scratched a spot on her back with her chin. Her tail flicked. She turned toward me and held perfectly still. She circled once and curled her body down into the grass. With her chin resting on her flank, only her ears showed above the grass.
The quiet and calm of the evening snuck up on me. I lay my head down on my arm and felt the damp ground seeping through my clothing. I could smell the dirt and the tang of the crushed grass beneath me. I was tempted to close my eyes and sleep. I wondered what that would be like, to just curl up on the ground and sleep—no bed, no blanket. Goosebumps broke out across my skin, and my thin, useless arm hairs stood on end. Not even a thick hide or a modest fur coat, I thought, looking across the field in the dark, where I could no longer see the doe.
Ed said that once a deer found the lilacs, it rarely left of its own accord. That fall, he made arrangements for two hunters to come; a father and son arrived at the farm dressed in camouflage and carrying scoped rifles. They parked their truck next to mine and slipped along the fencerow, staking out the same field where I had watched the doe sleep. They sat in disciplined silence and unnatural stillness until twilight. The hunt was successful; they field dressed the doe, tossing her intestines over the fence where the coyotes could easily find them, and hanging the deer in Ed’s barn to drain the blood. When I asked, they said they had no plans for the hide, and I was welcome to it. They offered to skin her for me and seemed surprised when I said I would rather learn how to do it myself.
I met the two men—John and his father, Frank—at John’s house the next day. The doe had finished draining, and they had hauled her to John’s house in town. When I arrived, she lay crumpled on the concrete floor of John’s garage among various piles of salvaged lumber, engine parts, lawnmowers, and chainsaws. The deer looked out of place among all the machinery, with bits of sawdust and lint sticking to her hair. One leg was bent at an unnatural angle, and it struck me as both uncomfortable and indecent. I was afraid if I reached out and straightened it for her, the men would not take me seriously. I was afraid they would think me overly sensitive, and I didn’t want them to decide that before I had a chance to find out for myself.
John scuffed the soles of his boots on the concrete floor and inspected my knife. He tested the edge with his thumb and returned the knife to its sheath, handing me one of his instead. Without further preamble, he cut a slit between the Achilles tendon and the ankle of one of the doe’s rear legs, and indicated with a nod that I should cut the other leg. My stomach lurched, but I tried not to react. I knew this was going to be uncomfortable, but I wanted to learn, and most men I know get flustered when a woman cries. It seemed easier to keep my feelings inside than to explain or defend them, easier than convincing the men that just because I was crying didn’t mean I wanted to stop.
We slid a four–foot–long dowel through the heel slits and raised the doe off the ground; Frank slipped loops of rope around the dowel and hung it from a rafter. The deer hung upside down, her lithe body stretched out, her musculature describing long, sinuous lines. Her shape reminded me of Shayla, who frequently came up on my bed in the morning to have her belly rubbed. She stretched out like this—head back, all four legs extended, belly utterly exposed. The images layered over each other in my mind, surprising me by softening the moment, inserting a note of tenderness. This animal was familiar to me.
I walked a slow circle around the deer, studying her tawny legs, her small black hooves, her brown and gray coat. I touched her ears; they were longer than my hands, deeply cupped, and silky smooth. Her eyes, large gray–black spheres, were cloudy and half–closed. Her nose seemed impossibly large, disproportionate to her refined head.
The men directed me, sometimes with words, sometimes just by pointing with a knife or finger. I had read instructions on skinning an animal, and I had taken a class in wilderness skills, but it had all been theoretical, just words. I started with the deer’s hind legs. The knife was sharp, piercing her skin easily and cutting in a clean, crisp line. I cut all the way around each leg, starting at the hock, where her lower legs began to get fleshy with muscle. The hide peeled easily away from the legs, revealing muscle and bone, tendons and ligaments. I had dissected earthworms and grasshoppers in elementary school, taken a kinesiology class in college, and observed an appendectomy for a wilderness medicine course; the doe’s anatomy was fascinating. Then I turned the knife blade down and neatly slit her inner thighs all the way to the groin, and my stomach turned again.
This seemed horribly inappropriate, too intimate, a violation. I turned my head away from John and Frank and let the tears fall while I cut an oval around her genitals, separating the hide from this key anchor point. I slit the belly all the way to her throat in one straight line, expanding the cut the men had made when they gutted her. Standing close, her body open, I could smell the doe. She smelled like meat: soft and organic. The aroma was not unpleasant, but it rooted me in the visceral present, pulled me toward the emotional side of myself, a place in which this doe was an individual, a creature who had recently been alive and moving through the world with me. I breathed through my mouth, trying to maintain a certain distance, just enough denial and abstraction to keep this clinical, not personal, so I would not lose my nerve.
I cut the hide around the neck and the forefeet, cutting slits down both forelegs. Gravity helped me as I peeled the skin from the hind legs, down over the pelvis, toward the shoulders and forelegs. I slid my hands between skin and muscle, coaxing the pelt to turn inside out. Between the hips and the shoulders, there was only a thin membrane of connective tissue that parted easily when I pulled against it. Occasionally, the men tried to encourage me past my gentleness. “Like this” Frank said, jerking the raw skin downward in strong, brisk pulls that ripped the hide from the body with a sound like Velcro parting. “You won’t rip it” he said. I flinched and nodded vaguely, avoiding his eyes, hoping that if I appeared agreeable he would stop. My technique was so slow, so gentle, I must have resembled a mother helping a child undress more than a hunter skinning an animal.
I managed to free the entire pelt and folded it up to take home with me. The men closed ranks around the deer, slicing off thick chunks of venison and piling them onto butcher’s paper. They worked without speaking, their partnership familiar, the tasks accomplished by rote. I wondered what they had felt the first time they had killed, skinned, and butchered an animal; I wondered how I would have felt if I had been raised around this kind of work. I wondered if, given the opportunity to skin a dozen more deer, my feelings would harden, and if so, whether that was a good thing.
At home the next day, I began flaying the hide, scraping the excess fat and flesh from the underside of the skin. The hide handled like a thick, wet beach towel—heavy and cumbersome, but supple. I draped the hide over a smooth–barked poplar log in my yard and kneeled over it, gripping the log with my thighs. My scraping tool was a thin rectangle of metal that I wielded like a tiny bulldozer, catching the edge of the tissue and scraping it away from the skin. I learned as I worked: too little pressure and the blade slid over the muscle and fat, too much pressure and I risked puncturing the hide. The hair on the back of the hide acted as a cushion, giving me a little more room for error.
With the head no longer attached, I lost the sense that the deer was watching me, that her eyes, ears, and nose, though dead, were still capable of receiving images, sounds, scents. When the doe hung in the garage, it was easy to imagine that if we cut loose her feet and let her drop to the floor, she might pick herself up and run away, clattering off down the concrete sidewalks of the neighborhood, dazed and bloodless. But now she was reduced to a skin—no face, no body—and it was easier to distance myself.
Cleaning the hide was physical work. My back and arms tired quickly, and I paused frequently to arch my back and release the knots forming above my shoulder blades. I cleaned the metal blade often to help it bite well; at first I carefully wiped off the fat with clean twigs and leaves, which I then threw into the brush nearby. As the work dragged on, I grew accustomed to gore and wiped the blade on the leg of my pants or flicked the blade vigorously, flinging the small, mangled bits of meat off into the grass.
As I worked, Shayla began skulking about, darting furtively in and out of my peripheral vision, stealing the bits of flesh I flung aside. For the first time I could remember, she willfully disobeyed me, refusing to drop the morsels at my request. She preferred evasion to outright defiance, slinking off into the overgrown grass at the edge of the yard with her scavenged prizes. She struck repeatedly, and each time she moved at the edge of my vision, she startled me, as if I were catching glimpses of a coyote rather than my own dog. Whenever I looked up from my work, she was in plain sight; she lay downwind of me, eyes half–closed, nose twitching in the air, seemingly intoxicated by the odor of the deer. The smell grew distinctly stronger, reminiscent of milk—almost sour, but not quite yet.
The instructions in my field guide were very straightforward: “Remove all the flesh from the underside of the skin:” but I wasn’t sure where flesh ended and skin began. Under the fat and muscle lay a thin membrane, some of which came off easily, peeling off in sheets as large as my hand, while some clung tenaciously and slipped unharmed around the blade. Unsure of when to stop, I scraped the hide for two long days. On the second day, the odor began to turn; the hide was spoiling. I breathed through my mouth to keep the scent from my nostrils. When I concentrated on the work, I didn’t notice the smell, but when I stopped to rest, it came back into focus, assaulting me. The hide became she again, rather than it; she was beginning to rot—not a hide or a piece of meat—but her, the deer I had watched and followed and wanted to know. The smell felt like an accusation: not only had I taken the hide from her by force, but I was in danger of wasting the gift by letting it turn rancid.
I set up washbasins on my front step and scrubbed my hands with soap and water before going inside or touching my food. I stripped to my skin and waded into my pond, submerging myself over and over again. I could smell the deer, even when I was nowhere near her, even when I bathed and changed clothes. I wiped my doorknobs with alcohol, hoping to kill whatever caused the odor. I kept everything that had touched the hide outside of my yurt to prevent the corruption from entering my home.
At the end of the day, I declared the scraping finished and drowned the hide in a bucket of pond water and wood ash. The lye would loosen the hair and commit me to the next step of the tanning process. I didn’t know whether I had completed the work adequately, but it was the best I could do. That night I heated extra water for my nightly shower, pouring hot water from a kettle into my camp shower. I scrubbed and rinsed my hair and body three times, kneeling in the little tub next to the woodstove, rinsing my skin until I ran out of water. I went to bed naked, and slept with my head under the sheets, breathing the scent of my own live, healthy flesh.
When I rose the next morning, I walked outside to pee at the edge of my yard, just as I did every morning, but this time I caught a whiff of the deer carcass in the scent of my urine. It was like a single spice whose flavor you can just barely pick out in a complex dish. At breakfast, I took a carton of milk from my cooler, poured some on my cereal, and noticed the aroma again. It was elusive. I sniffed around like a dog, smelling the milk in my bowl, comparing that scent to the odor of the milk in the carton where the cardboard rim held dry milk from previous days. I recognized the scent of the deer in the smells of many things; during the week it took me to flay, rack, and de–hair the hide, I caught hints of the odor in my menstrual blood and sweat. I found it in the blood from a nosebleed and in my own feces.
When my boyfriend came to stay one evening, we made love, and when I emerged from the comforting obliviousness of sex, I discovered the smell of the deer in the scents emanating from our bodies. The slow decay of the doe smelled like urine, only not so sharp; like slightly gone milk, only not sour; like blood, but less salty. It was rank like sweat, but more putrid; foul like shit, but less offensive; musky like sex, and just as personal. I was both mesmerized and plagued by the odor; I searched it out, and I tried to wash it from me.
There was no time to figure out the significance; I had work left to do or else the hide would go to waste. When the hair began to loosen from the hide, I rinsed the lye from it with dozens of buckets of water hauled from the pond. I built a rack, lashing poplar branches to two small trees that stood an arm span apart. I cut buttonholes around the edge of the deer hide with the tip of my knife and lashed her up to the rack, pulling at the strings and adjusting the tension until she was splayed out in midair, stretched taut.
I plucked the hair from the hide, working rapidly, and again breathing through my mouth. The skin gave way with sickening ease, yielding hair in fat, chemically treated clumps, which I tossed on the ground. Shayla skulked around again, sniffing at the wads of hair until I chased her away. At the end of the day, my fingers were raw, my world smelled like death, but the skin was clean—it would dry and harden into rawhide and keep indefinitely.
I had one last task to complete. After this, time would not be a factor—I could take as long as I wanted to try different tools, practice techniques, check my notes, or figure out what the hell I was doing, but first I had to get the gray matter out of the skull. I had been taught that in many Native American cultures, the animal’s brains are used to condition the rawhide. Rawhide is stiff, but brain–tanned leather is soft and pliable and can be made into clothing. My ultimate goal was to make something wearable, such as a shirt, something practical and beautiful, so I could wear the doeskin over my own, but first I had to open her skull. I balked. Every shred of personality or spirit I attributed to this deer now resided in her head. It didn’t matter that the head was no longer attached to a body, that I could pick up the skull and carry it around with me while I tried to figure out what to do. I chastised myself; she was already dead, beyond dead—eviscerated, flayed, and dismembered—what more harm could I do? And yet, there she was: her eyes still looked like they could see, her ears still looked like they could hear, her tongue had grown soft again behind her blunt teeth. It would be foolish of me to stop.
With no one there to watch me, I hemmed and hawed and cried freely and spoke out loud to the deer. I tried to explain myself, to offer some sort of apology, to say out loud to anyone or anything listening that I was taking the hide out of respect for the doe, out of admiration. Eventually, having found no advice on how to open the skull, I set it on a stump and cleaved it open with a steel wedge and a ten–pound sledgehammer. The tissue inside was folded like a bolt of pale gray silk, laced with tiny pink veins.
I had no further use for the empty skull and felt the best thing was to take it into the woods and let the scavengers have it. I carried it like a pet, holding it gently and absently stroking the soft ears. I found a patch of moss to set it on, sentimental perhaps, but I didn’t care. If the coyotes didn’t drag it off, the ravens and beetles would pick it clean; maybe in a year or two someone would stumble across the bleached bone and wonder how it came to sit just so. I looked at her face for a long time. There was so much I had wanted from my time with her. Even if she had remained alive, there was no way she could have filled all the myriad fantasies I held, all the hopes created by a childhood of Disney movies, fairy tales, adventure epics, legends, and myths. I was very grateful for the chance to watch and learn from her, but I was deeply disappointed in how one–sided it had been.
Laura-Rose Russell grew up in Fayetteville, Arkansas, but moved north in search of cooler weather. She now lives in the Green Mountains of Vermont and leads wilderness expeditions for Outward Bound. She recently received her MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. “Scented” is her first publication.
“Scented” appears in our Spring 2010 issue.