Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Root Cellar


This Theodore Roethke poem has been winding its way through my head since the beginning of November and the deer hunting season. It winds its way through my head every year at this time, or least ways if not this poem, these exact murky earthy feelings litter my emotional landscape.

Deer hunting in Wisconsin, from what I've seen and heard, is not what I'm thinking about when it gets to be this time of year.

I see a lot of orange.

I hear a lot of talk from the men I know and love.

I haven't seen a lot of deer over the years.

The men sit in stands.

They come home empty-handed.

I don't get it.

I try to understand.

Every now and then someone plunks down a processed deer sausage and I'm all what?!?!?!?!? Then, I'm told, "Oh, that's from Joe Blow's deer, he got one this year," and I'm all, "Well, why the hell would they do that to it?"

I always think back to the autumn months of '81 through '83 when I lived in Wyoming at the base of the Big Horns, barely 19 and heading into my 20s.

I went hunting with the men, one of them my husband at the time, his best friend, his brother, his uncle and his uncle's wife.

It was all about the long drive out, three guys in the cab, and the rest of us huddled in the truck bed, pitch black bitter cold predawn, hot coffee, just as bitter and just as black, splashing on our jeans.

No matter how many layers of flannel and long johns, our ass and back bones hit metal at every bump, off-road. At that age, I hadn't had a child yet, so when the truck bounced, there was nothing on my body that bounced back.

When we parked, in the still dark, it was a lot of walking, little talking, sitting in draws alone, and watching for the mule deer, tracking, spotting, shooting, slicing and gutting.

I can still hear the the sound of the gut bag swooshing loose when you unzip a deer, tug hard with your bare hands, and turn it, literally, inside-out onto the cold ground.

I loved that tug-of-war, the letting go, and the deer giving birth to its own death.

I remember the sting of my tail bone hitting the hard earth, when it all came loose in my hands, knocking me off balance.

I remember the ground steaming and prairie dust motes.

I remember Theresa taking her hat off and "bagging" the liver, and my thinking, Bitch! I wanted that!

I remember the blood on the ground, the smell of still warm meat, even though the heart had discontinued its beat, the dried blood under my nails, my dusty face, streaked here and there, by an escaped long lock that fell from my wool cap.

I remember dragging the deer the miles back to the truck, into the new dark, driving back, same three guys in the cab, the rest of us and whatever deer we "bagged" huddled in the back of the truck, Theresa with her hand in her pocket, protecting the liver, and it really pissed me off, because she always had good intentions, but I knew that liver was going to rot and not be eaten.

The rule was, we shared our "take," never mind who shot, tagged or ultimately bagged the biggest or the best, but every year fucking Theresa fucked up the liver. I swear I am still borderline anemic because of this!

I remember the deer, sprawled in the cold, at our feet, its tongue lagged to one side, dry mucous membranes, stone cold dead eyes.

I can feel the beat and bleed of my heart.

I remember hanging the deer in the root cellar, for its several-day blood drop, the straining sound the rope made, the groaning beam, whitewash chips falling in our hair.

I remember going back the next autumn afternoon, knife in hand, to undress the deer. I always offered to "skin" the deer. Don't ask me why, but it was my favorite part, like peeling an apple and getting the perfect spiral.

I remember my husband's best friend, following me, as he always did, and no one every noticing, except me, because he was just "one of the guys," and I was "one of their girls," which had some protective quality to it, except when it didn't.

I remember how hard he pressed, as he always did. This time, my back was against the rooted wall, cold mud hard-packed at my neck, the deer thumping his back, as he rushed past its hollow carcass, the extra push the deer gave him on the rebound, which caused him to slam harder against me.

Thanks, a lot, dear deer.

That was our only deer that year, the liver already spoiled, the rest left for everyone to share.

Going down the stairs with my knife that afternoon, I remember thinking ahead to the deer being on the newspaper-covered oak table, across the yard, in the house and somewhere up above.

I loved the care and effort we took, piecing it out, cutting those fine steaks across the deer's backbone, setting them aside for the evening meal, freezer-wrapping the rest, saving off piecemeal parts to grind later with beef fat. Full bellies, we'd split up the wrapped cubes marked, "stew bits," "roast," and "flank," readying to return to our respective homes and freezers.

I remember him pushing his tongue into my mouth and telling me that I didn't belong with his best friend, I belonged with him.

He used words for this at the start, but mostly his tongue to drive home his point.

I remember the drill. I had heard and felt it before. It was old bloody hat.

I remember the sound of our teeth hitting. Even now, it causes a "funny bone" kind of ache, and I wonder why the earth didn't crack open and reveal us.

I wonder why no one came to my aid, then, or any other time Cody had me up against a wall.

I remember asking my buried self, What kind of guy does this when I'm carrying a hunting blade?

I remember thinking, like I did in other places when he pressed against me, and said the very exact same things, Could he be right?! Or, more probably he was nuts, and I said the same thing I always said, "Cut it out, Cody! I want to skin this thing. My hands are cold!"

I remember pushing him away, my sweater steaming and my armpits cold with sweat.

I remember telling no one about this, until today.

The Root Cellar by Theodore Roethke


Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch,
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,
Shoots dangled and drooped,
Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,
Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.
And what a congress of stinks!
--Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.
Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.


photo "cellar stairs" by s. sroka

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

This was incredibly powerful. You're quite a writer.