My Father’s Guide to Field Dressing an Elk


Step One: Get Started Immediately

Don’t wait for the body to cool. The bears are already on their way—they smelled meat the moment your bullet ripped through the elk, blurring the lines between inside and out. When you want to leave, do it. In fact, the sooner the better. Tell her you don’t love her anymore while the bed is still warm. Pack your socks and beard trimmer and toothbrush and winter boots before they have time to stop you.

Empty the gun safe. That is key, because removing the protection of your body is not enough. Know that from then on, the ones you leave behind will triple-check the locks, wake at night from fever dreams of nakedness, so aware of the susceptible curve of their bodies in the dark house. Know that you will never understand this feeling because you have never been a girl in a house without a father.

This next part is important, so pay attention: when you hold your daughter in your arms—eleven years of childhood ending there—don’t promise you will come back, because when the body isn’t opened up, isn’t exposed to that knife in the gut, heat rots the insides. The meat goes bad, grays around the edges and attracts flies, creates a smell that will hitch in your throat. What I’m saying is, let it bleed.

Around here, we don’t waste meat, and we don’t waste life. Like someone’s father always said, don’t lay your shadow where you won’t step. Pray on the animal’s belly. Bend at your knees and your neck; pluck up the courage to look into its big, still, brown eyes and apologize. Thank.


Step Two: The Opening

Use rope, thick like a vow, and tie the elk’s legs to different trees, spreading them apart. Pick your knife. It’s got to be short and sharp. The fur is thick, but the layers underneath are hot and tender. Drag your blade from genitals to sternum and she will open up for you. If you’ve worked quick enough, steam will leave the elk’s body like breath on a cold day, only slower.

Remember when you were a child, and you built a canoe with your hands? When you young boys felled the best tree—cedar, its inside all red and sweet, too big to wrap your arms around—you worked to saw off heavy limbs, stretched your back over a straight draw shaver, peeling the bark. It’s impossible to forget the smell of the fire, stoked with orchardgrass and bluestem straw, lit in the trunk of the tree. You have it in your blood to do this. Your mother’s mother and her mother’s mother were of the land. Native Tuscarora, a line of hard women. Your older sister left when you were young and so, perhaps, you have always had the leaving in you. But you were faithful to the land above all things. Your birthright a vow to the cattails and cardinals and sawgrass, born married to the cotton fields and the running cedar, to the milkweed in the ditch by Woods Loop.

This labor will make you sweat. Your knife will do the cutting, but your arms will do the work. The skin is taut, connected by strong, white sinew. It will resist you. It was designed to resist you, to cling to the bones and muscle, to be the boundary. Dig your fingers into the cut your knife made, nails sinking into fatty mats of heat and fur. Rip.

When you want to stop pulling, think of the scrape of the shaver on bark. Think of the way you kept that fire burning for days, hollowing out the trunk. The smack of your father’s belt on your legs when you fell asleep on watch and the fire went out. This is going to be harder than that.


Step Three: Quartering

Divide the animal into four quarters: abdomen, hindquarters, tenderloin, and shoulders. That is to say: stop when your knife hits the breastbone.

It was the season of the deer—grass turned to starch by frost, leaves that shattered under a boot, a daughter at eight or nine, you don’t quite remember which, but you know it was a year of becoming. She, always more boyish than the others, ready to be the son, to inhabit that vacuum space in your life, to be the one you could pass on your jaw to. It was early in the morning. You took her hunting early, always early, when your movement on the left side of the bed still woke her mother.

Before the sun rises, if you are just quiet enough, you can sit at the base of a tree and listen. The elk’s grunts and bugles will be soft, as if they know the world still sleeps. They are creatures who understand, whose wide eyes look up at the full moon, whose breath leaves its nostrils in thick plumes. Soulful. While the deer pick their way cautiously through the trees, the elk’s heavy thighs will be easy to hear. A thousand pounds of meat crunching through the leaves. They will stop and knock their antlers against the trees, call to one another across mountains, ancient voices echoing off rock faces, bouncing between stripped pine trees, reverberating on the glass of frozen lakes.

Remember the smell of Little River, of the dank, wet earth, the lullaby that is water over rocks. You will not remember shooting the deer. For you, it was just another felled, but for her, it is the beginning of the divide.

Track the shot thing through the woods. North Carolina is thick with maple trees, but you will also stalk through white oak and red maple and persimmons and sweetgum, their fruit now dry thorns at its trunk. Over the snaking roots of grandfather oak and pin cherry and hickory. Blood marking your path, you will teach her to look for the drops, not along the ground, but on the low-hanging leaves and on the bark of trees. You do not know how many times she will repeat this in her dreams when you leave, hunting your wide shoulders through the branches.

If you were lucky, your first shot would hit true. Square itself right into the boiler room, the heart and lungs. The animal would jump, knees would buckle, body would hit the earth. The bleeding would be quick and profuse, the dying not far behind. But you will not be so lucky, you know that by now. And with the elk it will be even harder. The target will be twice the size, but the heart is protected by enormous shoulder blades, a thick band of ribs, and a breastbone the size of a plate. An elk almost never dies immediately. Didn’t you hear your father when he told you big things always die harder? Die slower, like there’s more soul in there, fighting to stay put. Your bullet will likely shatter through the shoulder bone, dropping the elk. Worse, it may hit the leg, cracking it at the stem like a frozen flower. Perhaps the animal will limp along. Sometimes its companions have been known to drag it, to bite the antlers and tug. They never get far before they give up. Leave it calling out to them, splintered spine, or hip, or stomach, everything inside them like a ruptured fault line. When you finally track the elk down you will pray it has died waiting for you. Pray you don’t have to unsheath your knife and drag it like a feather across its throat.

You will find the deer dead near the river. Unlike the elk, the deer is small. You will not need to grip its head, will not have to expose the throat while it bucks in your hands.

She will be close to the water, her pink tongue stretched toward the edge. You wonder why she thought the river could save her. Perhaps your bullet burning in her chest drove her there. You tell her there are some things that no amount of water can wash clean.

Call it, the drag. Call it, the packing out. The elk is too heavy for this maneuver, its mass impossible to pull. But the deer is just the right weight for an eight-year-old. Take its delicate back ankles and bind them together with the rope. You will tie the other end to your daughter’s waist, looping it twice, knotting it once. Point toward home. Walk.

You will remember the sight of the farmhouse through the woods, its white frame against gray morning sky. But she will remember the cut of the rope at her abdomen, the buckle of the deer’s pelvis as it slides along the ground behind her in tow. She will remember the sound of its head knocking against rocks in the river as she dragged it across, its fur wetting pink and red. And when she cries because its eyes are still open, brown and filling with dirt, scratching against the roots, your jaw will lock and set like a trigger. It will flex like a hunk of meat between your teeth. Or a bullet. You will watch the tender of her back as she tugs and think of that vacuum space in your groin. The one that could not give you a son. This is where you push your knife too hard.


Step Four: The Heart

You’ve never been good at the tender parts. This is inherited—generational. Learned when you were still small, from a mother who was hardened. Who didn’t kiss your forehead at night, didn’t place your burned finger on her tongue to cool it, but instead held it over the fire because pain makes the man. But you weren’t a man, not yet. This is why you take care not to pierce the guts as you slice. You’ll know if you do, when everything you’ve been working to keep inside comes spilling out, dries in the fur, congeals on your arms and legs, weakness for the world to see.

If you remember anything I’ve taught you, remember the moment you first showed tenderness to your daughter. When she came to you, seventeen and hidden. Think of your mother and father, of hard, cold winds blowing like ice across tobacco fields, of the camouflaged soft spot in your own chest. Above all other things, above the tenderloin locked onto the backbone, above the strong meat of the shoulder or the soft of the thigh, prize this moment.

Roll up your sleeves. She will sit on the bed in front of you, stomach a gaping hole, scar tissue from your knife not yet formed. When you became a father with daughters you learned the need to place a burned finger on your tongue, how you must turn the knife to her open torso, and nick the gut.

Because the father’s hands serve this purpose: break the ribcage. Allow her to come out to you. You will do the single most-loving thing you have ever done. Kiss her forehead and touch your finger between her eyes. Mark her in blood, mark her yours. Tell her that her love is equal. Pull out the guts, slit the fat from the bone, hook your finger around the back of the spleen and pull. You will fold your body into the elk’s now-empty cavity, arms and then head and then chest and then stomach. Reach in the dark, the unfamiliar soft, warm world. Tuck a strand of hair behind her ear, and wrap your calloused hands around the heart. Pull. Tug until all forty pounds of it come loose from the windpipe. Listen for the woosh of air as she exhales for the very first time. Know that your hands lifted that weight.


Rumpus original art by Alison Stine.

Janna Coleman is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina Wilmington's BFA program with a focus in poetry and nonfiction. Her critical work over the past two years focuses on identity poetics within the Vietnamese American refugee community. She plans to pursue a graduate degree in poetics after a year of teaching abroad. More from this author →