Growing up in Texas, I’ve never been far from hunting culture. Taxidermy disturbs me strongly, but I began to see it in a new light after considering its symbolic representations. This piece became a way to blend personal narrative with larger conversations of violation.
First, the quiet opening of her in the field. Legs pushed back, she lies there as my cousin sets to work, the strokes firm and exact. He pushes in, adds his left hand to explore a bit. She doesn’t make a sound. Pulling her closer, he smooths down the bristled hair, careful not to move against the grain. When he’s done, he turns her onto her stomach so the blood rolls out as they both cool down. It’s better if she stays clean.
When he gets home with the doe’s carcass, he puts her on the gambrel hook in the garage and divides the muscles into cuts, a bit slower now that he’s nearing middle age. Her skin ends up draped over the freezer, three inches above buckets of orange sherbet and Italian Ice. Within the hour, the hide is in a trash bag at the edge of the lawn.
Had the doe been a buck, my cousin might have mounted him, caped the deer starting at the hindquarters until the whole skin fell into his hands. The head, though, he’d leave attached. That skinning is too advanced; he knows his limits. A buck’s face and antlers are too precious to fuck up.
When I was young, my family would frequent Campo Verde, a Tex-Mex restaurant, for green chili entrees and cinco-cinco nachos. My brother wouldn’t say a word the whole meal, entranced by the model train running on 635 feet of track around the restaurant. I would barely eat the whole meal, unable to look away from the deer heads holding plastic tracks in their antlers. I’d feel the lard separate from the beans on my tongue, a soft mass that reminded me of an eye until I spit it out on the bright red plate.
I’ve never been vegetarian. I’ve deboned chickens and gutted fish. Meat doesn’t bother me; the core of my fear, instead, is stillness.
Mounted animals are denied decay. They stare at their killers, at strangers, unable to look away or sag into natural death. Their bodies are hooked, disassembled, drugged, and claimed as trophies, forced to watch the whole process. Though as a girl I was only disturbed by the unnatural freeze, I now see too many connections with rape.
Sitting in a cider house in Montana, seven pairs of eyes watch me. I can’t decide if I want the glass socket inserts to blink, if that would make me feel more comfortable. I’m used to fish and turkeys; small mounts that disturb me, but I can ignore. The bison’s head is too large for that. I sling back my cider, the carbonation pushing into the soft tissue as I go to order another drink.
Cashing out, I ask the bartender about the bison head, if there’s a story behind it. No real story, they’re just old, she says. Came from the Boone and Crockett Club, some trophies someone didn’t want anymore. No relevance to the owners, though. Anyway, you’re good to go, she finishes, handing over the receipt.
Two rams, four deer, and a bison. Leaving the taproom, I pass under each and briefly wonder how heavy they are, how much borax it took to slough the fat and dry the hides. If someone dusts the antlers.
At ten years old, I lie down at recess pretending to be a surgical patient. The other girls are nurses and doctors. They pitch down their voices for the doctor role. The school’s playground is full of tire chips rather than mulch to avoid splinters, and the rubber bits make perfect play scalpels. They leave thin black marks behind.
Syringe, one of the girls announces. The shiest of the onlookers hands her a yellow No. 2 pencil. She places it in the crook of my elbow, presses it in a little too hard for comfort. I take the chance to turn the scene. I begin thrashing, hyperventilating as I stain my white shirtsleeves with rubber. The girls shriek and try to hold me down when I suddenly let my body give out. Hands press on my chest, hot air blown in my face at intervals. I keep every muscle as still as possible. I only break when one of them wraps a hair tie around my big toe as a morgue tag, tickling my foot in the process.
Recess ends and we move to our science class. I smell the formalin before we reach the lab door. Today it’s crawfish, a lesson on blood systems. The teacher plunks a wet specimen down on the butcher tray in front of me. Disgusted, the girl beside me squirms. I take the scalpel, this one real, in my hand and flip the crawfish on its back. It’s the same position I’d been in moments before. I poke the pincers, desperate to see them move.
A group of boys starts throwing objects on the other side of the room. Something smacks my cheek and lands on the table. Rolling it closer with the side of the scalpel, I realize it’s the black bead of an eye.
In winter, my family ships perishables by the pound. My father mails wine, my aunt sends gingerbread, and my cousin postmarks venison; I’ve never been to his house, only heard stories of a game freezer deep enough to hide three bodies. After the twins were born, it was overtaken by breastmilk storage bags.
He has the necessary hunting licenses, time set aside for trips, the gun safe sealed to keep his three children safe. The men of my family compare barrels over the phone, send each other photos of target practice sheets. My father has his latest sheet proudly taped to the inside of the pantry door. If venison comes in the mail this December, he might sear it with fennel, swallow it down with a notch of jealousy in his Adam’s apple. Only my cousin owns the kill.
This idea of ownership of bodies—their meat and mounted skin—is determined by men like them, white men with enough money to pay for extensive perishable shipping.
In the Rio Grande Valley, a small girl clubs a fawn to death because she does not own its body. The game warden is too close, would hear if Prieta or her mother shot the pet. Illegal possession of a deer is $250 or incarceration. Prieta takes the fawn to the shed, struggles to lift a hammer, and swings a blow behind her ear. Once, then again. She remembers finding the fawn, named Venadita, after a hunter shot her mother. She touched Venadita’s spotted cape as she bottle-fed her. The hide was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. She shoves her hands wrist-deep in dirt, digs a hole in the shed and pushes the carcass in, too quick to see if the growing hooves still twitch. Dust cakes the girl’s skin where tears have fallen. By the time the game warden approaches the shed, Venadita’s grave is packed flat; the dogs sniff and paw and then squeal against their leashes as the man jerks them toward the corrals. A few moments pass, and then the game warden loads the dogs into his pickup and drives away.
This story is a myth. It is also truth, one of many desperate cervicides, this one catalogued in Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands. Others happen without comment, bodies owned and disowned when convenient.
When my cousin hunts, he is careful with the kill. I doubt that he sees part of himself in the deer, only pride in the action he’s marked upon it. He does not let his soul touch hers, does not let himself share the moment as Venadita and Prieta do. Venadita never looks away from Prieta as the girl bludgeons her tender ear. When the doe gazes at my cousin, the eyes of her killer do not meet hers.
Around midnight, my partner and I go to the woods in search of ice. It’s February. The occasional streetlamp scrapes a yellow sickle of light across the blades of my skates in the back seat. We drive toward a local park that’s been flooded to make a natural rink, a quiet place that’s in total darkness at this hour, so he can teach me to skate. But as we cut up the Lower Rattlesnake, two deer launch themselves in front of the car. I scream; my partner rips the steering wheel, crushes the tires over road slush to avoid hitting them, screeching to a stop.
Panting, I realize one of the bodies is smaller, antlerless. It’s closer to the car, sprawled with her head up, though we didn’t hit either of them. The buck beside her has his antlers thrust forward, a clear threat compared to the doe’s absent stare.
My abdominal muscles tense, a shifting inside I’ve known since I was twelve. The blood will come soon. I imagine the shape of my uterus, the antlers of the fallopian tubes, the snout at my cervix. It, like the bodies of these deer, is controlled, regulated with norethindrone and estradiol my Texan insurance no longer covers. For years I considered an endometrial ablation to relieve menstrual pain, a non-invasive surgery to destroy the uterine lining and stop menses. It’s simple: a speculum to open me, two plastic edges like the sticks my cousin uses to prop deer for bloodletting, and then a hysteroscope with an electrical current to destroy the thin tissue. But I couldn’t make the decision not to have children, so the inner muzzle is untouched, shedding velvet.
The car horn brings me back to the deer. They buckle and dig hooves through the snow, jolting toward the tree line. My partner squeezes my hand. Close call, he says. It happens up here. When we reach the rink, I can only look at my skate blades, the moon a surgical light over the white slab of ice.
The curtains are not closed. The undressing already happened, sheaths of fabric held in the husband’s hand. He calmly walks around the room, looks at his wife for a small moment before placing a pillowcase over her head. He does the same with his two children, each family member gagged and restrained in a circle. The husband pulls a black toque over his eyes after he loads a hunting rifle, spins blindly, and releases a shot. A lamp goes down. He reloads, then takes out more décor. He must kill one of them but cannot bear to choose, so this is his chosen method. One final time, he spins and fires the rifle. Pushing the toque back, he watches as blood pools on his child’s chest, unable to look away or even blink.
This penultimate scene in The Killing of a Sacred Deer pulls no punches; director Yorgos Lanthimos makes no move to lighten the emotional load in this retelling of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, one of the Greek playwright’s final works. In the play, Agamemnon incurs Artemis’s wrath by killing one of her sacred stags in her grove and boasting himself a better hunter than the goddess. In retaliation, she becalms the wind and sea at Aulis, preventing the Greek fleet from departing for Troy. To appease her, Agamemnon agrees to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to save the rest of his family and his soldiers. Troops hold down the young girl and prepare to cut her throat, but at the last moment, her body is switched for a deer. Artemis accepts. Its throat is cut, blood pooled in the collection bowl. The cape is ruined.
The film, according to Lanthimos, corrects the myth. The child dies, no replacement body to be found. The father must make the kill shot. He restrains the family with duct tape, covers their heads so they’re displaced and frozen, a soft taxidermy so he can do what he will with their bodies. Stillness clings to the story, even in its most intimate moments. In the master bedroom, the wife strips to her undergarments and role-plays as one of her husband’s anesthetized patients, keeping as still as possible as he takes control of her limp body.
The curtains are not closed. They are meant to be watched.
In May, my partner asks me if his shirt has blood on it and if he smells too much like formalin for me to kiss him. He can’t smell it anymore, only the Dial soap he’s used for the past six years for surgeries. I hand him the chocolate milkshake he requested and offer him reassurances. He won’t meet my eyes.
He works in experimental psychology, examining rodents’ electrical brainwaves during social interactions after implanting a tetrode hyperdrive. The skull is pierced, electrodes thinner than human hair slipped into the brain, and the head mount looks something like an inverted fisherman’s hat. The degu colony in my partner’s lab had grown too large, so the project’s principal investigator instructed him to perform a cull. He tells me that he injected the rodents one by one as his P.I. observed, first with euthanasia then formalin, fixing the brains so they could be removed and analyzed for hippocampal data. Standard asphyxiation chambers aren’t viable. A degu’s lung capacity is far larger than that of its rat counterpart. As they died, my partner had to hold them, running a glove over the brown fur.
One rodent, however, was not meant to be culled. It smelled the blood of its cage mates, heard them vocalize as they died, and began screaming. The P.I. ignored it, briefly talking with his six-year-old son on the other side of the room about a video game he was playing. My partner tried to tune it out, to focus on the cuts, lifting the sternum to see the heart pump chemicals he inserted at the groin. But looking down at the rodent, he noticed its eyes were the same color as mine.
I cup his cheek, feel the soft bristles of his beard on my hand. Look at me, I tell him, but he resists. I gently nuzzle his shoulder, wrap my arms around his torso. He struggles to hold me, his breath hot on my neck. We had to remove the eyes for research, he whispers, I had to. I nod, hold him tighter, but I feel a familiar lump in my throat.
The etymology of autopsy is to see for oneself. To open up something and claim its parts by looking. My partner studies openings, the gaps between synapses and the holes he carefully makes in bodies that are not his own. He makes the unseen visible through four small rods far more precise than my cousin’s methods. It occurs to me that so much of the verbiage of hunting—dressing, stripping—has roots in seeing, vulnerabilities exposed. These words are also used to describe women, the clothes others want them to shed, claiming ownership by touching their skin with the naked eye.
I pull back from my partner, gently lift his chin with my hand. Please, look at me, I beg.
I do not want to be claimed. My body was violated by a man before him, tossed aside like unwanted hide. I want my partner to look at me, to share the moment; equals, as Prieta and Venadita were, though this moment of death is displaced by at least one degree. Ours is the same kind of looking, one that doesn’t assert ownership because it relies on mutual consent to see what is normally hidden, a self-opening that allows someone else to slip inside.
When he finally looks at me, I slip inside him and he inside me.
Gabriella Graceffo is a poet, essayist, and film photographer working in Missoula, MT focusing on queer writing, trauma studies, and intermedial text. She studies at the University of Montana as a candidate for both the MFA Poetry and MA Literary Studies programs. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in the Yalobusha Review, Juked, The MacGuffin, and others. She has received the David R. Russell Memorial Poetry Award, the Margaret Terry Crooks Award, and an honorable mention from the Academy of American Poets.