Commemorating March 2nd: Texas Independence Day, the birthday of Sam Houston, David Goodis and Lou Reed.
BURNING THE DEER
Photograph: George Shiras III, July 1906.
In the monochrome luminosity anticipating dawn, Gavin Barnes took his Cadillac from the four-lane highway and slipped the silver convertible up the narrow asphalt road to home. The road was pocked and ragged from neglect as it rose between the gateway to the ranch, limestone plinths each mounted by wrought iron double-Bs. The Caddy rattled over the pipes of the cattle guard and began a gradual descent alongside the first hill. Gavin eased up on the accelerator, letting the car coast as it dipped into a black draw, damp and cool with cottonwoods that stood along the creek just below the road. He could smell them, a peculiar animal odor he always associated more with flesh than plant. A mockingbird ran through some lonely changes as Gavin switched off his headlights while the Caddy silently rolled down a gentle curve and across the narrow bridge crossing the creek at the bottom of the draw. When the car had nearly reached inertia, Gavin tapped his foot to the pedal and took off up another curve that cut back against the hill and away from the creek. The road dogged left, then swung to the right, ascending the second hill and, as Gavin pushed the convertible upwards, gazing into an expanse of fading stars, the deer plunged directly from the sky across Gavin’s shoulder and into the backseat. He could smell the animal before he felt its hind legs kick past his ear.
Gavin swerved the big car to the right, chewing up the edge of the asphalt along a drop that would have sent the Cadillac back down on the bridge he had just crossed. He whipped the wheel back left, slamming the Caddy to a stop against an outcrop of limestone.
Gavin could smell the blood, felt liquid running down his neck as he lifted himself to stand in the seat, bracing one hand on the the windshield. He turned and looked back and saw the deer, its head twisted up, neck snapped in a right angle, jammed into the corner between the armrest and seat cushion. Its slight body slumped as if resting, two thin forelegs upright, each protruding broken white bones that framed its narrow head like a splintered crown. The deer’s back legs splayed up behind the driver’s seat, delicate hooves point to the waning night sky. Gavin reached his hand to one of these, ready for the animal to jerk from his touch. It remained still as he held it, warm in his grasp. Gavin bent forward, peering through the night’s whiskey and cocaine into the perfect dark eye of the animal. It glistened with knowing.In it, accusations flooded, tongues curled through voices without language and they spoke in Gavin as the eye grew in is mouth and before it choked him, Gavin threw back his head, squeezing steel in one hand, muscle, fur and bone in the other and howled the terrible message to the fading stars.
There was silence.
Then the mockingbird replied, adding new to that song Gavin heard down by the creek. He let go the deer’s leg and pulled himself up and sat atop the windshield facing the rear seats.
“Goddamn it all,” said Gavin.
He could feel the night falling away from the coke and whiskey but the heat of August was such that the hills could not quite cool the night enough to shake the day’s blaze and the temperature would begin climbing with the first hint of light. Gavin got up and turned around, slid down to the seat and put his hands to the wheel.
Gavin turned the ignition and backed the Caddy off the limestone with a screech of tearing steel and a tinkle of broken glass. Gavin braked and dropped his hands to his lap and stared at their shaking. He fanned through a scattering of cassettes on the seat beside him till he found it–Albinoni’s Adagio.
He shoved the cassette into the slot on the dashboard, punched play and turned up the volume. The baroque strings got busy building stately archways above the Cadillac.
With one hand on the wheel, Gavin leaned over and flipped off the top to a styrofoam cooler and pulled out a can of Tecate. He snapped open the tab on the beer while guiding the Caddy with his elbows. Gavin took a deep swig from the and made a sharp right off the road onto a stony track that rose steeply through juniper and knotted oak and long black strikes of buffalo grass, sharply etched in shadow against the moonlight-soaked white caliche road that seemed suspended in the air before his eyes. Gavin could feel the tires arrhythmicaly battering over the ruts, his ass attuned to this broken earth as his head drifted out on the illuminating finger of the remaining headlamp, bobbing on the beat. What alcohol fires the last snort of coke hadn’t dampened were now blown cold by the suicidal assault of the deer, leaving Gavin alone, unadorned, with his own personal crazy .
“We didn’t see all this coming, did we? We. We’re like the Indians were. Now. They never caught onto the time. In time, either. Never were all aware when their changes went. Fucking deer from falling from the sky. Comets, bombs, satellite debris, deer. Who guesses for deer? Death reigns. Death rains down. Voices come from nowhere. Admit nothing. Dumbfuck buck out to commit suicide in a Cadilaac. True-assed Texas deer. Picks a fucking Cadillac. True-assed Texas suicide. No fingers. Couldn’t get a shotgun.? Why not pick me?”
The Cadillac reached the top of the hill as the Adagio scaled ever upwards, in ever mournful layers, where Gavin stopped above a small plateau, a grass-tufted level defined at its center by a rough circle of limestone rocks. Gavin turned off his remaining headlamp. No shadows fell here and his eye could chase the edges of the sky where he saw some dim color scaling low in the east. Gavin got out of the car, leaving the door swung open. He drained the beer, threw the empty can into the Caddy’s floorboards and pushed back the seat. He grabbed the deer’s hind legs and pulled. The carcass stretched but would not budge, its’ antlers snagged between the backseat cushions.
Gavin dropped the legs and felt sweat breaking from his thinning hairline. He crawled into the backseat, one knee down and caught up the deer with one arm and waggled the antlers free with his other hand. The head sprang loose, flopping beneath his hand now covered with blood.
He stepped back from the car, holding his gory hand before him like a mirror and measured the heat and viscosity of the liquid with his thumb. Gavin drew his hand closer to his face, saw the purpled sheen and sniffed its salinity. Pungent springs of memory opened: The hunt. The kick of the 30.30. on a boy’s shoulder, its crack echoing from a distant hollow. Sam Francis by his side. The sweet odor of cowshit and dewy grass from his boots. Bacon frying in the deep night that tasted of first whiskey. Just before dawn. Like, now. There in his hand he saw a clear picture of the gutting knife, blood flowing down from the trussed animal, spattering into a rust-pocked blue enamel bowl. Red pearls leaping to spot the boy’s jeans with soft splats.
Somewhere below, a dog barked. Gavin found himself looking at the carcass. He returned to the backseat and hoisted the deer with both arms, dragging it out of the Cadillac. Staggering back on his boot heels, Gavin stumbled and landed hard on one knee and cursed before scrambling back to his feet. He gripped the deer’s hind legs, one in each hand and pulled the dead animal across the dirt. In the center of this limestone ringed circle lay a grey fire pit, littered with smoke-blackened broken glass and crumpled beer cans, where he dropped the deer and breathing hard through his mouth, walked back to the car. Its engine was still running. The Adagio was taking its final funereal steps into the clouds when Gavin switched off the key, leaving silence. He slid across the front seat and opened the glove box.
A lamp illuminated the contents of its compartment, setting off bright reflections from a chromed Colt .45 with pearly pink grips. Gavin pushed it aside along with a couple of prescription vials, a small leather box and a harmonica and pushed the button unlocking the trunk. He walked around to the rear of the Caddy, lifted the panel and stood, weaving slightly, and peered into the illuminated trunk’s eclectic chaos:
Two cases of Wild Turkey whiskey, one opened. A mold covered water skiing vest. A ruined pair of Charley Dunne boots. A pile of books and a human skull.
Gavin reached down and pulled up two fifths of bourbon from the opened box, jostling the skull which looked up at him with what Gavin had always perceived as the eternal manic grin of a converted fanatic. Gavin scooped up the bottles and skull and carried his load over to the deer. He placed the skull on the carcass and the two bottles on a flat piece of limestone and then went to scare up some firewood.
After five trips through the oak scrub and juniper, Gavin had managed to build a small pyre some five by three feet that stood about three feet at its center. His face and chest running swear, Gavin caught up this deer, surprisingly light in his arms, like a child, and laid it gently atop the wood. He then sat down on a rock with the bottles of whiskey at his knees and thoughtlessly wiped his hands over his face. He picked up a bottle and tried twisting off its top but his strength was gone. His hand shook as he dropped the bottle to his side. Gavin leaned back and reached into his jeans. Retrieved a Barlow knife and snapped it open . He took the blade and cut it across the bottle’s seal, pulled its top and took a long startling swallow. The bourbon leaked from the corners of his mouth, mixing with the blood, dirt and sweat. Gavin closed his eyes, put his his tongue between failing teeth and blew the fire racing up from his belly and through his throat. He sat with this, and stared at his labors and his long Levi legs, the tips of his boots just touching the bier and began, in halting breaths, whistling an old tune from long ago.
The second fifth of bourbon was all for this deer. Gavin opened the bottle and made the ablutions. Starting at the head, Gavin poured the liquor over its eyes and trailed the whiskey down its lithe neck with a deliberation that reminded him of his time as an altar boy. The hands of the priest–Father Carlin—pinching his papery white fingers together. So clean. Worrying their manicured tips each against as that young Gavin tipped the crystal cruet over them, the holy water tippling down.
Lavabo inter innocentes manus meas.
I will wash my hands among the innocents.
Gavin muttered the words, surprising himself, and drew a sign of the cross with the dribbling whiskey over the chest of the animal and continued on with a serpentine flourish, soaking its loins and haunches. He tossed aside the empty bottle and picked up the skull and licked up the whiskey that had had splashed upon its crown and held up the skull upright in his left and like a puppet.
And Gavin spoke to it:
“Now, Roy. We’ll make the blessing for the dead, be it all right with you. We’re gathered here to commit the spirit.. Send this soul packing, this noble buck deer who has sacrificed his life on the altar of old Detroit. Whether he was out to kill himself or me…well, Roy, he fucked up. Bad, lord. Maybe just a miscalculation on his part and he only wanted to to get to the other side of the road. Urgent business in the deer world.”
Gavin peered into the eye socket of the skull. He rotated Roy on his fist for a scan of the perimeter…as if the skull were scanning the perimeter with its vacant holes..”think there’s something out there Roy? We got hos-tilesin the brush? Wel they ain’t comin beofre dawn because John ford said so. We got to get this deer sent back to where it came from.”
Gavin faced up to the diminishing night, Roy followed suit
“Lord we ask you to take back this broken deer. Catch it in your big mouth and swallow its soul. Keep it from further harm. Wise it up. Make something of it. You wanna make something of it?”
Gavin smiled and turned to Roy grinning back at him from his fist.
“OK. Into your hands we commit this spirit. Benedicat vos omnipotens..”
Gavin deepened his voice into his chest
“Deus, Pater et Filius, et Spiritus Sanctus”
He thrust his right hand forward, stiffened as a blade and sliced the air over the deer with two strokes:
Gavin nodded the skull on his fist to the reponse:
“Et cum Spiritu tuo”
The dog barked in the distance.
Gavin rested the skull on the rock next to the bottle of bourbon. He looked up to the sky overhead as he fished in in jean’s pocket for matches. Above the stars still held their places but had vanished in the east where tender pinks and lavenders were emerging beneath great slate clouds sailing in from the Gulf.
Gavin slipped the box of matches from his jeans an turned to the pyre. He went down to one knee, ready to strike a flame when he realized there was no way a fire could catch without some kindling or paper.. he didn’t want the alcohol to burn off from the deer before the caught. Gavin rose and went back to the Caddy’s open trunk and grabbed up a handful of books. Casting an eye to the skull, Gavin drawled: “Well, Roy. Looks like we go from the sacred to the profane. We’re gonna burn us some books.”
Gavin sat down in the caliche , crossed his legs and read the title of the first book in the stack. “In A Narrow Grave. How goddamn appropriate. Portentuous little title here. Sorry, Larry. I ain’t never burned no goddamn books in my life but given these circumstance, this ritual can well use some sacrifice from the Texas muse. Right there, Roy?”
The light was now gaining , seeming to come from every direction, objects giving up their own luminosity. The skull shimmered in Gavin’s eye.
He ripped away the first twenty pages from the book, wadded them into a ball and stuffed them beneath the brushwood. After finishing off the McMurtry, Gavin went on to A Field Guide to the Birds of the Western States, Zen and The Art of Archery and was halfway through The Confidence Man when a squad of quail trooped past to his right. Gavin stood up and the birds exploded from the ground. He could feel the fury of their wings as they shot past. He tossed the remaining denizens of Melville’s riverboat purgatory onto the carcass. “Truly fitting. And so, here we go.”
Gavin struck a match against the box and touched its flame to the literary kindling.
It crackled orange and black in the blued atmosphere of alcohol. Gavin stepped back to the rock where the skull and whiskey waited. He picked up the bottle and took a long pull. The fire reached up through the tangle of wood, first igniting the juicy cedar before finding the alcohol-soaked skin of the deer. The corpus was suddenly enshrouded in veils of sapphire. Gavin saw the hair on its hide evaporate beneath the heat. He saw the remains of The Confidence Man curl up in a singular figure of fire that twisted into a black flower, its charry petals dissolving in scattering ascent from the pyre, now a blaze flowing with smoke redolent of flaming juniper and cooking flesh. Sweet popping fats from the belly, hard gamy underodor from thin burning muscle. Gavin breathed it all in as he moved unsteadily through these primal vapors, the Wild Turkey swinging in his fist at his side, toward the Cadillac.
Gavin laid the bottle on the floorboards and crawled across the front seat of the car to the glove box from which he grabbed the black leather box and a harmonica. Resting on one elbow, Gavin opened the box. Inside were two vials—one empty, the other, half filled with cocaine.–and thin silver penknife from which he brought its blade with a flick of his thumbnail. He twisted the top from the vial and shoveled two hefty bladesful of the powder up his nostrils. The coke chilled the ache in his head, gave it some distraction. Gavin capped the vial, closed the blade, returned them to the box and thrust them back into the glove compartment.
With the bottle in one hand and the harmonica in the other, Gavin returned to the pyre. He made several circuits around the now burning deer, alternately sucking from the bottle and blowing through the harmonica before finally coming to rest on a large rock where he sat watching the fire. Through its topping flames, with eyes now dripping numb tears, beyond the hills to the city, Gavin saw the pink cocktip of the sun as it rose on this final Friday in August.
Gavin put the harmonica to his lips and blew gently, wandering out on the shaky plaint of the lonesome cowboy that he had learned as a child, the song of the lost immigrant in The West, strung out in America, hanging his heart on a mournful song.
Gavin broke off the first line in a graveled whisper. “I ride an old paint….”
“I lead old Dan…goin’ back to Montana…for to throw the houlihan…Ol’ Bill Jones…had two daughters….one went to Denver…the other went wrong…His wife she died…in a poolroom fight… Now Bill’s still singin’…from mornin’ til night…Ride around little dogies…ride around slow..both my Fiery and my Snuffy…are rarin’ to go…”
Gavin’s voice grew stronger as he sang on, into the flames where the bones of the deer burned yellow in the morning sun.
“Ride around little dogies…Ride around slow….Both my Fiery and my Snuffy….are rarin’ to go.”
Copyright 1986, 2012 Joseph Michael Reynolds, All Rights Reserved