I remember bone-white deer antlers in the back yard. My dad and his dad before him were hunters. Every trip to the mountains of northern and central New Mexico (and there were many) meant new antlers brought back and tossed in the flower garden. Mostly they did not come from deer my dad had killed. They were usually specimens that he had just happened across while walking through the dry juniper or ponderosa forests. No skulls, just the twin naked antlers shed by mule deer each winter. Shed and dropped to the ground for my dad to find the next Fall.
I would pick these antlers up and carry them around the yard with me, studying them, running my fingers along their smooth surface over and over again. These antlers were like sacred relics to me. I loved their smoothness, the bumps and ridges at their base, the rounded tips, and the sound they made when I scratched them or tried to interlock their spurs, like claws of some surreal skeletal hand. They were heavy in my soft hands, the fallen crowns of a large, wild animal. A large, wild, proud animal. A large, wild, proud animal that maybe now was dead. For some reason, I could only imagine that the antlers’ owners were dead. They could easily have still been alive, but something about knowing that the deer had lost such a beautiful, hard, heavy part of itself—it’s crown—made me think that they were probably dead. If I was a deer and I lost my antlers, would I want to keep living my deer life?
One year I went with my dad on the hunt in the wilderness near Corona. During that hunt, he killed a deer with his bow. My dad and I carried the deer down the side of a mountain together. I was 12 years old. When we got home, I asked him what he would do with the deer’s head. “I don’t know yet” he said. He had hung the massive carcass from the ceiling of the garage, its twig-like legs straining under the rope, its muscles still warm and bulging. All of its skin was off except for the head, and the muscles became dark and taut as they dried. Flies jockeyed for the best landing spots. The smell filled my head and made me dizzy. Musky blood, damp grass, and drying fat. I was afraid to ask my dad for the deer’s head, but I wanted it more than anything else.
I watched that head slowly rotate just inches from my face. It was attached to a neck that before had been stout and thick but now was limp and would fold over grotesquely whenever my dad pulled the body up by a front leg to cut away a piece of meat or skin or fat. A gray-blue tongue, almost as large as my arm, hung out of its still-wet snout. The eyes, giant marbles, black and empty, stared down at me with indifference. Finally I asked my dad if I could have the head to bury in our back yard. I wanted to bury the head and wait until it became bone and then see it become as white as the antlers I carried around. It would be my project. I thought myself special, different from other kids my age because I was the kid who could wait for months (years?) for nature to remove the fur and brains and muscle from the head of a deer my dad had killed. I told him this was my plan, and he looked at me without any confusion or judgement. It made sense to him that this is what I would want to do. Maybe he had wanted to do the same thing with the deer his own dad had brought home.
“Just make sure you take it as far away from the house as you can. I don’t want the smell near the house. And bury it deep. I don't want coyotes coming into the yard and digging it up. They’ll hurt Chuy, too.”
Chuy was our small black dog. I said I would do those things and he then began to cut the head away from the body. I was not shocked or disgusted by the sight of knife cutting through the deer’s neck, but I looked away while my dad worked out of respect for the deer.
My dad handed me the deer’s head. I held it by one brown, velvet-covered antler. It felt smaller than I imagined it would when it loomed above me in the garage. I ran my finger along the fur on the top of its head. I brushed its eyelashes lightly—they were so long! After I had examined the head to my satisfaction, I brought it out to my dad’s vegetable garden. There were squash plants with light orange flowers and tomato plants almost as tall as me, from which I would sometimes pluck fat green caterpillars. I picked a spot near the corner of the garden and placed the head on the dry dirt. Using a shovel…