The First of November is the start of doe season in England. For the next five months hunters switch from bucks and can only kill female deer. By this time fawns are considered old enough to take care of themselves, although if they look too small you must dispatch the babies too. Over lockdown I shadowed a deer stalker and learnt to shoot. It was quite an experience. Even though I haven’t picked up a gun for a year I still think about it and I know what happens to get meat on the table.
Tramp the inner hock of one back limb under your boot. Splay the legs and tread the other ankle, as it were, with your corresponding foot. The belly of the roe doe is domed out. Bend down and pinch a ripple of skin. It’s warm and springy, taut to the body. She’s in winter coat, grey-brown, thinner here on the underside, see the patterning of hair in slow whorls. Raise the hide away from the torso. With your other hand feel for the thickening of breast tissue. Choose a spot at the circumference where you won’t split the milk glands. Pick up your hunter’s knife. Make passes with the sharp point. He says Don’t tickle it. Lacerate a tiny slit. Once you breach the skin the innards want to rush out, start popping out, as if there’s been a bomb scare in the concert. Don’t panic. Keep pulling up, a poor slippy grip. This separates the layers. First that thick outer leathery coat and beneath, a white-creamy membrane. Puncture this. Nothing else. Minuscule slash with the knife tip. Slight whistle, out-breath, a spy-hole. You see, suddenly, the inner workings. Spin the knife to the flip-side gut-hook. Nestle the rounded nub into the fissure, handle facing away from you, your frame twisted. In one rapid, awkward movement gash the blade up and away, along the length of the underside. Crash into the chest bones. Guts billow out. The roof is blown off. Step back off the hocks and let the body fold. The released limbs slump to the ground and gravity sluices a mass of intestines half in and half out of the animal. Put the knife down, somewhere clean, propped on some moss.
Crouch at the opening, by the hooves and spillage. With one hand grab the rent hide and raise it slightly. All is in commotion. The rumen pouches have expanded rapidly, full of activity. Plunge your free hand into the back of the cavity where it’s damp and heated and safe-feeling. Grapple the blue-grey innards out. Empty the building. Find stragglers. Grope around, rupturing fascia and wrenching membranes. Scoop out puffing, roiling armfuls of stomach and colon until every last entrail is slopped on the cold ground. Do not perforate the puckering, tender gut linings or you’ll ruin the whole venture. The uterus is in there somewhere. She’s not pregnant. The womb is lost, buried in bowels. Find the soft, knobbly tube from the anus, track it back a foot, cut with the blade, and pop out the rounded pellets of scat. Tie an overhand knot. Harvest the kidneys, twisting them gently from beneath the vertebrae. Stash them in a little plastic bag. Grasp the liver, tear it out and wobble it into the sandwich bag. Discard the spleen. Follow the food tube as far along the throat as you can, up to your elbow, rip or cut the oesophagus, taking care with the blade in a constricted space. Haul the gullet out, thereby detaching the whole digestive system. Wipe off any fresh-chewed greenstuff. Abandon the gralloch. It sits on the floor of the woodland, exotic and steaming. Brightly coloured and out of place. Concentric rings like an amphitheatre or circuitry.
Tackle the diaphragm, failed bodyguard detail, loyal to the last. Hack its rubbery band away from the ribs. No more resistance. The pluck is exposed. Storm the chest cavity. A blast site, mashed by the deforming bullet. Thrust both hands and blade high up the throat, locate the trachea, hard and textured. Saw through and ditch it, dangling its lobes of pale, wrecked lung. Swish your hand in the shattered chest. Seize the heart. If it’s not shot through add it to the offal bag. Your wrists and arms, rolled-up coat-cuffs, boots – all red as a carpet on opening night. The smell isn’t bad. Next procedure, reach back and poke two fingers deep within the pelvis. Find the bladder. Twist the urethra round and round to isolate the piss, pull it tight, cut and swiftly fling the whole package away, splashing urine far from your working area. Move round to the posterior. Take her tail-tuft in one hand and slice the knife a short way along the tail bone. Put the knife down. Wriggle a digit into her backside. Fiddle your index finger round a turn of colon and hook it up until the knot you tied earlier flops out of the asshole. Stand and walk to the head. Lift her by the ears so the mess of clotting blood swills out the gashed rear and pools on the leaf mould and twigs. Shift the carcass to drier ground. Windows smashed, doors kicked in, architecture gutted. In the aftermath of the fire, a thin wisp of steam rises, warm, in the chill air.
Sarah-Jane Dobner got distracted by city life for a while, but is currently in the process of returning to Devon. Her book A Feeling for Rock won the Climbing Literature Award at Banff Mountain Book Competition 2021. Read more about Sarah-Jane and her work on her website.
Knife is taken from a longer piece of work, The Understalker.
Illustration by the author.