David Joy

The Stars Shall Withdraw Their Shining

A day of darkness and of gloominess, a day of clouds
and of thick darkness, as the morning spread upon the mountains…
—Joel 2:2

Papa shot the deer from the truck, a little button buck with antlers burled up under skin into two velvet knolls. Our breaths held on to cold December air as Papa braced the barrel against the corner of the opened window and fired. The report exploded in the cab and deafened my ten-and-a-half-year-old ears. When I opened my eyes, I saw Papa rack the lever action. An empty 30-30 casing flipped up onto the dash and settled against the windshield, but my ears rang and I heard nothing. The deer was on the ground, and its legs kicked wildly before slowing to a tight tremor when its lungs huffed one last frosty breath.

The young buck wasn’t thick enough for the lead to expand and stop. Instead, the bullet blew out the backside in a torn mess of meat, lungs, and dark blood. Needle ice lifted loose soil into thin columns that crunched where the deer fell. Blood, warm and pumping just seconds before, cooled and congealed on icy ground.

“Drag him by his hind legs, Henry,” Papa said. He coughed deeply and doubled over hacking as I walked over to the deer. He’d been sick for nearly a month, and spent nights with a cold washcloth across his forehead. Even now, while the first flakes of a light snow wavered down, the fever had him in a sweat.

We didn’t have time to field dress the deer. Papa was afraid someone would come by and see us, so we moved quickly. He had never been a poacher, but hard times were on us, and the deer stacked thick on Big Ridge, even in winter. Though the mountain was smothered in houses, they all sat empty now. The seasonals left when the last leaves burned bright, browned, and fell. But still, we hurried.

I grabbed the deer just above the hooves where its legs were thin as walking sticks. It took me two hard tugs before the body let loose and slid a few feet across field grass. Papa hunched over with his head tilted up at an awkward angle, and stared off into the trees. I traced his line of sight, thinking sure as the world we’d been spotted, but saw nothing and trudged on. I struggled with an animal a bit bigger than me, but once I got it moving, the body slid easy. My legs shook in thin jeans, and water seeped into my socks through holes in the bottoms of my boots, but every step was closer to finished, and I was starved. Papa helped me lift the deer into the back of his truck. He slammed the tailgate, slid the rifle behind the bench seat, and we were gone.

I stared at Papa while he drove back into the valley. His face was a pale yellow, his body weak and slumped over the wheel. He’d always held a chiseled jaw, a strong chin shaped like the backend of a maul. His face looked hollow now. His dark eyes had sunk back into a void that could not be filled. I’d seen him lift rock with his bare hands when other men at the quarry gave out with backs near broken and legs trembling limp. But whatever ailed my father had eaten him alive in a hurry. He’d turned skeleton overnight. He was too strong to die, I told myself.

It was easier to focus on the road ahead. Just twelve miles back to Cedar Creek. Just twelve miles to the heat of the wood stove.

Even when we had nothing, we had firewood. The mountains were full of timber and a hard day’s work meant a week’s warmth, so we split wood and kept the cords stacked high. Food, on the other hand, was scarce. Mama’s canning dwindled back to the last shelf. The food the church had brought us for getting by ran out a week before, and ever since the layoffs, Papa hadn’t a dime. This deer, barely more than a yearling, would be our savior.

By the time we made it home, light snow had turned into fat, wet flakes that fell fast. We lived in a deep hollow where no one could see, a place only the preacher ever visited, so Papa knew we were in the clear once we hit our drive. The buck’s eyes were open but hazed, no longer the shiny black marbles they’d seemed in the field. There was no gleam in its stare. Snowflakes dusted wintertime hide, the brown fur thicker than the light coat of summer. The wound was frozen to the liner as Papa peeled the deer from the truck bed. He summoned every bit of strength inside of him to drag the deer toward a rusted swing set at the wood’s edge. Mama stared through the kitchen window at Papa’s dragging. Her eyes followed Papa, then settled on the first meat we’d seen in a month.

“See if you can find the gambling stick,” Papa said. “Should be up by the porch.”

The curved laurel branch Papa rigged for hanging game rested beneath a dull gray rocker. The gambling stick had a warped natural bow, a thick nail driven through each side for hanging legs, and a chain attached to each end with an S-shaped hanger fastened to its center link. I grabbed the gambling stick from splintered porch planks and took it to him.

Papa wasted no time driving the nails between tendons in the buck’s hind legs. He grunted and strained to string the deer up onto the swing set. He bent over with his hands rested on his knees for a minute to catch his breath. All of the deer’s weight bore where leg transitioned to hoof, its body stretched in a handstand.

“You’re going to do the cutting,” Papa said. He unsheathed a short skinning knife from his belt. The blade was shaped like a hawk’s beak, and a large hole meant for the pointing finger was cut in the steel just above where the tang entered yellow bone. The carbon steel blade was dark and pitted, but the edge gleamed as Papa swiped back and forth against a whetstone he often kept in his pocket. The stone no longer had edges, long since worn round and dipping in the middle like a bar of soap. “Bout time you learned how to do this on your own,” he said and held out the knife.

Papa had always held me by his side while he worked. “No one’s going to give you a thing in this world, Henry. Got to fend for yourself,” he’d say. Over the last month, he’d seemed urgent to teach me how to do things myself. I’d helped him fix a burst pipe in the crawlspace when the water froze a week before. He’d shown me how to tend a winter garden to keep the kale, collards, and chard growing steady through snow. He’d even let me take a shot on the first deer we saw that morning, a hefty doe easily twice the weight of the deer we bagged. I was always dead center on the paper targets Papa set up in the yard, and for the past year or so, I could even make headshots on squirrels four trees away. But with an animal as big as me in the sights, the family’s livelihood resting on the tip of my finger, my eyes were wide and I’d shaken. My shot rode high. Lead entered the mountainside. We’d been lucky to see another.

“Cut this first,” Papa said, as he held onto what pegged that deer for male. Papa hacked on a wet-sounding cough, nearly choked ‘til he spit a wad of phlegm. The snow made the blood in his spit seem that much brighter.

I was used to Papa bleeding: sliced fingers when the knife cut too quick; a busted mouth when a tree shot up from beneath the pile as he sawed up a blow down. But this was the first time I’d ever seen him bleeding from the inside.

“It’s nothing,” Papa said when he caught me staring at the bloody wad sinking into snow. Sweat boiled on his forehead. His face was ghostly pale. But he said nothing else of it. “Just cut all of that off. It’ll be in your way when you dress him out.”

I stood on an overturned bucket while he guided my hand and skin split back. He helped me cut a circle around the rear end, pull just enough of the intestines out to tie them off in a fleshy overhand knot so as nothing could push out and taint the meat.

“Let me show you something.” Papa took the knife. He ran two fingers into the incision where the pecker had been, and carved down. “You want to get your two fingers in there under its skin and follow the line between them fingers.” He paused and coughed shallow, his voice dry and raspy. “You just want to work your way down slow, careful not to cut deeper than the skin. Just let it fold open like this.”

Papa handed back the knife and I ran my fingers beneath skin. The insides were wet and warm even in death. I cut in short swipes. The blade was sharp and the skin was tight so that just barely touching, the body opened. I worked my way down the deer’s belly, and the weight of its body hanging upside down pulled all of its organs into a swelled egg just under the ribs. As I neared ribs, my untrained hand pressed the blade too deep and opened some unseen thing that spilt a yellowish chowder of chewed acorns and stomach acid onto the ground. The smell enveloped us. It steamed up in a vile, acrid fog that smelled like fermented corn mash. I was used to cleaning small game, mostly rabbits and squirrels with skins that peeled back like wet socks, but nothing this big. I’d never cut into anything with a smell like that living in it. The stench turned me green and I added to the pile on the ground.

I spit and gagged. “I’ve ruined it,” I said. Tears gathered in my eyes and I thought sure as the world I’d rendered it unfit to eat. “I’ve spoiled it, haven’t I?”

“No, son.” Papa knelt down beside me. He rubbed a hard circle across my back, and swiped a line of throw up from the corner of my mouth with his shirtsleeve. “You just cut the paunch.”

“Can’t eat it after that, can you, Papa?” The tears came, and I knew I’d left the table bare, the whole family sure to starve.

“Oh, no.” Papa looked at me and grinned just enough to let me know it was all right. He looked as if even the grinning was hard, as if the world had beaten him down past the point of the slightest nicety. But even in curled frailty, he tried to comfort me. “We’ll wash him out real good. I’ve split them many a time in my day. Just got to wash him out real good and it’ll be fine, Henry. It’s hard to ruin.”

I finished running the blade over the rib cage until the knife sank into a soft hollow between the chest plate and neck. Papa turned the deer up and let the guts dump out of the chest in a tangled, slicked mess of grays, dark purples, and maroons. The smell was unbearable and I gagged and heaved as my belly worked to throw out anything left inside.

“You’ll get used to it,” Papa said.  

When it came time to wash the deer out, a strong wind sent pines in a twenty-foot sway, and cold air left Papa choking for breath. The sweat beaded on his forehead with every wheezing cough, and dripped away just before it had time to freeze to him. Papa threw buckets full of water into the opened cavity, and I rushed to refill the buckets from an iced-over spigot. When he was done washing it out, Papa wiped down the inside of the deer with white vinegar and did the same with his skinning knife.

“Rub him down with vinegar and you won’t taste the paunch. But the biggest thing to remember, Henry, is you don’t ever want to start cutting meat with a blade that’s touched them innards. Best to just wash it all good with vinegar, and when you think you got it good and clean, wash it down once more again.”

We worked together to skin the deer out. Papa rolled the skin back as I cut. He pulled hard so I could slice further. After a few hours in the cold, we had it all done except the butchering, but Papa had turned worse. His face was white and slick with sweat. He choked for every breath he took. But still he worked. He settled on a long knife and a cleaver for the butchering. He chopped the body into workable quarters then moved in with the knife for finer cuts.

“Take this in to your mama, Henry, will you?” Papa held out a lump of meat he’d cut from the shoulder.

I ran the venison into the house while Papa continued to work down the body. Inside, Mama stood in front of the stove. She set a fresh skillet of cornbread on top of one eye and sliced out two triangles with a butter knife. Her skinny frame barely held a knitted sweater. The yarn was pulled and ripped in places, a ragged hole eaten by moths in the shoulder. The sweater held too loosely to see the slight swell in her belly, my new brother or sister on the way. A heavy dress she’d fastened from curtains draped her legs. She always dressed ratty, nothing like the women I saw in town. Papa, though, said it was the brightness in her eyes, the soft curves of her face, and the way her lips always seemed pursed that brought a simplistic beauty to everything she wore. Papa said she was the prettiest girl to ever come off Yellow Mountain, and I believed him. Still, she was tough. She had a way of twisting everything up inside like wrought iron and never letting the world see what hurt.

“He told me to bring you this.” I set the hunk of meat on a wooden chopping block at the edge of the counter.

“Thank you, Henry.” Mama held out the two pieces of cornbread. Her eyes were gems that found enough light to twinkle even in darkness. Long blonde hair ran slap to her buttocks. Age had not touched her. “Take one of them to your papa and see if he can get something on his stomach.” Mama brushed her hands off on her skirt. She walked to the window and peered out at Papa. “Didn’t look too big strung up out there.”

“It’s my fault, Mama. Had a shot on a bigger one, but I shot high. Took my eye off the front sight. That’s what Papa said.”

“No mind, Henry.” Mama pulled out a knife and began slicing the shoulder into stew meat. “How’s he doing?”

“He was bleeding.”

“What you mean he was bleeding?” Mama sat down the knife, turned back, and stared in my eyes so as I couldn’t lie.

“There was blood in what he coughed up.”

Mama stared out the window. She breathed in deeply, turned as if to speak, wheels turning behind blue eyes, but said nothing. She walked over to the corner and stuck her arm in the potato bin. A sour smell came across the kitchen as she pulled out two handfuls of small white potatoes and an onion. That’s when she started to cry.

“Goddamn things are rotten,” she said.

“It’ll be all right, Mama.” I walked over and put my hand at the small of her back.

“We ain’t got anything to eat, Henry. How’s that all right?” Her sadness turned to anger that was bigger than potatoes, bigger than Papa or me or anything else—anger at the world, at how things turned sour so fast. All of it was something we hadn’t deserved, as if after all those Sundays in church and all that praying, turned out God had it in for us all along.

“What you want me to tell him?”

“Aw, no need to tell him anything, I don’t reckon.” Mama’s mood turned back to a solemn kindness as she bottled all of those feelings inside the way she always did. “Lord knows he don’t need anything else to worry over.” Mama dumped the potatoes and onions into the trash and walked over to finish cutting up the venison. “Still got some pole beans and tomatoes canned up that ought to be good in a stew. Why don’t you run back out there and see if he’ll give you a couple bones for stock.”

Outside the snow came heavy and never touched ground. The flakes blew sideways on a steady wind that howled through naked hickories and post oaks. Papa was bent over the ground as if he was looking for something he’d dropped, but as I walked closer, he keeled over onto his side.

“Papa!” I screamed and ran over to him. The snow blew and swept over his body as if he was just another lump of uneven ground. “Papa!” His eyes were open but looked past me. Blood ran from the corner of his mouth. His body shook.

Mama saw it from the kitchen window. She heard my screaming, and ran out of the house. The screen door slammed hard against the frame and Mama’s woolen skirt blew wildly about her legs. “James,” Mama said calmly. She knelt beside him and eased me out of the way, but Papa’s stare was someplace else. “James!” she screamed and slapped him across the cheek. Her fingers left red lines across his face. His eyes pulled back and looked at her, but his lips never moved. He didn’t say one damn word.

She asked me to help her, and we drug him to the house by his boots. We held him under the arms and heaved with every bit of strength we could muster to get him up the steps and onto the porch. Once he was inside, we used the rug Papa had brought her after a weeklong job in Gatlinburg to drag him. The stitching tore beneath dead weight, but we got him into the bedroom and hoisted him onto the mattress. Papa lay sprawled atop a yarn afghan. Fresh blood streamed red from the corner of his mouth onto the darker line already dried.

Mama ran to the kitchen and came back with a pie tin and a washcloth sopped wet and cold. She put the tin under Papa’s mouth, swabbed the cloth across his neck, and kept repeating in a low tone, “Spit it out. Spit it out, James.” When she moved the washcloth onto his forehead, something happened and Papa came back to us.

He spit and drooled a long puddle of blood into the pan. “Cold,” he whispered, and I rushed to cover him in a quilt.

Mama continued to swab his face with the cold washcloth. “Good for the fever,” she said. “Good for the fever.” She tilted her head as if to get a good look at Papa from just the right angle, to set him straight in her eyes. “Go see if you can find me another washcloth, Henry, and sop it wet.”

I walked into the kitchen and found a dishtowel in a drawer next to the sink. I opened the faucet and the water ran slow in droplets. The pipes were near frozen, but I wet the towel the best I could. When I got back to the bedroom, Mama’s head was bent down near Papa’s lips and he whispered something I couldn’t hear, something I wasn’t meant to hear. I waited by the doorway until Papa’s eyes shifted toward me, and Mama turned. Tears ran from her eyes, and she motioned for me to bring the towel.

“The boy,” Papa whispered and Mama nodded. She leaned in to give Papa a kiss on his cheek, and left. It was just us two, and Papa tried to grin, but his dry lips proved uncooperative. “The book.” Papa cut eyes toward a ragged Bible on the nightstand, and I handed it to him. He pulled the book against his chest, the leather binding worn down like work boots. It was a Bible my family brought over from the old country, a book that stayed around after the fire they carried burnt out. Two hundred years of names were kept alive in scribbled ink on the opening pages, all of the places we’d come from: Ulster, Armagh, Donegal. “Come close, Henry.” He struggled for every word, but I leaned in and he spoke. “Take care of her.”

“But Papa, I…”

“Don’t talk. Just listen, now.” Papa’s eyes grew stern. “I’ve got something I’ve got to tell you.” He smacked his lips against a dry tongue and tried to wet his mouth enough for a few more words. “Mama ain’t strong like us
. . .you’ve got to look out for her, got to take care of what’s inside her. Understand?” His words were broken and barely audible.

Mama came back into the room with a small glass of water. She held the rim to his mouth, and he gulped hard for a swallow. Water dribbled from the corner of his mouth, and Mama smudged it across his lips with her thumb, but he refused to speak until she was gone.

I tried to talk. “Papa . . .” I wanted to tell him I wasn’t ready, that no matter what he couldn’t leave us, but he wouldn’t let me.

“Listen, Henry. There was a barred owl in the tree today watching the two of us.” He spoke more easily now, though his words rushed. “It was there when we knelt beside that deer. Did you see it?”

“No, sir.”

Papa nodded toward the water, and I poured another sip against his cracked lips. “Good. That’s good, Henry, that you didn’t.” He tried to catch his breath, but dry air ate at his whispering. “There was this owl sitting there with big, coal eyes watching us, and that—that was my daddy, Henry. That bird was my daddy, and he was coming to take me home.” Papa wheezed out of breath and coughed hard. He spit something black into the pie tin, but his eyes eased, as if content in knowing he’d gotten out what he had to say.

Tears ran down my face, and Papa didn’t say anything else. He clenched the Bible tightly and coughed on something that refused to get out of him. I tried my damnedest to stop crying, to toughen up like he’d taught me, and not let the last picture his eyes would ever hold of me be something that would disappoint him.

“Ain’t you scared, Papa?”

“No, Henry.”

“Not even of dying?”

“No.” Papa looked deep into my eyes, tears still streaming my face. “Lot of things in this world more scary than dying. A whole lot of things, Henry.”

We didn’t speak again.

I sat there on the bed with him for a long while. I watched his chest rise beneath the quilt. I watched his eyes push past me and settle on something beyond. His body shivered, and his hands never let loose of that Bible.

He wasn’t gone when I headed outside to finish the job he’d started. Mama sat at the kitchen table, a blank stare shrouding emotion, but I didn’t stop to comfort her. Tomorrow we would cover the mirrors in sheets, stop the hands of clocks, and find a piece of ground fit for burying. But right then there was work to be done.

A blizzard was setting in.

The deer was nearly frozen.

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