You are seven, in the basement with your father. The deer the two of you will skin is laid out on a table. Your father, an easygoing man who sings off key and lets you win at checkers, down here is solemn. Hold its rack and tip the head, he says, which you do while he makes a bloodless cut across the throat. In your hands the antlers are smooth as saplings.
There are more cuts, and then your father puts down the knife. Hang on tight, he says. You close your eyes. Upstairs your mother is at the sink, washing something. Your father begins to pull and jerk, tearing skin from muscle, and you’ve eaten venison before but you’ve never felt this. When you open your eyes, you manage to turn away before you vomit.
This takes place years before the knock on your bedroom door. By now you’re in the throes of hormones, listening to music and plotting your independence. You will soon be sixteen. Take off the headphones, your father says as he enters with your mother. She sits on your bed, begins to cry. Your father leans against your desk. We’re getting divorced, he says. You reach for your headphones. I don’t care, you say. You believe it. You visit his new apartment twice and then no more. Too busy, you tell him and your mother, your friends and girlfriend when they ask why you spend so little time with him. A few months after you graduate high school, your father moves south. He repeatedly asks you to visit. After a while he stops.
Years later you are reading to your son at bedtime. Your mother lives nearby. Your father has been dead a year. In his will, he left you everything. You stop turning the pages of the book. For days you’ve noticed an odor in your son’s room, a worsening stench that tonight cannot be ignored. You search the floor, the dresser, underneath the bed. Finally, inside the closet, you find a dead mouse. You lift it by the tail. The skin slides off intact, leaving a puddle of flesh. You lean over the deliquescent heap and sob. Your son, frightened, pulls at your shoulder. He runs to get your wife. He says, something’s wrong with Daddy.
In the basement, your father wiped your face with his sleeve before leading you upstairs. Your last image of the deer was with the skin half peeled, as if it had come in from the cold and was removing its coat. In the kitchen, your father took off your shirt, rinsed you in the sink. He rubbed your back while you threw up again. It’s all right, he told you, you’ll get used to it. He said, next time keep your eyes open the whole time, so you won’t feel such a shock.