My parents lived on a ranch in the Badlands. It snowed the day I arrived home. The dirt road was slush-filled and slick. Cattle huddled in the corners of fences. I carried my laundry basket inside and washed the smell of college from my clothes. In the basement, my brother was drinking coffee. We hugged. I was thin. My brother was thin. He was starving himself for wrestling season. I was starving myself for new friends.
My mom cooked breakfast every morning I was home. She fixed pancakes, and eggs, and maple-flavored bacon. We sat at the kitchen counter and played cards while we ate. I spooned two tablespoons of non-fat Greek yogurt into a bowl, and fed the rest of my food to the dogs. My brother drank tea. He spoke to the spaces around me, like he couldn’t find the place where I stood.
There were two gifts from Santa under the tree. My package was small and wrapped in blue paper. A book. The latest from Jodi Picoult, I imagined. The other gift, my brother’s, was covered in butcher paper and shaped like a rod. The package stuck out from the tree at an angle. My dad tripped over it bringing in wood for the fire.
My brother and I opened Santa’s gifts on Christmas morning. We formed a circle, siblings and parents, seated in front of the fireplace. My mom took pictures. I held up Plain Truth and smiled. My brother stood up, his back to the fire. The boar spear in his hand was six feet long and made of ash wood.
“I could hunt with this,” he said. The blade pointed west, towards the river.
“Shit,” Dad said.
“It’s decorative,” Mom said.
My brother locked the dogs in the garage. My parents and I watched from the window as he practiced throwing the boar spear against a tree. By noon, my brother had disappeared into the hills, bundled against the cold. He wore five pairs of socks but no shoes.
“He’ll come back with a goose,” Dad said. “Or a Finch.” The Finches were the kids across the river.
“I’d better call the neighbors,” Mom said.
“Deer,” I predicted.
My parents pulled the couch to the fireplace and sat on either side of me. They opened a bottle of wine. I was only nineteen but I was well on my way to something, it was assumed, so they poured me a glass I did not drink. “Jill, he quit wrestling,” my mom said, under her breath. I barely looked up from my novel. “And he’s trying to quit high school now, too.”
My brother hunted for five days. He crept back and forth along the river bottoms, a miniature beetle. I used binoculars to track his progress from the window. Near the end of winter break, he dragged an animal through the yard. Red snow ribboned behind him. My parents were at work. I was the first to acknowledge the body.
“Porcupine,” I said, and shut my book.
The animal was big, the size of a small dog. It had cartoonish teeth and matted-down fur where the spear had pierced flesh. I watched from above as my brother hung the porcupine from the deck with a rope he found in the garage. The body spun in circles, shedding needles. My brother cut open the porcupine’s belly with a carving knife and fed the heart to the dogs. The entrails he stored in a bucket to dump in the river.
He told the story as he gutted the carcass. He’d knocked the porcupine out of the branches of a tree. Stabbed it four times until dead. Died slowly though. Needles fucking everywhere. Left the spear behind. My brother was still wearing a ski mask. Some of his words were muffled. Looking down from the deck, I could see the frozen layers of his socks. He held a slab of jiggling meat to the sky.
“We’re going to eat this.”
The porcupine cooked three colors in the cast iron pan: purple, white, goo-brown. My brother seasoned the meat with rosemary and salt. He placed a bottle of ketchup on the countertop. The house grew smoky.
“You’re quitting school?” I asked.
“Who the fuck cares?” my brother said.
The porcupine was shiny with grease. Carefully, he prized away a strand of meat. He speared it with a fork. My brother offered me the first bite.
I slid the porcupine off the tines of the fork with my fingers. I slurped the skin from the meat. My brother gnawed on a leg. I waited until he was finished, then chewed the gristle off his leftovers. I scraped my teeth along the bone.