The noonday sun was mild, almost warm now. The scavenger birds—magpies, ravens, Steller’s jays and gray jays— danced and hopped nearby, swarming and fluttering, and from time to time as Ralph or Bruce took a rest, one of the men would toss a scrap of gristle or fascia into the field for the birds to fight over, and the sound of their angry squabbles filled the lonely silence of the otherwise quiet and empty hills, beneath the thin blue of the Indian summer sky.
They let Jyl work with the skinning knife—showed her how to separate the muscles lengthwise with her fingers before cutting them free of the skeleton, and the quartered ham and shoulder—the backstrap unscrolling beneath the urging of her knife—the meat dense as stone, it seemed, yet as fluid as a river, and so beautiful in that sunlight, maroon to nearly purple, nearly iridescent in its richness, and in the absence of any intramuscular fat—and now the skeleton, with its whitened bones beginning to show, seemed less an elk, less an animal, than ever; and the two brothers set to work on the neck, tenderloins, butt steaks and neck loins. And while they separated and then trimmed and butchered those, Jyl worked with her own knife at carving strips of meat from between each slat of ribcage.
From time to time their lower backs would cramp, from working so intently, at such strangely unaccustomed work, work which presented itself now even in the best of years but two or three times annually—a deer, an elk, and sometimes an antelope—and they would have to lie down on the ground, all three of them, looking up at the sky and spreading their arms out wide as if on a crucifix; and they would listen to, and feel with pleasure, the subtle popping and realigning of their vertebrae, and would stare up at that blue sky and listen to the cries of the feeding birds, and feel intensely their richness at possessing now so much meat, clean meat, and at simply being alive, with the blood from their labor drying quickly to a light crust on their hands and arms. They were like children, in those moments, and they might have napped.
They finished late that afternoon, and sawed the antlers off for Jyl to take home with her. Being old school, they dragged what was left of the carcass back into the woods, returning it to the forest—returning the skeleton to the very place where the elk had been bedded down, when Jyl had first crept up on it—as if she had only borrowed it from the forest for a while—and then they drove back down to their ranch house and hung the ham and shoulder quarters on meat hooks to age in the barn, and draped the backstraps likewise from hooks, where they would leave them for at least a week.
They ran the loose scraps, nearly a hundred pounds’ worth, through a hand-cranked grinder, mixed in with a little beef fat to make hamburger, and while Ralph and Jyl processed and wrapped that in two-pound packages, Ralph cooked some of the butt steak in an iron skillet, seasoned with garlic and onions and butter and salt and pepper, mixed with a few of the previous spring’s dried false morels, reconstituted—and he brought them small plates of that meal, thinly sliced, to eat as they continued working, the three of them grinding and wrapping, and the mountain of meat growing on the table beside them.
They each had a tumbler of whiskey to sip as they worked, and when they finally finished, it was nearly midnight.
The brothers offered their couch to Jyl, and she accepted; they let her shower first, and they built a fire for her in the woodstove next to the couch; and after Bruce and then Ralph had showered, they sat up visiting, each with another small glass of whiskey, Ralph and Bruce telling her their ancient histories, until none of them could stay awake—their eyes kept closing, and their heads kept drooping—and with the fire burning down, Ralph and Bruce roused from their chairs and made their way each to his bedroom, and Jyl pulled the old elk hides over her for warmth and fell deeply and immediately asleep, falling as if through some layering of time. That elk would not be coming back, and her father would not be coming back. She was the only one remaining.