“Dad, do you think I went too deep on that last pass?”
The older man leaned a little closer to the table and cocked his head to one side. Flaying hide wasn’t
the easiest part of the hunt; on the contrary, it was one of the most labor-intensive, painstaking and
tedious processes associated with it. He let his practiced eyes take him from one end of the cut to the
other, looking for telltale signs of blade drag or skipping along the incision his son made. It wasn’t the
boy’s first attempt at flaying a kill and lessons learned on previous attempts were on full display.
He’s good—maybe almost as good as me. Not quite, but he’s definitely getting there. A couple more
hunts and you’ll have a hard time telling our processing apart. I probably should compliment the heck
out of him, but…
“It’s not bad. I think this is definitely one of your better ones—maybe the best one so far.”
He may have been aiming for motivation, but his son’s crestfallen expression told him in an instant he
missed his mark by a country mile. Just as he was about to open his mouth to add some supplemental
praise, though, he saw the dejected face of his son harden a little. Within the space of a half-minute,
crestfallen had been replaced by determined and the father let the matter close on its own.
“Where were my mistakes?”
A little hard-bitten, but not accusatory.
“It’s not mistakes so much as it is overall focus. Your attention to detail is good, but it wanders
sometimes.” He pointed to two separate places with his thumb and pinkie, about a foot apart and
tapped lightly on the flayed skin below each finger. “Here and here there’s a lot more meat still attached
to the skin. Maybe you’re okay with those little lapses in concentration, but I’m not.”
“Dad, I’m sorry, I—”
“Don’t apologize, son. There isn’t any need to. Besides, I’ve told you before—never apologize; it’s a
sign of weakness to apologize.”
“You can get that Eeyore sound out of your voice, too, son. Mine looked a lot worse than this the first
time I flayed hide. I got better with each time I flayed and so have you—and so will you. That old
‘practice makes perfect’ thing—it’s not wrong, not wrong at all.”
“Dad, when do you think I’ll be ready to go out on my own? Do my own hunt as a solo, handle all my
own processing and flaying—everything, start to finish, by myself?”
“Hard to say; I wasn’t all that much older than you are right now the first time I went out on a hunt on
my own. Problem was, my first solo hunt was more mistakes than successes. I tracked like a bull in a
china shop. I froze and almost didn’t take the kill shot because I couldn’t make up my mind about what
the wind would do to the shot and my processing looking like I never held a knife before. That’s not
going to be you. That’s why we’re here, that’s why you’re doing the bulk of the processing on this
“You really had that many problems?”
The older man nodded slowly before answering.
“That’s right—and there’s no need for you to repeat my mistakes, especially when I can teach you
better than I ever got taught.”
“Didn’t Gran-pop ever teach you? I always thought he did.”
A cloud passed over the father’s face for the briefest of moments. The cloud spoke of anger, buried
deep and long undisturbed; the voice spoke only of regret.
“No, son, I wasn’t that lucky. Your Gran-pop passed away six—was it six?—no, about eight months
before I ever went out on a hunt. He never got a chance to go out with me.”
The son turned to extend the original cut and replied, “Do you regret not going out on a hunt with
“Your Gran-pop wasn’t a big hunter.” The words were spoken tersely and matter-of-fact. With his
tone, he indicated that there was going to be no more discussion of Gran-pop or what-might-have-
been. The subject was dead, like the grandparent and would stay that way. As far as conversation
went, the father’s tone left no question. He wasn’t looking for a conversational reply, but a
conversational change of subject, something his son did almost automatically.
“Think we can get in another hunt before Christmas?”
“We probably could, but I was thinking you and I could go out on a hunt sometime during that week
between Christmas and New Year’s. And I’ll tell you what, on this one, I’m just there as a coach. You
run the hunt, from picking a target right through the processing, packing and putting it away. How’s
It was the son’s turn to have a cloud pass over his face. Unlike his father, when the son spoke, his
voice mirrored the concern that shown on his face.
“But everyone’s around then. Don’t you think there’s a good chance some guy is going to wander
through the area we’re hunting in?”
The old man grinned a little, showing the tips of off-white teeth as he did so.
“And as long as he doesn’t spook the kill, what’s the big deal?”
“I don’t know, I—”
“Look, I understand butterflies. Like I said, though, I’m going to be right there with you. We can go up
by Beartooth Pass, take the trails just past Lubec Point, the ones that sort of ring the State Park. They
should be relatively clear, even if it snows. The State-ies are pretty good about that. After that, just
look for a quiet, solitary spot, set up your tree stand, wait for your moment and take your mark. Easy
as pie and I’ll be there every step of the way beside you, to make sure you don’t have any of the
problems I had on my first solo hunt. Now let’s finish this up, get upstairs and get some food in us.
Make the next cut, okay?”
The son did as he was instructed, this time making an obvious commitment to maintaining the proper
angle on the blade. His work was slower, but smoother and more uniform from start to finish. He
paused to lift the knife from the meat and skin just twice during the cutting; both times were to look
for his father’s silent approval. The two silent, smiling head nods each time were enough to get him to
return to task with a smile on his face and a real sense of accomplishment.
That cut led to another, and that to what seemed to the son, to be countless more. It was over forty-
five minutes and two splattered rubber aprons later when the father and son finished their processing.
As the meat was flayed from the hide, his father took the sections of hide to the back of the cellar. He
hung them there because that section had screen in the windows and a steady breeze blew through
that room on even the stillest days, a critical part of the process as the hides dried.
As the larger cuts of meat were removed from the kill, the father placed them in several paint-flecked
five-gallon buckets that had been filled with a homemade brining solution and then tightly fastened lids
to the buckets. The brine was the father’s own recipe, perfected over time and through many trials and
not a few errors. The brine had the smell of the sea to it; for the gallons of water that were in each
bucket, there were pounds of salt, heavy handfuls of juniper berries and an array of spices, some
exotic, some not, that gave the brine its singular bouquet. The meat would spend a week brining in the
buckets, then be taken out, covered in kosher salt, and hung alongside the hides in the back of the
cellar to dry and cure in the late-autumn breezes.
When the last of the lids had been secured to the buckets and the last of the buckets had made their
way to the back of the cellar, the father and son looked around the room. They worked as neatly as
possible, but there was still cleanup to be done. The unfinished cement floor of the basement lent itself
to simply being sprayed clean; the drain near the sump made cleanup even more of a snap. Five
minutes after the son attached the hose to the laundry sink faucet, the floor was cleared of any residue
from their processing. Another minute or so of a steady jet of water down the drain caused the aging
sump pump to kick on and begin draining the sump. As he’d done a half-dozen times before, the boy
kept the hose running for another few minutes or so, remembering his father’s terrible joke on the
subject: “Offal in the sump today means awful smell in the sump by next week.”
The two of them surveyed the room. It was the father who finally pronounced judgment.
“Looks cleaned up to me. There’s some odds and ends we’ll still need to work on tomorrow, but I put
them in the chest freezer already. Shut off the light behind you, okay?”
The son nodded his assent and silently crossed the basement as his father ascended the stairs. When
he got to the light switch, he paused a moment, remembering the trophy he’d kept from that day’s kill.
He knew his father would have his neck if he ever found out, but the son wanted something to
remember the day’s hunt by. Turning his eyes towards the haphazardly hung fluorescents overhead,
he pulled out his reminder of their special day together. Sparkles of light, ephemeral as fireflies, danced
across his hand as he held the wedding ring up to the overhead fluorescents.