Skull Mount

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Clean-shot, it should have dropped. The deer
trailed blood thirty yards. My nephew tracked
his kill to the bank of the brown water-grave
of the swamp. With his dad hauled it home
in the bed of the Polaris. Eight points.
What struck me was how fast, how far from life
it had come. Congealed blood stuck like a fat tick
to the bottom lip, eyes dry as paper, nostrils still.
“Remember Walter? Used to be
I’d take him venison,” my brother, Scott,
is saying, “and he would clean our rifles.
Didn’t hunt, though—fished.”
And Robert, my nephew, as if on cue:
“What do you call a fish with no eyes?” His joke
since he was five. “Fssshhh,” he grins,
his boy’s head now atop a six-foot frame.

How had I never before looked?
Years on the farm. Brothers who hunted.
Why this Christmas, the one without our father?
A week’s gathering there in the house
where we grew up. Sasanquas, now roof-high,
laid fuchsia blankets over the brown grass.
Come night, Cold Moon. Full
frost-silvering moon of my girlhood.
Our father refused to hunt. But how he praised
my brothers’ kills—the mallard’s emerald head,
the turkey’s crimson wattle, the deer’s broad rack—
then put on jazz and turned up the volume.

Butchering done, beside the bone pit, Scott
goes at the spine with a hacksaw
beneath the skull. In the backyard,
water set to boil over propane. It takes all day
to scald away skin and flesh. A twisted wire
scrambles, hooks out the brain.
It takes a case of Bud Light, chain-smoked
Marlboros, a barrage of hunting stories,
around the steaming pot. Two more days
in a pan of bleach. One day to dry in the sun.
With a toothbrush, peroxide (Clairol, No. 40)
where bone meets bone. A bubbling.
I can’t get enough of looking.

Most days toward the end my brother
drove our father in the mud-splattered Polaris
down dirt roads alongside fields,
through timber and into the cypress swamps,
his life’s landscape. It never failed,
according to Scott—that fallen-in shack
where pasture met woods tricked time.
A boy again, our father, along with his father,
lays those pine floorboards for Walter,
our cowman who loved his horse, but never
a woman. On a salvaged pine slab
that knew our father’s hands and knees,
my brother mounts the skull. Hangs it
in the dated kitchen, against the wallpaper’s
floral mauve. Beside the cuckoo clock,
which nobody now troubles to wind.