By Paul Briggs
(This is the third story I wrote for the Eastern Shore Writers Association holiday meeting. This is the longer version.)
This happened near Christmas, the year I was nine.
The first thing you need to understand is that in school, I'd gotten into the habit of breaking up fights between other students. Among kids my age, I was thought of as almost like kind of a superhero, and… great power, great responsibility, you know the drill. Nobody ever tells a superhero to mind his or her own business. (Instead, they do something worse — they expect you to listen to them, work out who was at fault and settle the whole thing peaceably. It didn't take me long to understand why parents and teachers said stupid, amoral things like "I don't care who started it!")
The second thing you need to understand is that my father was and is an avid deer hunter. (This was a good thing — a growing giant needs a lot of protein.) He never failed to bring home at least one deer every year. He wanted to teach Jody and me how to hunt, but Jody had zero interest in learning and by the time I was old enough I had a little trouble with stealth.
Anyway, the state deer seasons (a regular season before Thanksgiving and an antlerless-only season in early December) were two of Dad's personal holidays. First, he'd go down to the basement to prepare the secret Harris Family Marinade, of which the two main ingredients were Milwaukee's Best and Richard's Wild Irish Rose. (The red wine, not the white. If you used the white wine, the marinade would be completely ruined, I'm sure.) There were other ingredients, which I'm sworn to secrecy about, but the ones you could smell were salt, vinegar and frozen limeade. Just imagine the smell of the worst margarita in history and you won't be too far off. Dad would mix up literally gallons of this stuff down there, in three big plastic tubs with lids that never quite managed to contain the odor. Then off he'd go to get his deer.
When Dad brought it home, it was usually already beheaded, skinned, dressed out and wrapped in plastic. (Later on, I'd have a use for the buckskin, making my own gloves and shoes and such.) The heart, liver, kidneys and whatever other parts he wanted were in separate bags. All we had to do was disassemble the carcass, trim away the bits of connective tissue and put as much of the meat as we could in the marinade to soak for a few days. The rest went into the basement freezer.
Dad could cook, when he put his mind to it. The first meal after every kill was the one I thought of as the Feast of the Parts that Won't Keep. Liver and onions, pan-seared sweetbreads and charbroiled kidney were three of the main dishes. Dad and I both loved all this stuff. (Well, okay, maybe I didn't exactly love the kidney — but after I'd eaten it, everything else tasted so much better.) Mom was willing to eat the liver and onions, and maybe take a little taste of the sweetbreads. Not Jody — she was the opposite of me where food was concerned. If you tried to give her something she'd never had before, she'd give you this look that said Nice try — now where's the real food? On this night, the only thing she'd eat was the instant mashed potatoes with gravy, and she wouldn't even have eaten that if she'd known what was in the gravy.
After that, every meal was accompanied by venison stew or venison steaks. At Thanksgiving, venison ribs were served alongside the turkey. (And if Dad hadn't succeeded in getting a deer, Mom bought some extra drumsticks and thighs. What can I say? I needed the protein.)
Usually the venison was all eaten up by the end of the year. I would help Dad saw the bones into six-inch lengths to fit in the pot, and we'd have a six-month supply of broth to freeze. Once that was done, we got rid of the marinade. This was important.
You see, the basement was also where we did the laundry. By "we" I mean "me" — my mother had a 9-to-5 job, and my father… um… anyway, I generally did the laundry. I liked this job. It made me feel very grown-up, and I didn't mind the smell of the marinade at all. In fact, I'd gotten to kind of like it too.
Mom was a different story. She wouldn't go down in the basement at all this time of year. Whenever she could, she'd take her own clothes to the Laundromat, along with as much of ours as she could carry, rather than let me take them downstairs to soak in the aroma. She'd even complain when the smell got in my hair. The winter before, she'd gone completely nuts and I'd had to physically block her from pouring all that marinade down the sink before Dad even got home. I solved the problem then by putting the tubs in the backyard — and Dad only got one little spiked buck that year, so that was okay.
But this was the year Dad brought down the champion of champions — a huge old grandfather of a buck, 418 pounds with 18-point antlers, shot through the neck. Dad and his friends had hunted this noble beast for a decade, and here it was, conquered at last. He didn't usually hunt for trophies, but this year he had the head stuffed and hung in the basement in honor of this worthy adversary.
Dad and I had to cut up the carcass smaller than usual to fit all the meat into the freezer and the tubs — and even then, he needed to mix up an extra tub of marinade. Anyway, this venison needed all the soaking it could get — as you can probably imagine, it was not tender. Jody had a lot to say about the quality of the meat.
We weren't more than halfway through eating the King of the Woods before the antlerless season came, and Dad brought back a doe, which was much smaller, but younger and tastier. Mom was counting down the days when the last of the venison was eaten and that damned marinade could all go down the drain.
And then… one night, a few days before Christmas, the Lord delivered a big, fat doe into Dad's hands — or at least, into his truck. It just strolled across the road, completely oblivious to this big noisy thing with all the lights on it that was headed right for it. It was too late to hit the brakes, and Dad, of course, knew better than to try and swerve. Fortunately, the truck wasn't damaged beyond repair. The authorities looked the other way while Dad took the deer home.
I'd never had to help skin or field-dress the carcass. I have to admit it was a lot smellier and messier than I would have imagined… but at this point, I had a reputation as a tomboy to keep up. Also, it seemed like the doe was giving me this dirty look.
But that wasn't the bad part. The bad part was when Mom came downstairs and complained that now the basement smelled worse than ever. Dad offered to take everything out into the backyard and finish the job there, but Mom didn't want the neighbors to see any of this. At this point, Dad said, "What, are you ashamed of me? Come out and say it — are you ashamed of me?"
And it was on. My parents had argued before, but it had never been this bad. They went into how tired she was of being the only one in the house earning any money, how he wished she would take more of an interest in the girls, how he wasn't doing anything with his life, how at least he had a life, how her parents had tried to warn her he was white trash and here she was in this stupid little town in a house that stank of bad beer and worse wine and now he was bringing in roadkill for food… they hit all the old sore points and discovered a few new ones. Then they started bringing each other's parents into it.
It sounds funny when I describe it now, but to a nine-year-old girl it was like an earthquake. Here were the two people I trusted and depended on more than anything else in the world, and they were fighting each other… and it was almost Christmas.
Finally I decided enough was enough. I stepped in between them, shoved them apart with my elbows and shouted "STOP FIGHTING!" at the top of my lungs. (And my lungs have always had a very high top.)
Now at this point I was 5'11" and weighed 180 pounds, which was three inches and thirty pounds more than Dad, never mind my little mommy. And, just like that, the fighting stopped.
I didn't see the looks on their faces, so I didn't find out until some years later that I'd just scared the bejesus out of both of them. All I knew was that after that, the holiday went peacefully. Mom and Dad both gave chunks of venison to every friend, relative and co-worker who was willing to accept them, so we got everything but the soup bones out of the basement by mid-January.
I thought at the time I'd done some good. I didn't realize, at that point, that they'd both decided to suppress their mutual hostilities until I was out of the house.I wear my shame like a crown: