The woods stopped being an enchanted place where the sound of animals scurrying through undiscovered territory felt light and natural. Sunlight blocked, trees strangling the brassy tones into a steel-tinged umber. A fluorescence coated every surface, something we’d walked into, a transition from scene to setting. Maybe it was the deer that brought this change––maybe it was something else. Limp and drained, the deer’s face was a shocked mask of deadness. Blood spumed out its crooked mouth like seafoam on the surf of a slaughterhouse floor.
I was a boy out hunting with his dad and uncle in the humid forests near the Gulf. Water alive with the exhalations of hidden gators, trees swaying with the weight of varmints. And the deer.
My uncle wrangled one off the four-wheeler, grunting from somewhere deep inside his rock-biting interior. The deer’s flesh slammed onto the ground, resonating up my legs. My dad stood behind me, his hands on my shoulder.
My uncle hunched down, pulled a six-foot knife from his pack. He looked back at me, a hideously hydrocephalic troll guarding its last desperate meal. His eyes rang like a hollow bell, inside them the history of Hell experienced on battlefields in tropical forests against unseen foreign boys. Fire gurgled from this deep place, ran the engine inside his hunter heart.
He said, “Come closer. Watch. This is how you do it.”
I shook my head. My dad gripped my shoulders tighter.
Before I could turn away, my uncle plunged the saw-toothed knife deep into the deer’s still-warm chest. Steam erupted like a hot pan under cold water. He jerked the knife down the deer’s chest and stomach. Not a surgeon’s incisions, but a demon’s jagged strike to kill the last victim before the end credits. The deer’s innards hissed and popped, tires over gravel. Hearty, long farting noises vibrated out of the messy slit my uncle carved in the deer’s skin. A charred-crimson mist refracting rainbow light rose from the cavity in the deer’s body, snaking its way up to my uncle’s nostrils. He breathed it in, dilating every cell in his body.
He said, “All the way to the asshole.”
And with a final tug, he ripped the knife through the asshole. Still-throbbing guts spilled out like groceries from a weak shopping bag. The innards were marbled with a white-pink oil that pulsed in time with my heartbeat.
My dad’s grip on my shoulders loosened. He turned away. I couldn’t.
My uncle plunged his hand into the cavity, sliding elbow deep, digging around with the sloppy, silly attitude of a drunk sailor. He smiled and yanked his hand out with a clothy rip. In his hand: the deer’s twitching heart. His gaping maw of a trash compactor mouth stretched open, jagged yellow teeth like crumbling tombstones stamped in his purple gums. And like a starved and stark-mad animal, he took a tearing bite out of the deer’s heart. Before chewing, another bite. A mouth full of bloody, tough flesh. Chewing, gnashing. Tendinous goo oozed down his chin.
From around the chewed up heart, he said, “Normalize killing your enemy.”
I turned to look back at my dad, but all I saw was his cowardly fleeting feet, his hunched back. Over the sound of my uncle’s smacking lips, I could hear my dad’s fearful, infantile breaths.
My uncle saw this and jumped up. His face pinched inward, eyes casting red rays that targeted my dad. He screamed, “Cowards will be punished and cleansed in blood.”
The rifle was in his hands, materialized by his surge of atavistic rage. Rooted out from his flesh like a tumorous appendage. The barrel focused on my fleeing father.
This is where the film skips, where the missing footage was spliced together with the footage still coded in my brain data.
The deer was no longer there. Maybe never was. In its place—in the stain of blood seeping into layers of fallen pine needles and loose sour dirt—was my dad’s body. My uncle tugged at the final remains of skin still clinging to the sinew and gristle and muscle of my dad’s body. The head a rotten pumpkin deflated under the rot of time, blown out. The white-pink oil coated the muscular flesh and fat that looked more like spread butter than body insulation. A whisper, carried by the fluorescences, by the oil, seeped into my brain. A scream of both the deer and my dad, of all the voices of those killed at the hands of my uncle––who tugged the remaining skin off my dad’s body with a primal grunt.
The skin whipped like clothes freshly wet from the washer. He swung my father’s husk around his head, flinging crimson, iron-smelling blood over the trees, the dirt, and me. He screamed, laughed. And his eyes targeted mine, his stare piercing my soul with a toxic heat. The skin flung back, wrapped around my uncle’s back. A shawl, a trophy. The footage skips again, spliced to reject the moments I cannot find in the cutting room floor of the mind.
Light fallen, the fluorescence oozing through the air, a grounded aurora giving everything a radiated glow. A bonfire roared, flames licking trunks, forming the faces of demons on the other side of some thin layer of reality, burning through this world, opening a portal, letting more of the fluorescence through. My uncle danced around the fire, naked but for my dad’s skin draped around him. Where my uncle’s bouncy, limp penis should’ve been was a gaping, oozing wound. He chewed on a handful of my dad’s teeth as he howled, his hollow eyes never severing their attachment to my soul, now eternally trapped in the void.
I looked into the abysmal dark outside the reach of the fire’s hellish glow. The fluorescence throbbed, oil slithering slickly on water’s surface. And on the other side, anything better than right here––if there was an other side. Maybe this is all there is. Maybe I live now in that place on the other side of the fire. Maybe there is no escape. Never was.