the opened heart
The doe hadn't been dead long when I found her. It was late, and she was so warm and recently alive that between the darkness of the roadside and the flopping flexibility of her weight, at least two thirds of my own, getting her into the back of my truck was a visceral, bodily ordeal.
To process meat requires intimacy, considerable mess and a necessary acceptance of one's own mortality. With this deer especially, there was a keen immediacy to the situation. She'd been badly hit, and because of the degree of her injury, if I'd found her within the usual several-hour safety margin for cleanly hit roadkill, the meat would have been already tainted. Her gutting, unlike the butchery, couldn't wait for morning. So a little after midnight I had her open on my deck, looking like something from a horror novel. The innards were a hot, scarlet, liquid pool that I finally just poured out, trying to allow as little of it as possible to touch the meat. Most of the ribcage organs came out in pieces with it, and in a certain desperation to finish the whole ordeal, I reached in, felt around, and just pulled out anything still attached. The interior of her body was almost as warm as it would have been in life. I was all over blood, its color so red that in a movie it would spoil the illusion of reality.
In this way I found myself standing in the quiet of earliest morning with the doe's heart, still warm with its function, alive-feeling, cradled in the two of my hands. It was a beautiful thing, muscular and slippery and tough, pink and white and vivid red. Emotions came up in me then, the brain connecting recent pain to symbol and the exquisite shining viscerality in my hand. It's a cultural thing that we make the heart mean what we do, but there is a reason the organ took or was given its symbolic power. To hold it in your hands is to feel this, to understand why.
So I let that moment be what it was, let the emotions flow, all the sorrow for my life as it was and the violent death of this beautiful animal, the excitement of warm meat, the vertigo of major changes, the sheer exultation of being awake and outside and yes, still alive, still! in the middle of the night. I let them pool and wash around me like blood, and they left me clean.
time measured in the lifespan of a dog
I fed the doe's heart to Fenris, my oldest wolfdog. She was very excited about this. I didn't know then that she had less than two more weeks to live, or that I would have to make that decision. Ultimately, it was her hips and back, not her heart, that failed her.
I was 18 when I got her as a puppy, 32 the year she passed. Am I the same person I was then? If so, then certainly only in some ways. Life is a continuum of growing new pieces of yourself and losing old ones, sometimes so gently you hardly notice, sometimes cleaving away in chunks which leave great and bleeding wounds. Fenris certainly informed who I was, how I lived, what I did. Her arrival and her loss in turn precipitated and ended a discrete chapter of my life, and coincided with other events which brought similar beginnings and closure. There were other life phases, other important cycles that happened to me within that time, of course, but I realized as I took her body home that things never really would be the same, that when I remember the last fourteen years of my life, my years of youngest adulthood, Fenris' memory will trot around them on graceful, phantom paws.
Things have lifespans. Animals, loves, obsessions, bodies, creative phases, relationships. They are imbued with birth, youth, contentment, senescence, death, transformation, the old symbolic patterns woven through them. There are worse ways, I think, by which I could measure the living of my life than by that of the animal who shared it with me.
walking in the woods in September
It's warm. I can't feel Autumn in the air yet, but the Equinox is two weeks away, and anticipation is there. The maples have begun to turn, just barely, their wide green leaves gone lemon yellow. The woods are full of tanoaks which have been dying of disease for the last three years and are now beginning to fall; the winter rains should bring many of them down. I notice as well the ones that have been spared, the new growth. Young leaves are velvety, soft, while the older ones are tough, shiny green. The phage on this tree has deadened only the edges of it. It ought to live.
The small reservoir which is usually the destination of these hikes is full of bullfrogs, far more than I remember from other years. They're delightfully fun, sitting hidden in the weeds, brown and green with tender, ever-pulsing white throats and eyes of metallic copper. Their camouflage is ideal; I could be watching one for several minutes and only when it moved see the three others behind it.
I can't resist trying to catch them. As I strip down and move as quietly as I can into the pond, they hop away from me with great splashes, trilling like alarmed birds. The water feels delicious; it's still early morning, and though today will be hot, the cold black water has not had a chance to warm from evening. It's almost painful at first, before I adjust. Then, there is only bliss.
I can't seem to catch a frog; the shallow part of the pond drops away abruptly, leaving me with little purchase. Where it is shallow enough, I can't get my hands under the amphibians, or I'm too hesitant. Several times, soft frog skin sleeks away wonderfully beneath my hand. The tiny fish are easy to catch, just bring your cupped palms under them slowly and watch them swim about, beautiful and nearly translucent. The frogs would need nets, or just better technique, but it doesn't really matter since catching them isn't really the point. If I'm still, I can watch them for a long time, thrill at the thought of holding something so perfect and wild briefly in my hand, my eyes.
When I brought Fenris back from the vet, I let her two grown children out of their kennel to see the body, to understand what had happened. The moment shared between them reminded me a little of how my two adult cats behaved when I brought the kitten home and let them see her through the carrier. It was a moment of intense interest, and then looks shared between them that I can only think of as communicative. Something momentous has happened in our lives, something huge and unexpected and out of our control. I see it, do you? Good.
Pryderi and Jezebel understood the enormity of what had happened immediately. Their curved tails went straight down as they sniffed the body, moved her head around with their long muzzles. Pryde approached first; Jez was hesitant, wouldn't go up to her until he had been with her for a few moments. Pryde looked back at me, that clear eye contact that wolfdogs sometimes do and purely domestic ones generally don't, and made a tiny sound. I stood with them, silent, trying to give them what support I could, and scratched Pryde's ruff.
They were done in a few minutes, and trotted away together back to the kennel at almost the same time: again, that wordless communication. Tails were up again, and they were ready to walk in good cheer. Animals are so pragmatic, though I think it a grave mistake to assume that their mourning lacks subtlety and stages. I've since caught the two of them sleeping curled together, which generally they don't, and both have been eating less since Fenris died. I wonder if her absence on our walks startles them as much as it does me.
The kitten is growing quickly, but she's still small, a tiny blaze of hyperactive, destructive, adorably pouncing energy. Of course, I'm aware that I just adopted the death of an old cat a decade or so down the line. I'll be older then, closer to my own death, too.
I don't believe that the reality of finitude should prevent us from loving. Still, that emotion, so difficult to even define and identify, is both sweet and cutting. Such a thing bears contemplation. A measure at least as accurate as the life of a dog, what and who and how we love defines phases in our lives, splashes our tapestries with vivid red.
And I think about the heart again. Such a tough organ. The symbolic heart is less so, but I believe that it is strengthened as much as it is torn by its breaking. Love, in my experience, doesn't end: it may change and evolve, and it often outlives a relationship, a circumstance, a life. Is it not, after all, a wound to begin with, in the sense that it irreparably alters that which experiences it? Love marks. It bleeds us. It leaves beautiful scars.