A spikehorn in the woods

Sinuous patterns found in the satellite maps...fractals of human behavior. Highland Clearances, Irish Famine (or Holocaust, if you see the shipping records)...drifting detritus of old world hurts, finding their generational psychosis not well suited to the new towns, etching into the hills like their ancestors have all along. It starts with one hardy pioneer, happy enough with a seasonal trail that gets worn so much, the less hardy can follow later. Piercing, clinging inroads, like ironwood roots clinging to exposed bedrock of a washout, they enter the notches, in scouring hunger for scarce nutrients on rocky soil, searching for fulfillment in a world of dread and pain. How does generational trauma inform us all? Are we not all terrified primates flushed from the forests by necessity, and after a brief interlude in cosmic time, flushed from demographic hills back into the demographic valleys? The tides deposit and pull in the same way. I’m walking these woods today, thinking about why I’m here, in a deep-time sense. To be here is to not be in infinity-minus-one places, after all.

 

I came upon the body of a spikehorn, northwest of the white pine, north of the maple-oak. The heart of the white birch complex, but where the beech of the east are making their inroads. The genetically-doomed shallow-rooted white birches are tripping over themselves in their played-and-playing-out way. A scene of death and struggle if I’ve ever seen one. The limbs were twisted in all ways, tendons torn, tending no longer to their duties, both birch and spikehorn. The lower portions, scant with meat, uneaten...I guess the coyotes are doing well now, too proud to choke through the fur for that little bit. The spikehorn’s antlers were rather long for being spikes- nearly ten inches. I try to think what genetics, or micronutrient lack, created that. Enough horn material to be a four-to-six pointer, but they were two deep spikes. I don't know how that works though, so it’s all conjecture, maybe it's normal. No matter, for here was the end of this line. The neck muscles had been eaten right up til the skull, too hard to crack for the contents. His eyes, frozen by the weather since whatever killed him weeks ago, didn’t have the look of terror in them, as far as I can see. I find the broken arrow shaft still piercing the remaining hide, self-curing in a way, in winter sun. In fact most of the hide is gone, probably hauled by some coyotes who needed to eat their troublesome pieces away from the others- it takes a while to wrest flesh off a hide, my tanning friends say. Canine teeth not ideal for a straight-blade’s work.

No terror in his eyes...like the arrow shot sent him reeling in fear, the arrow never severed anything critical enough to take him down in the first fifty yards as a hunter may hope. But it was still enough, to end his time...and in his end this spikehorn must have been resigned, like the initial fear went away after an adrenaline surge, and it was his fate to bleed slowly or freeze to death when his body heat couldn’t fight the encroaching night. No death-thrashes or throes on the ground, it looks more like he settled down to the inevitable, and in the first night or next, the coyotes found him. I lied when I spoke of all the limbs all twisted- I now found that after counting the bones proper, both back legs are missing. Just gone. The front two were so twisted about and unhinged that I’d thought maybe it was all there. A deer poacher would know to take the back legs- best quantity and quality of meat, when you’re short on time and tags. Now I’m not sure if coyotes got to him first...the loss of the entirety of the back legs seems a bit surgical. But their jaws can crack and twist, so it’s not off the realm of possibilities. The coyotes are amateur economists, too- they could have hauled them off as an easy first prize.

I decide, on a second walk, that I want the antlers. Some primitive firing in my primate mind says I want them. For a project, as it were. Knife-handles, talismans, who knows. Are we not all projects ourselves, with subprojects within. I approach the carcass for this second day, and now not surprised by it, I approach it like the door of an old friend, with some respect, and some desire to reunite with this soul I connect with. I kneel and set my backpack down, and I start what amounts to a prayer, though no god is there to hear it, just the spikehorn in the woods.

“Brother, we were born of the same soil. The same rocks that leech their calcium and phosphorous to mineralize the soil, were stitched into your bones I see here now. They are the same stones that feed my field and crops and that my bones are stitched from. The same nitrogen of the plant matter stitched your muscles and veins together. The same mountain streams that I drink from, you drank from. We are brothers if ever there is such a thing. I honor your life, I honor your struggle to survive on this hill, as I’m doing just the same. What I am about to do with your remains is not a form of disrespect...I will leave everything I can, but I’m going to take your antlers.”

I pulled the hatchet out of my pack and aimed for the base of the antlers connecting to the skull. I’ve never done it before, certainly not a habit of mine, so I used the muscle memory of what I’d do and where I’d go if it was a branch of living hardwood. Somehow, the water content (remaining blood, soft and semisoft tissue) of the base, where the sinuous meets the near-lifeless horn material, is closer to fresh ironwood than to bone. Instead of cracking dry calcium-phosphorous matrices, it felt in the moment just like severing a branch of living ironwood on a twenty degree day. I guess I knew intellectually that horn is different from bone but it’s the first time I feel the reverberation through the sinews and bones of my own forearm and understand it. A few chops later, they’re both off, and I look for a brief moment with pity at the skull, like I’d denuded him of one of his last sources of pride. I then remember that if I hadn’t been there (in my hubris) to “say a few words” at his mini funeral, he’d have little to no renown amongst the speaking beasts of the world, or even his less articulate friends for that matter. So maybe the two acts were balanced. Maybe taking the horns was selfish, but do my words to him cover this sin? I then remember that no child of my home wants pity. If we’re from the same mountain, he doesn’t need my pity, nor my words, for that matter. We’re taught to scorn it...hate it, reject it. I stop pitying him for his lost horns...as if they could make the being he was. No, his value was far beyond that and I dishonor him to think anything otherwise. The other life forms all have taken, or will take their share of his remains, I’m okay to take a small part if it maybe can serve a higher end.

The spirit in which a thing is done is what most religions say matter. I loved him as a brother, though meeting him just twice where he died. Twice as far as I know for sure, as I’ve watched fawns, in evening light, as I sat on a chair at the edge of my garlic field to rest before walking home. Maybe he was one of those ridiculous fawns stepping out of the goldenrod, clearly not yet wary that the local primates shouldn’t be trusted. The mother watched from the shady locust grove and would see me flinch and know to move off, just in case I was a violent one. Maybe he was one of those that twitched their tail and looked up if I coughed, and went back to idly experimenting with the amaranth, the lamb’s quarters, or others, while still on his mother’s milk in the springtime of the year.

So, I left the rest of him there. It seems some Christian habit to want to bury a thing- a guilt complex, maybe? The arrow shaft belies a hunter who wounded him and seemingly failed to recover him before the coyotes could. I feel a pang of guilt that it was a co-member of my species who killed him and didn’t honor him by taking the flesh off him. Even if they hauled off the hind legs, there were no knife marks for the tenderloin strip- a lazy or truly rushed hunter, or no hunter, seems the answer. So part of me thinks of a burial, in a brief flash. Just like we bury so much we remotely feel connected to or party of. But I know his bones have more to feed...crows and ravens will get down to particulars when February and March is heavy on them, even if the coyotes don’t. I think for some child of the mountain like this, resting on top of the leaf mold of mixed birch and beech must be the most restful thing he could ask for. The parts in closest contact will become cleanest, soonest, from all the microbial life, and the high arcing summer sun will pierce the canopy and bleach the bones in time...UV radiation denuding the more colorful molecules just like the fading of your flannel shirt left on the woodpile by accident. Shady or moist parts will get moss on them for a bit- I don't know what the moss feeds off of most, but it must be the same thing they get off the stone. Next leaf-fall or leaf-drift will cover the lowest portions of the bones and the mycorrhizae of the forest floor will mine it hard like a newly exposed strip mine and share the excess with the lackadaisical hardwood shoots that no longer bother to evolve more filamental roots now. The most sunward calcium and phosphorus of the bones will look more like our native milk white quartz, that many of the local primates gather for their garden borders and tops of their stone walls, or the less sunward will be like our tumbled light gray metamorphics borne by the glaciers that tore through here. Our native bedrock is more flaky and not the true mother of the rounded surface-litter stones that are intermingled with the thin biofilm that is our topsoil. After winter the hide will thaw and stink for a bit- sulfur molecules released from their bonding roles and sent adrift. Nitrogen-rich molecules, ammonia-like, will be a part of the smell too. I can’t speak for other species but I think mine evolved to fear sulfur for a clear reason- it’s the linking molecule for ever more complex hydrocarbon chains. Free sulfur is a bad sign for a blob of complex hydrocarbons- it often means someone of your cohort is denaturing nearby. A very reliable entropic signal for your personal section of the periodic table if there ever was one. The roots of the beech will restitch it all together though, for a beechnut crop that will push the next generation. I, maybe, will even find a beechnut before the deer or bear or turkey or squirrels do (Manhattan has its overbooked restaurants, but they pale in comparison to a beech grove), and I’ll have something of his life force in me. We can’t let guilt dictate our next behaviors, for all is as it should be, so I do nothing else with the remains.

I took a picture, the amateur scientist in me, but it won't be shared. Plenty of beings will find him in his repose, but they've earned the view, surviving on the hill, and in the surviving, will know to respect it and honor it as they pass by.




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