Pray by Anthony Lee Hamilton

Bill has been eating varmints for as long as I’ve known him. When he first moved in, he brought, along with the rest of the food from his last space, a Ziploc bag of frozen groundhog stew.

            “He’d been digging up all my root vegetables,” Bill explained, dumping the frozen stuff into a cast iron skillet on the stove. “So I caught him in a noose I made from a guitar string.”

            It had been three years since I’d last eaten meat.

            “I didn’t want to kill him,” Bill said. “I was happy eating beets and stuff. But he kept eating from my garden and now he’s dead. This is part of the natural cycle of things.”

            “But you didn’t have to cook him,” I said, leaning against the fridge.

            “I was feeding him from my garden.” Bill pushed the icy mass around in the skillet with a wooden spoon. “And now he’s feeding me.”

            Bill said he saw a certain kind of love in this relationship— a profound, eternal love— the spilling of energy from one body to the next, unifying the universe. And I had to admit: this was not the violent savagery I’d come to associate with carnivores, and with hunters in particular; Bill practiced a deep reverence for the natural order of life and death. Made it a beautiful thing. And so, when it was warm, I tasted the stew.

            Take; eat; this is my body. Do this is remembrance of me.

            By the time the leaves started to change, Bill and I had gotten into the practice of bringing home road-kill to clean and save for our meals. In our house, unfortunate critters— squirrels mostly— were given second chances to participate in the great lineage of life, after theirs were brought to abrupt and senseless ends by careless drivers.

            I was grateful for it, really. After years of being squeamishly vegetarian, able only ever to abstain from a meat industry that I saw in gross terms, I could now participate in actively honoring the sanctity of animals’ lives. When I would kneel by the side of the road, bowing my head in short prayer over an innocent creature that would soon become a part of me, I delighted in conscientiously rejecting the brutal practices of factory farming. I was also quite sure that, if I didn’t take it, the members of the Highway Department would only ever go as far as tossing the body of the poor animal over the guardrail and into a ditch.

            So when I hit a deer on my way home from work at the bar one night in late October, I was naturally rattled, but I knew what to do. I took the obligatory moment of silence before hoisting the animal by its rear legs up into the trunk of my hatchback.

            When I got home, Bill helped me unload the deer, and we brought it into the basement to be dressed and quartered. We worked slowly, taking the time to study the anatomy of the large animal as we pulled the skin back. Bill attentively sliced around areas where the meat may have been tainted by the rupture of an internal organ, and he occasionally stopped to explain certain parts of the musculature of the deer to me, and by the time we had wrapped the meat, and washed our tools, and rinsed the blood from the slop-sink, the sun was coming up through the trees outside.

            I woke very late the next day, and though I knew I would have to replace my radiator fan before I could drive my car again, I smiled, knowing that we now had plenty of meat in our freezer for the long winter ahead.

            Bill helped me change the fan in the afternoon, and that night, after we’d washed up, we shared our first of many venison meals. Before we ate, we sat down at the dinner table and said a prayer of gratitude, thanking the universe, and the deer, and each other, and many other things that had come into our lives; knowing underneath it all, that it was all one.

            Each night we conducted this ritual, and we experimented with various recipes. Briskets and roasts, we tried. And we tried soups and stews and pies and sausages. And each night, even when we were disappointed at the results, we would say our prayer of gratitude, and we would eat every last bite of that sacred flesh. And this went on all through the fall.

            It wasn’t until the First of December that we finally took the last package of venison from the chest freezer in the basement. Whether because we had gotten complacent in our bountifulness, or because the animals had all quieted down for the winter, neither of us had found any road-kill since the deer (except for once, when Bill brought home a rabbit, whose head had been flattened, and who we had gotten only one good dinner from, after roasting whole with carrots and potatoes). So with the last package of venison thawing on the counter, we both knew our age of luxuriance was coming to an end. “Presumably, fewer animals are dying,” I said.

            “Or they are, but not where we can find them,” Bill said.

            We were shrewd with our last package of venison, and we were careful to eat lots of vegetables, with only small portions of meat each night, but on the night of the Twenty-First, it finally ran out. We washed our dishes in silence, then we both went straight to our beds, without even sharing our usual glass of after-dinner wine.

            I slept deeply that night. It was the longest night of the year, but when I woke up, the sun was already lighting upon my bedroom wall. The air in the room was sharp and cold— cold enough that my breath fogged in the air. I pulled on my coat and went downstairs, where Bill was boiling water for tea. He poured two cups, and we took them out to the porch.

            The sky was grey and flat, so that the dark limbs of the trees stood out like cracks in polished glass. Any movement in the branches rang out, clear as a gunshot, and Bill and I would both catch our breath in our throats, and dart sharp glances toward the source of the sound. Then we would watch a small chickadee hop along, clutching some small twig or leaf in its tiny beak, and our breath would return and our shoulders would relax back.

            On Christmas Eve, we roasted a large squash and some yams with onions, and the following day, we made a soup from the leftovers. We bought a gallon of wine and a pumpkin pie, and by indulging ourselves in these, we were able to quell our carnal appetites a bit.

            For the rest of the week, we were happy to eat pie and get drunk each afternoon when the sun went down. In the mornings, we would take our tea outside to blearily watch the icicles forming on the eaves of our house and on the large, low branches of the trees in the yard.

            On New Years Eve, I was working at the bar, and Bill surprised me by meeting me there when my shift ended at midnight. We rarely saw each other outside of the house, but I wrapped my arms around him and turned to Jack, the bartender. “This is my roommate,” I said. “Let’s get a couple of pints.” And Jack nodded and poured us each a drink, on the house.

            When we had finished our first round, Bill bought us both another, and since I hadn’t paid for our first round, I bought the third.

            When it was time to go, we decided we would ride together in Bill’s truck, since it had been flurrying since around one. “But you have to drive,” Bill said. “I’m no good.”

            We both laughed and we thanked Jack and went outside. Bill waited, half-asleep in the passenger seat while the truck warmed up and I cleared the snow from the windows.

            I didn’t feel very drunk, and I knew the three-mile drive well, from having done it every weekend for several years now, but the night was dark, and big tufts of snow threw the light from the truck back into my eyes. I leaned forward as I drove, careful to keep the old truck moving slowly down the middle of the road.

            The fresh snow crunched steadily beneath the tires, and when the truck bounced sharply, Bill spoke through his sleep. “You hit something?”

            “Just some packed ice,” I said.

            “That didn’t feel like ice,” Bill said, and opened his eyes.

            I brought the truck to a stop in the middle of the road and we both got out. Along the side of the road, about a hundred feet from the truck, we saw the body— a dark mass fallen atop the smooth surface of snow.

            Bill and I made our way toward it, and saw when we approached, that it was a man. He wore a backpack and jeans and a black hooded jacket— too light for the weather. Out here, if we hadn’t killed him, the cold might have soon gotten to him anyway.

            Bill and I knelt beside the man and turned him over. His eyes were open and dark and innocent. We bowed our heads in prayer.

Anthony Lee Hamilton is an emerging writer and recent graduate from the State University of New York at New Paltz. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The OPEN Journal of Arts & Letters, Stonesthrow Review, the Decadent Review, the Texas Poetry Calendar, and Poetry South. When not reading or writing, he spends his time hiking alone or playing music with his wife and friends.

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