The Circumventing of the Elk Stew
Matthew Gavin Frank
At its nostrils, three grasshoppers find their way inside, make interstates of the carcass, take the plant dust into their mandibles. They will survive today. They prove this by leaping from the elk’s head.
With his shirt open, Uncle dices carrot, celery, onion, rutabaga. And Uncle sings to himself:
Glory of the West
Of all the states from coast to coast,
You’re easily the best.
Where skies are always blue,
Montana, I love you…
as he whips potatoes with butter and cream, trims the diced elk with a razor blade. He sings of roads both open and opened-up, of the cars that do the unzipping, of giant blue skies as he takes up a fistful of the silverskin and the fascia, and to you, it looks as if he’s holding in his hand a collection of eyelids, and the ceiling fan churns his shirt wider open and you see the scar fanned over his chest like a willow, like an antler, like the sung-about expansive road-Glory of the West, as he foot-pedals the trash can open, empties his hand of the tissue, says nothing of heartbeat, of bypasses, of shoulders, of living-off-the-land, just picks up a wooden spoon, stirs the glaze from the carrots, and says, Boy. Fuck that song.
You think of valves, chambers cooked until they’re soft enough to gum. You want to lend heart to all surgery, butchery, inroads. You want to call this sort of procedure, bypassion, though you know that’s not a word.
You know: the lodgepole pine is a tall, slender tree. In Kalispell, they call it the elk leg.
Uncle relights the burner after Montana blows out the flame. He prays for the wildfire to flush the elk from the woods, to make paths, to heat up the cones of the lodgepole until they loosen their fists, burst open, reseed the yard, and the cemetery beyond it.
After three whiskeys, and an over-salted elk stew, Uncle can’t tell if that’s a lodgepole or a ponderosa, an avenue, or a lane. He says nothing of fresh peas (which he forgot to add tonight to the stew), or the strength of the stock, made from the bones of last season’s elk. He scratches at his chest, remembers too late to be careful.
In all of this blood, it’s tough to tell: which the surgery and which the butchery? Which the asphalt and which the scab? If each sustains us, does it matter?
The ponderosa pine distinguishes itself from other species by its bark—a cinnamon-brown or orange-yellow, which breaks, from older trees, into flat, irregular plates. According to Montana State University’s Trees and Shrubs in Montana, the piles of broken bark often found at the bases of the ponderosas, have earned the species the nickname, The Jigsaw Puzzle Tree.
The mission of the jigsaw is to cut arbitrary curves. Into last years’ pelts, with a monogrammed jigsaw, Uncle stenciled his initials, the same abbreviation as the state. It’s important to him to claim ownership, to keep his name sewn into things, to keep his things sewn up inside him. Now, from the inside, he beats irregularly, traces his name over his scar with his pinky. This is also a sort of branding, a revision. Road work. He imagines an M drawn over his chest, the letter that sustains the humming.
You watch his hand dance over his torso as if stirring the steam from the stew. Outside, the tiny sun folds into the fat hip of the sky. These are also arbitrary curves.
Uncle, after three whiskeys and stew, can’t tell which headstone belongs to his wife, which to his mother. But he knows: only 22% of the energy he derives from the elk meat comes from fat. “Compare that,” he says, pledging allegiance, “to 35% for beef. And all that goddamn phosphorous, and iron out the ass.” He continues muttering to himself, his voice made smaller by the fact that he keeps repeating “milligrams, milligrams.”
You stare out the back window, watch the elk thread the cemetery. The earth is buck-toothed with the headstones, and Uncle pours his fourth whiskey, pinches a piece of shin-meat from the cooling stew. Twenty-two miles from here, off the U.S. 93, four cars with out-of-state plates laze in the parking lot of the Outlaw Motel. In one room, the matriarch, still healthy, sniffs at the landscape painting above the double bed. She decides the trees are white birch. Her husband decides to get some sleep, hit the road early.
Uncle tells you again about birthright, and the nightmare—the horrible jigsaw puzzle, the 1,000 pieces the size of baby-teeth. “And when I finally put it together… Boy,” he says, “It was the image of my mother’s mouth, or maybe your aunt’s, and this time, last night, I thought I saw a thread of meat under her tongue. Or maybe it was an insect—which is also meat, I guess. That’s the thing. Her mouth—the puzzle of it—moved for the first time last night. Laughing or screaming, I couldn’t tell. So big, like you could drive a car down her throat. But there was the meat in there, and her tongue was bouncing…”
The elk’s antlers fall off each March (the process is called “casting”) only to regenerate. The osteoclast cells begin to absorb calcium from the bone, which weakens, becomes grainy and chambered. Once the antlers break away, the remaining stubs of bone begin to bleed, then scab. Researchers believe, but can’t know, that the bull elk feel no pain when this happens, as they have “when under extreme stress, a high pain threshold and rapid wound healing.” Uncle picks at the stew. He wants, he says, to nickname his heart, Big Sky, then decides against it. Of the casting process, one researcher said, tenderly, “I’ve even seen the bull lick his shed antler.”
Here, in regeneration is the beat-beat-beat of a headache. A splitting one.
On the U.S. 93, jack-hammering. That means they’re fixing the road.
Some hunters call these bald March bulls, flatheads, a term originally (and derogatorily) lent by white settlers to the Salish-speaking Kootenai tribe of northern Montana, who were mistakenly believed to have practiced the custom of compressing the skull in infancy by artificial means. The settlers (mistakenly) speculated as to such means, one of which involved placing the planed animal bones (including, in some accounts, those of the elk) on the fontanel, and then tightly wrapping the head in “bandages” made from the boiled silverskin of the fauna.
Here, the borders of body confuse themselves with the landscape. Here, wide open spaces can mean we’re bleeding out.
The same tender researcher said, “If you’ve taken a close look at a boiled elk skull, or one that has lain in the woods for some time, you might notice a faint line just below the antler burr.”
Uncle laughs. “The meat in there,” he says, “and maybe even a fuckin’ carrot.” You don’t know whether or not he’s still talking about his dream.
When the stew wails, that means it’s stressed-out, feeling no pain, coming to temperature, ready-to-eat.
On his chest, Uncle’s pinky crosses a faint line. On the other side of it, healthier skin, predicting its wound.
Here, both skin and sky are guilty by association. Here, in all of this bigness, even our four-laners are less than faint.
According to Field & Stream, “female elk almost always taste better [than males].” According to the Montana Elk Company, LLC, their flavor is “easy and very elegant [in recipes such as] Elk Stroganoff… Mature cows average 550-600 pounds. They do not grow antlers. They are very good mothers.”
In Kalispell, the county seat of Flathead County, Dr. Roger Brown often receives the best reviews for “scar revision.” He calls his work, jokingly, you think, “road-work.” Uncle doesn’t laugh when he talks of trading in the willow on his chest for the ponderosa pine, the one making all those puzzles of the forest floor, and the official state tree of Montana.
The artist, Roger Brown, (no relation), painted this:
Uncle hugs himself, feels for the flame, the cone, the seed, continues to sing to himself the song he hates:
Tell me of that Treasure State,
Story always new,
Tell of its beauties grand
And its hearts so true.
Mountains of sunset fire…
until he forgets the words.
The Montana state flower is the bitterroot, this ethereal pink and yellow darling that grows like a weed in our cemeteries and on our medians, produces leaves beloved by the elk. One Kootenai story speaks of a mother weeping over her starving children. The benevolent sun changed her tears into fields of bitterroot, the roots of which she boiled and thus sustained her family. Soon, according to state legend, we began fighting the elk to keep this nourishing flower to ourselves.
From the war over the bitterroot comes elk stew. From Uncle’s mouth, a sound that confuses itself for flatness, weeping.
Ponderosa derives from the same Latin root as ponderous. You look out the window with Uncle at all those namesake trees, weighing the earth down. That stand there is being slated by the county for timber, cleared out for a new road, which will also weigh the earth down.
He shouldn’t have eaten all that stew. He runs his hand beneath his shirt, over all that pink lattice. He wonders if this scar has yet been revised. If it has become something official of the state. He knows: this heaviness of heart will pass after a good night’s sleep, but all that sky, will tomorrow, keep pressing down…
In this sort of state, we know: in compression, even the mountains can go flat, all that stuff trapped inside us only wants to come out, be driven on.
Other names for the ponderosa pine: Black Jack, Three-Needle, Bull Tree.
Revision: remembering what we’ve forgotten:
Each country has its flow’r;
Each one plays a part,
Each bloom brings a longing hope
To some lonely heart…
We don’t cry over the graves anymore. We sweeten our stew with white honey, black honey, bitter honey, cane. We let this season’s elk get away, nurse their young, raise their lot. Scab over. Uncle says, it’s a long life. Says something about slow-cooking until tender, and how if you’re tender, that means you’re dead.
A longing hope, some lonely heart, in another sort of scarring-over: Just a few miles south, in the Crazy Mountains, Grasshopper Glacier considers its name—entombed in its ice are countless grasshoppers from various historical plagues. They are not like us. Their blood is green. In their digestive systems, frozen, are bits of carrot, celery, so many plundered crops. Their mouths are full of sensilla. Their hearts don’t beat, but chirp.
MATTHEW GAVIN FRANK is the author of the nonfiction books, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer (W.W. Norton: Liveright), Pot Farm, and Barolo, the poetry books, The Morrow Plots, Warranty in Zulu, and Sagittarius Agitprop, and the chapbooks, Four Hours to Mpumalanga and Aardvark. He teaches creative writing in the MFA Program at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction Editor of Passages North.
My favorite road to travel: The Trans-Labrador Highway, not least of which because of that subterranean hydroelectric plant worker/Cirque du Soleil clown who shared his ass-pocket of Iceberg Gin with me on the bumper of his truck in that church parking lot in Churchill Falls, right off the soft shoulder of the Trans-Lab, and precisely when I needed it most.