When the bones arrive at the table they are perfect: fat and squat. They look more like ivory; they have a pristine quality highlighted by the pesto that’s drizzled over them.
“Are you really planning to eat those?” my friend says.
A slight bit of salt, and then I dip the silver spoon into the fat, spread it on the hot toast. A bit of fat coats my lips. The marrow is dark and primal. Unapologetic.
My friend ordered the veggie burger. She’s looking a little pale and pushes her plate away. Lunch is apparently over.
The waiter wraps the bones for my dogs, but once in the car, I find myself sucking marrow as I drive though dense woods down a rutted two-lane road, bone in one hand and steering wheel in the other, scanning the darkening horizon for wayward moose. I’m speaking at a writing conference at a lodge where there are no phones or television and, I am told, the deer are so tame they eat dried corn from your hand. They are apparently unafraid of humans. I’m not sure I can make that claim. After all, I’m doing 85 mph and tossing bones out a car window. I know what we’re capable of.
The lodge is as rustic as promised. It winds around a slate-gray lake that blends into a slate-gray sky.
The deer do, indeed, eat from your hand. They take each kernel gently and chew politely. Their eyes are blank with kindness. And so you stand there with your palm open, and, perhaps, your heart, too.
For a moment, I regret spending the winter perfecting venison chili. “I will see you soon on the other side,” I say to the deer, as a way of apology.
That night, I hear the barking of wolves and then a long low howl that leaves me sleepless. I put on my boots and walk down the muddied path to the end of the road. The moon is a tin spotlight. A few feet ahead of me, in a snow-covered field, there is the wolf bending over a small red doe. The deer is on her knees. Her head is cocked to one side as if suddenly seeing something never seen before. The air is brittle. The wolf’s pack is on top of the hill watching, softly barking. Waiting.
I’d like to say that I shouted, shooed the wolf away and saved the deer. I didn’t. Everyone needs to eat.
The next morning, when my lecture begins, I find myself talking about the bones in The Old Man and the Sea. At the book’s end, the great fish he caught has been picked clean by sharks.Without the meat, the old man’s poverty continues. But the bones are proof that he had, indeed, captured it. They are proof of his own greatness. How is this not a metaphor for writing?
“When a writer puts words on paper,” I say, “it is an intimate act. The reader hears your words in his voice and he becomes the bones of your story. The reader is the foundation that you wrap in muscle and sinew.
You build the hero on the reader’s delicate frame until your story is his story. Your sorrow is his; your joy is a communion you both celebrate.”
Before I leave, I go back to the field. The doe’s bones are beginning to dry. It’s difficult not to look at them and imagine muscles, skin and life. And that’s what makes them simply, elegantly beautiful.
“I will see you on the other side,” I say, and get back in the car to make my way back down that long rutted road. This time, a little slower.
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