Deer Skull

by Susan Griffin

Susan Griffin


I keep placing my hands over
my face, the fingertips just
resting on the place where I feel
my eyebrows and the fine end
of a bone. My eyes are covered
with the blood of my hands, my
palms hold
my jaws. I do this at dinner.
My daughter asks
Are you all right?
and by a common miracle
when I smile
she knows I am.


I ask her what she will do
after we eat. Sleep she
tells me. But I will clean
the deer skull, wash it.


You gave me this skull in the woods
told me to bring it clean
and tell the story I had told you
before, about how the deer had
come to me, and I said I would.


And I put this skull on an old
newspaper, pulled the lower part
of the jaws free, touched it first
carefully, as if it would fall apart
in my hands, the bone paper-
thin, and then I saw I could
scrub, so brushed the surface with
steel and my fingers and more
and more this surface became
familiar to me.


I wanted to see the lines of it
what it would be if it had been
polished by the wind, the water,
and my hands, these agents making
the skull more itself.
Slowly I was not afraid at all
and my fingers went into the deepest
holes of this thing, not afraid
for myself or it, feeling
suddenly as if cleaning this
small fragment of earth away
from the crevices inside was
like loving.


But it was when I touched the place
where the eyes were that I knew
this was the shell of the deer that had
lived here, this was this deer
and not this deer, her home and
now empty of her, but not
empty of her, I knew also, not
empty of her, as my hands


And in that instant remembered you
had been in that body of
that deer dying, what
does it feel like to be a deer
dying, the death consumes
you like birth, you are
nowhere else but in the center.


Remembering those gentle deer
that watched me as I wept,
or the deer that leapt as if
out of my mind, when I saw
speaking there in that green place
the authority of the heart
and the deer of the woods where
my feet stood, stared at me until
I whispered to her and cried
at her presence.


And when I cleaned the skull
I washed myself and sat
my body half out of the water
and put my hands again over
my face, my fingers edging the
bone over my eyes, and I thought
how good this feels and this
is a gesture you make.


Tell this story of the deer’s skull
you asked quietly and so I
came in my own time to put
these words carefully here
slowly listing each motion
on this thin paper
as fragile and as tough
as knowledge.


Last updated November 21, 2022