The first brain I ever saw was a deer brain encapsulated in a large Mason jar on the top of a fridge in our neighbor’s washhouse. Every November, he converted the outbuilding to a seasonal hunting-lodge-slash-butcher-shop to serve the big city hunters from Omaha, insurance men and bankers looking for a weekend of sport in his and my father’s adjoining pastures and fields. The men spent their days in blinds and tree-stands, dreaming of 12-point bucks with symmetrical tines. My father often joined them for the evening’s festivities. I had never gone before, but my mother was angry at my father for unknown (to both of us) reasons, and I was his punishment.
The springs squealed when my father opened the door, the smell of ground meat mingling with a chill that threatened the periphery of a few space heaters. I sat on a metal barstool around a central stainless steel island, surrounded by men with knives.
“Watch your fingers, little girl” one of the men said, pointing a boning knife my way, a single whole deer carcass between us. I tucked my hands into my coat pockets. I looked around the room, my eyes landing on the Mason jar on top of the refrigerator.
One of the hunters noticed my gaze.
“Do you want to taste it?” he asked, pulling the jar down from the fridge and shaking the glass in front of my face. The brain was wedged into its container, the folds and creases of cortex like a child’s face squished against car glass. I knew enough to not make a face or shirk away. Farm girls are the legacy of the stoic pioneer woman. Like the opossum, we learn early how playing dead is the key to life.
He reached to unscrew the cap, waiting, I could tell, for me to squirm or squeal. He was a bearded man, and even at age twelve I knew he was pretending to be rugged. His flannel shirt hadn’t even begun pilling, his shearling vest free of even a single stain.
“You won’t scare her,” my father said, after cracking open a Coke can and pouring a third into a cup for me. He uncapped a bottle of Jack and filled the void in his can, mixing his drink with a few turns of his wrist. With his free arm, he tucked me into his shoulder. “She’s no city girl. She’s tough!”
I reached out and took the jar. I unscrewed the lid and poked a finger at the spongy cortex, staring at the hunter the whole time. The delicacy of my reaction wasn’t nearly as sweet as he had hoped. The rest of the men laughed. He flushed behind his beard before joining in, his own laugh loud and forced. When he turned his back on us and went to the fridge for another beer, I quietly wiped my finger on my pants.
The night wore on. We stayed for the grinding of the meat. My father fed a loin into the hand-crank grinder while I turned the handle, the raw red worms of flesh squeezing through the metal attachment into a five gallon bucket. The smell of last year’s deer sausage patties filled the washhouse; grease and offal filled our bellies. We stayed until all that remained in my father’s bottle of Jack was a single golden finger.
When my father stood up and abruptly fell back into a folding chair, our neighbor cursed.
“Somebody get a bunk and a bucket,” he said, pointing to one of the bunks at the back of the washhouse. “His old lady ain’t gonna like this one bit,” he added, and then remembered I was there. “Hang on darlin’. I’ll drive you home.”
“I can do it,” a voice said from the doorway. The Mason jar hunter. “I know where she lives. Had to drive through their yard yesterday. ’Sides, you look like you’re not too far from passin’ out yourself, Mack.”
Our neighbor looked at me. I looked back, expressionless.
“You ok with that?”
I nodded, clenching my fists inside my pockets, my eye drawn to the top of the refrigerator. The Mason jar was gone.
The Mason jar hunter opened the door to his truck for me, gave me a little push on the rump as I stepped onto the running board. His truck was clean, no buckets of rusting fence-fixing supplies or syringes for vaccinating cattle. Just a polished dashboard and a brand-new seat cover. A rifle tucked into the rear-window gun rack. And there, in the driver’s seat, the jar of brains.
“Sit in the middle,” he said, patting the bench beside him. “That seat belt doesn’t clasp.”
“This isn’t the city,” I replied. “We don’t wear seat belts here.”
“Better safe than sorry, though, right?” he said, nesting the Mason jar between his legs. I swung my leg around the gear stick and buckled in.
At the bottom of the driveway, he paused, “Left or right,” he said.
“Right,” I said, trying not to panic. “I thought you knew where I lived.”
He faked the left turn but yanked the wheel right at the last moment. I kept my gaze on Orion, his club raised in the southern sky.
“Just messin’ with you, little girl,” he said, shifting gears. His hand lingered on the gear stick, and then moved to the jar, which he stroked twice before unscrewing the lid. “Sure you don’t want a little bite? For the road?” He tried lifting the brain from the jar, splashing liquid out onto his jeans.
“Fuck!” he cried and swerved toward the ditch. I saw the reflection of the buck’s eyes before I saw it leap onto the road, felt the seatbelt tighten against my sternum as deer and vehicle collided, felt the spinning tilt before we rolled into the ditch. And then, from behind, something struck the back of my head and my ears rang with a single shot. When everything calmed, we were passenger side down in the ditch.
Shaking, I turned off the ignition. I unbuckled my seatbelt, bracing one foot against the passenger side door. I cranked open the driver’s side window. With one foot on the steering wheel and another on the hunter, I hoisted myself out of the truck and perched on the driver’s side door. I saw the hunter’s head, the wound a star-shaped hole rimmed with abraded skin. Burnt flesh. I paused. Put my finger in it and poked at the spongy cortex.
Twenty-some years later, I would meet a bearded man in Mexico. I would lean back in my chair, cross one long leg over another and cradle my cheek in a palm. We would share a plate of tacos de sesos, the first seduction in a worldwide culinary tour of beef brains: Maghaz in Pakinstan, cervella fritte in Italy, cervelle de veau in Morocco. Never mind that brains are, in fact, flavorless, as so many delicacies are, their texture mushy like scrambled eggs. “Did you know,” I would whisper, leaning close to him and rubbing my thumb over his temple, “the brain of a human male has more wrinkles than that of an animal?”
Kara Gall has poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction in Bared: An Anthology on Bras and Breasts (2017), The Untidy Season: An Anthology of Nebraska Women Writers (2013), Illuminations (2014, 2012, 2011), Why We Ride: Women Writers on the Horses in Their Lives (2010), Women Who Eat (2004), Breeder: Stories from the New Generation of Mothers (2000) and The Flintlock (1997). She holds a BA in Sociology and Anthropology from Nebraska Wesleyan University and an MA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. Image: Hunter, Niko Pirosmani, 1907