Sometime long after daybreak, a panther stalked and killed a doe on the buggy path where my people go, on the north side of the Tamiami Trail where the fresh water is. The buggy driver must have jumped the cat because the body was still warm, half-eaten from the upper ribs down. The guts were gone, and the stomach, too. So there lay the deer, her neck and head intact, the black eyes open and large, looking like a deer ought to look, but the space between her legs was half missing and half a bloody, meaty mess. There were rips in the brown hair above the white ridge of exposed rib bones. Open and clean incisions, like scalpel work. The buggy driver called for a couple of the boys to dispose of the body. It was too much for tourists to see, nature like this. Like it really is. Someone was bound to complain.
When the boys got there, they looked inside the hole and saw her fawn, still wrapped in placenta. Its heart was beating, but not much. They cut the baby out and breathed into its nostrils but the mama had been dead too long and so the baby went, too, the white rim of its hooves saying it had about three more weeks before it was ready to be born. The cat had taken the milk sack with the stomach and most of the intestines, the most nourishment must come first. That is the way of life.
I saw the boys from across the road, the south side of the Trail where the salt water has intruded into the wet prairies and feeds the mangrove forests. I saw Red clamping the hind legs between his fingers like you do to a baby to change a diaper and run the hose in the body cavity with his other hand same as the hygienist rinses out your mouth after polishing your teeth. They had put the dead fawn in an empty sack of deer feed. They throw the corn to keep the deer on the trail for the tourists. Tourists like deer. They are cute and lovable. Innocent.
Sonny asked me if I’d ever seen a panther kill before, and I said no.
Do you want to?
When I got to Red’s white pickup truck, now parked behind the corrugated building next to the tiger pen, the end of the animal sanctuary, he was already skinning what was left of her, peeling the coarse hide from the red velvet streamers of her muscles, the white sheet of connective tissue pulling away simple as bands of coconut taffy.
“She’s still so warm,” Red said, looking at us for the first time. He’d taken charge of the skinning and the butchery, worked at it like a surgeon, too focused to concern himself with us until he gave himself this one moment to marvel at how fresh a kill he dismantled with his hands. He placed his palm on her flank. “This meat is warm.”
The boys were going to eat her, and I stood next to them as they quartered her up. “This is the tenderest,” Red said to me, a loin flopping in his hand. Then, after asking me if I wanted to see the really sad part, he rooted in the bottom of the feed sack and lifted up the dead wet fawn. It was perfect. It dangled in his hand, the Braille of its white spots wrote the story of its life along its back.
“Is my knife any sharp?” Sonny said.
“Hell naw.” They all laughed. It is a shame to have a knife not sharp enough.
What’s this? I ask. It’s some white bulb, a balloon of sorts, between her legs. Is that her bladder?
“Naw, naw, couldn’t be. Gotta be like an intestine or part of it or something.”
Sonny found another knife not sharp enough and cut around her front ankle like a new bottle of salad dressing and started peeling her hide from the front end, and he was quick, quick enough to splatter some blood and a thin spray of meat on my shirt so I moved between Red and Sonny, and that’s when I saw her heart.
It sat inside the empty chest cavity, alone; her baby gone, her guts gone, her milk sack eaten by a panther long after the sun came up. Now there were two grown men stripping her hair and soon about to break her hip and shoulder joints with a metal pipe. But there was her heart, resting, like the clapper of a silent bell, inside of her.
It was untouched, a perfect, smooth muscle. A gigantic, overripe strawberry. I reached into her chest and cradled her heart in my palm. It felt the way I want my heart to feel; like I run hard and fast and every moment breathe the fresh air and sunshine that made me. It felt like a heart that had lived up to its potential.
night night beloveds.