Shelby Stephenson

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How many times have you heard a hunter say
“If I had his eye I could hit a squirrel.”

My father stalked them most of his life − gray squirrels −
even in his sleep, I’m sure,

and when he’d empty his hunting-jacket
he could already smell the fur and the blood and guts and the shot of whiskey.

The meal came last, my mother the cook as artist
marching to the tune of the Small-game Queen of the Day for her King.

The one fox-squirrel he killed he had mounted
and it dressed the mantel until the “invisible” mites destroyed it.

Regarding the Gray − the ritual − the Skinning of the Squirrel −
while he talked to himself, mumbling old stories of hunts,

the cat meowing, rubbing my father’s legs for morsels.
He’d poke the hamstring on a nail nailed to the basketball pole,

in  one motion cutting the tail bone through from under,
being careful not to cut through the skin of the tail.

Hold on to that tail; with a sharp knife cut the skin the back’s width.
I can see my father turning the squirrel over on its back
and stepping with his left Ballband-booted foot stepping
on the base of the tail.

He holds the hind legs in one hand and pulls steadily
and slowly until the skin works itself over the front legs and head,
taking his knife and slashing flashily the skin at the eyes,
pulling the rest of the skin from the hind legs.

My mother would stew the kill.
Sometimes she’d use the squirrel in other stews.
Sometimes she’d fry it the way she would a chicken.

I always got the cooked heads,
right after I’d stand in front of the eye to watch the boiling heads bobble,
taking a butter-knife and cracking each skull.
I can taste the brains now, though Mama
never cooked them with eggs the way she would hog-brains.
No one ate the squirrel’s eyes.


Shelby Stephenson’s writing comes out of his life born at home in 1938 in a plankhouse, the fields and woods always coming in. His book, The Hunger of Freedom, is forthcoming from Red Dashboard.