Deer: A Pathology

by Rebecca Valley

It is a new year and Anna finds a body in the snow. I touch it with my boot. Broken neck, leg, cavity open, heart and stomach oxidizing in the weeds. 

I send a picture to my old lover. “An omen.” 

Across the path, the snow, a pool where the warm blood bored a hole and lingered. Anna calls Fish and Wildlife. She is afraid a child will see it. 

Five times a day, an app on my phone reminds me that I am going to die. In Buddhism, this is called maraṇasati, meditation on the possibility that death can come at any moment. 

In the Buddhist text Satipatthana Sutta, monks meditate in a cemetery and chronicle the nine stages of decay.

	“Being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals... different kinds of worms”

	“Bones gone rotten and become dust.”

	“White in color like a conch."

In the cemetery, practitioners should reflect: “This body of mine, too... is going to be like that body... has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.”¹ 

When I open the app, it delivers a pleasant quote: 
“We're going to die, all of us: what a circus!”
- Charles Bukowski

In the summer of 2018 I spent six weeks watching my forty-eight-year-old uncle die from cancer in his liver. 

When your liver fails, your legs swell and become too heavy for you to walk. I sat beside his bed and watched him mime fentanyl dreams. Scrolling on his phone. Playing an invisible piano. He shrank and shrank until his head was bobbing on the pin of his neck. He was floating, mostly, in a haze of opiates and retained fluid. Then he died and we put his body in an incinerator.

It is a new year and Anna finds a body in the snow. I touch her with my boot. She is soft, and not very old.

I send her picture to my old lover. 

“What happened?” 

Her tawny fur is all around us, hanging from snapped twigs. I take some and put it in my coat. 

For a year after my uncle’s death, my brother worked as an odd jobs man at a funeral home in Ashland, Kentucky. He drove the hearse and arranged the flowers and portioned cremains into Ziploc bags. 

When he came back home, he was soft. He told me: I have taken a corpse’s fingerprints. I have watched my girlfriend’s father put his thumb through a dead woman’s foot. He was not afraid of anything. 

My old lover sends me a song by Grouper. It goes:

     “I'm dragging a dead deer up a hill
     Very carefully

     Very carefully

     I'm dragging a dead deer up a hill
     Very carefully”²

When we lose the bodies of those we hold dear, suddenly and without warning, it feels as if a crime has been committed. But it has not. The earth and its creatures eat the body, fire eats the body, and we are given stones and dust in their place.

While I am writing this, the app chimes. 

“Since death will take us anyway, 
why live our life in fear?
Why not die in our old ways and 
be free to live?”
– Jack Kornfield

It is a new year and Anna finds a body in the snow. I touch.  

         “… Look: all of this was out of season, the doe

          tossed on the roadside, the melted snow—
          even me, standing over the carcass,

          and why? The crow long gone now, and what
          marked the line between winter and spring?”³


¹The Way of Mindfulness: The Satipatthana Sutta and Its Commentary by Soma Thera



About the Author

Rebecca Valley is a poet, essayist, and editor living in Cambridge, Vermont. Her work has been published in Rattle, Black Warrior Review, Tinderbox Poetry Journal,, and elsewhere. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from UMass Amherst, and currently serves as the editor-in-chief of Drizzle Review, a book review site with a focus on marginalized authors. She has a book of true crime stories for kids coming out with Ulysses Press in 2022. You can find more of her work at