Ghosts Old and New

Today the predicted high was supposed to be in the upper 70s F, with no chance of rain until the evening, so I packed up my bag and rubber gloves and offerings and baggies and went back out to the forest preserve where I’d found the deer bones.

The first stop I made once I got there was at the site where I’d found the original deer bones. The last offering I’d made there, on Sunday the 11th, was completely gone:

So I smoothed over the dirt and laid out a new one:

Land under wave: steel-cut oats, sunflower seed kernels, dried apricots, dried blueberries, green grapes, chopped walnuts, and a banana.

Three dried apricots and three dried blueberries, at the end of a tail of steel-cut oats.

Chopped walnuts.

The point of the spear: sunflower seed kernels surrounded by steel-cut oats.

Banana -- and it was warm enough out that, as you can see, the local insects (in the form of Mr. Fly) have already homed in on the scent. Flies are scavengers, too.

Nine grapes. A number often associated with myth and magic.

The entire offering.

After I had laid out the offering and said a silent prayer, we resumed hiking. But this time, we didn’t just stay on the path. Nothing interesting ever happens there.  Down into the hollows and gulches between the hills we went, and up over the hills and around them. We left the human path, but followed a few deer trails we went, through thorny briars and around fallen trees.
And then we began to find bones. First, a coyote-gnawed leg bone at the foot of a fallen tree:

Top one.

And then another leg bone, equally chewed (lower piece in the above pic).

And then my husband found a nearly-untouched deer leg bone matching two others I have, off to the side of the trail:

Although this one still had the ball joints at either end, it was much more gnawed than the other two of this kind I have:

And then, walking further, I chose to investigate a deep patch of briars that had grown up around a fallen oak, and found a skull.

I believe this to be a doe’s skull; there are no obvious places on it anywhere that look like areas where antlers might have grown from. It seems to have died a natural death (coyote predation, starvation or freezing in winter, disease or old age) as opposed to hunting. It also appears to have laid where I found it for at least a couple years, as it’s in fairly bad shape:

View from above.

View from front. Note the nasal prominences have all collapsed into the interior cavities.

Side view. The bone is fairly weathered, as might be expected from spending a year or more outside.

Underside view. It seems to have all the teeth still in its upper jaw. I know that figuring out how old the deer was at the time of death can be done by examining the teeth; however, I have not learned how to do so.

Rear view, showing the aperture where the spinal column and cord joined to the skull.

I think it may also be possible to estimate the animal’s age at death by the sutures joining together the plates of the deer’s skull.  Alas, this is another technique I have no skill in.  At best, I feel confident in saying this was an adult female, not too old (or the teeth would likely have been more worn down).

Close-up of the skull sutures.

After carefully stashing the skull in my go-bag, we continued onward.

Down by the lake, my husband spotted a huge patch of fur, spread out in a fairly large circle.  Further off, smaller patches of loose fur were also visible. We had clearly found a coyote kill site; the fur was deer fur, and as nearly as I could tell, it seemed likely that the coyotes had jumped a deer when it came down to the lake to drink. At first, it appeared that there was nothing left but fur; the kill was relatively recent, as some small bits of skin were still attached to the fur — the flesh hadn’t rotted away completely yet.

But no bones. Or so we thought.  After looking around for a few minutes, I spotted first one jawbone/lower mandible, and then the other — a find I was thankful for, as the skull I had found didn’t have the lower jaws with it:

Both pieces still had bone, tiny bits of flesh, and bits of fur still attached to them (the blood acted like glue in the case of the hairs, which were stuck to bare bone).

Note that the lower jaw is complete here, as the teeth at the front of the lower jaw are still attached to one of the mandibles.

Front teeth for biting off grass and greens.

I looked around a bit more, and stuck under a piece of dead log was a fairly heavily-gnawed piece of bone with teeth attached — part of the skull/upper jaw:

Upper jaw part in the bag with the deer fur.

So, as of my first visit to the park, I found pieces of one deer; with today’s trip, I found more pieces of at least three and possibly as many as five other deer (skull, fur and jaws, three separate leg bones in widely differing areas).

No wonder the woods, on the walk back to the parking lot and our car, felt like it was full of ghosts — old ones and new.  Carried in my backpack were the relics of about half of the team pulling Santa’s sleigh (okay, yes, these are white-tail deer, not reindeer.  Allow a moment of poetic license).

I will be cleaning these remains (very carefully, in the case of the skull, which appears very fragile) and then begin looking for a chest big enough to hold all the deer relics I own — a reliquary to house the spirit(s) of Deer, and honor their place in the world and the gift of graceful beauty they share with us every time we see one.

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