Once the season begins, it’s rare to see a buck still in velvet. They shed it mid-March, the strands peeling back to reveal the bone beneath. Since veins went up through each tine to grow the antlers, the shedding of velvet is bloody. The bucks will scrape against a tree trunk to pull the velvet off, the velvet hanging like a shawl or tinsel from their heads.

My father once killed a six-point still in velvet with his bow. Bow season starts in October, rifle season in November. My father killed it less for the size and more for the rarity. I know this because it’s shoulder-mounted in his living room. The fur turns whiter every year due to the sunlight through the window it’s next to.

My father stands in the middle of the room, surrounded by elk, moose, and mountain goat heads. I see the dust on the fur of the deer closest to me. I trace the sunlight up to the window where the dust hangs in each beam of light like bits of kelp pulled outward by undertow. I feel the pull of that room each time I walk in, the audience of eyes.

The term [“velvet”] originally arose from the fine hairs on the antler, but is now used specifically to indicate the antler’s stage of growth: before it calcifies (ossifies). In nature, antlers will fall off after they have ossified; thus, collecting fallen antler doesn’t provide the desired “velvet.” 1

Companies now sell capsules full of ground antler velvet. It’s believed to help accelerate healing, especially in the joints and bones. Some believe it provides strength—what the deer leave behind we pick up to eat and heal. If the pills don’t work, they make a liposomal spray.

Quartered away, quartered toward. Broadside. I knew the best shot with each angle of the deer. How the heart is just off the curve of the shoulder. How if the bullet passes through the shoulder when quartered away, it will hit the heart, lungs, and then the gut. The exit wound always larger than the entry wound. A simple gut shot will mean tracking for hours. But if it’s a lung shot, the blood on the ground will have tiny air bubbles in it. The blood trail was like a story to me when I was young. I wanted to read each page to find out what happened next.

I got my first rifle at six years old—a .22 called a Chipmunk. This model was made for kids, no more than two-and-a-half feet long. I killed a squirrel with it when I was eight, held it by the tail for my father to snap a Polaroid, his bloody thumbprint on the white border. By ten, I’d killed a deer and joined something larger than myself, the history of death.

Antler is a simple extension of bone, so it has a calcium-phosphate matrix of hydroxyapatite, Ca10(PO4)6(OH)2, integrated with smaller amounts of calcium carbonate (CaCO3); its composition is similar to that of human bones. 2

I inherited a chronic arthritis condition from my father called ankylosing spondylitis. If left untreated, my bones will fuse at the joints, starting in my hips and lower spine. Ankylosing spondylitis is an autoimmune disease, 3my body fighting itself—

and is a type of arthritis of the spine. It causes swelling between your vertebrae, which are the disks that make up your spine, and in the joints between your spine and pelvis. The disease is more common and more severe in men.…These problems often start in late adolescence or early adulthood.4

Over time, pain and stiffness may progress to the upper spine and even into the rib cage and neck. Ultimately, the inflammation can cause the sacroiliac and vertebral bones to fuse or grow together. 5

Consuming deer antler may have some anti-inflammatory action, useful for arthritis.6 It benefits joints and ligaments.7

The deer in Courbet’s Remise de Chevreuils au ruissea de Plaisir-Fontaine (1866) are half shadows, gathered around a creek. The buck, quartered away, rubs his grey face against a tree. The doe next to him sits facing the edge of the water, the pale light like the quiet they hide in. My wife comes up behind me, notices I’ve been looking at this painting for a long time, asks if I want to head upstairs to the Impressionist exhibit. I stare back at a small buck, a spike, against the greens darkening, that edges one foot in the water.

From the paper-stretched table where I sit, I watch my doctor’s hand tracing the hip socket on the diagram as he shows me the first place my bones will fuse. Each morning at roughly the same time I take Celebrex. My bone disease cannot be reversed, healed, or cured. The pills help lower inflammation, my doctor says.

On YouTube, I listen to a man explain the process of harvesting DAV, or Deer Antler Velvet. He recommends two to six capsules a day, taken with or without food.8

At the end of every season a deer sheds their antlers. If you find these sheds in the woods, you can save them for the rut, knock two of them together over and over to simulate two bucks fighting. The other bucks in the area will run to the noise. The sound is the sound of competition, of one male against another, a victor. The first shed I found this way was chewed all over by a squirrel, seeking calcium.

It took four years to diagnose my bone disease. The doctors told me it was a stress fracture from playing soccer. My father always thought his pain was due to the physical nature of his job—lifting lumber and fifty-pound bundles of tar-backed roof shingles, or laying tilework in a bathroom on his knees.

The stag’s antlers are made of lead in the Nicolas Coustou sculpture Chasseur terrassant un cerf (1703-1706), or Hunter Slaying a Stag. They are the unintentional focal point against the white marble. They are broken off above the brow tine and first point, respectively. As I stand below the hooves of the creature, I realize the statue is almost life-size. This statue, carved from a single block of marble, used to sit at the foot of the Rivière cascade in the park of the Château de Marly (near Paris).9The hunter is in mid-strike, as if going in for the killing blow, but the stag’s tongue is already hanging out of its mouth. The hunter is in mid-strike, but his sword is missing a blade.

I sold my .30-06 to a local gun shop last year because I didn’t use it anymore. My father knew this meant something. Above the man behind the counter was two rows of AR-15s, each one with a different clip, barrel, or stock.

To harvest the antler velvet, the deer’s antlers are removed while they are under local anesthesia.10 I imagine the dart laced with sedatives shot through a gun not unlike one I’ve used or owned.

The cut antlers are bathed in boiling water and air dried, and then further dried in the shade or by low temperature baking.11

After I killed a doe at ten years old, I posed for pictures. I sat in the beams of the four-wheeler headlights and held the deer up by the ears—there was nothing else to hold it up by. I was too young to skin it myself, but my father took a fingerful of its blood and painted it under my eyes, down my nose, and across my forehead. Later, in the small shower of that hunting cabin, the blood turned pink and ran down my body toward the drain.

The pills of deer antler velvet contain Insulin-like growth factor (IGF) I and II.12 IGF-1 is a powerful anabolic hormone. It has the potential to increase muscular size and strength, repair connective tissue, and decrease recovery time – all of which can enhance performance in sports.13I was not good at much, but I could shoot a three-inch group of arrows at forty yards. There was an almost meditative-like quality to holding in the breath while aiming, releasing the air as one releases the arrows. 

When the bones fuse, the spine loses its normal flexibility and becomes rigid. The rib cage also may fuse, which can limit normal chest expansion and make breathing more difficult.14

Once, when I shot the bright orange nock off the end of my arrow with another arrow, I showed it to my father. He held it in his hands and looked back at me in a way I kept trying, for years, to replicate. I kept that arrow in my room for the rest of high school, held horizontally between a shoulder-mounted buck’s antlers.

I have never seen a deer in velvet, at least not alive. But I’ve seen videos of bucks shaking their heads in the air at the end of September. They are trying to shake free any velvet still hanging after they’ve rubbed against a tree. At that point, the growing is done.

I no longer hunt. And each season, my father and I have less in common.

There were over 1.8 million deer in over 4,300 deer farms in New Zealand as of June 1998.15 That same year, there were 250,000 farmed deer in the U.S.16100 tons of fresh antler…yields about 30 tons of dried product.17 My parents’ neighbor has a small deer farm, high-fenced so the deer can’t escape. He sells the bucks to men who pay thousands to shoot the deer in another high-fenced area. I think of those men’s fathers, now long dead, and what those men are trying to prove to them.

My father was at his hunting club in south Alabama when he got a call from my mother that I had been almost arrested by a cop. My friend and I had been drinking in his blue Ranger behind the Hoover Met, tossing the empty bottles into the edge of the woods where the parking lot ended. My father was pissed he had to leave the client he was entertaining to drive three hours back home. I woke up to him ripping me out of bed by the back of my t-shirt, then breaking a ruler against his desk, tears in his eyes. I thought he might kill me.

Violence was a family tradition. My father, his father, his father’s father. Each beating their sons, their wives, or now, the emotional abuse toward my sister and I. I think of the control that violence gave them, how they held onto it like two fistfuls of sand. I think of the violence in my own body, my body against my body, and how I wanted the violence to end.

If you don’t want to take the pills, the deer antler velvet can be steeped in hot water and drank like a hot tea. It is sweet and salty in flavor18 This tea, when bloomed in a pot, looks like brain tissue under a microscope. The tea, besides having thin slices of dried velvet, can include herbs to enhance the flavor and effects. I think of Earl Grey, of bergamot. I think of lemongrass and orange peel. I think of steam rising before disappearing.

I wake up in pain. I can only take one 200 mg pill of Celebrex twice a day. NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) can be brutal on the stomach, even though this pill is supposedly the gentlest of that category. Healing is not an option for me; it can’t be the goal. Moving forward is.

Each year my father and I grow further apart, like a scattered grouping of bullets from 300 yards away. I ask him at holidays how the hunting season’s been. He tells me of the pattern of the moon, the movements of the deer, and each buck he’s seen. On the couch, we sit and look at pictures from a game camera he mounted on a tree on his leased hunting property. We see a ten-point, a four-point, two racoons, and a handful of does. The bucks are still in velvet in the photos. The green glow of the night-vision camera makes them look ethereal, as if they are looking back at us, but already beyond death. Their eyes lit up, they are looking past the camera at something beyond us both.

I have no choice but to shed velvet. I wish I could stop growing antlers, anything my father can count and measure year to year. But there is no shedding of my bones, no escape of the body.

I remember my father taking me down a path in the woods, I was a kid, I can’t remember which year this was, and he showed me the trees that the deer rubbed the velvet off on. He took my hand and let me feel where the bark was gone and the tree stood bare. The buck had scraped their rack against the tree, over and over, until the velvet finally dropped, curled like bark, and they could, at least for this season, stop growing. They could move on deeper into the woods.

[1] Dharmananda, Subhuti. “DEER ANTLER: to Nourish Blood, Bone, and Joints,” Institute for Traditional Medicine. January 2005.

[2] Dharmananda, Subhuti. “DEER ANTLER: to Nourish Blood, Bone, and Joints,” Institute for Traditional Medicine. January 2005.

[3] “Ankylosing spondylitis,” American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, 2018,

[4] 2

[5] “Ankylosing Spondylitis Symptoms,” Arthritis Foundation.

[6] 1

[7] 1

[8] “What is Deer Antler Velvet (DAV)? Rob Riches Explains.” YouTube, uploaded by Antler Farms, 26 September 2017,

[9] Wall text for Hunter Slaying a Stag, by Nicolas Coustou. Louvre Museum, Paris.

[10] 1

[11] 1

[12] 3

[13] 3

[14] 11

[15] 1

[16] 1

[17] Cited in 1

[18] Cited in 1

The Geographies of Violence

The woman is still wiping blood off her face when a throng of villagers envelops her. You can no longer reach her amid the swarm that surrounds her.

Speak, Unwoman!

I am kin to the disobedient woman precisely because I am not a woman, because no one is correctly a woman, because everyone fears being a woman, because the woman striving to be a paragon will die by a thousand dull cuts.

Memento Mori

Remember the melting world, burning into frog soup like a lullaby, so slowly we hardly know we are not just falling asleep.