Courtney Kersten


This isn't some obscure Boy Scout code or a primal, intuitive trick to pull out that'll ever prove helpful if you're stranded in a deciduous forest—stuff like how to use Ursa Major to point you home or extract sustenance from tree bark or communicate with quail to guide you to the nearest highway. Because this isn't about survival; it's about the opposite. Because what rhymes with death? Breath.



The badger's death scent is that of a diva, a melodramatic rant, a self-important fit. It begins as a sweet sweet funk that rolls towards a truly retch-in-the-ditch-worthy stench that lulls with a quiet inhale: the odor disappears only to stow away in your olfactory cavity and slap you one-hundred yards later with the residual belch of its decomposition. Their Latin name is meles mels (Stinky2).      



The squirrel's death scent is tiny. Somehow both quaint and horrifying, a hole in your stocking, dried blood in your ear, a single strand of pubic hair on the kitchen floor...how did that get there? It is a scent pungent only after processing its origin, its forgotten winter rations, its abandoned nearly-fetal babies. The limbs arabesque. 



The deer is a casino. Blinking shit, clicking things, cha-ching, ding-aling, coins, chips, two-for-one margaritas, nuts! eat these nuts! $2.99!, ding-aling, where's the exit? What time is it? How much money did I spend? It's a vortex of stink, radiating for what feels like days, gaging you with each step. The stench of a dead white-tail is investigating a clogged drain pipe with your tongue, drowning in a sea of raw ground chuck, and petting a cactus. You smell it only once and then avoid that part of the woods until it snows.



Chipmunks never stink.



You can never know how a raccoon will stink. Is that garbage or a raccoon that ate garbage? Is that a dog food or is that a raccoon that hijacked some retriever's dish? Is that bleach or a raccoon that perished exploring the inside of a nearly empty bleach container? The raccoon's death smell is Eau D‘Enigma.



Fish are obvious.
     Even if you somehow grew up in a plastic, sterile box and have never smelled a stink beyond vinyl and your own funk, you still know what a fish smells like. It's a secret given at birth. Upon being swaddled in the standard pink or blue, the nurse passes along this intuitive knowledge to you: young one, this stink you sense? this is what rotting aquatic creatures smell like.



Fallen, rotten, crispy, or fresh: leaves have their own funk. A sexy, sweet, icky funk. Pheromones of the forest. Subconsciously seductive, intellectually repulsive. Do I roll around with you or pass you by? Do I collect you and press you between pages or let you sit there and fester? Is it impolite to stare? To touch you? To put you in my pocket and take you home? Their Latin name is reusteamu temptationim.



That's a lie. I don't know what their Latin name is.



But this isn't a lie. This is a secret:
     The reason the Boy Scouts or Forest Rangers or whoever writes the dictionary doesn't categorize and publish these stinks is because this information is entirely unhelpful, totally purposeless, and just a bunch of bullshit with regards to navigation or even recreational enjoyment in the woods. The badger's funk is only pleasurable for masochists, the deer's death stench is only helpful for inducing projectile vomiting, and chipmunks never stink anyway. Because unless taxidermied, photographed for tabloid sensation, or embalmed, encrusted in gold, and displayed beneath plexiglass what is dead is gone, a matter tied up with a bow, glossed over by euphemism, or left alone. What's dead is dead.



Four months to the day, I was walking to the grocery store to buy angel food cake, a tin of divinity, and tortilla chips when I watched a dog die in the street.
     I'd seen him before.
     He was this big, handsome, onyx thing with a yellow smile, a blackberry on legs. It happened on a sloping curve, both the driver and the dog were too close to the curb and the truck caught him right where the neck hits the shoulder and the dog dropped, his owner still holding the leash.
     The owner screamed and shook his dog and said to him, are you alive? please be alive.
     I went over and he asked: is he alive? do you think he's alive?

I could smell him.
     It was safety locks on guns and pebbles careening down mountains and weeping in public bathroom stalls and I had never smelled this stink before.
     But I knew he was dead.



One month before maybe the day, I was biking to the grocery store to buy bottles of that chalky nutrition drink so horrible that you'd only drink it when you're incapable of choosing not to, an enema kit, marshmallows, adult diapers, and a pack of cigarettes when I saw the fawn in the road. She was trying to stand. She was trying to stand and she couldn't. And she couldn't because her legs were bloody zig-zags and her pelvis was spliced open and she knew it because she was wailing about it. And she kept trying to stand and her legs kept crumpling beneath her and she kept trying to stand and I put the kickstand down on my bike.
     I grabbed the spot where wings would connect to her body if she had wings and drug her into the ditch as gently as I could.

She had fleas and her spots looked like spilled bleach on shag carpeting and she didn't have any white stuffing or a plastic nose and she was bleeding out, her squeaks on decrescendo.

We sat together for I don't know how long.
     I felt her blood soak through my jeans and I smeared my face in my shirt.
     I stood up and left her.

I used the pay phone at the grocery store to call my father, expert hunter-fisher-knows-things-about-camouflage-and-trout-and-rifles, I told him that this fawn, this baby was dying in the road and now she's dying in a ditch and I can't just leave her there.
     Do I call the DNR? Or the DOT? Or a vet?
     He told me no.
     You do none of that.
     Lots of deer, thousands, die each year. That fawn would've died in the winter anyway.
     You just leave it be.

     And then he paused, the pause he took before asking about her, about how she was, what was happening, about the amount of time.
     I told him four, maybe five weeks. We don't know.
     And then we hung up.

I bought the marshmallows and the adult diapers and the chalk drinks and the cigarettes and decided I should get some lemons too and forgot about the enema kit and took a different route home. I put the cigarettes and marshmallows on the dashboard of her husband's car, the chalk drinks on the counter, took of my deer-smeared clothes in the laundry room, wrapped a green-flannel fitted sheet around myself, and took a lemon into her room.

She was sleeping her sleep: this enthralling, mysterious, addictive slumber understood only by the terminally ill.
     She was exotic in her deterioration: her bald head painted like delft ware, blue veins running against a blank mind, her body a collapsed chandelier. Motionless, sublime, and devastating: my kidnapped artifact kept behind maroon, pleather ropes on an indifferent marble floor. Pay the entrance fee, extra for the special exhibit, $.50 to use the restroom, no pictures, no recording devices of any kind, no pointing, no backpacks or skateboards, stay behind the yellow line in front of the rope, BEHIND the yellow line, gift shop closes at nine, we are not responsible for lost items, excessive drinking, erratic weeping, or therapy bills.

I placed the lemon on her nightstand.
     For you, sweet mother: a lemon. Because the lemon is not indifferent or airy-fairy or fearful. The lemon is a champion! The lemon is little sister to the Sun. She is pungent and brash yet compliments a variety of flavors.
     No one forgets a lemon.



I climbed into the shower and slid down the back wall and onto the basin. Watching the blood splinter off my knees and down the drain, I think about the fawn trying to stand and why did he want marshmallows and I forgot the enema thing and the fawn trying to stand and and my mother, my porcelain doll mother and I should've learned how to do a tourniquet in grade school or whenever because maybe I could've tried that and why do deer have spots when they're little and they don't as adults and my mother, my baby mother, my mother without an AARP card, and I should've known you can never assume and I know that there is nothing, there is absolutely nothing I could've done.



All of that is true.
     And none of it's a secret.
     And just because something's gone doesn't mean it can't stink.