Andy held the drowned deer in place with his boathook, while I lowered the rope noose into the water and slipped it under its hindlegs and up round its chest. It was easy to haul out; a muntjac buck, the size of a large dog. I laid it on the edge of the canal, its head lowered over the cill. Water pooled from its coat and dribbled from its mouth, pink-tinged.
"It was thrashing about at the side of the boat, about six o'clock," said Andy. "Look at those fangs! I didn't want to get too close to it, you never know what it might do."
It would still have been pitch dark at six, and it must have been hard for him to think of anything helpful to do. Sad, but so it goes. It was now half past eight, and the deer was very dead, but only very recently so. There were two good reasons to pull the body out. One is that a dead deer becomes a deerberg, which nobody likes floating by or, worse, wedging itself by your boat and stinking, as happened to me a couple of years back. The other is that it is potentially good eating.
"Is Jim about?" I looked up to where Jim's big sailing boat is moored.
"He went off down to Avoncliff a while ago"
Jim had been around to my boat earlier on, while it was still dark, and had a coffee. He's run out of gas again and I make good coffee. He'd been delivering firewood in his dinghy yesterday, and left the dinghy down by the aqueduct. He'd gone to fetch it back and scout for fallen timber. I tried his mobile.
"Jim? We've just pulled a muntjac out of the canal. Any use to you?"
"Maybe James could stick it in his freezer. I'll be along soon."
We laid the deer on the grass verge of the towpath, and I went back to fixing the brakes on my bike. Presently came the creaking of oars and Jim's little dinghy appeared. He wasn't entirely happy about the deer. "People get the wrong idea," he said. I know what he means. This stretch of the canal is very popular with folk walking their dogs or strolling down to the Cross Guns at Avoncliff, and to some of them, we boaters and our decidedly lived-in boats are unsightly and perhaps threatening. I do try not to be judgemental myself, and of course often fail; it can be funny overhearing the very wrong-headed things that Respectable Folk say about us as they teeter round the muddy puddles in their unsuitable footwear.
Jim bound the hindlegs and threw the rope over a convenient branch; we hauled the deer up to a convenient height, and tied it off. Then Jim ran the knife down the belly, and pulled out the guts with a crowbar. The stomach split, and a mass of cud oozed out, looking remarkably like pesto. The organs were vivid and shiny, and I felt a bit sick. Jim wasn't too happy either. "I'm sorry, mate" he told the deer as he scooped. "I blooming hate this," he told me. "James is much better at this stuff."
James is an arch-Freegan, and he and Jim are regular scourers of skips outside supermarkets; one is a particular favourite because the staff put the edibles on top to make it easier for them to forage. Sometimes the haul is so big that already fairly-ripe sausages get too high even for them before they've finished them. But there was no sign of James. He's not an early riser.
The horrid business was done, and I got my stirrup pump and we sluiced the body cavity. Then Jim fetched a spade and scooped the guts and numbles down the slope, and tied a sack around the carcass so that it wasn't so obviously a deer hanging in a tree. But with the head sticking out at the bottom, it wasn't entirely successful, as the startled remarks I heard through the day demonstrated. The entrails were a sure hit with passing dogs, though; you could see them being suddenly galvanised by the enticing stink, and dashing off down the bank, utterly oblivious to the useless calls of their owners.
Sadly, nobody asked me about the deer. I had my answer ready-made; "Oh yes, it's our midwinter offering to Cernunnos."