When I was younger, about ten years old, I had a friend whose grandparents lived across the road from us. Every now and then during winter, they would go out hunting. I never went with them, but when they were done, they would come back with the spoils. They would arrive back with a huge Kudu carcass or two.
And then the fun began. The Kudu was unloaded onto a huge old wooden table beneath a spreading oak tree in the garden, and the whole extended family would gather to butcher the carcass up to make biltong. There were aunts and uncles, older kids and family friends, and all were armed with huge, vicious looking carving knives.
My friend and I were not left out. We were given small, vicious looking carving knives. We were put to work making “Predikant biltong”. “Pedikant biltong” was a special kind of biltong. It was made from the worst, most gristly, misshapen cuts of meat. It means “Priest biltong”. Traditionally, it was salted and cured with the good stuff, and then kept on one side for when the local preacher came calling. Because you didn’t waste the good stuff on him.
When the butchering was done, most of the bones and the offal were thrown away. But there were always a couple of odds and ends left lying around. A leg bone or two were left lying on the lawn for the dogs. Skulls with great, curling horns attached were popped up out of reach on roofs to dry. It was like a minor-league charnel house.
You can still see things like this in the right sort of suburbs of South Africa. As you drive around, you might glance up and spot a skull or two drying on the roof of a shed or nailed to a wall outside a house. It always makes me feel a little nostalgic.
I’m not a hunter. Mrs 23thorns is very particular about her carpets, so bringing home dead animals just wouldn’t fly. But I noticed something odd today as I sat in my son’s room. I live in a bit of a charnel house myself.
My son’s room is festooned with dassie skulls. Or rather it is festooned with dassie jawbones.
We used to have a whole skull, but Mrs nearly burnt the house down by trying to sterilize it by boiling it on the stove-top, and then popping out for a nice relaxing drive. We came back to a house full of acrid, burning-dead-dassie flavoured smoke. The smell just never went away, so the skull had to go.
But fear not. We are not completely deprived in the dead animal head department. Because we have a set of these;
There’s nothing unusual about them. They are Impala horns. Impala are one of the most common buck in South Africa. What is unusual is that we have absolutely no idea where they came from. They are just here. They weren’t here when we moved in. We never popped out and killed ourselves a large horned mammal and brought its head home. They just appeared one day. And stayed.
They are not the sort of thing that guests would have brought with them, either. “Hi. Thank you so much for inviting us. We’ve brought some wine. And part of a dead animal. Should we just pop them down in the kitchen?”
We haven’t nailed them to the wall or anything. They would clash with our curtains. But we can’t bring ourselves to throw them away, either, so they just sort of lurk around. They will disappear for months, and then reappear in random spots in the garden or kitchen cupboards.
But the Impala horns are not the star of the 23thorns bone-show. This is;
It’s a giraffe leg bone. And it’s an awe-inspiring thing. It’s quite long, as you would expect, but that’s not the cool thing about it. The cool thing about it is its weight. Giraffes are quite heavy. And they’re quite tall. They are, as a matter of fact, rather well known for it. In order to carry all that weight around on such long, skinny legs, they need bones that are incredibly dense. Our giraffe bone is something of a party trick. It weighs a ton. Everyone who ever picks it up lets out a surprised “Oh!”
We know where it came from. We brought it back from the bush years ago. When the dogs saw it, their eyes lit up like birthday candles. They settled down to feast on the biggest treat any dog could hope for. They chewed on it for hours. And they didn’t even make a scratch on it. It’s just too dense.
And it’s worth its weight in gold. Every year, each of the kids has an animal themed show and tell. Other kids try hard, bringing in feather and porcupine quills and warthog tusks, and proudly showing them off to their friends. Until our kids stagger in, stumbling under the weight of our monster bone. For one week a year, we rule at show and tell.
And for the rest of the year? It’s out there with the impala horns, reminding the dogs that they are no longer wolves.
But as of last week, the giraffe bones lofty position in our household bone hierarchy is in jeopardy. There are some new bones in town!
These are elephant vertebrae.
We picked them up on our last trip to the bush. An elephant died of natural causes months ago, and the bones have been scattered but not eaten. Because elephants are quite heavy too. To support that massive weight, they need bones like steel girders.
We’re gonna rule at show and tell this tear. Again.
But until then, there’s a bit of a problem. They stink. Horribly. To get them back to our house, we had to strap them to the roof of the car. But home they are, and ready to became the stars of the show. And tell. Just as soon as we get rid of the smell. But don’t worry, we have a plan.
They’re up on the roof of the shed as we speak.