Fiction · 10/28/2015

Moose

Moose lets her calf practice swimming in the wide river. He is a funny boy. He is older now and used to his legs, but in the water he resembles a cotton-wisp collapsing in rain. All of his hair slicks to his bones and his eyes become large bulbs. He scares the fish.

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To protect him, Moose is establishing boundaries. River is fine, but beyond the river is not. When you reach the fallen pine that’s too high to jump over, turn around and come back. When you reach the rock-cliff overlooking the valley, turn around and come back. Consider territory and be smart. Avoid roads. Do not eat too much, no matter where you are.

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Last summer, Moose was herded together with the other cows, brought in by a bull with antlers like an oak’s branches. Moose was made pregnant first. The others nipped at her ears when they thought the bull was distracted. They did not know he was never distracted. When a challenger arrived, the bull quickly broke its leg in two places. That was last year, though, and somewhere beyond the valley. She is no longer beyond the valley, and this is the lesson she will teach the boy.

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A bear wanders by now and Moose moves so that the boy is behind her. He keeps making a noise. It sounds like leaves falling. He knows to retreat if the predator is too large. The bear seems malnourished, however, and is alone. Moose makes herself look fierce and bluffs with a charge. The bear, perhaps, is desperate, and so calls the bluff and attacks. It takes some skin off of Moose’s neck, which scares the boy, who flees toward the river. Moose feels annoyed suddenly and charges with an energy that surprises the bear. The bear backs into a tree and topples over. Moose stomps and breaks the bear’s leg in two places.

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Next, she tracks the boy, her good boy. She wishes he had not panicked. As she reaches the river, she glimpses branches on the other side giving way and swaying back. He has very recently crossed. She rushes into the water and feels a sting as it laps against the wound on her neck. The branches have stopped swaying by the time she reaches them.

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Moose has not crossed the river in a long time. But she knows what exists there. A mile or so on, the trees thin out and give way to a meadow, through which flows a stream. Its water is barely deep enough to wet Moose’s ankles. Beyond that meadow is another layer of trees, a thick wall of more pines. One has to move slowly, meticulously, through them. The food is scarce there, on account of the lack of sunshine. The sun breaks through the canopy in sharp streaks. You cross this dead space until you see a grassy incline, a slight hill, on top of which is the road, which curves the way the moon would on a lightless night. You step on the road and it sounds like stones falling on other stones. You move on and hear the thunder of the machines behind you.

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She can smell him. And she thinks the smell is fresh. Not long ago, she recalls, they were walking and surprised a wolf, which growled at them. Moose maneuvered herself between the wolf and the boy, who stayed. It was a fight and he stayed. But then, that wolf was alone: long ago booted, perhaps, from the pack.

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Another time, back when she was alone, Moose found herself at night on some highway. She clacked in the direction of the moon for what seemed like hours. When she got tired, she rested in the soft dirt beside the road. She woke to light, actually dual lights, growing wider and longer like fireflies spooked from the brush. Moose felt cold and tried to nestle herself in the shadow between those beams. Her vision caught up with her in the last moments and she saw the vehicle coming at her. There was a long screech and Moose took off, her heart a berry in her teeth.

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At the end of the pines, she hears voices. Moose creeps cautiously up the incline to the road. A quarter-mile down, there are humans, beside a machine, beside a brown lump like a pile of leaves. She waits for the leaves to blow away. They do not.

She begins running toward the scene. The humans hear her first, then see her, then scramble into the machine and close off all points of entry. Their vehicle is screeching, then silent, then screeching, then silent. Its front is smashed and broken. Some gray, metal pieces are scattered on the asphalt, then also on the boy’s body. Moose stares through the glass at the men, whose faces go wide. Eventually, their engine catches and the men leave. Moose leans in and sniffs her boy. His fresh scent has become stale.

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Moose walks in ever-growing circles around the body. Other machines come and she ducks into the trees until the space around the road is silent again. Later, more men in a very large machine stop, survey the area, and load the boy into the machine-bed. Just like that, he is gone.

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For a while, she thinks. Could she have fought better? Fought more? Rammed those humans who took him away? Hurt them? Rammed the machine’s wheels? She is constantly stuck on her final moment with the boy. All of his legs were broken in two places. His eyes had changed color. Each of his eyes was gazing at something different. One was aimed at the sky, the other at the trees. If he had been alive still, he would not have seen her. Moose was much too close to him.

She has seen moose kill other moose. She has seen a bear kill a fish. She has left a bear for dead. Now, too, she has seen humans kill a thing. And it is different. It is gross to her. She doesn’t blame the humans, specifically, but their beginning. She blames the fact of the road.

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Life is wind moving the leaves, until the tree falls down or burns, and then life is the air rising up from the ashes. It is not the dark cloud trailing the machines. Moose’s cloud is butterflies. Her boy’s was cotton.

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Moose returns to the wide river and bathes herself. The wound on her neck still stings somewhat, but this pain is not worth feeling any longer, so her mind remains focused. She checks and discovers that the bear has vanished. She walks to the valley and listens to the wind picking up. What is life, Moose wonders. What is it, if not balance? One is strong, another is weak. One challenges, another is challenged. For two days, Moose does not eat, and then she goes back to the road and waits behind the bend. How long does it take for another machine to come along? Not even the time it takes for her to want to lie down. Not even time enough for her to reconsider what she’s doing. She hears the vehicle coming, then sidles up to the road. The moment she sees the machine, she jumps into the middle of the one lane and waits, waits for the sound of the terrible screeching, waits in fact until the final second, and then bolts back in the direction from which she came. Her move is calculated, precise, an amazing feat considering how hungry and frail she has become. She has lost significant weight. Moose has nonetheless jolted this machine from its path and sent it sailing off toward the trees leading back to the river. The machine is small, she realizes, like a miniature. It is the play-version of the one that hauled off her boy. Flipped over and smoking, it makes the trees appear sick. There are all kinds of noises coming from inside of its cabin. Moose gets close, but not too close, only enough to confirm. She sees the one human inside. The woman’s long hair. Her machine makes the whole forest smell rotten. Its metal is killing the grass.

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After, Moose travels clear to the valley, where she eats so much that she must lie down and sleep. It is a long, ridiculous sleep, punctuated by dreams that have nothing to do with anything. When she finally wakes, there is a magpie perched on Moose’s stomach. It is staring at Moose’s legs. Moose hesitates, then rises to her feet. She is very thirsty. The magpie flies away, to join the murder above the trees.

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The valley feels familiar, but of course much of it is new. Maybe, had he lived, the boy could have explored this territory with Moose. Maybe, in time, he would have explored it on his own. Moose can imagine him herding the cows, then setting them free again. He was always so funny, a joker. Who would challenge him? Moose loses herself in the daydream and knocks her head against a tree.

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She walks for days, until she is in some area she has never sensed before. The ground seems harder than she’s used to. There is a small lake that smells like rain. She approaches, ready to sip from it, but then there’s movement in the corner of her left eye. She retreats, takes the long route around the water. What it was, some humans throwing their lines into the lake. Some humans disturbing that calm surface. Up the hill, still farther to her left, there are the humans’ little houses, their tiny tents pinned up like bruises. Moose wonders how much taller she is than the bruises.

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That night, she waits until the humans have extinguished their fire, and then she heads for the camp. She is not sure what she’s planning, but she can picture the tent-cloth suffocating them, and the whole mess of their bodies merging with the hard dirt. Before she gets within charging-distance, however, she smells something. Another moose. A bull. Not long after smelling him, she feels him. It is dark and their eyes are bad. They communicate without seeing each other. The bull noses her away from the lake. Not wanting to wake the humans, Moose acquiesces.

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It takes time, actually until morning, but they come to an understanding. The understanding is, the humans by the lake are wasteful, yes, but not worth their, meaning his and Moose’s, effort. Follow him deeper into the forest, the bull wants to tell her. Follow him into the darkness, where the fiercer bruises bulge. Moose simply wants to taste blood. But how can she express this desire? She’s not sure that the other moose is real. It’s possible she died back in the valley. It’s possible the bull is death warning her not to be afraid.

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By deeper into the forest, it turns out, he meant through the forest. And by darkness, he meant streetlamps and fire-pits. After more than a day of walking, they have come upon a community. Rows of houses surround a lopsided lake. The roads are tan gravel. The houses are much taller than Moose is. In the middle of the houses is the biggest house, which has nearby it a concrete pool.

The oddness of the place is that all of the humans are hiding, save one man jogging along the gravel road. Moose wants to emerge from the trees defiant and chase down that person. Once again, the bull stops her. And she thinks, but I am not afraid. The bull continues to nose her along the edge of the small town. It is not about fear. Quite the opposite, he seems to suggest.

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Come nighttime, Moose and the bull watch the houses light up. They wander from house to house, peering as much as possible through the windows, into the lives of the humans. They read books or watch lights flicker across screens. The little ones run around until they bounce off of a wall. Some older humans are swimming and laughing in the pool. Others are doing the same in the lake. Moose is reminded of her boy flailing in the river. She believes then that she has never understood laughter.

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They don’t have a plan, and this is annoying to Moose. One afternoon, the bull leads her out of the trees and into the town. They walk along the road, then stop by some canoes. Gradually, more and more humans come to take pictures. The humans hide behind the canoes. Moose thinks they’re luring the people in, until they’re too close to escape. But then the bull begins nibbling on the grass. This makes Moose want to scream. She does scream. The humans gasp and take more pictures.

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That evening, they fight. Moose bites him and threatens to leave, even begins a charge toward the big house in the center, where a large crowd has now gathered. The bull stops her and pauses. Moose pushes her shoulder into his neck. Still, he is calm.

Suddenly, the crowd starts a fire, a roaring one. More of the humans join in. The group becomes a major spectacle. Their laughter is grand. Moose deflates, then inflates again. She studies the bull, as if for the first time. His antlers are chipped and worn. He seems old. One of his eyes is very red.

The fire lasts for hours. A week later, there is a similar fire. A week later, it happens again.

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In total, it’s been a month since they arrived. Moose has not understood walking the streets and bowing to these humans, not until this night, anyway, this fire-night, during which the bull strolls proudly up to the big house. He feigns shyness, then watches as the humans giggle and offer applause. Moose is behind him, attempting to seem sweet. After all, the bull is smart. Moose imagines him to be 100 years old. The same age as the trees enclosing this stinking place. The humans stand by the fire and cheer when the bull drinks some strange liquid from a barrel. One of the humans, a man, tosses some meat before the bull, and he dutifully sniffs it. Moose waits, keeps waiting, until the bull rears up and exhales strongly. He glances at Moose, with his bad eye, and it’s clear to her that this is the sign. She dashes toward the fire, all the while making herself giant, and shoves a group of women into the flames. They howl, and Moose remembers their laughter. The bull tramples a man standing in shock next to him. Maybe it was the same man who tossed the bull the meat. They all look the same now. As the bull chases a panicked bunch, Moose corners a woman and breaks her ribs. Then she breaks her legs in too many places. The bull returns and uses his antlers to throw hot coals into the bushes. Soon, the house is burning. Some people are jumping like fools into the pool.

The night lasts only minutes. At one point, Moose burns herself. She climbs to a spot up high, where she can see the whole community. It is smoking.

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The bull has disappeared, either into the fire or into the trees. It is day and Moose briefly watches the new humans helping out the old, broken ones. She sees a man in the distance walking with unleashed dogs, and Moose heads in the opposite direction. She walks until she sees a magpie, then heads again in the opposite direction.

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An image keeps recurring in her brain, of this young boy stumbling around on the gravel. Moose was running, too, blind with the heat of the fight, when she came around a corner and knocked the boy to the ground. Stunned, he lay there, like he was dreaming. For a moment, Moose wondered if she was dreaming with him. If so, was this whole life one of their dreams, or the mixture of their dreams, the result of their dreams colliding together? If she broke this boy’s legs in two places, would he dream harder, or less? And if he died, would some machine carry him away? The fact of this meeting is that Moose felt nothing for the boy. And yet, she did not touch him a second time.

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It becomes her routine, walking until she sees a magpie, then changing course. In time, she finds a pond. She considers stepping into the water and staying there until she drowns. Instead, she eats until she passes out, then wakes to a wolf sniffing her. It’s one wolf up close and a pack of them in back. Moose prepares to die, even feels a certain calmness attached to the resignation, but the wolf only sneezes and departs. The pack follows. Moose guesses she is too sick to be torn apart.

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If enough times passes, she could have another calf. But this line of thinking, it strikes her, is another kind of dream, one where life is predictable because of the past. To Moose, this seems mistaken. She wonders where, truly, dreams have gotten her. She does not like having to remember either of the boys.

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In the end, you feel things. For this reason, you do things. Doing things is supposed to change how you feel about things. But how often is this the case? Why do things at all? Even so, Moose senses, things that exist in the world will continue to do things, and those actions will continue to produce animals that feel how they feel, and try to change how they feel, and ultimately fail to feel something they believe will help them. They are all only feeling what they were born to feel.

Moose scratches some bark off a tree and eats it.

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Later, an eagle flies by, followed shortly thereafter by a storm.

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Tim Raymond has recent work in The Fairy Tale Review. He lives in Seoul.