Where the Wild Things Are
I first saw the moose last August-- or, to be more precise, heard its thunderous hoofbeats as it ran over the rise of our upper hayfield. I was up early checking the orchard and, startled by the unusual noise, looked up, expecting to see one of my neighbor's large Belgians, escaped once again from its summer pasture. Instead, I saw the moose standing stock still at the highest point in the field, looking straight down at me; curious, huge, and immobile. It turned and galloped away, up from the swampy hollow and back into the forest.
A week later I was camped out in a small yellow tent with my five-year-old son, Charlie, and awoke after midnight to the same heavy pounding and then a great snort, the noise a deer makes when it is startled. I stepped out of the tent barefoot, onto cold wet grass, and heard the great animal inhaling buckets of air through its cavernous nostrils, like a prehistoric leaf-eater. We listened to each other for a bit, and then my son turned in his sleep, and I went back to bed.
This year during sugaring season I was setting out sap buckets and came across the moose, this time lying down like a Holstein in our upper field, indifferent to my passing, and only slightly curious. Then things turned downright silly. Two weeks later, a neighbor, Nancy, found herself trapped in our house when the moose stuck its huge head under the porch roof and peered in through the back door to the mudroom, seeming to wait for her to come out. She was a prisoner for an hour until her son happened by and chased the moose away. She ran part of the way home, afraid the animal might run after her, but the moose just stood in the field, curious, and, as I like to tell the story, lovesick.
In the weeks that followed, the moose became a local celebrity, stopping cars on the dirt road that runs by our farm. One neighbor mentioned something about his taste for moose steaks, "bigger than a hubcap and better tasting than beef." Another wondered if the moose had a brain disease that made it too friendly. Still others said that moose are just plain dumb. One morning I walked down to our lower hayfield and stood awhile. The moose, curious, edged closer, and I, not looking at it directly, got within about 10 feet after a half hour of disinterested shuffling. We had a nice visit before breakfast, and then we went our separate ways.
Months later, after the moose had returned to the wild, Charlie got up from the dinner table and went for his boots. "Where are you headed?" I asked. "Come on, Dad, we're going up to the cabin." It was a cold, moonless spring night with a light rain. The nice warm bed upstairs seemed inviting. "Come on, you promised." A bit reluctantly, I found our sleeping bags and ponchos, the rolled-up foam bedding, and the lanterns. I even loaded up my 22, not much of a rifle when it comes to stopping a coyote or a moose, but it made the trip more of an adventure. Leaving my wife and three young daughters on the back porch, Charlie and I set out, up the logging road through the woods to our small hunting cabin.
The road was muddy and the rain pelted down on my rubber hood, making a soft, hollow sound. The lights from the farmhouse faded and the woods turned a deep ocean black, the pale lantern light illuminating wet silvery bark and wriggling in the gusty wind. I could see moose tracks on the road, huge round prints when seen next to the sharp, cloven hoof prints of deer. The woods smelled of warm rot and spearmint. Charlie pulled me along as we went deeper into the night, far from the hum of the furnace and the ticking of bedside clocks. We were headed into cold and unfamiliar territory, yet my son was strangely heroic, comfortable with his night visions. He was guiding me into his world, a place where sons come face to face with their dreams and fathers rediscover the unknown.
Late that summer, it was another dark night, and I made a stew from the last of the rabbits frozen from last year's hunting season. The cast-iron Dutch oven, filled as it was with game, freshly cut rosemary, white wine, and homegrown potatoes plucked from the root cellar, reminded me once again of the wild things. Over dessert, I asked Charlie if he was ready to take a return trip to the cabin, but on this night he was content to head for a bit of bedtime reading with his mom. I was disappointed that the summer of wild things had run its course, the moose having disappeared and life having now returned to normal. But one of these days, I am going to take my son back to that cabin, past dark shapes in the woods and four-legged shadows at the edge of vision. For now, I'll dream of the two of us, hand in hand, as we walked backward through time, a son leading his father home through the black, wet night.