A moose lifts its head from among the brush and reeds banking an icy algae-green stream. Antlers like some ancient god’s open, skyward claws. Eyes like pink jewels set in its washed-out, near-white fur: ice rotting under a spring sun, snow clinging to a mountain face. The moose raises its head—beard and bell dripping, stiffening with ice from where its been browsing in the stream—and its improbable eyes meet your eyes, locking like shudders, locking like bolts, and from a distance of under one hundred feet, perhaps for the first time in your life, you are seeing and being seen.
What do you do?
If you’re a gang of good old boys out in the Buxton woods, of course, you shoot a round from your .30-06 through the thickly swaying flesh of its throat. Watch it drop in a heap before you, gushing red and choking on itself. Wait for the choking to stop. Drag its body through the crisply shouting January snow, load it up and drop it off at the local tagging station, a convenience store off of Route 117. Leave it for the storeowner, Dale Cummings, to sort out. It is Wednesday and barely past the first dawn of the new year and Dale stands in the diminishing snarl of tires against frost-tight gravel, watching the last faint helix of steam curling up from the angry red gash. Dale has fought in Korea and fought in his kitchen and he’s no longer of an age where he feels prepared for these sorts of things. You try to be good and try to do right. Yet the shit always piles up, often on fire, right outside your door. Dale leaves the still-warm carcass where it lies in the parking lot gravel, steps inside his store and dials up the game warden’s office in New Glouster.
* * *
One would hope it’s too early for anything to have already gone wrong. Lonnie takes the call when it comes in, nods and mm-hmms while tugging a dark curl tucked behind her ear, then puts the call through to Warden Ellis who, one wall and four steps away, picks up and listens, receiver cradled between neck and shoulder, pen in hand hovering above a notepad, but what’s there to remember? Almost nothing. A body. A location. A lack of perpetrator or anything resembling evidence. At his elbow, a styrofoam cup of black coffee grows cold and stale, a foamy ring of scum clinging to the margins. Warden Ellis hangs up and stands, empties the cup swiftly and without tasting, steps out of his office and to the coat rack by Lonnie’s desk.
“Heading down to Buxton or Hollis,” he says, wrestling into his coat. “Whichever. The tagging station down at Dale Cummings’s store.” Errant drops of coffee cling to his mustache hairs. “Some kids shot a moose and dumped it in his lot.”
Like she doesn’t know. Particleboard paneling and a fragrant carpet. This place has never been too big for them.
“Seems rather pointless, all that work.” She doesn’t look up when she speaks: she’s reading something. “Waiting and aiming and shooting and dragging. And for what?” What’s that she’s got? “Why bother?”
“Is that a comic book?”
“A trade paperback,” like he should know better. Lonnie shows him the cover, shadowy figures dissolving into shadowy scenes. Passion and violence or maybe violence disguised as love. A comic book.
“It’s an albino.”
Lonnie cocks her head like any sort of animal. She’s lost. “The suspect?”
She sets down her book. “That’s something else altogether, huh?”
The two of them have been working together out of this tiny office for over a decade. A proximity of bodies and years and seconds. Ellis keeps wondering when she’ll finally start to feel like more than a surrogate kind of sister.
“Maybe they got spooked. Didn’t realize what they were poaching until it was too late.” He’s got his coat on now. Why is he dithering? “I’ll be back before noon.”
“I hope. I do.”
* * *
Once Ellis took a trip out to New York State to visit his brother. It was February and before he left, he’d tossed an orange into the cab of his truck, something to eat on the long trip down, but of course he forgot all about it until he was heading back home later that same day. It was night and freezing and the orange was solid as a stone, hard and pitted like something from space, rimed lightly in pale frost. That’s what the world reminds him of today as he slips through New Glouster and onto I-95 south, the pavement frosted grey, the leafless trees frosted grey, the sunlight and sky frosted grey. He exits near the Portland Jetport and takes Route 22 out past the farms and lumberyards, the nurseries all buttoned up tight for the winter, into the deepening woods, pulls onto Route 117 and pulls up to Dale’s store where Dale is waiting for him, standing outside with his breath erupting like smoke from a furnace—impossible plumes, so much greater than anything he could possibly contain—and there it is, spread out at Dale’s feet like the worst kind of news. Horn and hoof and flanks of dirty white. It makes Ellis’s stomach sour and tight just to see it.
Dale gives a feeble wave as the warden pulls in, parking the truck between the body and the road. He doesn’t want to attract any more attention than necessary. Stepping out into the cold and wind, he tries to make a joke, something about the ex-wife bitterness of the weather, but it’s like Dale can’t even hear him. And maybe he can’t. Ellis has to acknowledge, it might be better that way.
“Them sonsabitches. Such a goddamned shame.” Dale stands with his hands balled and spit frozen in beads to his white beard, and he’s shaking. It’s not entirely clear if it’s only from the cold. “Taking down something so goddamned rare as this, and for what? Not for any greater purpose. Not for a freezer full of steaks. Fucks up our day, Warden.”
Ellis nods, but isn’t listening, is kneeling down beside the body, inspecting the wound, touching the fur. More notable to Ellis than the tarnished whiteness of its coats, its rack is a misshapen nest of hooks and spurs. Less like supplicant palms. More like grasping hands.
“Our day is fucked, this bull is dead, and for what?”
“Well, what you’re saying,” as he peers at its haunches, “is only partly of a truth,” and he points.
Dale squints. Then hunkers down. Gets as close a look as he can.
“Ever seen anything like that before?”
“What’s there to see? Ain’t a thing there.”
Between its legs, a furry nothing where its loins should be. A faint ureic stain. That’s all.
“Fairly common where incest’s concerned.” Ellis stands, walks around the animal. “A bull mounts his daughter and sires a eunuch.” Crouches near the gun-wound. “Born neuter.” The warden strokes the moose’s rent neck, strokes its meaty nose. “Same with the antlers. And the albinism.”
Ellis sniffs and wipes at his nose. “Not common of course. I mean, the odds are…. But when it happens, this is what you get.”
For a moment, both men crouching by this dead animal, the world draws to a stillness. No traffic passing. No wind to bite. Everything briefly condensed into a single pure cell. Then the warden speaks.
“You have any idea who did this?”
He stands to regard the man next to him. Dale is shorter than Ellis, and wiry. Like he’s been scrapping all his life.
“No sir.” Chin up. Chest forward.
“I heard a racket and came on out and there it was all laid out on the ground and that damn pickup riding away.”
“And you didn’t recognize the boys who did it?”
“And you didn’t recognize the truck?”
Dale smiles like he’s agreeing to have a tooth pulled. “What would you have me do, Warden? Say I do know them boys. Then what? See them go to jail? See their families suffer? Maybe they just get a fine. Something more than they can ever pay. It don’t matter. They know I’m the one with the body. If anything comes of it, they’ll know right where it come from.”
“They’re the ones that left it here, Dale. They know your position, that this is a tagging station.”
“Point is, Warden, I don’t know them. And if I did, I’m certain the law can’t fix what’s happened here. No fine or sentence can make this alive again.” But for the wind tossing the frayed edges of his beard, the old man stands perfectly still while he speaks. “The world is a snake eating its own tail. Them boys will get theirs.” He’s not even wearing a coat. “It don’t need to be a state issue.”
Early on in this line, Ellis learned: there is being a representative of your state and its edicts, and there’s being a person among people. One cannot reconcile with the other. Where does procedure fit in? This body will have to be taken to Augusta. It will need to be examined. It will probably end up in the hands of some taxidermists, then eventually in the State House or in a museum. From the moment the bullet left the chamber, it’s been a state issue. But Ellis says none of this.
“Help me get it in the truck.”
By now, a few folks who’ve stopped at the store to buy gas or coffee or cigarettes have taken notice. Ellis backs the pickup around and drops the tailgate and two young guys trot over to help. They grapple hold of legs and hide, count and heave and the body doesn’t rise or land with much grace, but the warden suspects that grace has never had much to do with death. Everyone tumbles like a string-cut puppet. Everyone shits their pants. He once heard that the men being led to execution have to wear diapers for this reason. Where’s the dignity in that? Being gassed to death in a diaper. Before a firing squad, blindfolded, in a diaper. Ellis thanks the boys for their help, then rolls out a canvas tarp over the body and ties it down. Latches the tailgate. Shakes hands with Dale in the sharp morning light and drives away, leaving the old man alone with his store and his fists and a near-black pool congealing on the ground.
* * *
Warden Ellis doesn’t get far before digging out his cell phone and calling his office, updating Lonnie on the details of the situation.
“We’re probably going to want to get the boys on top involved.”
“Yeah, that’s a likely assumption.” Lonnie sounds tired. “Shall I give them a ring?”
“If you would.” Even so early on these vacant holiday roads, there are still now and then cars ahead of or behind or passing him. Who are these people? Why aren’t they home? Why aren’t they sleeping? “Did you have a good time out last night?”
“Oh, it was fine. Hung around at my sister’s until midnight, then headed for home.”
“She having a party?”
“A party is what it was.”
Heading the opposite direction, a sheriff’s cruiser passes Ellis. They wave.
“I’m sorry, Lonnie. I should have given you the day off today.”
“Like everyone else in the world?”
“Like everyone else in the world.”
He wants to offer her the rest of the day off. But he needs her. He can’t fix this situation on his own.
“Get a hold of the boys in Augusta, then call me back. Let me know if I’m heading up there directly or back to the New Glouster station first.”
“Sure thing, Warden.”
He could make her his wife, probably. Or maybe at least just live together for a while. It could be fun. He’s certain, he would take good care of her.
“As soon as this is over, I swear I’ll make it up to you.”
“I will.” And he believes it, too.
* * *
Driving back to Maine through the ink-black New York night, crossing state lines, Ellis held the frost-stiff orange to his lips, breathing hotly until a soft spot in the rind emerged. Then he bit a hole through the skin and nursed the frozen meat, coaxing out the juice and flesh, one cold drop at a time.
* * *
There are incidents of bodies and incidents of gravity and sometimes they’re the same thing. Back in Portland, the highway cloverleaf is closed. In the hour or so that the warden spent negotiating the animal’s carcass, a cement truck from Auburn overturned at the base of the off-ramp, spilling hot concrete all over the pavement. No one can get through until the mess has been cleaned. Ellis bypasses the accident and finds a detour, drives further into the outskirting industrial territories around Portland—donut shops and gas stations, towering medical facilities and a single sparkling-new commuter railyard—until he can merge onto 295. It’s not the highway he wants, but it will get him where he needs to go. All obstacles have paths that supercede.
Meanwhile, the tarp behind him snaps violently. It’s a bad habit of his, never tying it down tightly enough. A man in his profession, he is certain, should not be so bad with knots. He makes it through the city and now the highway is picking up pace—he is driving through the frozen salt marshes of Falmouth, a meandering paisley of ice shouldered in humps of frosted grass, tufting like mussed hair—and he cranes his head around to check the tarp (still good) but as he’s turning back to face forward, he sees something off the highway. Amid the paisley ice. Among the humping grass. Just a glimpse, something pale and pink. It’s his job to stop, but that’s not why he does. Warden Ellis pulls off the highway onto the shoulder’s crunching ice and snow. Clicks on his hazard lights. Leaves the engine running and heads out into the marsh.
In the warmer months, this is a tidal creek ribboning eventually into the bay. Slow and deliberate. Sometimes flowing backwards. Beyond the marsh stands a copse of denuded swamp maple and poplar, then the opening mouth of Casco Bay. Eider ducks bobbing on the surface. Crows or seagulls slowly circling. All sorts of things unseen beneath the water’s face, and Ellis cannot see that pale shape anymore. Not a glimpse amid the dormant earth, the frozen creek. He remembers, though, vaguely where it had been. Crossing the marsh’s banks, fording the ice when necessary, the warden cuts as straight and true a path as possible, and when he finds the littered clothes on the stomped-down grass and finally finds the man, naked and submerged in a hole punched through the ice, not so much pink now as blue, he isn’t all that surprised. Ellis kneels down and grapples with the man, hooks first an armpit, then an arm, drags the body out of the water and onto the ground. Chances are, he meant to drown. The shock of the water convinced him to hold his breath. The warden slaps the man to get his eyes open, to get his lungs inflating less sluggishly, and as the man’s head lolls from side to side, disoriented, seeking, Ellis can see that, though young, this man is going bald. But why should he notice this? Of all the things. The few patches of hair the man has left have been shaved, but still: the stubble forms a map of strange continents across his skull.
There’s no point in trying to dress him out here: Ellis takes off his heavy coat and wraps it around the man, lifts up his wet and freezing body, carries him through the marsh. Settles him in the passenger seat of the truck. Cranks the heat on high.
“You got a name, son?”
“Is there anyone with you?”
“I’m going to go get your clothes. I’ll be right back.”
The man keeps his eyes closed, chin to chest, seems to be nodding to himself. As if listening to a lesson he understands and should have already known. Ellis backtracks through the marsh to fetch the man’s clothes.
The ice here is fairly thick. Ellis is certain, if he searched, he’d find a large stone directly beneath the hole. On the bank alongside, Ellis gathers up the scattered clothes. Searches the pockets. No wallet. No keys. Nothing. In the inside pocket of the jacket, Ellis finds a security badge for an engineering firm that he knows went under last year. Something about a lawsuit, employees feeling harassed, et cetera. In the badge’s photograph, the man still has his hair. It’s clear that soon it will all be gone. Beside the photo is an employee number and barcode and the unlikely name Cuthbert Grant. Ellis fingers the ID and wonders who would do that to their child, bestow an awkward historical name so clearly over the heads of almost anyone he might ever meet.
In the front pocket of the jacket, Ellis finds a comic book rolled into a tube. From what he can glean from skimming its pages, it’s a noir-story about a writer who’s given himself wholly to the characters borne of his own imagination. It’s called The Book of Hours. Looking out across the ice and grassy dunes to the highway and his truck and the man slumped inside, Ellis cannot imagine who this man might be.
* * *
Above the highway, a plastic shopping bag catches in the limbs of a winter grey poplar, shushing and flailing in the wind. The warden helps the man dry off and get dressed and get back into the now hot pickup cab. Beyond that, he’s at a loss. No other cars parked on the highway shoulder. No address on the ID. Not a word from the man himself.
“Is there any place you’d like to go?”
“I’m legally obligated to take you to a hospital.”
“Heap of trouble.”
Ellis takes the man out for an early lunch. What else is there to do? He pulls the truck back onto the highway and takes the nearest exit, stops at a diner with a neon sign and mirrors running the length of the counter. The illusion of greater spaces. The man follows Ellis without speaking, without looking up, slumps into a corner booth and fiddles with the silverware.
When the waitress arrives, gum-snapping and youthfully bored, Ellis orders a coffee and a grilled cheese with tomato.
“My friend here’ll have the same.”
She raises her eyebrows in a parody of surprise while taking down the order on her pad, then leaves. From where they are sitting, they can see no windows. Most of the patrons are obscured. Even the mirrors are no help. They have nothing but one another.
“Your ID says you’re Cuthbert Grant.”
“Did your parents mean that as some sort of joke?”
The man turns over one hand, moves it slowly away. It seems like that sort of gesture should mean something, but somehow Ellis doubts it.
The waitress brings their coffees, is gone again. He wonders why she should be so surly, so unhappy, then remembers: it’s a holiday. Working today has ruined the night before. Why is he the only person in this whole world unconcerned with the date? The warden looks around the diner to get a look at the patrons—their heft or sag, the weight of their lives and the grace with which it’s carried—but still, he can’t make out anything about them. There are some days, he can see for miles. An eagle on a moss-hoary limb. A man slipping under river ice. Why can’t he see now?
“There was this time a while ago when I was visiting my brother in New York State.” It’s strange, he thinks, how this keeps occurring to him, this one episode. “It was about this time of year, maybe later, and when I showed up at his place, he weren’t there. Still at work or something, I supposed. So I waited for a while, then went for a walk out in the woods behind his house. I got pretty deep out there, too, not really paying any attention. This was around the same time my wife had decided to leave me, so I suppose I had a lot on my mind. Distracted. I only say so because when I came out of the woods at the pond, I took it to be a meadow or pasture of some kind. Just a big open area covered in snow. Didn’t think nothing of it until suddenly I was two feet shorter and soaked through up past my knees. I remember it being like a slap, or like somebody’d just shaken me awake. A reset button. Everything before that was a kind of walking coma. Then all at once”—and he claps his hands together—“I’m awake.”
The man is staring down at the table. After a moment, the waitress slides a sandwich in front of him. So now he’s staring at a sandwich.
“I’m going to wager a guess,” the warden says, “that’s not how you feel right now.”
But maybe this is what he’s been hoping for. Maybe this is what he meant. This man is named Cuthbert and this man looks up at him with his jaw set and his mouth firm, ice-chip eyes meeting Ellis’s and locking in. It’s just like he’s falling through.
“I’m not usually one to say such things,” and his voice is like a shovel into rough earth, “but your loneliness is a poison.”
“Well sir, that—”
“You’re a man with a dead moose in his pickup.” He pauses long enough for his statement to sink in. “You’re cruising around the countryside scraping the dead up off the side of the road so you can take it all home with you. Make it warm. Buy it dinner.” Ever so slightly, Cuthbert leans forward. So slightly, the warden leans away. “And you expect me to somehow identify with you?”
It’s like watching a zeppelin fill up into its fullness, the slowness with which Cuthbert rises from and leaves the table. And maybe there’s been a third option, too. Maybe those boys in the Buxton woods knew exactly what they were seeing. Something rare and finite. Something no one else would likely see again. Unless they intervened.
From where he is sitting, the warden cannot see Cuthbert leave. So he stands. He wants to tell him about the fear that took over once he realized he was so far from anyone’s help. He wants to tell him of the clenching panic as he rushed back through the woods, uncertain that he would make it back to his brother’s house. How he had waited in his truck with the heat on, his brother’s locked door just yards away, until it was late and he’d already figured out that nobody’d be coming home tonight. From here, the warden cannot see. So he stands.
For a moment, a man steps out into the world. Where the pavement meets the earth. Where metal and glass succumb to water, to air. In that same moment, something steps forward from that world, the briar and scrub, the green scum of the water’s face. Its anatomy a balance between majesty and farce. The one set of eyes meets the other set of eyes from across a grey distance and they lock. Each validating by seeing. Each negating by turning away.
What do you do?