I’m straining hard to listen; to listen not one-directional but to reach out into the woods with all my senses until I can feel the land like my skin.
A yellow aspen leaf twirls slowly to the ground, one small sun falling out of the sky, and settles with a subtle rustle on the grass at my feet. A breeze ruffles the water, and already there’s a thickness to it as if it’s thinking about winter, about becoming ice. Not that much longer: winter has started to come down the mountains, well into the treeline.
Something out there just shifted. I look over at Sam, at the rifle on his lap. Now I definitely hear a sound: “Uh,” quiet, yet close by. “Was that a bull?” I whisper to Sam, traitor that I am, and nod my head to the right. He lifts the rifle and scans the forest edge. There it is again, soft and questioning: “Uh?”
My heart clenches (does the land, too?) when the bull steps into the open, his head swinging low, sniffing the ground. He’s infinitely beautiful, more at home here than I can ever hope to be, and I don’t want him dead – but this is our meat. How I loathe this contradiction.
“Run,” I think, I beg, and close my eyes in the same moment that the morning explodes. “Run, don’t die, please,” and Sam’s rifle goes off again. I’m shaking and not reaching out into the land any longer, holding my ears shut and clenching my eyes close. I don’t want to feel that moose die.
Eventually, I take a long breath and peer at Sam. “He’s dead,” he says solemnly. “It went so fast.” I nod. The strange ease with which we cease to be, the speed with which the interplay within an organism stops being something whole and separates into individual parts. Where minutes before the moose stood (gangly runner, sun bather, swimmer, willow pruner), only fur and bones and meat and blood remain. The essence has gone.
Hot blood seeps into the soft ground as Sam opens up the carcass. Already the excited chatter of grey jays draws close, a flutter of ghostly wings. High up, a raven flaps by, gives a single croak and keeps moving. We tie out the moose legs. I take the skinning knife and work my way from the belly over the ribs up to the back, lifting and pulling with one hand while slicing with the other. The grey jays tear pieces of fat off the gut pile, briefly vanish into the trees and return for more.
Sam and I work in that state of simultaneous exhaustion and excitement that comes with the hunt. We mutter brief comments: “Lots of fat on this guy,” and “Where’s the sharpener?” Our game bags fill with the tongue, heart, liver, and kidneys, meat scraps and fat. The warm smell of blood, meat, and guts hangs heavy in the air. Loud croaking – the raven is back with reinforcements. Four or five of them clutter in a spruce tree with much flapping of wings, trading back and forth nervous screeches.
Sunshine has reached us now, lighting up the yellow leaves and reviving the blackflies, which begin to swarm all over us. We work more hurriedly, removing the quarters. Staggering under the heavy weight, Sam and I carry them over to the boat. This will be more than one load. A short rest for tea, and finally our job is done. Tired, I crouch down and dip my hands into the icy water. Moose blood blooms from my fingers like anemone tendrils, dances in the current and dissolves.
While Sam starts home with the first load of meat, I stay behind with the rest. The rifle lies at my feet in case a bear shows up. I feel like curling up on this brownish grass, the little pincushion of moss as my pillow, and just going to sleep. The moose has left my mind; it is filled instead with meat and the long, long hours we’ll be cutting, grinding, drying, and canning in the days ahead. I reach for the still green willow leaves behind me, swaying in the wind, and wish I could express how grateful and blessed I am.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.