of feathers and bones

It stuck out of the snow like the hand of an avalanche victim: one stubby brown antler of a yearling moose, a brief message in code. I went closer to investigate. There were great tufts of fur around it, long snowed in, and that was all I could find.

It stuck out of the snow like the hand of an avalanche victim: one stubby brown antler of a yearling moose, a brief message in code.

I went closer to investigate.

There were great tufts of fur around it, long snowed in, and that was all I could find. When I pushed at the antler, it fell loose, a bit of the skull plate still attached to its base. I took the antler home.

An unhappy tale, the story of a young bull’s first winter on his own and his bad luck or inability to protect himself. I hope it wasn’t Broccoli Boy, who came into our garden last winter with his mom and developed a strange taste for the frozen leftover stems of broccoli plants in our raised beds. Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things which individual moose it was, but I can’t help and wonder how the animals fare that I’ve seen on a more frequent basis.

I much prefer the antlers that come with happier stories attached, the ones that speak of success. We have found a whole collection of those over the years, caribou, moose, and even deer antlers, that were mostly cast after the rut by adult animals. An oddball among these is one broken off moose antler palm, neatly sheared off across the widest part. The trees surrounding it were gauged with deep slash marks. I have no idea what we actually want with all these antlers but the urge to bring them home can’t be thwarted.

A couple of the moose antlers serve as our coat racks and some we have turned into door handles, but that still leaves an ever-growing multitude of them snaking up one wall of our cabin. I guess it is the kind of interior decor you end up with over the years out here, fluid brown and grey shapes that branch out more every year like a trellised fruit tree.

A bit of the animal’s essence seems to be still caught in it, the bouncing, leggy gait of caribou frozen in the elegant sweep of their antlers and the heft of a moose bull distilled in its massive horn palm. The deer antlers, on the other hand, are just as small and fine-boned as the animals themselves, conjuring up a light-footed escape through the trees.

What is this fascination we have with bones and feathers and antlers, this urge to touch them and cart them home? From potions, ornaments, and instruments to tools and status symbols, our species hasn’t been able to leave bones and antlers alone. The same goes for feathers, of which Sam and I have entire bouquets the way people down south display flower arrangements: grouse, raven, kestrel, and eagle. You’d think that some of the magic of flight still resides in them or that we hope the elegance and beauty of the animal could rub off on us.

Skulls are different yet, more eerie and at the same time more intriguing. We’ve only found three: that of a snowshoe hare, of an otter, and of a young black bear, the way you do out in the bush. A sudden smooth glint of white among the underbrush, the token of a life lived and lost. As with the antlers, I couldn’t resist them, their strange beauty, and brought them home with me.

The bear skull is quite narrow, except for the flare of bone underneath the eye sockets, and rests on its chipped canine teeth. Its oval eye sockets stare emptily above the sweep of bone fanning out underneath and backwards, to where the ears used to be. The even larger nose hole is honeycombed with fine, brittle cartilage or bone. The story of the bear’s short life and death is encapsulated in this cage of bone, in silence.

This weekend, my eyes kept wandering to the skull, death in solid form, as Sam and I sat before the radio and listened to the horror unfolding in Japan. If my sub-conscience tried to grasp the unimaginable, however, to find some kind of solace in that graceful shell of bone, I must say it failed. It speaks to me only of emptiness, of what has been lost and cannot be recaptured.

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.

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