by Isabelle McNeur .
Runner-up prize, 2021.
I’ve found a clearing. The sun barely gets through the branches, but here on the ground there’s a patch of uneven grass. You could fit a corner dairy in it if you squeezed. I’m sitting just behind the treeline, hidden by fog and helpful leaves. I intimidated the guy back at camp into telling me where he had the sighting last week, then I went off track and set up camp.
I take a swig from the can of beer down near my feet. Adjust my bra, then my camera. A thousand years ago I was a photography major. Now I’m an online shopping assistant. When people order their groceries online I go around Countdown and put the food into a cart, load it into plastic bags ready for delivery. At least I did until one week ago. That was when my girlfriend, Sophie, told me we were over. After four hours of fighting and crying and throwing each other’s homemade vases, I ducked out to use the toilet. Sophie stood outside the door, pleading with me not to do anything rash. I scribbled a note and wedged it under the bobblehead turtle magnet, the one on the mirror that dances when you high-five it.
The note said: I’ve gone to find the moose.
Then I climbed out the bathroom window.
The Fiordland moose have been extinct since the 60s. So they say. In the 1910s they brought over a pack of moose to New Zealand and released them into the Fiordland wildlands. They stayed hidden for a long time. Officially, the last one died in the 60s on the end of a hunter’s bullet. But there have been sightings. Moose hair has been found as recently as 2015. Even with all our modern technology, there are parts of the Fiordlands we haven’t found. Impossible terrain, trees so dense you can’t see anything from a helicopter. They’re out here somewhere.She’d loomed over me in all her 6’2 glory and smiled, exposing those perfect crooked teeth
Sophie agreed that there could be moose here on our second date. We were in the Botanic Gardens, standing under a gnarled willow tree that turned the light green. Sophie’s head scraped the leaves. She’d loomed over me in all her 6’2 glory and smiled, exposing those perfect crooked teeth.
“Maybe I’ll come with you,” she’d said. “When you go.”
Ever since then I’d think about it as I was falling asleep: me and Sophie eating packaged jerky, using a compass, making a bridge out of a fallen tree. We’d be wearing the little rain poncho I’m wearing now. Soft misty rain even though it’s the end of summer. It rained the only other time I was here, that summer with dad when I was eleven. He had moose on the brain too. He wanted to shoot one, bring it to mum. He thought it meant she’d take him back. He used to talk about the three of us eating at the dinner table with those giant antlers sitting above a fireplace we didn’t have. I think in this fantasy we were rich.
“Just you wait,” he kept saying as we crouched in the underbrush, scanning for movement as I handed him warm beers. “Just you wait.”
He’s in an old folks home now, up in the West coast. mum’s still living with the husband she married when I was 16. His name’s Craig. He’s okay.
Dad still thinks about it sometimes: dumping that giant carcass at her feet. Planting one boot on it like in the movies. The thing is, mum doesn’t even like hunting. She tolerated it for a few dates. After that, dad went hunting alone and learned not to show her the gory photos.She thought it was cute, the two of us chasing those mythical moose
I don’t want to shoot a moose. I like believing they’re out here the way some people believe in God: out there on another plane of existence, unseen and unknowable. Sometimes I hope I never see one, that no one ever sees them and they roam free and alone forever.
Still. I’d give my right arm for one of them to come striding into the clearing right now, moss crushing gently under its hoofs, those big brown eyes gazing into mine. Come find me. Do they want to be found, deep in some dark furtive place inside their furry chests? My camera’s ready, has been for hours. It’s on a stand, I’ve covered it with its own little rain poncho which was supposed to be Sophie’s. The Fiordlands would’ve been our honeymoon. She thought it was cute, the two of us chasing those mythical moose.
“It makes me sad they didn’t have a choice in coming here,” she’d said one night as she shaved her legs. I’d been brushing my teeth at the sink, high-fiving the turtle magnet and already missing her wiry legs. She shaved twice a year. The next few nights would be strange smoothness. I was always glad when it gave way to stubble, then thick downy hair that stayed for six months or more.
“But I hope they made a nice home in the Fiordlands,” she’d continued. “I hope they’re happy.”
The rain mists down around my poncho. I take another mouthful of beer, squish the can in the dirt next to the crumpled empties. Do the moose miss home? Do their hooves yearn for flat forest? Do they resent these steep hills and valleys, the endless textures of dense green? I do. I long for the never ending stairs up to the apartment, turning my keys in the front door, opening it into the bright red hallway. Hi honey I’m home. Home is where the heart is. If that’s true, my home is a thousand kilometers away in Palmerston North. Probably eating a cheese toastie. I picture her huddled under the cafe porch, cramming bread in her mouth so she still has time left on her break to read. I picture us waking up together: those brown eyes opening into mine, her big limbs held in so she didn’t push me out of our single bed. Warm beery breath. Bulby collarbone under my mouth. Coarse fur under her pits, over her crotch. I’d feel at it when sloughing into consciousness, comforted in a way I never understood.Do the moose miss home? Do their hooves yearn for flat forest?
Now I sleep in a leaky one-person tent, my arms holding air. Paradise, dad had said once. This was before the bugs got us. We’re on our own out here, dad had said as we scratched ourselves stupid the next morning. We can do anything we want.
I had called dad just before I got on the helicopter. He’d been ecstatic.
“Bring me back some antlers,” he’d said. Glass clinking in the background. A softness that appeared after his third heart attack: “Even if you don’t, sweetheart, it’s a good chance to get away. Be by yourself.”
Wild. Undetected. I’m off the track now, so I really am undetected. Let them find me years from now, growing lichen and water stains in my own little carved-out hole of the world. If they try to take me back I’ll run away, make some new world to hide in.
I’m on my fifth beer when I close my eyes and think of a moose wandering off from its herd, fur slick and gleaming, eyelashes as long as my pointer finger and just as thick. Not looking at me, not interested in being watched at all. It lives its life in private, dwelling in the hidden places. If a moose is alone in the forest and no one is around to hear it –
A twig cracks, barely audible over the sleepy rain.
I freeze. Another wet crunch. A figure lumbers behind the treeline. Big brown eyes shine through the fog.
My breath catches in my throat.
“Hey,” I say. “You came.”
The figure hesitates. Then it steps out into the clearing.