In marshes, you can't track the tidal creep the way you might on a beach. The water climbs in unmarked centimeters, lacking the drama and crescendo of advancing surf, as it falls slowly into shifting, moon-stretched contours.
Those antlers mounted there, with the bullet puncture between the skull’s sockets, are familiar. I must decline your invitation. You see, I went out hunting once already, twenty three years ago.
Back then, I’d lived with an uncle named Roger. I didn’t call him that. Only, "Uncle." Uncle was a blatant drunk, though I doubted alcohol was his principal ailment and suspected it secondary to some deeper affliction. The man was plagued by unshakable fixations, launching relentless campaigns that were followed by dark sedentary stretches when he’d neither eat nor work, only drink to sleep.
The two of us lived in Bremen, Maine, just west of Friendship in a three-room house, ramshackled by time, dilapidated by Uncle. The damp, salt-wind had corroded then broken its iron nails, skewing the weather-gray shingles and streak-staining them orange with rust. Existence was bleak and prospects bleaker. I was miserable except for loving a tricolor beagle, a merry little thing, my exclusive source of joy, and, in retrospect and by virtue of her pedigree, clearly stolen.
As far as I could reason, Uncle’s unsteady occupation was handiwork and he reserved most of his efforts for his sparse employers. Every once in a while though, he was occasioned to a sudden energetic spell when he’d undertake some domestic project, excel through a fraction, then lose all momentum to whiskey and slumber, gifting us with two front stairs out of three, a waist-high stone fireplace, and a hole above in the shake-shingle roof.
Uncle had grand plans for that fireplace. And, what would go above.
Several years earlier, the State of Maine instituted a sham lottery for moose hunt licenses that obviously favored the summer seasonals venturing north a final time before the state frosted. Some came for our technicolor foliage, but others came for our beasts: bear, elk, moose. Trophy satisfied, those virile representatives of the Second Estate returned to unfrozen Boston society, while ice crystals crept across our blood-brined marshes.
Uncle was at the butcher’s when one party returned. The season was late and the bull colossal. It took ten men to drag the creature onto the wagon.
The hunter, a retired capitalist with weak shoulders and faux machismo, surrendered the bulk of the animal, requesting only a sampler from various parts of the flank, rib, and breast. And, of course, the antlers. He’d already settled on the wall space in his main hall for the mount. A cousin recommended some taxidermist back in Cambridge, so this particular capitalist required only the animal’s decapitation before his party loaded the skull into a brand new trailer and retreated south.
"A rigged system deserves no respect," Uncle told me, while we ate venison that night. I was a child and didn’t understand, not the laurels of wealth nor men haunted from the inside out. But the meat was plentiful. Even the dog got scraps.
Uncle dreamed of the moose for the next year’s entirety. The righteous subversion pinballed inside his mangled mind towards a singular aspiration: antlers mounted above some hypothetical fireplace, for which we hadn't the space. He delayed construction till the inopportune turn of the seasons, selling our wood stove before completion and welcoming the October evening chill through a tarped tear in the ceiling. Uncle never thought of the chill only of the antlers: how he’d mount them, what screws they’d require, whether the bone should be sealed with polyurethane...
The morning we went out, Uncle woke me laughing. His tarp had faltered beneath the fall snow and the sleet soaked our already-warped floorboards. Uncle pointed from our one-hinge door to the forest’s edge, through the snowfall as it died into cascading slush. "Moose weather," he called it. "Tonight’s the night. Moose weather." Few would agree, but that evening we bundled into everything we owned, every pant pair, every sweater, into unpatched jackets, then slung rifles shoulder-cross. Uncle tucked our serrated knife into his only buttoned pocket and slid his 0.44 caliber into his waistband. We went into the forest.
The autumn snowstorm ended a few hours before we went out. Us and the dog. We combed the snow-gessoed forest, scoping the low-lying swamps and timber-skirted openings where limbs sagged under heavy flakes, melt pounding the floor into cacophony, those violent puddles momentarily reflecting the sunset’s cerulean and crimson before its orb slipped the horizon and dusk dropped, rendering all murky. With every step, the forest floor dampened beneath my thin-soled shoes. Along my heel, toes, and soles, skin lifted. Fluid bubbled between and popped skin along bloated ridges. I winced at the ruptures, subsequent rawness compounding pain, and eventually gasped. Uncle hit me for the exclamation.
Dark fell, no light but the mounting gibbous, whose rays shadowed the fearsome forest with darting demons and writhing wraiths. "Right there!" Uncle whispered, his pupils pinpricks, even in the dark. "Right up there!"
After immeasurable time, we reached the forest’s end, a strong line against the salt marsh a step further. Momentarily, I imagined he’d turn, but Uncle descended the sludgy embankment, peat to ankles, into the water.
The uneven marsh dipped and welled. Testing the quagmire, I stumbled and sank, numb legs unfeeling of the feel barnacles' scrape. Uncle, too far ahead for physical castigation, looked back in reproach at the sloshing and I preemptively recoiled.
Without warning, several minutes in, Uncle stopped, framed by the lunar corona, whose moonbeams were diffracted by the slush-mist into a bullseye. I froze. So did the dog. Uncle took the gun from his waistband, cocked, turned, and paused, looking out towards the ocean, sunken sockets and hooked nose silhouetted, gun scoping wind-whisped clouds as it bobbed on his elbow-propped forearm. His shoulders squared, his profile disappeared, a moonbeam brushed the steel barrel, pointed in my direction.
The gunshot shattered the silence, then fell mute on the echoless morass. I was too cold, I imagined, for my nerves to know the pain of puncture. While I waited to die into the marshy sludge, a great beast wavered behind me. I hadn’t seen it. The dog hadn’t barked. But the moose had been out there, ten yards away. And, when the creature fell, the Earth shook in its entirety; every molecule, every atom, every particle trembling, my own included.
Uncle waded over. He’d hit it right between the eyes.
The moose was propped by gnarled antler, neck above the brackish waterline like a coastal granite outcrop, bony obtrusions clawing the night sky. Uncle hugged me in celebration, then went to work on the neck, sawing with the dull, serrated blade he’d brought along in his pocket. He ordered me to the skull, to pull the antlers forward and taught the throat, but I made little difference as I stood at the helm, staring into the animal’s dead eyes, cataract white bulbs bulging from furry sockets. The corpse offered relief from the cold. I tucked my body beneath the bull’s chin. Braced thus, I slipped and Uncle kicked my flank, catching the water’s surface with his boot and spraying the beast too before he went back to work.
The blade hardly punctured hide, but Uncle persisted. Those antlers were his to claim. So, frenzied, he sawed, shearing muscle and tissue to only an inch in the first half hour, then he stabbed, blade buckling against the bull’s esophagus. I watched from the skull, feigning pressure on the antler’s crepey, springtime cover, which sloughed from the bone beneath my palms.
In marshes, you can’t track the tidal creep the way you might on a beach. The water climbs in unmarked centimeters, lacking the drama and crescendo of advancing surf, as it falls slowly into shifting, moon-stretched contours. I only noticed the advance when the dog lost its footing. She yipped and swam, seeking out some foothold, and aimed to mount the carcass, but Uncle swatted her away and so she sought ground at a wider radius, then regretted abandoning her small, cruel pack and doubled back, yipping, begging us to follow. She clawed my legs and I looked down, her massive ears floating like paddles, her desperate little nose bubbling the water. I lifted her into my arms and Uncle grabbed me by the hair. He pinned me to the bull’s stomach and held the gory, tissue wrapped blade an inch from my throat.
"I’m sorry!" I begged. "I’m sorry!" I dropped her.
Uncle returned to the neck and watched me back to the antlers.
After a while, the yipping stopped.
Clouds blew in and covered the moon. The marsh leached the dead creature’s warmth. Soon, the water was at my waist and soon after my shoulder. The rifle heavied in the swell, seeking out the marsh bottom. I fell into a divot and submerged, depth dragged by the rifle, before I found a grassy island and breached, gasping.
"Give that to me." Uncle seized the barrel.
In the following minutes, the waterline grazed my chin. Then, I couldn’t stand. Hardly a swimmer, I treaded, searching out some platform, but infirm mounds disintegrated beneath my feet and so I begged, brine spewing from my mouth. "Please! Let me go back."
Uncle cocked the gun. "Don’t you fucking leave. I swear to God. I’ll shoot you if you."
Despite the protest, his own resolve was failing. The water crept above the moose’s gargantuan neck and the submerged sawing turned clumsy and fumbling. He dropped the knife.
"FUCK!" Uncle cursed, rocking with rage. "FUCK!" He pushed my head below water so long my lungs nearly faltered. Death a minute away, fireworks exploded across my dark, damp world, red and orange and green and magenta dancing then dissolving with a gasp and breath, an oxygen rush white-out fading to static and black. Ahead, Uncle charged through the marsh towards the shore.
I treaded behind, fast as I might, jaunty flails impersonating stroke. Just before the bank, I brushed something: furry, the right size, dead. Maybe the dog made it out, maybe she didn’t. It was impossible to say in the dark.
I crawled to shore, palming the slick vegetation and slipping back twice before pulling my torso over the bank. I don’t remember the return walk but for the conviction I was dying, possessed by an unprecedented and never-since-matched cold. My jaw chattered so violently that my three remaining baby teeth chipped. Up ahead, far enough to guess he’d forgotten me, Uncle vowed his return to the deaf evergreens. "I’ll be back! Tomorrow, I’ll be back!"
At home, Uncle lapsed into a long slumber. I lay naked beneath my blankets, unthawing, then wrapped myself in one and sat on the wet lawn beneath the budding dawn light. Uncle woke the next afternoon, only a few hours of sun remaining. So we went out again and this time with a borrowed saw.
On the quag fringe, I smelled the twinge of decomposition in the breeze. And, the corpse was there, rising from the middle of the rot-rank marsh. Decapitated. Someone had sawed through, clean. Scarlet-brown oozed from his severed esophagus and maggots somersaulted in the cavity. Uncle’s antlers were gone. Stolen, he’d say. Taken along with their bullet-breached skull that I assume, once de-brained and macerated, must have resembled yours.
About the Creator
Jacqueline is a Boston Proper defector now settled in Santa Cruz, California. She has two eyes, two ears, four less permanent teeth than the average adult, and one tattoo of a roller skating sheet ghost on her left ankle.