by Tanya Bellehumeur-Allatt
On the last day of moose season, Sylvaine’s father came scowling into the kitchen. He kicked a chair and threw his buffalo plaid jacket onto the upturned legs.
“In the woods since five and nothing to show for it.”
Twelve-year-old Sylvaine stepped away from the toaster to let him retrieve his coffee mug from the cupboard. She knew better than to address her father when he was in one of his moods.
But her mother, who’d already finished breakfast and was poring over the store accounts at the kitchen table, spoke up. “I thought we could drive to Pieville this morning, to George’s farm. The woods around his place are full of moose.”
She wasn’t wearing the knee-length dress and high heels which she usually wore to tend the shop annexed to the house. Instead, she’d put on one of her husband’s work shirts and a pair of pants she’d fashioned that winter from a neighbour’s cast-off wool coat. She’d made a similar pair for Sylvaine. They were warm, but the coarse material made Sylvaine’s thighs chafe when she walked.
Her father slurped his coffee. He liked it black and scalding. He also popped a handful of pills. “What do you know about it?”
Her mother did not look up from the ledger. “You’ve got until sundown. I’ll pack a lunch. If we’re in the car by nine, we’ll be at George’s by ten. I’ve asked Margot to mind the shop.”
Sylvaine prayed he’d accept. Her father prided himself on being the best caller in Temiscamingue since he’d shot his first bull moose as a boy, in the pasture behind the family homestead in 1926. He could be mean when he was angry or depressed—with a critical spirit and a withering tongue that kept her older brothers far from the village and made Sylvaine think twice before leaving her room. If the season ended without a moose, he would be miserable, and she’d have to wear long-sleeve turtlenecks to hide her bruises and welts from her classmates.
Her mother left the ledger on the table and pulled two slices of bread from the bag next to the toaster. “Make yourself a sandwich,” she told Sylvaine. She poured the rest of the steaming coffee into the thermos Sylvaine’s father took to the mine every weekday morning. “She’s old enough to come along,” she said to her husband. “And she’s quick to learn.”
Sylvaine stood immobile, waiting. She looked at her father. With a pen from the telephone stand, he traced two sets of moose tracks on a paper napkin. “You’ll keep your nose in the dirt and do the tracking.” He thrust the napkin at Sylvaine. “What’s important is the distance between the legs. A female’s rear leg spread is wider than a male’s.”
Sylvaine squeezed her knees together. Her father’s words made her feel dirty, but she was proud that he wanted her on the hunt. With four sons, he rarely had need of his daughter, his youngest child. She traced the tracks on the napkin with her finger and looked at her mother, who nodded with approval.
“I’ll help you get your moose,” Sylvaine said. Now that her brothers were gone, she would prove to her father how valuable she could be.
He coughed up a thick gob of phlegm and spat into the sink. “Just make sure you stay out of my way.”
On the outskirts of Pieville, they left the pickup at her uncle George’s farm.
“Haven’t killed one yet?” George called from atop his tractor.
“Shut up,” her father said.
“My bulls don’t have time to answer your calls,” George said. “They’re too busy servicing their cows.”
Her parents didn’t flinch, but Sylvaine’s underarms went sticky inside her oversized hunting jacket. George looked like an older, more wrinkled version of her father. Both brothers had the black hair, tanned skin and squat build of their Algonquin mother, and the massive hands and muscular upper body of their French-Canadian father. Both wore permanent frowns.
“It was my idea to come here.” Her mother shielded her eyes to look at George. The October sun directly behind him made Sylvaine’s eyes hurt.
“Little Doric must be desperate if he’s following a woman’s plan,” George said.
Her father tightened his grip on his Winchester. “I’ll need your help with the carcass,” he said to his brother.
“We’ll see about that.”
They walked through the cornfield to the edge of the woods. From there, it was a two-hour trek into the bush to a pond connected to the Coulogne River, the Lac au Barrage and the Grandes Chutes—once a popular waterway for the Algonquin people and the coureurs de bois in the fur trade, now used by the logging industry to send wood downstream. While she searched the ground for the two long curved prints, facing inward, with two tiny marks behind, Sylvaine imagined her parents were Radisson and Grosseilliers, the most famous and intrepid of the coureurs, and she was their trading partner.
Her father led the way by reading the leaf growth and moss on the trees. “You read the signs in the soil,” he said. “And I’ll read the trees and foliage.” He told her he’d hunted his brother’s woods many times before for wild turkey, grouse and rabbit, as well as large game.
“A true woodsman,” her father said, “uses his senses as a compass. The nose he uses like a dog, to catch a scent on the ground or in the wind. The eyes are to study the trees and the forest floor. The ears to detect any movement.” He stopped to listen with his ear to the ground the way the boys in Béarn listened for the train.
Sylvaine tried to keep her eyes down, but they kept drifting back to her parents. They made an odd couple. One was square-shouldered and short, at less than five foot four. The other was tall and thin, her long-legged body graceful, even when wrapped in brown handspun cloth. Curly tendrils poked out from the kerchief she had fastened around her forehead. When they broke into a clearing, her reddish hair shone with golden highlights. Sylvaine was proud to have inherited her mother’s best feature. She wasn’t sure what she’d gotten from her dad. She was already almost as tall as he was, though it wasn’t a fact anyone dared to point out.
“No time to stop,” he said when her mother leaned against a spruce to catch her breath.
She rolled spruce gum into a ball with her fingers and passed it to Sylvaine to chew. “This will give you energy.”
In the woods, her father walked without a limp and never complained about discomfort. But in town he suffered frequent headaches and joint pain. He had a kitchen cupboard full of medication in addition to three shelves’ worth in the bathroom vanity. Her mother blamed his addiction on the village doctor who doubled as the only pharmacist within a hundred-kilometer range. Last summer, when he’d mixed his fifteen daily pills with alcohol, she’d grown frantic and said that one day, thanks to Doctor Boutin, her husband would kill himself.
When her father saw the telltale marks of moose scraping on a white birch, he pulled a couple of dry sticks from the breast pocket of his hunting jacket. He broke them, threw them on the ground and imitated a low bull grunt that sounded like a loud hiccup.
Sylvaine was proud that her father spoke the language of the woods, the way her grandmother could sing in Ojibway after a couple glasses of elderberry wine. She knew he was embarrassed, this late in the season, not to have already killed a moose. Each day for the past two weeks, every man who’d met him in the store or on the street had inquired about his progress. Sylvaine could anticipate the conversation as she saw them approach.
“Kill one yet?”
“Bourbonnais, yer losing yer touch.”
At which point her father would grumble and move away, dismissing the other man and ending the conversation.
Sylvaine ate her sandwich, careful not to make any chewing sounds and to walk lightly as her father had shown her, so that not even a bird would be startled until the three of them were almost upon it.
“Why aren’t you making the cow bawling sound?” her mother asked.
“I’m not wasting my time imitating a female. That’s for amateurs.” He was walking more slowly now, stopping frequently to read the trees for spots where bull antlers might have rubbed. “I want the bull to think I’m male competition.”
The peanut butter sandwich and the long walk had made Sylvaine sleepy. But even when her vision grew blurry, she continued staring at the ground. There was plenty of deer sign, but not the soft, shiny scat or the clean, sharp-edged tracks that she was looking for. When her father finally signaled to stop in a small clearing at the edge of a beaver pond, Sylvaine wanted to stretch out on the bed of moss and fallen leaves, but there were droppings everywhere.
She squatted low. There was a path through the dead grass, and lots of tracks. Her father examined the new willows, then pulled a moose shoulder bone out of his hunting bag. He rubbed it against one of the trees and made the hiccupping-grunt sound again.
Sylvaine’s mother stooped next to a dead log and gathered oyster mushrooms into her empty sandwich bag. She was the most elegant woman in their small town, raised in a household of women, an excellent seamstress and the owner of Béarn’s only general store, but she’d developed an affinity for the Temiscamingue wilderness that almost matched her husband’s.
Sylvaine wanted to gather with her mother, shoulder to shoulder. If she helped to harvest the mushrooms, she would get a share of the profit when they were sold in the store. Her eyes kept shutting. The sun was warm on her back. But she needed to be the one to find the bull, and she hated to think of the long walk and the drive home if her mother’s plan wasn’t successful.
The previous year, after her father had killed his third moose in as many weeks, her mother had been furious. “I should turn you in to the police.”
But he’d laughed as he washed his skinning knife at the kitchen sink. “You’re just jealous that you couldn’t come with me.”
Sylvaine forced herself awake, walked in a crouch until her thighs burned. Then she saw the long, narrow shape in the mud, the edges clear and crisp. The center of the track was soft, as though the soil had just been disturbed. It was wide, long and deep—a sign of a large, heavy bull. She stepped into the dirt next to it and made an imprint with her boot beside what she thought was the left rear track because of the way it overlapped the front one. The track was bigger than her foot—almost twenty centimetres long. The moisture content of the boot and moose prints was similar. Fresh.
She waved her arms to get her father’s attention, not daring to speak. Her mother gave her a grin and a thumbs up, but her father’s gaze was fixed in the opposite direction.
“There’s a bull on the other side of the pond.” He leapt over a bush as if he were a sprightly teenager and not a man in his late forties. Then he picked up a large branch from the forest floor, grunting again. He opened his hunting bag, removed a metal skillet and hammered it against the thick trunk of a pine with a dull thud. “He’s less than a hundred yards away.”
It was the moment they’d been waiting for all day. But Sylvaine felt a drain of disappointment. She knew she needed to move out of the open field, toward the shelter of the trees, but her thigh muscles burned from the long squat. If she stayed in place, she’d risk getting trampled. But moving on meant losing the evidence that she’d found what they’d been looking for, even before her father had.
“He’s going to come out of the bush to the left of that cluster of birch,” her father said.
Her mother motioned with her arm and mouthed her silent instruction. Move. Sylvaine crept over and knelt between two trees, next to her mother’s half-filled bag of mushrooms. Her father cupped his hands around his mouth and called again. He hit the skillet against the trunk. An answering grunt came from across the pond. He had never had a real conversation with his only daughter, but he could talk to a moose deep in the Outaouais woods.
An October wind shivered the poplar leaves above Sylvaine’s head. The pond water rippled as the breeze increased. She watched a log make its way downstream towards the Lac au Barrage and reviewed what her father had said about downing a moose. The bullet needed to enter the animal broadside, slightly behind the shoulder crease, halfway up from the bottom or brisket. This shot would ensure the animal dropped by breaking the leg and piercing the football-sized heart. A quick kill was essential, since a wounded moose could run for a mile over any terrain, making tracking and retrieving it almost impossible, even for an experienced hunter like her father.
First she heard a slight rustle, followed by a grunt, then loud, clumsy crashing on the other side of the pond. Breaking branches, crushing twigs—it was coming towards them. Sylvaine’s entire body was alert.
The huge beast galloped forward, nostrils flaring, and the massive rack on its horse-like head swayed as it advanced. Standing at least seven feet tall, it was magnificent, with a muscular upper body and a regal crown. Her father raised his rifle to his shoulder.
Sylvaine had seen other animals killed—partridge, grouse, rabbits, deer, even a gorgeous red fox that kept eating their chickens. But this moose was different. He was much closer. Bigger. She’d wanted to be the one to claim him, but now she felt a traitor’s desire to see him escape and run free.
She cried out, “Run!” at the same time as the shot rang out across the water.
The moose did not open its mouth. It did not rear or bolt but crumpled with a crash that echoed through the wood. Her mother looked at her, incredulous, while her father ran to the edge of the pond. “Meet me on the other side,” he told them. In his teen years, he’d worked long summers as a logger. He knew how to walk on water. Within minutes he was on the other side.
“Thank God he didn’t hear you call out.” Her mother’s fingers fluttered to the bruise under her left eye, smudging the foundation she used to cover it. “We’d have nowhere to run. No doors to lock.” She didn’t ask her daughter why she’d done it. All she said was, “We need to get over there right away. He’ll need our help with the carcass.”
Sylvaine put one foot on a rock and the other on a passing log. But the pine trunk was slimy and the toes of her boots slipped down into the dark water. “We’ll never make it,” her mother said. “My legs are as stiff as those logs.”
Sylvaine rolled up her itchy pant legs. The wind was cold against her goose-bumped flesh. Her knobby knees—the way the ball joints stuck out above two skinny shins—looked a lot like the beast’s. “Let me try again,” she said. Her father had made it look so effortless.
“You’ll regret it if your boots get wet. Now the moose is shot, we’ll be here past nightfall. It will be cold.”
The sun was already dipping behind the trees at the far side of the pond. How long had they been hunting? Her father insisted that watches and clocks were for town and didn’t belong in the woods. They walked on the rocks and logs at the edge of the pond. A loon made its haunting, throaty call.
“This is where the moose would have come to drink,” Sylvaine said. She looked for traces of the animal’s presence around the pond—trampled grasses, crushed water plants, hoof prints in the mud.
“Hurry up,” her mother said. But Sylvaine lingered at the water’s edge. She didn’t want to see the lifeless body at her father’s feet.
When they finally reached the other side, her father was straddling the moose’s legs. He grinned at her mother. “He’s a trophy. Killed clean through the heart.”
“Congratulations.” Her mother looked the animal over as if sizing up how many meals it would give them through the winter.
Her father laid out his field dressing tools on a bed of pine needles: two sharp axes, two knives, a saw. He tagged the dead animal through its ear. “I’ll need you to hold the legs apart while I slit it.”
Sylvaine fought back tears, wanting to help, but her stomach lurched. She couldn’t stand to look at the bullet hole and the pooling blood. She wanted to pick the burrs out of the animal’s fur, stroke its ears and head like the neighbour’s pet collie, and speak softly to it even though it was dead.
She’d seen people do that at the funeral home. Her oldest aunt had even bent over the casket to give her husband a goodbye kiss on the cheek. Sylvaine had decided to touch the dead man’s hands, which were neatly folded over his Sunday suit. But instead of feeling warm and soft, her uncle’s hands had been clammy and cold, as if they’d been submerged in pond water. She’d recoiled and bumped into the person behind her in line. Her mother had pulled her into the cloakroom afterward, insisted that she apologize to the offended party and chastised her for such an emotional display.
Her father whistled while he cleared the area around the downed animal. He had a lightness to his step in spite of his thick-soled boots. “He fell in the perfect spot. On a slight incline. I just need to angle his head toward the lower end so the blood can drain.” It had been weeks since Sylvaine heard her father utter so many cheerful sentences in a row. He rummaged through his hunting bag. “Top priority is to cool down the carcass.”
It wasn’t an animal anymore. It was just steak and ground chuck for meatloaf and shepherd’s pie. Her mother didn’t like to cook and was always busy with the store until closing time, so suppers were mostly left to Sylvaine. She hated the thought of reducing this noble animal to freezer bags and casserole dinners.
Her father had manoeuvred the beast onto its back. “Each of you take a leg while I make the skin cuts.”
Sylvaine gripped the left ankle with both hands and lifted. It was remarkably heavy. She tried to look away.
“Not like that. Spread the legs wide.”
It was indecent—like looking on while someone went to the bathroom.
“Sylvaine,” her mother said. “You’re green.”
“I’m fine.” She swallowed the bile that rose up her throat.
Her father leaned over the body. “Hold him steady. I have to slice from throat to anus.”
Sylvaine’s face flushed hot, as embarrassed as if it were her own body being discussed.
“Once I break the breastbone you can let go.”
Sylvaine looked at the sky. She examined the tops of the trees.
“Let ‘im go.”
The legs flopped down.
“You’ll need to get George to come with the pickup.”
“It will be dark by the time we get back.” Her mother adjusted her kerchief. “There are wolves.”
“I’ll be fine.”
What about us?
It was a relief to turn away from the blood and the steaming, messy ribcage, ripped open like a cardboard box. By the time they returned, the animal would be gutted. But without her father, Sylvaine and her mother weren’t as sure of the way to the farm. They had to circle back a few times to look for the landmarks: the remains of a campfire five feet from a stream; the marks of bear claws and teeth half-way up the trunk of a black spruce; a fallen jack pine with a birch growing out of its stump.
Her mother gently pushed against Sylvaine’s lower back. “We have to walk quickly. I don’t want to be caught out here once the sun goes down.”
Panic gripped Sylvaine’s insides. The sinister trees pressed in around them. Her pants and coat were splattered with moose blood. “Will the animals smell the blood on our clothes?”
“If anything attacks us,” her mother said, “I’ll shoot it.”
But her rifle had a nasty recoil. Sylvaine wished her father had given them his Winchester but he wasn’t one to lend his gear. Besides, he’d need it to protect himself from the wolves and coyotes once they picked up the scent of moose carcass.
“What if George refuses to come?” Sylvaine asked.
“We’ll have to convince him.” Though, they both knew her uncle would not be an easy sell. He was likelier to suggest that they let her father sleep in the woods and pick him up in the morning. When they finally reached George’s place, he was eating his supper in the farmhouse. The kitchen smelled like tomato sauce and manure.
“Can you take your meal with you?” Her mother kept her hand on the doorknob. “Or keep it for later? Once the sun sets, it will be twice as hard to move that moose.”
George brought a slow forkful of canned spaghetti to his mouth. He studied it as if he’d never seen it before. “You barge in here demanding my help and you expect me to skip my supper?”
“Come on, George. We’ve walked all this way. The sun is setting and we have to get that moose out of the woods.”
“What’s in it for me?” He looked at Sylvaine’s mother as if he could see right through her clothes. He reminded Sylvaine of the boys in her sixth grade class, the way they stared at the Playboy magazine René Potvin had filched from his father. When they’d come in from recess, she could tell they’d been staring at the magazine from the starved look in their eyes and the way they kept thrusting their hands in their pockets.
But her mother was all business. “I’ll give you credit at the store when you need supplies. I’ve negotiated a good deal with an outfitter from Ottawa. Top quality rubber boots, rain gear, leather gloves.”
George ate his Chef Boyardee. “I don’t need any more clothes.”
Sylvaine’s stomach rumbled. She hoped he would offer them his leftovers.
Her mother handed Sylvaine the flashlight George kept on a nail by the door. She held George’s coat out to him. “Come on, George. The moose must weigh fifteen hundred pounds.”
“I want some of the meat. Since it’s my land.”
“You two boys can sort that out.”
George insisted on driving the truck. “You can’t trust a woman at the wheel after dark.” He gave her mother another Playboy look but she pretended not to notice. Sylvaine thought it best to sit between them, but regretted her decision when her uncle put his hot, meaty hand on her thigh and squeezed. “Sylvaine’s growing up.”
“Keep both hands on the wheel,” her mother said. “We wouldn’t want to hit a deer.”
“You gonna tell me how to drive?”
His hand moved further up Sylvaine’s leg but her mother reached over her daughter’s body and slapped him. “She’s only twelve.”
“You weren’t much older when you let Doric have his way with you.”
Sylvaine wanted to jab her uncle in the ribs, but she couldn’t run the risk of making him angry.
Her mother turned on the radio and fiddled with the dial until she found a news station. “Will the logging road take us all the way to the pond?”
“You’ll just have to sit back and trust me,” George said.
The truck bumped through the corduroy ruts, spewing diesel fumes into the cab. When they finally arrived, the only thing Sylvaine could see was the red tip of her father’s cigarette glowing in the dark. Her uncle backed the truck as close to him as he could and the three of them piled out.
A piercing scream made Sylvaine jump.
Her father chuckled. “There’s an owl’s nest over there.” He waved to the left. “The babies are begging for food.” He gave them one of his rare smiles. “I’ve left a bit behind for them. All the organs are bagged. We’re good to go.”
In town, he kept the doors padlocked and the windows shut. He was paranoid that the shop would attract robbers and insisted that her mother hide the cash box in a different place every night. The slightest noise made him jittery. But in these dark woods he was expansive and relaxed.
With a sheet of plywood, a pulley, a strong cable and a rope, they managed to get the moose into the flat bed.
“Ride with me in the back,” her father said to her. “To keep the rack from sliding around.”
Sylvaine wanted to say no. She was cold and hungry. She didn’t want to touch the moose carcass. The menstrual smell of raw meat made her want to vomit. But it was so rare for her father to invite her to do anything. Though, if she accepted, her mother would be alone in the cab with George. “Maybe Maman should ride with us.”
Her father lit a new cigarette. “We don’t need her.”
Once they’d both steadied themselves in the bed of the truck and were heading to George’s farm, Sylvaine looked at her father. “I found his tracks. Just before you figured out where he was.”
Her father made a phlegmy sound in his throat and spat in the corner of his brother’s truck. “What good is that when you tried to scare him off? You think I’m stupid? You almost cost me the kill.” He tucked his feet under the carcass. “Don’t ever do that again.”
Sylvaine turned her face into the wind. Once they got home, she thought, she’d fry herself an egg, have a hot bath and stuff her blood-splattered pants into the bottom of the kitchen garbage can. When turkey hunting season opened the following spring, she’d tell her mother she’d stay home and mind the store.