The Moose in the Noösphere

by Rob Hunter

The Moose in the Noösphere

“How can you people live like that?” she asked.

Harry Joe Laviolette had lost a Twinkie in the inside lining of his buffalo plaid mackinaw.

“So...” Harry Joe was cutting through the snow plow leavings. He paused his hammering at the hard freeze of ice melt, packed snow and dog leavings. Down the row dogs sat, each atop its cedar slab dog house. The dogs shifted legs, keeping one foot warm. Or less cold. Always one foot in the air. Harry Joe—Father Harry Joe, spoiled Jesuit—made the sign of the cross in the direction of his dog, likewise on his dog house roof, in the mud floods of spring the only dry spot in the dooryard. “Bless, oh Lord, this dog and his roof. And my lost Twinkie.” Harry’s dog, a German shepherd, pulled at his chain and barked.

“Buffalo plaid,” said Harry to the dog. “The coat is called Buffalo plaid. The coat has a name and you don’t.” Dogs didn’t get irony. “Buffalo plaid.” The dog did not yet have a name. Harry patted around gingerly, hoping for an intact recovery. “The coat has a name and a Twinkie.” Sensing a possibility of food, the dog without a name blinked and nodded wisely. Harry’s exploring fingers worried at the frayed edges of an inside pocket. A hole he figured, where the Twinkie had exited. He could fix it—sew it closed with monofilament fishing line—thus trapping the errant Twinkie inside for future generations to wonder at. The dog whimpered.

“Cold on the roof, eh? Your doghouse has been blessed. This should be of some comfort.” The dog barked. “Don’t mention it.” The dog adored Rose, barked at Harry. Therefore it was his dog. The coat was a good one, expensive. Harry had worn it since he was a teenager. It was striped vertically and horizontally with alternating red and black blocks. Rose would not allow it in the house. Nor would she allow the dog inside.

“In white man’s world dog come live in house. You Inyan dog. Heap big dog have it easy, you betcha. Stand on roof and bark while I shovel.” The dog had never made it into the house. Harry Joe shushed the dog and entered the plywood two-by-four framed alcove of the mud room. Rose called out from the bathroom of their trailer. “Harry, that you? I didn’t hear the dog.” Her hair was wrapped in a towel. “The water was running.”

“Yeah, it’s me.” Steam billowed through the house and out the open door.

“For God’s sake close the door. It’s cold.” Rose briskly toweled her hair as she bore down on him. Her watery blue eyes said Métis. Mixed blood, with a Frenchman somewhere up the family tree, whatever. She didn’t belong, neither did he. They were outsiders together—stuck in a trailer, a life, with a nameless dog.

“You sure are pretty when you’re mad.”

“The coat, leave it. It stinks.” Rose shuffled her bare feet into a pair of fluffy-faced bunny slippers and headed for the enveloping heat of the wood stove. The slippers were pink with long ears and glass eyes. The bunny eyes stared at Harry Joe.

“Maybe don’t get dressed after all.” Rose glared; her flat-footed stance suggested combativeness. The bunny slippers glared. Harry Joe backed off, just enough to signal she had won. Life on the Rez had made her tough but not mean; the niceties had been satisfied. “If you didn’t stand around wet and naked, maybe you’d be warmer.” He edged forward into the house, carefully closing the mud room door behind him. Rose dived into the bedroom and came back wearing a terry robe.

Harry Joe pulled a clasp knife from the snap sheath on his belt and began carefully ripping out the stitches along a seam. He avoided looking directly at her.

“For God’s sake, Harry, leave it in the mud room.” Harry Joe closed the knife and folded the coat over an arm. He stood his ground. Harry Joe and Rose had lived together six years, as long as they had had the dog; they figured they were married.

Harry Joe and Rose called these differences of opinion “fights.” Little things became big things and festered to a wordless explosion. The loudest their fights got was tight, hasty words followed by silence followed by apologies and usually a hug, sometimes sex. Then whatever bone they were worrying was put back in the cupboard of minor offences to be brought out next time. “Just testing.” Harry Joe smiled and put the coat back on. “Can’t stay.” He backed through the mud room and stood with one foot in the snow trench which in summer was the path to their door.

“Harry? Where you going?”

“Sweat lodge tonight.” There wasn’t. He was just going.

He could have been going to a sweat lodge. Harry had seen Ben Neptune out with his grandnephew that morning, gathering firewood and hemlock saplings for the lodge house. Ben Neptune was prayer leader at Harry Joe’s last sweat. A year? Two? They had sat in the darkness and prayed; the ritual made itself up as they went along. How long since your last confession, Father? In nomine domine nomine domine nomine domine, the Name game. Die here and leave your body behind—purification and celebration. Ben was in his seventies or eighties, maybe nineties. Ben Neptune had forgotten English, the language of the Army and the downstate malls. Old men like Ben talked to the wind and the smoke.

“Why am I here? You can’t eat the scenery.” I have come here to die. Part time Harry drove the ambulance on the Rez and figured he’d have Ben on board sooner rather than later. He passed the EMT exams with the same flair he had shown at Old Testament theology, Greek and Latin. He went to stand in the road in front of his house and watch the cars go by. A spreading black puddle oozed into packed ice melt where an oil seal once failed when someone gunned a cold engine. Down the row the dogs sat on their dog house roofs and barked premonitory warnings for any neighbor deep in drink who thought he was home at his own place. Or stray townies, likewise drunk and wilding and on the prowl for some trim.

Three kids, Inyan kids, whipped past with their bass booster cranked up loud. Drunk white kids used to cruise when Harry Joe was a kid, coming by past midnight on the dark moon nights, their baseball caps with the bills pointed back and empty beer quarts littering the inboards of beat-up, hand-me-down pickups that some kid’s old man, likewise drunk or high, had left in the dooryard with the keys under the mat. Hormones on parade. The kids from the Rez sometimes threw rocks at the passing cars. Build it and they will drive on through.

Car windows were to be rolled up. Door latches were to be latched. Anxious wives and mothers rolled up windows and latched car doors. “Jerry, just look at them. How can they live like that?” The family cars—housefathers, housemothers, house children, pressing noses to the glass as they kept exactly to the posted speed limits passing through Inyan territory.

There was one face in particular, one familiar woman out of the passing parade of white faces who was the quintessential door latcher, protector of her children from Inyan contamination. Her children should not breathe the same air that an Inyan might have exhaled. Every Friday like clockwork, Harry Joe came to wait for her, smoking a cigarette and leaning on a power pole with his best Inyan slouch. She stared ahead. Her husband crouched behind the wheel, his face lined by permanent anxiety at his wife’s hectoring.

“Hey, lady, I’m just living,” Harry Joe would say. She could not hear him.

Harry Joe shoveled and chucked; his back ached in the cold. He held the pain in and relished it. Harry Joe’s ancestors had flourished in the time of hunger, the 1950s, waiting for road hits to take home to eat. In the 50s when things couldn’t get any worse and then did anyway, the uncles of the moment, drunk with the blind staggers, patrolled the ditches for fresh or fresh enough road kill for the pot.

On the highway, another car sped up. Silent words behind rolled up windows. Harry felt the pressure of engaging door latches, heard the tsk, tsk, tsk over the tire whine and accelerating engine noise. Harry Joe shouted after the departing car. “Harry Joe go white man’s school. Talk Latin. Harry Joe talk Latin real good. Wanna missa brevis, lady? Wanna Inyan basket?”

Winters were hard in the old days; children died. The dying started with a cough. Children learned not to cough, but died anyway. We forgot our language. The last speakers were doddering with senile dementia and told stories of the People at the sweat lodges. On and on and on, laughing at appropriate places through toothless smiles. The young men laughed with them not knowing why except that an elder had laughed. This was tradition.

Harry bent his aching back to the task at hand, shoveling frozen snow to work up a sweat under the buffalo plaid mackinaw, the stinky coat. Another family sedan whizzed by on the main road. Harry Joe straightened up to shout after it.

“Want me talk Inyan for you, tourist lady? That’ll be five bucks in advance. Punctuation extra.” There was a click of departing door latches.

“Hey, lady, you don’t know what you’re passing by: a failed priest who couldn’t keep it zipped, and his sidekick Dog with No Name. Conan." Here was a name. "Our private revelation, dog, ‘The gift of a name belongs to the order of trust and intimacy,’ straight out of the Catecheticals. The Thomists would be proud." The dog barked at Harry Joe; the gift of a name tickled both dog and man.

“Dog, we have tapped Teilhard’s Omega point. We just got an e-mail from the Noösphere.” Conan put his nose between his paws and whined. The man’s tone said his sugary smell was going to be a treat deferred. “Conan the Comfortable, the peace of the Lord be with you. Good name. I’ll run it past Rosie, whaddya say?” Harry Joe scratched the dog’s, Conan the Comfortable’s, ruff.

In the way of an apology, Harry Joe opened the outside wooden storm door and shouted into the mud room. “Checking in on Ben.” He tossed Rose a mollifier, “Love ya.”

“Oh?” Rose was not mollified. She tossed him her cell phone. “If you get lost, call home. I’ll come dig you out.”

Harry plucked the flying phone out of the air and returned her a loving smile. “Yes, mom. And I got a name for the dog—Conan the Comfortable. Like the movie? Wanna come, Conan?” Harry Joe unhooked the dog from its chain and tramped off to Ben Neptune’s house.

*  *  *

Ben had tied the nylon utility rope with a clove hitch backed up with a square knot to the ridge pole in his shed. The ridge pole stood five feet off the dugout dirt floor. He had not needed a ladder. Not enough freeboard for a proper death by hanging. Just reach up and tie it tight, then kneel down and die. Ben’s last can of beans was half eaten. Harry Joe guessed they had frozen before he could scoop them out. Ben had arthritis bad and it slowed him down. The jagged lid was cut open with the hooked blade of a Boy Scout knife. Ben had cut himself. There were traces of blood on the serrations of the lid, almost off, pulled back. Too late for a tetanus shot.

Ben Neptune saved his potato water. No waste in Ben’s crib. The nutrient-rich potato water stayed on the stove cold and waiting; the Lord and General Motors would provide road kill for stew. When Harry Joe cut him down it was hard to tell just when Ben had hanged himself. He was frozen solid. Ben’s body froze wearing a T-shirt, Buffalo Wind. It might as well have said Planet Hollywood. Buffalo Wind. The shirt was one of those Indianesque tchotchkes anyone could buy on the Internet to demonstrate an affinity for First Nations concerns. The artwork was good, a Plains Indian chief or shaman. The man’s arms were raised. Oh, Great Spirit accept our souls. Ora pro nobis, spiritus magnus. Way above Elvis on velvet. Like one of those covers on the Edgar Rice Burroughs paperbacks Harry devoured when he was a kid. Thuvia, Maid of Mars, pray for us. Even in death, Ben looked to the future. Be prepared. Fingers of frost joined in a tight lacing of intertwining branches across the surface of the stewpot.

“Had he been depressed?” they would ask. Depression, suicide resulting, would appear on the coroner’s report. Case closed. Determination and courage, a warrior’s way. Depressed? No, Ben’s death had been a joyous affirmation. He had frozen, starved and lived long enough on the side of the road. Perhaps something different, this year.

Harry Joe Laviolette, quondam confessor, heard himself chanting. He didn’t know the words. Something he had heard in the sweat lodge. Hey, uh, huh-huh. Hey, uh, huh-huh. Nunc dimittis, Ben. Fare-thee-well. Ben didn’t wait for a conversation with the coroner; Ben Neptune had already made his connection. Too bad for the coroner, mused Harry Joe, he could have got educated. Sweet grass smudge, a trail of ash on a dime store incense burner, what was left of Ben Neptune’s life. Harry Joe left the deputy and the medical examiner and walked home through the cold. Up the shale beach where a bottomed-out lobster boat waited patching come spring. Up to the main highway grinding his heels on the government gravel the Army Corps of Engineers used for fill when they built the causeway to Willipaq some fifty years back. Up a granite escarpment, The Ledge, to sit and catch his breath at the base of the glass-lined water tower the tribe had purchased in the year they hired a grant writer.

Conan the Comfortable galloped into the snow tunneled walkway that led to his house. Conan gave a bark and jumped up on the roof of his doghouse. Back home, inside and still wearing the stinky coat, Harry walked past Rose. No words were spoken. The lines of her jaw still tight from his last leaving, she granted him a look of concern.

“Ben’s dead. Going hunting for road hits.” Rose had not mentioned the coat. Harry Joe stomped out on her. He had not done this before.

*  *  *

He went to an old time spot where as a kid he’d lie in wait, toke weed and Pall Mall straights, waiting for some creature to make the conversion and be turned into road pizza. There were wary squirrels, careless porcupines, the occasional house cat. Once, a yearling deer. Harry patted around for a crumpled forgotten pack of cigarettes, carefully avoiding the lost Twinkie.

Harry hunkered himself into a snow drift. Watch and ward, wait and watch. The Lord will provide. What if a car hits a dog? Or a guy coming home drunk, walking on the shoulder? A hopeful crow cawed from a spindly birch. “We are riders on the now, brother crow.” The rhythms of a black scavenger bird, the interconnections that hold the universe together, are more sacred than a Walmart alarm clock. Stew with tread marks. Chunky, chunky gravy cooked on a Coleman stove. “Today I am doing God’s work, apologetics.”

It had been twenty, thirty below nights. Single numbers days now for weeks. Freezing in a high culvert was a death without decision—no heavenly otherwhere for a priest who dropped his vows. Would Rose miss having him around to argue with? Probably. Ben Neptune died wearing jeans and a T-shirt. The Buffalo Wind. Would a T-shirt lie?

The thick vertical windless snow fell as darkness came early. The passing traffic thinned. The sightseers had either hurried home or stayed home. Harry pulled his earflaps down and drew his neck into his upturned collar.

He awoke to spinning tires on ice. A lone sedan was just recovering from a high speed broadside into a power pole. The driver gunned the engine. Wrong. Its forward momentum towed its rear end around into a sunfishing spin.

Harry Joe recognized the driver, a death grip on his steering wheel, just holding on. It veered down the ditch and up and over the embankment where Harry Joe waited and watched. As the woman in the passenger’s seat reached across her husband to latch the doors, he lost whatever control he had left and the car flipped; stern first, it headed up the hill. “Holy shit!” The car was coming right at him.

The silence of snow, a quiet whine of spinning tires decelerating in the air. Snow and silence and unconsciousness.

*  *  *

When he came to, Harry Joe made a quick assessment. He could not move. His legs were crushed under the upside-down car. The husband protruded through windshield. The woman, hanging in her lap harness, dangled in air inches from Harry’s face. Her husband’s blood puddled up along the rubber windshield seal, clotted and froze. He was dead. She stared at Harry with the hollow look of fear: Trapped with a wounded Inyan. Her pupils were tiny with horror and forgetfulness. Why am I here?

“Lady, let’s be friends.” She showed too many, too fine teeth as she smiled a tight lipped smile. She was wearing dentures and they had come loose. She looked like the old men in the sweat lodges. Unlike the old Inyan men, the white woman remembered how to cry. Her upside down tears ran into her hair where they twinkled with a crystal lattice of early frost.

He and the woman would be trapped, pinioned with the wrecked sedan and the corpse of her husband until daylight. The plows would be by in the morning and with them the sheriff’s deputies cruising for accidents, cars slid off the road in the night. If they survived the night.

He willed the pain away from his crushed knees and chanted a sweat lodge chant, wishing he had tobacco. The woman’s upside down eyes shone round in apprehension. She started to tremble convulsively. “You’re shaking, then? Well, good. That will tighten your muscles, keep the blood flowing. This is a good thing.” Harry Joe Laviolette, spoiled Jesuit, thought of Martha Stewart cooking cheery meals in her prison cell. “There’s a Twinkie in the lining of my coat. It’s a little stale.” The woman smiled.

“Would you like to hear a story—a very old story—about you and me and why we are here?”

A look of surprise replaced her look of resigned despair. She shuddered as a hunting coyote howled. Harry Joe put on his best confessional voice.

“Good. Well, it’s about a moose and a man. The first moose and first man ever in God’s creation. The moose’s big-bladed antlers were heavy with mist. The moose had come that day to drop his antlers and wanted to be alone. It had been an open winter, roots and lichens dying off for lack of snow cover. With bad foraging the moose was tired and irritable.”

Brrp. Brrp. From the mackinaw’s inside pocket, where he could not reach it, Rose’s cell phone was ringing. Maybe Rose.

The woman’s eyes widened with hope. Well, answer it they said.

“Uhh, sorry. Can’t move. It’s stuck under me.” Maybe a wrong number. Maybe a telemarketer trying to sell him some life insurance or a platinum card upgrade. The phone rang six more times. Then the caller gave up. The woman’s eyes closed.

“Ahh, yes, where were we? I was telling you about the man and the moose... The man, an Algonquian, met the moose head on on a springy forest trail. The Algonquian’s eyes became wet with wonder: here was something new. Both were surprised. Until now the moose and the man had been each the unchallenged lord of his own creation—the first man and the first moose—and neither knew the other’s name. The moose had dropped antlers before and anticipated the loss with regret. His antlers amplified the fall of snow, the separation of a dry leaf from its stem, the impact of a pine needle on the padded forest floor. To go antlerless was to imitate the solitude of starvation and withdraw into himself as into a heavy, windless snowfall.

“Hey! Listen to me.” Harry Joe thought he had lost her. The life of this woman, her husband dead, her body ruined, was now the most important thing in his life. Her eyelids fluttered and he returned to the story.

“They met at the edge of an upland bog, standing where no other foot before had trod. The Algonquian’s eyes were close-set and wide where the moose’s eyes protruded from the sides of its head. Stock still, they took each other’s measure.”

The woman’s eyelids were drooping shut. “Hey!” shouted Harry Joe. An upside-down tear had frozen on her eyelash. “Look at me. You have to see me to need me. And, lady, you need me a whole lot right now.” The upside-down tear shimmered as she tried to open her eyes. They snapped open with fright. The whites showed with an arc of pupil. “Hey, it’s only me. I’d hate to think you were dropping off. And just when we were getting to the good parts.” Harry tried a smile. It hurt. The woman was deep with the fatigue of terror and loss.

Harry picked up again with the story. “The Algonquian shifted his weight from foot to foot, feeling his ankles wet. Both began to sink in the slough. The moose shifted his weight, left front to right rear, alert to wind-sign of rage or panic from the man.

“As they slowly sank, a simultaneous revelation born of despair brought to each an intuition of the other’s secret name. What to do with it? To speak it would mean survival. Acknowledgement of a figment, on the other hand, would bring sanity to question. Get it? They’re almost like you and me and our situation.”

The woman’s eyes had taken on a watery blue sheen. Harry felt the muscles pull and tear across his back as he strained awkwardly off to the side, trying with his teeth to inch his coat’s outside lining up to where he could get at the ripped stitch he started that morning. Teeth, don’t fail me now. Inside was the bounty of one leftover squashed Twinkie. Enough for now, that Twinkie.

“Oh, Jesus!” Shooting pains down the length of his legs. He ripped open the stitches at the loose seam and managed to free the lost Twinkie from the lining of his mackinaw. He worked the forgotten Twinkie gently with teeth and tongue, hoping it was frozen enough to not fall apart. He licked the sweet, sugary residue, crystallized and furry from the mackinaw’s double felt layers.

“Oh, Jesus! Sweet Christ!” Harry lost the concentration holding back the pain in his legs. But the two were now face to face, although immobilized.

“Ummmh,” he put his mouth to hers, the Twinkie between them, a kiss too intimate for passion. She accepted his offering. “Take, and eat, this is my body and my blood.” Their pulse beats rushed with the offering, the sugar a tiny fire infusing their failing metabolic synapses.

Heartbeats increased. Bodies warmed. They slept.

Harry awoke to pain and a finely discernable lightening to the east, so this is hope, after all, and Harry thought he could make out a horizon line out past the clam flats. The woman was still. He had lost her.

“Wake up!” He bit her nose. The woman, plain and ill-kept on a good day, assumed a Madonna-like expression. She managed to free her hand and touched his face. With half light, a crackling radio and flashing blue lights announced the arrival of help. The county mounties, the sheriff’s road patrols, had been looking for him. It had been Rose calling on the cell phone.

*  *  *

Next day in the hospital, Harry, on a walker, shuffled down the hall to where the woman was. I have saved her life, keeping her awake. What has she given me? The depth of the snow had saved his knees. He would be in twin leg casts for a while for torn tendons.

The doctors had been liberal with their pain-killers and he felt sociable. His back was heavily taped and itched under the bandages. Harry Joe believed perhaps, after all, the woman had given him an offering in return for her life. He had to tell her that her need had validated him, put the stamp of God on his face.

“How’s my ice princess?” Her chest strapped with plaster and tape, an IV drip trailing next to a patient-controlled morphine on demand dosage computer. An oxygen tube was taped against her nose, her lips angry with red peeling flesh. They would heal. Her lips, at least. They would both eventually heal, he and she. Her eyes beckoned Harry Joe closer. They were bonded.

“I liked your story. About the moose?” she whispered.

I have had the gift—I needed her need. A night with the coyotes howling down the moon. The cold, the fear.

Harry Joe brought his ear closer to her shredded lips. The woman’s voice was faint but honestly curious. “How can you people live like that?” she asked.

copyright 2009, 2019 Rob Hunter

The Moose in the Noösphere was first published in the November 2009 issue of Nautilus Engine, Ron Warren fiction editor.

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