by Nicholas Deitch
"Moose" by Grace Rachow
His father would not approve. But then, his father had been dead for forty years, and the killer looked down on William Jeffers from a place of dubious honor. Thin spider trails laced the antlers, and someone had managed to land a bowler hat on the great beast’s head, and at a rakish tilt. From beneath the bowler, Moose glared at him with familiar disdain.
Jeffers looked away. “I’m not in the mood for your bullshit, Moose. Let me enjoy my beer in peace.”
The bartender wiped the counter with a slight shake of his head.
“Don’t judge me, kid. A man oughta be able to enjoy his beer without some scornful Moose looking down on him with that damn judgmental smirk.” He swallowed the last gulp and set the glass down hard. He glanced up, and the beast winked at him.
“I didn’t say anything, Mr. Jeffers. But there’s plenty of seats in this place, and you always sit in that one and complain about that moose staring at you.” The bartender grabbed the glass and pulled the tap, amber bubbles rising to a foamy head. “And aren’t you the one who gave that thing to old man Clary in the first place?”
Jeffers sighed. “You’re new here, kid, but you oughta know. That’s not just some rustic bit of bar decor molting on the wall.” He looked up at Moose and tipped his glass. “Some would tell you he was a great Mohican Chief. A spirit warrior, with a slight chip on his shoulder.” Jeffers took a long gulp and finished his third beer. “But Chief or not, this is my stool, and I’m not about to move my sorry ass on account of this goddammed Moose. He had it coming, and he knows it. I was there.”
Forty years. Well, forty-two to be precise. He’d been to Vermont for a family visit, and he’d found himself traipsing the backwoods with his cantankerous old man. They were going to bag a real trophy, an elusive old bull that had become his father’s obsession. Jeffers had heard the stories. Tales of the sightings, the near misses. The startling size of the animal, which seemed to grow with every telling. And don’t forget the taunting. “Really, Pop? A taunting moose?” Maybe. Or maybe the old man was just losing it. Whatever the truth, this wasn’t just another hunting trek. This was personal. It took them a full day to make their way in, well past the last of the cabins and lodges in the outer reaches of the Long Trail Forest. Woods that had been home to the Algonquian people for thousands of years. Woods that, despite the intrusion of the white man, still lay mostly undisturbed. When they finally stopped to make their camp, the sun had already slipped beyond the trees. Jeffers built a fire, and the old man opened a couple of cans of Hunstworth’s Stew. About as close to dog food as a body could fear to come, but the old guy loved the stuff. And Jeffers had to admit, when the can sat on a fire for more than a few minutes, the aroma could be oddly alluring. They ate in quiet, listening to the crackle of the fire and the sounds of the nocturnal woods awakening around them. In the light of the flames, the old man’s grizzled face seemed near to mythic, creased with years lived through many winters and a whole lot of mostly unnecessary tribulation. Why, for instance, were they out here in the first place? Hunting some fabled beast that, if he existed at all, likely didn’t give a fiddler’s cuss about the old man and his obsessive pursuit. “I almost had him, Willy.” At the last mouthful of stew his father set the can down and nodded to the fire. “Three years ago, I had him in my sights, not sixty feet out.” The old man leaned in. “I raised my gun and the beast looked right at me. He gave me a nod, and I’ll be damned if he didn’t smile.” Jeffers shrugged and poked at the fire. He’d heard this all before. “Not a nice, friendly smile. Was more like a sneer.” “You were about to plug him, Pop, with a Creedmore six and a half. You expect him to wave and say, ‘Howdy’?” The old man turned to him. “I’ve been hunting these woods all my life, and I never once saw a moose smile. It was a mean smile. The kind that says, ‘You’d better watch out, cause I’m coming for you.’ I had him, I swear it. I pulled the trigger, and the son of a bitch just stood there sneering at me. And then he was gone.” He gazed up through the trees, at the branches that danced in the firelight. “How the hell does a bull like that just disappear? Unless he’s a ghost.” He reached into his pack and brought out his hunting flask. He took a long swallow and handed it to Jeffers. “I’ve tracked that bastard Moose for years. He remembers me, Willy. I swear it. He knows who I am.” “So, we’re dealing with an angry, vengeful moose here, eh, Pop?” Jeffers scratched himself and sucked on the flask and handed it back to his father. “I hear your doubt, son. But I grew up on this land, and my papa before me. He knew these woods as well as any Indian. And he knew their stories. This land has its spirits and its ghosts.” He took another swig. “He’s a trickster, that Moose. And I will not be made a fool. Come first light, I’m gonna find him and take him down, and you’re gonna help me do it.” They finished the flask between them. Then they readied their rifles, tidied the camp, and unrolled their mats by the fire, waiting for sleep. It wasn’t long before he could hear the old man snoring. Jeffers lay in the fire’s glow, looking up through the branches at the stars that winked in the nighttime sky. And soon he, too, fell asleep.
The crack of wood broke the night, and Jeffers sat up, peering into the darkness. Beside him the fire glowed dim through the whisper of the dying embers. His father lay nearby, snoring softly. Jeffers reached for his flashlight and swept the beam around the camp. Nothing but the black of night beyond the trees. He set the flashlight down and laid back on his mat, and closed his eyes, and tried to still his breathing. An owl hooted far away. Something touched his shoulder, and Jeffers sat up. “Pop?” His heart kicked in his chest. The old man snored on. He reached again for his flashlight, and shone the beam over his shoulder, and back through the trees. A shadow passed, dark and uncertain. And then, stillness. An odd stench in the air. “Pop, wake up.” Jeffers took hold of his rifle. “Wake up, Pop. There’s something out there.” “Huh?” The old man sat up, stupid from sleep and whiskey, his eyes wide and hair gone wild. “What is it, boy?” He grabbed at his own flashlight and waved the beam about. “Might be your friend, the Moose. Might just be a coon.” The old man was up and at his rifle. “Ain’t no friend of mine, that one.” He took a few short steps and stopped, listening to the woods. The snap of a branch some yards away. “Get up, boy. That ain’t no coon.” “Maybe a bear.” Jeffers rolled off his mat and trailed his father. The beams of their lights pierced the woods. The shadow crossed ahead, rising up through the trees. “Damn. That sure as hell weren’t no bear.” The old man pushed forward with his rifle held ready. Jeffers stepped into his father’s tracks, the air around them rank and wild. Beside the trail, the world seemed to fall away. Another crack of wood, this one to their left. Jeffers swung around and caught the beast in his light, huge antlers and nostrils flared, standing like a man.... ...You know how it ends for the moose...or do you?
Nicholas Deitch's "Ghost Moose of Clary Cafe" is one of thirteen strange tales told in Hurricanes & Swan Songs: A Strange Anthology, a Santa Barbara Literary Journal Production.
Nicholas Deitch is a writer, teacher, architect, and activist. Originally from Los Angeles, California, he now lives in Ventura, with his wife, Diana. He is an annual participant at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference. He has been published in the London literary journal, Litro, and is currently writing his first novel, Death and Life in the City of Dreams, a story about a dying city and those who struggle to save it. Grace Rachow is an artist, a dog lover, and the director of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. She has worked as an editor, writer, and freight handler. Her photographs grace the cover and the insides of Hurricanes & Swan Songs.