A moose is not an elegant creature. Though powerful, those thick hindquarters, jug head, and humped back don’t arouse the same awe a mountain lion’s sleek muscles inspire. Moose legs, long and fine-boned as those of a racehorse, just look like matchsticks poking from a matchbox body. They don’t suggest freedom, or swift escape. The moose plodding the Nordic ski trails near my grandparents’ house in Wyoming are companionable. Placid. They munch bare branches, noting my presence with flicking ears. I glide by without breaking stride. I feel as though we nod good day to each other, each time we pass.
When I was with my grandparents the Christmas before last, one morning shone particularly crystalline. Snow cased the land in armor, glittering. It squeaked with cold under my ski boots. In the car to the trailhead, I sat on each hand, one at a time, to warm them. In the house, crowded with family, I had lashed out. I just needed space, I’d said. Space is not in short supply here in the basin between mountain ranges.
That morning I wanted to delight in the lace cottonwoods fanned against blue mountains. I wanted the brilliance, the prospect of corduroy tracks between lodgepole pines to distract me from the weight of seeing my grandfather in the hospital living center. His face was wreathed in oxygen tubes. How many years ago had he led the family on a ski-packing trip, digging himself a quinzee shelter to sleep in? Had he known, the year he trudged behind my brother and me on our first backpacking trip, that it would be his last summer pitching a tent in the Tetons?
On the roadside below the trail turn-off, I saw movement. Something dark thrashed against white ground. I slowed the car.
Long legs kicked. Flanks heaved. Antlers gouged trenches in the snow. It was a moose, trapped in barbed wire. Iced metal threads, cruel in their beauty, threw shards of light. I wanted to stop. A man stood outside his truck on the road shoulder. He watched the moose battle, helpless as I felt. Wild hooves allowed no gap for human hands to slip between. It was impossible to look away from the animal—caught in a trap of our making that we the makers could not undo.
The intent of a fence does not matter to a moose. Built to separate cattle from human traffic, one sort of creature from another, a fence can still snare another animal.
I drove on. No antlered faces watched me from between firs as I skied. I tried to let go of the flailing moose. I tried to forget images of my grandfather, too weak to sit up. I pushed away memories of my impatience, of when I’d rolled my eyes when he tried to show me knots he already taught me to tie years ago, or when he retold stories of canoeing around Manhattan as if they were new. I couldn’t let myself think of the stories I’d never asked him to tell me. On the trail, I focused only on violet shadows, yellow sun.
There was no movement on the roadside when I passed back through. The moose was a hump in the churned snowbank. I might have pretended it had merely rolled and rolled before falling asleep. I would have stopped, there—to free delicate legs from wire, or say some word to the still body. But trucks with flashing lights closed in. My family expected me at the living center.
I didn’t stop, not until I reached the hospital. In the parking lot, I took out my sketchbook. I drew a moose, alive, eyes liquid-dark. I brought it inside for my grandfather.