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The Garden

by Jaren Watson
 

The first sign of the moose came two weeks earlier when I’d seen a couple of heart-shaped tracks at the edge of the carrots. Ellie and I tend a quarter-acre garden in the back yard that keeps us and her parents stocked through the winter. It’s a lot of work, but we enjoy it. Especially as there’s not much wiggle room in our budget and the garden cuts food costs.

“We had a moose in the garden last night,” I had said to her.

“Really?” she said. “I love moose.”

“Yeah, they’re pretty.”

“Pretty?”

“You know what I mean.”

The next morning after emptying the garbage I noticed that the tracks reached halfway up the rows of peas and carrots. When I got home from work they went to the end of the row. Globs of kicked-up earth spotted the grass from the garden to the edge of our yard, where the lawn gives way to aspen trees. The leaves weren’t as green as they are most years. It hadn’t rained for weeks.

Our yard is at the corner edge of a 50-acre tract of land that has been left wooded. It’s owned by an out-of-state doctor who’s supposed to be developing it, but so far he’s left it alone. A dirt road borders the woods and runs from our property down to the river. Small and white and one-story, ours is the only house for a half mile in either direction. We like the quiet.

I came back inside from the garbage can and said, “It looks like our friend is back.”

“Who’s that?”

“The moose. It was here during the day.”

“Darn it. I missed him?”

It took until the end of the week before either of us saw the moose. I slept in Saturday morning and was taking off my pajamas when Ellie yelled to me from the kitchen.

“Dave, he’s here. Hurry!”

My shirt was on the floor and my pants were at my ankles. “Just a second, hon.”

“No, quick,” she yelled. “You’ll miss him.”

I stumbled into the kitchen, my pants trailing. Ellie was pressed against the window. I came up beside her but the yard was empty.

“He was right there,” she said, pointing to the raspberries. “You should have seen him. He was huge.”

I stood next to her, looking at the garden, as if by looking where it just was, I’d sense something of it. “Are you sure it’s a he?” I asked.

“Oh yeah. It had antlers like this.” She spread her arms wide, her fingers outstretched. She was smiling. “He was huge,” she said again. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Why didn’t you hurry when I said to?” She pouted her lips, pretending to be sad.

“How big was it again?”

She reached out again, and I slipped my arms under hers and lifted her up, hugging her body tight to mine.

Sunday, we had just come home from church. We pulled the car into the driveway, and the moose was standing in the backyard. Ellie hadn’t exaggerated. It was a monster. Spread out to either side of its football-shaped head were two massive antlers. They looked big enough to cradle our Volkswagen. It just stood there, looking at us with wet, dark eyes. I opened the car door and when I got out, it walked slowly back into the woods.

“Ellie, did you see that thing?”

“What an animal.”

We walked to the backyard and into the garden. A section of peas about ten feet long had been pulled from the ground. The vine knotted around itself and bunched up like a tumbleweed.

“That’ll die,” I said.

Of the other rows of plants in the garden, the rest were untouched except the raspberries. We had a row of raspberry bushes stretching the length of the garden and near the end, the moose had eaten a good part of it. The branches had been chewed or broken halfway down the stalks.

Ellie asked, “Do moose eat raspberries?”

“Looks like it.”

“What should we do?”

I wasn’t sure. I hadn’t seen many moose before and seeing one that big in our own backyard was kind of exciting. “I don’t know. But we have to find a way to keep it from eating these raspberries.” The peas were okay, but the raspberries were my favorite. We had so many that what we couldn’t eat fresh or bottle, Ellie sold in town. We used the raspberry money to buy each other gifts for our birthday, which is on the same day in September. When we tell people we share a birthday they ask if we’re twins.

That night we made love. Ellie likes to lay with her head on my chest afterward so we lay there for a while, listening to the wind in the trees through the open window. Ellie lifted her head and there was a little pop of suction when her ear left my skin.

“I think we should name it,” she said.

I laughed. “What did you have in mind?”

“I don’t know. How about Lefty?”

“Why Lefty?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s cute.”

“If you say so.”

Lefty was in the raspberries again when I came home from work on Monday. He’d ravaged another big section. Broken stalks littered the ground around him. I went into the yard, unsure what to do. I thought walking toward him would scare him off but I’d gotten to the edge of the garden and he still stood there, munching raspberry stalks, the dewlap beneath his throat jiggling as he chewed.

“Shoo,” I said. I lifted my briefcase over my head to appear larger. Lefty was unimpressed. He stood there and munched away.

It was the closest I’d ever been to a moose. His mass dumbfounded me. I’m six foot three and only came to Lefty’s shoulder. I watched him chomp a raspberry stalk with the sideways chewing that cows have. His upper lip was so large it looked cartoonish. It flapped over his teeth and waggled as he worked his jaws. I was close enough to smell him. He needed a bath.

“Get out of my raspberries!” I waved my briefcase at him. No response. “Come on Lefty, get the hell out of here.” At this he emitted a strange sound, almost a moan. Then he resumed chewing. I didn’t know what to do. I looked around the yard and spotted the garden hose. I walked over and opened the tap, the hose bending and bulging as it filled with water. The end of the hose was capped with a trigger spray. I dragged the hose to where I figured the spray would reach and said, “You asked for it,” pulling the trigger.

As soon as the water hit him Lefty bolted for the trees, running awkwardly fast on his gangly legs. I stood in the garden looking at the damaged raspberries. A third of the row had been destroyed. Something bright lay at the base of the ruined stalks. An orange.

I dropped the hose and turned to walk to the house when I saw Ellie looking at me from the kitchen window. I shook my head, as if that explained everything. When I got inside she said, “Have fun watering the moose?”

“How long was he here?”

“Most of the afternoon.”

“And you just sat here watching him?”

“No, I didn’t just sit here. I tried to scare him off. He wouldn’t budge. I threw an orange at him.”

“What did he do?”

“Nothing. I missed.”

“Well, we have to call somebody. We can’t have him here anymore.”

“I already called.”

“Who?”

“The Fish and Game.”

“What did they say?”

“That they were busy.”

“Are you kidding?”

“No. They said they were busy and that somebody would come out tomorrow. They asked if the animal had acted threatening and when I said no they said if no one was in danger the soonest they could come was tomorrow.”

“That’s great.”

“They said not to go near it.”

No one showed up the next day. Ellie called again and was told there wasn’t anyone free to deal with a moose that had done nothing but eat a few berries. “Make some loud noises,” she was told. “Moose don’t like that.”

We made some loud noises. We banged pots and pans. We blew whistles and air horns. We aimed stereo speakers out the window, cranked up the volume, and blared opera. That was Ellie’s idea. But Lefty wouldn’t be dissuaded. He ate and mashed the raspberry bushes for three days. I wrapped the bushes with chicken wire, but he hoofed it to the ground.

On Friday, when there was only a few feet of berries left undamaged I was so exasperated I picked up a rock the size of a coconut and hurled it at him. As the rock was still in the air, I regretted throwing it. It whacked into Lefty’s shoulder. I winced. He turned and walked into the trees.

Ellie had been watching from the kitchen. “Do you think you hurt him?” she asked when I came inside.

“I don’t imagine it felt good.”

He got his revenge that night. We woke Saturday morning to find the garden in shambles. The rest of the raspberries were mangled. The three rows of peas were uprooted, the vines ripped and tangled on the grass. The corn was trampled. The only thing that survived was a row of carrots and they were only safe for being underground. I was furious. So was Ellie. Aside from all the ruined food, food we counted on, the garden represented two months of evenings and weekends planting, watering, and pulling weeds.

“What are you going to do?” she asked.

“I don’t know. But if he comes back I’m doing something. I just wish I knew why he won’t leave us alone.”

“It’s because of the berries.”

“Obviously, he likes those.”

“No, it’s not that. The guy from the Fish and Game said that because of the drought, what he normally eats isn’t around. He said they’ve had lots of calls about moose and other things looking for food.”

“Well, he’s not getting any more of ours, that’s for sure.”

It took me until lunchtime to clean up the mess. I moped around in the garden, cursing Lefty as I picked up shredded plants. Ellie had a sandwich waiting for me when I finished. I ate it and went in to the bedroom to take a nap.

As soon as I lay down I heard something banging. I didn’t know what he was doing, but I knew it was Lefty. I jumped out of bed and ran into the kitchen. Ellie was at the window.

“I don’t see him back there,” she said.

We stood in silence and then we heard the banging again. It sounded like crashing cymbals or clanging garbage can lids. And it hit me. “The car!”

I raced out the back door and sure enough, Lefty was standing next to the car, hammering the hood with one of his hooves. I screamed at him, waving my arms. He stopped pummeling the car and stood there, staring at me. The muscles in his neck and shoulder bulged with his breath. I screamed again. In response, Lefty huffed at me, sounding almost like a dog’s bark, but deeper, raspier. And then he took a step toward me.

In that moment, something changed. Until then I was willing to give Lefty a little slack. He’d destroyed the garden. He’d mangled my car. But those were just things. As frustrating as it was, I allowed the fact that Lefty was a moose, a wild animal, and he was just staking out his territory. But when he took that step toward me, when he threatened me, I thought: this is my territory. No one threatens me in my own yard.

I backed away slowly, and went into the garage, where I keep a small gun cabinet. I’ve always meant to start a collection, but so far I only own a .22 caliber rifle. A small-game rifle for sure, but it would get Lefty’s attention. The rifle is semi-automatic and I have a high-capacity clip.

I got the gun and the clip and walked back into the yard. Lefty was pounding the car again. I’m calm in most situations, but I wasn’t calm then. I engaged the clip and took aim. “This is your last chance, Lefty. Get out of here.” He didn’t even look at me.

My plan was to shoot Lefty in the rump. A little .22 shell would sink into that mound of muscle, not causing any real damage, but would sting like hell.

I was so mad I was nervous, and the gun wouldn’t keep steady. When I pulled the trigger I must have jerked, because two rounds fired off by mistake. I lowered the gun. Lefty stopped scraping the car. Two fine holes pierced his belly, far from his rump. In seconds, twin streams of blood pulsed from the holes and ran down his side. He just stood there. His hind legs quivered.

I stared at the moose, don’t know how long. I couldn’t believe what I had done. The implications of having shot Lefty in the guts were just dawning on me. I looked around the yard, as if I’d find some answer there. Ellie’s head was poking around the corner of the house. She looked stunned.

“What did you do that for?”

“I didn’t mean to. I was just going to shoot him in the ass.”

“Nice. He would have liked that a whole lot better.”

“I said I didn’t mean to. I don’t believe this. What are we going to do now?”

“We? You’re the one who shot Lefty.”

She was right. I don’t know what I was thinking. A moose isn’t something you can just shoot. But I had shot him. And he was badly hurt.

“Do you still have the number for Fish and Game?”

“I wrote it on the calendar by the phone in the kitchen. But you can’t call them.”

“Why not?”

“Because they said whatever we do, absolutely do not harm the moose. They said you could go to jail.”

“Jail? Why didn’t you tell me that before?”

“Because I didn’t think you were going to shoot the poor thing.”

“You were standing right there. Why didn’t you stop me?”

“I didn’t know. I thought you were going to give it a warning shot or something.”

That wouldn’t have been a bad idea. But I wasn’t about to say so. Instead, I said, “It’s too late for that, so help me figure out what we’re going to do.”

Lefty interrupted us by backing away from the car and onto the grass. His legs shook, the muscles twitching. And then his hind legs folded under him and the back half of his body sagged to the ground, blood still spurting from the holes in his side. His front legs were rigid, holding up his chest and head. He started to wheeze. I felt sick.

“What’s he doing? Why doesn’t he run away?”

“You must have hit something bad in there,” Ellie said. “He doesn’t look good at all.”

“I don’t believe this. It’s a .22 for hell’s sake.”

“Well, it did something, that’s for sure.”

As long as Lefty stood on his front legs, I felt that he would be okay. That he would stand up and walk into the woods. That the problem would just go away. But when he collapsed completely, it was clear he wasn’t going anywhere.

Ellie walked over and stood by me. We watched him lying there on the grass, blood pumping from his belly, him watching us with one glazed black eye. He breathed with his mouth drooped open, as if he had just been running. There was a rattling to his breath. Ellie cried. I’m not sure how long we stood there. I remember being afraid, desperate for her not to name the truth I knew was coming to both of us. But she did.

“Dave, you have to put him out of his misery.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I mean look at him.”

I sighed, resigning myself to the task. I aimed the rifle at Lefty’s chest, gauging where his heart would be. His gravelly breath barely moved his body. Other than his breathing, it was so quiet there in the yard. His eye swiveled to watch me as I moved.

I justified what I was about to do. I would have taken it all back if I could. But he’d been shot and no amount of wishing on my part could erase that. Clearly, he was in pain. He was dying. I took another deep breath and nestled my finger on the trigger. But I couldn’t pull it. I willed myself to do it, but it was as if my finger was disconnected from the rest of my body, as if that one part alone were paralyzed.

“I can’t do it,” I said, lowering the gun.

“What do you mean? You have to.”

“No. I can’t.”

“Dave, you have to. Look at him, he’s suffering.”

“I know, but I can’t. You’re going to have to.”

“I’m not doing it.” She put her hands up, like I was pointing the gun at her.

“Please, Ellie.”

“No way. You started this. Have the decency to finish it.”

“Ellie, please.”

“Don’t make me do this, Dave. I’ve never killed an animal in my life.”

I knew she hadn’t. I also knew what it would mean for her to do it. Before our marriage, when she heard I’d shot birds and squirrels as a kid, she was appalled. She didn’t even like me having the little rifle, as if owning it alone were an act of aggression. But still, even knowing what it meant for her, even after I had already shot Lefty, there was no way I could bring myself to kill him.

“Honey, I just can’t,” I said.

“Please don’t make me do this, Dave.”

“Ellie.”

“Fine. Give me the gun, coward.”

I handed her the gun. She aimed it at Lefty. “Where do I shoot?”

I pointed to a spot behind the shoulder. “Right there.”

“I’m sorry Lefty,” she said, and she closed her eyes and pulled the trigger. The bullet sank into Lefty’s side and immediately blood shot from the hole. Lefty moaned and raised up on his front legs.

“Oh no. What’s he doing?” Ellie asked.

“It’s okay. I think you got the heart. He’ll be dead in a second.”

But he didn’t die. He just sat there, half standing, his front legs taut and quaking. Pink froth poured from his new wound but Lefty didn’t die. My chest was tight.

“Shoot him again,” I said. “To make sure.”

Ellie fired another round. The bullet lodged somewhere in the great cavity of Lefty’s chest and blood erupted all over his side. I was going to vomit. It wasn’t the blood. I’ve seen blood. It was the awful ending of this gigantic animal. This huge and living thing. But he still didn’t die. I couldn’t look at him anymore and I turned to Ellie. “Shoot him again,” I said.

“You shoot him again,” Ellie said. Tears streamed down her face. “I’m not shooting him again.”

“Ellie, you have to. Please.”

She stepped around to face Lefty. She leveled the gun between his eyes and fired. His front legs buckled. His body collapsed on the grass. His whole frame quaked and then he was still.

Ellie dropped the gun on the lawn and sobbed. I walked over to her to put my arms around her but she flinched and said, “Don’t touch me.”

I just stood there for a minute and said, “Now what do we do?”

Ellie looked at me, her eyes red. Her arms clenched across her chest. She looked small. “You’re going to have to get rid of it.”

“How am I going to do that?”

“Take it to the river, genius.” With that she walked into the house.

Taking it to the river was no easy task. I really could have used Ellie’s help but I knew better than to press the matter. I ended up tying a rope around Lefty’s antlers and the other end to my battered car and dragging him down the dirt road to the river. When I got him untied I tried pushing his body into the water, but he wouldn’t budge. He was too heavy. I shoved against his still warm body and couldn’t get the word coward out of my head. I tried for half an hour to get him in the water before coming back to the house to get my saw.

As terrible as cutting him up would be, I knew I could do it. I wasn’t thinking about Lefty. I was thinking about how I’d hurt Ellie. Things weren’t perfect before, but they were good.

As I neared the house, clouds pillowed in from the west. It looked like we would finally get some rain.

The lawn was horrible. A pool of blood had collected on the grass. I was too tired to deal with it. My legs and stomach were also soaked with blood from wrestling Lefty on the riverbank. Though I would be getting a whole lot messier before it was finished, I hosed myself off as best I could and went inside to get the saw. Ellie was at the kitchen window, looking at the trees. It was starting to rain. I couldn’t tell if she was still upset or what she was thinking. I just wanted to hold her. But I was soaking wet and wasn’t sure she would let me. “Ellie, I didn’t mean for this to happen.”

She didn’t answer, didn’t move. My eyes wandered to the calendar by the telephone and, as if by instinct, focused on the inked digits of the number Ellie had written days before. After all that had happened with the moose and with my wife I didn’t have it in me to be scared. If anything happened, I deserved every bit of it and more. I moved to the phone and dialed the number. When a man’s voice answered, “Fish and Game,” I said, “This is Dave Allen. My wife called you a few days ago about our having a moose problem.”

“Yes, I think I remember hearing about that. We’ve been meaning to send someone out your way. Is it still giving you trouble?”

Ellie had turned around and was looking at me as I spoke. I couldn’t read the emotion in her face. Was it fear, or warning? “Well, you better come on out, though I wish you could have made it sooner. You see, I’ve gone and killed it.”

  
 

Jaren Watson lives in Tucson with his wife and their three children. More comfortable outside than in, he has enjoyed the landscapes of the areas in which he's lived: Idaho, Kentucky, and southern Arizona. He gives thanks to the BHC, his long-time writing group.
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