The Moose is a Lie by Ben Black
“I have to tell you something Alfie,” Martin says and right away I know it will not be good. Like when he said, I have to tell you something Alfie, and then it turns out he lost my balsa airplane in a tree. Or I have to tell you something Alfie, and it turns out he accidentally ate the gingerbread house I built. We are sitting in the mud down by the creek, the dark water that runs behind the house. Grandma is asleep in her chair facing the window. Yesterday she gave us each a yellow frosting cake, exactly the same shape with jam, and this morning she forgot what day it was and had to ask. Wednesday? she asked, and it is Friday.
“Grandma said it would be better if I was the one who told you,” Martin says, and picks up a rock and throws it so hard he knocks some bark off a pine tree.
“Told me what?”
“Mama and Papa are dead. Grandma says they ran into a moose.”
I start to cry. I can’t see anything, taste snot, sit down on a wet log by the creek. The last snow melted a few weeks back. The log is wet and cold. I am afraid of the creek, because snapping turtles live in the shadows under the stones.
Martin squats down next to me and starts to comb through the river grass with his fingers. The tadpoles like to hide in the shallow water between the green reeds.
“I got one,” he says.
He digs a small hole in the soft ground next to the river and puts the tadpole inside, along with a palmful of water. The tadpole has a short tail and tiny arms. Its grey head is round and stupid, with no eyes. One boy, his name is Lester, sits in front of me at school. This tadpole reminds me of him. Lester eats crackers every day for lunch and saves the last drops of his juice box to spray on my glasses so they are sticky and smell like grapes. Not like a bully, because he does not bother anyone else. Those are the only two things Lester does all day. He does not talk in class. He eats crackers and puts grape juice on my glasses. Mama said to me, maybe he wants to be your friend. I don’t know.
“I got another one!” Martin says.
This one is thin, armless, legless, squirming like it thinks Martin’s palm is full of pebbles it could wriggle under. He flicks it into the hole with the first one, the one with arms.
Martin fills the hole with tadpoles. He calls it a holding tank.
“The holding tank is almost full,” he says.
The little gray bodies swim back and forth.
“What happened to Mama and Papa? Where are they?”
“After the moose,” Martin says, “the ambulance took them to the hospital but there was nothing the doctors could do.”
I ask if they tried rescue breathing.
“They tried everything,” Martin says. “But there’s not much you can do after a moose.”
“I don’t believe you,” I say.
“Whatever. It’s up to you.”
Martin kicks in the dirt walls of the holding tank, turning the water cloudy. I do not see what happens to the tadpoles. He says: “Now it will be my responsibility to take care of you, Alfie. Grandma can’t work anymore, and I am not old enough. We’re going to have to wash cars to make money. I’ll do the windows and you will do the underneaths, because you’re small.”
“I don’t want to do the underneaths.”
I know about moose, that they are bad. Papa says they get mean in the spring, when they are fighting over the best willow trees. Watch out for moose, Papa tells me when we go for a walk. If you ever see one, get into the house and stay there.
I imagine the moose, with big black shining eyes, watching my parents. It takes a step closer to them. It is shaggy. Its hot breath heavy with the odor of leaves.
Years later, I will still be terrified of moose, of the smell of them and their carnivorous yellow teeth and the weight of an animal in the dark. I will be a hunter on weekends and with my two closest male friends I will drink liqueur made in Canada and round-headed Lester will be dead of profound grief and Martin will be married to a cosmetologist who immigrated from Wales. And years later I will remember walking up out of the creekbed, my shoes wet and leaking water from the stream. At the top of the hill, near the house, I heard my parents’ voices.
My mother and father were standing in the driveway, unloading some suitcases from the trunk of the car. Grandma sidestepped down from the porch waving her hands at them like birds. “Are you here already?” Grandma called. “I thought you weren’t getting back until Friday.”
I ran towards my mother, shoes squelching.
“Well someone is happy to see me,” she said, catching me in her arms and wiping my eyes.
But she was wrong. I was not crying because of her. I was crying because Martin lied to me again, and I believed him.
© Ben Black 2013
Ben is a graduate of the MFA program at NYU. His work has appeared in Fence & the Cold Weather Field Guide.
The Moose is a Lie was read by Matt Alford for the Secrets & Lies Show on 6th March 2013