The Girl Who Cried Moose

New Hampshire, as my mother-in-law told me recently, has five seasons: summer, winter, fall, spring—and mud.

The tourists come in October to see the leaves change color. They come again in February to ski the White Mountains.

The Hennesseys come in early April to see the mud.

April is “off season” in the Granite State. The slopes are melting, the trees are leafless, and the lakes ice-bound, but the mud is in full bloom.

If you enjoy boots that sink to the ankles and splatter marks up the back of your pant leg, come to New Hampshire around Easter.

Spending time with my mother-in-law is of course the real reason for our visits. She and my late father-in-law moved up from New York City 15 years ago, before any grandchildren came along. They built a beautiful, sturdy house in the woodsy shadow of Mt. Kearsarge. It’s a great spot.

It’s also really remote. Rafters of wild turkeys block traffic, such as it is, on partially paved back roads. Black bears sometimes amble through the yard, looking to nibble on the buried contents of grandma’s compost heap.

And then there is the mud. Thick, deep, and of exceedingly high quality, this ain’t rain-shower garden mud.

This is mud for real. Primordial. Wild.

The Hennesseys are not rural people. The rhythms of life are out of sync with our urban-suburban heartbeats. I like the fresh air, but the quiet makes me nervous. I like to see the stars at night, but I could lose the oppressive solitude.

Some people think death and menace lurk down dark inner-city alleyways. I feel my mortality most keenly when I’m alone in the piney woods, surrounded and spied on by who-knows-who with who-knows-what on its mind.

In these moments, I can’t resist composing my own obituary. He died doing what he hated: sliding down a deep ravine.

My mother-in-law has gone native. She says not to be afraid of black bears. She says they are high-strung and a little dumb. Also, she says, they can’t see anything that isn’t right in front of their noses. She says that they’re more afraid of us than we are of them.

She can speak for herself.

I’ve heard that the way to behave around a black bear is to make yourself appear as big as possible. Put your hands above your head and make a growling noise. That way the short-sighted bear will think you are a meaner, bigger, badder old bear and skedaddle back to his den.

I’d like to speak with someone who’s actually experimented with this technique in the field. I have a feeling it’s one of those theories that looks good on paper. Less so when you’re knee deep in high-quality mud and your lizard brain is commanding you to run for your life.

For what it’s worth, the correct strategy for dealing with a grizzly bear is the exact opposite. You are supposed to play dead. That way the fish-and-berry fed grizz, who only maims humans for the sport of it, will tire of scraping your face with his five-inch razor claws and bumble on about his business.

I’m dumb and a little high-strung myself, so I can easily imagine getting the bear business backward in the heat of the moment.

Easter in New Hampshire is not so bad if the sun shines. When the sun dips behind a cloud or the late winter sky throws down a slushy mix of rain and snow, our Granite State getaways become interior affairs. We play every card game, board game, and head game we can find.

Our Sally, who is five, has lately been experimenting with the “made you look” game. She picked it up from her older brother, who is far more sophisticated than she when it comes to the timeless art of sibling manipulation. Try as she might, she just can’t get him—or anyone else—to take the bait.

“Oh no, here comes an alien!” she says, pointing over your shoulder. You feel bad for the child, so you play along.

“Where?” you say, looking up from your newspaper with mock alarm.

“Made you look,” she says. Yes you did, you clever child you. You sure made me look.

Then, one evening, while you are chatting with your wife at grandma’s kitchen table, Sally comes rushing in.

“There’s a moose in the yard!” she yelps, pointing to the window overlooking the driveway.

“Oh my goodness, really?” you reply, trying desperately to mask the cynicism and detachment that years of urban sophistication have imprinted on your soul.

Only when you hear your mother-in-law exhale in alarm and say “Oh my goodness” with just a little more vocal wonder than she could possibly fake do you yourself rise and rush to the window.

There, in the driveway, stands the most amazing creature, a young female moose in a wilderness face-off with your parked Honda Odyssey. The whole family gapes in wonder for a sustained moment before the moose turns and galumphs back into the forest.

The next morning grandma and Sally pull on their boots and go hand-in-hand to look for the moose’s footprints in the mud and you remember, as if you could possibly forget, exactly why you come to New Hampshire during the off season.

From the April 2018 edition of Fairfield County Catholic

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