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The Balance

They lived in the woods for months at a time -- no cell phones, no Internet access, and the closest general delivery was twenty-five miles from their campsite. When winter blew in the backdoor, they headed out the front, unprepared as they were to handle her unforgiving, icy narcissism. But as soon as the sap began to run in the trees again and the accumulated warmth from wisps of animal exhale had begun to melt frozen pine needles and allow rivulets to flow along rabbit trails, they would return.

They packed in their cases of photographic equipment, their empty bags and vials for collecting specimens, their piles of pens and graph paper, their hand-drawn maps and charts, and their books. The basic survival gear filled only a few crammed backpacks. It was always their expectation to live off the land as much as possible, but every season they ended up having to send someone back down the 25 miles to stock up on more dried food, more band aids, clean socks, beer, and a few steaks. They would never kill for meat; it would disrupt the ecosystem.

Once settled in, they resumed their watching. Back at the university, they had earned the reputation of having ‘gone native.’ This was the danger of their kind of work - their colleagues whispered behind their backs, “Too bad, such potential. We’ll probably never see anything worthwhile come out of all that work. Jesus, ten years in the field. It’s got to change you, but to what – a wolf?” 

 

It was true that for Jerry and Burton the research had changed their lives, though neither of them considered it a loss. They were scientists and they were doing the kind of basic research someone needed to do. The way Jerry saw it, there wasn’t much time left to learn what an unmolested forest had to teach. He wasn’t a romantic so much as a very practical man who understood how humans were overwhelming the planet and how little was known about what they were destroying. He wanted to add to the essential body of knowledge while there was still time.

Burton was the naturalist of the couple – and indeed, they had become a couple, united by time and silence under the bower of their chosen life. The work drew Burton with its promise of freedom from the politics and social complications of academic life. He was unsuited to the suited life, he liked to say. Burton respected scientific inquiry and he believed that its objectivity was the only reliable path to knowledge. His roots were rural and he was most comfortable where he could get his needs met without relying on others. There had been women in his life, women who were drawn to his unsettled ruggedness – the same traits that dissatisfied and disappointed them when he turned away and walked back to into the woods.

 

In the early years of Jerry’s career, he nestled in ivory towers and talked about things he learned from books. In those days he had followed the conventional script, playing husband and breadwinner until fatherhood was loaded on top. It had not been anything like his fantasy of fatherhood – a miniature of himself padding exuberantly in the space of his footsteps. It was disappointment; it was pain; it was distortion and damage that doctors called irreversible. The extraordinary weight did not sit comfortably on his shoulders. Before he could find an equilibrium the structure collapsed. He was once again alone. He retreated, silently, into the discipline of scientific observation.

Burton had briefly tried university life, passing initially unnoticed through Jerry’s world. A smell of cedar and smoke lingered in Burton’s wake though, and it drew Jerry’s eyes from the pages before him. Eventually it pulled him up and out of the university. Jerry saw in Burton a man who did not require anything, who could live the kind of life strict observation required.

Jerry’s practical mind took control long enough for him to write a grant that funded a longitudinal study of a remote ecosystem endangered by climate change, and the two of them were gone.

~

It was a basic tenet over which there was no argument: they would never allow the anthropomorphic pull to take hold. They would keep the line between men and animals bright and clean.

 

Yet, over time Jerry devised a shorthand for identifying the different moose they spied browsing along the muddy shore of the river.

 

“How Adam-like we are,” Burton reflected, turning away.

 

“Just helps to keep track of them, don’t you think? We could call her left-hind-hip-scar adult female or we could call her 3F. Sadie is just more efficient, easier to remember, if you ask me.” Jerry was undisturbed by the implications.

The previous spring Sadie had given birth to a calf with a withered leg. The men had not seen such a congenital deformity in that species before and were momentarily excited by the novelty of it. There was no way that such a damaged infant could survive, but the question was would the mother abandon it immediately or try to protect it from the wolves who would gather inevitably. Sadie herself bore evidence of a wound in to her own right leg, the same one that was useless in her offspring, and Jerry wondered if she would recognize this as a sameness.

“You’re losin’ it, Jer.” Burton had said shaking his head when Jerry voiced his thoughts. “We can’t assume that a moose has that kind of self-image. She recognizes her own by smell and I doubt that a twisted, withered leg smells familiar to her.” 

 

Sadie did use her nose as she prodded her calf to stand. The baby wobbled, fell, wobbled again, fell again, but eventually found a balance. The mother walked slowly away and the calf stumbled after her. They headed deeper into the forest as light began to fade and the men were forced to pull back from their camouflaged hide to their tent. They didn’t catch sight of Sadie again that spring, though she had had a habit of browsing through a bog close to Jerry and Burton’s hide.

~

One of the goals that Jerry had outlined in the grant application was detailed analysis of skeletal remains of large mammals whose life history they had been able to document. They were looking for correlations between the revelations exposed by those remains and the events of an animal’s life. How did a first year of plentiful berries and thick greens followed by two or three years of deprivation look when etched on a moose’s bones? Each of the men had his own theories about such connections. Burton believed that most moose who died beyond the age of fifteen

were victims of an accumulation of the effects of slowed reflexes, worsening eyesight and decaying teeth; they fell victim to the failings of their own bodies. Jerry disagreed. Over the years he had come to see a perfect balance that existed in the forest, one that required the death of large animals to sustain it. He had never stated it in so many words, but he believed the death of an adult moose was an intentional sacrifice.

~

During the winter they lived like the hermits they were becoming. They consolidated their non-forest living situation; Burton let his apartment go and moved into the second bedroom in Jerry’s house. Their time in the city was spent repairing their equipment and to doing the minimal writing required to maintain their loose connection to the university. Neither of them had any strong social ties and it was rare when they had a visitor. So when the doorbell rang one evening, neither man immediately recognized the source of the sound.

 

After a few bewildered moments during which Burton went to check on the washing machine, suspecting it of emitting the ring, the knocking began and Jerry opened the front door.

“Tina,” was all he said, the efficient name of the complicated woman who stood before him. He could have called her many things, including mother of his only child, ex-wife, adult female with deep-scar-in-heart.

 

“Jerry. May I come in?”

He stepped back, giving way. Watching her walk into the house, the home where they had once lived together, he caught the edge of a memory like a sharp mote in his eye: Tina lying in bed, a limp, wrinkled infant at her breast. Tears formed rivulets on her cheeks as she looked at the baby and lifted its flaccid hand. “There’s something wrong with her.” The fear in her voice had been unbearable.

 

“You never answered my letters. I didn’t know any other way to reach you. I thought you should know--she’s gone.”

“Gone?”

 

“She died in November.”

 

Tina held her long black coat tightly closed, enshrouding herself. She did not drop her arms as she looked up at him. Though she fought against it, a small memory crept up on her as well: his dry, distracted cough as they walked away from the hospital where their baby lay, brain-damaged beyond hope.

 

“She went the way they go. That’s what the doctors said to me. ‘The way they go.’ Like an animal.”

Burton stood in the dark hallway watching from where he knew he could not be seen.

“Everyone is a naturalist,” she continued, “even those supposed doctors. The way they go, apparently, is with a cold that turns into pneumonia because they can’t clear their lungs or blow their own noses.” She sighed and hugged her coat more tightly. “So, don’t send the checks to the hospital anymore, Jerry. “

And without returning her gaze toward her ex-husband, Tina walked out and shut the door. Jerry did not move for several minutes.

Burton stepped out of the shadows and walked into the kitchen. He filled the dented teakettle that they had carried from city to forest and back. When the water boiled, he made two cups of tea and took them to the table where their papers were spread. Jerry returned to the table, sipped his tea and, silently, resumed his work.

 

~

The winter melted and as the men gathered their supplies, Jerry took out the rifle that he’d dutifully packed in every season but never fired. He cleaned it and checked the ammunition. He believed that if it came down to it he would hesitate, turn away, run before he could ever fire a gun in self-defense. If his life were threatened, Jerry needed to believe, he would not become brutal.

 

Burton had his own defensive weapons, pistol and bow-and-arrow, having been taught to hunt early in his life. He suspected Jerry did not know how to use his rifle; if it ever became necessary, their survival would depend on him. As Burton saw it, Jerry was more capable than he of walking the road of social connection and analytic rumination, yet had turned away from them in favor of the objectivity of scientific rigor. Jerry’s choice reassured Burton. They balanced each other. Burton was confident he could keep them safe.

Spring carried the men on her back into the woods, blowing a mist of buds and birdsong before her. The clearing where they had made camp year after year, welcomed them with a soggy openness. The men settled in and began their daily routine of waiting, watching, witnessing.

 

One early morning, alone in the hide, Burton caught sight of a moose with a scar on her right hind leg. He stilled his breath; she moved closer. She munched the new leaves along the upper branches, exposing her throat to the pale sunlight; in her shadow a juvenile limped beside her. Sadie had somehow managed to keep her damaged calf alive all winter.

 

Burton reported this odd event to Jerry; it disturbed him.

 

“It was a hard winter. It’s not as if the wolves had so much to eat they could afford to ignore her.”

 

“Have you seen wolves yet this season, Burton? Maybe it was hard enough that they moved on. Sadie and that calf may have been in just the right place.”

 

“Think about it a minute, Mr. Scientist, if there were such a scarcity of food that the wolves moved on, what would Sadie eat?”

“Maybe she moved on too. She’s back now that we’re here so she can show us that she kept her calf alive.”

 

There was no sarcasm in Jerry’s voice. A little ripple of shock passed through Burton as he looked across the campfire. It was such a simple thing to slip like that -- to grant a moose human motivation. The line that made their work worthwhile could so quickly blur to meaninglessness. Burton saw his partner standing on a seductive slope.

~

They did not to discuss the moose further. Their days settled into the familiar rhythm of observation and recording.

 

Sadie and her calf showed up periodically, browsing the swampy area near the men’s hide. Diligently Jerry recorded their movements using the objective coding scheme that he had developed for this work. His feet seemed as solidly planted in scientific scholarship as they ever were. Burton, however, was still puzzled by the crippled calf. How could the natural order support such a creature?

 

One evening as summer began her lazy stretching, reaching her sunlit arms farther into the evening, Burton stayed in the hide while Jerry returned to the campsite to start their dinner.

 

There was a dark movement very close to the hide, but off to the right, where Burton couldn’t get a clear line of sight. As he waited, he heard a cry, piercing, highpitched, and so undeniably mournful that it awoke an empathic sigh from his lips.

 

Immediately he cursed himself for exposing his presence, but the noise hadn’t seemed to make any difference. The animal continued to cry. When he realized that he hadn’t been detected, Burton took a further risk, peaking out from the hide to see what animal was so caught up in its instinctive need.

 

What he saw, caught in the last sharp blades of sunlight, was Sadie, her snout pointed toward the sky, and at her feet the unmistakable body of her calf, its damaged leg caught in a tangle of vines and roots. As Burton watched, Sadie nosed the calf over and over; it responded by raising its head weakly and bleating. He realized that the animal was irredeemably stuck and he knew that Sadie realized it as well.

The cries of the cow grew softer and more plaintive. Burton did not move; he barely breathed. He thought of the woman who had come to the door during the winter, of how she held her coat like a shield around her body, of how silently Jerry had drunk his tea. He reached behind him and his fingers connected with his bow and an arrow.

Burton felt the balance give way as he lifted the bow, set the arrow, and slid, smoothly, certainly, toward the treacherous shadows.

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© 2020 by Deborah Nedelman