Lauren drove down the forest road all evening–the whole length of the park and back again, three times.
She had arrived at her lodge around lunchtime–checked in with a guy who tried to sell her fifty or more tours, then car insurance. Eventually she took a cabin near the north entrance to the park, showered off her car sweat, then set out to scout the lay of the land before the black flies became too much.
For a little while, she walked along a stream near the car park, scanning the tree-line. The lodges were mostly for couples, of course, but she didn’t mind so much. The quiet of a lodge to yourself was nice, after all, and her too-big bed was as grand as an ice floe.
Arriving in a place was always the trickiest part, she found, so for a long time she wasted time just staring into the heat mist across the lake until she got too hungry to question it anymore.
Skirting past the overspill of antic families, sober-looking trekkers, and the like, she walked across the road to a pretty basic diner, ate a burger, rare, the tang of blood sharp and clean against the back of her throat. By the time she’d sipped the last of her beer, it was almost dark out, a blue dark, tree-lined, ominous as bog water.
The only thing to do while the last of the light remained was to drive a little, up and down the park, passing back and forth through its massive principality of trees.
The trick with the park road, the brochures said, was to drive real slow. Just in case. If you drove too fast you might end up hitting something. You could end up killing yourself and a moose, a two-for-one deal. Cars had been upended apparently. Or at least that’s what some lady said out at the lodge.
Lauren tried to imagine it, the car crashing into the gigantic engine of a moose’s body. Instead of an airbag, her world would suddenly fill up with the scent of fur and blood, mulch and earth. She might end up skewered through the heart by an antler, pinned to her driving seat.
Squinting through the bluish, midge-flecked gloaming, Lauren leaned forward as she drove, watchful for any sudden silhouette. She was looking for a sighting of something, anything in fact. She wasn’t even sure what. This was the main point of coming to Algonquin, after all, unless you were into hiking, and had the stomach for following trails frequented by bears.
But she didn’t quite fancy any of that now she’d had a scent of the forest. It was too big, too grizzled and wild. The trees were too high, their darkness too deep. She preferred to remain car-safe for as long as possible. It was a small country out here–you could hear wolves howl sometimes, unregulated. It was its own province, unknown.
The perfect place for the likes of her, in other words. Of course, if her mother knew where she was she would think her pathetic, a strange kind of desperate, indulging in the worst, most maudlin type of self-pity. But she didn’t care. Although it terrified her, she needed the anonymity granted inside a forest with no borders.
Lauren had seen her first moose as a child out camping with her parents. The animal had seemed extraordinary, Mesolithic at first: the breadth of those antlers, the wheezy whoosh of its breath through those snooty nostrils. But then the moose had become as commonplace in her mind as anything unlooked for. Something expected and accepted by her imagination, a shape she knew well enough to sketch in one of her notebooks. Its flesh colours were Raw Umber, Burnt Sienna and Vandyke Brown.
Of course, the males were the main event round these parts on account of the antlers. The brochures were all about the elaborate chandelier of the moose’s headdress. But the lady at the lodge had said a sighting of the female, the antler-less moose, was rarer, and that a sighting with a baby in tow, was the rarest of all.
Lauren pulled off to the side of the road, turned the car around to face the road, then waited, the lights pummeling the dark road in front of her. A little further on was another one of those narrow, reedy lakes that looped along either side of the road, but she had a clear enough view of the bend ahead. The car’s headlights touched the surface of the road, making it seem like depth-less black water. If she closed her eyes she might pretend she was at some drive-in in the early days of stepping out with Karl, before everything got so tangled. Except there was no movie showing besides whatever sliver of moon managed to slip out behind that thick swaddling of grey-blue clouds up above. It had been settling over the forest all evening, lowering musky mist and rain. Breathless, expectant, Lauren felt a pressure build in her chest. Surely something would emerge?
She blinked, half-dazzled by her own car lights. Of course, what a fool she was. The lights were too much, too severe. She flicked them off, then almost startled at the thick, oily darkness that fell around the little car. She wiped the sweat on her legs then rolled up the car windows, locked the doors tight. For a moment she imagined her car’s sealed capsule swallowed into the bog of darkness on either side.
It was moving past dusk now–the time of movement between realms–and she listened for the tread of hooves on moss, stately legs picking through the shallow waters of the spruce bogs; looked for a long, sad face appearing suddenly out of the dark veil of trees.