The Other King of the Jungle
Dad moves out when Lily is at school. It isn't a surprise, but it's strange to come home and see his books missing from the shelves and his coat missing from the hall closet.
Emily-Ann from downstairs says Lily is "a little old for playing pretend," which she thinks should probably mean that she doesn't do it, but actually means that she waits until Emily-Ann is at dance class before she holds her hands up to her forehead and charges the tree on the sidewalk like a moose marking his territory with his antlers.
Emily-Ann wouldn't understand about the moose Lily saw on the news the last time she and Dad visited Uncle Jake in Maine. Lily remembers looking at the moose on the screen and thinking he was probably scared. "Scared things can hurt you the worst, though," Uncle Jake had said. "When an animal is scared, you never know what it's going to do."
Emily-Ann would point out that only boy moose have the antlers Lily imagines on her own head, like it matters at all that the moose was a boy, and that Lily is a girl, or that Lily saw the moose but the moose didn't see her through the TV screen. Emily-Ann doesn't understand a lot of things, so Lily talks about sixth-grade boys with Emily-Ann, and when Emily-Ann is at dance class, Lily roams through the forest of the sidewalk out in front of their building with antlers that weigh more than a small child weighing down her solemn, impressive brow.
A week later, Lily starts taking the train with Mom to get to Dad's house for the weekend. A few weeks after that, Mom says, "Dad and I were thinking that, since you've gotten so big and so mature this last year, you might want to try taking the train to see him by yourself. I'll take you right to the station and Daddy will be right there on the other side to pick you up."
Lily nods, because Mom seems to be explaining so much to try to calm Lily down, but Lily isn't worried. She can handle it.
Mom gets Lily a phone she can use in an emergency, and the next week, Mom walks Lily to the subway station, but Lily gets on the subway herself, and Lily counts the one, two, past the subway stop with the park where she played softball last year, all the way to three stops, and gets off the train. She moves through the crowd to the escalator, and the way everyone is moving all in the same direction feels like a river Lily is a part of. Lily makes her way up the escalator and out of the gate, and Dad is always waiting for her on the other side.
Moose babies who are boys only stay with their mothers until the beginning of their second year, long before they're grown up into adult moose. Lily thinks about that on the train to Dad's one night. Girl moose babies sometimes stay with their mothers for years longer than that. Mom says that it isn't mean to the boys, it's just the way moose have adapted to survive, and that you can't always judge the reasons animals do things, the same as with people.
Lily is thinking about these moose boys on their own when she passes stop number one, and still thinking about them when the announcer says they're headed for stop number two, which is the stop Lily used to get off at to play softball last year, when Mom and Dad were still together, and she'd look up at them in the bleachers when she was playing, and they'd be sitting side by side. Before Lily has even started to think about it too much, the train is pulling into the second stop she's supposed to let pass her by on her way to Dad's, and she's making her way over to the sliding doors, getting out, and making her way up the escalator and out into the park.
The third stop, where Dad is going to meet her, is just on the other side of the park. Lily can see the softball field, and she knows where she is, so she sets off down the winding, concrete path. Dusk is falling, but it's a park, it's not like walking out into the wilderness. Lily will make it over to meet Dad before he even knows she's missing.
By the time Lily makes it to the duck pond, the streetlights along the edges of the path have come on, even though there's still light in the sky. Lily's phone chimes, and she looks down to see "Dad" flashing across the screen. If Lily was on the train, underground, where she's supposed to be, she might not even be able to get this phone call. She puts the phone back in her pocket and looks up across the duck pond.
On the other side of the cement pond, with the light from the streetlights shining off the water, Lily sees a stand of trees she doesn't remember seeing there before — tall trees, trees that a moose might feel at home in. Lily looks up, looking for the place on a tree where a hungry moose would strip the bark off of the trunks in winter when there's no better food to be found. As the woods get thicker and the sky gets darker, Lily thinks she starts to see a smooth, pale pattern on the trunks of some of the trees where the bark should be. Lily looks down at her phone, which isn't ringing, and at the path that was so clear just moments ago but now is fading into an uneven track between the trees, and when she looks up, she's not alone.
Later, when she talks to Dad it, he'll tell her she can't have seen what she thought she did because the park is not that big, and there's no wilderness for a massive buck deer with antlers like a coat rack to hide in. He'll tell her that her imagination was running away with her because she was scared, but when Lily is actually looking the deer in the eyes, she doesn't feel afraid at all.
The moose is the biggest member of the deer family, Lily thinks, but that doesn't mean the other members of the family can't be pretty huge as well. This buck's antlers may not be as big as a moose's — 65 pounds — but they still add so much height, so much width, that it feels impossible how easily the deer moves towards here between the close-growing trees. Eyes still caught on the antlers, Lily raises her hands to her brow, the same way she does when she's playing pretend. As soon as she does it she feels stupid, but the deer looks her in the face and then lowers his head, like he's nodding in recognition, and she thinks maybe it wasn't the wrong thing to do after all. Then the deer raises his head again and turns around. He swings his massive head around to look at her like he's waiting. Like he's thinking are you coming, or what? Lily isn't sure what else to do, and the trees are thick, and the park is dark, and she can't see where the streetlights used to be. She follows him.
She's only been following the deer, walking a few respectful steps behind his tufted white tail, bright in the darkness, for a few minutes before the trees start to thin out. A few steps more and she looks down to see that they're on a path again. Even fewer, smaller trees, and then she starts to see the light from the streetlights again. She realizes she can hear traffic, and then realizes that, while she was in the woods, she couldn't. The deer walks with a soft, clopping sound along the pavement, and then she can see the subway stop, the one she was supposed to stay on the train until she reached. She can see two figures standing in front of the subway stop, and, as she's watching, they reach out and hug each other. A few steps closer, and she can see that the two figures are her parents. The deer stops walking and as she steps up beside him, he turns his head to look at her again.
She wants to hold her hands to her head again, but something about this moment makes pretending feel wrong; she's not the king of the forest, and she's not a yearling moose leaving his mother for the first time. She's a little girl, and she thinks her parents are probably scared, she thinks that's why they're hugging, even though they can't live together anymore. When someone is scared, you never know what they're going to do.
The forest is still there, behind her; she won't look back to check, she knows it too well now to test it like that. The deer lowers his head towards her one more time, and she nods back. Then she sticks her hands in her pockets and runs down the path towards her parents.
Sidney Dritz is (currently, constantly) reevaluating what to do with the rest of her life. She finished her three-college tour of America at the University of Southern Maine, and her poetry has appeared in Glass Poetry Press's #PoetsResist series, in Claw & Blossom
and in "Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters". She writes about movies and television in the Stream Queens column at @dailydrunkmag
, and is on Twitter as @sidneydritz