It's taken me a long time to reconcile how different my childhood was from most people's. It's taken me a long time to look hard and honestly and unbiased at a lot of it. I'm not all the way there yet but I'm pretty close. Sometimes parts of it just bubble out of the back of my brain and I write it down without thinking much about the words as they come. I find the writing useful. MoaA is an ongoing collection of these writings..
This happened a few nights ago...
Memoirs of an Alaskan
Chapter 12 – Yeller Butt
I was cooking dinner tonight and maybe it was the home cut french fries I was making that dragged out this memory. The smell. The taste. Something pulled this night out of the back of my mind and slammed it on the table in front of me. These times I hadn’t thought about in a long long time…
Yeller Butt is dying. I know this because I know what death is and I’m six years old and my own father has died only weeks prior. I’m six years old and I know very well what death is and how it feels and how it tastes and how the taste might never really leave your mouth once you’ve tasted it. So when I look at Yeller Butt and I see the foam on his lips and the beads of sweat around his ears at the base of his mane and when I see his eyes roll ominously back in their sockets I know that he is beginning to die. He is giving it all up. I know this.
And I watch John struggle to save him. I see the desperation in his eyes. In his posture. Radiating off his very body. I see him fighting to save this horse that he must love. Maybe I don’t know if he loves this horse. Maybe he just owns it and he doesn’t want to lose the value. I don’t know. But I see him fighting. Fighting like I’ve never seen before. And I feel helpless. I’m six years old and what can I do. Standing there on the mossy tundra in the twilight gloom and the soft August rain. What can I possibly do?
I can’t remember how this started. I can’t remember how Yeller Butt got stuck. How could this have happened? There are so many sharp memories. Sharp and clear like they were yesterday. And there are so many blank spots. So many holes. And all of it feels like it could all slip away into the fog of time and age and be gone forever more. If I don’t write this then who will? I know that answer. I know it very well. No one will. There is no one else but me to write these things that happened. No one else. My brother Andy was barely a year old and no doubt remembers none of this. I can see his cherub red checks and his big brown eyes peeking over my mothers shoulder as he sits in the pack on her back. And he won’t have remembered any of this and I haven’t spoken to him in nearly a decade and I’m not sure when I will again. Andy is a heroin addict now and he’s in jail. I don’t know when I’ll speak to him again.
I don’t know if David remembers this. I doubt he does because he was only four. He doesn’t remember our father or his death and so I doubt he remembers the time Yeller Butt got stuck in quicksand. I’d love to ask him. I’d love to talk to David about these things and these times and what he remembers and what he doesn’t. But I can’t. I can’t talk to him about any of this. David had an accident a few years ago and his brain was damaged and he can no longer speak. And I’d give about anything to talk to my brother David about these things. I’d give about anything. But I can’t.
Mike and Cherri and Monte left sometime in July. It must have been July. It wasn’t much before dad was killed. It was a shift. Safety was gone. Sanctuary was gone. I could no longer creep over to their teepee and squat by the fire and wait for Mikey to offer me some redhots or chocolates or other goodies from the depths of some darkened leather pouch. I can still hear Mikey’s voice. “You’re always welcome at my campfire Benny.” I miss him still and dammit if I don’t need to go see that man. I do. I really do.
But they left sometime in July and then I woke up to that red ribbon and that little cluster of bolts and washers and my mother saying we needed to go for a walk and then everything changed forever. I don’t remember much after that except the feeling in the air. That somber feeling that death leaves in its wake and I know it must not have been long before we left Horse Pasture. I remember that litter of puppies running around and the runt that I was fond of and even named but I can’t remember his name now. I can’t remember that little puppies name. But I remember the morning we left and it was clear and bright and crisp like the coming fall and John took all the puppies into the brush by the creek and when he came out they didn’t come with him and he never said anything and we just rode away, mom and my two little brothers on the wagon and John on Yeller Butt leading and me on Derwurd with the teepee poles strapped to his sides bringing up the rear. Hombre and the other dogs roaming free all around. Before long it started raining and I missed that little runt of a puppy. And I missed my father too but he was already buried somewhere far away that I wouldn’t see for over three decades.
I remember Flat Crick and the fossils but thats all I remember of the way out until Yeller Butt was stuck in the quicksand. We came all that way, days, maybe more than a week. Crossed rivers and creeks and over the Horn Mountains, our little caravan. And here within sight of the highway and Yeller Butt is stuck in the mud and dying. And giving up on life. Eyes rolled back in his head. John fighting with a halter leader tied around a runt of a spruce tree and another rope around Yellers hind quarters. Pulling like mad. Pulling in vain. Soft fall rain. Maybe it will freeze this night. I can’t do anything to help. My mother can’t do anything to help except take care of the three little boys. She takes us over to Eureka Lodge and we sit in a booth. Muddy and wet and I remember the smell and the hamburger we share and I remember the taste of those home cut fries. I feel rich eating those fries after a whole summer in the mountains and sleeping on the ground on caribou hides. I feel rich even though somewhere out there in the dark and the rain Yeller Butt must be dying.
At some point John staggers in and he’s muddy and wet and looks exhausted. But he looks relieved and somehow at peace and somehow he’s gotten Yeller Butt out of the quicksand and saved him. And I’m pretty sure I remember this correctly. But who really knows. It was so long ago. So so long ago.