Totems by Christopher Propst

My Mom and I lived in a damp, mildewy place where rain falls over 240 days a year. In Ketchikan, Alaska, over one hundred of those days occur in the dark of winter, a kind of darkness unknown to most of humanity, a darkness from prehistoric caves. Tourists come only in the summer, and even then, they get rained on. They like taking pictures of the totem poles that the Chamber of Commerce assembled from local Native villages. That is our main attraction, aside from the land itself and buying smoked silver salmon and little freeze-dried moose turd keychains. In the summer, I take a break from the Fish and Game and work as a tour guide, explaining those fifty or seventy-foot-high painted carvings stacked with killer whales, were-bears, ogresses, and topped with a large raven or eagle. We’re supposed to tell the tourists that sometimes the poles are just simple tombstones, but most of them tell a story of a family or tribe and its ancestors, usually involving some kind of “encounter with the supernatural or the animal and plant kingdoms.” The elders would use the pole as an illustration and to trigger their memories. I can never quite tell the details by looking at the carving. What are you supposed to make of a large blackfish swallowing a wolf? Or a man that looks like a frog holding hands with the Moon? I hear that even the Natives are losing the meanings of some of the figures and designs.

The totems didn’t comfort my mother when we first moved there. Green conifers surrounded Ketchikan and infiltrated it with sentries of squawking seagulls and ravens posted in their branches. Bears rummaged through our garbage and ate tuna and root beer cans. After we came there, after the divorce, my Mom cried for a week straight, then bought a puppy to console herself, a pretty Irish Setter and Golden Retriever mix that she let me name “Honeybear.”


* * *

My Mom bought an old house and the foundations shook every time the washer went into spin cycle. One of the key features of the house was the smell of Honeybear who shit and peed all over. If she missed a square inch in the eight years we lived there, I’d like to frame it. Perversely, I have always thought that was what the good life smells like, as those were my happy years. If we had done any scolding of the young Honeybear, or left her too long, she would poop upstairs in whoever’s room she felt was to blame. Otherwise, she’d just go in the kitchen.

We lived only half a block from Ketchikan’s largest graveyard where I could let Honeybear go free. My usual destination in the graveyard was a huge white cross, heavy with paint. As I took off her leash I’d say, “Go see Jesus, Honeybear,” and she’d look at me, grinning before she’d dart off a golden, yellow flash.

Raven-filled pine and Sitka spruce trees lined the graveyard. As Honeybear trespassed under the trees, the ravens would swoop down upon her and scream. She took some delight from the warfare, never missing an opportunity to slink up on a lone, unaware bird, accelerating until it jumped into the sky. Honeybear would roam throughout the graveyard, stopping from time to time to roll over on something smelly, to visit with children or old ladies. Old women would stop and say, “Oh, what a pretty dog. Isn’t she lovely.” Children liked to pet her and wrap their arms around her neck and try to tie her ears up in her bandanna. My Mom thought that this was Honeybear’s function: to provide happiness to people.

* * *

When I was in High School, Mom left for a regional social worker’s meeting in Juneau for four days and left me $100. This trip concurred with my first dance. I had some contacts who lined up beer sales and got a 6-pack for ten bucks. Right after school, I prepared for my unfortunate date by shotgunning beers in the living room with the stereo blaring Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” After three in less than ten minutes, I was pretty hammered.

“You love me, don’t you,” I said to the dog. She seemed to listen or care, so I began confiding: “I tell you Honeybear, I don’t know why in the hell Jessica won’t go out with me . . . probably thinks I’m shy, which I am unless you get to know me, you know like you do. . ..You’re wondering why I don’t have a father around here. You’re probably wondering about your own family. How the hell was your dad? Was he a bastard . . . Oh, hell, they just teach you to be an asshole and chase after cats. . ..”

She licked me, just getting salt from my face probably, but never once asking to be let out. I was very late for some disco action.

* * *

My mother’s old Volkswagen bus made a distinctive putt-putting noise I could hear coming for two blocks. I would become instantly seized with fear: “It” was coming. The dog could hear it as well, and she’d begin to run around and bark. You could work her into a frenzy, akin to the “Do-you-want-to-go-for-a-walk” excitement, by repeating “Mom’s Home! Mom’s Home!” Upon that “putt-putt”, I threw dishes in the dishwasher, threw garbage under the couch, and dusted the coffee table in one fell swoop.

Then “It” would enter, in a foul mood more often than not. She did sometimes come home in a good mood, but I mostly remember her exhausted from work, or upset about a letter for summer visitation from Dad’s lawyer, or, mostly, just the rain. Thereupon, she’d call me a “lazy kid,” and give me a “what-had-I-done-all-afternoon,” or a “this-place-is-a-pigpen.” I would be quiet, directed by her voice into doing whatever might stop it. If I had to get dinner or discuss something earnestly, or vacuum, I did that.

If the dog had been upstairs chewing up Mom’s tampons or shitting and peeing in my room because I was too lazy to take her out for a walk, my Mom’s entrance always caused her tremendous amounts of guilt. She’d run downstairs, excited to have Mom home, but then she’d grin horrifically and paw the air. This always made us start laughing and we’d say “Have you been a baaaaad girl, Honeybear? Huh? What have you been doooing? Something baaaad?”

* * *

We liked to go on camping trips, so once or twice a summer we’d get in the beat-up VW, catch a ferry, and head up to Canada. We’d drive on up to Whitehorse from Skagway, then sometimes head west towards Anchorage. Honeybear would work her nose frantically as she collected new scents coming through the windows, as my mother sped up the White Pass, which the gold-seekers climbed to reach the treasures of the Yukon. Mom liked to go about eighty miles an hour and never gave a thought for police.

Honeybear would always try to get in front to watch the scenery and sat in my lap. We went to Whitehorse to buy clothes because the American dollar could buy more there, plus there was a hot springs just outside of town that had a campground, horses, and trails: my Mother’s fantasy land.

The first day we’d get there she’d sit for hours in the steam of the hot pool. I would sit for as long as I could take it, then wait for her in the cafe, eating Black Forest Cake and drinking the small Canadian Cokes with little push-in buttons. Then she’d be a totally different person. We’d get some firewood and light a big fire, she’d get me some cider with alcohol in it even though I was underaged, and she’d fire up some weird Canadian cigarettes in cool boxes, and we’d sit around the fire watching the stars.

* * *

When I was depressed, I’d take Honeybear out for long walks, up on the flume, a wooden pipeline for carrying water at the bottom of a jagged, steep mountain, skirting its edge.

The winter of my sophomore year in high school, I had broken up with my girlfriend who said something about me living in a world of my own. I was so upset that I ripped up $300 worth of Dungeons and Dragon’s modules, grabbed the dog, stormed out of the house, and walked through one-foot snow to the flume. A bright moon and the rippling electric blues and pinks of the Aurora Borealis illuminated the crisp night.

When I got to the flume, I cleared aside some snow and sat down and cried as Honeybear sat near me. When I came back to my senses, I saw the city lights below me, the Northern Lights dancing above, and the white of snow melded with the green branches of pine. I walked for half an hour down the flume towards the reservoir. When we came to an open area where there were no trees above us on the two-thousand-foot mountain, I stood and looked up and, suddenly


Snow let loose in an avalanche. Honeybear whimpered and tried to jerk away. I just stood there and watched a wall of snow whistling towards me, accepting my fate, should my death be demanded. The snow rumbled down within a hundred feet of us, then slowed to a stop, the wall sloughing its weight till it was no higher than my knees, and I laughed and threw my arms into the air.

* * *

While summers are fine in Ketchikan, the winters are hard. Not because of the coldness—it’s colder in Minnesota or Chicago–but because of the darkness and there’s not much to do. In high school, we had only one movie theater and a bowling alley, so I read and played Dungeons and Dragons with my friends till I was blue in the face. Mom would sometimes take a Monday and Friday off and sleep for four days. This always worried me. But then she’d go back to work and everything would seem fine. Cabin Fever wore people down, and by late February, it could reach epic proportions. I might even study or ask a girl out; Mom would do spring cleaning once a week. She complained about her job and about the rain, her clients, and no one to care for her, and what was life for anyway? I’d nod my head and tell her to move to someplace warm after we left. When she came home crying one day, I said, “Why don’t we just pack up our stuff and leave?”

During my last few years in high school, the rain and grayness seeped into her soul. Some kind of gray, creepy magic crawled into her and she’d cry in her office in between clients and come home listless and lock herself in her room. I missed the yelling. It was about this time that Honeybear got sick.

* * *

The first thing that happened to Honeybear was she got into a porcupine and a bunch of quills stuck in her nose. The vet pulled them out with pliers and accidentally broke a few off, leaving them embedded. She was okay for a while, but then she drank toilet water filled with Tidy Bowl which made her immune system weak. This infection would not go away and she developed lesions and moped around the house. Mom bought special medicine for her, which produced side effects.

During my last year in high school, Honeybear got worse and worse, until the vets diagnosed her as incurable, begging my mother to put her to sleep. I agreed with their opinion and was attacked for it. With each new diagnosis, Mom grew more stubborn, insisting that natural healing and herbs would work a cure, but Honeybear became more gruesome and had difficulty breathing until it got to the point where I couldn’t take her out for a walk without people staring and commenting. “What’s wrong with your dog?” they’d ask. “Did she get in an accident?” “Poor thing.”

“Ignore them, Honeybear,” I‘d say. “They don’t know real beauty.” And she’d just putter along as if there wasn’t anything wrong.

Mom let clutter invade the living room, going hoarder. Cosmopolitans and Family Circles were stacked twenty high on the coffee table. She began collecting expensive dolls and figurines, placing them on overloaded shelves and plastering pictures of my childhood, together with Honeybear’s puppy pictures, around the house. The kitchen counters were filled with exotic herbs for poultices and pots with strange liquids.

* * *

Right after I finished high school, Mom decided to move to Sedona, Arizona, so the dog could receive better alternative medical care, and for her own mental health. I had to help pack up that house and leave my friends a couple of months earlier than I had expected, and she had to sell the house cheap. She quit her job even though she was high up the pay scale and was only eight years away from a decent retirement. “Eight years is an eternity,” she said. “I can’t go through another winter.” I asked her what she was going to live on.

She said, “Leave that in God’s hands like you should everything else.” But even at that age, I knew that God’s hands could be awfully slippery.

Her friends protested the move in vain. Most of the days of my conscious life, she couldn’t spend more than two days without talking to at least one of her friends on the phone for a good two hours. Oftentimes, I sat doing my homework listening to her call three or four friends in a marathon of phone bonding. She was going somewhere which she only knew about from some yoga magazine, where she wouldn’t have these friends in person.

We packed the house into the smallest U-Haul that could safely tow the VW. On the ferry out of Ketchikan, she opened a bottle of Martinelli’s to celebrate, but I kept looking at the mountains going slowly past, looking at the various lines that ran to their peaks, wondering which approach I would take in order to reach the top.

We took the Cassiar Highway south, my first trip to the “Lower 48.” We crammed up against one another in the cab of the U-Haul as we jiggled over potholes and leaned into the turns. I had to push the snorfing, extremely heavy Honeybear off my lap every twenty minutes. Mom was as intent upon the road as any scientist upon an experiment. She weaved in between potholes, studied the unmarked curves to see how fast she should take them, and braced herself when the trucks roared past.

Once, she looked over at me, breaking from the trance of the road, and said, “Wipe that mucus out of those holes in our princesses’ head.” I clutched the Kleenex, gritting my teeth as I encountered the long strands of gluey fluid, but she didn’t whine. She laid her paw upon me after I was finished.

When we got to Sedona, before we did anything else, we went and looked at a huge pit a meteor had made a couple hundred years ago. We took the dog down to the bottom of the crater. “Just breathe that air now, Honeybear. That’s better isn’t it,” my Mom said. Honeybear walked stiffly as if trying out this new land. We sat on rocks and ate KFC as we looked back up at the sandy, rocky walls encircling us. I wondered what Honeybear thought about all the browns and tans and the absence of green. What kind of force was generated in making this crater and where was the actual meteor? We gave the chicken bones to Honeybear, as Mom decided it was okay for the dog to break her strict diet.

We checked into a motel and snuck the dog into the room, then leafed through the telephone book. “Here, Matt,” she said, “There’s at least seven acupuncturists here.” She went out to get a paper and look around the town; I stayed and watched cable T.V. When she came back she had wide child-like eyes: “I found a list to all the channelings in the area for the next month.” I nodded.

The very next day she found a nice bungalow that allowed pets and cost only six hundred dollars a month. The landlord was a Massage Therapist who invited Mom to a meeting of her “Course in Miracles” group. “See,” my Mom said, “I was meant to be here.”

I helped her get settled, unpacking about half of her boxes, getting the kitchen, bedroom, and bathrooms functional. I didn’t really like the cactus-like plants called yucca growing in her front yard with their sharp-pointed leaves that looked like they’d kill a person. I walked Honeybear and tried to keep the place clean, while Mom went out looking for jobs and signing up for workshops. She seemed to be making friends, but I was worried about her coming down off her high.

Honeybear didn’t seem to be getting any better or worse, oblivious to her own suffering. She preferred to stay inside in the air conditioning. After five minutes of walking in the desert shrubs, she’d get grumpy and sit down. Mom found a job at a Rehab clinic, so I stopped worrying about her finances. Then I had to go to the University of Washington to study Wildlife Management. When Mom drove me to the airport, I had the feeling that something had ended, an epoch or something.

* * *

That Christmas vacation when I visited the bungalow, I was stunned. Honeybear’s condition had deteriorated so much that she could barely move. She had abscesses on her front legs, and three oozing holes in her nose, covered with bandages and ointments. Unpacked boxes still lined the walls. Honeybear snuffled, heaved, and strained through her nose, and panted open-mouthed for every breath. She seemed to be calling out to me for some kind of help.

“Jesus Christ, Mom!” I said. “This is criminal.” I stared her down angrily. During our phone calls, she always defended Honeybear from being put to sleep by saying how healthy she was.

“She was doing really well up unto a couple of weeks ago . . . She’s still happy. She’ll get better soon. . . The Naturopath has been giving her some new treatments. It’s Christmas, Matt, and you just enjoy her,” she pleaded.

There was a weird pain in my Mother’s face, so I softened my stance, even though Honeybear’s appearance still raked through my stomach like fingernails. I sat down on a second-hand, pale pink couch and talked with Mom about school and her work. I didn’t say anything about the condition of the house. She was working two jobs and didn’t have time to walk the dog regularly. Honeybear had chosen several carpeted places in the dining room as her targets and the smell there was almost overwhelming. Also, Mom said that she hadn’t been able to cook for herself. Five months of McDonald’s hamburgers and Pepsi’s hadn’t left her in the best physical shape. Her eyes had brown bags under them. She wanted to cut back on her hours but needed the money.

Honeybear tried to sleep all that day because, as I learned, she too wasn’t sleeping well at night. She could only manage twenty-minute naps before mucous interrupted her breathing pattern. On December 21, the Winter Solstice, a day in which the veils between the two worlds become lessened, she had a shuddering seizure. I told my Mom, but the dog seemed okay. Mom told me to pick the dog up and bring her outside.

“She needs to pee,” she said. “She doesn’t want to go inside in front of you.” I could barely lift her, she was so bloated. “Just put her down and he can just go in here,” Mom pointed towards the kitchen floor. I ignored her and put her down in the sandy, beach-like yard that had no snow, and Honeybear just looked around at the brownness of the desert and the wooden fence hemming her in as if she didn’t know what she was doing there. She didn’t go to the bathroom but stood there unmoving. I brought her back inside.

The minute I put her down, she dropped to her side, arched her back in another seizure, and began dying as her body slowly curled back to a normal position. My mother and I started crying and sat over her, stroking her neck and ears. I hummed in her ears, telling her what a good dog she was, as her bowels emptied and her body began to stiffen. It was the Winter Solstice, and a full moon, and I thought I saw her spirit leave her body.

“I don’t understand it,” said Mom. “She was so happy. She was getting better.”

I lit a candle and put it next to her blanket-covered body on the porch. We said prayers to speed her ascension. Then Mom phoned work. She had to go because she couldn’t find anyone to sub for her. She called one of her new friends, someone to talk to, but not someone close enough to really care about some dog they wouldn’t know or this northern woman just arrived in their midst. I looked out at the glow of the candle on the glass of the sliding porch door. The warm yellow light flared gently in the wind.

Mom put her hands on my shoulders. “She waited for you, you know. She waited for you to come back from school,” she said.

“I know,” I said, barely able to speak. It was strange for me, who had been so prepared for Honeybear’s death, who had advocated it, to endure the actual event, to watch the final breath push through the bellows. “She’ll be rewarded, Mom,” I said. “She’ll be reincarnated as something better next time . . . like a dolphin.”

“Maybe. . . she deserves it, that’s for sure . . . maybe an elephant or an eagle, or a human, I don’t know.”

“What are you going to do?” I asked her.

“Get her cremated, I guess.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“I know. I have to go to work now. Make sure that candle stays lit all night. And you pray for her every now and then–he could be lost.”

When my Mom left, I went out and lifted Honeybear’s limp head, prying open her eyes, smoothing back her whiskers. There was nothing there. I sat watching TV the rest of the night, slowly smoking stale Canadian cigarettes.

It was expensive getting Honeybear cremated, but Mom bought a solid brass urn. I thought we’d scatter her ashes in Ketchikan, on one of her favorite trails or beaches, but Mom would hear nothing of it. She set up the shrine as if she was a painter and it was her masterwork. She sanded the mantelpiece and varnished it with rosewood stain, put a picture there of me, and Honeybear on the flume on a rare sunny day. She debated how it looked, moving the leash to first one side, then the other, then stepping back.

I had to go back to school, wanting to help carry away some of my mother’s tears, but I could not.

* * *

I have the shrine now since my Mom’s passing, a monument to my youth, and the beauty of something once alive.

I feel my heart rise as I remember how much I had been worried that she wouldn’t find someone to spend her old age with, about how her hands were wrinkling. She didn’t pay much attention to those things and went to watch New Age channellers from Alpha Centauri. I was so sorry she passed alone, so far from home, so unexpected, a stroke they said, the tea kettle melding to the red-hot burner. And strangely when her co-workers found her, they said the floors were vacuumed, files organized in a cabinet, and no dishes in the sink.

She had finally gotten a great gig and worked for two years with multiple personality patients and rehabbing alcoholics. She stopped five people from killing themselves her co-workers said.

* * *

Even after six years at UW and Seattle, I felt the call to return to Ketchikan, maybe caught by some shaman’s spell. My apartment is near the Totem Pole Park, across town from our rickety old home.

From my chair, I can see the totem of William Seward, the guy who bought Alaska from the Russians for a little over seven cents an acre, perching up on top of a pole with his big black stove top hat that makes him look like Abraham Lincoln. Next to it is a carving of a frog painted red with black eyes. On top of it is a blue bear, what they call a glacier bear, with paws raised.

The green is just coming back to the grasses; the spruce and pine of the Tongass National Forest are budding. It was a long winter, but steam rises from my coffee onto the window and when I inhale its aroma, I smell salty water. The cloudy gray sky warms and waits for me to join it. When I open my door, ravens will rise from the porch and I’ll see and feel brown friendly creatures, watching me from their forest homes. This morning I awoke to an Alaskan sunrise with snow on the mountains.

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