April is a hard season for moose, and harder still for a calf like this one who recently died near my surf shack on the Kenai Peninsula. Of the half-dozen moose that frequent the area, this one stood out because I recognized him as a two-year-old who had just been told by his mother to hit the road. She was expecting, with her belly swollen and her nipples standing out, and soon would have no more time for this young fellow.
I kept seeing him around the neighborhood looking lost and forlorn. Judging from the carcass, he’d starved to death—there was still plenty of meat on him, and if he’d met his untimely end at the teeth of the wolf pack that inhabits the area, or one of the local bears, he would have been torn limb from limb, and gobbled up in a trice. There was also the sight of the prominent stack of his ribs when he stood in my backyard just a couple weeks prior.
This sort of thing is not pretty, but it is the world we live in, for better or for worse. The upshot was that the place he chose to die was a scant hundred yards from my front door. I found him in the greening first week of May with the aforementioned bears no doubt emerging from their dens, scratching themselves and yawning and wondering what culinary delights the season had in store. I had no desire to have a surly, territorial bruin camped out on a carcass so close to my cabin, so I backed up my truck (luckily he died near the side of the road), hitched a line to his hocks and dragged him a couple miles to the end of the road.
He was plenty ripe by the time I found him, but I’ll spare you the unsavory details. My childhood spent working in the family taxidermy shop endowed me with a cast-iron stomach for these matters, but I’m hardly made of stone. It’s sobering to see one so young get his metaphorical plate broken and then quite literally starve to death.
The artist in me quite naturally searches for meaning in this, and the thought in my head as I crawled down the old logging roads in first gear with this youthful carcass leaving a furrow of sand and hair in its wake was of the old cliché of the starving writer. There was also some low-level despair over the fact that that literary success is not necessarily ladled out in proportion to talent or effort on the writer’s part.
The intersection of art and commerce is not always a pleasant space to inhabit. I have no particular interest in being famous, unless, as my dad once quipped, fame is spelled M-O-N-E-Y. Not that money is what I care about—writing quality stories is what I care about—but a writer has bills to pay just like everyone else. The starving writer can be among the most tiresome of clichés, and you can only live so long on air, water, and devotion, particularly when the “check engine” light suddenly flicks on in your truck. Then again, I’ve been fortunate to have the good will of my family in my quest to support myself from my pen. Not everyone is so lucky, and it makes all the difference.
I stopped at the end of the road in a grassy stump field with a wide open view of the three-peaked silhouette of Mt. Iliamna. I unlashed the unlucky calf and pushed his remains to the side of the road. It had rained all night but the sky had cleared momentarily. The landscape tilted downward to Cook Inlet and the mountain dominated everything, just as it has done for untold millennia. There was a new novel to bring out in the coming months, an alt-weekly story to polish up, and at least two magazine pitches to send out. My hands smelled like death and I had to go to Homer on a grocery run. I’d have to put it on my credit card, not necessarily the best plan for the writer, but it’s what there is. It’s true that money cannot buy happiness, but it will damn sure buy you a better grade of misery, a thought that would not have comforted the starving calf nor all the struggling artists in history in any way.
Kris Farmen is a novelist, historian, and award-winning journalist whose books include Weathered Edge, Turn Again, and The Devil’s Share. He is a semi-regular contributor to The Anchorage PRESS, and his work has also appeared in Alaska magazine, Mushing, Russian Life, and The Alaska Dispatch News, among others. Blue Ticket, his new novel, will be released in early 2016. He divides his time between Homer, Fairbanks, and Anchorage.