Yellowcake

by Published on

The following is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress about a miner named Leonard Benally and his family. The story takes place during the uranium boom of the 1950s in Grants, New Mexico. Sections of the book are based upon real-life events, including the efforts by a Public Health Service epidemiologist named Duncan Holaday to call attention to the deadly levels of radon gas in the mines, which subsequently led to the deaths of hundreds of miners, both Native Americans and Anglos. — EW

illustration by Mike Krone

As Leonard crouches in the narrow shade of the boulder, waiting for the all-clear signal from the Kerr-McGee man, he can feel the sun edging its way across the sky, vacuuming up everything. It sucks up the faint smell of dew that lingers in the roots of the juniper bushes and beneath the rocks near the mouth of the cave. He can even feel its thirst on the parched slopes of his cheeks and presses himself further into the rock until no part is left open and exposed to the slashes of light. Although it is only early June, the fiery air has burned off the green shoots, leaving the hills and arroyos powdery and dry. In the brittle emptiness, sounds can travel uninterrupted for many miles, and the torn scrap of a human voice, stiff with anger, rises up the mountainside and weaves itself into the flitting, thin dreams of the miners. Only Leonard is awake, and his mind pads back and forth in a dull, caged way, calculating the money that will be docked from his pay while the company men are inspecting the tunnels to make sure the mine is safe to re-enter. Far below him, he can see the railroad tracks and the smoke stack of the gypsum plant. Beyond lies Route 66. A small pickup truck crests the hill, plunges down into the center of Grants, and then reappears, toiling west toward the Arizona border. It is a square of blue going somewhere. Anywhere would be better than here, Leonard thinks to himself, breaking off a branch from a dying piñon bush and digging his fingernails into its curdled needles. A faint spiciness wafts up out of the greenish juice, but Leonard’s nose and throat are so clogged with the acrid mine dust that the subtle odor is lost on him.

Finally, he hears the bawling voice of the supervisor and hurries back into the mine. He feels his way along the narrow tunnel, his fingers catching on the chain-link fencing and ridged bolts that cover the walls and ceiling to keep the loose rock from caving in. Once his eyes have adjusted to the darkness, he can see the glint of fruit jars the miners have placed in the crevasses to collect the cool water. Although the water tastes like rust, the miners are convinced it has restorative powers, and drink it down with their tortillas and beans, or take it home to their families at night. Leonard stoops down and slurps up some of the water with his hand, wipes his chin, and continues toward the yellow light bulb that glints at the end of the tunnel. He steps into the man-cage and pushes the red button that will take him down to the newly blasted cavern. As the rickety platform drops down the shaft, he looks up and sees the burning sky shrink and disappear. He flicks on the small light on his miner’s hat and watches the slick rocks slide by. Slowly his face relaxes, and his hands hang loose at his sides. When he steps out of the cage, he smells the cordite from the recent explosion and inhales it deeply. Other miners develop nosebleeds and headaches from the odor, but Leonard likes the smell; it reminds him of gunfire and the shivery brightness he once felt on the battlefield.

The water is running fast at this depth, an urgent patter that has none of the restful tones of the streams and rivers that tumble down through the mountains above them. In front of the man-cage is an ankle-deep pool. Leonard curses under his breath and splashes through the icy water to the cavern where the dynamiting has been done. Plunging through the curtain of dust, he enters the newly opened chamber.

The explosion has been expertly done. On the wall in front of him lies an exposed new vein of ore. It is vivid yellow—the color of sunflowers, the color of corn pollen—and undulates across the jagged surface like a snake. Leonard is so consumed with covetousness that he reaches for the cold wall to steady himself. Then he straightens up and turns off his miner’s lamp.

In the darkness, the streak of yellow ore looks even more like a giant, prehistoric snake. It pulses with brightness, growing taller, then longer, as it inches its way across the scrabbled rock. Leonard can make out the flat, triangular head, the coiled muscular body, and the tail, which curves back upon itself like a scorpion’s. For a long time he stands and studies the image, controlling his fierce desire by thinking about the day when he will have his own mine.

When he hears the other miners sloshing down through the tunnel, he picks up a shovel and begins to muck out the cavern. The Indian miners are also stunned by the vivid yellow color and steal quick glances at the exposed vein as they pick up their tools. Snakes were here long before the Earth Surface People came up out of the ground, and one of the Navajo miners wonders aloud if this is one of the serpents that existed at the beginning of time.

The men work for hours, shoveling the rubble into wheelbarrows and wheeling the loads to a large, wooden crate that has been lowered by pulleys to the floor the mine. When they stop to rest, flushed and perspiring, leaning on the handles of their shovels, the thick silence fills their ears and weighs down their bodies so that it seems that water, not air, covers them. The waste rock is hoisted out and dumped on the north side of the mountain. The ore itself will be transferred onto trucks and sent to the mill where it will be crushed, rinsed in chemicals, dried, and packaged into barrels. Leonard once saw a barrel filled with the cleansed ore. Like the yellow snake, it seemed to radiate its own sunshine.

illustration by Mike Krone

When their shift is nearly over, the foreman who plays cards in the wooden shack outside the mine comes down and watches them for a while. He wears his blue jeans high on his waist and tests the ground like a spider, bouncing on the balls of each foot before putting his full weight down. He pulls out a package of Salem cigarettes and passes them around. “You boys finish mucking, and I’ll let you off early,” he says. Then he walks along the wall, running a hand along the vivid yellow ore.

The cigarette gives Leonard a headache. His feet are numb from the cold water, and a deep pain cartwheels up through his spine into his head. As he pushes his wheelbarrow past the supervisor, the man turns to him and says in a nasal accent that reminds Leonard of his Army sergeant, “Benally, before you leave, nail some boards over this stope.”

“Now hold on, ” Leonard protests.

“Aw, quit your pissing,” the foreman responds, his voice mild. “You can add an extra half hour to your time card. That’s practically a bonus ’cause I know it’s going to take all of 10 minutes.”

By the time Leonard is finished, all the other miners have left. In the dripping quiet, he sloshes back through the water to have another look at the yellow serpent. Now the fabulous vein of ore looks more like a comet, a spray of light speeding across the universe, which somehow has been trapped down here. He runs his hand along the cold curving back, just like he saw his supervisor do, stops and traces the forked tongue of the serpent with a stubbed finger. “If only you could talk,” he mumbles to himself. “But it don’t matter. I know there’s more like you. Yes, I do.”

Pulling out a small pickax, he pries a chunk of ore the size of a softball from the snake’s midriff, drops it into his shoulder bag, and walks back down the tunnel to the man-cage and punches the button that will take him to the surface.

When he walks out, into the winking brilliance of the late afternoon sun, he staggers momentarily, as if he has been struck, then narrows his eyes and begins to hunt up Mirabel. The little donkey is down in the arroyo, standing motionless on her lead line next to a mesquite bush. He pushes the animal off the rope and yanks her up out of the ditch. “You sure do stink,” he says. “But May said to take you to the lady doctor’s, so that’s what I’m gonna do.”

The donkey has a white, sleepy face and leaky, nearsighted eyes that blink often in the blinding light. With each blink, flies rise from the corners and then sink back down to sip at the wetness. More flies collect along the ropy shanks of her legs, which tremble with effort as she climbs out of the arroyo. Leonard throws his pack of tools over her back, and together they trudge down the red dirt road. When the sun dips below the horizon, the cliffs and mesas on either side of them begin to glow liked banked fire. The air itself soon grows infused with the same color, making Leonard and the donkey seem like rich and prosperous travelers in a beneficent land.

Gnats suddenly appear in the dusk, and Leonard curses beneath his breath and waves his hand above his head to ward them off. He thinks about Felicia, one of the barmaids at the Eureka bar, and her cloud of candy-sweet hair. He likes to get close to her on the dance floor so he can feel the pooch below her girdle. Then he walks back to his stool, giddy as a high-school boy, and drinks until the room is moving around like a speeded-up movie and all he can remember the next morning are bits and pieces of the night before—the neon in Felicia’s mound of laquered hair, her smashed, yellow breasts, and her tongue, thick and foamy with beer, in his mouth.

At a washed-out gravel road, he glances up and sees the doctor, Regina Garity, looking down at him. The sharp, intelligent face flusters him, and when he reaches the top of the hill where she is waiting, his voice is blustery.

“Something’s wrong with her,” he shouts. “We poured a bottle of molasses over her food, and she still don’t eat. These fell off in her bucket.” From the pocket of his blue jeans, he withdraws several long, yellowish stubs and holds them out in the palm of his hand: donkey teeth.

Regina looks at the animal and frowns slightly. “You know I’m not a veterinarian, don’t you?”

“I guess. But so long’s I’m here, would you mind having a look? I don’t think Grants has no more vets.”

“I will. But one of these days the county is going to have to do something about this,” Regina says.

Leonard laughs. “Maybe if you called, they’d do that, but they sure as hell ain’t gonna pay any attention to me.”

“Well, that’s not what I meant at all,” she says, taking the rope from his hands and motioning him to follow her down to the barn. Leonard walks behind her, studying the mannish triangle of her back and the two flattened loaves that move up and down inside her blue jeans.

She ties the animal to the hitching rail, then goes into the washroom and retrieves a black bag containing syringes and numerous small vials of medicine. While she is drawing a clear liquid from one of the vials into a needle, Leonard saunters down the breezeway, glances into the stalls, then returns, and looks down the hill toward the mine. He studies the color and shape of the rocks on the cliff where the mine is located, looking for the eggy-colored striations that often indicate the presence of uranium.

“I seen you up here before,” he says, glancing back at Regina. “All this yours?”

“I’m buying it from the Baca family. It was supposed to go to their youngest son, but he never came home from Korea. Or rather, he disappeared soon after his ship landed in San Diego.”

“Some guys I was with, they talked about doing the same thing.”

“I suppose it is hard to go home when you feel so changed inside,” Regina muses.

“Well I cain’t speak for them other guys, but I ain’t never felt better.”

“You were in Korea?”

“Yes ma’am. Four long ones. Fifty-one to fifty-five.”

“It must have been something.”

“Oh, I learned some things, first aid and such, but most of it’s stuff I never been able to use on the job.”

He laughs again, an explosion of dry air, and scratches his black hair, which still bears the imprint of his mining hat. He has exposed cheekbones with small dips below them, and his eyes are the color of wet pine. Regina rubs her hand along the donkey’s hot neck, then pinches up a loose fold of skin and injects a sedative beneath it. The dazed animal flinches slightly. A few moments later, it drops its head and begins to weave. Regina then slides two fingers between the donkey’s lips, and the animal opens its mouth. Its tongue and palate are covered with watery blisters, and the lower jawbone in which the teeth are embedded appears to be dissolving, as if it has been rinsed in acid and is slowly being eaten away. The animal’s throat is covered with a greenish fuzz that Regina instantly recognizes as gangrene.

She straightens up and looks at Leonard. “What on Earth’s happened to her?”

“Nothing. We treat her good,” Leonard says. “All day she gets to eat them weeds that grow down by the arroyo.”

“Does she have a name?”

“Jackass,” he snorts. “No, Mirabel. That’s what the kids call her anyway.”

“Mirabel,” says Regina, cupping a hand under the animal’s sleepy face and drawing it closer. She speaks quietly to the little donkey and then goes back into the barn. A few minutes later, she returns with a bucket of soapy water, dips a clean, white cloth into it, and wrings it dry. Then she opens the donkey’s mouth and begins to clean it.

Leonard walks over to a yucca plant about 10 feet from the barn and pulls out his knife. “You mind?” he asks, pointing to the sharp, green leaves. Without waiting for an answer, he slices off a leaf, splits it lengthwise, then sticks it in his mouth and begins cleaning his teeth. He lifts his upper lip in an exaggerated way, moving the yucca blade between the spaces in his two front teeth, which are very white and well formed.

“The Indians make soap from this, but it don’t taste soapy to me.”

“The soap’s in the roots,” says Regina.

“Lordy. Seems like it’d be a whole lot easier to buy a box of Tide than dig out one of these things. Now that’s a bear of a job. You ever tried moving one of them cow-tongue cactuses?”

“Not really.”

“I expect you wouldn’t have. I had me a job doing that one summer, clearing the land for a carrot farm out east of here. I never will forget them stickers. Come right through my jeans, my gloves, even my boots. Here I was, nearly growed, and I cried when my aunt pulled them out of me. Finally she just put me in a big tub of warm water and let them raise up on their own. Course that was the fun part.”

His eyes slide over her big, womanly breasts, which to his mind don’t fit with her stringy, long-legged, man’s body. Regina says nothing, so he walks back over to where she is working and looks down into the bucket. Small brown scabs float on top of the water, which is pinkish from the donkey’s blood.

“Don’t that just make you sick?” he asks.

“I can see how it would make some people squeamish,” Regina responds, rinsing the cloth.

“Damn animal been smelling up the whole yard with her rotting peach smell. You ever smelled rotting peaches? You wouldn’t think that, what do they call it—vegetable matter?—could smell that bad. But it does. Almost like a human body.”

“Listen,” she interrupts. “Can you take this bucket and dump it over there—away from the barn—while I finish up?”

“Yes ma’am,” he says.

Regina takes a second rag and pours an orange liquid antiseptic over it. Gently she presses the rag into the raw places in the animal’s mouth. The donkey tries to pull away from her, but she holds it firmly under the chin by the pony halter. When she is finished, she turns to Leonar
and says, “Leave Mirabel with me. It
s probably too late to save her, but I’ll try.”

“You got a gun?”

“Of course not,” Regina says with a small laugh. “I’m not going to shoot her.”

“Then let me.”

Suddenly Leonard’s wiry frame is standing between her and the donkey. His knife is in his right hand, and he pulls Mirabel toward him. Regina sees the whitish lines in the gray hair of the animal’s neck as it stretches against the pressure of the rope. Its dazed eyes widen slightly.

With a small shock, she realizes what is about to happen and grabs the rope from Leonard’s hands. She is a head taller than he is and feels his eyes on her breasts. A quivering silence engulfs them. Then she hears her old horse, Lily, knocking against the walls of her stall.

“Why did you even bother to bring it up here?”

“May told me.”

“Well, I don’t do things that way.”

“Suit yourself,” Leonard says, shrugging.

He returns the knife to the leather sheath that hangs from his belt and tosses the rope to Regina.

That night, Regina returns to the barn. The little donkey is curled up, sleeping on the straw floor of the breezeway. The animal stirs when it sees her, but does not rise. A good sign and bad sign, Regina thinks. She kneels and strokes one of Mirabel’s long gray ears, feeling for the fever. The tips of the donkey’s ears are translucent and covered with veins. The animal is still very hot, so she rises and gets her bag of medicine and gives her another shot of penicillin.

Then she takes Lily out of her stall and begins to groom her. The mare touches her lips to Regina’s neck, shifts her weight and returns to sleep. Holding the flat, rubber currycomb in her right hand, Regina moves in a circular motion down the horse’s neck, across the curve of her back and over her flanks, stirring up a froth of dirt and dead skin. With the stiff brush in her left hand, she sweeps the loosened dirt from the mare’s back. She repeats the procedure several times until Lily’s coat gleams. Afterward, she gets out Lily’s companion, a small, white Angora goat named Birdie, and brushes her until her white coat stands out around her. With each brush stroke, the tension drains from Regina’s body. The night rustles around her, and somewhere far off in the hills, she hears the long, drawn-out cry of a peacock. The sound is halfway between a sob and a shriek, and seems the most perfect expression of human loneliness that she has ever heard.