January 8, 2013 § Leave a comment
The sounds of the wildness all around us slipped freely through the thin canvas walls of our tipi and blended with my dreaming, waking and sleeplessness. The crash of the dead branches, resurrected by the restless wind mingled with the clicking of small stones knocked together as the leaden birds landing in the leaf-littered creek bed. The rolling alert of the first distant, and finally near, dogs barking their warnings, and the night owl, crickets, and frogs all crying out for love. Into this lullaby of the detailed hum of the machinery of the world, there came a little sound – a new sound. Lost at first in the quiet roar of these billion lives in dissonant harmony, a cluster of little squeaks and peeps finally crossed the threshold into my awareness. A bird or a bug I wondered, but as the sound resolved in my perception, I began to know what it was. Now in my mind’s eye, I envisioned a litter of newborn coyote puppies. I imagined the special odor of their breath, their bobbing heads and wobbly legs. Listening carefully to their yelps, I raised and turned my head to get a bead on them. Over in the thick chaparral, under the sycamores, down in the little meadow, I thought. As I listened carefully to their yips and grunts, I discerned perhaps five, maybe more, tiny sad and lonely babies, hidden in the bushes, calling and crying for their mommy. I imagined her off up the hill chasing bunnies desperately; comically hopping and zigzagging through the brush in search of a meal to refill her stretched and sagging teats. Immersed in the sound of their cries I slowly slipped into sleep.
Their mother or father, perhaps an uncle or cousin, had often seemed like vermin to me, cruel destroyers of the lives of small furry things I loved – kittens, cats, pet rats and rabbits. I had chased and cursed their wily kin as they robbed me. But this was their home long before it ever became mine, or any of the other insatiably reckless apes who so many centuries ago had invaded this little valley that was once the coyote’s sovereign dominion. Like us, they were perched cockily atop a fragile chain of living. Like us, mindless of the fear of the meek, they impulsively crashed through their lives sending the minions scurrying in terror into their nests and burrows. And, like me, they were raising their children here, bestowing a concern we seldom feel for ourselves on our beloved and fragile progeny. Surely they feared me as some vague threat to the well being of their children, just as I felt them a threat to mine. This commonality of fear and boldness began to make the coyote mother’s babies seem as my own. The saga of their lives, revealed to me only blindly in the voices of their children, became a wondrous metaphor for my own struggles with the great Entropy. The strengthening of the puppies’ sweet voices, and the cunning care of their mother was a testament to the majestic will of our shared lives to magically resist the insurmountable and terrifying descent of all existence into the dark silence of oblivion.
Each night, after stripping off my clothes, and diving – skinny dipping into the icy stream that was my bed, I would cherish the short time I spent with my imaginings of the coyote puppies’ epic tale. Coiled fetally beneath the covers as my body slowly melted a small warm cocoon into the frigid cotton cave, I would carefully tune myself into the frequency of those little calls and would usually, gratefully, find them. Their plight, timidly shivering as I was, made my own passing chill trivial. These puppies made me feel thankful for what my friends saw as my impossibly meager bedroom: a frail and drafty cone of canvas that seemed to them so incapable of protecting my family and me from the harsh winter we were having. Musing at how grateful these wild things that had become my companions would be for even my sparse accommodations, I was always left feeling only contented.
One night the coyote family was up the hill, to the south in the oaks, and then on another, atop the barren ridge. The canny mother seemed to be moving her brood frequently; some nights close-by, some farther and faint, but every night they grew louder and stronger. I had thought I had heard five when they were little, but now I was certain that there were only three. I know how fond the owls are of little warm and fuzzy things, and felt deeply sorry for the hardworking mom as she returned to her children after a hard race with a rabbit or a squirrel to find only four where there had been five – then three. But now they were too big for the owl, and would themselves torment the rabbit mothers.
Soon the growing puppies sang with voices more like their father might use in his solitary calls. But still, despite their now low adult tones, the almost full grown pups stayed together. Three voices now, howling, barking and hooting. I was familiar with the long rhythmic wails of the elders but was surprised by these Young Turk coyotes. Their songs swung. They syncopated the yips and threw some growls and gurgles into the bridge as they exuberantly experimented with their new voices together. As their strong low voices joined the chorus of their kin, my love and concern for them erased any perception I had of their race as vermin. As spring deepened they began to range far away, and many nights I would be saddened at not being able to enjoy their raucous adolescent recitals.
Then one day, driving home with my 5-year-old daughter, I saw three handsome full-grown coyotes trotting across the road about a half-mile west of our compound. I looked after them as they rushed down the hill together, and my heart quickened as I thought that these might be my three friends. “Nini,” I asked, “did you see that? Three coyotes all together???!!!” She leapt up onto her knees to look out, but they had already disappeared into the chaparral, and she answered sadly, “No.” I asked if she too had listened to their wild night-songs, but she hadn’t. On these icy nights, when the tipi is stretched taut by the frozen dew and feels like fiberglass in the morning, Nini and her mother sleep in a little trailer. They can’t sleep well in the cold, and I can’t sleep well in the cramped stuffiness of the trailer, so when it freezes we reluctantly separate. I regret that she, a softhearted lover of tiny things, has not shared these growing pups with me, so I tell her about them. I tell her about how the mother moved them every night when they were little, how she picked them up in her mouth and hopped through the gullies with them bouncing and dangling limply from her measured bite. I tell her about the sounds that they made, and I try to imitate them: all the little whines and yips, the baby howls and the teenaged howls. But my voice is old and rough and I have to apologize for not doing justice to the sweetness of the puppy’s voices. Then to my joy and amazement she said “Like this?” and proceeded to mimic those little sounds in turn. The yips, yowls, howls, growls and barks, she reproduced the whole repertoire. Even though she could not recall having heard them, her tiny voice mimicked theirs so perfectly. I looked at my child with wonder, and thought again of the mother coyote returning to find one of hers gone. I was overwhelmed by pity for her and by love and gratitude for my own puppy, and her health, wisdom, strength and voice.
Many months later, in the dusty hot grip of summer – when the magic of these communions had long since faded – Nini shouted down to me, from where she was playing some complex dramatic game up on the hill above our compound, “Dad! A big coyote is eating Otto’s dog food!” Impulsively protective, thoughtless now of a once treasured rapport, I picked up a stone and rudely hurled it with my usual poor aim at this forgotten friend. Startled by the crash of my rock as it upset a large trash bag full of aluminum cans, the fat coyote scurried away, frightened and perhaps disappointed, into the poison oak above the creek bed. I looked back toward my daughter and was heart-broken as I suddenly read, in the sorrow in her eyes, the love for the coyote puppies that I had planted, and that she, unlike me, had nurtured into this summer. I felt ashamed at my violent thoughtless act, and I apologized to Nini for my cruelty. I think to her, my shame and regret redeemed me. Her love could forgive me just as it could forgive the coyote bandit. She wiped away my tears, and hugged me tightly. “That’s OK daddy,” she replied trying to soothe the pain that she had now read in my eyes, “he was stealing Otto’s food, and that costs a lot! Huh?” I smiled, and nodded, and carried her in my arms back down to the trailer. Through her simple observation I understood that the coyote had its priorities, and I had mine. He and I share a rash and selfish side, and this too is an essential part of the vital force that joins us.