Saturday, March 16, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Coyote Dreams by Louise Young

Coyote Dreams
Louise Young
PHOTO: Larry Lamsa

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Empirical

Her memory of that night was in the language that she’d learned from the man who was not her father: slurred syllables punctuated by glottal stops as if words were silver-bodied fish that muscled into the current of her breath. Anna had no idea of what language it was. In her twenty-seven years, she’d crossed the continent maybe a dozen times but she’d never met anyone who spoke with the words that she’d learned from Ambrosio. In Texas once she’d recognized a phrase–or maybe it was an entire sentence–in the wind stuttered chatter of flocking robins, and farther north the bare white branches of sycamore trees sometimes muttered a few familiar, shushing words as she hurried past. When she’d hear these voices, Anna wondered if what she recalled was an actual event, or an in-drawn breath that held meaning only in her mind.

On the remembered night, she’d woken slick with fever or maybe it was the wind: it blew through the tent from the south, inflating the thin canvas walls and then contracting them like a lung. The breath was as warm as a living thing, and inside of the tent she smelled life: the restless shudder of her mother, the heavy sigh of the man who was not her father. The muskiness of their breath, the rumbles of their sleep, were familiar but on this night without comfort.

Beyond the walls of the tent, she could hear the harlequin leaves laughing at the wind, the soft slurp of the river as it swept between trees like an endless gray ghost. The child-Anna knew this spot: the family often camped here on their way to someplace else. In the spring, the river ran milky and cold, in the fall the air was so clear that it gave color to the night. She knew that the laughing leaves outside were yellow, the ashy bark of the trees furrowed like ripples on the river. Other things–known and unknown–lurked outside the tent: deer with their sharp-pointed hearts of tracks, the swift scent of sage, unblinking owls that questioned the darkness. In her memory, Anna could be certain of only this one night, her wakefulness a passport to the unexplored world of the future.

Fingers of wind played at the door of the tent, offering tantalizing glimpses of a moon-bright landscape. One of the adults farted softly in sleep. Not daring to risk the commotion of dressing the child crawled under the flap of the tent, and escaped into the night.

The first thing that demanded her attention was the moon. Directly overhead and oblong like the face of an old person, it tripped through the leaves and branches overhead, reining a stream of broken silver light onto the uneven duff at her feet. The moonlight rendered every sound, every detail, every inhale as clear as day clearer actually because the confusion of noises and color and movement was now breath-solemn and hushed. It was as if the world had been stripped of everything nonessential: a world more real than reality.

Anna looked down at her body, aglow in the naked moonlight. She’d hoped that this enchanted night might have made her beautiful, like the yellow leaves that applauded overhead or the sinewy fish that twisted and flowed, invisible, through the silty gray river. Ambrosio often told her that she was beautiful, that inside of her child’s body was a soul stronger than the Virgin or any of the saints. He had a word for it–something with a harsh, throaty rasp that Anna couldn’t imitate–but when she’d ask him what that word meant he’d tell her that she wouldn’t understand it, that she wasn’t old enough. And if she argued that she wasn’t young at all, Ambrosio would agree in the language that only they shared:

“Of course you’re not young–you’ve been in this world forever, just like the clouds and the river have always been here. But the water that’s flowing in the river now is different from the water that went past yesterday–it’s new, just like now your soul is new. You’re not like other people. Every day you are born again, like the river and the clouds are. And because you share so much with the river and the clouds and all of the world that surrounds you, you’ll never have an age, just like a cloud is never young or old.”

PHOTO: Larry Lamsa

Anna wasn’t sure that she wanted to remain like she was now for the rest of her life: she longed to be tall and graceful and fluid like her mother. But in her heart she knew that Ambrosio was right: she was different from other children. Those others couldn’t hear the sighing of the northern lights or recognize weather in the wind.

This wind, warm as a cow’s tongue, would bring rain in a few hours, probably around dawn. Right at the moment when the grown-ups would be trying to take down the tent and pack, to move forward, onward, through. They were always heading toward something but the child couldn’t figure out what that thing was. All that Anna wanted to do was stay in one place long enough to understand the language of those who lived there. Every place had its own words, too often muffled by a rumble of traffic or the swoop of busyness. In the stillness and darkness of night, the voices became especially compelling. She’d wake to a cacophony of mumbles and mutters that the wind would snatch away before she could isolate a single thought. She wondered where the wind carried those conversations, if it stored them somewhere far to the east, in the rumbling caves of the ocean or the brightness of the rising sun. 

That same wind now guided her, pushing at her back with the steadiness of a hand. Her footsteps rumpled through leaves already shed from branches overhead. The dripping silver darkness was alive with voices: the fecund river full of fish and clams and slime, the earth with its roots and worms, the trees, the wind veining words from somewhere far away–maybe as far as the western sea–to mingle with sighs of camphor and fir. Beneath all of those vague, half-heard voices, the child thought that she could sense the presence of another listener, its restrained energy and youth somewhere very near her own.

Anna breathed through her mouth, hoping that the taste of the night air might clue the identity of her companion. For every one of her footsteps, a handful of others whispered around her. Feet smaller than hers–paws maybe–stepped as lightly as rain. Anna willed her body to be still: the wan footsteps also paused. The child twisted her head to the left and to the right but in the broken shadows under the trees she saw nothing except silver slivers of refracted moonlight.

The wind continued to tug at her, impatient for movement, and when her steps resumed so did those of the unseen creature beside her. Anna panicked and ran, breaking away from the trees and into the full moonlight of the bank along the river. In the open, she realized that she had been followed not by a single shadow but by four or five, pouncing and prancing and tumbling at her feet. Dun-colored forms in the moonlight, pointed ears, pointed snouts, and tails streaming behind their flanks like the current off a rudder: puppies. Coyotes? She’d never seen a coyote up close before, only heard their keening, yapping, effusive song that sometimes gave dreams to her sleep.

The pack of pups at her feet was never still: their tightly-wound bodies twisted, feigned, and attacked. But no matter how closely they braided around her legs, the puppies never touched her: it was as if an invisible field held their lives apart. The child imagined the soft slide of their fur against her bare calf, young muscles sprung with tension and alive with motion. After their ghostly escort through the woods, the pups now seemed completely oblivious to her presence. They tumbled and played in the grasses and yellowing ferns, breath chuffing and chuckles or growls rumbling inside of their shivering chests.

At the child’s feet: a spring, a snap, and a grunt were followed by an instant of stillness as one of the puppies chewed and then swallowed. A breath away, another pup leaped vertically like a trout but in vain: the intended prey–a scrap of fluttering moonlight–escaped the snapping jaws to hover above the coyote’s head, just beyond the reach of those straining, leaping lips.

Eye level to the child, though. In a flash, Anna pinched her fingers together until she held the moth imprisoned in her hand. Cool, silky wings fluttered helplessly against her palm. The thick stub of a body crushed easily. She offered the disabled moth to the upraised snout of the frustrated pup. A pink tongue darted out, first to accept the morsel, then to lap at the child’s hand.

As the night advanced, the children–human and coyote–hunted. The wind stilled. When the rain began, the drops fell so lightly that none of them noticed: the child assumed that the barely audible hiss at her feet was a chorus of earth-bound insects, scolding her for aiding the coyote pups in the slaughter of their sisters.

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