Ruffian, Sir and Mr. Briggs

 

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Don’t ask him who he is. He isn’t certain, anymore, though he gets the occasional hint. The view from his sight line tells him little, other than his feet appear average and his limbs look good enough. Passing by a storefront window he catches a glimpse and stops, taken aback. Is that all there is to it, this body he occupies? He has heard the name “Tipper” or “Tip” a few times and it seems odd, something to note about a restaurant patron. Although he might be considered a sort of patron, he is certainly not a “tipper.” He’s more a nuisance, he supposes. But for the most part he is unperturbed. Once he was called “Ruffian” loudly, three times, by a woman who tried to get a small sack of steak bones from him, telling him this was bad for him, finally yelling he could just choke on them, then. Who was she kidding? Bad for her, maybe. He worked hard to snatch it away with ferocious bared teeth. Triumphant, for once! He likes the association with that so kept the name she threw at him.

Not being accustomed to giving an account of himself to anybody, there is also no documentation. No tags, no numbers. Ruffian doesn’t feel compelled to say anything about his story, such as it is. It matters little if he is great or small, handsome or passable, refined or common. Well, he knows he is not refined though he suspects he could pass with certain right touches. And it’s possible he’s some closer to handsome than not but, really, he also knows he tends to be patient with ladies of his ilk and so they get along. The main thing for him, though, is to keep going, stay alive, or if taking a break and hanging out also stay alive. Avoid burrs and broken glass, rats, raccoons and skunks; a handful of cats unnamed; barbed wire fences and security systems that are hair trigger. And bad meat. And bad tempered two-leggeds. Well, his own kind also leave some things to be desired, it’s true. He isn’t bursting with trust despite being congenial. Cautiously nice with second thoughts at the ready is his general mode. But a dog can only be prepared for so much, despite the basics about famed noses and ears and possible ESP. He’s not up on things enough to know about all that. He lives by instincts, the gut feelings even more now. That has to be good enough.

The neighborhood he likes most is North Hedges. He heard of it from the man who sells houses. This was at a coffee shop when he tossed a bagel remnant to pigeons. Ruffian caught it and got away in time to avoid pecking and swatting from all. Anyway, the praised neighborhood translates into high walls and dense bushes that also are boundary lines (good for relieving himself). There is the occasional old-fashioned fence. Many of the houses are humongous, a few reasonably sized. Leftover food is excellent everywhere. He likes best those with ordinary fences along side and back yards; he can wriggle past rotting or unevenly spaced wood slats. He waits until garbage day, very early to beat out competition, or for compost piles to be enlarged. Or a more rare treat from a generous dog-lover. Ruffian could search less enticing blocks nearby–has– but pickings are not even close to being as tasty.

There are also overhangs on odd, smaller second houses–the ones that shelter cars and such–and since it is known to rain even when sky is blue and breezes smell more verdant than mud-wet, this is a bonus. In fact, it rains all year off and on. So if he can find a spot under a roof line and only suffer dampness about the edges, he’s set. Recently it has been drier. His black and patchy white fur is not matted as badly as he can scratch and gnaw at knots and bits much better. There are a few random generous humans who feed him treats. And of course, Ruffian knows which cafes and restaurants to go to when they close. He otherwise roams, searches and negotiates with others like him or not.

But he stays closest to the house with a freshly-painted white fence that happens to be missing two slats. Ruffian can’t decide just why. Yes, their food is good. It seems a place that is overall safe, which counts for something these days when free-roaming animals get poisoned and turned in to the dog cops. It’s quiet, yet not too quiet; he hears music and it’s sweeter than usual noise. Often there’s a man seated at a stool, hands running over a black and white ledge of keys. Good sounds wander outdoors, even last winter at times. Ruffian sometimes curls up by the wall closer to the music but he prefers to remain at the back edges. Occasionally he will forget himself and join in a few bars which then brings two smiling faces to the door. This shuts him up.

There’s a structure in the back yard that is covered with a round and pointy roof, with chairs to sit amid vines and flowers that wind up lattice. The woman often sits there. She talks with people, sometimes the man. Marie and Marvin Briggs is what they repeated when someone asked if these were, in fact, their names. Ruffian heard them say them to each other enough after that. But that day there were many boxes and other unknown items dropped off on the porch. That was awhile ago; Ruffian hasn’t seen Marie outdoors much though he’s been roaming farther with the warm weather so has no doubt missed much. Sometimes he notices the piano isn’t played; that may not be a good sign. He also hears their voices getting loud and crying sounds, like Marie is speaking in pain. It bothers him mainly because it is different. It changes the feel of the entire house and yard. But Marvin, especially, yet notes Ruffian’s presence by managing fast eye contact or talking to him when he sits on the deck, glass or cup in his hand. But he doesn’t try to approach Ruffian. Or vice versa. They understand something of each other.

They both have seemed welcoming enough. Marvin calls out with the name “buddy”. Ruffian wishes he could correct him but now and then barks in return. The man then shows him a treat of some kind, a bit of sausage or chicken, even a portion of cold baked potato, then lays it on the decking so it can be gobbled up in private when they leave. Marie talks to him as she works in the garden even if she isn’t looking at him, her steady, soft voice an aid to his dozing. He gets worn out, out there. But he keeps to himself in the end. He isn’t in the habit of going to strangers, even if they are better known. They are people. He is canine and long on his own.

There are other canines and most of them are leashed or even tied up or worse, kept indoors which Ruffian finds ridiculous and cruel. They generally growl at him, warn him to stay away from their domain. Maybe these don’t know how to manage things without a leash or commands. He sits a distance from those yards, listens to threaten and complain, then goes on his way. If he barks and bares his teeth, too, much fuss ensures, the humans get involved with a very uncertain end. Often it’s not fun for either dog when all they were doing was having a conversation that didn’t invite humans into it. It is not so hard to come to a mutual agreement, in Ruffian’s opinion, with talk that is to the point.

But there are other canines as footloose as is he. More so, in truth. Not the usual motley crew. Canis latrans. Coyotes. They have been moving in and about more lately, and Ruffian has seen a few things, cats that don’t get to see the sun rise, rats and mice that just give up, other small creatures that need not bother moving in much less seeking emergency shelter. But for the most part Ruffian notes coyotes comings and goings with detached interest, as they do him. Ruffian realizes he is a bit bigger than most of them, though not a forbidding dog. He just can take care of himself after a couple years on the street but he is not interested in aggravating anyone, either. No competition can be had with coyotes form what he understands.

One certain coyote shows up– Ruffian is pretty sure he’s the same one– a few times a month. Tonight he’s around again. The Briggs’ should clean up their brush and mend their fence but since they do not, coyote and Ruffian have equal access. Well, Sir Coyote (as Ruffian has taken to calling him; he’s a bit royal in bearing) can jump higher, four, five feet or more, something to witness. And is better at this night hunting than he is, admittedly. Though not that close to being congenial, they acknowledge each other with a brief clear glance, eyes locking for less than a second. Sir Coyote tends to be entirely unheard and unseen by humans. He sniffs out rodents, other smallish creatures, makes brief work of it, is gone. If it was possible to be more communicative and join in, Ruffian would. But he knows better. He is outclassed by Sir, who was born wild, still is though now sharing sprawling, densely populated cities. A dog that was once cared for and owned by others and then lost to the byways and highways one day, Ruffian has learned about his wildness out of desperate need. It hasn’t been so hard.

But it isn’t his the same way as coyote’s. There is dog and there is dog. Sir Coyote is so fast and sleek, smart right down to his bone marrow, and displays talents Ruffian wishes he could recall or learn as well. Like being able to vanish without you knowing it  happens. Playing tricks on the mind when you think you are attuned. Since Ruffian’s been close to humans, he has lost his wariness. He’s a raggedy pet that was inadvertently freed. Sir is a “Sir” for good reason.

Tonight Ruffian sees Marvin come out to the deck and he wonders if Sir will do something about that but no, he is intent on scouting and grabbing and gobbling, if in that quiet, efficient way. Marvin frowns at a sound he stirred up, studies the spot Sir was but a second before then rubs his eyes and sits down with legs splayed, arms crossed over his thin chest. He looks up at the half-moon.

“Are you out there, buddy?”

Ruffian lifts his head. The anticipation of more brings him to his haunches.

“I can’t sleep again. I wonder if I’ll ever sleep again.”

Ruffian is unimpressed, also would like to sleep so lays back down, puts head on folded paws. Half-closes his eyes. Sometime Marvin talks to him. It’s okay.

“She’s gone, did you know? Marie. Our Marie.”

Ruffian jerks hi head up. That name, that tone. He looks about. Marie. But she isn’t there. He lowers it again, watches from among groupings of daisies and newly showing-off hydrangeas blooming by downed, forgotten branches and a rich thicket of ferns. It’s his cool spot to rest, under the fancy ferns.

“Why do you insist on staying out here? Or is elsewhere? Not having a home is not good. Is it?” He scratches his own fur-like head of hair. “Maybe you feel something here…? It hasn’t been good, not for a long time, really. Buddy, I tell you, she tired of things. She’s sick to death of my piano compositions, too, which cuts to the quick…”

He stretches, yawns, making a cascading sound on the exhale. A dissatisfied whine. Ruffian nearly barks at him to settle down, but the man might jump up, come after him.

“You there or not? I thought I felt you…I had mediocre fish tonight, old frozen halibut. Not your ideal meal–mine, either. She would have known what to do with that because she is a chef. A high-paid chef, you know that?” He laughs. “Of course not, you’re a dog. Well, maybe you could tell from the nibbles she gave you. Well, I have leftover French fries if you’re hungry.”

Ruffian has an impulse to show himself, anyway, but thinks better of it. Marvin sounds and smells very alone but also grief-bound, that trapped soured sweet odor. He should definitely be asleep now, escaping himself. Ruffian should be dreaming, too–of chasing things and winning. Of teaming up with Sir Coyote and finding a strong pack at last. He gets tired of being alone, too, but always something doesn’t work out. He doesn’t like the mentality of a gang of dogs gone crazy, either. He’s better off here in the flowers and ferns, a few other choice spots around North Hedges.

But could be Marvin is better off on the deck looking at the sky. It’s sharp and brilliant up there. Stars holding their patterns, each perfect place. Ruffian yawns, too, licks lips and nose. He’s feeling a bit parched. Licks dew off grass.

“There you are!” Marvin leans forward, hands dangling over his knees. He then picks up his glass from the side table, holds it aloft, drinks from it. “Well, I wouldn’t want to be in close company with me tonight, either. I’m an idiot to have let her go! I’m a damned fool to have thought I could keep her with songs and lots of promises of better times…”

Marvin drinks again. Ruffian thinks he would like some of whatever that is. He’d like a really huge bowl of something, cool water preferred.

“The thing is, I have finally sold some songs, buddy! I booked more gigs.”

The man stands and steps off the deck. He holds out his arms to the fragrant, damp garden, then raises them to deep sky and far moon. “Merciless, that moon, it keeps shining on. Looks so cold. Like Marie can be.” He steps closer to the flowers, pauses, then calls to Ruffian. “Hey, I see your eyes! You’re not keeping them shut!”

Ruffian backs up on his belly. What is Marvin doing? He knows better, this man. He’s offered him food but Ruffian has kept his distance from the start. If Marie is gone, what next? Will Marvin take over his life? Then he’ll disappear. Why should he even bother to offer his scent, his warmth, his stokes to such a one as Ruffian? It would be dangerous for them both. Ruffian could bite him or worse.

This living on the run, it’s been working for him okay. He backs away, then stands and trots to the gap in the fence.

“Wait, buddy!”

From across the way a bigger voice cuts through the dark. “Briggs! Shut up out there! It’s two-thirty in the morning! Can’t you hang it up by now? Just give us all a break? Go to bed, man!”

Ruffian noses his way through the elegant ferns, finds the gap and exits the yard, pushes through bushes on the other side that snag his coat. Stands tall on the sidewalk. He spots Sir Coyote running down the street. He very much would like to follow. Knows it’s futile. He’s stuck on the sidewalk, panting lightly, about to search for water.

“Buddy, you leaving me?”

Ruffian knows this sound and look. Marvin talks like a disappointed boy. Bewildered. He stands there with his long bare feet, those loose pajama bottoms, narrow chest vulnerable and pale, head of hair sticking out like Ruffian’s. He studies him with one white-tipped ear tilting this way and that, then the other turning, but his tail is not wagging. It’s waiting.

Ruffian considers this abandoned human. Weakened, downcast, tired out. He knows how these can feel. He steps the barest bit forward, stretches his neck out so his nose comes close, closer. Sniffs deeply. Marvin does nothing, looks at him with dark, silent eyes. Damp nose bumps against empty warm hand. Ruffian sits nicely and licks the salty skin.

Marvin squats on the sidewalk, reaches out, uneasily smooths tangled fur between Ruffian’s floppy ears as if making contact with something special–or potentially hazardous, he’s not sure which. Ruffian wants to ask what’s going on and where’s the blasted water, but says nothing. He’s looking at thin trails of wetness on Marvin’s cheeks. He wants to lick them clean. The whole man needs something more, much more.

Marvin gets up, walks away with the last of his energy so he can crawl into bed to rest awhile. He opens the gate in his fence, enters his pretty but Marie-less yard. Ruffian hears that sudden, almost silent loping and scans dense air over his shoulder. Sir Coyote is passing, head and tail low, silhouette compact and powerful, driven forward, onward with barely a glance at the dog on the sidewalk. He surely notices him once more but likely finds dogs a tad foolish, even inferior if truth is faced. Ruffian’s heart races as the coyote vanishes into shadow, then it settles. He steps forward, nudges the unlatched gate with his fine, strong head. Marvin has gone inside and locked his door. Ruffian sees the bowl of shimmering water and drinks long. Lies down on the deck, puts head on paws with a shuddering sigh. He is filled with an odd relief and easily tracks night’s wiles ’til daybreak stirs up life in them again.

 

Sal and the Phases of Sanity

 

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Sometimes Sal didn’t know whether she was losing her mind or imagining it, but they both held weight enough to make the insides of her eyelids feel prickly, almost unbearable after looking at reality too long.

Well, it was the heat, she thought, which was bad already. Or maybe those brown speckled eggs delivered by Horace Tate to her mother every other morning. He had enough regret to poison anything, her mother said and all because he was jealous Sal’s dad married her first. Ma had a passion for those eggs in ten different ways; she cooked more egg-based meals than anyone else. Sal ate them out of duty but her dad with relish; it must have galled Horace to know it. She thought she knew what the man felt, because she was run by something unreasonable, too. If only she could figure it out.

Her different take on things might be due to the fact that she was born too early and her twin brother didn’t follow along, not of his own volition. Sal did feel something was remiss despite not knowing him beyond the dark waters of the cramped womb. But she rarely thought of him; she didn’t actually know him. It was her mother who sometimes blamed him, and even her, for Sal’s dreamy, ponderous views.

“Maybe he was crowding you out, poor thing. Or maybe if you had taken more time, you might have finished up in there better. There might have been a son, and a friend for you. But what it is, just is.”

“I don’t see how that’s any comfort, Ma. Or nice to say about us.”

“It’s not meant to be. It’s a possible explanation of your ways. Either that or you only got your father’s blood, which means it’s about hopeless.”

She laughed and gave Sal a swat with the tea towel as if this was a joke between them. Dad was a mechanic but also writer with only three poems in print so far, one in Poet’s Corner of the newspaper and one used for Lane’s Chapel and Mortuary ad. That one was more like a jingle, he admitted. The third, though, was accepted by a small literary journal and he displayed it atop the fireplace mantle. Sal didn’t know if she was proud enough of him but she liked his poem. And he liked her attempts.

Sal had read that losing one’s everyday, normal mind could be stimulated by a sudden turn of events. A shock could do it. Her friend, Marly, had told her that even a sudden shift of wind or barometric pressure could change brain function. In that case the mind might go off its usual rhythms but then get back in line, she’d added, by better weather. Sal scoffed at such a thought but who knew for sure?

This morning, like most, she had sat through classes like a puppet of her better working mind, doing what she needed to do, saying what made enough sense that teachers always called on her first. She had smiled her best which made two boys spin around and chat with her, one even saying she was too dazzling for daylight. Well, in different words, per Marly: “your sunny hair blinds me.” Sal thought him an idiot even though Marly assured her he was quite popular.

“Well, there you go,” Sal affirmed. “Idiocy, part and parcel.”

“You need to wake up.”

“Half-asleep is better. It’s a bit like a dream state and therefore easier to abide high school.”

“Creative types all go bonkers eventually–watch out.”

“Let me be full-on nuts, then. It’s preferred to full consciousness in this slight town.”

“‘Slight town’! Honestly, Sal! Where do you get this stuff?”

But Marly was right, her flights of fancy were getting out of hand. Like the time she was walking along the edge of the road and imagined she could leap over all the cars and land unscathed on the other side. Or the time she was swinging on the river rope swing and started to climb to the top of it, then onto the huge oak branches. Marly and a couple of passing guys yelled up at her.

“Hey! What are you doing? That’s too high!”

“I want to see all the way to heaven or the Arctic Circle, whichever comes into view first.”

“If you fall, you’ll see something a lot worse–please come down!”

Sal considered staying there–she liked the speculation that she might reach the ends of the world–until they left, then heard Marly’s voice shift into hysteria. She slid down on the rope, swung away from the trunk and jumped off. She was, at least, ahtletic.

More than once in the middle of the night she’d awakened sticky with sweat, the darkness claustrophobic, the night rattling about her room and making their outbuildings and trees and fields disappear under its sweeping force. She was sure she heard something or someone howling or moaning. She felt so alone.

It might have something to do with the number of losses in the past couple of years: four. Her aunt from asthma, her neighbor Jill in a car accident, her drama teacher, Mr. Johns, from cancer. And Millie, her beautiful tawny cat, a coyote’s prey. It was the easiest answer. Too much dying, not enough creation happening.

Sorrow could make people crazy enough so you’d want to step around them on tiptoe. She had seen that with Uncle Lonnie when Aunt Char died. He mowed his yard twice, then proceeded to mow everyone’s, like it or not, the riding lawn mower whacking off flower blossoms and chewing up weeds and fallen branches, spitting out stones and dirt clods out, a terrorizing, regurgitating beast. Her dad had suggested he work on farm fields, that could be beneficial to all. No luck. It went on like that for two days, a couple of neighbors yelling at him, one threatening to call the police, an old widow offering food as if that could halt his grief-fueled madness. Everyone watched him and felt more sad.

Then he just stopped mowing and also talking to people. Just Rusty, his one-eared dog. Good thing for that dog, he said later when he came back to himself six months later, or he might have stayed right on that mower, never come back. And Sal understood what he meant.

Another answer came as Sal was walking alongside the river one spring afternoon, distracted by dragonflies dancing their airborne tango, bees swiping her head before zooming into flowers. It was as if someone shouted it: maybe you was just growing up. The thought attacked her like a nettle’s sting. She sat on the hill above the riverbank in new skirt and white flats, and put her head in her hands.

This was not considered before for good reasons. She had long ago planned on keeping intelligent, determined thoughts at the forefront of her brain, staying aligned enough with ninety-five percent of the world. Staying happy. She did not intend on being swept up in emotions she didn’t understand. They got people in tough spots from what she had seen. A measured five percent of unhappiness she would commit to such things as mean snakes, bullying kids at school, tornado weather, her mother’s terrible goulash and worse Eggs Benedict, bad headaches when she wanted to keep reading or writing, and her parents’ infrequent but loud, pointless arguments which could only be worse if they got swords out. And unexpected deaths. Things she could not control no matter what. There were lesser misfortunes and some worse even then death, she suspected, but in general, these were the things that had bothered her before she turned fifteen.

Now everything bothered her. It seemed like there was something new each day. Her English teacher had a slight lisp that took center stage it was so irritating. Their house needed a new paint job and she suddenly felt embarrassed by its blistered, peeling bits. Marly said things that were obvious and irrelevant and sometimes Sal had the overwhelming urge to walk away, just leave her behind. And her hair, the sunny hair that boy liked so much, was about to be cut off, as its waves snarled and its color seemed frivolous, and who wanted to wear a long, sweaty ponytail all summer?

The world, though, was the worst, the rotten state of affairs everywhere, the news that brought it down on her like a load of twisted junk. Sal tried to not worry about all the kids being hurt, the countries battling drought, wars and environmental hazards and…it was only adding to the daily loss of her mind.

Her peace of mind, at least. The sort that is a deep and steady comfort until you’re old enough to no longer escape such outside influences with a simple adventure novel or a British romantic movie. A fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie. Her father’s wink and flash of smile after her mother told her to wash the dishes for the third time when all Sal wanted was to sit on the porch with him and watch for Venus. Please, she now yelled inside her head, the stars and planets are all I can deal with right now!

She rubbed her itchy nose and sat up as a movement on the edge of bushes nearby snagged her attention. She leaned away from the tree and narrowed her eyes. If it was a snake, she was out of there. But a quick swish through the greenery revealed what looked like pale fur. A rabbit? A chipmunk or vole? She got on her hands and knees, then lowered her head to better glimpse the creature. A tip of a nose edged out. Sal flattened her length on the grass, peered across the expanse and tried to see under the bushes. The dark nose pulled back. She lay still, breathing slowed. Moments passed. She was about to get up and return home but sunshine radiated across her back and bare legs, a butterfly paused on her forearm.

A paw reached into the overgrown grassy space, then two. She got up on hands and knees. Then froze.

Coyote. The cat eater. Sal looked around frantically for a stick or rock to throw. It wasn’t as though she had never seen them before, they were common but noted in passing. Her grandfather had shot them a few times. She had never been this close.

“Get out of here!”

Coyote lowered his head, stared up at her with his legs set apart tensed, ready to spring into a run from or toward her. Did he really think this was his territory when the land had been in her family for three generations? Sal wanted to tackle and throttle it. Was this the one that took down Mildred when she was an innocent, chasing moths or rabbits along the treeline? Did Coyote think he could intrude on others’ lives, put an end to a life, one Sal had loved–all without consequence? It seemed so. Even the natural world could not be trusted to be fair. She knew this was foolish thinking; nature was the one reliable comforter she had found. Yet her distress made her blood rush, heart flutter.

Coyote stood opposite her, relaxing some, watching her tremble in the unfamiliar four-legged stance. She wondered if he knew she was a perplexed and aching girl who came to the river to ponder her destiny. How simple it must be to hunt and eat, sleep and mate, hunt and eat and sleep and have babies. Or was it? How could she know except by imagining?

There they were, eye-to-eye, face-to-face. She was bigger, but not that much, nor was she as fleet on the ground or as wily in the ways of sheer survival. If not prey, then what was she to him? Nothing?

His amber eyes held fast, gauging who she was, what she felt, and there was such clarity of focus she feared she might cry. It was scary to be found without armour, without being prepared. It was even more unnerving that Coyote was so confident. What was it like to know exactly what you were, the true intention of your life? To know who was prey and who was not? To have the keenest senses to discern when disaster was to strike or when all was safe? She was less afraid of him than amazed, undone by being held captive in the gaze of a feral creature. Handsome, lithe and capable. Dauntless and persevering. He had a life to manage, used instinct and skills to thrive. Coyote had a purpose within the scheme of all things. Even if it was staring down a teen-aged human being.

Sal felt Coyote reaching deep inside to take stock of her. Was she a strong girl? Could she defend herself if necessary? Was she brave and cunning, too? Was she quite smart enough to appreciate this moment suspended in time? To let things be as they were? Was she paying close attention to this world? Coyote identified her in those moments, then was satisfied as tail fell and ears righted. He turned his face from hers and trotted, then ran away.

He had come and gone–as easily as wind snaring green reeds in its thrall, then releasing them to the earth again. The air shone.

Sal collapsed on the hard ground and wept. The sun descended along the horizon and still she cried, her face melding with the rich, dampened earth, hands clutching bright grass, her arms and legs tattooed by tiny yellow wildflowers that grew beneath her. The breezes which found her sighed and fell away. Her hot tears warmed stones and softened twigs. Sal’s heart emptied itself. Everything listened. If she had had her twin he would have breathed and sobbed with her rather than let her grow up so alone. She knew that now.

From the underbrush Coyote watched her, sniffing the air. A thunderstorm was due sometime in the coming night. He knew the human would take cover before it was upon them. So would he, next to his little ones and mate. Just to be sure she moved on, he ran past her so that she looked up, wiped her eyes and stood, brushed off her skirt. She was sobered by the swiftness of so much change and the strangeness of living through it. Letting go what wanted and needed to be left and then going on. Sal looked around for Coyote but he was long gone. She was ready to go back home. Let her life unfold. It was what she had to do, be both dreamer and doer.

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Becoming Coyote

Slanted shadows from the fence made a striped pattern across the pages Eva was reading. She looked up. The skyline faintly gleamed in the pallor of the lowering sun. She could see much of city center from her spot under the magnolia tree, and for a moment the view provoked the familiar ache in her chest.  There were hospitable places down there, filling up with smartly dressed patrons leaving work, or women who had just gotten herbal-wrapped and manicured, or young men and their dates spending slim earnings on a perfect meal at an organic sushi spot.

Not Eva. Not now, maybe not ever again for all she knew. It’d be a book in the back yard and a night of t.v., or some soothing music and a long soak. Or, if she got lucky, maybe someone would return her call and she could meet up with a new friend in a church basement, where they would hear stories of addiction and recovery that made her own seem more bearable. But she wouldn’t be down there in the beautiful city, laughing and chatting at a crowded table, holding aloft another attractive drink before she downed it in a few long gulps. There might be sushi, but there wouldn’t be the beguiling warmth of vodka or rum wooing her until she fully surrendered and the world, as it was, disappeared.

Eva tossed the paperback and stretched her legs, toes flexing. She ran her tongue over her lips: salty. She had jogged for forty-five sweaty minutes after class, and had put off the obligatory shower. Tonight no one would notice if she showered or not. Some days it felt better to do less than more. It worried her. But as long as she didn’t get lazy, as long as she didn’t let her true priorities slip, didn’t succumb to that terrible desire for a drink, she would manage. She would stay sober and that meant she would be free to fully live each day, good, bad, indifferent. She would be conscious, not semi-conscious or unconscious as she had been for so much of her life already. So she was told, over and over.

The sun dropped lower and lingered there just long enough that a mirrored skyscraper and a rose-gold tower broadcast their dominance with a luxurious glow. Eva put her hand to her throat and took a breath that hurt on its way in and out. She so longed to go down there and join the gathering crowds. But she shrugged, leaned against the tree, counted each inhalation and exhalation slowly just as she had been taught. It didn’t really help.

There was a small movement to her left. Eva turned to see what it was. Nothing. She cocked her head and held her breath. It might be that runny-nosed kid from the second floor apartment again, trying to scare her. If it was, he’d go away if she ignored him. She had to learn to relax, that was all. Her AA sponsor had told her it might be like this for months, post acute withdrawal stretching and inflaming her nerves, making her both uneasy and lethargic, then injecting her with a surge of energy at three a.m. that set her reeling, afraid.

There it was again. A few feet away, the bushes swayed the slightest bit. Eva peered at them–she had seen a rabbit off and on, a gopher at work, even a rat once. She looked over her shoulder and checked the garbage; the lid was on tight. When she looked at the bushes again, her back tingled and she pressed her lips together to keep silent.

The coyote stepped out from the shadowy leaves as though from the darkened wing of a stage. He stood tall, large ears pricked and adjusted  to all he heard. He glanced at her and then away. Eva was still, but not as still as the coyote as he rested on strong, lithe legs. His brown and black coat was thick and full, tail bushy and low. The coyote lowered his head, sniffed the grass and air, then loked up. He took a  step toward her and halted. His almond, golden eyes sought hers. The fine head and bearing were dignified, calm, alert. Coyote held her gaze until she feared she would blink but if she did, she was certain he would leave, so she widened her eyes to better see his absolute beauty. Then his head bobbed slightly: a nod, a question, a signal.

He streaked across the yard, down the hill, and into the incipient dusk. Eva got up and tried to pursue him through the grass, long legs and bare feet flying, arms swinging. She wanted to call out despite the foolishness of it. She wanted to follow and see where this coyote was going–and why–more than she had wanted to know anything in weeks, months, maybe years.

At the bottom of the hill were blackberry brambles. Surely he didn’t race through those, she thought, but when she looked beyond them to the small water reservoir, she saw him loping around the fenced area. Eva watched him descend a second hill and a third, and from the trees and bushes, out of the air itself, was another coyote, then another and another until there were five trotting toward, then with, him. They gathered speed and as the sun covered itself with a now-electrified city, they vanished.

It was as though they were never there.

Eva stood and looked out over the glittering tableau and the mountain foothills behind it. They might live near her and be back. Or they might live in the hills and forest, forage miles away tomorrow. It was possible that her path might cross one of their’s. For now, this was it. Her meeting with coyotes on a June night. She had one other time seen coyotes in the desert, but never in her own back yard. She knew they were smart and wily and hearty. Monogamous and as at ease alone as in a pack. That they were great adapters. They endured in part because they cooperated intelligently with one another, and so they insured their survival.  Coyotes, the Navajo said, are God’s dogs and have much to teach us.

Eva raised her arms to the sky, now gone soft with darkness, stitched with a few stars that still outshone the city. She had plenty of sky to observe tonight. Tomorrow she would scavenge for any curious things she could find–fanciful cloud formations, new blooms in the garden, a song, maybe a conversation with someone in the cafe down the street. Or maybe she would hang out in a used book store or go for a run in the woods. Make a call to a sober woman. But one way or another she would survive these times because she was stronger each day; she was discovering and creating new ways to live.  Eva was just beginning to construct a real life, if she was honest.

It was, she told herself, a journey worth taking if she just kept on with it.

Coyote stopped and sang to her a moment. Eva heard him, or believed she did, which was good enough.