map Coyote Story

by Kelly Gray

Published in Issue No. 277 ~ June, 2020

I think when you look back at yourself as a young coyote, it’s really hard not to say that I was so scruffy. I made so many mistakes. I was not strong enough, and my bite was weak. This judgment is held secretly, privately, especially in today’s robust trauma porn wilds, where everyone has such a neatly laid story of depravity stacked up into victory. As a coyote, you don’t want to be a part of that narrative, even though it’s true. You don’t want to brand your identity as the pup in the woods alone, even though solitude is your thing.

This is partially genetics. Coyotes are unique in canine evolution that they roll alone or in packs. Either one will do. Sure, some of us have pre-dispositions. Quick to snarl, all of us screaming howlers, and we’ll rob you blind while remarking on your lesser attributes. We will take your character flaws and use them to distract you as we sneak around with your egg in our mouth. But we know our people, our kin, the ones that we belong to. We are kind to them, loyal, but don’t let that make you think we are dog-like. We’ll eat a puppy given a chance.

We are not always born to our people. I was born to an octopus. She had long tentacles that were ever reaching and seething and monstrous. She would dry out quickly, I often found my mother in our bathtub, or on hard days, in the kitchen sink, her body folding over the cheap hardware, balancing a casserole pan on one arm, other arms inching towards the microwave, holding a frozen bag of peas to her head.

When I was born, I came out howling and wet. She took me in all of her arms, and my fur stuck to her tentacles. She kept dipping me in water, wondering why my colors didn’t change. I tried suckling her tentacles, her siphon, looking for anything that might give me what I need. She used to tell this story at backyard parties, even though it made me uncomfortable. Not that I was a naïve pup exploring my mother’s body, but the idea that my mother couldn’t produce milk and that my snout was marked with ink when I needed warmth, I don’t want that broadcast to the world.

My brother, sadly, is a cat. Or rather, a kitten. You know how some people you know never grow up? Well, he’s perpetually a kitten. Little sharp teeth, a round belly, soft pink pads on the bottom of his feet. As his sister, I’ve had to carry him in my mouth, and it wasn’t easy. My instinct was to swallow him. I can still feel it in the back of my jaw, a small little ache that makes me grind my teeth. I think that’s why we never got along. He was so cute and so troublesome, yet delicate. I wasn’t cute, and whether I was trouble or not, I could take a beating. It’s hard to dodge eight arms coming at you.

My mother was a secretary. This was at a time when they were called secretaries when the boss was synonymous with one gender, and gender was synonymous with two. They often hired octopuses as they could manage several phones, typewriters, and the copy machine at the same time. She would come home, covered in ink, but we were never sure if it was from the copy machine or the fact that her boss was an eel.

In the eighties, our mother took to dating a snake. He arrived one day, unannounced, and suddenly our family was arranged into a hierarchy, presided over by his darting eyes. When they were embraced, it was hard to see who was who. Often, he would slip away from our mother’s undulating arms to bare his teeth at us. Their love and his need to threaten us were tied up together. No matter how hard our mother tried to attach her tentacles to him, he was always slipping away, coming at us. I hid my brother all over the house. In cupboards, in the lemon tree in our backyard, once within a broken subwoofer. My brother learned to be quiet, to keep himself clean. The snake came after me more brazenly, probably because I was always watching his tail, sensing out when he would strike next.

They had their wedding in the backyard, sprinklers on, an opossum minister. After they said their vows, when everyone was obligated to comment on how beautiful my mother looked wet against the green grass, my stepfather wrapped his body around my waist, squeezing. It may have looked like we were hugging, but I couldn’t breathe. I closed my eyes, waiting to die in the middle of the yard with one lemon tree, surrounded by my mother’s work friends and distant cousins, but eventually, he let go. I rolled to my back, exposing my belly. His thin body rose above me. I pulled my lips back. We stayed like this, frozen, till the music started.

The first time I met another coyote was after school in line at the drugstore. I had stolen a few coins from my mother’s purse and was buying candy in black packets, the type that was activated by the spit in your mouth, and popped off like firecrackers. He rolled in on a skateboard. I could see right away that he was there to steal candy. When he slipped the packets in his pocket, he looked up at me, and I knew right away that I was an idiot for standing in line. His right ear motioned for me to come outside, which I did. He unwrapped a packet of candy and asked me to open my mouth. He placed the neon dyed nuggets on my tongue, and as they began to rattle, he leaned in and kissed me. The candy flew back and forth between our tongues, almost spicy with so much corn syrup. When he took me home that evening, he skated circles around me on the broad suburban sidewalks, lifting off to avoid the places where tree roots had emerged, cracking squares of cement. “These tree roots are trying to tell us we don’t belong here,” he told me. Half a block away from my house, I stopped and asked him to turn around. “I live with a snake. He won’t let me hang with you.” He pulled his skateboard to the ground to balance on it, leaning in till our noses touched. “We are coyotes,” he said, squeezing my paws in his before skating off. Later that night, I woke up to a rustling outside. He was there, running in circles, pissing under my window. It was then that I knew I could belong.

During the day, I kept a journal. I wrote stories about forests, dens, open fields that housed layers of mice tunnels deep in the dirt. I wrote of running alongside the freeway with my coyote boyfriend and how he taught me to howl against the underpass’s echo. We would imagine we were a pack, all of our kin howling back at us. I recorded the snake bites along my neck, the bruises you couldn’t see because of my thick fur. I started sketching an escape route, one where we could dig out and under the sidewalks, following the hollow spaces of root systems. At night, I hid the journal under my bed.

Before my eyes opened, I heard the sound of pages turning. My mother was in my room, her thick one-fingered arms all over my journal, her tentacles sucking the words off the pages. I sat up, but she pushed me back down with an arm, pinning me as she flew through each page, devouring the entries. All the stories, confessions, fantasies, pulled up like roots. She removed each letter, conjunction, and every preposition till each page was blank, my connection to self robbed. My empty journal was handed back to me, and as she slid out the room, I wanted to scream-cry, but I bit my tail instead.

After that, my stepfather took to sleeping under my bed. As soon as my mother passed out in the bathtub with a bag of salts to dissolve, he would sneak in, coiling himself between the headboards and my mattress: the faintest growl, the sound of scales rubbing against each other. By midnight, I could hear my boyfriend howling outside for me, but I held still, unable to move. My journal remained empty.

Sometimes, I would wake up early, and the snake was gone. I would let myself out the window into the backyard and sit atop a cracked plastic lawn chair. All I wanted to do was observe the night give away to day. The seamless ceremony of owls handing over song obligations to the mourning doves, streetlights flickering off, momentarily leaving back yards in deep shadow. The buzz of electricity moving from house to house, all of us pressed into daylight against our sensibilities. Dawn’s setting moon pulling pink out of the stucco walls, the sun breaking light, revealing a world that is beige, squared, and laced with fences.

There’s a story that’s told in our neighborhood of a mother fox who came home and found her husband, a tiger, just moments after he had chewed his leg off. They had a beautiful home, two cars, a pool, children, oversized furniture that had been delivered in moving trucks. Now there was a carpet soaked red, a paw unable to grasp. They say that when the fox wife asked him why did he do it (you can imagine what she sounded like), he only replied, “I felt trapped.” It doesn’t matter if this story is true or not; it’s the proverbial trap that matters. I don’t need to convince you of the absurdity of a tiger chewing his own leg off. As an individual act, it’s already teetering on cliché. But from my backyard at dawn, what would pull at me in the story was the absence of our collective want. Why did the fox even have to ask? From the perspective of structuring narrative (as if there is a whole room of animals that come up with urban legends to disperse systematically over the ages), who am I supposed to relate to in this story? It feels so cruel to me that after you chew your own leg off that you have to explain it to the person you are most intimate with. They have already othered you to the extent that the why? sounds like an accusation. Why did you do it, Frank? With blood in our mouths, we are all Frank, forced to speak the obvious. And as animals, we never want our wounds to be obvious.

They found my boyfriend’s body under the freeway overpass. An acquaintance, some unrecognizable little brown bird, said that he was hit by a car, that he never saw it coming, that he shouldn’t have been skating. Others said they saw him walk into traffic, that he indeed saw it coming and that he raised his head to howl as the mass moved over his body, pulling him under.

I received the news in the backyard, a simple space that could not contain my frantic bolts, my eyes rolling back in my head. I ran the fence line, hurled myself at the lemon tree. My throat waged a piercing wail, and my hair stood on edge. I laid my nose down to the grass till I reached dirt, trying to sniff out answers in the lingering scent of his piss. I could only dig, and breathe in soil, chewing back roots as I went down.

I heard his voice from the inside of my mouth, “The roots are trying to tell you something.” If, at that moment, I had something to lose, I could not recall what it was. I lifted my head out of the dirt, heaving.

I walked back into the house through the backdoor. My mother was submerged in the freezer, only her arms hanging out, grasping the sides of the door, keeping her face deep within the cool dark space. Defrosting chemical ice slipped down her body, a pool of water on the kitchen floor. “Mom?” I sniffed the water. It smelled like a wet burn. I whined in hopes that she could feel me through her tentacles. An arm motioned me away.

I walked past my brother playing video games, his face, and the tip of his tail twitching back and forth as characters moved across the screen. “I am leaving,” I said. His left ear turned briefly towards me. I paused, waiting to see if his body would follow. His ear turned back towards the screen.

I found hesitation at my bedroom door. I could hear my stepfather in my bed. Coiling. Twisting the sheets, hissing at my pillows, my small dolls. I entered the room in a crouch; my lips pulled back in a smile.

“I want my journal.”

He beckoned me towards the bed. I took a step forward, repeating, “I want my journal.”

He took the book from under the bed with his tail and let it slide along his body. The pages fell open as he said, “Come closer.” Words fell onto the floor.

I took a step, my eyes on the journal. He slithered down a headboard so that he could wrap his body around my leg, inching up towards my neck. I felt my smile tighten, my teeth dry, my whiskers vibrate. He smelled like the inside of a rotting knot, something I couldn’t get out of.

The floorboards creaked, and we both looked up. My mother was in the doorway, translucent blue from the freezer, the severity of her bulbous head-turning crimson. My stepfather hissed at me, releasing my neck, then my leg, retreating backward.

“Get out of this house.” Her voice, monstrous.

Inky clouds filled the room. I bolted, past the window that looked towards the lemon tree, past my cat brother, perpetually a kitten, playing video games, out the front door.

The moon was rising, pushing pink across the sidewalk, erasing shadows. My eyes dilated to take in the sights; owl people leaving their homes in suits and ties, the opossum minister shoving his face into the church’s garbage bins, a gaze of teenage raccoons in a van. The freeway rose like a mesa, and I followed its black lanes and yellow reflectors, out past the shopping centers, the oversized parking lots. Neon pink lettering illuminated shiny abandoned cars. The tiny Taqueria pushed in between the big box stores.

I kept moving. Grasses started growing higher, orchards filled with the smell of blossoms replaced scattered suburbia. I could hear mice under my feet, the sound of a night heron. The road turned to dirt, crossed a stream, farmland gave way to woodlands.

I think, if I could have torn the fences down as I went, I would have. I would have grabbed the fence line in my mouth and let it fly behind me, like a streamer, like an unraveling, like a deconstruction of the original building, a hatchet into the first convergence of wall against the wall, a burning of every ceiling, a reckoning of my own inhibitions that held me in against some obligation to a life that hated me.

But I didn’t. I only ran. I was a coyote.