The Coyote Who Taught Me How To Live

Okay, instead of writing this blog post, I’m actually supposed to be finishing up a white paper on implementation of the new ICD-10 codes in the healthcare industry. Hard to believe I could tear myself away from that kind of topic to write about coyotes—but that’s what I’m doing.

One of the main characters in “The Obsidian Mirror” is Coyotl, the Trickster. Like Anansi, the trickster spider in African folktales, Coyotl or Coyote is the loveable but sneaky culture hero who tries to put things over on others and sometimes ends up tricking himself. He often attempts to be helpful, as in the tale where he brings fire to the people from the gods. In that story, coyote winds up burning his tail, which is why the coyote’s tail tip is always black. There are many ribald stories about Coyote and various beautiful maidens, including the time that Coyote lost his penis…ahem. Getting off track here…

Coyotl is described as an Avatar in “The Obsidian Mirror” because I wanted to stay away from defining the immortal characters too closely. I also wanted to stay away from religion as much as possible. Religion today is a touchy subject, and I just didn’t want to go there.

In “The Obsidian Mirror,” Coyotl can take the form of a beautiful, sexy young man named Chaco. I originally named the character “Chuy,” (pronounced “Chewy”) which is the Mexican nickname for people named “Jésus.”  There were two problems with this. Unless you speak Spanish, you wouldn’t know how to pronounce his name. And those who do know that people nicknamed Chuy are really named Jésus might think I was trying to create a Christ figure—which I was, most emphatically, not trying to do. I wanted the character to be uninhibitedly sexy and approachable, with a hint of rascal. “Chaco” sounds good, and it is also the name of a marvelous archeological site in New Mexico, Chaco Canyon. As the novel uses American myths and legends, many of which are Native American, it just felt right. (I kind of missed Chuy, though. I named the character after my hairdresser.)

I had a transformative adventure with a coyote once. I was young, and I had a broken heart. I called my cousin Esther, who was about my mother’s age, to ask if I could stay with her for a few days. Esther lived (still does, at the age of 100) on a ranch near the coast of California, one of the happiest places I have ever known, and very beautiful. Esther and her family had always been kind to me, and the ranch was my emotional refuge. So, packing my aching heart and some jeans, I got on a Greyhound bus to visit.

Esther welcomed me and gave me ample space to reflect on where I was and how I had come to be there. I was at a true turning point in my life, hurt, confused, and wondering what on earth I was going to do. My self-confidence was at an all-time low, and at that age, self-confidence wasn’t something I possessed in huge measure.

I developed a daily routine. I would get up, have breakfast with Esther, and then take my little knapsack out for a lengthy walk around the ranch. The knapsack had a notebook for writing and a sketchbook and watercolors for painting. Accompanied by the ranch dogs, Doña and Jack, I would wander all over the ranch, stopping to do nude sunbathing now and again. I wrote and wrote and wrote in my journal, pouring out my misery, uncertainty and pain on paper.

The ranch was about 2,000 acres of rolling hills covered with golden grass and dark-green California liveoak trees. There was no one around except for the cattle and the dogs. It was quiet except for the wind whistling through the grass, making it toss like waves on the ocean. It smelled wonderful—sagebrush, wildflowers and a soupçon of cattle flop. It was the perfect place to be introspective and miserable.

One day, probably four or five days into my visit, I was walking on the ranch road with Doña and Jack. Suddenly, the dogs took off like a shot, something they had never done before. Then I saw they were chasing a coyote through the brush. I eventually wrote a poem about the experience that followed, as it had a huge impact on me that has reverberated ever since:

Coyote

I took the ranch road in the morning

hefting a backpack and an aching heart

the dogs went with me

ranging front and back

I sent my feet ahead, forcing one step and then another

the point is to keep going, don’t you see

the dogs launched into the brush

white dust sparkling above the road

they ran like greyhounds

though both were furry and fat

squinting into the sun I saw him

a lean gray shape loping easily

soaring over fragrant sagebrush

dogs crashing in his wake

coyote

trickster

survivor

little wolf

god’s dog

dogs and coyote

all vanished into the spiced gold of the hillside

the dogs came back

tongues flopping loose

dripping foam

ribs heaving

paws caked with dust

their faces said don’t ask

we sat in the cool of a gray-green liveoak

there he was again

the dogs could not resist

coyote’s gray brush held high

he paused to look over his shoulder

not once but many times

were they following?

could they keep up?

he grinned all the same

I heard him laugh

I know I heard him laugh

the dogs came back quickly

collapsing to either side of me

fat sides

shuddering like overheated engines

hairy faces downcast and pained

I sat in the shade and waited

he sauntered into our clearing

the Fred Astaire of small wolves

the dogs gave not one sign

of his presence but panted on

coyote cocked his head, curious

barked once or twice

the dogs now deaf and blind

turned their pleading eyes to me

he sat on his haunches and studied us

a sorry lot, I guess

he tipped his pointed snout to heaven

and howled

howled like all the mad things of earth

howled like a girl with a broken heart

the sulking dogs were still

but I howled back

he stopped to listen

he answered me

howl for howl we made the dry hills ring

I howled for the pain of losing

for the pain of past loss

for the pain to come

and ended laughing

coyote picked up his paws and yapped three times

once more stung to action

the dogs crashed after him

in hot-breathed pursuit

the last I saw of coyote

was his gray tail sailing over the thistles

coyote

trickster

survivor

little wolf

god’s dog

I’m still laughing

During our mutual hootenanny, the coyote was sitting about 15 feet away from me. I was frightened at first; he wasn’t acting like a normal coyote, so I wondered whether he had rabies. He approached a human and two dogs with no fear at all. But it became quickly clear to me that he wasn’t sick. He was having a lot of very obvious fun. He thought I was pretty amusing, but he loved it when he could persuade the dogs to run after him. He was jaunty and quite sure of himself.

Coyotes are consummate survivors. Their numbers and their range have increased dramatically since the 1800’s because they deal quite well with the presence of humans (and the presence of human garbage and pets). They are omnivores who both hunt and scavenge, living off just about anything, from salmonberries to the occasional shi’tsu.

After meeting that coyote, I decided to be a survivor myself. I decided that I was strong, and that no one would ever make me feel small and weak again. I decided to fight for what I wanted, and refuse to allow anyone else to determine the course of my life.

I returned from my visit with Esther to a fresh round of heartbreak. But this time, I fought back. I didn’t let it overwhelm me. I endured a steep depression that I thought would never end. I made some terrible mistakes, but in the end, I learned to love myself and discovered how to be happy most of the time.

I owe much of that to a lesson from a mischievous little wolf who spent a few minutes singing to me. In a way, “The Obsidian Mirror” is my love song back to him.

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