Following Coyote leads me back to myself.
|I saw Coyote again this morning. He was trotting along the narrow path between the edge of the cornfield – now stubble and chaff in the early fall – and the edge of the forest beyond. I was sitting on the back porch of my cabin, being quiet, watching the world move from darkness into light. I had not seen Coyote for several days. This morning he appeared out of the forest, and trotted the length of the path, about 400 feet, in no hurry. I don’t think he noticed me. He got to the end of the path and without breaking stride reentered the forest, vanishing almost immediately into the leaf litter. The sky was steel grey, and a cold wind was blowing, rustling the few leaves left on the trees.
I am an old man now. My hair – what little there is left of it – is mostly white. I feel the cold more now than I used to, feel it deep within me. It stays with me all morning, and somehow I expect it, just as I expect to see Coyote and as I expect to see steel grey skies and the stubbled cornfield.
The sun had risen over the roof of the cabin behind me, chasing the last threads of mist from the cornfield and poking into the shadows of the forest. Coyote I knew was already safe in his den, curled up and fast asleep. I had read that even if we could talk to animals, we would never be able to understand them. Although they live in the same physical space as we do, their experience of it is so different from ours that neither of would have any point of reference from which to start, as if we had come from different planets. I liked the idea that we might be able to train animals to do our bidding, but there would always be a gap between us that we could never cross.
I got up from my bench, more of a slow unfolding really, my joints complaining as I stretched. Feeing restless, I went into the kitchen, took an apple from the fruit bowl, and a bag of peanuts from the counter, and put them in my pocket. I wanted to see if I could find out where Coyote was sleeping. I stepped down off the porch and started to walk the dirt road that ran beside the cabin, through the fallow cornfield. During he summer, this field was lush and green, the tall stalks backing right up to within a few feet of the porch. When I was younger, I used to visit my grandfather’s farm and wander deep into the cornfield on the hill behind his house. I would lose myself deep in the dark, cool shadows and listen to the wind speak in voices like ghosts as it whistled through the cornstalks.
As I walked toward the edge of the forest, I thought about my dog Maggie – an old golden retriever-collie mutt from the pound. On early Saturday mornings, she and I would set off to wander the forests around my house. They seemed like endless wilderness to me, though they were probably only a few acres of well-traveled public parkland. Those were very precious mornings to me, solitary and quiet, just me and Maggie. I never worried about getting lost (though it probably would have been difficult to have gotten lost in those woods) because I knew that if I did, all I had to do was follow Maggie who, being a dog, would always know the way home. I had been a solitary child, often alone but never lonely. I was never entirely certain what planet I was from – surely it could not be this one. It’s customs and rituals never made much sense to me, and the process of wending my way adroitly through it had always seemed just out of my grasp. I was an observer, very interested in how things worked, but never really understanding my place in them. The forest has always been one of the few places that feeling does not follow me.
I stopped to rest on the stump of a fallen oak tree, and thought about my mother, who had died unexpectedly when I was just 9 years old. That event had always stood as a distinct dividing line running through my life, and for some reason, on this particular morning it deeply disturbed me that I could not remember on which side of that divide these Saturday morning walks had taken place. The fact that I could not remember gnawed at me. It was as if another small chip had flaked off of the colorful illustration of my childhood, another small, perhaps insignificant detail that had been lost to me. It took a little bit of the illumination out of the morning, and it was with a sigh of resignation that I got back onto my feet, and continued my search for Coyote’s den. I wished then that I had old Maggie with me. I smiled, thinking she would have been no help at all in locating Coyote. She’d probably have picked up his scent and taken off into the depths of the forest, such as they were, scaring him out of his well-earned slumber and losing him to me forever.
It turns out that Coyote was smarter than I would have thought, for his den was close to the edge of the forest. He’d hidden it in a wild blueberry thicket, but it was not hard to see the tracks his coming and going had made. He would not have had to venture far from his nightly foraging to get back to his home, and I admired his cunning and cleverness in choosing the place for his den. I thought in some way, that maybe he and I were not all that different, both of us living small lives in a larger world we didn’t quite understand, but had made peace with, peace enough to make our way.
I took the plastic bag of peanuts still in their shells out of my pocket, and dumped them on the ground, along with the apple, just outside the opening to Coyote’s home. It was an apology, perhaps for presuming to trespass so near to his home, and a suggestion that maybe there was in the end some small way that he and I could communicate. Not in spoken or howled language, but in something deeper, some animal instinct and a sameness that he and I shared. Maybe it was fantasy on my part – he would probably not think anything of my offerings if he even noticed them. But it made me feel like I had given something of myself. It was all I had, and I wanted Coyote to have it, to do what he would with it.
With the sun now heading into the west, nearing the edges of the hills beyond the forest, and the shadows creeping back in between the trees, I turned and headed back the way I had come. A smile came to my lips, and my heart filled with memories of Maggie, and my mother, and my childhood wanderings, and thought that perhaps it was not such a bad thing to be an old man after all.