The Coyote’s Dance

Austin Gilkeson

One night last winter, I looked out our sleeping son’s window and saw a coyote dancing in the snow. Our backyard is a narrow rectangle pillared by a fat maple. The coyote danced under the tree. She was probably after one of the gray and black squirrels that scurry up and down the maple, or our yard’s resident chipmunk; or maybe she really had been dancing for a moment, enjoying the puff and crunch of new snow under her paws. Either way, she soon scampered into the shadows. The next day I found her footprints in the snow, and her scat in a pile of pine needles behind the garage.

My wife Ayako, our five-year old son Liam, and I live in an inner suburb of Chicago; the city’s northwestern border is only two miles away. It’s a place of quiet streets and squat postwar ranch houses with neat square lawns. We moved out here from the city for the usual reason: Space. Space inside for us and our stuff, and that green rectangle outside where Liam can run around and play.

What I didn’t know, or at least didn’t fully understand when we bought the house, is that Nature does not willingly square. If I slack off at yard work (which I do often), our grass grows tall, thistle creeps into the flowerbed, and knotweed blooms in the asphalt cracks of our driveway. In the spring, the maple spangles the yard with crimson buds. In the fall, it papers it over with yellow leaves. And at night our backyard hosts a congregation of woodland mammals: skunks, raccoons, possums, foxes, and the coyote.

Honestly, I’d happily let the yard go, let it spill over the edges and revert to prairie. I’m still learning how to be a suburban dad. The first time I used our edger I thought, “This can’t be too hard,” and promptly slashed open my leg. I get vertigo every time I climb our rickety ladder to clean out the gutters. But I do want Liam to have his space. He’s happiest when he can run wild under the sun and not have to abide by adult rules and schedules. He loves swinging from the maple, biking around the block, running races up and down the driveway, gathering leaves and dandelions, and spinning out strange stories and games from his prodigious imagination.

*

Liam has invented a new game for us to play: Roadrunner and Coyote. We’ve been watching the Chuck Jones Looney Tunes cartoons on YouTube (like any Dad, I’m introducing him to what I think of as the “classics”) and he wanted to act it out. He shouted “Meep meep!” and ran around the yard. I chased after, never catching him, occasionally folding my body onto the ground or careening gently into the maple tree.

This is how our games go. We’ll run around and he’ll announce “I win!” after crossing an invisible finish line I didn’t know we were racing towards. We’ll throw a frisbee in the yard and he’ll tell me he scored ten points while I have only scored three. His Rock-Paper-Scissors arsenal includes items like Super Scissors that can destroy Rock. Like Wile E. Coyote, I am inherently doomed, subject to a reality that warps and remakes itself according to a physics whose only law is that I must lose.

There’s a Dad-ness to Jones’s coyote I’d never noticed before. Wile E. stoops as he walks. His skin sags, his snout droops. He scratches his back in idle moments like I do. He’s a self-proclaimed genius whose schemes to thwart nature always blow up in his face (often literally). He always looks so tired. In his book Coyote America, Dan Flores calls Wile E. an Everyman who is, like the nation that imagined him, addicted to the “technological fix” with his ACME mail-order catalogue gadgets. It’s no coincidence that Wile E. Coyote debuted in 1949, in the postwar boom when our neighborhood was built and pop culture’s vision of the modern American Everyman, the suburban dad, was created. Wile E. paved the way for Fred Flintstone, Clark Griswold, Homer Simpson, Phil Dunphy, and all those other lovable, overconfident, oft-injured buffoons.

Coyotes hadn’t been on my own list of suburban dad hazards until I saw the one in our yard. I worry she might attack Liam when he’s playing in the yard by himself, or that I might stumble over her when taking out the trash at night and she’ll tear a chunk of flesh from my leg. When we visited the little nature center near our house, I took out every book they had on coyotes. I read a great deal of coyote facts, including the comforting one that attacks on humans are extremely rare. Then I came across a different breed of coyote in Native writer and storyteller Joseph Bruchac’s book Native American Animal Stories.

I knew Coyote often appeared as a trickster, guide, and god in Native American folklore; a liminal figure slipping easily between the human, animal, and spirit worlds. But the coyotes in Bruchac’s tales play a different role. In the Miwok creation story, Silver Fox and Coyote are the first two beings in existence, and they make the earth together: “So the two of them began to sing and to dance. They danced around in a circle and Silver Fox thought of a clump of sod. Let it come, Silver Fox thought, and then that clump of sod was there in Silver Fox’s hands.”

It’s a creation story, but also a parenting one. Silver Fox and Coyote dancing with each other, the “clump of sod” that grows and takes shape to the sound of their words. There’s great joy in Bruchac’s telling, the joy of two creatures finding each other and then making a new world together.

Bruchac’s second Coyote story is also a parenting one, but sadder and sharper. It’s a Hopi story about how coyotes got big yellow eyes. Coyote Woman meets Skeleton Man, the lord of the dead, in a meadow. He teaches her to send her eyeballs flying out of their sockets to look for prey. But Coyote Woman loses her eyes and replaces them with big yellow gourds. They work well enough, but when she returns to her pups they’re frightened of her eyes and flee: “Coyote Woman chased her children. ‘Come back,’ she called. But they continued to run away.”

Skeleton Man is a kindly and helpful figure in the Hopi folklore I’ve encountered, but still he embodies death. After meeting him, Coyote Woman’s body breaks down and when she returns home, her children scatter. They no longer recognize her.

Every time I leave Liam, I kiss his cheek and tell him I love him, because some small part of me wonders if this is it, if this is the last time I’ll get to see him, if today’s the day I’ll find my own Skeleton Man waiting for me in the meadow. What if I die and leave him behind? What will happen to him when I’m dead and can no longer help and protect him? When Ayako and I are gone, who will guide him?

*

After Liam was born, no one could draw Ayako and me a map of this new earth we’d made together. We read all the recommended books and blogs, watched videos, took classes, and talked to other parents. We compiled advice and notes like so many travel tips. “Do this, don’t do this, try this, go here, buy this, not that, don’t be discouraged, be consistent.” But nobody could account for the disposition of our kid, the landscape of his personality and desires, and how quickly it remakes itself. One moment Liam’s an infant, helpless and mewling, and the next he’s making us scrambled eggs for breakfast. We’re moving in slow-motion as he zips ahead.

Liam’s at the age now where he loves to tell us about what he’s learned. He’ll tell Ayako and me all about the shapes of shark tails, or that in the deep ocean lives a lethal creature called a Sword Crab, or that all the bones in my body are breaking because I drink too much beer and coffee (he has a point). His mind is an untamed yard, an unruly riot of color, facts planted like seeds in his imagination and blooming into strange, beautiful shapes. It fills me with incandescent joy. It also wears me out. He doesn’t understand how much harder it is for me to play Wile E. Coyote than it is for him to play the Roadrunner: the penalty gravity extracts for hurling my soft, aging body onto the ground and standing up again.

During the half hour ride to and from his school, Liam used to ask me to spin out elaborate stories involving the Octonauts, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Super Mario characters, or whatever else he’d gotten into lately. I always obliged him, but so many times I wished he wouldn’t ask. I’m so tired, Liam, I wanted to say. I’ve been at work all day. Let’s just listen to music, okay? But then one day he didn’t ask for a story and it was like a door slamming shut behind me. All of a sudden he’d outgrown them.

My mother once told me that every time you think you’ve got your kid figured out, they change on you. You’ll perfect a bedtime routine, or dinner menu, or trick to getting them to cooperate, and then just like that, it won’t work anymore. What do you do then, I asked. You adapt, she said.

*

When I was Liam’s age, growing up in Durham, North Carolina, coyotes seemed comfortably Out West—creatures prowling seas of grass and scrub like lesser sharks. But they’ve colonized the entirety of the continental United States now. They live in the wilderness, farmland, suburbs, and cities. There are coyotes in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, and all throughout the Carolinas, where they first moved in around the time I left for college in the late ‘90s.

The name “coyote” still feels Southwestern to me, that long o between the sharp coy and te raising my mouth into a steep-sided mesa. It’s from coyotl, a Nahuatl word, like chocolate, only English hasn’t quite managed to sand away the final e sound into something more comfortably appropriated. The coyote’s Latin name is canis latrans, meaning “barking dog,” a laughable name since the first animal anyone thinks of when you hear “barking dog” is, well, a dog. The faux-Latin binomials that Chuck Jones gave Wile E. Coyote—Carnivorous Vulgaris, Famishius Vulgaris Ingenuisi, or Eatibus almost Anythingus—are more apt. Flores writes that Anglo-American settlers of the continent called coyotes “prairie wolves.” The Spanish first called them “foxes” and “jackals.” But the coyote slipped from those colonial names, as from a hunter’s trap.

It’s easy to imagine the settlers’ confusion. The line between wolf and coyote is blurry. At a glance they’re hard to tell apart. They can reproduce together easily, and often have. The Great Lakes Wolves next door in Wisconsin have a large admixture of coyote DNA. Eastern Coyotes in the Northeast are significantly larger than their Western cousins, thanks to a healthy contribution of wolf and dog ancestry. The coyotes here in Illinois, an ancient lineage, are part-wolf. Even the coyote’s genes are hard to pin down.

At a work dinner recently, I met a young scholar from Duke who’d studied coyote behavior in North Carolina. I told him about the coyote I’d seen in our yard. He said urban coyotes behave differently than their wilderness brethren. No longer crepuscular, they come out more at night, when we’re sleeping. They’re less aggressive, but also less shy. They’ve adapted quickly and admirably to human spaces. We tamed the dog and drove out the wolf, but the coyote’s wily enough to have eluded our rule. She’s found her own way in this earth we made.

*

The other night it was my turn to lie with Liam in his bed as he went to sleep. He snuggled into me and said let’s play Rock-Paper-Scissors. I threw paper, he threw Super Rock. We played a few more rounds with the same results, and then he curled up into the quiet of sleep. I stayed next to him and watched the gentle rise and fall of his chest, the flutter of his eyelids as he began to dream.

He starts kindergarten in the fall. I know before long he won’t want me to stay with him as he falls asleep, won’t want to snuggle and ask me who would win in a fight, a hippo or a rhino? I want to hold onto him as he is now in these perfect moments. “Come back,” I want to call out whenever he hits some new milestone, but he continues to run ahead. The physics of our reality, of time, dictate that I’ll never catch him. All I can do is pass on any wisdom I’ve gathered, and try to guide him as best I can as he races through the grass towards a finish line I’ll never see.

After a while, I kissed Liam on the cheek and extracted myself from his bed, unfolded my tired body onto the floor and scratched my back. Then I looked out the window. I didn’t see the coyote, of course. There’s no snow, so it’d be difficult to see her even if she were there. I went to our bed where Ayako was waiting for me. She opened a neighborhood app on her phone and showed me a photo posted by a neighbor a few blocks away, of a coyote slinking through the dark of their yard. I smiled knowing she was nearby, our coyote, slipping fences and boundaries, that genius trickster god, wild and unruled.

Austin Gilkeson’s writing has appeared at McSweeney’s, Catapult, Vulture, The Toast, Tor.com, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and son just outside Chicago.