You are reading Fiddleblack #17
When the knock came at the door the coyotes were still hanging there in the back corner of the barn, fur frozen in clumps, mouths agape in perpetual snarls, bellies gutted. There were five of them now, suspended in rows of three and two, hind feet bound together with parachute cord tied to the ceiling beam. David’s German Shepard, Marley, refused to even go in the barn anymore. He was too spooked by his evolutionary brethren hanging dead from twine.
Stirred by the knocking at the front door, Marley sat up from his place by the fire, anxiously pressing one paw and then the other into the wood floor and then cocking his head at David, who sat still in his armchair, hoping that if he failed to stir at the sound, it would go away. The dog whined.
The knocks rattled on and he tried to remember whether he locked the barn door. Sometimes when the Alaskan winds were high the doors swung open if the latch wasn’t secured. When he first bought the homestead the doors to the barn were nearly rotten through. He carved new ones and whittled a wood latch, the kind his grandfather showed him how to make when he was a child in Wyoming. That kind of latch had a special name, but he didn’t remember what it was.
He tried to tell himself he shouldn’t be concerned if whoever was at the front door saw the coyotes. There was nothing criminal about it. It was strange, perhaps, that there were so many, still hanging there, unskinned and purposeless. It was not unusual in these parts for cattle men to hang coyotes from fence posts around their property, strung up like gruesome mile markers. Some said the corpses scared off live coyotes, though David doubted this was true. Mostly ranchers liked to show their neighbors they were being productive, protecting not only their own cattle from predators but everybody’s. Contributing to the common good. Most of the time, though, ranchers saved the fur and froze the meat and the heart, especially if the winter months were near. Within a few weeks everything would be coated in snow, hiding David’s land under a wet white blanket until spring.
The visitor knocked again. David reminded himself there was nothing wrong. There was nothing for him to feel guilty about. It was all just some cosmic coincidence. He shouldn’t let it shake him up.
Who could be at his door, anyway? Usually he went weeks, months without visitors. All he could see for acres and acres was a severe landscape of western hemlocks, sitka spruces and paper birches, holding their ground between the rocky earth of the Kenai peninsula and the frostbitten sky. Every Spring he drove the cattle five miles north to set them to pasture on the banks of Tustumena Lake, and sometimes there he saw the other cattlemen and talked with them of weather and illnesses, fish migrations and cattle. Once or twice a year a gaggle of homesteader wives would make their rounds on ATVs with fruitcake and banana bread, delicacies rare for a bachelor living in the Alaskan frontier. Usually, though, it was quiet, how he liked it.
Marley shifted and whined and walked toward the knocking, growling softly. David followed and opened the door. To his embarrassment he opened it like a guilty man would, half ajar, peeking his unshaved face out timidly, like he had something to hide just inside the threshold. It was Parker Maguyuk, head of the cattlemen’s association. He wore sealskin boots and a caribou fur coat that all but covered his face. The only features visible were his small black eyes and a scar that ran from his left temple to the right corner of his mouth. Parker’s homestead was near the lake, on the other side of the hills that blocked David’s home from view. He was the kind of sturdy, simple man you would hope for as a neighbor. He didn’t bother you, usually.
When David opened the door Parker lifted his head and raised his eyebrows, mouth hidden by a knitted scarf. David peeked beyond Parker, across the field to the barn, where he saw the doors were safely closed. The wind was howling though, making the doors strain against the wood latch and then slamming them back against the frame.
“David, you’re alive,” Parker said, reaching his mittened hands to pull back his hood, before thinking the better of it and patting it back into place. His inuit skin looked healthy. It didn’t dry and crack in the cold like the white homesteaders’ did. The only tell tale sign of strain against the elements was a bright pink spot, a remnant of a long ago flirt with frostbite, at the edge of his nose. David realized at once why he was there. The cattlemen’s association only met a few times a year. How could he have forgotten?
“I missed the meeting.”
“Yes, you you missed the last two actually. No big deal, but we took a vote and decided I would make the trip to make sure you were making out alright.”
“Yes, yes.” David coughed. “I caught a bit of a bug but I’m fine now. To be honest, I just completely forgot. The days kind of go by out here. I have to pay better attention to the calendar.”
Marley was working his nose through David’s legs to see who was at the door. When he saw Parker his tail wagged and David stepped aside to let him through. Parker crouched down, all 300 hide-covered pounds of him, to rub the dog with his soft hide mittens.
“No big deal. You didn’t miss anything. Just gossiped like housewives.”
David smiled. The barn doors across the field strained with the wind, clapping wood on wood.
“Steven lost two cattle to wolves and the Evan family had a grizzly sniffing around in August. We decided to set up some more traps next month, and in the spring we are all going to caravan to the lake to scout out the pasture ahead of time.”
“Have you had any trouble?” Parker stood and leaned forward, eager to hear the report.
David thought of the coyotes in the barn. Five of them. There were hardly any coyotes left on the peninsula and he had five of them in the barn. There shouldn’t be so many out with the wolves as active as they were. Five qualified an infestation.
“Nope. All quiet here.”
“Alright,” Parker said, and shuffled his feet. “Well I was just checking in on you. You know where to find me if you need anything.”
“I appreciate it.”
Parker patted Marley again and walked back toward his ATV. David walked out into the bright light and called after him.
“You know, now that I think of it, I thought I saw a coyote across the field the other day. Anyone else had any sightings?” He knew the answer.
“No, that’s strange,” Parker said. “I thought they were pretty much gone from around here now. I haven’t seen one in years.”
“Yeah,” David shook his head. “It was probably a small wolf. Might have been whiskey playing with my sight.”
Parker laughed and, holding his hood down with one hand, drove through the path David had cleared the first summer he moved here, waving his hand goodbye before disappearing beyond the tree line. Marley returned to his place by the fire and David wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans. The barn doors flapped with the wind.
“Be right back, buddy,” David said. Marley yawned and put his head on his paws.
David shut the door behind him and, pulling his wool cap over his ears, made his way across the yard toward the barn, trying to control his breathing and push his heart back down his throat. His vision was blurred. He had been afraid he was going to pass out when Parker stood at his doorway. The man was just being neighborly, he reminded himself.
When David first bought the homestead the barn had been in near ruins. The previous owner died an eighty-eight year old hermit, happy and healthy and ready for his expiration date. David bought the place from his son, a twitchy antitrust lawyer who flew in from Washington to settle the estate and sell the property at fire sale price to the first taker.
Soon after he moved in, the entire town, as much as you could call homesteaders spread out over miles and miles of wilderness a town, had joined one weekend to help David fix the barn. They came in on horses and ATVs, weaving through the trees onto his property like an army alive at first light, bringing wood and nails and machinery David didn’t yet know he needed. By sundown on Sunday they had hoisted the last wall, and over the next few days David made new doors himself, carving into the wood scenes of the Alaskan landscape, scenes of his new home. That was nearly thirty years ago now, and most of the men who had wielded hammers and saws that weekend were dead and most of their sons had left the Kenai for easier ways of life. Now David was one of the old timers.
The wind picked up as David reached the barn, and he had to hold the doors shut with his left hand to undo the latch with his right. The light was waning, and David hoped Parker would reach home before dark. David couldn’t remember what he had accomplished today, if anything. The snow would start to fall soon and he had to hunt, but fear of finding another coyote had kept his hunting trips short and half-hearted.
He walked in the barn, vaguely hopeful that the coyotes had disappeared back to whatever prankish hell they had come from. But there they were. Hanging in rows as he left them, jaws frozen and eyes laughing. Paws hanging in mischievous disarray and stomachs gutless and formless. He left the door open behind him because he didn’t want to be alone with them. He fingered the bone handle of his skinning knife and searched for some untapped reserve of resolve.
He saw the first one while hunting for bear on Whitestone mountain. He spent three days scaling the slopes of the mountain, coming down only to camp near the river, where he hoped to catch a brown bear coming to bathe or catch fish at first light. Snow capped the ridge and the trees were bare. Bears should have been out in force before settling in for the winter, but he didn’t spot one the whole trip. He barely managed to shoot a ptarmigan for dinner after exhausting his supplies of jerky and oatmeal. On the third day, just before dusk, he was making his way back down to camp when he saw the first coyote. It had rained that day, and he struggled on the slope with his gun and gear, wet and fatigued. He saw it 100 yards down the bank from his campsite, drinking from the river.
The coyote didn’t move when it saw him. It didn’t stir when David locked eye contact and put down his rucksack to raise his gun. Only when he brought the rifle to eye level, steadying its base on his shoulder, did the coyote break its gaze and start to run, exposing its side when it turned. David took a shot at his lung but missed, hitting its stomach. With a second shot he downed it, and he watched the animal’s ribs rise and fall as he worked his way down the mountain toward the river bank. By the time he got there, the coyote had stopped breathing.
David walked back to the campsite to drop his gun and bag, then returned to the coyote with a knife to gut the animal by the river. He cut from the rectum to the neck and let the entrails fall into the water, and that’s when he saw it. Some kind of plastic tubing. He pulled it out of the intestines, dipped it in the water to rinse off the blood, and placed it on a rock on the bank. He fingered the nozzle on one end and the pump on the other, and he recognized it immediately as a hospital IV. But he couldn’t reconcile what he knew it was with where he had found it. The nearest hospital was 100 miles from here. If he had been in town, if he had seen this coyote feeding from dumpsters, he might have understood. But there was no explanation. Maybe the coyotes were ranging farther for food as the supply dwindled before winter. He packed the IV in his bag before he hiked out, figuring it for a strange twist and nothing more.
The following week he took another hunting trip. He went to the same mountain but further down the bank, where he hoped he might catch more luck tracking bear. On the second morning he spotted a bear fishing farther down the bank, but by the time he got within shooting distance the bear caught his scent and loped casually back up the mountainside. When David turned to follow it he noticed Marley was not by his side. Turning around, he saw the dog pawing nervously near a broad tree at the base of the slope, running towards David and then back towards the tree, stopping just shy of its trunk. David readied his rifle and walked towards the dog, rounding the base of the tree. The coyote lying on the other side was dying, but still snarling in their direction. It had foam around its mouth and its frame shook with dry heaves. David raised his rifle to put it out of its misery, and before he pulled the trigger the coyote raised its head to stare David in the eyes.
This time David went straight for the gut, looking despite himself. It was a large coyote, broad and fat, and from its lower intestine David pulled a small remote he recognized as the controller to a hospital bed. Its buttons were shining, as if recently polished, and its weight in David’s hand was familiar. Marley ventured to David’s side to smell the strange plastic, then whimpered and jogged back to the campsite.
David closed his eyes to still his mind and find the logical explanation that must be there. Nothing existed so powerful as to follow him all the way to Alaska. The other homesteaders and the cattle’s union already knew him as a man who was friendly enough and would help out when needed, but otherwise liked to be left alone. They wouldn’t bother him. He had time to figure this out.
The third coyote he shot and killed carried an arsenal of pain medication in its gut. Hydrocodone, Percosets, OxyContin and Demerol. Maybe a junkie commune had occupied one of those abandoned shacks near the river, holding an underground clinic of night sweats and candy land dreams. Or maybe one of the other homesteaders had been caring for an aging mother or father who had refused to move to a nursing home full of dying Inuits with hardened livers. Maybe after the reluctant patient had died the tired caretaker had tossed the medical waste in the river, pushing it off like Moses in a wicker basket. Maybe the waters had ferried it up the peninsula and into the mouths of coyotes starving from the previous long winter and desperate to fatten up for the coming one.
By the fourth coyote, though, he knew none of those possibilities could be true. Really he had known from the first, but the urge to make mathematical sense of the world had allowed him to hide in a fog of sensibility. The truth was that he and Marley and his rifle were not coming upon these coyotes by chance. They were looking for him. They were carrying bellyfuls of refuse solely for his benefit. They were messengers who, after all their troubles, were tipped with a bullet.
The fourth coyote, which came boldly onto David’s property in the afternoon light while he was chopping wood, carried in its gut a softer reminder, a memento of better times. It was a baseball, dirty and worn, with a dozen signatures written in the bold scrawlings of young boys. He crouched, holding the ball over the still warm body of the animal, dead from a bullet in the right lung, and realized how small the beasts were. They weren’t like the wolves that terrorized his cattle in packs. They were almost fragile, despite their ferocity. Too thin and impermanent to be messengers from beyond the grave, you would think.
He turned the leather stitching under his fingers until he found his own signature, clumsy like the rest, reaching for great heights with the D and trailing away in stuttering virgin cursive. The ink, like the ball, had aged to a rusted brown. His father had kept it for decades on a shelf in his den. He kept it until he died, a remembrance of his proud seasons as coach to his only son. David had been majestic and sure on the mound, firing on all cylinders in that adolescent way. His mother had come to some games, but she never truly watched. She couldn’t with the constant shaking and twitches and migraines. Most of the time, his parents protected him from her suffering. When things got bad, she sequestered herself in the back room or sent David to sleep over at a friend’s house. David was so immune to her pain that by the time she died he thought of her as a stranger living in the house. A tenant. A passer-through.
Still, it was a relief to his 12-year-old self when she finally went. He knew they had better times before, all three of them together, but they were when he was too young and seamless with his parents to remember beyond what he gathered from photographs lying around the house. After she died there were no more vomit bags or late night moans or embarrassed glances to the bleachers at his games. At last he and his father could be bachelors together. They ate TV dinners watching Johnny Carson, went entire weekends without bathing, played catch in their boxers in the snow, and talked about girls until David grew too teenage and embarrassed to talk about those sorts of things with his father. Much later, after his father had died, David threw the ball out with the rest of his childhood memories, stacking it all in beaten cardboard boxes on the curb.
He went inside to put the ball on the kitchen table, then back out to hang the coyote next to the rest. He recoiled at the thought of eating them. He should bury them. That was the easy solution. But something flitting at the edges of his brain held him back. If he stilled himself for long enough the fear crystallized and he had to cloud it out again. If he buried them, he feared, they would just come back. He would round a hill while hunting, or step out his kitchen door at dawn to drink coffee and stretch at the sunrise, and there one would be, familiar and persistent, snarling but unthreatening, patiently waiting for him to load and aim his gun and unearth the karmic treasures they had carried to him across universes.
The fifth coyote did not even wait for his gun. It crawled, foaming at the mouth, dragging on the ground in sickness, to his front door, where it died at his feet, ribs heaving and visible. This one carried a small plaster cast covered in blue marker caricatures of the 1977 New York Yankees, the favorite team of all 13-year-old Wyoming boys with no team of their own. He had broken his arm biking in the mountains with his friends, and when he came home with his forearm twisted the wrong way his dad had not been angry, like David feared he would, but laughed and said he had begun to think David was some kind of wonder boy. “What boy hasn’t broken any bones by the time he is 13?” he had asked.
David had to sit the next season out, and before each game his father would draw another Yankee on his cast, warning the caricatures that they wouldn’t know what hit them when the plaster came off and the rocket set free. David sat on the bench next to his father, who turned to ask his advice before calling each play or setting the lineup. Like he was assistant coach. Like he wasn’t a 13-year-old boy. Still, at night he dreamed that under the plaster his arm was withering with decay, turning green and limp and rotten.
In high school David pushed his father away and his father took it with grace. It was only after David graduated and moved out, rented an apartment with his girlfriend Tammy and got a job as a frac operator at the oil field that David let his father in again. They spent long sundays with beer and football while Tammy fixed them meat loafs and casseroles and cheese dip. David’s father had worked as a welder at the steel plant for forty years, and when the plant shut down David quit his job. Together they bought back his grandfather’s land and built the family’s sheep farm back up from the ground. They did well. It was steady enough that when David’s father became sick, they had enough money to hire a ranch hand to live in a trailer in the back and look after things while David drove his father to medical centers in Casper and Cheyenne and Laramie to hear the same things from eerily similar looking doctors with thin-rimmed spectacles and gray beards.
At some point David left Tammy and moved back into his childhood home with his father. It wasn’t a conscious decision, just one day he woke in the apartment he rented with her and realized all his clean clothes were at his father’s, there was no food in the kitchen, and Tammy had left. He didn’t blame her. She had tried to help, but he wouldn’t let her. Even when he was home with her he wasn’t there.
So he moved back to the house where his mother had died trembling and in pain to watch his father die trembling and in pain. But at least his mother had kept her mind. She knew until the end who David was and knew enough not to embarrass him with her suffering. His father was not so merciful, and when the pathways in his brain collapsed in on themselves in a series of microscopic eruptions, he became little more than a collection of pink flesh and bodily fluids and constant need.
The bills were not an issue. His father had always been responsible. He had good health insurance and savings. Nothing extravagant, not enough for a live-in nurse or a cure for degenerative brain disease, but enough to rent a hospital bed they put in the center of the living room and enough to buy mountains of pain medicine. David spent more and more time away from the ranch and more hours in the house, curtains drawn, giving sponge baths and spoon feeding his hero with green and grainy mixtures while he drank vodka from the bottle. Sometimes at night he woke to crashing and rushed into the living room where his father, or the meat and bone structure where his father had once resided, lay on a crushed coffee table or over a tipped lamp or, once, stood peeing on the living room rug, muttering to himself, shaking his soft pink meat in his hands.
After the fifth coyote David stopped sleeping. He sat up through the night on the floor in front of the fire as reels of home videos played through his head. The night of Parker’s visit, after hours of tossing and turning, he carried a lantern to the barn, where he took the nearest coyote down and flung it on the ground, its tongue lolling out of its head.
Quickly, he skinned it and sectioned a quarter of meat which he brought inside and put on the stove. He stood over the pan, fists clenching and unclenching, not bothering to add any seasoning or salt. He had to force it down and snap himself back to reality. He was giving these beasts a power they didn’t have. It was all a temporary madness. He was a hunter and they were food. It was nature. Nothing unnatural or supernatural about it. As soon as the meat was cooked through he put it on a plate and sat at the kitchen table next to the oil lamp, the only light in the house save the moonlight creeping through the windows. Drawn by the smell Marley wandered into the kitchen half asleep. David cut off a large piece and put it in his mouth, chewed roughly and swallowed like an act of violence. The vomit came up hard and swift and he spent until dawn clutching his gut on the bathroom floor.
The next morning he unstrung all the coyotes and dragged them one at a time by their hind legs out of the barn. He built a bonfire with scrap wood and gasoline and threw the coyotes on. He drank and watched the flames break them down and send them away on waves of smoke.
Over the following days he spent nearly every waking hour hunting the slopes of Whitestone. He told himself it was for bear and winter meat but really he was hunting coyote. He had to bring the thing to its conclusion. Yet he saw none, and returned home hopeful they were done with him. They might leave him alone now.
The sixth coyote came while he was readying to shoot the oldest cow in his herd. The cow was his favorite. She was steady and fertile, but lately she had been dragging, and David had let it go on longer than it should, for sentimental reasons. He brought her out from the barn into the pasture, stroking her neck while she ate hay. It was important to keep them calm or their meat would taste acidic, like fear. He walked behind her and readied his gun, but then he saw the coyote, sitting near a fence post at the far end of the pasture, paws in front, head cocked, like a cat at attention, curious, watching.
The wind stilled and the cow turned, locking eyes with David, who was still pointing his rifle at her head. The cow began to moan. David saw her detect what was in the air, he saw her panic grow, and he shot her in the head and watched her collapse. He turned with anger to the coyote, but it had gone. The wind picked up and he tried to scan the tree line but the waving branches made it impossible to detect any movement.
He turned back to his cow. What had once been a comfort and a companion was now a disgusting pile of meat, life gone, spirit gone, flies buzzing. His stomach turned. The same had happened with his father. The revulsion went all the way into his organs. Every time David had entered the living room, where his father lay in that hospital bed, drunk and stupid on pain medication, he could barely breathe until he left the room. The meat and decay sucked the air out of the room, and it took all his willpower to feed and clean his father without inflicting pain.
When he was 17 he had gotten a cheerleader from a rival high school pregnant. His dad never once made him feel guilty, or ashamed, or dirty for it. He treated it as a natural, beautiful thing. In Wyoming you did not discuss options, and David did not bring it up with the girl and his father did not bring it up with him. The girl lost the baby four months in anyway, bleeding in the bathroom stalls at the junior prom, and his father told him it was ok to cry. David said he was crying because he felt guilty, because he never wanted it to begin with, and his father said that was ok too. “Always be honest with yourself, son,” he had said, “and the world will be honest with you.”
He strung the cow up and skinned and gutted it. He was going to use the skin to make new saddle bags but he couldn’t stand the stench now. He would give the hide to a neighbor as a gift. When the beef was quartered and stored in the meat locker he whistled for Marley and set across his property for the tree line. It was late in the day but the skies were free of clouds and the sun was almost blinding, casting off the snow-lined branches of the sitka spruces towering over him. Marley ran ahead of him, leaving a trail of paw prints in the dusting of snow. David followed his path slowly, feeling heavy and sluggish. He stopped to rest, a lone figure on the plane, and looked at the sky, where magpies flew over his head. He wanted to lay down his rifle and sit and let the seasons cover and take his body.
The tribes in Wyoming thought of the coyote as a trickster. In their stories the coyote was always reckless, mischievous, stirring up danger and dying in strange situations before coming back to life, like a cartoon. Old Man Coyote, they called him. When he ran around his grandfather’s sheep farm as a child the Arapaho ranch hand would tell him stories. David would sit on the fence, watching him work and listening to him talk. Even at that young age he knew the stories were not real, but he liked the way they sounded coming from the ranch hand’s mouth. The coyote wasn’t the Creator, but in many stories he pretended to be one, redirecting rivers and reshaping mountaintops and creating other animals out of red mud. He was powerful. He could bring fire and magic to people as he pleased but he always acted out of self-interest, capriciously. How the people could be sure he wasn’t the actual Creator David was never sure. In real life, the coyote was a scavenger and a nuisance, and if one came too close to the sheep the ranch hand, who had moved on after just one summer’s work, would not hesitate to shoot it. If you crossed paths with a coyote in the forest, he had told boy David, it’s best to just turn around.
Up ahead, Marley was barking from beyond the tree line. David followed the sound and came upon the two animals baring their teeth at each other. The coyote had the high ground on a fallen tree, and Marley ventured forward with a growl and then danced back. Wearily David raised his rifle once more and when the coyote was dead he hoisted it over his shoulders and whistled to Marley to follow him back home.
He hung the coyote where his favorite cow had just been. The dirt below the hooks was still damp and glistening with blood, and with a sure slice David wetted the earth anew with the coyote’s insides. At first there was nothing and he allowed a glimmer of hope to loosen the knot in his stomach. It had all been in his head. A flicker of insanity brought on by the unforgiving Alaskan cold and toil. Still, he dropped to his knees and with bare hands waded through the warm entrails, weeding the intestines through his fingers and caressing the kidneys and bladder until his fingers closed on hard metal, a man’s silver ring.
It was his grandfather’s wedding ring. His father had given it to him in the doctor’s office the day he was diagnosed. The doctor left the room to deal with an emergency and during that brief time, when David’s head was still spinning and his stomach churned and he felt bile and anger clogging his throat, his father calmly told him the story of how his grandfather had proposed to his grandmother in New York City minutes before shipping out to fight the Germans. When he got back he earned an agricultural degree with veterans benefits and the newlyweds went west to Wyoming where they started the sheep farm that David now ran. David’s father told him how when his grandmother died his grandfather couldn’t wait to join her, and right before he died he passed down the ring to his son, and now he was passing the ring down to David. “But you aren’t dying,” David had said, squeezing the polyester arms of the chairs in the doctor’s office. “Not yet.” “That’s not up to us,” his father said.
After his father’s funeral, after David had shook the hands of all the townspeople and accepted their condolences, he stayed to stare at the tombstone, straining to think of something worthy to say. He would not end up like his father. He would not leave the earth as a burden, only with prodding. He would exit swiftly and alone. It was not fair to make someone depend on you and then take yourself away. The body buried there was not his father. His father would not have done that to him. He placed the ring on the tombstone and walked away.
He left Wyoming months after the funeral, after he sold the farm and the house and all the clutter inside it. The hospital bed he burned late at the night in a bonfire that smelled of gasoline and medicinal peppermint. His father’s life insurance lined his pockets, and he bought a 90-acre spread on the Kenai peninsula. Cattle weren’t that different from sheep, and the Alaskan cold wasn’t that different from the Wyoming cold either, just meaner. That was three decades ago. Now he was still alone, sturdy, self-supporting. The most he felt was hunger in his belly when meat was scarce and cold in his fingers when the temperature dropped and lactic acid in his aging muscles from baling hay and riding horseback and chopping wood. The seasons came and went, and he was a burden to no one. He never tried to meet a woman and he had always politely rebuffed secret flirtations from other ranchers’ wives. No point in trying and failing to love, to taking on another machine that would break down and need maintenance like the rest.
He already knew what the last coyote would hold. He had known it really from the very first one, when he held the gut-coated IV in his hands and could still pretend at logic. He rinsed off the ring under warm water in the kitchen sink and walked to the front porch where he sat down and put the ring beside him and his rifle on the other side. The sun was setting and Marley came to join him, curling on the wooden deck behind him and snoring softly as the twilight sucked all remaining warmth from the day. He waited on the porch and for the first time remembered how it had felt when he had finally held the pillow to his father’s mouth and felt the spirit leave that stranger’s body. It wasn’t his father anymore. It was some drug drunken fool making a mockery of his father’s flesh and bone. He felt the down of the pillow reshape to accommodate the features of his father’s face, the deep eye sockets and the prominent nose and the ear cartilage that had grown larger with age. The feathers were soft but could only give so much, especially with all of his force on top of them. He remembered watching the blood drain from his hands as he clutched the pillow, leaving his knuckles ghostly white.
Through the dark night David saw the coyote trotting out of the tree line across the field, undistracted by night rodents foraging the dirt or the stream that cut from the forest to David’s pond. It trotted slowly but with purpose, eyes shining with the moonlight and head erect, canines flashing when it pulled back its lips to take in night air. Its chest expanded gently toward the ground and fell back towards its rib cage, gathering just enough oxygen to fuel its efforts. David waited on the porch, sitting still and not reaching for his gun. Marley still slept, his whistling breath providing the soundtrack for the coyote’s journey.
The animal came within ten yards of the porch. It was fully dark now. The Alaskan stars were clear and unrelenting. They had taken David’s breath away when he first came from Wyoming with nothing but a Volkswagen packed to the brim with clothes and blankets and chairs and boots. When he stood on the property for the first time, and took a deep breath of the clean, cold, piercing air, he had felt it erase his memory gently, rubbing out the impurities and allowing him to start over with grace. The land had given him 30 weightless years and for that he was grateful.
The coyote walked in circles, watching him, before finally sitting in a crouch and locking its green, soulless eyes into David’s. Its head lurched forward and its lips peeled back, revealing blood red gums and rows of white daggers, and spit dripped from its mouth. The drool grew into pools and started to foam as the coyote heaved and shook, raising his shoulders and lurching his head toward the ground as spasms quaked from his belly up his spine to his throat. The foamy bile grew thicker, white and pasty, and then the feathers came, shooting violently from his throat. Goose feathers, pouring out white and silky and shredded, abundant like a down pillow knifed and shaken from a height. The feathers poured out from the coyote, piling up in endless mounds reaching toward the sky, transforming his land into an ocean of down. If he didn’t move, if he just sat there, it would pile up and cover him, reaching his mouth, filling his lungs, leading him out of this world.
Crystal N. Galyean is a California native who now writes and edits out of New Jersey. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the Village Voice, on the Rolling Stone website, and with various other publications. She recently completed her first novel.