FALL 2013 (Issue 80)

Bruce Holbert

Coyote Waits

Coyote is always out there waiting, and Coyote is always hungry.
Native American Proverb
*Sinkalip is the Salish term for Coyote

1.  Tell me no stories

We will not see eye to eye on where to begin.  Whether a god created heaven and earth, void and formless, and a dark firmament stared into the faces of the oceans while he got around to the sun and the moon, or a chimpanzee fashioned a bone into a shovel and dug wild onions and potatoes and his great-grand-nephew spoke a word and his grandson’s grandson wrote a sentence in Hebrew, then Greek, then Latin, then the King’s English may be of great interest and some consequence to the linguists and anthropologists amongst us, but it matters little when weighed against the ballast of the tales fashioned from them.  And in them are truths and lies past deeds, past the civics we learn in school or the god we learn in church, truths so inarguable they require no faith at all.

What can not be debated is that solstice is a week away and the temperature has won the race with the season and you, Sinkalip, slink through the backyards, appearing, then disappearing then appearing once more under lit bedroom windows and the streetlamps’ conical glows, your back and haunches silver as water over rock.  Winter’s first snow lingers in the wind’s current and cloaks the fields and five deer gingerly browse a backyard garden’s dregs.  They do not fear you, Sinkalip.  Seasons have rules and so do stories and yours are no exception. Winter you must starve until you are told.

They also say your acts must be spoken, not committed to paper; written words divided from their voice allow neither for your absence or your presence; they turn liquid and spill from the page when one tips the edges toward or away from himself. On a page, words are only ink upon processed sawdust, language at its most puny, and stories cannot exist in such barren country.   The printed page allows neither the absence nor the presence required of the teller of stories.  Each must tend his own story and, if it is to breathe, it must be born with each telling and pass after.

Story remains the amniotic fluid from which we are thrust. We may not recall its taste or scent or syrupy weight in our lungs, but those who live among the larch don’t often account for the acrid needles nor do farmers consider harvest's doughy aroma lingering in the morning’s wet shadows.  They are omnipresent and we are numbed to their presence.  They emanate from so far past us that, like faint galaxies, they are only discernable if the moon is new and only if we are far from cities and their competing glare and only if the sky contains no clouds or haze to obscure each grain.  Even then, their diaphanous threads must travel so far that what we witness is light from a thousand years past, and there exists no way to know if the star emitting it still burns.  It is a light full of ambiguity and contradiction, good for nothing practical, just wonder and doubt.  Words are no different; they surround us with wisdom and foolishness with no threshing screen through which to sift them.

2.   You’re not James Dean

The animals were froze in winter. Many died.  The Pines bathed in Big River, and there, under an overhanging bank, you waited. The Pines first constructed a fire to warm them after their swim. Jealous of their treasure, they placed guards at the far ends of the forest, but none guarded the bank that hid you.  You stole a coal and put it in a hollowed buffalo horn. It glowed like a city lamp but it would not burn your hide. The pines gave chase and you swam from one side of the river to the other, holding the fire above your head to avoid them. As they tired, the Pines stopped. They remain upon those banks even now. Cedar stands above on his cliff and fir and tamarack lean over the water, but cannot reach you. You deliver fire to the birch and the oak and the cottonwood, and now all trees possess fire and when a man is cold, he may take their branches and rub them until they will release the fire in them.  Not until sulfur and sticks and plastic butane lighters are you outdone, and neither merits story, though a person can get the latter free with advertising in most any tavern and the former may be employed to spit fire if one has an abundance of balls and an equal lacking in sense; fifteen year old boys, smoking cigarettes though even the cigarette companies warn them not to, swearing as they perform a hundred subtle shifts in each minute’s passing just to stay upright, they’re what is left of you, Sinkalip.

3.  The Newest Testament

The church baptizes us with your semen and the priest crosses our forehead with it when we marry and when we hear our last rites.  It is your leaky memory and your dangling penis directing you forward.  You invent birth and death in the same rapturous act and, in it, you call a halt to time and reflection.

So much forgetting is required in a life, fast food, consumable commodities and planned obsolescence, birthdays and drunken mishaps.  I can think of no pain that would not be soothed or relieved completely by assigning it to oblivion.  If knowledge was the apple the serpent proffered Eve, then memory was the first bitter fruit she harvested outside Eden’s gates – and memory and story its seeds, and behind the iron bars, the Tree of Life bears the sweet fruit of amnesia we cannot reach.

Cable television and YouTube have unhitched time from memory; years disappear and are everywhere at once. Resonance requires reverberation, which, in turn, requires minutes remain minutes and years years and story to be altered by the distance between. We are offered instead repetition and reruns, which trap moments naked as when they are born, and they are robbed of the robes time and metaphor dress them in.  Perhaps video recordings are the future’s scriptures and big screens will fill temples and libraries instead of accounts honed by years of imperfect repetition. Memory will fall from our minds, like primordial tails from our asses when we were monkeys no more.

Is forgetting the eye of the camel we must crawl through?  And once we manage, will we emerge into paradise once more, pure and storyless? Does our forgetting your exploits banish you, Sinkalip, or does it set you free?

And gods and Sinkalips will have to submit to videotape and the paparazzi or cease to be, and then who will tell the sound of the voice of god from the whisper of his own desires?

4.   All Wet

Sinkalip, Old One rolled your mother’s skin into balls as people do with mud or clay, and, when he formed the ball that was your shape, he spat upon the earth to bind it.  He did that for no other. Did he add himself to your creation because you are as he is, or because you are so unlike him that without the spittle from his mouth you would return to dust, or was he simply disgusted by his need for you?

You live as if each instant your eye opens or your foot steps or your mind conjures or is stupefied merits its own account. Our meager consciousness’s, too, long to paint ourselves in broad and epic strokes, though our lives themselves are more likely to resemble a Jackson Pollock canvas. 

In my country, you complain the sun is too hot.  It is summer, Sinkalip; heat is necessary.  But you don’t like it.  So you make the clouds sprinkle rain.  Beaver’s pond stirs from his dam to play; deer bed in a serviceberry. You step into the water to cool your feet.  You are on a gambler’s roll.   “It should be deeper.”

Are you not swept ass over teakettle by the current?  Are you not in a storm without air?  Are you not drowning in your wishes?  Did you not gasp and vomit silver drool upon the river’s bank?  Did the buzzards not circle over you only to be chased from their meal by your shadow, which must tarry until your shape is absent as well as your spirit?  Is this the reason the big river now washes against its banks, because you will not simply find shade to get out of the sun.

5.  The Counterfeit Comfort of History

The past was less complicated, they say.  The epics were born from rumors, scattered and filtered through years and imperfect repetition until they morphed into a whole that surpassed reality or art but as inevitable both and as true.  Most of us no longer worship a deity and, if asked, we would reply we were no longer in need of one, which doesn’t restrain us from repeating the remaining theistic whoppers, nor grieving the death of the divine nor lamenting our complicity in the crime.  The few remaining faithful howl prayers at the same moon that dogs and coyotes and wolves have bayed to with no results since the beginning.  And from a distance the difference seems to hardly matter.

Yet, these raw and artless souls conjured the most inspired and menacing of phrases: “once upon a time.” Those past epochs, men could agree on the places all stories eventually begin and end because all had witnessed another’s last breath, heard it rattle his ribs and leave him, and then witnessed a body descend farther into the ground than the moment previous, and, though a few inches of air were the only difference, all realized, the space profound enough for all the gods and philosophies and epics to inhabit, as well as the doubts and uncertainties attached to them.

6.  Coyote Courts the Maidens
Who knows why the Animal People choose to step across your carcass the appropriate number of times and resurrect you.  Perhaps it is the comfort they find in rescuing their last contradiction and returning it to flesh and blood and bone.  Or perhaps it is simply your boldness that redeems you.  You ejaculate clouds over your enemies as subterfuge, and wipe your penis across your grandchildrens’ eyes to blur their vision if they wake after copulating with their mother.  And the white paste that mats our eyelashes mornings reminds us of our own desires and their repression, which reduces us to weak and impotent beings.

Sinkalip, you are the first porn star.

Five sisters have constructed a rock dam and raised a tipi on the river bank.  One selects a fish as long as her arm for their meal.  When they finish the meal, the sisters deliver the skeleton to the river where the current returns the flesh and skin to the bones.  Until a new fish swims.  It is a ritual filled with concentration and ardor.  It’s discipline is past obedience.  The exchange of flesh makes each fine rib a prayer.         

Such reverence is beyond you.  You are not bound by ritual’s restraints.  To you they are the scratchings spinsters etch upon the dark board to teach children they don’t understand words they’ve used all their lives.

It is the season for digging bulbs and the sisters of the river depart before light to hunt camas and wild onions.  You dig at the wall with an elkhorn.  Evening the sisters discover your work.  They cry out, then turn to watersnipes that pluck the bones, though the salmon appear to them no more.

Instead, the fish follow you upriver.  There are many villages where the small rivers meet your big river.  You order a salmon to leap from the water, then you cook it and invite the people to eat. But, because you are Sinkalip, you cannot remain charitable.  Each village contains a maiden you find pleasing.  Soon you determine the quality and size of the fish by the beauty of the maidens. Then, at the Similkameen, an Okanogan maiden refuses you. You stop their river with a rocky falls the salmon cannot climb.  You construct more at the Kettle and Spokane rivers because in these places, too, the maidens refuse you.

7.  Religion

You name the thickets in creek bottoms Woods of Her Private Hairs because water is desirable, but to retrieve it without tearing yourself on the brambles; well, it is beyond even a Sinkalip.  My girlfriends, attractive and interesting despite my low opinion of myself, remained fortunate accidents who mistook my emptiness for depth.  It seems to me any girl in whom I showed a passing interest hauled me to a church service sooner or later. Though I remain fond of the power of the organ pipes – if god wrote symphonies they would sound like Bach, I imagine – I never understood the intent.  Like yourself, my primary interest in them opposed most of what a minister would have to say, so it seemed improper or at least counter-productive to sit through a recounting of the gospel and three monotone hymns to earn some feminine goodwill and the occasional hot breakfast.   If the girl were pretty, however, I would rise and sort through my thrift shop slacks and hand-me-down shirts for one with a collar and wind up in a pew with her and her family.  I had nothing against prayer.  In fact, every thought that entered my head, every dream I could recall struck me as an appeal for a divine quid pro quo.  So I pinched my eyelids over my eyes and kneeled with the others.  Light poured through the stained glass as if it might be wisdom itself; on the way in or out of the sanctuary, I would stand in it and let it warm me, and for a moment the girl would look at me oddly, as if I might be taking the whole exercise more seriously than she intended.

Those girls were beautiful as sirens, and I would pile my rudderless vessel into their heart’s rocky shoals nearly every voyage I sailed.  Perhaps under steeples and bells and Medieval light were the charts necessary to pilot a course to their ordinary hearts.  I was the blade for the wounds they sought religion to suture, and, though the pastor had needle and thread enough for me, I could not abide such sewing.  They should have provided a wonderful education for me, those girls. But despite much study, I did not acquire the element most necessary for romance in my world: the capacity to shed women in the tragic and compelling manner that guarantees their return.  Imagination slashes and hacks at us, Sinkalip, yet we run the bared bodkin lovingly across our chests, still, despite our advancing years.

Thirty years later, I sit in a tavern drinking Schmidt beer, surrounded by the stink of men.  A woman who is no beauty but pleasant enough perches upon a stool two down from me, her legs twisted around the metal stem.  In her eyes is them nothing warm, nothing cold, nothing at all, as if she is a cave no one occupies.  Such illness is so prevalent that only those without it are worth note.  People speak of your medicine as powerful, but I have been diagnosed with maladies ranging from post-traumatic stress syndrome to adult attention deficit disorder.  The pharmacists fill the appropriate prescriptions and I swallow them according to their various labels and directions, all of which may temporarily medicate my body, but the pills provide no salve for the plague of story.  Tales ground a person to a nub quicker than lies; it turns some sawdust completely.

8.  Horticulture

In the meadows are Just Flowers, you call them so because they are neither food nor medicine, though many we name: Hummingbird Meal, Salmon Eyes, Falling Star, Indian Paintbrush, Deer’s Perfume and Curlew’s Beak.  Beneath them in the earth is Camas and Indian Carrot, which the people bury in tule-woven pots under their fires.  Cooked with black moss, they taste candied.  Gooseberries, serviceberries, chokecherries and huckleberries ripen in their seasons and with a strip of venison or a chukar breast and a paste of tubers make fine victuals. 

They are your gifts to the people, and we are grateful; though we wonder why jimson and nightshade and belladonna resemble so closely their edible cousins. Was this to rub out those who refused to hear you – he who has ears let him listen, is that not what Christ taught? –or was it to relieve clans the burden of those who possessed such porous minds they could not recall the color of one flower over another, or separate the diamond-shaped leaves from those that resemble a heart? 

But diamonds are not yet in this world, nor hearts, at least the innocent mouse-eared loops that junior high girls employ as punctuation.  How did you describe their leaves to the people, Sinkalip?  And what if you spoke in veiled terms like the great prophets, and the people didn’t recognize your descriptions because you had peered forward into the gloaming and seen diamonds and hearts and they had recognized only color and smell and stems and roots: what a plant is, not metaphor for what it appears to be?  Would these wise and careful observers, these scientists and lawyers and shaman not die along with the addle-minded and attention debtors? How will the people see their future without such men, Sinkalip; how can they prepare?

9.  Evolution

Story has been outbred by that opposite of tale or legend: cliché, or the cynical inbred dead-end of post-modernist irony, in which narrative resembles the mongoloid visages staring from the bridge in Deliverance.  What will take its place? What has replaced the Carrier Pigeon?  Only comparisons to other birds, those that are like it and those not and ornithologists will be reduced to discussing the bird by its shadow, until it becomes idea instead of feathers and bone and sinew and casts no shadow, and then becomes an idea forgotten, an entry in an encyclopedia someone occasionally stumbles upon, which might be all for the better.  No one misses Tyrannosaurus Rex ambling the Great Plains. 

Narrative divides us from our animal cousins and binds us, too.  Wrapping twine around a sapling then hauling the bolt to another and repeating the exercise doesn’t make the trees any more kin than a rope between you and me.  But tell the rope’s tale and forests turn one. 

Untying the threads will result in what I am not certain – an end of the recorded history or a recording so exact that memory will be irrelevant.  I do know this:  we will not diverge or meet the beasts of this earth in the means myth and fable has prescribed and I can not help but worry over what new manners we will resemble the less sentient denizens of the planet and in what ways will we differ?

10.  The Opposite of Hope

Farmers plant and hope, aiming themselves forward – toward next year’s crop or tomorrow’s weather; hunters over a kill can not help but think of their defining act as finality itself, and the opposite of hope, and their imagination has nowhere productive to pitch itself but backwards toward a time primitive enough to erase their presence.       

Absence fuels our mythology so that even our own presence opposes our gods.  So autumn, intelligent men long-grown and no more slaves to saga than practicality, when faced with one more day that appears remarkably like the rest, will take their sons, and more and more often their daughters, to the river to wait for the deer to leave the wheat at dawn or their return at twilight.  Together, they take control of the tale by ending it. Rifle shots and hurtling lead possess all the anarchy necessary to marry geography to misfortune.  The calm mistaken for peace is the pondering inherent in ritual.  It directs our guilt inward and we yearn for times primitive enough to erase our own presence in this country.

Self-annihilation is our dream. We don’t worship a god; we grieve his murder and our existence itself is complicity in the crime.   We have no messiahs in the West.  We don’t ask what would Jesus do.  We ask what did Hank Williams do. 

11.  Beginning of Days

From the very beginning, Sinkalip, you traveled the earth. You killed monsters and you gave the people different names and taught them their own languages.  You taught the people how to trap the salmon and you taught them what roots to eat and how to make a good lodge.  You taught them how to dance. Yet, you did many foolish things.  You told everyone you were a great warrior, but you were not.  You were at the butt end of other Animal People’s tricks and you were killed this way so many times that fox and the birds grew weary of returning you to life.  That is your way

Your work is finished, Sinkalip.  You have traveled far, Old One says, Now you must rest.  And you disappear.  It is as simple as that.  You will return with Old One, the people say, and you will bring all the spirits of the dead with you. There will be no more other side camp and no difference between the living and the dead.  There will be no more need for stories and things will once again be right. 

And now we wait, Sinkalip.  Now we wait.