First Place, Nonfiction, NMW Awards X

Catherine Reid

The Return
Copyright 2000 by Catherine Reid


Catherine Reid
'Writing honest nonfiction is the hardest, truest thing I know to do. It helps to find other writers and swap work often. And always: Read lots of good poetry.'
- Catherine Reid


After two months in this old house, I think I know the night noises at last--the knock and scramble of mice in the walls; the huff of wind across the chimney; the bristle of windows in their loose frames. Yet tonight comes a cry that I wasn't expecting, that hauls me out of sleep, a chorus of wailing above a percussion of yips, excited and eerie and twitching my heart.

Coyotes. Their very existence makes this place seem risky and wild, beings I hadn't reckoned on when we made an offer on the place. Carpenter ants and powder post beetles; flying squirrels and foraging deer; gray squirrels fattened on acorns and birdseed; plenty of stories of roaming bear--these were the known parts of the package, along with what we could see for rot in the sills, a gamble on what the siding was hiding, an unmapped network of old knob-and-tube wiring.

But a pack of coyotes raises a new sensation across my skin, like knowing someone is behind the door before a hand can slam it shut.

I want to see them.

I want to find their outline when I scan the woods. I want to know if I'm being watched when I work in the garden we'll have, the fields we'll keep mowed. I want to know where they sleep and spend their days, where they go when the neighboring dogs race through, or November comes and hunters pile in.

Mostly I want to know how they're doing here in Massachusetts, in this place I've returned to, twenty-five years after leaving. Coyotes were just sliding into the landscape back then, rarely seen and seldom heard, and only starting to appear in northern Vermont, where I first lived as a young adult. I saw them sometimes from a distance. I heard them now and again at night, that same rupture to my sleep, something apart from the night's usual weave of sounds. And once I met one in a field, each of us too distracted by the hot August buzzing to notice the other until we were both in full view. It looked much smaller than the animals waking me in the dark, and far more scrawny and lithe. Without taking its eyes from me, it did a slow turn, lowered itself into the grass, and disappeared. I backed to the field's edge, to the shadow of a big rock maple, and waited for hours but it never rematerialized.

I want to know how they do that.



*

I thought I knew the risks in deciding to return home. I'd lose the luster of being the one who got away, the status that accrued when no one knew quite what I did with my time. I'd no longer feel as free to move on whenever my plans changed, a relationship didn't work out, another job beckoned from somewhere further afield. I'd be visible and accessible and known, and having to face tomorrow the mistakes I make today.

And I'll have to bridge the gaps between the kid I was when I left and the adult I've become, a fact that seems most obvious when my father calls and leaves a message on the machine. "It's your daddy," he says, his voice like that from when I was five and six and seven, not that of a seventy-plus-year-old man addressing his forty-something daughter. And when I see him, he's tender and careful, and clearly working to sort this out, too.

As are my five siblings, with whom I jostle and tease like the teens we last were together, until we step back and wonder when the gray crept in and those wrinkles inched across each other's face. All of them have kids now, children amiable and curious, and ranging in age from one to eighteen, but I can't tell if any have the language for the aunt who came back with her girlfriend. It's partly Yankee reticence, this reluctance to talk about the sex of our lives; it's partly a wish not to be misunderstood. But it might also indicate how much has changed since that day I left in order to become my whole self.

"You'll never be able to move back home," a lover once told me, and I believed her. She was older; I thought she was wiser, and she studied family relationships as part of her work. Years had to pass before I could understand that when she said I'd be smothered by the traditions that abound here, she meant she was afraid of what they might do to her, and more than anything she feared losing control over those things and people within her reach.

For me, fear that I couldn't be myself was a natural consequence of years bounded by tradition, but it was crystallized in that awful moment when those closest to me turned in horror, in anguish--You can't love her!--and a part of me folded up, a part that has since often felt stranded in despair.

*



A narrow trail runs across the field below the house, connecting the two woodlots and skimming just west of a thin brook. I found it while looking for the boundaries of our land, defined mostly by old stone walls and a seasonal, moss-lined trickle. Two neighbor dogs use the path most often, but one morning last week, I saw a young buck on it, about to step into the field. We stopped at the same time to watch each other, but I relented first and went into the studio--the old garage that had been sheetrocked and insulated, with the concrete floor that my youngest brother helped me cover (birch plywood on sleepers, each of which had to be leveled and shimmed). From an inside shadow, I kept track of the deer's indecision, its resistance to stepping forward, its reluctance to retreat, until a door slammed at the house behind us, and it leapt into the woods in a flash of white tail.

Today I follow the path over a hill covered by an old stand of white pine. To the north is a gentle slope of mountain laurel and princess pine, partridge berry and rattlesnake plantain, with a steady brook churning in the small valley below. The railroad tracks run along the woods to the east; beyond them lies the Deerfield River, with the Massamet Ridge rising steeply just beyond.

Most of this I recognize and take comfort in, even after six years on an island off the coast of Maine, learning about spruce-and-heath growth, salmon farms and lobster politics, and another six years on the Florida panhandle, amidst loblolly pine, magnolias and wood storks. I like to think my return here is still fresh enough that my familiarity with these sights won't lead to blind spots, that my powers of observation won't relax in these rhythms and smells that comfort like nursery rhymes. I like to think that focusing on a being as invisible as a coyote will keep me alert to nuance, able to locate signs different from the ones I once expected.

It's a tricky balance to travel with: I know this; do I know this?, like trying to walk toe-heel down the trail, which I practiced for weeks as a kid, wanting to walk as silently as the Indians I had read about. I can do it now if I concentrate, but my heel hits first if I look wider than the trail ahead of me. Which I keep doing until I'm almost home, and there, when the house and barn are again within sight, I find the first sign in my search--coyote scat in the clearing under a large white pine.

It's easy to distinguish from that of a dog, which looks like reprocessed Alpo, or that of a fox, which is narrower and has less heft. This mass is stringy and long and full of apple seeds and cherry pits, tiny bones and maple seeds, and a piece of waxed paper, wrinkled and wedged between clumps of matted hair.



*



The house we found is in the hills of Franklin County, foothills of the Berkshires rising further to the west. As a kid, I was sure that the people who lived up here had sturdier and more inventive lives than those of us stuck on flatter land. But I never spent much time here, except for the year I hiked north with spring, from Georgia to Maine along the Appalachian Trail. By the time I reached New England, I had been out for about three months, and I loved being back within reach of the familiar towns--Stockbridge, Dalton, Pittsfield, North Adams, where my dad was born; the sound of "Berkshires" rolling in my mouth; the welcome resonance of accents and river names and idioms.

It's also the place where I left the trail for four days to visit my family, even though stopping made my joints stiffen, as though only moving could keep them bending without resistance. No one knew I was arriving that afternoon, my mother cried when I appeared at the door, and one of my sisters stumbled backward to let me know how much I smelled. I had to have my boots resoled again--the second time for the second pair--and while waiting for the cobbler to finish, I read through the stack of mail and was caught by a clipping someone had saved for me, about the murder of a woman I had hiked with back in Georgia.

I can't think of Jan without remembering every detail of those first days on the trail, from the misery of sheeting cold rains to the delight in living from what I could carry on my back. About a dozen people started the trail during those first weeks of March, and we formed a close group, hiking together during the day, sharing shelters at night, coping with mice in our packs, skunks on our beds, raccoons that could open zippers and jars. One of the hikers had a dog, which meant a different vigilance, particularly the night we used ponchos and tarps to barricade the lean-to from the lash of icy rain, and a spotted skunk shimmied his way in. The dog caught its tail, Jan grabbed the dog, and, miraculously, we weren't sprayed.

But the lousy weather convinced Jan's traveling companion to quit, and then Jan had to decide whether to continue alone. She must have taken a few days off somewhere, because I got ahead of her in North Carolina and never saw her again.

I met Paul, the man who killed her, at a lean-to just south of the Virginia line. I think there were five of us hiking together then--Jim, Chris, Paula, Suzanne, me. I was wobbly and dehydrated from a bout with dysentery and wanted nothing more than to crawl into my bag and sleep my way into the next day. But Paul was warming to the company; Paul was emptying his last tea bag into rolling paper to smoke, and in the pleasure of his voice, I forgot my queasy innards. He told us where to get good water and about the dogs to avoid between there and Damascus. He had been to the town a few times, he said, earning money when he could, pruning trees. He wore cowboy boots and had no teeth. He also had no food, which, when we realized, had us parceling out what we could shave from our own stashes--soup mixes, raisins, cocoa, pasta--while he gave us schemes and more stories.

He had nine kids and a passel of grandbabies, and then his wife died and he couldn't stand being in the little house without her. He caught a ride from Tucson to New Hampshire, found the Appalachian Trail and started walking south. (None of us said anything at the time, but one obvious fact seemed to counter his story: No one hikes in cowboy boots; no one.) His real dream, though, was to pack his way from Colorado to Alaska with burros, through the Rockies along the Continental Divide, a trip he thought might take two years. Tree work, again, would sustain him. Though--he mused, he smoked, he sampled a handful of someone's high-protein mix--he thought he might try prospecting, too, having spent seven years hunting for gold in the Superstition Mountains, and another chunk of time stealing gold out of Mexico. At least that's what he called it, stealing, and it was easy and it made him uncomfortable.

I fell asleep to the sound of his voice and felt safe and lulled and glad the world was big enough to include people like him. I didn't try to sort out what was truth and what was story in all he spilled; nor did the others as we continued north over the weeks and months, cooking and hiking and finding shelter together. Instead I held onto the image of his empty pack; of his blue nose, which looked like it had been frostbitten more than once; of his pleasure at smoking tea leaves. Those scenes helped me resist the rumor I heard later, somewhere in Pennsylvania, that a man living in one of the lean-tos had thrown a hatchet across the campfire and killed a through-hiker from Wisconsin. I kept it distant, something someone misremembered from a yellowed clipping, found under a stack of journals in some itchy, hot laundromat.

And I was busy tallying meaning through the ways people treated us--through-hikers, day-hikers, townspeople; people who gave us rides to the nearest restaurant, grocery story, post office; who offered something unexpected--an orange, a can of tuna, a hot shower in a dry house. For me, the accumulation of all those small gestures was what gave the hike its weight in my life; the single act of every person who held out a hand, a sack of cookies, a cold beer; who stopped a truck and let me throw my pack in back; who helped me find a doctor when tendonitis flared in my ankles, a telephone when I needed to call home, a safe place to stay when I couldn't get back to the trail before dark; who helped me get a prescription filled, my camera repaired, a package mailed; who directed me to the best all-you-can-eat buffets, to the YMCA ($2 to spend the night; $3 to use the laundry); to the town hall, where through-hikers slept on the floor on nights free of dances or other socials.

I hope Jan met some of those people, too. I prefer not to imagine what else she encountered, or how my story might have changed had I also been alone that night.

The morning I left Paul the sunrise was dark red. A few miles later, I entered the tiny town of Damascus, relieved to find the box with my extra boots at the post office and a kindly postal clerk who helped me ship my worn boots back. A few days later, Paul walked into the same town and told them what he had done.



*



Our house was built in 1894, the same year the last passenger pigeon was shot in Massachusetts. Fifty years prior, the state's last wolf was killed. In the half century between, a whole series of animals were driven out: the last wild turkey, shot on Mt. Tom in 1851; the last recorded mountain lion killed in 1858; the last lynx in 1860; the last marten in 1880. When added to the number of species already rendered extinct from the state--the great auk, the Labrador duck, the sea mink--loss becomes a painfully prevalent theme, from generation to generation, century to century.

I think about little of this, however, when I descend into the cellar to check mouse traps. The old stone foundation is riddled with holes, small dark tunnels stretching out of sight, large enough to accommodate weasels. It seems terribly fragile, stone on top of stone, a little mortar or whitewash in between, and above it the delicate balance of a two-story house on a knoll, atop notched and pitted sills.

Two traps contain bodies and I walk outside to toss the contents over the railing. Then, curious, I walk lower, forcing a path through the brush behind the barn and into the thicket to see where the carcasses land. Stiff blackberry thorns catch at my sweater and I have to stop several times to free it. But when I reach the elderberry tree, I find none of the mice I've flung these last two months, which by now must total between two and three dozen. Instead, I find one bedraggled, inedible mole and the telltale scat of coyotes.

They've been scarfing up small mice bodies at night.

They've been within twenty-five feet of the house, maybe even closer, and I haven't seen or heard them. I've just been supplying them, the unwitting purveyor.

I feel that same mix of awe and caution as when I fed a fox from my hand one of the springs I lived on Deer Isle, on the Maine coast. A mother fox, her fur matted, her teats swollen, barking me out of the house in her hunger. At first I tossed her muffins and sandwich halves, whatever was near at hand when she appeared in the clearing. Within a few weeks, I had switched to Milk Bones and both of us began taking more time with the exchange. Until at last, instead of dropping the food in front of her, I kept it in my hand, and she lifted it from my palm with her teeth.

My body didn't know whether to scream or laugh when she darted away, nor what might happen to her fear of humans.

I could only see how she took it: fox teeth, a breath away from my skin.



*



A flock of wild turkeys appears out of the fog, humping its way across the field. Closer to the road, the red vines of bittersweet twine through the trees, and a turkey vulture swoops into sight, dark and low over the powerlines. I drive to the community college, where I'm a new adjunct professor, and again hear Holly's voice as she reads a poem to me by Jane Kenyon, late afternoon sun angling into the bedroom, the air clear and phlox-scented from the brush of blossoms against the window--



      There's just no accounting for happiness

      or the way it turns up like a prodigal

      who comes back to the dust at your feet

      having squandered a fortune far away…

There's no way to explain its arrival, the "uncle you never/ knew about, who flies a single-engine plane" and searches throughout town…



      until he finds you asleep midafternoon

      as you so often are during the unmerciful

      hours of your despair.

There's no way to predict its form. It just comes, a flood of light, an opening of space; in my case, that moment when I felt blood moving to my hands and feet again, my heart resumed its pumping, and Holly was there, embodying joy. And though one preceded the other, happiness at the door first and Holly there the next time I opened it, enough years have passed to compress the sequence, and there's no point in separating those moments.

I love this drive; I love these hills. I like knowing that these three things--turkeys, vultures, loosestrife--are all relatively new to this area, just beginning to arrive when I was small and learning the names of things, when cardinals and titmice were rare winter visitors, and house finches hadn't yet taken over the bird feeders. When bear were seldom seen, and mountain lions lived only in stories (as did the elk that roamed these parts before the early settlers hunted them out). Today each feels like a reminder that change is continuous, and that, though despair may return, it cannot have any permanence.



*



I have much to learn about these students and their skills. Just when I think I know who they are and what we can do in our few fast months together, I lose patience with the two boys who won't stop talking to each other, despite my stalling class several times to remind them they're not in high school anymore, that this is college, that if they can't shut up I'm going to ask them to leave. And still they don't stop talking, and without warning I throw a piece of chalk and hit one of them. "Nice shot," says the other, and then both are very quiet until the class ends. Afterward, they apologize profusely, "We won't do it again," and still my heart beats fast.

When I return home, it takes a while before I notice the swarm of ladybugs on the side of the house, the flocks on the studio walls, the shirr and busyness of beetles that touch down on my arms, my shoulders, more ladybugs in one hour than I have seen in my lifetime. They pour through cracks I didn't know existed; they cluster high in the corners of every single room; they arrive as though some dam was rent, a flood of bugs loosed through the valley.

I put on an old shirt and head for the woods. I want to see the young buck again. I want to sense its strength and power, though last week a deer head appeared in the street, its spike horns the same size as on the animal I had seen. A set of ribs showed up next, a tangle of bones on the lawn of the red dog that's never leashed. The skull shifts from side to side in the road, in a different place each time I walk down for the mail or drive to town. Cars skim it; the dogs toss it; so far no one has been moved enough to bury it.

I walk in the opposite direction and, at the bottom of the field, I watch for deer tracks in the soft earth near the brook, for signs of fur or broken twigs. But before I enter the old apple orchard, grown thick in young hardwoods, I find a clear message, a marker to whomever can read it: coyote scat, right here in the center of the path, at the very edge of the woods.

With a jackknife, I push chunks apart, finding mostly hair and berry seeds. I slice deeper, and there, embedded inside clumps of fur, a sight that makes me peculiarly glad: Four cat claws, nacreous as pearls.



*



I didn't think it odd to pick up a stick and dig into scat, until I describe my findings at a recent party and see the eyebrows rising, the same arch as on the neighbor's face when she discovered my grandmother kept dead birds in her freezer (for the spots on a veery's breast, the touch of yellow on the white-throat's neck; the purple-green sheen in the grackle's back). Fortunately, Holly shifts us to other odd habits and childhood lessons. In her case, it was a clear message about never picking up something from the ground and putting it in your mouth, which prevented her for years from tasting wild mushrooms or berries.

I can't imagine it. Already this fall, we've savored both from this land, the easiest haul in the form of a giant puffball, its flesh white and firm and porous enough to sponge up the various marinades we tried, as fine sautéed in soy sauce and balsamic vinegar as in garlic and olive oil and a splash of raspberry vinaigrette. We gathered blackberries by the quarts, some of which will be brandy by winter, if Holly's recipe works. We've eaten chestnuts, too, that I competed with the squirrels to gather, and then had hot from the oven as they steamed in their shells. And I know in the spring we'll be sampling violet leaves and dandelions, mints and Indian cucumber roots, maybe even fiddleheads picked near the brook.

I can forage for hours and find enough for a meal. And I've picked up enough tips over the years to know what to use for life's milder aches--soothing teas of clover, yarrow, mint, and mullein; crushed plantain to stop bleeding; comfrey root for strains and sprains; an infusion of willow bark for an emergency aspirin; goldthread for canker sores; goldenseal for infection; sassafras tea for premenstrual bloating.

But I'm at a complete loss when it comes to natural hormones, especially of the black market kind that a friend recently described. A need for them had never entered my mind, but it wasn't the first time this friend had surprised me. That occurred when he told me of his pleasure in cross-dressing, which seemed such a contrast to the rather staid person I had known. But I took it in stride; I liked what he said about it giving him new ways of seeing the world, making him more open to ideas and options.

What came next was harder to fathom, that after years of dividing his selves, male in the day, female at night, he realized that simply dressing as a woman wasn't satisfying enough, that putting her back in the closet at dawn was leaving him fragmented, hurting and sad. After long and agonizing talks and fights and therapy sessions, plans made and unmade with his wife, suicidal moments and days of great certainty, he decided to take the big leap.

Unfortunately, it's not a change that happens fast, and while waiting to work with a physician, he obtained hormones through various sources (perhaps made from plants that I've walked right past); had regular appointments with an electrologist; let his hair and fingernails grow and began the process of telling family and friends, his children, his co-workers.

The last time we visited, the process was almost complete--new name, new pronouns, new clothes, but at our first lunch together, when she dined as her female self, I saw her solely as drag queen, everything done to excess--ruffles and bracelets and make-up too thick, perfume and stockings and earrings--as though I was in the presence of someone at a smorgasbord after years of semi-starvation.

It has taken me a long time to see her for herself, though still I struggle: A tall, odd woman with hormone-induced breasts and hips and a voice she is learning to hold high in her throat. She will stand out from the crowd no matter where she is, never fitting into mainstream communities or families or social functions, always occupying an edge, a marginal place. Her only secure home will be with other gender outlaws; with radical fairies and Dykes on Bikes; drag kings and leather daddies; sugar mamas and runway strutters; with mixed-race, mixed-blood, mixed-marriage peoples.

And sometimes when I'm unsure whether I'll be accepted for myself, I think of her and my world feels easy after all and very, very gentle.



*



Coyotes prefer edges, the spaces where it's woolly and ragged--where woods meet brooks and fields, rights-of-ways and logging roads; the scruffy cover next to schools and cemeteries, alongside marshes and tidal flats, behind fire stations and mall parking lots. They're safest in the kinds of thickets that in this state have long been multiplying.

The woods around us are mostly second- and third-growth, the result of several centuries of cutting and reforestation. The native peoples were first, using fire to keep areas open for hunting and farming, then Europeans began arriving with cross-cut saws and axes and mauls, and a hunger for fuel to warm uninsulated homes. They pushed the forests back so fast that by the mid 1700s, New England was almost stripped of its original tracts of mature trees. For the next 100 years or so, the land was kept cleared. By then many of the soils were depleted, sheep ceased to be profitable, farms were abandoned, and people moved toward the cities or headed further west. Forests returned, only to be cleared again in a second wave of cutting, driven mostly by an industry eager for pine (for the boxes that predated cardboard and plastic). And when that boom waned, another major reforestation took place, with eighty-five percent of New England now a mix of soft- and hardwoods.

It's a process of growth that creates networks of edges, the ideal cover for an undetected arrival, and a new species slid along it about the same year I was born. No one saw it lope into the state; no one can say for sure where it entered, but people started noticing a new presence overlooking the sheep; something bigger than a fox down by the cows; a longish shape backing through the shadows where the garbage cans were stored. Then one was shot in Otis, a small town in the Berkshires, in 1957; shortly after, several were trapped at the Quabbin Reservoir, and word started to spread of a canine of certain origin. (An earlier record dates from Amherst, in 1936, but it's believed to have been a western coyote that someone released in the area.).

By 1973, the year I graduated from high school, the response was becoming audible: Something odd is going on, people said; something's here, and though it's bigger than the coyote of the west, it's not quite the size of the gray wolf. No one was sure what to call it, or how to prepare for its impact. Massachusetts Wildlife ran an article that summer, "Meet New England's New Wolf," claiming that this was a species adapting before our very eyes to the changes all around us--"it is a new animal…, brand new, our own, and not to be confused with anybody else's wolves or coyotes or wild dogs. Right here in New England, in the last half of the twentieth century, a new animal has arrived, wolf-like in appearance, and it is found nowhere else in the world." The authors cited ample findings to dispel one of the prevailing notions at that time, that these were "coy-dogs," hybrids resulting from a cross between the eastern-most coyotes of Ontario and receptive, feral dogs. What this thesis failed to answer, they pointed out, was why subsequent generations failed to produce look-alike young, or how the animals could manage to mate more than a few times when their breeding cycles were so very different.

In February, 1975, those gathered at the Northeast Wildlife Conference in New Haven agreed to call the animal an Eastern Coyote, concurring on the theory that coyotes moving east did interbreed, though not with dogs; a few mated with some of the remaining gray wolves in northern Michigan or southern Ontario. The resulting species breeds true and has its own genetic characteristics, including traces of wolf DNA, though that took several more years to prove.

It's a wonderful reversal of the trend toward disappearance (ninety-nine percent of the life forms that have ever existed are believed to be extinct), a large and varied subspecies of Canis latrans, estimated at approximately 500 animals in the state in 1970; perhaps double that by 1980, and currently somewhere between 3000-5000, or one to two coyotes per square mile of Massachusetts.

"We've had reports of coyotes on the campus of Northeastern University," says Tom French of MassWildlife, "of a coyote walking through a toll booth on a highway outside Boston, of a coyote crossing the Sagamore Bridge at two a.m., on its way to Cape Cod."

They've also spread out of the region described in the third edition of A Field Guide to the Mammals, the accompanying map unusual for its superimposed question mark and as-yet unshaded space. In recent years, coyotes have moved into every state except Hawaii, into every kind of habitat (abandoned cars; tool sheds; Central Park in New York City), into Central America and all but the northernmost portions of Canada. They occupy a range larger than that of any other wild animal, and, by all accounts, they're spreading still.



*



When the shadows start to take shape, I know what to look for: erect ears, a narrow, pointed muzzle, legs almost as long as a wolf's. And when it steps into the light, I know that its coat can vary from reddish blonde to black, though it'll most likely be gray, with a darker swath through the shoulders. Only the wolf has such a range of shades, but here's where coyotes have the better lot in life: They're not reviled in the same way as wolves; they don't call up quite the same passions. What has been done over the years to wolves reflects a hatred usually reserved for bitter enemies or traitors to a cause; for those refusing to be crushed despite Jim Crow laws or mob-driven lynchings.

When I read what bounty hunters did over the years to the wolves they pursued, I see a perverse intimacy, a fascination with a prey they loathed and lusted after, often spending more years tracking a particularly artful animal than they spent with another human being. And if at last they were successful, the ends had to somehow equal the means, unleashing the same feelings of the hunt, the years of feeling stymied, out-smarted, almost failing.

They wired shut the jaws of a trapped wolf and left him to the slow mutilations of dogs and insects.

They tied a wolf to nervous horses, carved a slice up her belly, then whipped the horses into quartering the body.

They strapped a leather muzzle to a wolf pinned in traps, then shot him in a slow pattern from haunches to heart, until the ammunition and fear were temporarily exhausted.

It helps that coyotes are smaller than wolves and that they run with their tails down, a look more submissive than the arrogant ride of their cousins. And though they have taken the wolf's place of most reviled, they have been spared some of the more demonic associations, managing to threaten without terrifying, squeezing rather than ravaging souls.

In the Native American myths where they figure most strongly, Trickster Coyote is about bedevilment and inappropriate laughter, the rogue dancing on the periphery, pointing toes at our nakedness and bumbling; the imp making us fart or trip when we're keenest to impress; causing us to drop the prized goods overboard, to set our own homes on fire, to show up in the wrong bed, the wrong clothes, the wrong life.

And almost at the wrong theater, as in the performance I saw many years ago by a group from Alaska, a fast-paced production that caught by surprise some of the more formal supporters of the new Maine Center for the Arts. Tuxedoed musicians accompanied coyote narratives, most of them gleaned from tribes in the northwest. But the Center almost lost its funding, and the director his job, after the troupe's outrageous enactment of "Coyote Breaks Wind."

On this land cleared by the colonialists of most of the original inhabitants, it seems fitting that the coyote is the return, the one species to resist the move west and turn east, the sole predator with the tricks and genes necessary to hold its own in our midst.

The questions for us now, as coyotes continue to appear where they have never been before, are: How will we greet them? How will we act when we finally meet?

I watch for coyotes along all the edges I find and know that we live on the verge of confrontation. Much about my future depends on the outcome.