In the Company of Coyote
When I lived on a mesa in northern New Mexico, one summer night I left every window open so the starlit, indigo air could cool the house after a long, hot day. It seemed like I had barely fallen asleep when a shrill, continuous shrieking woke me so fast that I was up and out of bed before my eyes opened all the way. That otherworldly screaming swirled around me like auditory sparks in the gray pre-dawn light. I dashed to the bedroom window.
Outside, not ten feet away, sat a coyote, letting loose with a piercing kai-yai-yai, but the sound encircled me, like it came from inside the house as well as the bedroom window. Wide awake now, I raced to the kitchen. Another coyote kai-yai–ed outside that window, too. All around the house—north, south, east, west—coyotes had surrounded the walls to voice their spine-tingling cry. So much sound from those small bodies! The song flared on and on through the open windows, filling the rooms from floor to ceiling.
Breathless, I hovered by the back patio door facing east to listen and watch the coyote who sat there. One coyote among many, yes, but also Coyote, an archetypal field of energy, a flame of the soul whose flickering, shifting shape can represent a larger pattern often called the Trickster.
In his book Primitive Mythology, Joseph Campbell introduces tricksters from many cultures and eras, as is his way, in traditions that range from Indigeneity to Christianity. Campbell hypothesizes that Trickster was the primary figure of myth in the Paleolithic age, creating the world and bringing fire to the people (273-76). Here we can read “world” and “fire” as metaphors for culture, but we can also read them as psychological images. Trickster can return to us our inner flame, the sparks that sometimes sputter somewhere along the way, the embers of our own personal creativity and world-making.
In New Mexico, I often saw coyotes loping along sidewalks, trails, and suburban lawns, thriving at the edges of human civilization. Wiry bundles of cunning and energy, snouts always pointing toward new possibilities, they ate everything from beetles to garbage to pets.
The Trickster’s amorality means they can never integrate into society. Instead, they represent the perpetual stranger who exists outside the known order. But isn’t it so often the stranger who shakes up our moribund routines? Who reminds us to stay alert? Who ignites new ideas? We tell stories of Trickster to talk about the fires of life as they exist outside our rules, precisely so we can change those rules when we need to. Trickster fires can burn, but they can also turn food into feasts and thaw frozen hearts.
When the coyotes finished their song, they moved away from my east-facing patio. Reunited, the pack paused together in the morning twilight. Now I could see all five of them. One sat down and rested a furry chin on the back of another who was still standing. Together, they gazed across the valley toward the mountains in the distance. They waited. And waited. And then the sun came up over that ridge, right where they were looking. The valley filled with golden light that limned juniper trees and yucca plants and coyote coats with liquid marigold brilliance. Then the coyotes trotted off down the mesa together.
The morning still quivered with their jubilant song. Their placid companionship. Their witnessing presence at the sacred birth of a new dawn, unlike any other that had happened before or would happen again. Coyote called that day into being and woke me so we could watch it together.
We are not alone. We are companioned by beings other than humans, by forces that sing and shape our shared experience. Why did Coyote sing so loudly that summer morning? Well, why not? Why not set aside self-doubt and self-consciousness? Why not sing with everything you have and everything you are, as though summoning the sun’s fire to earth? Why not create, and then be still, to watch the magic of a new day roll over the horizon?
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