I come from the country, from a home in the woods where nights are filled with cricket chirps and coyote howls. My most persistent childhood memory is my mom guarding the front porch, one hand on her bottle and the other holding her 12-gauge as she fired into the dark.
“Why do you do that?” I asked, a little girl as frightened of the sound as I was of my mother’s reddening eyes.
“To keep the coyotes from getting close,” she slurred.
If a coyote ventured near the porch, my mother would point the gun at its howling mouth. She never fired, but I could see her itch to kill as the twitch in her trigger finger.
“Why do we hate coyotes?” I asked on another dripping hot night. I was just old enough to ask questions with no grammatical inconsistencies and old enough to shoot the BB gun if I wanted. I often fired unloaded pops into the air during daylight hours. I’d seen a coyote slinking in the sun once: mangy red-orange fur and pointed ears, like a wolf and a fox in one body. “They’re beautiful,” I said.
“Beautiful things are wild,” my mother said. “In packs, coyotes don’t care for fear.”
“What’s fear?” I asked.
“Fear is what keeps us safe.” She ran her finger over the safety, waiting for the howling in the distance to come closer. “Fear is what separates us from chaos.”
I knew nothing more about chaos than that it was the word that sprung to mind when I snuck peeks into my mother’s liquor cabinet: half-drunk bottles of liquor in every color imaginable, a cityscape of differently-sized alcohol glasses, and a clutter of little umbrellas she utilized to placate me when I cried about her drinking.
In fourth grade I obsessed over creation myths in a used book I found in the back of the classroom. I loved and hated the Coyote of Native American legend. For a whole month, after my showers I would emerge from the bathroom fog and crouch, entering the world as I imagined Coyote had. To start fresh in world of no clutter! But Coyote didn’t care about mess. In fact, he sought to unravel the world. Even the chaotic constellations, which blazed in the country night, bore his mark: there was no order to their arrangement, no neat stacks of stars blinking in and out of existence.
My mom found the tattered book beside my bed and tossed it in the trash. “This thing is filthy,” she said. “Probably full of disease.”
I felt betrayed by the book. My mother’s word was its own source of creation; she called the thing diseased, and so it had been diseased since the first time I’d touched it.
Around that time I developed my routine. On Tuesdays I pulled all the clothes out of my closet and forced myself to put each shirt, each dress back one-by-one, arranged by color. On Wednesdays I wiped down every drawer in the house with a wet rag folded in quarters. On Thursdays I tossed scraps of paper from my desk into the recycling bin then promptly emptied it. On Fridays I plucked stray hairs from my face. I kept these tasks arranged on a calendar I hung on my wall. But there was only so much order I could enforce in a house where I wasn’t the only occupant.
My mother scolded me for staying up too late, but she had a front porch to defend and a cabinet of vodka bottles to empty, and as such didn’t follow through on her threats to punish me if I stayed up again.
I moved out after high school graduation and rented an apartment with its own drawers. But there was only so much order I could enforce in a house where I hadn’t been the only occupant. The dust on the baseboards seemed a type of permanent that no amount of Wednesday scrubbing would erase. The cracks kept me awake. I imagined them opening, swallowing me into the dusty walls. On TV I watched the news of mass shootings, endings messy and terrible in their gore, and worried that one day the opening of a gun would swallow me into its gunpowder-dusted shaft.
I spent my work days in a real estate office yawning and dozing off on bathroom breaks, waking with my pants around my ankles. I struggled to remember where and who I was. On Saturdays I scrubbed at old mold stains in my bathroom until my fingers bled. On Sundays I brushed over inconsistencies in the apartment’s paint until sunlight crept through the windows.
When I finally visited my mother’s house on a winter holiday obligation, I had bags beneath my eyes. “I don’t sleep much,” I said when she asked why I looked so tired.
“You’ve been obsessing?” my mom asked, already on her third vodka tonic. “Over-cleaning?”
“I clean,” I said. “I worry about the news a lot.”
“You’ll grow out of it,” she said. “I was frightened when I was your age. You get older. You get braver.” She sipped her courage.
I’d heard it before, from my mom, from the teachers in high school, from the real estate agent who worked at the desk next to mine. I’d grow out of everything, it seemed, until I grew right out of my skin and muscle and bone.
That night I listened to the coyotes howl. Their screams drowned out the insistent visions of daily news that kept me awake. When I heard the front door lock click, I knew my mother had gone to bed. I crawled out from under my childhood blankets and zipped my winter coat around my pajamas. That night, I set out to find them.
The air outside smelled like old smoke from extinguished trash burns a couple of houses over. I made my way through my mother’s backyard, down into the thick of woods that obscured a manmade creek. I’d memorized the deer trails from years spent pretending that they were passages to other worlds, worlds I could visit for an afternoon but wasn’t permitted to make my residence. The creek was dry, the bottom coated in a thick layer of rotting leaves. I pulled apart six pieces of clinging vines to clear a path across it; the brittle thorns sunk into my fingertips. I sucked away the blood, but it reappeared.
On the other side of the creek, an unpaved road thick with rocks lay unlit. I’d adjusted to the dark, and though the houses in the development left their porch lights on like the rest of the country, those lights were but blips in the distance, more scattered than stars. I walked that unpaved road until I came to a sign, newly installed, that advertised the entrance to the sand dunes. I followed several hand painted arrows. I crossed a rickety wood bridge built by a country codger. I kicked several cans of Shiner Bock from the path. Finally I came to the dunes.
They were more hills than dunes and more lumps than hills, but as a child Mom dragged me to carve my name in the thick sand rock that stretched over a couple acres. In the dark I searched for the spot where I’d left those marks, but the rocks all looked the same to me now. It was a relief to no longer have a catalog of them, to no longer see a system to their arrangement. I breathed in the hot air and laughed at myself, a brief moment of clarity, for the way I let the world take such a hold of me. But then the dunes’ shapes changed before my eyes, looming giants begging to be named, and I scurried across the sand to the comfort of the creek and the dark dead trees overhanging it.
Inside the dry bed, someone had abandoned a corrugated steel construction pipe. I shone my flashlight in and no eyes shone back at me. Even at an age where I was old enough to no longer sneak peeks at my mother’s vodka, I was small. I squeezed into the pipe’s claustrophobic entrance. Old water had settled at the bottom of the pipe. Mosquitos lay drowned upon its surface. I felt a thirst for that water, a thirst to drink something dangerous. It was the first such thirst I’d had since early childhood, since before the cleaning started. Since the diseased book. I dipped my hand into the water and drank. It tasted like dirt and metal and left my tongue feeling greasy.
As I moved through the pipe, its ribs rubbed against my clothes. I smelled blood in front of me, the smell masked by the smell of dirty water. By the time I reached the middle of the pipe, I felt the steel directly upon my skin. My hand pressed down on something sharp, the bone of an arm. I couldn’t see enough to tell what animal the bone had belonged to, but as I felt in the dark, I found more bones, ribs and hip and a skull the size of my fist. The coyotes had left a thin layer of flesh on some of the bone; it would have been difficult to pick it off without thumbs. I peeled a strip of flesh off a rib and placed it across my tongue. The blood taste was as metallic as my own, as the taste of my own cheeks bitten through, of the blood I sucked from my fingers when I peeled back the skin on either side of the fingernail too far in a fit of nerves. I peeled off all the flesh I could find. The meat and water sat heavy in my belly, and without the air of the outside world, I breathed in shallow gulps. Nausea overcame me, and with it an urge to sweep away the bones, the evidence that I had become, for a moment, someone who was not me. But there was no order I could enforce in a den where I was not an occupant.
I grew dizzy. I dropped to my chest, face-to-face with the skull.
“You’ll watch over me,” I said to it, that dry pre-sick feeling in my mouth.
“Yes,” I heard the skull say. I laughed to hear it and yet know it was no longer alive. This must be what letting go feels like, I thought, and then closed my eyes. I slept until morning, when the coyotes found me.
They flanked me on either side. They stunk of blood. The smell surrounded me. In the pipe, their howls echoed. I felt a pain in my ear. It felt wet when I touched it. I shivered in the water. They licked away the blood on me, like dogs, then bit me, like wild things. I liked the feel of their teeth, the chaos of their claws catching my clothes. In the dark, I couldn’t see them until I could, as though someone had flipped on a light. They were beautiful in the way that carelessness was beautiful, in the way that other lives than our own are beautiful. They ripped into my skin with their teeth. I cried out until my voice was a howl of its own.
“Find us when you’re ready,” I heard them say, and they left me in that strange new light.
On the other side of the pipe, I poked a finger through the holes in my clothes. Some of the holes had been torn by pipe. Others were stained with blood and caked to claw marks. When I returned home to a still-sleeping mother, I examined my naked body in the bathroom mirror and traced the coyotes’ constellations. They’d made a map on me. I didn’t clean the cuts but let them bleed until they dried.
On Mondays I followed the map to the coyotes. I ran the paths they traced on all fours through sand and trees and, on certain days, fog that coated the ground like shower steam. Each day my nails grew longer and sharper. I killed the rats I came across and licked their diseased blood off my paws. I no longer slept and no longer saw those news reels flashing behind my eyes. In the mornings, I returned to the color-coded closet at my mom’s house. I’d told her that I needed a place to recover. I no longer saw the red in her eyes, not because it was no longer there—it was there, as it had always been—but because now I saw the world in black and white and shades of blue.
The coyotes didn’t show themselves, no matter how hard I searched. Some nights my mom came into my room and stroked my hair before I left to search them out. “You’ll find your way,” she slurred. “You won’t have to live here forever. This is all only temporary.”
I heard her shots in the dark. I heard the coyote howls disappearing ever more into the distance.
I returned one night from my search. “Get away from here,” she spat. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with.”
She was right; I knew less and less who she was as I knew more and more who I’d come to be.
I stood from the ground. My shadow covered her. She dropped her bottle. It clanked against the porch, and the reek of vodka stung my eyes. I pushed forward toward her. She stumbled back, gun pointed right at me.
“What are you?” she said.
I grabbed hold of the barrel, my hands over her hands. She shook. I held steady. I had no words for her. She screamed.
I swallowed the gun and my mother whole.
Somewhere in the woods behind me, a coyote called me home.