Laughing at the Moon

Posted on April 21, 2017

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I met Lizzie late one sultry summer afternoon beside a fallen cottonwood whose roots had given way when the river undercut a section of overhanging bank—an ideal place, my twelve-year-old wisdom told me, from which to fish.

Indeed it was. Until Lizzie appeared. Immediately we had an argument.

The argument involved a stringer of chubs and perch that I’d staked to the bank.

Lizzie had it between her teeth.

“Git!” I shouted, scrambling over the fallen cottonwood.

Lizzie didn’t “git.” Nor was Lizzie, as I’d first imagined, a dog.

Coyote!

         Living in southeastern Wyoming I’d seen lots of coyotes but never one with my fish! in its teeth.

“Git!” I shouted again and waved my arms.

Lizzie cocked her head as though enjoying my performance. She was much smaller than I’d imagined an adult coyote to be: comically oversized ears, a thin tapering nose and skinny legs. Country boys know not to mess with wild animals but I was too precocious to give in to a thief stealing my fish. I glared at her and Lizzie glared back. She winked (I swear she winked!) and my stringer of fish still between her teeth she laughed (I’m sure she laughed!), then chewed the biggest perch off the stringer and retreated at a leisurely gait along the riverbank.

Damned coyote! I remember cursing to myself. Nevertheless I was amused and imagined telling parents and friends about the encounter—embroidering slightly, of course: Charged right at ‘er, man! Turned tail she did! Turned tail and ran!

Unfortunately parents and friends often didn’t believe my stories—even those that were true. Older boys mocked me, girls scowled and made poo! sounds, my mom smiled absentmindedly and my dad winked. As I hiked home I said to myself that Lizzie seemed like a nice enough coyote and telling people about her might prompt someone to go after her with a hunting rifle.

I’d more or less forgotten about her until she appeared just as I was leaving the fallen cottonwood a week or two later. She eyed the five or six fish I had on my stringer and I backed away, charged right at ‘er man! the farthest thing from my mind. If I retreated, I realized, she might follow me and I’d wind up further from home; if I tried to slip past her she might attack. In chauvinist Wyoming females of all species were considered irrational, unpredictable and prone to outbursts of violence and Lizzie obviously was a female. I had no way of gauging what she might do.

But scruffy though she was she didn’t seem vicious. I hesitated then pulled the largest of the fish off the stringer and tossed it towards her. She bounded towards it, stopped, whirled in tight little circles as though trying to bite her tail, flung herself into an awkward somersault and snapped her jaws as though chomping an invisible fish but she wouldn’t come close until I retreated to a much safer distance. She sniffed at the fish, slapped it with one paw, jumped straight backward and pounded the ground in front of her with her forepaws as though battling dangerous prey. Finally she shook herself and loped away, the fish between her teeth. She turned once to look at me before disappearing along the cattle path that bordered the pasture.

That Lizzie didn’t make regular appearances somewhat puzzled me. A dog, a squirrel, a raccoon given food will return to the same place at the same time expecting more food (even a female dog, squirrel or raccoon) but not Lizzie. I’d go a week or two without seeing her then she’d appear, usually without warning, as though having materialized out of nowhere. Once, detecting her as she approached, I realized how she did it. Despite her gawky physique she could zigzag through brush and grass very close to the ground and hardly cause a ripple then pop erect when she wanted to see or be seen.

She was a marvelous impersonator. She could howl, bark, squall, yap and sing. She wasn’t the only one of her kind in southeastern Wyoming—throughout summer nights one could hear coyote serenades. At first I assumed these concerts were signals to other coyotes, or mating calls but in retrospect I realize that coyotes (like many people I know) are fascinated by their own vocal abilities and can’t resist howling at the moon for their own amusement. It’s often difficult to determine whether their nightly serenading is not, in fact, spirited laughter.

Coyotes are enthusiastic practical jokers. They will howl at night near campgrounds just to keep visitors awake. (Two coyotes going into their full vocabulary of howls, yips and barks can make a camper think he’s surrounded by hundreds of wild beasts.) They will steal fishing rods, rolling pins and shoes then sit and watch the owners scour the countryside trying to find them. They’ll spend hours re-covering freshly dug rodent holes—sheer orneriness, not a ploy to catch the little varmints—tear up beaver dams and spring rabbit snares.

Lizzie, though seemingly not vicious, could be quite bold—and quite confident of her own abilities. Late one afternoon, shortly after having detected Lizzie’s approach then losing sight of her in thick growth that bordered a slough near a large unplanted pasture I heard loud aggravating barking. Lizzie emerged from the weeds pursued by two large dogs—German shepherd-collie mix typical of rural Wyoming. Their barking increased as Lizzie ducked away but continued running, the dogs in close pursuit.

I shuddered, my too vivid imagination picturing her being ripped to pieces by the snarling beasts. But instead of disappearing Lizzie reappeared at the far end of the pasture, still running, the dogs still in pursuit. She winked (I swear she winked!) as she circled back towards me, the dogs—further behind now—panting and they took huge lunging steps to try to catch up. Instead of completing the pasture circuit Lizzie cut across the middle of the pasture to circle behind the dogs so that she appeared to be chasing them rather than they pursuing her. The dogs’ barks dwindled into muted rumblings as they disappeared and Lizzie shrugged and winked again as she trotted off to seek other entertainment.

I told a long ago Colorado acquaintance of my dad named “Pop” Pore about Lizzie and he laughed and described seeing a coyote give up its pursuit of a jack rabbit and roll over on its back, yipping and howling. The rabbit hesitated, twitching, apparently uncertain what to do. Immediately the coyote’s mate darted from cover and snatched it. The coyote pair shared their meal and trotted off to seek other prey.

For years after my parents, my little brother and I left Wyoming I invented little scenarios in which Lizzie and I discovered thieves’ gold, chased marauding bulls or perched side by side on the old cottonwood. Now and then I’d mention that I’d had a coyote friend “back where I usta live” but nobody seemed to believe my stories about Lizzie, even those which were only slightly exaggerated. The Air Force, college and interwoven complications of journalism, finances and personal relationships shadowed Lizzie into distantly remembered boyhood until my friend Victor Flores interrupted our beer and barbecue chatting with “Ven, ’migo” and a tortilla-wrapped hunk of carne asada in his hand led me past the lighted area of his Sonora patio.

“Huida!” as though calling a dog. I frowned, neither seeing or hearing anything, then suddenly Lizzie was in front of me, whirling into tight circles as though trying to bite her tail and turning a near somersault as Victor tossed the tortilla wrapped carne asada into the air. She caught it with an acrobatic leap, shook her head as though thrashing some dangerous wild prey, wheeled and disappeared into the darkness.

Laughing Victor explained the “pinche animalito”  was his “policìa de ratas”—rat policeman—that cleansed his property of vermin, bugs, ghosts and “other pests.” I nodded but did not tell him that his “policeman” was an old friend of mine.

Lizzie.

I know it was her because as she whirled to leave I saw her wink.

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Posted in: Wyoming