A deafening explosion blasted through the air. I jumped, hit my head on the branch above me, slipped on the limb under my feet, and tumbled out of the tree, landing in the mud. For several seconds I lay in the sludge listening to the explosion's echo reverberate through the air and prayed that none of the kids next door had seen me fall.
Eventually, my heart slowed enough for me to feel the mud soaking through my clothes. I pulled myself up and trudged toward dry land, looking in the direction of the explosion. It had come from the street, right on the other side of our house.
As I write this now, ten years later, I suppose that my first reaction should have been to run inside and wait there until Mom came home. But I was only nine and required to investigate anything weird that happened in my neighborhood.
The blast made me think of a gunfight I'd seen on TV where this guy had been blowing away drug dealers with a shotgun. I'd been watching it until Mom caught me and made me go play outside. I doubted that the explosion had anything to do with a gunfight, though. Nothing that dangerous or that interesting ever happened on Cellar Door Drive.
Then I remembered it was the Fourth of July. The blast was probably just an M-80 one of the Austin kids had set off. Those kids always lit anything that would explode on fire. It was only fool’s luck that none of them had lost fingers, hands or heads.
I approached the alley that ran between my house and the Austin’s fence when a second explosion hit my ears so hard I almost slipped into the mud again.
This time I realized that the eruptions had nothing to do with the Austin kids. Normally there would be a second explosion of squeals and giggles from the younger kids while the older ones argued over whose turn it was to light the next fuse. Only silence followed these blasts.
I glanced at our back door. If I ran I could be inside in three seconds. Then I looked down the alley. Curiosity beat fear inside me. Ignoring my soaked clothes, I crept toward the street, keeping as low as possible. Holding my breath, I slipped around the corner of the house, and froze. What I saw made me forget all about firecrackers.
The sun was almost set, but the scene was perfectly clear. Standing in the middle of the street was a rail-thin, brownish-yellow dog. Its head was lowered and ears pulled back. The animal stood its ground, glaring at our neighbor, Mr. Austin, who glared back not ten feet from the creature.
Mr. Austin was an unemployable lump of a man whose arms and legs were in scrawny contrast to a belly that was swollen like a tick gorged on blood. Cellar Door Drive had dozens of stories about him but none topped this. He stood in the middle of the street in orange boxers and a mustard-stained undershirt, holding a staring contest with a half-starved dog while pointing a revolver in the air.
“Lee!” Mr. Austin shouted my name while lowering his gun on the animal. “Look away, boy!”
I tried to do what he said, but my eyes were stuck on the dog.
A third blast erupted followed by a sickening whimper. Something red and wet flew out of the dog’s side. The animal stumbled but managed two pain-filled steps forward. Its legs trembled. With a pathetic groan, the dog collapsed on the yellow line running down the middle of the street.
My legs felt like rubber, and my head filled with cotton. I tried to focus on Mr. Austin, who had dropped his gun from the recoil and was stumbling to pick it up. My eyes kept sliding back to the dog lying frozen on the asphalt.
The door to the Austins’ house burst open. One of the boys shot into the street, followed by his mother’s voice screeching, “Boy! Where the hell do you think you’re going?”
“It’s okay, Mom!” The Austin boy squealed. “Dad killed it!”
It was Wess their short chubby kid who constantly looked surprised. According to neighborhood rumor, Wess wrote his name with two s's because his father had been so drunk when the boy was born he had misspelled the name on the birth certificate.
Wess' sprint slowed to a trot when he approached the dog’s body. One of the girls who lived across the street joined him.
I looked up and down the street. In the gloom I could see that half the people on Cellar Door Drive were standing on their porches or peeking out windows. Even Mrs. Stone, our other neighbor, had opened her door. She clutched one of her cats while her narrow eyes examined the scene. After a few seconds of glaring, she snorted and spat in Mr. Austin's direction. Other neighbors shook their heads and muttered to one another; a few approached the dog.
More of the Austin kids tumbled out into the street. The berserk mob of children wore clothes that had been handed down for decades. To this day I don’t know how many of them there were. They seemed to double every year. I don’t even know if Mr. and Mrs. Austin bothered naming them anymore.
“It’s all right!” Mr. Austin waved his arm holding the revolver. “It’s all right! It’s dead! You can all take a look!” He spotted me standing on the sidewalk. “Come on, boy.”
By now the sun had set completely, but the orange glow of the streetlight was shining down on me. I knew that if I stayed where I was half the neighborhood would see me quivering with tears. I wiped them away and before I could stop myself, I walked toward the small crowd gathered around the body.
“Why’d you kill a dog?” one of the Austin girls asked.
“That’s no dog, girl,” Mr. Austin grumbled. “That’s a coyote. A mighty mean one too from the looks of him.”
“Coyotes don’t live around here!” Wess squealed.
“You’re ignorant!” Mr. Austin stuck the barrel of the revolver into his boxers. “Coyotes live everywhere; you just can’t always see ‘em. This one probably came out of the woods.”
At the time I knew next to nothing about coyotes, but I'd never heard of one living among the trees behind our houses. The forest was a place where people dumped their garbage and where older kids went to smoke and sometimes do other things. Every once in a while I saw deer running through our backyard, but other than that I never spotted anything bigger than a possum or the occasional raccoon.
“Most of the time coyotes keep to themselves,” Mr. Austin lectured, “but sometimes one gets a taste for blood and goes after folk. I saw this one walking down the street and knew that something wasn’t right so I dug out ol’ Betsy here,” he patted his revolver, “and decided to take care of the devil myself. And that’s what I did! Sent it back to hell!” He kicked the coyote in the stomach. The animal raised its head and snapped at his foot.
Mr. Austin and the rest of the crowd scrambled to get away. Someone knocked me forward. I hit the asphalt two feet from the animal’s jaws. It turned to me and snarled wildly.
“I’m sorry!” I screamed squirming away.
The coyote froze. It lay on the ground, muscles tense. In the glow of the streetlight I saw it was staring at me with a shocked expression.
That's when I noticed the markings on the coyote’s face. Dark red lines ran up the muzzle like war paint. A yellow semicircle on a brown horizontal line had been painted over the animal's eyes. The markings were clear enough to be seen halfway down the block. I could've sworn they hadn’t been there two seconds before.
“What are you?” asked a bone-deep voice. I looked up at the crowd around me. Some of the neighbors had their mouths gaped open, but none of them seemed to have spoken.
“What are you?” The voice came again. I looked back at the coyote. The animal was growling, but clear words rumbled from its throat.
He asked a third time. “What are you, child?”
The blood pumped so hard through my head I could barely hear anything. After some stammering I managed to blurt out, “I’m Lee!”
“Huh?” someone asked above me.
“You are Lee?” The coyote spoke as if being Lee was a profession or a species.
“Yeah. What’s your name?” The street was spun beneath me. I tried to grasp the fact that an animal was talking to me, but my brain refused to accept it.
The coyote’s jaw opened slightly. “I have no name other than what I am.” He hesitated, staring at me in a way that made my guts go cold. Finally, the animal whispered, “Find Spicket.”
“She will show you the world behind the curtain. Have her take you to the skull trees and into the burning field.”
“Wait a minute. What’re you talking about?”
“Climb the forty-six steps and at the top….”
The Coyote lifted his head. His eyes stared up at the sky. I turned around to see what he was looking at. There was only the ring of neighbors surrounding us.
I looked back at the animal. In a dry voice he whispered, “Sister Raven!” The coyote’s eyes turned to glass. His muzzle dropped onto the asphalt.
Hands reached down around me. The ground and coyote fell away as I rose up and found myself in my father’s arms. His pale blue eyes quivered with fear. His blond hair tangled together in a sweaty mess. For a moment he stared at me as if trying to convince himself I was in one piece.
Then he glared at the others. “What the hell’s wrong with you idiots?” Dad bellowed. “My boy’s on the ground with a wild animal growling at him, and all any of you do is watch with your mouths open?”
Everyone in the small crowd glanced around like it was somebody else’s fault.
Dad turned on Mr. Austin. “I guess you’re the maniac who shot this thing!”
“A man’s gotta protect his home, don’t he?” Mr. Austin snapped.
“No! A man’s gotta call Animal Control!”
“Ranchers out west shoot coyotes to protect their livestock. I saw it on TV.”
“Does this look like a ranch to you? Are you drunk enough to think you’re a cowboy, or are you just stupid?”
“Shut...you don't....ignorant....” Half-formed words spluttered out of Mr. Austin’s mouth.
Dad stepped forward. “Stay the hell away from my son.” He turned and carried me back to our house. I looked around and stared at the coyote who was now lay motionless on the ground.
My father carried me into the house and set me down on the couch. His face was bright crimson, and his blonde mustache, bushy enough to sweep a floor, twitched violently.
"Dad,” I stammered. “The coyote talked to me. He had stuff on his face…”
“Don’t worry about it, kiddo.”
“But he did!”
“It’s all right. He can't hurt you now.”
“You said you had to be away for work ‘til tomorrow.”
Dad looked down at me and smiled. “I just thought I’d come on home early and make sure you and Mom weren’t having too much fun without me.”
The door burst open and Mom stumbled in. She stared at us, obviously as startled by Dad’s sudden appearance as by what was taking place outside.
While he was a blond-haired giant, my mother was a short, frail woman who usually kept her raven black hair tied back in a ponytail. She had a thin face, a slender neck and brown skin that was only slightly darker than mine.
“What just happened outside?” She looked back and forth between Dad and me.
“That drunk next door shot a coyote,” Dad grumbled. “It almost bit Lee. He’s all right, though. Don’t worry.”
Mom ran to the couch. After a couple seconds of checking to make sure I didn’t have any broken bones and wasn’t gushing blood, she hugged me, squeezing all the air out of my lungs.
“Mom!” I struggled to speak. “The coyote talked to me.”
Mom’s hug loosened slightly. She pulled back to stare at me.
“He talked! And he had these weird red lines painted on his face!”
Mom glanced at Dad for a second and then looked back at me. “That was just your imagination, sweetheart. Why are you covered in mud?”
“It wasn’t my imagination! The coyote asked me what I was, and I told him my name was Lee, and he said he didn’t have a name or something like that, and then he started saying all this weird stuff! Dad heard it!”
“Of course I did.” Dad smoothed my hair.
“Don’t encourage him!” Mom snapped. She had that look in her eyes that told me I had two seconds to distract them or they would be at each other’s throats.
Before I could open my mouth Dad leaned toward Mom and whispered, “Do you think it would be better to tell him that the red ‘paint’ was really blood? Just go along with it.”
“What’re you even doing here? You said we’d have to ‘survive without you’ this weekend.”
I ran my hands through my hair, trying to think of what I could say to stop them. Back then I thought it was normal for a kid to spend half his time figuring out ways to prevent his parent’s shouting matches. I would've said or done anything to prevent them from fighting. I once even told them that I stole candy from CVS just so Mom would stop shouting at Dad about leaving a mess in the kitchen. It wasn't until years later that I realized that I had never once stopped one of my parent's arguments.
Dad walked away from the couch. “My second meeting in Chicago was canceled. I got the earliest flight so we could spend the fourth together.”
“Why didn’t you call? We weren’t expecting you until tomorrow evening.”
“I assumed I wouldn’t need permission to come back to the house where I pay the rent and….”
“I fell out of the tree!” The words burst out of my mouth before I could even see them coming. Both of my parents stared at me as I stammered on. “I was climbing that big tree out back when I fell into the puddle….”
I drew out the story as long as I could. By the time I got to the part where the Coyote had almost snapped my leg off, Mom was stroking my hair. Dad had gotten a towel and wrapped it around me.
When the story was over, Mom sent me into my room to change clothes while my shoes dried by the refrigerator. I'd almost reached my bedroom on the other side of the TV room when Dad called, “Hey kiddo, I have something for you.”
I turned around and saw him opening his satchel and pulling out a toy robot dinosaur. He walked over and handed it to me. “I saw this in Chicago and thought of you. A robot and a dinosaur; can’t beat that, right?”
“Thanks Dad!” I smiled taking the toy and hurried back into my bedroom. As soon as I closed my door, I heard Mom snap, “How much did you pay for that?”
“It was just twenty-something dollars.”
“You don’t even know? We don’t have the money to just go throwing cash away.”
“Just leave the finances up to me. Alright?”
I looked down at the tag tied to the dinosaur’s leg. It read, X-Plode Toys, Edgewood. $79.99.
I'd already grown out of toys like robot dinosaurs and had only pretended to be excited because Dad had given it to me. After ripping off the price tag, I crawled into bed and buried my head under the pillow, trying to block out the fight in the TV room.
“Do you want to support this family?” Dad shouted.
“I’d do a hell of a lot better job than you are!”
“I have to go on business trips so I can keep my job!”
“Do you even care bout Lee?”
“I bought him that damn present didn’t I?”
Pressing my face into the mattress, I squeezed the pillow around my ears.
The coyote’s face starred up at me from the darkness. His red war paint blazed so brightly the fur looked like it was on fire. The animal’s eyes were level with mine. Deep inside the black pupils I saw the reflection of trees.
My muscles spasmed. I lurched off the bed and crashed onto the floor. For a second the coyote’s face floated in front of my eyes.
“Grow a spine and tell your boss you can’t go on these trips!” Mom shouted. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to the office! I just realized I have work to do!” Dad slammed the front door so hard my windows rattled.
I lay on the floor panting. The coyote’s face was gone, but what he had said was like a song stuck in my head.
“Find Spicket. She will show you the world behind the curtain. Have her take you to the skull trees and into the burning field. Climb the forty-six steps and at the top….” Then a whisper, “Sister Raven.”
Who was Sister Raven? Was she at the top of these forty-six steps? Or was she someone he had thought about right before he died?
Someone knocked on my door. I sat up and pretended I had been reading an X-Men comic book as Mom walked in and crouched down next to me. Her face was wet. “The fireworks are about to start, kiddo.”
“Did Dad go?” I mumbled not looking up at her.
“Yeah but he’ll be back soon. If you want we can watch the fireworks from the stoop.”
I stared at the illustrations in the book. “Mom, have you ever heard of someone called ‘Sister Raven?’”
“No. Is she a singer the kids at school like?”
I opened my mouth to tell her the truth but remembered what had happened when I told her and Dad the truth about the coyote. “Yeah,” I mumbled, “Everyone loves her.”
A few minutes later we stepped out the front door. The coyote's body was gone. Someone must've hauled it away after Dad had taken me inside.
Throughout the fireworks display I kept staring at the spot where he'd died. I wished I could go back in time so I could ask the coyote what he had meant by “Spicket” or “burning fields” or “Sister Raven.”
Halfway through the fireworks most of the neighborhood turned and looked when Mr. Austin was led out of his house in handcuffs. I later overheard that he was arrested for shooting an unlicensed gun in public and for having a dozen other illegal weapons in his house.
Months passed before we saw Mr. Austin after that. By then, I was talking to animals on a regular basis.