I stub my toe yet again on one of the fist-sized rocks that spring up in my way at random intervals, random as the sound that flares erratically from some hidden place in the canyon, fading again on a falling note. Now a teasing trill to my left. I lift my eyes from what seems to be increasingly perilous footing, hoping to catch a flash of wings. Stumble again. Take a step to catch myself. Twist my ankle. Sit down on the dry red soil.
How far must I have come since that last crossroads? I cannot remember the count of days, nights, — could it be seasons, years…..? I am sure that the turning point was set in a greener, more domestic land than this — with fields and villages and sometimes companions and wine on the way. Perhaps I misunderstood that old woman who sat grinning & nodding at the crossing, wrapped in a frayed and faded shawl, humming quietly to herself. I thought she extended her hand to point the way. Did I misunderstand? Was it alms she wanted instead?
Too late now. All my silver gone. My backpack lost to a melt-swollen stream in the first range of mountains.
Should I have turned back when the pavement ended? By then I’d come too far; I hadn’t the heart for a return. At the time, it seemed easier to grit my teeth, call it an “Adventure,” and just put one foot in front of the other.
It is long since I’ve really paused to looked around, to see where I’ve come, to discover what this land is & what it has to teach me. Now, ankle throbbing, I shrug stiff shoulders, stretch my back, lift my chin. Beginning to feel the crumble of dust beneath my hands, noticing a surprising variety of scents, seeing the way light bounces off the different rock faces.
I notice my footprints in the dust behind but can’t discern the trail I’d thought I was following — just a meander among the sharp, drought-loving plants. And what are those other tracks? The neat diagonal strokes of a sidewinder well away from my footsteps and, far to the side, the bounding heart-shaped tracks of a lone antelope heading for the horizon. But what are those other tracks crisscrossing my way again & again, paw-prints pressed atop the persistent plod of my boot prints?
I have seen no creature, sensed no movement, heard nothing but the wind and those sporadic high fluting notes that, now and again, tickle my ears — teasing, pulling, lulling me into a sense of liveliness even in this sere hollow place. I try to remember when I first became aware of those wavering notes but find instead that I cannot remember a time without them — though they seem to have grown more frequent since I left the farmlands behind….
I notice the walls of the canyon have narrowed since I entered it. I cannot tell if they make a turning ahead beyond those boulders or dead-end in sheer cliff.
A breeze kicks up transitory, transparent dust-devils, spinning them into and out of existence around me. One gathers up flakes of red clay, taking on substance as I watch — spinning, spinning, spinning a snout, spinning a tail — then dancing up the canyon, dropping a ragged clump of tawny fur nearby.
And that mangy old skin picks itself up & shakes itself out & extends its right hand in introduction as politely as you please. “Hello. I’m Coyote. I think you’ve been enjoying my tunes.”
And taken aback, too surprised to think things through properly, I shake his hand as automatically and cordially as if this were a church potluck and say, “Hello.”
He smiles then, a smile with too many teeth.
“I’ve been watching you,” says Coyote, “and I think you’re lost.”
I wait for what will happen next.
“I think you’re lost,” he repeats, “and I think I can help.”
“Will you show me the way home?” I ask. “Please?” And his smile broadens into a grin, and his red tongue hangs out just a little at the side.
“We’ll make a bargain,” says he. “Now I have a Coyote song, but my song needs words, words that even humans can sing — words to warm, words to charm. You give your words and I’ll show you the way.”
Writing lyrics? Though the notes are odd & the melody disjointed at best, I did take a poetry class in school…. Surely I could do this. And I don’t want to die of thirst.
“Of course,” I reply. “I’ll give you my words.” And no sooner it is out of my mouth than I try to call it back — but it’s too late. My words are gone. And Coyote dashes about gathering them into his pockets and laughing like crazy as he rounds the boulder and out of sight.
Wait! Wait! I try to call. But all that comes out it silence.
Again, the high fluting song. Now it sounds like someone singing, though I can’t quite make out the words — my words.
Do I have a choice? I fear I made it unaware and long ago. I stand up and limp on after the fading echoes.