I was little when the coyotes came back. They’d been gone so long, people had almost forgotten about them. But they started moving south from Canada again when I was eight or so—shadows, slipping in and out of the woods, elusive gestures of high-held tail and then nothing but the swaying movement of tree branches. We knew they were there.
I loved to listen to them at night, the same way I loved to sit so close to the woodstove that the heat curled the hair on the back of my neck, or the way I loved to stand up in the canoe to feel the rocking insubstantiality of suspension: the coyote’s song was beautiful with its almost-but-not-quite danger. At dusk, once the sky got too dark to play outside alone and my older sister settled in at the kitchen table to do her homework, I would stand by the back door of our round-shouldered house and wait to hear them begin. The coyotes always started slowly, howls rising one at a time, like the street lamps in Bangor that sputtered into existence with the twilight. When they began in earnest, my father and I stepped just outside and sat together on the back steps. Gazing into the near-darkness seemed to heighten my sense of sound. The pack gathered in the woods and sang so that four sounded like fifty, their long, drawn-out peals first weaving around each other, then harmonizing.
My father smoked his cigarettes as we sat, knocking the ashes into the dandelion greens. In the darkness the glow from his Marlboros flickered. Fireflies marked dotted lines through the air, drawing and redrawing courses like peripheries around the yard. The coyotes sounded as though they ringed the house, and perhaps some nights they did; their crescendos echoed across the woods, carried on the wind to the ocean.
Often we would stay on the back steps long after the light had gone, sitting quietly as the stars came out, just listening. Occasionally, my father sipped from the coffee mug sitting on the step next to him, the one he kept filled after dinner with the bottle from the out-of-reach shelf. In the evenings he always picked his words slowly if he spoke, even more sparing and careful with them then than he was during the day, shaping thick syllables as though articulation faded with the light. When I asked him why the coyotes howled at night, he told me it was because they missed the northern lights.
Sometimes, my mother cracked open the door, peering out at us and into the darkness, then came outside to sit next to us on the stoop. She played nervously with the fringe of my braids, her eyes narrow. She was always curt with my father after dinner, so mostly we continued our silence, listening to the howling. I tied overhand knots in the stems of the dandelions and leaned against my mother’s thigh. Eventually her unease made me start to fidget, and when I did she brought us all back inside to put me to bed.
My parents rarely fought. More often there were the long silences, like the evenings in which they seldom spoke. The daytime was different; she sang in the mornings, and at the end of the day he came in from the barn, smelling of sawdust and oil, kissed her and she smiled. After nightfall, though, my mother slammed drawers and my father said little, turning his mug in his hands meditatively instead.
But then, my father rarely spoke much. Some ignoble caution, a hesitation or discomfort, kept him often withdrawn. He would smile, his face cracking open, but more often than not it closed again just as quickly, his hands clasped guiltily around the invisible phantom of a pungent coffee mug. It was my mother’s two cats, not us, that got lavished with his unfettered, unselfconscious affection. He pampered Lucy and Henry, cooing unabashedly at them, getting up early every morning to feed them. In return they followed him around the house and shed on his things.
Sometimes I followed him around the house and out to the barn, too, trailing along with the cats. Once I asked him about the coyotes, and why it was that they came and went, but never stayed.
“They’re not from here,” he explained, “and they don’t really belong here. They come from somewhere else, up North.”
“Why have they come down here, then?” I asked.
“Because they have been forced out of those other places,” he said. “For a lot of reasons, there isn’t room for them where they come from. It isn’t safe for them there. But they need to go someplace, so they come here.”
“Will they stay?”
He shrugged. “As long as they have to. Nothing can just disappear; everything needs to go somewhere. You can’t push something out of its place forever. It’s not natural.”
It was Lucy who didn’t come home first. My father waited around and called the cat’s name in the backyard that evening, and the two evenings after that. Three days later, my father found Lucy in the woods—remnants of white fur and not much else. That night he sat in his chair, an unopened book on his lap, his face blank.
He tried to keep Henry inside after that, but the tomcat wouldn’t be kept pent up. The cat mewed and mewed as if betrayed until finally my father, despairing quietly, let him back outside. A week later, Henry didn’t come home, either. I don’t know if they ever found any sign of the cat.
Not long after that, one of the more emboldened coyotes ventured into the backyard in the middle of the afternoon. My sister and I stayed with our faces pressed to the kitchen window, rooted to the spot, while my father strode out to the barn. He came back with a rifle, his face stony. My mother cried. He loaded the cartridges calmly into the gun. “Cover your ears, girls,” he said.
I thought, then, that what he had said had been made not true, that things pushed out of their places could just disappear. The scent of fired gunpowder wafted in the air, lingering in the silence that followed the shot. My mother had me fill a watering can and bring it down to her so that she could wash the blood off the lawn, and my father buried the coyote by the brush line.
After that, the coyotes moved on once more, and many years passed before I heard them again. Silence stretched out in their wake, and it was a long time before the cheeping of the crickets expanded to fill their absence. No one spoke about what had happened.
MARGARET ADAMS is a Maine-born writer and a family nurse practitioner living in Seattle, Washington. A former columnist for The Bangor Daily News and a Pushcart Prize nominee, her stories and essays have most recently appeared in The Portland Review, The Delmarva Review, and The Baltimore Review. Her website is margaret-adams.com. Read her contributor spotlight.