We walked Paige Pond early. The morning chill kept away by layers of shirt and sweatshirt and sweater. Linda, with her wide stance and swing, long legs swooping across fallen brush, her feet finding the quiet places atop pine needles and sand. I rarely heard a twig crack when I was with Linda. I felt safe that way. No one, if there ever was anyone, would have heard us.
I always followed, trying in my clumsy way to trace her stance and swing, huffing as we started and continuing the two miles into the forest, along the ridge edge of the pond, her sway constantly setting the cadence of my steps.
Inevitably she would stop at the summit of some small hill we had climbed and look about, sniffing the air, bending on one knee to pick up a handful of dry pine needles to run them through her other hand, a stream of tiny pick-up sticks falling over themselves to spread back over the ground.
“Smell that?” she might say.
“Smell what?” I’d answer back. I had a poor sense of smell. Even into the fall, I’d mistake the smell of pumpkin with woodsmoke or decaying leaves.
She’d explain the smell that filled her nose. Pine, or rotted tree, or something sweet, or sour, some green growth splattered against a tree, manure. “Breathe it in again,” she’d say, stand and set off.
So I’d follow.
Today, she stayed still atop a small hillock overlooking the marsh. She tensed and crouched. I expected her to spring in any direction. Her eyes peered over the brush. I watched a woodmouse scurry out from under a log and into a hole a few feet away. A branch snapped. Linda scowled at me.
I moved beside her but not too near so as to disturb the tension congealing around her. She set herself like a trap, waiting for her prey. The sun was straight up at noon. A breeze began stirring the long grasses and branches of the mature birch, poplar and pine trees that lined the ridge around the marsh.
Suddenly Linda stood, wiped away the dried pine needles clinging to her knees, and said, “We better get going.”
I followed her like a puppy. At the car she finally spoke. “Did you hear it?” she asked me.
“Back there, where we stopped and waited.”
“I didn’t know what we were waiting for,” I told her.
“A coy,” she said. “He was out there, watching us.” She opened the car door and got in, leaving me there gaping.
I got in on my side. “How did you know?
She smiled. “The tiny squeal.” She put the car into gear and began to drive off.
Maybe it was just the wind blowing over the rocks in the stream nearby where we had stood, or it was the stream itself, but I had distinguished nothing animal-like warning us off. I simply stared out the passenger window at the life-span and mix of birch and pine going past as we drove out of Paige Pond on that long dirt road.
My Hubby has always been a faithful follower of the British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. Dunbar had come up with the insight that the brain size of primates is an indication of the capacity of social relationships a primate can have. When I say to hubby in the doldrums of winter, “Let’s invite some friends over,” he insists that I limit it to less than 150 because, “that is all the stable social relationships that Dunbar says a human being can hold in their head and vocabulary at the same time.”
I hold far fewer in that kind of esteem. I can talk well enough with hubby, Linda and Earl and a few of the women in the garden club, the mailman, my gynecologist, his nurse, our pastor, the deacon, my few siblings still left alive and several cousins, but beyond that there is neither a yearning for social stability or civility in my bantering with others. That’s less than two dozen people that I socially interact with, and even all of them wouldn’t be invited to the same winter’s party.
“You’re right. Too much grooming needed,” my Hubby, and thus Dunbar, would say.
The garden club met on Thursday morning.
Linda drove up Capricorn Hill in her Volvo and parked just off the shoulder as she turned onto Mile Point Drive. She swung her long legs out of the driver’s door and reached down to scratch her left calf.
“Linda,” I called out to her. But she didn’t acknowledge that she had heard me. She stood, closed the driver’s door, and began walking away from the rotary where the other women had gathered to begin our fall ritual of pulling up the various wizened flowers and greens, and the few garden fairies that had grown weary through the summer. Our task this morning was to ready the top soil for next spring. I watched Linda move a few feet into the woods and squat. Her pants were around her knees. She was peeing.
Mrs. Greenwood got my ear and I disregarded what I had just been watching. Before I knew it, Linda was beside me, her muscular arms holding mine, bending me away from Mrs. Greenwood, letting me go as she reached into a patch of geraniums on the ground behind me. She got on her knees and began troweling through the mulch into the soil, widening and deepening the hole to uncover the roots of the geranium, pulling them into her bucket, patting the soil, spreading the mulch back in, her hands finally coming out of her gloves and pushing into the soil. “There,” was all she spoke before moving onto the next one. “There,” she said after finishing each one. “There.”
“Earl’s leaving her you know,” Mrs. Greenwood whispered to me as we worked side by side grubbing for stones before pulling out the Bloodleaf that we’d store indoors for the winter.
I didn’t show my surprise. Linda hadn’t said anything to me about her and Earl splitting up. They had been married for thirty-years. “I didn’t know there was anything wrong,” I said.
“Nothing wrong,” Mrs. Greenwood said. Her smile pushing her beauty mark away from her cheekbone. “Things change. That’s all.” She turned and gave me a chance to look over at Linda, her ass in the air like a dog wanting to be plowed.
“Earl had always played the starving artist but come on now, was he really?” Mrs. Greenwood shook her head, leaning over with the Bloodleaf she held so gently between her fingers, placing it in the wheelbarrow beside her, scooping rich black earth back in the hole. “He made a living from his art. A good living. He fed his family, put the kids through college, gave Linda everything she ever wanted . . .”
We both looked up into the eyes of Linda who had suddenly stooped down beside me. “Not everything, “ she said and walked toward her car.
When I got home, Hubby had left a note. Gone for the paper. I’ll be back, it read.
I reached to drop the keys in the wicker basket by the door, but they hit the edge of the basket and fell to the floor. When I stooped to pick them up, his rag-doll cat slinked out from under the sofa and licked my fingers, letting me pet her. “My, my this is unusual Kitty. Are you apologizing? Did Hubby scold you before he left?” I looked around the living room. Nothing seemed out of place. I felt her purr through my palms, the fur vibrating like tiny brushes. Kitty looked up at me with her blue eyes and meowed. When I stood, she sprang back under the sofa.
Linda hadn’t called me for days and I had not called her. Had I broken some unspoken promise? She had never really confided in me about Earl, so how was I to have stood up for her to Mrs. Greenwood, how . . . the phone rang.
“Linda?” I rushed to blurt it out. “Linda, I’m so sorry. The other day, Mrs. Greenwood and I . . .”
“Were only talking, conjecturing, inquisitive, yearning. I know,” she said.
We met at the arboretum near the water fountain, the smashing of the water spouting from the mouth of lady liberty into the pool below spraying our legs, soaking the hems of our skirts as we stood close to the edge of the granite curb that stopped us from walking into the fountain.
“Earl‘s a good man,” she started, “he truly is. But he wants more than what his work can give him and I want more than I can get from him. It’s that simple and that complicated.”
“No, “I told her. “You don’t have to tell me. It’s okay . . .” I hugged her, whispering in her ear, “I love you.”
We held each other there for minutes it seemed before she released me and said. “You’ll see.”
I watched her walk away until she turned the corner by the pharmacy. A helmeted bicyclist, a back-pack wrapped about his shoulders, sped by, intent on making his drop. A black Cadillac pulled around him and it too, sped around the corner.
I walked across the common to the library. On Wednesdays I volunteer as a page. It’s an almost non-sensical position now-a-days with the internet and being able to access information and resources as easily as the click of a link. But the elderly still rely on me to go into the bowels of the library to retrieve old news clippings and birth notices yellowed and musty. They like to feel the texture of information passing through their fingers. Rustling through the stacks, sentinels that line the concrete floor, encompassed by brick walls a hundred years old, I feel the thrill that pages, a millennia past, the peasant or errand-child servants of noblemen, must have felt when called upon.
Today I looked in those same bowels for what I might find out about coy dogs. After nearly an hour, I found a single clipping from the January 10th 1966 edition of The Bay Observer A young girl thought lost in a snowstorm had been brought back home by a wayward dog, a large dog, that a neighbor referred to as a coy.
I went upstairs to the reference computers and scanned through the few websites I could find to get more information. On that particular story, I found nothing. The girl had been left unnamed. But I did find that coy dogs certainly seemed to exist. Though unusual, they had evolved from the mating of a coyote with a domestic dog, most likely wild. Like their coyote ancestor they were a bonding animal, living in packs for protection and food gathering, establishing strong and long-term relationships, discouraging interlopers. The pairing with a domestic dog seemed to occur only in the absence of a coyote mate, and that seemed to happen rarely. An offspring of a coy bonding, would result in an animal with mixed genes, mixed-up instincts, risking its survival as neither domestic dog or coyote, but as coy.
At the Liberty Fountain in the common that morning, after trying to explain what more she had expected from Earl, Linda had related a story to me.
“It was early morning a couple of weeks ago,” she said, “I woke to a commotion in the thicket of blueberries in the yard. I went to the bedroom window and looked out. I thought at first it must be the morning screeching of crows fighting for their turn at the berries but after a few minutes a dog stepped out and looked across the lawn at me.” She paused. “It was a big dog, not one of the neighbors’ pets that I was familiar with. I stared back at it and it moved closer to the house, stopping at last just below my bedroom window to peer up at me. ‘Go away,’ I yelled at it through the glass and shooed it as I would a fly. But it didn’t move. It stepped closer and sat on its hind legs. I could hear it whimper. Earl got out of bed and opened the window, shouting at it to be gone.”
“When Earl looked back at me, he seemed old. For a moment, I didn’t recognize him. He rubbed at his puffy eyes and said rather sharply, ‘Be done with it and come back to bed.’ ”
The spray from the fountain had wafted over us and we moved away. That’s when we hugged our goodbye and I watched her walk off. She was only ten steps away when I called out, “Did he kill it?”
She stopped, startled. Took in a deep breath. Her answer, across the ten feet of cobblestone, was deliberate, “Of course not. How could you even think a thing like that? How would he even kill a dog that big?” Then she turned and I watched her limp away.
We met at seven o’clock on Thursday, the sun up for nearly two hours. Linda jumped from the car and hugged me. “It’s already so warm,” she said. “Let’s hurry.” She was off, her long-legged strides leading our way into the forest. I walked behind her, listening for the trills of Dark-eyed Juncos.
We took the Jesus Path.
Stations of the cross had been carved into fourteen poplar trees along the route. The grey lumpy bark had grown around the original carvings making grotesque figures in their various passion poses rise inches from the tree. After so many years, they were blackened and covered in green moss. At the first station, I stopped. The figure of Jesus, head bowed, stood beside a centurion, awaiting his condemnation to death.
Linda didn’t stop.
I walked on trying to catch up with her.
I passed the second station quickly. Jesus carried his cross. At the third station, he had fallen to his knees. At the fourth station, I stopped again. This time, rising off the grey wood, there was a woman leaning against a bouldered wall, waiting for him.
Linda called out.
But it was not my name she called. It was a deep-throated growl. I caught up to her. “Are you okay?” I asked.
She turned to me, her lips drawn tightly over her teeth.
She stepped away and knelt down on her hands and knees. Above her was the seventh station—Jesus was falling for a second time.
Then I heard an high-pitched growl coming from the bayberry bushes at the base of a sprinkling of saplings by the image of Jesus being nailed to the cross he had been carrying.
Slowly a dog-like snout emerged from beneath the bayberry bush. Linda stayed perfectly still. Her lips still tight over her white teeth. The dog only feet away from her.
Was this a coy? It stared at us and slowly withdrew, leaving Linda panting. In a few moments, she rose, sniffed the air, wiped her runny nose on her jacket sleeve “Did you see that?”
We said nothing on the way back to the car.
At the car, there was an envelope under the driver’s-side windshield wiper. Linda peeled it away, opened it and read the hand scribbled note on a sheet of blue-specked linen paper. She wiped her lips with the back of her hand. “So, it’s settled.”
Earl took an assignment in North Carolina and was leaving this morning. There was an artist retreat in Fayetteville, near Fort Bragg. He was to do portraits of returning Afghan soldiers after interviewing them, incorporating their stories into the portrait. Interpreting a tour of duty into a lifetime mix of oils.
He left without a hug goodbye. No peck on the cheek.
“He’ll use their own sweat,” Linda said.
When she dropped me off at home, she said it wouldn’t be long now.
I looked at her dimpled cheeks, the hint of blue make-up along the bone under her eyes highlighting her striking face. “Promise me, you’ll be OK,” I said.
She took my hand, squeezed it more powerfully than she had ever squeezed it before, and shook her head, yes.
I waited for her to call me. I met with the women at the Garden Club. I spent the following Wednesday at the library, in the tombs. Thursday was Thanksgiving.
On Saturday night Hubby and I had planned to have a few friends over for dinner. That morning Linda called. “I’m leaving.”
“Where are you going?”
“Him? Who? Linda, who is he?” Linda had no children. She had only a brother she rarely spoke of.
“Will you see me off? Meet me at Paige Pond.”
I met her at the trailhead. She wore khakis and a green pullover. She slung a small knapsack over her shoulder. As I approached her, the smell of feces was strong. She turned away from me and I saw that the seat of her pants was blackened.
The late November chill crept into my bones.
Linda strode on seemingly not to notice.
I kept my distance, still trying in my clumsy way to trace her stance and swing, huffing as we continued a mile into the forest, staying as we usually did along the ridge edge of the pond.
Suddenly she stopped at the summit of a small hill just beyond the Jesus Path. She got down on her hands and knees, sniffing the air, leaning forward towards a thicket of pine and firs.
She stayed tensed and crouched. I peered through the splayed and prickled green limbs. A woodmouse scurried out from under a log and into a hole a few feet away. A branch snapped.
The coy came out from under a low hanging pine bough and walked slowly up to Linda. It disregarded me. It sniffed at Linda’s butt, then moved around to her face and began to lick it. I imagined Hubby’s cat’s sandpapery tongue licking at my fingers. All the while the coy’s yellow eyes stared at me. Linda lay on the ground. The coy began pawing at her, pushing its snout into her side, pushing her into the pines and firs. Linda, stayed curled and rolled under the boughs until she was hidden from my view. There was some rustling. Then silence.
They were half-way across the meadow when I took out my cell phone. Hubby was the first one I thought to call.
As I listened to the ringing at the other end of the phone, the two coy mounted the small hillock at the far end of the meadow. One held Linda’s backpack in its jaws, its tail wagging hesitantly. I lost track of the number of rings at the other end of the call. I waited and watched, looking into the sun setting behind the trees. Before dusk struck the earth, I turned to begin my trek out of the woods.
I was by the dam when Hubby called back. His voice full of energy. “Honey, not to worry,” he said.
Venus was rising. A sliver of the moon was showing like a brilliant white slip beneath a darkening skirt. I reached up as though to pull at it and grasped at nothing.
Hubby had only the dinner party on his brain, his rambling descending from some distant place I had a hard time reaching, his words meaningless, mingling with the effervescent flow of water falling over the rocks at the base of the dam.
Clearly I heard him say, “We have so few friends.”
Michael J. Brien received his MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop. He has published a few magic realism pieces of which “Coy Dogs” is such an animal. His recent work can be seen in Edify Fiction, Oyster River Pages, Amoskeag, Miranda, Epiphany, Flash Fiction, Fictive Dream and Toasted Cheese literary magazines. He does nor own a cat or a dog.
© 2023, Michael J. Brien