Coyote and the black box
There was nothing ominous about that morning. No warning signs. It began like most of my adventures at Round Valley: I stretched out at the trailhead – Achilles, hip flexor, lunge – and fired up my GPS. In two hours, 6½ miles and 1,760 feet of elevation gain I’d be standing on Wek-wek Ledge off Morgan Territory’s Prairie Falcon Trail, gazing at Mt. Diablo veiled in the hot haze of distance.
The Miwok Trail westbound ushered me beneath the shadows of blue oaks anchoring the lower lobes of spurs rippling toward the valley. The shade was welcome; the forecast called for the mercury to hit 98 F. I crammed my pack with all the water the pack’s finite cubic space would allow.
Water would be the least of my concerns.
I came to the familiar Miwok/Hardy Canyon split. Not the least bit unnerving. A mile and a half south towered the hunter-green oak and maroon chaparral of Bob Walker Ridge: my staircase to splendor at higher altitudes. I lowered my gaze and heard the valley’s tall, dry grasses seethe in a southeast breeze like shale hissing in retreating surf.
A mile later, just short of the Los Vaqueros gate, and still oblivious, I saw him: a solo coyote loping toward steeply cut Arroyo Grande, which skirted my trail on the right. He was about 200 yards southeast and moving with a purpose, probably to trade the withering light for the darkness beneath valley oaks and California buckeye. It was clear the coyote hadn’t seen me: he kept coming. I’d also gotten lucky – the southeast breeze kept me downwind of his nose and ears.
The moment he disappeared behind the trees, now about a hundred yards distant, I bounded off the trail toward a massive valley oak on the arroyo’s east bank and set up my shooting zone. Out came the camera. On. Exposure: minus two clicks. White balance: shade. Mode: scenery. Zoom: full. I trained the lens on the only open area across the arroyo: a rock spattered with white lichen and dormant brown mosses. Then I scanned the scene for my quarry.
Animals are infuriatingly uncooperative photo subjects. My dog and cats, for cryin’ out loud, rarely hold a pose. Out in the wild, I’m lucky to get close enough to a coyote, bobcat or golden eagle – and be quick enough with my equipment – to bag a single respectable snapshot.
But lo and behold, this Round Valley coyote trotted out from behind the bramble, hopped onto the rock and into a photogenically optimal dappling of sunlight and shade and stood there while my shutter went ka-CHEE, ka-CHEE, ka-CHEE.
As if he knew the last shot was as good as it was gonna get, and the photo-op was over, the creature hopped off the rock and disappeared behind the cape of an arroyo willow. Still leaning against the valley oak, I reviewed my shots and shook my head at the colossal blindness of my luck.
Time to go. I turned on my heel to high-step it through the thistle back to the trail – and jumped straight back. “Yow!” The shock lasted only a moment, but it was a moment of heightened electrification, a single synaptic flash short of panic. The next moment, crouched in a defensive pose, I heard myself laughing at myself.
Some guy was standing right behind me. Arm’s-length behind me.
“God Almighty! You scared the crap out of me!”
“‘God Almighty?’ Ha.” He raised his right eyebrow, lips pursed, suppressing a smile.
He was tall and spindly, as if he’d skipped a few meals. The ravines in his face were chiseled deep. A scraggly, rust-brown mustache flared across his cheeks. His long face was leather. But the eyes: the eyes were narrow and grey – and something else, something that sent a thin shiver up my neck. I took a step back. In all my wanderings I’d never seen anything as terrible as those gaunt and hungry eyes. They were not human.
“Nice scenery,” I said with a forced nonchalance.
“I believe I did a pretty good job,” he said in a voice softly growled from the back of the throat. A canine voice. So fixated was I on the eyes that it took a moment to register another disturbing fact: the hills behind him were undulating like a desert background blurred by heat ripples. The effect formed an oval just behind his head, like the halo of an Eastern Orthodox icon.
He must have registered my disorientation. “I have that effect on people,” he said.
I resolved that this encounter was not happening. The procedure was simple: I’d keep the conversation mundane and dispel this bad dream through sheer tedium.
“Did you see the coyote?” I asked.
“Did I see him? Hm. I would not put it that way.”
Geez, this guy is hard to distract. “Ger Erickson,” I said, extending my hand.
I stood there, arm obstinately outstretched in empty space. Hey, this is my dream. I get to choose the vignette that makes me look least undignified.
The guy looked at my hand as if it were radioactive, raised his arm and pinched the wide brim of his hat, the crown of which was tapered upward to form two pointed … wings, leaves, ears? Definitely not a Stetson.
“Olétte,” he replied, returning the introduction. “You stole my image with that black box,” he said, his eyes boring a hole through my camera. “Now give it back.”
Uh-oh. Olétte: Coyote deity of the Native American Miwok. Creator of the world. Trickster. I am so screwed.
“You know why we are here,” he said. It was a statement, not a question.
Hey, this is my fevered fantasy and I’m gonna get my entertainment-dollar’s worth. “Let me guess,” I said. “I committed a cosmic offense: last night I paired Dover sole with cabernet.” I took a sideways glance at his malnourished eyes and decided to get off the subject of things digestible.
“You recognize my name,” he said, ignoring my sarcasm. You recognize your transgression, you recognize the reparation. Fine. But that device slung around your neck – it holds more than a portion of my spirit. Give it to me and I will tell you what it is trying to tell you.”
Before I could prevent it, my hand was peeling the camera strap off my neck. Wait a minute – I bagged some nice shots. Why should I surrender my camera without a fight? “What makes you think I stole a piece of your spirit?” I asked, stalling for time.
“If you understood that,” said Olétte smoothly, “you would never have taken that black box out here in the first place. That is why you are here: to learn what the box is telling you.” And he locked eyes with me for what seemed about a decade. “Ah, but I believe you do understand. That image of me adds to the sum of the world. It takes something that is and makes from it something that has never been, as when I shook the tules and the land rose from the water. You also are a creator – of sorts. The question is: to whom does the image belong? You or me? I say me.” And he stretched his arm, palm up.
I felt like a ground squirrel stalked by a … well, a coyote. If I couldn’t outrun his single-minded pursuit of my camera, I’d dive into the nearest ground-squirrel hole. “So you’re saying I shouldn’t be out here taking pictures, stealing the world’s spirit? Why shouldn’t I steal that spirit and share it with others?”
He stifled a chuckle, recognizing my ruse but willing to play along. Then he knelt, scooped a handful of dirt and let it run through his fingers. “The people who once walked this valley had a word: ‘wachichu’: ‘to take the fat.’ Here is the fat of the matter,” he said. “That you stole my image merely offends me; it threatens nothing. That thing that hangs from your neck like a talisman: it is a greater danger to you than me.”
Before I could digest his thought, he stood and said, “It is not only what you see but what you fail to see that creates your world. You are like Wek-wek the falcon – always darting around; always in a rush. Your black box makes you hurry to crest a ridge so you can steal an image before the light fails; hurry home to tell the story. You spend too much time marking the passage of time. You look at and seldom into what you see. It is your own spirit that is trapped in the black box.”
I looked away, to where the landscape wasn’t a wavering halo behind Olétte’s head. I knew he was right – right about the camera and me. “You’re saying the picture is an instrument of falsehood, not truth?” I said, pressing my disadvantage. “Hey, you’re The Trickster. Which am I supposed to believe: you or the picture?”
Olétte licked his thin lips. A terrible intelligence and hunger crouched behind those eyes. I knew I was playing a dangerous game. I also knew from mythology that the gods aren’t omniscient. They can be deceived by other gods – even humans. But tricking The Trickster? Is that possible? And if possible, is it such a bright idea?
I took the plunge: “If I tell you a story, a story that pleases you, will you let me keep the black box?”
He raised an eyebrow. I’d struck a resonant chord. “I’ll make it a story of cosmic significance,” I said. In keeping with my previous remarks, I had no idea what I was talking about. But I had a plan: something about removing the memory stick from my camera while The Trickster was distracted. You can keep the camera.
Olétte stretched out his arms and raised his head. “A story of cosmic significance, eh? When Silver Fox and I danced the world into being,” he said, and lowered his eyes at mine, “that was of cosmic significance. When I stole the Sun from the Mountain People, that was of cosmic significance. I have heard many stories, and told many more. My standards are high.” He smiled, and I caught the glint of saliva on one of his fangs. “Tell me your story. And make it – how do you say? – a humdinger. I might even spare your life.”
Olétte strode over to a hollow log and sat down, grasped his knees and bent slightly forward as if to say, “You’re on.”
My camera was resting against my chest. I slipped my left arm through the loop of the strap, shifted the camera to where it hung a few inches below my left armpit, and crossed my arms, grasping the camera with my right hand, shielding it from view. Olétte’s narrow grey eyes followed the whole operation.
I widened my stance and cleared my throat as prelude to a pronouncement weighty and wise. “Many are the tales of the world’s beginning; few of its ending. Hearken, Olétte, and I will tell you how the world ends,” I declaimed while opening the memory stick hatch with my right thumbnail and feeling for the stick with my index finger.
Now for the real trick: the tale. Assuming Olétte had heard it all, I needed to maneuver him into unfamiliar territory. I needed a story so outlandish, he wouldn’t know whether to devour me or deify me.
With a nod of my head, I gestured to a nearby hill. “You see the large oak on that hilltop?” I said, ever so gently pressing the memory stick against its spring-lock release, feeling it come loose and pinching it out while Olétte’s gaze was diverted to the hill.
“When evening falls, a star will rise above that oak. We call the star Bingle-Dworp 677. Around it circles a world called Whygo. On it dwell the Whygons.”
Olétte was looking at me now with an expression not overly favorable. I tiptoed farther out toward the precipice: “Whygons have been monitoring humanity from Earth orbit for 1,500 years, waiting for a positive trend,” I said with a scientific solemnity. “To a Whygon, 1,500 years is practically a lifetime.” Uh-oh. Where do I go from here? And how do I get this memory stick from my hand to my pocket? It’s too small to palm.
“Now, the Whygons are divided,” I said as my fingertips perspired onto the stick. “Factions A and B want to destroy Earth right now; Faction C wants to spare us for another century or two.”
Olétte cocked his head and lifted an eyebrow. I could almost hear him forming the thought “don’t screw with me.”
“And how, you must be wondering, would the Whygons destroy Earth? Well, I’ll tell you how,” I said, padding the narrative for all it was worth. “Faction A wants to see Earth explode in a messy though expressionistically pleasing fwoof but Faction B claims that would leave a debris cloud in solar orbit ‘in clear contravention of the Space Littering Act of 200913.’ Faction B would rather plant a small black hole in Earth’s core and watch the planet get sucked right out of the space-time continuum.” (Need I mention I had no idea what I meant by “the space-time continuum”?) “Faction B calls Faction A ‘contrarian barbarians’ while Faction A calls Faction B ‘a bunch of neat freaks.’”
I felt my tether running out fast. Time to drive this train wreck home. “Faction C, comprising an overwhelming minority of Whygo, wants to watch humanity self-destruct a bit longer before the plug gets pulled. Factions A and B call Faction C ‘disgusting voyeurs.’ Oh, and then there’s Faction D, which –”
“Enough!” cried Olétte. He leaped from the log, I uncrossed my arms reflexively and found that the memory stick was poised smack above my pant pocket. I let go of the stick and it obeyed the law of gravity. I’d done it.
What else I’d done came as a shock. “I have not granted the Whygons permission to destroy Earth!” Olétte howled. “I shall journey to Bingle-Dworp 677 with Kélok the North Giant and slay the Whygons utterly. Molluk the Condor shall feast on their rotting flesh.”
Holy crap. He’s taken my story for fact, not fiction. And so, standing on the hangman’s drop, I said gratuitously, “Better not tangle with the Whygons; they’re pretty nasty hombres. Let Whygons be Whygons.”
Under normal circumstances I’d be miffed to see a perfectly serviceable quip go zinging over the head of its intended victim. In this case, I was counting on Olétte’s unfamiliarity with modern English – despite his earlier use of “humdinger” – to prevent something truly icky from happening to me.
“Your tale was … sufficient; your life is spared,” he said to my surprise. “But I require your black box.” No surprise there. I surrendered the camera and he turned to leave.
I couldn’t believe my stupid luck. I was home free. A dozen prime jpegs of the Miwok god Olétte were etched on my memory stick, safe in my pant pocket. Life was good. Then the god stopped in mid stride and made a half turn.
“One more thing,” he said, and for the first time I saw a gleam in his grey eyes. “As your medicine men are accustomed to saying: ‘Take off your pants.’”