Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls
Emergency Press, January 2011
from Part One
Plans Gone Awry
It was the year my favorite Beatle died, just a few months after the WTC terrorist attacks, early in my second decade at the nursery. Everyone needed diversion from the news. In the evenings I watched videos of Jane Austen novels, daytimes left my desk and went often to the nursery’s growing fields, the farthest ones out, started collecting snake skins, tortoise shells, looking for the rare mule deer antler.
I may have heard the voices, and ignored them, at ease with the melodious background sound of the Latino workers chatting and laughing among themselves. A closer buzzing was louder, directing me to a patch of grey fur just off the dirt road. There was no smell. The dry December air, a tinge of salt in the sandstone soil, so the carcass was parched and would’ve been mummified if the tissues hadn’t been so quickly devoured by beetles and maggots. And still whole, as though the primary carrion consumer—other coyotes—felt some sacred trust not to ravage one of their own. Dehydration alone had distorted the body: the splayed legs contorted, the neck twisted and head thrown over one shoulder, ears and nose leather withered, unrecognizable. Barely showing in the recoiled muzzle’s gristle, a canine tooth, whitened by ants.
“Oh, what happened to you?”
How long had I studied it, bent at the waist, my face hovering above the coyote’s body? In the ambiance of the nursery’s backlot and surrounding back country, the backdrop of Spanish conversation in the distance, my own voice speaking aloud, alone, was not an odd supplement.
When I moved, reached to touch it, I already had a leather glove on one hand and my pruner out of my belt sheath, lifted the head and worked the pruner around the spine. The only resistance was from shriveled creases of hide, but the blade was made for two-inch woody limbs, and the head came free.
December in the back country. Native canyons and hillsides trapped, hemmed in, by housing developments and military air fields. The rutted dirt two-track road unwinds for miles. To the left are five acres of eight varieties of juniper, maple and sycamore saplings, two-, then three-, then four-foot spruce, irrigated in rows. There on the two-track, just outside the growing fields, on the edge of a dry arroyo or hedgerow, under the high and wild wind, where you can hear a bee buzz and mouse rustle under the matted layer of last year’s wild oats, you could think you’re in unqualified pampas wilderness. Not always alone, often a worker moving the water-tank with a small tractor, or a crew trimming double-crowns, or digging trees tagged to come into the retail lot. The two-track dotted with scat and owl pellets. The louder rustlings are rabbits, and ravens call constantly, sounding angry, downright impatient.
As I stood after cutting through the bone and greasy cartilage, sheathing the pruner, holding the head in one hand, a louder voice, more urgent, rose out of a momentary silence—a silence that had only been marred by my own question, intended to be muttered. The other voice was not shouting, but still signified some exigency, some alarm. A wooden clatter, an airy whump, then the rustle of escape was neither mouse or rabbit, the fleeing footsteps almost as palpable as my own heartbeat. Running from the edge of a spruce field and into tall chaparral, two girls, as young as 13, no older than 16. Difficult to tell their ages, although not difficult to see their black hair streaming behind as they ran, and that one of them clutched a bundle of fabric to her chest, and their backs were bare.
Over a low sweep of hill, a male voice made one more call, then they were gone into the shallow ravine. I walked the seventy or eighty yards up the slightly uphill two-track to where they had crossed it, running from a spruce lot into the undeveloped field. Our workers were in that lot, trimming roots, tagging trees for removal. I could hear the buzz of a string trimmer, and when it stopped, the snip of pruning shears, larger than those I carried on my belt, but mine had made no clean click while gnashing through the coyote’s gristle. Suddenly, at my feet, a large sheet of plywood, flat on the ground. I tipped it up with one hand. The ground beneath the plywood was just as dry as the surrounding dirt, and no bugs or lizards were there to flee the sudden burst of light. Underneath, two long 2x4s.
My gloved hand clutched the coyote head like a talon all the way back to the nursery’s out-buildings. Behind a tool shed, I set up an old burn-barrel and put the head inside where beetles could continue to cure it, down to the skull. It would take five more months. Meanwhile, I brought binoculars when I went out on the backlot two-tracks, and I watched, and I learned.