A few years ago, Elias Lindert was one of my students in a workshop at UC Santa Cruz. He has covered a lot of miles since then, living first in Asia and then in South America, and is about to take off again. He is an extraordinarily talented writer for whom I have high hopes. He sent me, at my request, the following:
When I was thirteen my father gave me two things: a dog and a gun. The gun was a.22 caliber Browning pistol, with which I plinked away at empty cans and rotted tree stumps in the infinite backyard of ours that was the northwoods of Wisconsin. The dog was a black lab and pit bull mix that we named Layla. My father had found her as a puppy curled up in the snow of a parking lot while driving home from California, where we would soon move. But for the time being, we lived in northern Wisconsin, thirty minutes from the nearest town when our road wasn’t snow, slush, or mud, as it was for most of the year.
The coyotes had been a constant presence for the many years we’d lived there, their howling and yapping echoing across our lake, reaching a frenzied pace whenever they made a kill. Alternately beautiful and bloodcurdling, they were just another sound of the wilderness, always safely in the distance. It was not until the warm summer months of our final year in Wisconsin that they began to close in on us.
Each day the noises of the pack sounded a little closer and started a little earlier. Layla, whom we usually let roam our property freely, was dismayed when we began keeping her inside during the twilight hours and, as the coyotes drew nearer yet, in the afternoon as well. When she heard them bark and howl her fur would stand on end and she would run to the door, her tail wagging even as she growled, perhaps unsure if she wanted to fight or play with these strange canines who sounded as though they were right outside of our house.
One afternoon I was home alone when the coyotes started up. I hardly paid them any mind, since this was by now a daily occurrence, until I heard the unmistakable sound of Layla’s barking among that of the coyotes: I’d forgotten to bring her in. I ran to the window and called her, but the manic din overpowered my voice. I dashed into the closet where we kept our guns and grabbed my .22 before running outside and into the forest, in the direction of the frenzy, screaming Layla’s name while bloody scenarios raced through my mind.
Branches whipped my face as I ran through the thick woods toward the yowling cacophony, still calling for Layla, a bullet in the chamber of my .22 and the safety off, when a dark shape came barreling out of the underbrush toward me. It was Layla. Her tail was wagging and she was panting happily. I flicked the safety on the gun and knelt down to hug her, trying to inspect her for wounds while she licked my face, but there were none visible, not even a drop of blood. Then I looked up, and through the foliage, not twenty yards away, I saw a lone coyote; it was watching us.
I told Layla to heel and crept toward the coyote. It did not move. Layla too was eyeing it intensely, but she obeyed and stayed at my side. It was small, perhaps not fully grown. I wondered where the rest of the pack was. I scanned the woods around us, but they were gone and it was silent but for Layla’s heavy panting and the buzz of mosquitoes. When we were less than ten yards from the coyote it turned and began to trot away. I thought that would be that, but then it stopped again at about the same distance as it had before, and we continued to follow. This pattern kept repeating itself, the coyote scampering ahead, then pausing to let us catch up, leading us ever deeper into the forest. The sun was setting, and as the woods grew darker around us, I began to have paranoid fantasies. What if the coyote was leading us into a trap? What if the entire pack were to leap out from hiding and devour Layla and me alive? But it seemed content simply to observe us silently, staring at us just as we stared at it.
We continued following the coyote until dusk, when I realized we needed to turn back or risk getting lost in the woods, as I had no flashlight and we had by this point entered the sprawling national forest that bordered our property. Before turning around, Layla and I stood watching the coyote for one more minute. In my memory I am close enough to see the green-brown irises of its eyes. It is a devious predator, the devourer of pets, the trickster of legend. It is a playful, curious little creature not far removed from the dog who curled her little body into a ball in my lap when my father brought her in from the cold.