Today I pulled a dead coyote pup off of the road.
He’d evidently lain out in the sun a little while,
but death and desert sun had not erased the sweet sly guile
there on his face, mute eyes with arid dignity unbowed
despite a cloak of flies. Across the road, funereal,
their hard-learned reticence sun-dulled, torpid, slow to react,
two golden eagles stared, accessories after the fact,
each one atop a Joshua tree, intent on bearing pall.
They did not want me there, preferred to dine without affront
there on the open road, the fast trucks their camerieri.
I feared for them. It seemed to me that diners so unwary
would likely end as prizes in the next scavenger’s hunt.
They stirred, disturbed, as I resolved to keep them off the menu.
Clearly, the thing to do was to adjust this dinner’s venue.
He was so small. He would have fit within an eagle’s fist
and draughts of slow, dark wings could then have carried him aloft.
His face heartbreakingly familiar, clever and soft.
A plastic bag over my hand, I took him by the wrist.
I knew his paw so well, delicacy of nail and pad
with cracking calluses, resilient and deft, sweet down
disguised as fur, a silver-frosted white fading to brown
to cover it. It was that very paw that once had had
my own paws pace beside it and its kin, familiars,
until their path diverged from mine so irrevocably
cleft by the sickle-blade, that old familiar’s flesh set free
and mine adrift, stumbling in search of unnameable cures.
I’ve heard the tales of travelers who perish in the wastes
mouths choked with alkali the vultures hesitate to taste.
I understand them now. I have been aridly seduced
while walking in these dead dry desert hills, by fortune cursed,
dragging my feet. Each new rise crested scrapes the swelling thirst,
each hundred yards another coil of rope to fix the noose,
and then another rise gives way beneath your plodding feet.
There, down below, a shimmering. Water! A broad blue lake
and deep, too, from the look of it, enough in there to slake
a thousand more like you without a chance that you’d deplete
or sully its abundance. Just an hour’s march beyond
and at that hour’s end you’ve seen no dwindling of your lack.
But it’s right there! Not far! No sense by now to turning back
and soon! And soon! You’ll drink it dry, that ever-shrinking pond.
I know that lakebed well. The thirsty avidly explore
and walk on blithely past the ragged bones that rim the shore.
My mouth thus alkaline I took Coyote’s paw and pulled.
His shoulders came, his head, and then a sickening delay;
and then the rest of him, mostly. A reek of flesh, decay
of sweet and guileful promise thwarted. Grieving, miserable,
I got him off the road. The seething sun relentless fumed.
Tall towers of dust spun crazily down in the valley heat.
Two hundred yards above on thermals, gained in single beats
of wing, two eagles waited for their dinner to resume.
I laid him in the granite dust under some creosote
to shade the eagles’ heads, unceremoniously kicked
a clotted pair of legbones off to where they could be picked
and cleaned at leisure, took one last sad look at poor Cayoat.
Familiar, this familiar; a synecdoche of loss
in me, and in this land, along wide roads we all must cross.
This was humiliation, a bold promise unfulfilled
brought so prematurely and so permanently low.
By rights the desert’s dauphin, scepter that wild golden glow
there in his eyes so prematurely, permanently stilled.
His smile a rictus, teeth that should have laughed now caked in dirt,
his figure meant for sleekness covered now in fetid flies.
He would have been a god here; he lay broken, compromised,
dissolving in the desert heat, insensible, inert.
And I was much the same, except the part about the god,
smelling a trifle better and still moving for the nonce,
mouth torn by alkali, my body wracked and whole at once,
a trail of salt still lingering on the hopeful path I’d trod.
Unlike me, though, he would cross yet another road today
to the far-distant side where all that’s fleshly falls away.
A hundred feet above, his wheeling vehicles descended,
solemn, near-ponderous, yet graceful verging on sublime,
the flying ferrymen to whom we all should come in time
were we to have Coyote luck when our prowling is ended.
I left before they landed. I had interfered enough,
but driving slow away I saw it clear, in my mind’s eye
the final fluttering of feather fallen from the sky;
the flash of beak and talon as they rend his mortal stuff,
and then ascension — feasting and assumption, flesh transforms
to flesh, to air, to flight, to light — to move in strong dark wings
beyond this alkaline and fleshly vale of fatal things
into Coyote sky, Coyote wind, Coyote storms.
And left to me, a task: embalm in pallid rhyme and meter
his crossing, swathed in patter as a cushion for the reader.
It is some consolation that my sojourn here is short.
That last humiliation so devoutly to be wished
still pending, and each moment now might be the one I’m fished
choke-gasping from that illusory lakebed, laid athwart
the plane of life and shaved down thin, each peeled layer sublimed
into this desert air. It is solace that the flame
in each heart won’t burn endless, that each faltering, fragile frame
will in mirage be mired, be in briny crystals rimed,
and soon enough. No use to seethe with envy of that beast
I pulled off of the roadside to be eagle sky-interred;
to each of us in turn will come some avatar of bird
to see each of us from this too, too solid flesh released.
The wheel of time turns swift and each of us to dust will grind;
the Raptor comes for all, and no one will be left behind.