by Marissa James
Coyote Woman couldn’t stand the trailer park’s people-headed kids. She chain smoked as they smacked basketballs down the asphalt and kicked themselves past her fence on scooters. When they caught her yellow moon eyes, they quieted, hurried, only to burst out in laughter as soon as they thought they were beyond her gaze.
She had been a coyote once, but far more woman, now.
Having pups of her own had cemented this identity change. And so many other changes, besides.
Domestic life hadn’t been the fairytale other animal women purported it to be. First off, Trev was wasted on grain alcohol when he stumbled into the clearing where she sang at the moon, naked and human-shaped, her true skin cast off for only a moment. He’d run off with it like in the stories, and she’d felt compelled to join him in civilization, to make a life in the trailer they bought, to bring up their three pups. It hadn’t been bliss, but it hadn’t been terrible, either. Food delivery was an undeniable benefit of human society, as was central heating. She found an affinity with soulful, crooning styles of music.
She picked up some of the bad habits of the species in the process, but what the hell. You only lived once.
One day Trev went for a drive and didn’t come back. She knew it was permanent when she couldn’t find her skin anywhere in the trailer despite digging under the floorboards, pushing up ceiling panels, sniffing at the walls.
He didn’t want her to throw it on, fall to all fours and dash, feral and free as only an animal could be, back into the clearing where he’d first discovered her. And leave their pups without a mother.
Even the twins were old enough to fend for themselves, as far as coyotes were concerned. CPS had a different opinion of her maternal responsibilities, however.
A car pulled up on the outside of her fence. Coyote Woman’s lips curled back of their own accord. The horn blared, and the screen door behind her banged open and her eldest, Libby, pounded down the rickety front steps and out the gate to meet it, shouting all the while.
“Going downtown for a movie, Ma, be back when I’m back, kay, bye.”
The car door slammed and the teen behind the wheel peeled out before she could bark a command for Libby to get home before dark. Not like it ever worked.
The way that girl came home smelling like spray paint and cheap vodka and the places beneath overpasses, who knew what she really got up to. What she was becoming. Coyote Woman had learned her lesson about foolish and permanent behaviors the hard way, but telling her daughter so would simply make her even more liable to act out.
It took all of Coyote Woman’s human patience to hold back a snarl as she flung down her cigarette butt and stalked back inside.
* * *
There was another animal woman at the automotive place where she worked. Sabrina the seal woman, selkie, whatever. She’d been a harbor seal before getting tied down by her man, so she still had the glossy, silvery-white fur down to her neck, the limpid black eyes like pools made of the condensed adoration of anyone who looked on her. She thrived on the human interaction that a customer service job provided, while Coyote Woman counted the minutes until her next smoke break.
Sabrina wasn’t a bad person, but she knew jack shit about cars. She microwaved fish for lunch most days, got the whole building stinking of it, because she couldn’t abide cold food. She shuddered at the idea of sashimi in a world of modern hygiene. Coyote Woman assumed she hadn’t been a hell of a seal, either, and this was why she’d been so happy to trade the wild life for one of human domesticity.
They’d both worked there for years and yet every day, without fail, if a customer asked a question and no other coworkers were around, Sabrina deferred to her. Coyote Woman’s experiences as a coyote included years of casually sheltering under cars and gazing at their undersides. She could diagnose most vehicular problems by listening.
When she was done answering the question of the day, Coyote Woman prowled away and the customer thanked Sabrina for the answer she hadn’t provided.
Coyote Woman told herself knowledge was intimidating, but it was probably her grizzled muzzle, the brown-streaked canines that came out when she talked.
“He wasn’t a seal hunter or a fisherman at all. An archaeologist, actually,” Sabrina said when the customer inquired about her other half. Coyote Woman had heard the story so many times her ears went flat to block it out as she wended her way among shelves. “He likes to think he caught me, you know, but really I’m the one who laid the trap. Swimming around his campsite for a couple days beforehand. Lounging on the rocks.” Sabrina giggled and leaned in conspiratorially. “Although, you would not believe how cold the Alaskan coast is when you don’t have a stitch on.”
“Oh, I believe it,” the grease-stained guy at the counter said.
“You would not,” she said, emphatically. “By the time he bundled me inside his tent in a sleeping bag, my toes were going blue.”
“What happened to your skin?”
“Oh, it’s somewhere.” She waved a dismissive hand. “He knows what he did with it, that’s all that matters. Far as I’m concerned, it’s like a wedding dress. You wore it when you needed it, but it’s not like I ever will again. He could’ve put it through a shredder for all I care. Right, Angie?” Her voice carried through the shelves.
“It wouldn’t work like that. Shredding it,” Coyote Woman said back.
“You know what I mean. No going back, right?” Sabrina asked, and laughed in her direction, then turned and laughed toward the customer.
“I’m taking my fifteen,” Coyote Woman muttered, and headed for the employees-only exit.
* * *
Back when Trev was around and the twins were borderline housetrained, she still heeded the call of the full moon.
She’d slip from the covers, from the trailer, and out. It wasn’t that far to the clearing where Trev first found her. Once there, she shed her human garments and howled with heart and soul. Crying to the moon, the life she’d left behind, to any other coyotes who might hear.
A promise that she’d come back someday, someday. That she’d be one of them, always, no matter what.
That was before her skin was lost to her; no going back now. Only sorrow and heartache, blues and mourning, for the life she’d left behind.
Since Trev left, she couldn’t go out like that anymore, anyway. Didn’t have the time, with all the demands of work and pups and life in general.
The call of the moon never quieted, but she closed the curtains, went to bed with the TV turned up, had a couple beers, and did her best to get a full night’s sleep.
Sometimes she suspected it was those coyote behaviors, reminders of her wildness, that drove Trev away. The same wildness that had first drawn him to steal her skin, to try and tame her.
Other times, she dismissed the thought. Too wild or too tame, he would have left either way.
* * *
Her younger two managed, somehow, to cause exponentially more trouble than their big sister. They brought home poor report cards. They ran through grocery stores and knocked displays over. They climbed on anything they shouldn’t. They were twins, so they did it all in tandem.
When Coyote Woman got called to a parent-teacher meeting, she was almost too distracted by the hamster lumbering on its wheel in the corner to pay attention to what the teacher was trying to say.
The boys play-fought and wrestled. In class, the cafeteria, the gymnasium. They came back from recess with clothes covered in dirt and rips. They made horrible snarling noises that the normal kids didn’t know what to think of.
She’d heard it all in phone calls and emails that came as frequently as spam.
They did it at home, too, because it’s what coyote pups did.
“They’re coyotes, what do you expect?” she asked.
The woman’s face flushed with annoyance. “There are expectations in the classroom, Mrs—”
“Angie,” she corrected.
“Jaden and Corden know the rules about right behavior, Angie, they hear the lecture almost every day. I’m not concerned that they don’t understand but, well, that they need the rules reinforced before something … happens.”
The hamster traded running on the wheel for running back and forth along the glass of its enclosure. When was the last time she’d hunted a live creature? Caught something squirming in her jaws? The local pet store got wise after she purchased three rats in less than two months, wouldn’t sell to her anymore.
She hadn’t found it very satisfying to release the creatures into the backyard and chase them, either. It wasn’t the same as the wild.
“You afraid they’re going to start marking territory or something?” she asked.
In truth, the boys did that, too. Their bedroom constantly stank.
“I’m concerned if there’s no … intervention for them, that they’re going to inadvertently nip a teacher. Or bite another child. We can’t let it go that far.”
Coyote Woman sank deeper into her chair. “What do you want me to do, put them in training class? Doggy daycare?”
The teacher started writing on a notepad. “I want to recommend a consultation with someone who can determine their best options. If there’s a therapeutic solution, or a medication…”
Coyote Woman couldn’t help the raised volume of her voice. “There’s nothing wrong with my kids. They’re coyotes in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“But this is a school full of children,” the teacher said. “If they’re going to remain in my class, Mrs—”
The teacher leaned forward as far as she dared into the snarling animal woman’s face. “—they need to be children, not coyotes. Not here.”
She was tempted to shred the note in her teeth as she left, let the scraps trail down the hall like the fur of a kill, but couldn’t bring herself to do it.
* * *
Because of the territory marking thing, Libby refused to share a bathroom with the boys. Her mascara and contact lenses and body sprays and hair stuff crammed the counter in Coyote Woman’s bathroom. Libby used blush but, obviously, foundation was pointless on fur. Couldn’t find it in her coloration, anyway. An hour of every school morning, Coyote Woman was evicted from her bedroom so Libby could get ready.
When a knock and muffled teenage bellow startled her awake on a Saturday, she objected.
“Where do you think you’re going when I didn’t give permission?” she demanded as Libby hurried past her to the bathroom, a polka-dotted towel in hand.
“Oh my god, Ma, I have to get ready, will you just—”
She took the opportunity to have a couple smokes on the porch, nurse a mug of coffee, and glower as the neighborhood brats giggled and filled up a plastic pool. She really hated those people-headed kids, couldn’t say why. They’d never done anything particular to her.
When the same ratty car pulled up on the other side of her fence, her hackles rose.
She strode up to it, leaned halfway over the fence to scowl at the motley kids within. “If you don’t get my daughter back here by ten—”
“You’re the absolute worst, Ma!” Libby shouted as she banged down the steps, flung herself through the gate and into the car’s back seat. She cast a baleful yellow gaze through the window before the driver accelerated away.
After the stink of burning rubber and exhaust dissipated, and the greater part of her irritation along with it, Coyote Woman raised her nose to the air. It was shaping up to be a fine day, in terms of weather. A full moon lay pale against the blue sky.
She threw some juice boxes and crackers in a tote and yelled at the twins to put on shoes if they wanted to go to the park.
Once there, they shot toward the play structure like fur-faced bullets, yipping all the way.
She watched them from a tree that divided the sculpted play area from the more natural side of the park. A few other parents oversaw their own kids with determined focus, refusing to look in her direction.
Something pale flashed in the corner of her eye. In the half-obscured pond on the park’s natural side, a waterbird splashed and preened, flashing into sight between the gaps of manicured bushes.
Coyote Woman left her post by the tree, aware of nothing but the saliva filling her mouth at the thought of a wild thing in her jaws, the flailing, the fighting. So much more alluring because it was so forbidden.
She slipped into the bushes. There was no one else around the pond. A wide open opportunity, and if she didn’t take it now, before some idiot came along—
She nosed through to the other side of the bushes and barely restrained the urge to swear. Not a bird at all, but a swan woman clad in a white swimsuit, human hands trailing in the water. Her elegant, avian neck dipped down toward the shallows and plucked up a glob of weed or algae. She froze, then dropped it just as quick.
Coyote Woman realized she’d been spotted. Mom jeans and a teal windbreaker weren’t much in the way of camouflage.
She scrabbled up to her feet, brushing away twigs and floundering for an apology as the swan woman snatched up a white robe from a rock.
She expected the animal woman to fling it on, turn back into a swan, and fly away, but it was just a normal robe.
Just as unexpected, the swan woman came over to her while tying the cloth belt into a bow.
“Lovely day, isn’t it?”
“Look, I didn’t mean anything with the bushes thing—”
“No worries, I totally understand,” the swan woman said. If a bill could offer a simultaneously conspiratorial and guilty smile, that’s what hers was doing. Maybe she wanted to be sure Coyote Woman wasn’t going to go around telling people she’d been eating pond muck? “Sometimes we just have to connect to nature, it’s who we are.”
Before Coyote Woman could agree, a piercing shriek from the playground brought all her instincts, human, canine, and maternal, to a point. When she looked again, the swan woman was halfway around the pond, moving to retrieve a bag and sneakers.
As soon as Coyote Woman arrived on the scene, a mother turned on her. “Your flea-ridden mutt bit my child!” she yelled, coddling a kid who was too old for it in her arms. The kid clutched one hand in the other, though Coyote Woman didn’t see any sign of injury.
She frowned at the twins to determine which one had done it, but they both stood with ears down, apologetic looks in their eyes.
“Did it break the skin?” Coyote Woman demanded of the mother.
“I—I don’t think so. That’s beside the point—”
“Then you won’t need a rabies shot.” She raised a lip to end the conversation, reached out to call the boys to her, and returned to the car with one son dragging on each hip, no shoes between them.
“She just kept running and running, we couldn’t help it,” Jaden said from the back seat while Corden crunched crackers.
A mother should use a comment like that as an opportunity to scold, or to positively reinforce her kids for understanding what they’d done wrong. Coyote Woman did neither, her heart too full of coyote pride.
They might be bad kids, but they were good pups.
* * *
As the day wore on the moon grew yellower and more inviting than it had been for years. Coyote Woman found a crooning, soulful tune rising in her throat of its own accord as she busied herself around the house. She didn’t feel the need to clean as much as to be occupied, so she put away things that had been left out for months, dusted dead flies off windowsills, rearranged her bedroom to feel more like a den.
Her phone rang and it was Sabrina. The seal woman sounded beside herself as she went on about her man and another woman, or maybe another animal, and if they got divorced would he get half of her sealskin, too?
“I just thought, you’ve been in a situation like this before, Angie, and, oh, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Sabrina moaned.
“You’re going to be fine,” Coyote Woman said. She crumpled the teacher’s note stuck on the fridge, the one about a consultation for the boys, and dropped it into the trash. “You survived before, didn’t you?”
“I— you mean before my skin…?”
“If you’re any kind of animal, or woman, you’ll keep surviving.”
If Sabrina hung up disappointed or if that’s exactly what she’d wanted to hear, Coyote Woman didn’t care. She was too distracted with her plans.
As dusk set in, she dug a ladder from the outside storage and propped it against the side of the trailer. She went in, filled one thermos with decaf and another with hot cocoa, then climbed to the roof. The boys watched her preparations and followed.
It wasn’t something she had to tell them to do, any more than the moon had to tell her. Coyote muscle memory was engrained into all of them.
They settled on one end of the trailer’s roof, sipped hot drinks and watched the luminous sky. Soon, the boys began to yip, then bark, then howl.
They tipped their muzzles to the sky and Coyote Woman guided their song in her lower, deeper tones. A soulful crooning that let the world know they were there.
Neighbors on one side came out and frowned up at the sight; on the other, they hollered at her to shut up. Coyote Woman sang to drown them out and encouraged her pups to do the same.
As though called from half the city away, Libby arrived home a bit after ten. Her ears pricked inquiringly over the top of the ladder as the friend’s car chugged away. Coyote Woman held up the thermos of decaf and Libby crawled to her side. She smelled of wet fur, fast food tacos, a tiny bit of booze. The huge yellow moon reflected in her eyes while they sipped steaming drinks from plastic cups.
“Tell that friend of yours they need to get the alternator checked,” Coyote Woman said.
“I knew you’d say something like that,” Libby said.
Coyote Woman huffed. She couldn’t care less about the brisk wind on her bare, human arms as her daughter raised her muzzle to the sky and sang.
* * *
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