The night rang with the sound of screams as the woman fought desperately to push her child into the world. Outside the man paced back and forth. When he tipped his nose to the wind he could smell the blood.
He felt queer, walking on two legs instead of four. He pricked his ears, letting the familiar scents of the forest calm him. Every instinct he possessed was telling him to shift, to run as far and as fast from this place as his feet could carry him. But he remained and paced. Back, forth, back, forth.
He watched the raven spiral down from the stars above and alight on the ground beside him.
“She’s taking too long,” Coyote growled when his sister stood fully formed before him, eyes dark and knowing.
“She’s stronger than you know,” she soothed. “As is your child. They will survive.”
He whirled on her. “Do not presume to know my mind!” Coyote snapped.
Raven bowed her head submissively. “As you say, O Great Brother.”
Another scream split the air.
Coyote turned to the longhouse, brow furrowed. A distressed whine rose in his throat. “She will die because of me.”
Raven placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Go, brother. I will watch over them. This life is not for you.”
Coyote turned, a protest on his lips. He paused, considered, looked back at the longhouse. Nodding grimly, he began walking toward the trees.
Coyote paused. “You will not tell my child of me,” he told his sister with an edge to his voice. “She will know of me when it is her time, not before.”
Her black eyes grew hard and her lips drew into a distasteful pucker. She looked about to argue, then thought better of it, nodded. “Go. You have much to do and little time.”
Raven watched as her brother’s lithe form vanished into the trees, his shadow racing before him.
Sighing, she turned back to the longhouse and stepped inside.
My mother tells me to never go down to the river’s edge. For she lurks there, deep beneath the waves, and so long as I remain ashore she will not take me.
She is Tsagaglalal, who became “She Who Watches.” A river devil, a monster, and the greatest chieftain my tribe has ever known.
She sleeps beneath the soft sand of the riverbed, her lissome fox’s face pointed up, black nose shinning. Calculating, golden eyes are always watching, waiting, watching. Watching for children to sate her hunger. Tiny morsels she can pluck from the earth and crush beneath her teeth. Or she will make a slave of you – river marked, her own – a thrall to her desires until your family drowns beneath the waves and she has devoured her pound of flesh.
She is my father’s eternal antagonist, and this is the story of how my father, Coyote, was her salvation.
Her scent found him before he saw her. Coyote wrinkled his nose at the moist, swampy odor, the fox scent barely veiling the smell of rot and blood.
For two nights and three days he traveled across mountains and fields and farmland. The brown soil of North America had dug into his claws and set his pads to aching. Still, he pressed on.
A great expanse of the Columbian River stretched before him, beckoning and calm. Coyote paused on a hillock, drinking in the sight. It would be so easy to race down the smooth, weather-worn sand of the beach and soothe his aching paws. But Coyote knew the price for such folly. He’d seen the danger that lurked beneath the surface. Cautiously, he made his way down to the shore. He positioned himself on a rock, glaring down at the river’s edge. Coyote flattened his ears against his head and drew his lips back to reveal sharp teeth. From deep in his soul, a challenge sprang forth.
“Come, demon! Monster! Vile wretch! I am ready!”
Dreams are doors to the psyche, stars the mere eye holes we look through.
I dream of my father sometimes, as thousands of stars wink above me and a raven sings. I always think of his eyes first. The shape of them, the thousands of colors they might be. His face comes next, then the features, distant and fuzzy. I imagine he’s a tall, his body lithe and sinewy, with a thin bearing belying the muscles beneath.
His features are harder to conjure. Sometimes his face is broad, sometimes flat. Sometimes homely or handsome. Mother says he’s a god, thus has the face of a god. However, I suspect most women say this of their men, to stroke their large egos.
I don’t really care, of course, for he’s my father. I know in my heart he will always protect me.
Tsagaglalal’s eyes broke the water first. Her pupils narrowed to slits as she spotted him with eyes more dragon than fox. Her head followed suit, bursting from the water in a great geyser of froth that rolled down her scales in rivers and splashed to the ground in lakes. Her body was a dragon in all but wings.
The mind of a fox, the body of a dragon, Coyote mused, backing away. The universe does despise me.
He waited until her head rested level with his before striking. Her yellow eyes brimmed with hate as she snapped at him, teeth crashing down with the force of sycamores.
Coyote all but danced on her muzzle, her teeth only inches from him. He aimed for her ears, her eyes, her snout, drawing further and further away from the river each time.
When he was certain she could not return, Coyote turned tail and bolted across the plains. As expected, the River Devil made after him, her claws and tail gouging great canyons into the earth as she roared her fury to the sky.
“Come, demon! Monster! Vile wretch!” Coyote flung the words at her like poisonous barbs. “I have made you what you are. Now, let us end this!”
“You disgusting little brown rat!” Tsagaglalal roared. “I’ll kill you!”
With that she leapt, her body taking flight for half a heartbeat before falling to the earth. And falling, and falling, and falling.
For twenty leagues she fell, her body finally hitting the ground with a force great enough to shake the world. Rocks fell in cascades along her head and body. The River Devil opened her wide maw and roared her pain and grief to the stars.
Coyote settled himself on a rocky outcropping where he could better observe his trapped foe. The wheels in his mind began to turn.
I listen to the howling of the coyotes outside my window as my mother sings the songs of earth to lull me to dreams. Her voice is deep, comforting. The fire is warm in our hearth as it dances through the air on silent footsteps to warm my furs and myself beneath them. A raven caws from a nearby tree.
The howling haunts me. Those piercing yips and whines that could mean so much yet are lost to man’s ear. When I sleep that night, I dream of my father amid a great pack of brothers and sisters, and I find I am weeping. I long for the moment when I too may join them.
She rested before him, a shell of what she once was. Tired, beaten, bloody but never broken. No, she’s far too proud for that.
Coyote lay his head gently against her muzzle. A small cut ran along her right shoulder. He whined softly.
“Why do you care?” the River Devil asked, her voice drained, not menacing.
Coyote turned indulgent yellow eyes on her. “Humor me.”
Tsagaglalal lifted her head, eyes wary. “I’m fine,” she growled.
Coyote licked her nose, knowing the words to be true. “Good.” Closing his eyes, Coyote centered himself and revealed to her his heart.
He sensed Tsagaglalal go rigid, then limp as the waves of memory carried her away.
He showed her a time when Earth was young, himself a callow pup. Of when they had met upon the ridge, how he had changed her to stone. A cruel trick so she may always guard her people well.
At least, Coyote had told himself this.
Yet perhaps the true reason was not that Tsagaglalal couldn’t have been a competent leader, but that he didn’t want the world to know a woman could rule without the guidance of men. Coyote showed her all this and more, reserving the birth of his child an instant before she opened her eyes.
Tsagaglalal blinked, her eyes clearer than they’d been since she first escaped her stone prison and became the River Devil, filling the world with death and destruction. Blinking gratitude, she turned her scaled body and slithered back into the embrace of the river she so loved. Coyote watched her head disappear beneath the waves.
I hear his voice first, the light timbre of it. Warm, coaxing.
I open my eyes to slits, peer around. He is kneeling before me, blue eyes shining. Blue eyes, not the deep brown I’d imagined. Yet no less warm, no less beloved.
I curl my hands around him. Bury my head in the neck of this man – Coyote, my father – shaking, laughing, crying.
I rise from the bed, my feet feeling lighter against the dirt of the longhouse than they had in months. Hands clasped, we walk out into the warm night. Above, a raven caws.
In a sudden burst of exhilaration, Coyote breaks into a run. His figure grows dimmer and dimmer, lighter and lighter. He looks back at me expectantly. His blue eyes shining, shining, shining.
Laughing, I bolt after him. Chasing my father into the stars.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.