This was published in
BRUCE COVILLE'S SHAPESHIFTERS

Tricky Coyote

by

Susan J. Kroupa

 

Jimmy Shupla never wanted to be anything other than human. 
He especially didn't want  to be a coyote. In all the Hopi stories 
his grandmother told him, coyotes were the silliest  of animals--
always trying to trick others and always having their tricks backfire. 
Still, the day he turned into a coyote he wasn't entirely surprised. 
Coyotes had always haunted  the edges of his life.

Hadn't his grandmother told him she'd spotted a coyote on the day 
of his naming when  he was just a baby? And three years ago, when 
he was eight, he'd seen one at his initiation. It trotted right through 
the center of the village, past the old stone houses  and the kiva, 
and then calmly loped off. Everyone who saw it laughed. Silly Coyote 
was up to his tricks again.

"Maybe Coyote came because he is your animal guide," his 
grandmother said that day.

"How is he going to help me?" Jimmy asked. "Everyone always 
laughs at Coyote." He wished that Badger or Eagle had appeared 
at his initiation instead.

His grandmother frowned. "If you can learn from him, that is what 
matters. Worrying too much about what other people think can be 
a pathway to becoming  a witch."

Jimmy didn't want to be a witch, using power to hurt others, but he 
secretly hoped that his grandmother was wrong about Coyote being 
his animal guide.

Then, to his dismay, a coyote appeared again, this time when his 
mother showed up at his grandmother's house and said she was 
"taking Jimmy to live with her in Apache Junction. She said she 
finally had a decent job and a trailer with enough space for two. 
Everyone was surprised by this. She had always said it was hard 
enough for one person to live on what she earned waiting tables 
in Apache Junction. She had always said there were no jobs on the 
reservation. But his grandmother once told Jimmy that his mother
 preferred the Anglo citiesto the Hopi villages.

"She doesn't hold much to the old ways," his grandmother said, 
disapproval deepening the lines on her face.

Still, his grandmother and grandfather had let his mother take him 
away. All the way out to the car he had waited for them to call out,
 to tell her to stop, but they hadn't. He saw  the coyote out the car 
window as he rode beside his mother down the mesa. He was sure 
he saw it because his eyes stayed dry and clear even though his 
chest cramped so tight he could hardly breathe.

"We have TV and you'll have your own room," his mother said. "And 
running water."

He wondered why that was better than having his grandparents 
sleeping beside him.

It took hours to drive to Apache Junction, a desert town near 
Phoenix. His mother took  him to a small trailer that sweltered on 
a patch of dirt near dozens of other trailers. The walls shook with 
every gust of wind, and Jimmy missed his grandmother's solid 
stone house, which had shut out the weather for centuries.

The next morning, as he walked down the long gravel road to the 
bus stop, he saw a coyote. It crossed in front of him, but then 
stopped and looked him in the eye, something not even a friendly 
dog would normally do. It stared at him, its face sad.

"Go away!" Jimmy said, shaken. "I don't want you around." The 
coyote turned then, and loped off.

**

At school that day he discovered that--despite its name--Apache 
Junction had hardly any Indian kids. Some of the boys in the class 
laughed out loud when the teacher announced that Jimmy had 
come from the Hopi reservation. The teacher glared at them, but 
they still snickered in loud whispers. During the first recess, he 
met a Navajo boy named Delbert, and sat with him at lunch. They 
shot hoops together during the second recess, too, until they 
suddenly were surrounded by the other boys from the class. A 
dark, stocky boy grabbed the ball.

"Hey, Miguel, give it back!" Delbert shouted.

Miguel just laughed and threw it to one of his friends. They tossed 
it back and forth.

Jimmy jumped after it but missed, and Miguel grabbed his shirt, 
holding his fist so it almost touched Jimmy's nose. He was a good 
head taller than either Jimmy or Delbert, and Jimmy thought he 
looked more Indian than Hispanic, but then Miguel's words drove 
all such thoughts out of his head.

"You want it? You want it? I'll give it to you!" Miguel's black eyes 
held nothing but hatred.

Jimmy stared at Miguel's shirt, frozen, not even daring to breathe. 
Finally Miguel released him and turned away, and the boys all left, 
taking the ball with them. Jimmy and Delbert walked back to the 
classroom then, Jimmy forcing his eyes to stay dry even though 
his whole body shook with anger.

After that, he and Delbert stuck close to the playground teacher |
during recess.

But the teacher couldn't protect him after he got off the bus. The 
worst discovery of Jimmy's first day at school was that Miguel lived 
in the same trailer park. He and his friend Nick, a skinny kid with
 stringy blond hair, poked and shouted at Jimmy the entire walk home. 
After a few days, they began chasing him down the gravel road, punching 
him if  he didn't run fast enough to escape them.

It was one of those times that it happened. He was walking home 
from the bus stop, suffocating in the brutal September heat, listening 
to the footsteps behind him. Miguel and Nick, as usual. Jimmy wished 
they'd leave him alone, wished he were strong enough  to beat them 
up. He hated them. Stupid bullies who made his life miserable. An anger 
rose within him, churning like a dust devil. It swirled inside until he felt he 
was going to  split apart, and then he was dizzy as if it had moved outside 
him and sucked him up. The ground seemed to spring toward him.

One of the boys yelled, but Jimmy hardly heard it. An overpowering 
stench
filled his nose. Worse, when he looked down at himself he saw 
four legs. Four furry legs. He turned his head and saw a long gray-brown 
back that ended in a tail. A coyote, he thought in dismay, but there was |
no time to consider how this had come about.

Already the stench began to sort itself into individual smells. The 
scent of Nick and Miguel jolted him with fear. Humans! something 
deep inside him said. Run!

But the Jimmy part of him remembered the bruises he'd gotten 
from their punches. Remembered how humiliating it was to sit by 
the teacher during recess. The anger escaped his mouth in a snarl, 
and the sound reminded him that coyotes have sharp teeth.

He attacked Nick first, sinking his jaws into a piece of arm, smelling 
the blood as his teeth ripped through flesh. It made him sick and elated 
at the same time. Nick fell to the ground screaming. Miguel turned and 
ran back toward the bus stop. Jimmy caught up to him easily, surprised 
at how fast having four legs made him. He lunged at Miguel, tearing 
through his jeans but only grazing the skin.

He snapped again, but the voice within him was shouting NoHumans
Run
! Run! The fear rose from his very bones and he could ignore it no 
longer. He swerved around Miguel and bounded off into the desert, 
running, running, running, until heat and exhaustion overcame him. 
He slowed to a trot. Hide! said the voice inside.

Finally, he came upon an old paved road. He followed it until it crossed 
a wash. A culvert ran beneath the road. He crawled into it, into the cool 
dark, and lay there panting. Somewhere, in the back part of his mind, Jimmy wondered how he had become a coyote. But he was too tired 
to think about it. And then he fell asleep.

When he awoke, he was human again. He was lying in the culvert, 
clothed just as he'd been when he got off the bus, backpack and everything.

Maybe somehow he'd dreamed it all, but it felt too real for that. Maybe 
he was going crazy. How many times had his grandmother told him it 
was not the Hopi way to let oneself become angry? And to attack someone--
his grandmother would call that crazy.

It was almost dark. He crawled out of the culvert and began walking 
down the road, wondering how he would ever find his way home. But 
before he'd gone very far, a police car came by and stopped beside 
him. A woman in a uniform rolled down the window.

"Jimmy Shupla?" she asked She had tired eyes like his mother's 
when she got off work.

Jimmy nodded, his heart pounding. Maybe they were going to arrest 
him for attacking those boys.

Instead, she smiled, and her eyes seemed less tired. She got out 
of the car. "A whole bunch of people are looking for you! Were you 
bitten by the coyote?"

Jimmy shook his head. So it wasn't a dream, he thought, his heart 
sinking.

"Well, that's a relief. Probably has rabies, attacking people like that. 
Let's get you home. Your mother's worried sick."

When they reached the trailer, Jimmy's mother rushed out to meet 
them, her eyes red and swollen from crying. She surprised him by 
how fiercely she hugged him. Later, he learned that Nick and Miguel 
were going to have to get shots in case the coyote had rabies. There 
was a big story about it on TV with pictures of people with rifles, and 
talk about a reward for the coyote's dead body.

That night, Jimmy lay in his room wishing his grandmother's walls of 
stone surrounded him. In spite of the heat, he shivered. Why did he 
have to have coyotes in his life anyway?

He pulled his pillow around his face. What if he turned into a coyote 
again and got killed? And what about the coyote with the sad face 
he'd seen on the first day of school? He hoped it was far away, safe 
from all the hunters' bullets. He pictured the coyote in his mind.
  Stay away! he told it. Hide!

And then something deep inside him began to tremble. How could 
his grandmother let him leave? Why hadn't she kept him on the mesa 
where he belonged? What if the coyote with the sad eyes died? It 
would be his fault if it got shot. His eyes watered and he choked back 
the tears, but it was a long time that night before he finally fell asleep.

Nick and Miguel were at school the next day.  Nick wore a big bandage 
on his arm. At recess, most of the class crowded around him to hear 
about the coyote. Jimmy and Delbert stood at the back of the group, 
listening.

"We were just walking home from the bus and bap! It sprang out of 
the bushes and attacked us," Nick said. Face flushed, eyes bright, 
he was plainly enjoying the attention. He brushed a strand of greasy 
blond hair off his face, then held his hand up to his chest. "Biggest 
coyote I've ever seen. More like a wolf. Right?" He looked at Miguel 
for confirmation, but Miguel stared at his feet as if he were afraid.

"And teeth!" Nick pointed to his bandage. "I got thirty-four stitches!"

Jimmy remembered the taste of flesh in his mouth and felt sick. He 
hoped his grandmother never found out.

On the way back into the classroom, Jimmy and Delbert ended up in 
line behind Miguel.

"That coyote didn't come out of the bushes," Miguel said in a low voice 
to another boy. "That boy--he changed into a coyote, like that!" He 
snapped his finger. "Right before my eyes!" He turned then, and saw 
Jimmy. His eyes widened.

"I saw it!" Miguel's voice, defiant at first, trailed to a whisper. "Brujo!" |
He crowded forward into the line.

Jimmy found Delbert staring at him.

"He called you a witch!" Delbert said. "What does he mean?"

The words were out of Jimmy's mouth before he could think. "It just 
happened. I don't  know how. I didn't try to be a coyote...I didn't want to..."

But Delbert backed away from him, a look of horror on his face.

"Witch?" asked a thin, freckled girl beside Jimmy. She gave a loud 
cackle and chanted, "Witch, witch, where's your broomstick?"

"No, you gotta make it rhyme," Nick said, further up the line. "Witch, 
witch, you're a--"  The bell rang, cutting him off, and then the teacher 
led them into class.

But Jimmy knew what Miguel and Delbert had meant. In Indian culture 
witches weren't  old women with black hats and broomsticks. They 
were people who used magic to hurt others. Sometimes witches made 
people sick. Sometimes they took the shape of animals. But they always 
used their magic for evil.

The rest of the day was awful. Jimmy wanted to tell Delbert he wasn't 
a witch. He didn't want to hurt anyone. But the bandage on Nick's 
arm made him wonder if he was lying to himself.

The awful day stretched into an awful week. Without Delbert to talk 
to at lunch and recess, school seemed endless. Nick and Miguel no 
longer bothered him on the walk home from the bus stop, but the way 
they watched him, as if he were a monster, made Jimmy almost wish 
they'd go back to chasing him. Even worse were the reports on the 
nightly news: On the weekend, volunteers from all over the state were 
going to help search for the coyote. Jimmy lay in bed at night and 
worried about the sad-faced coyote. "Hide," he said silently, hoping 
it could hear. "And tell all your friends. Keep away from here."

The hunters arrived on Friday. As he walked home from the bus stop, 
Jimmy saw the trucks clustered into the trailer park. The men held a 
big meeting and then got into their trucks and took off in giant clouds 
of dust.

At first, Jimmy huddled in the trailer, miserably waiting to hear a rifle 
shot. If a coyote died it'd be his fault. He thought about Delbert, who 
was afraid to even come near him now. And Miguel. Were they right? 
Was he a witch? If so, maybe he'd be better off dead. Maybe he ought 
to turn back into a coyote. Maybe he ought to let the hunters shoot him
instead of some innocent coyote who'd never attacked a human, who'd 
never sunk his teeth into flesh just because he was angry.

The longer he considered it, the more it seemed that changing back 
to a coyote was the right thing to do. Even if just thinking about it made 
him shake inside. The only problem was that he didn't know how. Could 
he change just by wanting to?

He waited until dusk and then walked outside in front of his trailer. He 
closed his eyes. Coyote, coyote, coyote. Shutting everything else out 
of his mind, he willed his body to comply. Coyote, coyote, coyote. He 
pictured himself as a coyote and directed all his energies to the picture. 
Coyote
, coyote, coyote.

After a long time, when he became too tired to continue, he opened 
his eyes. His body was unchanged. But something moved in front of him. 
It was nearly dark and it took him a moment to see it. A coyote sat a few 
feet away, staring at him with the same sad look he'd seen before.

No! This wasn't what he wanted. Not here where the hunters would 
find it.

"Run! " he whispered. "Hide!"

The coyote stared back, but it was if Jimmy heard him say, "Don't worry. 
I'll be okay." And the confidence behind the thought was great enough 
that Jimmy's fear for the coyote vanished, leaving room for other fears.

"I don't want to be a witch," Jimmy said, still in a whisper. "Don't make 
me a witch." Tears welled up unbidden in his eyes.

And again the coyote's thoughts came into his mind. No one can make 
you a witch. Only you can do that
. And Jimmy remembered it wasn't the 
coyote part of him that had wanted to attack the boys.

The coyote trotted over to a trash can in front of a neighbor's trailer. 
Deftly, he jumped up on two legs and leaned over the top of the can, 
biting through the bag inside and fishing out something, which he ate. 
And then he disappeared into the night.

Jimmy was still standing in front of the trailer when his mother drove 
up a few minutes later.

"You need to come inside," she said. "I don't want you getting lost again." 
The fear in her voice was real. He remembered how she'd cried and 
hugged him when the policewoman had brought him home. Something 
in her eyes now reminded him of his grandmother.

"It's not safe out there until they catch that coyote," she said.

"That coyote won't hurt anyone again." The confidence in his voice 
brought a puzzled expression to his mother's face.

That night, Jimmy went to bed without bothering to watch the news. 
Coyote had said he'd be okay and Jimmy believed him. For the first 
time, he thought that maybe having Coyote as an animal guide wasn't 
so bad. Coyote, once with an endless desert to roam and hunt, now 
had to find food in garbage cans. The king of tricksters had pulled off 
the greatest trick of all: His whole world had changed and he'd survived.

Quite a trick, thought Jimmy. And he thought that maybe he could do 
the same.

# # #

 

 

Susan J. Kroupa 2001