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2010 Writer’s Competition Nonfiction Winner

2010 First Place Nonfiction

by Logan Volkmann, Wenatchee

An Epitaph for Minor Characters

The young man stands beside her in the shadow of a tool-shed. There is morning all around him, warm July, and she has just grown cold. Her body is inert, her runner’s legs outstretched and ready, and the young man thinks: She must have seen. She must have turned away. Her mouth has opened like a narrow inlet ivory and dark around the edges; there is very little blood, no marks of violence, not a sign—but silence filling up her lungs, her nose, her ears, like sand. She is lying on her right side where the gravel meets the uncut grass. She faces west. Her eyes are closed.

In the long, clay-oven summers I have watched them play among the nests of sagebrush and the gullies filled with wild cherry trees. I have seen them basking together on sandstone cliffs and cavities of sun-warmed earth—or rather, we have seen each other. Sit awhile and listen. You might catch them hunting Montane voles in a slow and ancient dance: the body tense; the ears cupped forward; legs together; tail fluttering with anticipation—all of this without a sound. There is an interlude; a leap; the mouth and paws slide downward like a plunge into deep water.

The young man has not learned to listen. For sixteen years he has been sleeping. He did not hear his father leave the house this morning, or the snap of rifle-fire; the collapse; the gasp of fear and memory escaping. Variations of this story will come later, but for now the evidence is here: a coyote killed because she has been stealing chickens. When the young man hears this from his father he runs outside before anyone can move her body. The day is thin and colorless. The sun has not yet cleared the skyline, but shadows from poplar trees begin to drift, irregular and vast, along the gravel      driveway.

Every spring his father butchers chickens on a chopping block under the willow tree. Every January on the mountain he has found the bones of mule deer. He has seen death burned and buried, scattered on the wings of birds, but hers is different. Hers is one which he has not imagined: sudden, like an insult or a hailstone falling. Still, the young man keeps his distance as if something hovers over her—a charge, the kind that gathers around sea cliffs and the ledges of high towers. Her body is a radiance of smell; a shout suspended. All the rest—the swallows and the orioles; the irrigation lines and heaps of lumber—all of this is endless and impossible subtraction.

 

In the winter, on the indrawn breath of evening they slip into the orchard; all night they will wander the moon-white rows in search of frozen pears and apples. Their traveling seems purposeful. Every trail they follow; every trace or movement is a vivid self-assurance. In the morning, when the snow is soft under my shoes I catch glimpses of them before they glide into the serviceberry trees—five of them together, young and lithe and slender in their ash-red fur. I know them only by the patterns on their sides. On close, calm days I try to separate their voices from the song. Every coyote has a name, and I am still just learning how to hear them.

But the young man will not understand this for a long while. He is focused on the details leading to her death; the dark surprise; the snap of bullet against bone. Alive or not, this is the only coyote he has ever seen from less than fifty yards away. By the standards of her species she looks middle-aged—which is to say, no more than three or four years old. She has raised a family. Even in July her belly is swollen from nursing. Her summer coat is thin, salt-gray and ragged with a frost of under-fur. She died alone.

I have watched young coyotes somersault down broad declines of rust-red soil. I have listened as they reunite in meadows quiet with November fog. Late in the afternoon their song glides down across high distances of brodiaea and ponderosa pine. Their play is wordless; so is violence. Coyotes leave their den sites early in the summer, when the pups are old enough to travel. They are opportunists. They do not build cities. They do not see boundaries where we see them. Follow their tracks through the first December snow. Stand outside under the hush of stars. You will come to understand the difference.

In another time the young man who has known the deaths of minor characters steps forward, kneels, and stretches out his hand. His fingers touch her side, gently: no more than a breath before opening his eyes. For a moment there is nothing left to understand. There are no distances in death, and no more mysteries.

 

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