Coyote—a gem of a novella—begins with this unsettling sentence: “We were on the porch most of the night before she vanished.” And then the rest of the paragraph: “Just grilling and eating things like hot dogs and potatoes. Her Dad grilled buns so they got all sweet and burnt-tasting on the edges. We drank beers and watched her pick at the heads of nails sticking up out of the splintering blue wood. Her Dad played a guitar a little, songs I didn’t know other than when he played them.”
The girl (their daughter) was two-and-a-half years old. They put her to bed, “and when we woke up she as gone.” Just like that, that quickly. She was playing on the porch the night before, her parents (presumably unmarried because her Dad is never referred to as the narrator’s husband) put her to bed, and by morning she had vanished. Police are all over the place, questioning them and searching for her. Her parents appear on a number of talk shows, pleading with whoever took her to return her. Although coyotes are mentioned, it seems unlikely that they ate her, since there is no evidence of that. Still, they have to be considered. The house is on the edge of a town. “One time [a coyote] came right up onto the porch and her Dad got him with a shovel while I watched from the kitchen.” He buried him in the yard where other animals (two cats and a dog and one hamster) had been buried earlier.
The relationship between the missing girl’s parents quickly deteriorates. The two of them fight and then make up, giving into violent sex. Sleepless nights and bitter arguments. The narrator wonders what she ever saw in the man who fathered her child, describing him as an ugly man. She constantly reassesses their relationship: “He loses his temper. He’s an asshole, plain and simple. But he’s also naively sweet. He’s an idiot is what he is, for the most part. He’s this weak idiot that I could love more than anything in the entire world.”
“Then she arrived and I loved her that way instead. There was less of him because there had to be. It’s the odd thing about a child, you’ll sacrifice anything for them, even the person you once loved more than anything else in the world. A person you would have given your own life for, suddenly you’d strike them down to protect something that can’t even speak. That just rolls around and makes little sounds and touches your face and fingers and keys indiscriminately.”
The talk shows lose interest in the case because nothing has changed. On the verge of madness, the narrator sets the house on fire. She’s momentarily hopeful about discovery of their child because other parents who had a missing child are reunited with that child. Can she go
back on one of the talk shows and make her plea again? She constantly asks herself “What was she like?” worried that her memories of her child are receding into the past. Will she forget her child entirely? Is that what happens in incidents as horrendous as this one?
The narrator’s pain and suffering become coiled like a spring. She searches for the house of the family whose child was returned, wandering in and out of houses if their doors are open. She’s crazed, increasingly irrational, bitter about everyone and everything. When she can’t discover the house she’s looking for, her anger extends to everyone around her. She observes, “Our town is not a great place to live for anyone, especially anyone who is particularly happy. Our town is filled with people who want to reach in and take your happiness from you. They want to stamp it out with their shitty heal.”
Coyote is wrenched from the heart—a powerful study of pain, madness, and peace. That final word may surprise you because there are revelations in Winnette’s tight narrative that will unsettle you, just as the narrator is shocked by her discovery of what happened to her missing child and then driven further into madness. Even the dedication at the beginning of the text (“For any always elsewhere”) leaves one in a state of limbo, suggesting that the author has also experienced the unspeakable (a missing child) or been very close to someone who did.
Coyote is a small miracle.
Colin Winnette: Coyote
Les Figues Press, 96 pp., $17
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: email@example.com.