You can tell the difference between a dog and a coyote. I can’t explain how, exactly – but the first time you’re lying in bed on a warm spring night with the windows open, and you hear them in the distance – even though you didn’t grow up here, even though you’ve never heard the sound of coyotes howling on the plains – somehow, you know what you’re hearing.
It’s been more than a decade since I moved out here, and it still unnerves me.
A book I read said that faerie myths originated from fear. Fear of dark places. Fear of the woods, which were once wild and dangerous. Things that make no sense could be blamed on the small, dark creatures who crawled from the woods at night to poke about homes and peek in cradles.
When the world was wild and unknown, humans had to fear the night.
I grew up in an area where there was a lot of wind. We lived on the outskirts of town, in an area where all the trees had been cleared away for farms, just as the farms started to be cleared away for new neighborhoods. That meant there was nothing to block the wind, and so it raged against our homes.
The screeching kept me up at night, and I wonder if my mind began to generate stories. It’s one thing to fear something that has a name, an origin, and explanation – it’s another thing entirely to hear noises, and be struck with fear because you don’t understand what it is you’re hearing.
And so, humans evolved as narrative-makers, so that we could explain the unknown in the times before it was possible to know.
I can easily imagine a world in which narratives are never put aside, because there’s no science to replace them with. Giving something a name and a backstory takes some of the fear out of it. It’s easier to cope with things we can name. (Ask anyone with an anxiety disorder.)
Today our wild places – both the literal and metaphoric ones – are shrinking. The faeries disappeared with the woods. What a reversal in fortunes, that what we once feared we now threaten.
I still hear the coyotes sometimes. I saw some, early one morning, on the bike path adjacent to my neighborhood. They didn’t approach me, but neither did they fear me – they watched me with the sort of feral desperation that of a creature about to lose its home. They watched me as if they were deciding whether or not to let me pass.
It was wretchedly unsettling. Hearing them in the distance is one thing; it’s quite another to come close to one, to feel it watching you. I have small dogs, and I always fear for them – I feel a deep responsibility for the lives of all the animals in my home. My biggest nightmare is the thought of failing to protect them. Even by writing these words, I irrationally fear that I’m tempting the universe to threaten the creatures who evolved to coexist with me, simply because it can.
Coyotes, you see, are like faeries – they come in and take the things you care about before you realize what’s happening. Not because they’re evil, but because that’s their nature. And when we force them into close proximity with us, they fight for their lives every bit as vigorously as we fight for ours.
And when I hear them, and see them, I get a little taste of what it was like to live in past times, and be afraid of the woods.
It strikes me lately that the world was most certainly more frightening when there were faeries in it, and dark woods, and unknowable things – but I think that in some ways, we were better off.