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"The Winter Meal," short story excerpt

Monday 8/2/21

The coyote rested its forepaws against the window, looking at the child in its roughhewn crib the way it did every day after the man had left on his hunt. The snow hadn’t let up for weeks, piling in stacks of egret-whiteness against the door of the cabin. Usually the man returned without any kills, barely able to grip the rifle in the cold. His gloves had holes and were worn thin, and his skin melded to the metal. The torn chunks from the tops of his fingers and the ablated, raw base of his palm caused him to think of the meat he wouldn’t be skinning. There was little life to be seen and less to be had.


The girl patted the glass, amused by the animal panting outside. She could see the coyote’s breath. The tongue was so pink. The child cried because she’d been left alone, but she’d stop, calmed, as the coyote came and looked at her. She could hear him whine, but his eyes were alive and peaceful. He’d leave streaks of snow on the window, which he’d lick with the pink tongue, and the little girl in her crib laughed. When the man returned home, the coyote would be gone. It was like they lived on different sides of a curtain and took turns taking care of her.

There used to be a trough out front, before the extinguishing cold had come, a period like no other, and turned the objects of a yard into the possessions of the earth. The man did not know if anyone else still existed. Wasn’t possible to leave the valley. He wondered what happened to the world. Where else this was occurring. What he would do when the ammunition ran out. He saw no rabbits. On occasion there were deer. He didn’t take shots he ordinarily would have. He had to be sure.


The trough had fed the coyote in summers that would surely never arrive again. In the mornings there’d often been an owl floating at the surface. The birds tried to get a drink from the trough and fell in, feathers weighing them down so that they couldn’t reemerge, providing the coyote an easy meal to take back to his lair.


Now the coyote went departed more from the window at the side of the cabin, with the man having returned, his scent in the air. The man with his rifle who did not see the prints of the coyote because the snow filled them in as soon as they were made. The child couldn’t say what she had seen, who had looked over her so that she wouldn’t have to be alone, unprotected, and scared. But she had her friend.


The ice caked the tread of the coyote’s paws. The skin cracked and bled but it froze over quickly, making it seem that the coyote moved about on red rollers. Retreating to his lair, he stopped and beheld a barred owl in a tree, no more than fifteen feet overhead. An owl that once might have fallen into the trough and been consumed by the coyote in spring. The two creatures looked at each other, unstirring. Without hope for the meal, the coyote’s eyes stagnated. There was none of the wild fires of movement, anticipation, that would have alerted the owl that danger was imminent. A strike of teeth, if the coyote could somehow bridge the difference in altitude. A feather drifted down in the wind, and the coyote continued on before it could blow past his face.


The bones of his mate remained under the rock ledge of the coyote’s lair. He didn’t see the pups they had raised. He saw no other coyotes. No small game. No foxes, no raccoons, no porcupines. There was the occasional deer, which the coyote could not bring down, only the man with his rifle, who encountered less deer than the coyote did.


He’d eaten her after she died, having laid beside the frozen form for a week. The tongue had first become a delicate, breakable, pink worm, then a gray, lolling tendril of death. He chewed through the fibrous tongue meat and the salt-infused lips, he chewed through the face, he ate the shoulders, he ate the loins, the reproductive organ, the tail. He vomited as he ate, and he ate the vomit. Now she was bones, with dangling scraps of flesh as hard as the ice that lined the rock walls, and he put his jaws around the various pieces of the skeleton, for comfort. To feel her once more in the only way that he could. Her scent remained. He could smell it, too, on the wind, when he left the lair, and as he returned.