She sees him first at the back of the lot, belly-deep in snow by the wild grape. Alec sits at the table, eating the new organic eggs. It’s Valentine’s Day.
Cory calls her husband Scott. “What do coyotes look like?”
“Uh, like a dog, I guess. Long snout maybe.”
“I think I saw one in the back yard. He went into the woods.” A tunnel in the snow testifies to the animal’s route, but the pack is too soft and deep to retain clear tracks.
“I’ve never heard of coyotes in the middle of a city.”
“Last March, Manhattan,” Cory says.
“Was he living in a homeless shelter?”
“Ha, ha,” she deadpans. When Alec was a baby and refused to breast feed, Scott just shrugged. “Maybe he’s gay–doesn’t like a nice pair of tits.”
Cory calls the municipal office. The city manager sounds tired. “Yes, we’ve had a few other unconfirmed reports. Nobody’s sure yet, but it’s a possibility. There’s no real danger. As long as nobody feeds them.”
But how do you know if anyone is feeding them?
When she asks this of Scott that night over dinner he scowls. “What kind of idiot would do that?”
That night Cory watches a special about kids with brain cancer. It’s terrible, but compared to the other threats against her son’s life, it also strikes Cory as innocent.
There’s the yellow card from the doctor—measles, mumps, rubella–but no proof vaccines don’t cause autism.
The faceless manufacturers with their recall alerts. Apparently the strap on her ninety-five dollar car seat can melt in a high-speed crash.
The blank-faced sickos in her email. Sexually Oriented Offender, victim: Child Female. File last modified 2006-09-19 Unlawful sexual Contact w/a minor. What is unlawful sexual contact? How minor?
The little girl Alec goes to preschool with. Once, in Cory’s dream, green-eyed Lily handed him a syringe. After that Cory studied the other toddlers, trying to guess who will convince him to take a hit, pass along AIDS, propose a wager over alcohol consumption or the speed of his car on a rain-slick road. Who will bring a gun to school?
Cancer may strike without warning, but it arrives without recrimination. Blame lays with God.
Cory tried to take precautions. Their upscale neighborhood has its own police and fire departments. Their house and the enormous pines on either side completely conceal the backyard from any passing sickos. The low-lying area at the back of their lot–thick with oak and birch for a mile—discourages visitors with twig-sharp snow in the winter, boot-sucking mud in the spring and poison ivy mosquito flats come summer. To be sure there are no tells, Cory refuses to buy a swing set. When Scott mocked her, she snapped, “Why don’t we just put an advertisement in Pedophilia Monthly.” He doesn’t own the patent on sarcasm.
Then, less than a month after they moved in, Cory heard a piece on NPR about West Nile virus. Suddenly the woods didn’t seem like such a benign shield. It took some doing, but she convinced Scott to add the screened porch and buy carbon-dioxide traps. She knew enough not to mention West Nile by then. Instead she talked about bug-free outdoor meals, the way a porch balanced the architecture of the house, the possibility of making love on a hammock during hot July nights.
For a while she believed this would be enough. But Cory hadn’t taken into account predators with fur. They were not scouting from the street. They were already in the woods. And mosquitoes and mud would do nothing to dissuade them.
In April Cory sees two coyotes just inside where the trees begin at the back of the lot. She’s at the kitchen table typing another letter to the utility people. Since they bought the house she’s been filing complaints about the sagging lines entangled in a wild grape. Alec’s three now. How long before he can reach them and electrocute himself?
Scott rolled his eyes. “He can’t get electrocuted. That’s phone and cable.”
It’s a flash of something tall and long-legged that draws her attention away from the letter. Then, behind that, two shorter creatures–red and cream fur, long snouts and low-slung tails between the half-fallen birch saplings. The coyotes are in pursuit of something. Cory remembers–spring is the season for fawns.
She does some research. Coyote sightings during the day indicate they’ve lost a fear of humans. They’re most likely to attack people in areas where food is left out in open garbage cans or dog houses. They feed on anything they can—even fruits and grasses if small mammals aren’t available. In the winter they eat deer excrement. Cory has seen the black pellet-like droppings under the pines, near the deer-ravaged hostas.
She calls the administrator of their village again. Yes, he admits, the stray cat problem seems to have gone away. “But coyotes are hard to trap, and we can’t have people running around shooting at them.”
Soon the local paper runs an article. Cory’s name in it annoys Scott.
“I know what I saw,” she said. “You’re at work all day. What do you know about what goes on around here?” The guy from the paper told her there was a documented killing of a three-year-old in California.
“You’re going to incite panic,” Scott says. “The dingo got my baby.” He mimicked an Australian accent.
“This coming from a man who nearly killed my son.”
Scott had no smart aleck reply to that. A year ago Cory went for a bike ride. On the way home, along a busy street, she came over the bridge and there he was, her two-year old. For several seconds it hadn’t registered. She attributes the delay to a horrified disbelief. Her brain calculated Scott must be beside him—he simply had to be.
But he wasn’t. Alec stood at the corner, hundreds of feet away from her, looking at the traffic whizzing by as if he planned to cross the street. Cory sped up and literally threw the bike out from under herself and lunged in front of her son just as he stepped off the curb. She’d have surely been crushed except that the car coming up was stopping anyway. What she didn’t know is that Alec had pushed the button to turn the light red. He must have seen her and Scott do it when they took walks.
Turned out Scott was home watching baseball, sure Alec was in the kitchen eating a snack. She hasn’t left him alone with the baby since then.
At the Memorial Day block party Cory finds out a neighbor’s Pekinese was killed. “I heard a yelp, and she didn’t come when I called, so I went looking and she was behind the garage. I saw the thing running off, going down your way.”
Cory has a fence put up. She didn’t get a permit because it’s ten feet, four over the limit, and she was afraid they’d turn her down. Scott isn’t happy. “Seven thousand dollars! Do you know how much the average coyote weighs? For Christ’s sake Cory, he’s not a fucking mountain lion.”
“Thirty-five pounds. And they can jump a six-foot fence.” She’s done her homework.
A different neighbor, one who lives closer, complains about the fence. She doesn’t have any children and her dog, who lives outside, is at least 75 pounds. Cory leaves her a phone message. “I’m trying to protect my child’s life. What’s your excuse for that out-size mutt who never shuts up?”
They make her take the fence down to six feet, but she finds a rolling bar sold out of New Mexico that mounts to the top and keeps animals from scaling it. Another two thousand. She puts it on the back-up credit card which Scott doesn’t check. When he notices the bar, she lies. “That came with the fence. They just got around to putting it on.”
For Alec’s fourth birthday Scott brings home a Big Wheel. When they go outside for the inaugural ride, Cory catches Scott standing at the top of the driveway instead of the bottom, where he could block the street.
“What are you doing!” She runs out, startling Alec, who thinks it’s him who’s made a mistake. He turns the bike, riding across the short swath of grass and into the neighbor’s driveway. The neighbor, Mr. Stout, is backing out of his garage. He stops, smiling amiably. No big deal, your son’s life, his grin implies. By dinner time Scott is red with anger.
“Stop it!” he yells at Cory, throwing down his fork. “He was only smiling! Of course he thinks it’s a big deal if he runs over our kid. You’re the one who scared Alec into going off the driveway.”
Cory can barely keep from slapping Scott. “You almost hit Alec with that fork, you fuck head!” she screams.
Alec begins to cry and Cory immediately repents. “I’m sorry, oh honey, I’m sorry. Mama’s not mad. Mama’s just pretending. Smile for Mama.” She kisses his hair, his cheeks, each soft eyebrow, glancing sheepishly at Scott.
“Sorry,” he says, kissing her on the head, then his son. She’s right. The fork did bounce close to Alec’s face.
Summer now. The neighbors on the other side are new. They begin having parties. Nothing out of line. Cookouts, never past ten. But Cory can’t make out what they’re saying. On Saturday night she lies awake, window open, listening to the musical chatter. Clearly an Arab language. Must be first generation.
The next day she Googles their last name. Persian. She looks that up. It means Iranian. Shiite Muslims most likely. Whatever that means. Muslims usually blow themselves up in busy places, right? They don’t kill single little boys. And Alec’s not going to be taking the bus to school. But what about in school? The neighbors have no small children. She’d feel better if they did. They wouldn’t blow themselves up in their own kid’s school, would they? Of course, they seem very nice. They always smile and wave. Cory knows she’s being ridiculous.
One day, when she pulls in the driveway, somebody is in the back yard. They move, as if to hide behind the fence. It startles her and she runs the car into the side of the garage. Then she sees. It’s a squirrel. He stands on the fence staring at her, oddly unperturbed by the crunch of metal against the garage wall. Cory leans over the seat to examine Alec for injuries. He is buckled in tight—new car seat of course, this one researched through Consumer Reports. Whiplash? Concussion? He seems fine, but you can never be sure.
When Scott gets home, he’s angry. “You made me leave work for this? How fast could you have been going? He’s fine. The car’s what I’m worried about.”
On July 4th weekend a coyote digs his way under the fence. “You don’t know that,” Scott sneers. “It could have been anything. A raccoon.”
“Which carry rabies,” Cory says.
Scott ignores her. It doesn’t matter. She knows a coyote made that hole. It’s too big for a raccoon. And they would have climbed the fence anyway. The roll bar wasn’t designed to stop them.
She examines the spot he chose, at the end where nothing but pachysandra thrives under a sycamore’s dense shade. Within a week she has the tree cut down, replaced by a row of hawthorn that will reach thirty feet. In front of that she plants two rows of rugosa roses, a barbarously thorned shrub the man at the nursery claimed is “almost impenetrable.” That is the word that makes her buy it—impenetrable. It sounds military.
When Scott asks, she tells him the Village took the tree down and paid for the new bushes. “Some contagious disease I guess.” They’d had the ash bore, so he buys it.
But a week later she finds another hole. Thorny twigs broken off the nearby bushes lay around it, thin and brittle as uncooked spaghetti.
That night Cory pretends to go to sleep with Scott, then gets up as soon as he begins to snore and takes up watch at the kitchen window, where she can see the whole yard. It’s dark, though, and the yard is deep and large. At its furthest point shadows move without divulging their identity. Cory turns on the patio lights, then gets a baseball bat from the garage and stations herself next to the willow, where she’ll be hidden by the weeping branches. They make her think of lynchings and hangings. She imagines waking up to find her son dangling mid-way up, just another limb vulnerable to the wind.
Cory leans against the trunk, ready, then eventually sits, kept awake on the bony roots. Around her, dozens of broken boughs lay on the ground like snakes in the grass. We’re insulated, she thinks, but falsely. A little drywall, a metal cylinder in a door frame stands between us and it. We can’t hear it. But it’s always there, the rustling in the woods, the crunch of twigs and old leaves underfoot, the neighbor’s whisperings below their densely-planted pergola. What are they doing outside so late? She strains to catch a phrase, but it’s that other language. What do they have to hide? She thinks about the door she has left unlocked, retrieves the extra key from the false sprinkler head and secures the house, then returns the key to its hiding place. If someone kills her out here, she doesn’t want the key on her person.
She dozes eventually, but it’s a kind of waking sleep. To her, it seems as if her eyes never close. Before sunrise she creeps back to bed, surprised to find she’s not tired.
The sounds, shapes and movements of darkness grow familiar. In a stiff wind, the pine’s branches wave like enormous fans cooling the undergrowth. In the moonlight a neighbor’s forbidden trailer, hidden behind their garage and stacked with boards and lengths of gutter covered by a tarp, looks like a skiff, the tarp its sail, the hitch an emergency oar neglected and soon to slip overboard. The first time Cory hears rustling in the woods she readies the bat. The hundredth time she can tell the difference between the crackles of a methodical, but light-footed, raccoon and the more infrequent rustles of an owl in flight. When they settle they hoot, long and low, reassuring her.
But the coyote never comes.
Of course she gets tired. Five nights outside, seven, eight. She dozes, waking one morning with a pattern like a healed burn impressed on her cheek by the willow’s bark.
Alec seems to be crying more often. Is he sick? Another ear infection? The doctor says no. Cory tries to comfort her son, playing his favorite shows and taking him to the park, but he falls and hurts his arm. At the ER they look at her like she might be to blame.
“How did you say he fell?”
She doesn’t plan to tell Scott, but as soon as he walks in the door, Alec tugs his sleeve with the good arm and says “Mommy didn’t catch me so I fall and the doctors say I lucky!” He beams.
“How much is that stunt going to cost us?” Scott asks, and Cory shrugs, not sure if the stunt is Alec’s fall, her letting him on the park’s climbing wall or her taking him to the ER. If Scott knew about her backyard vigils he’d blame her outright. If she weren’t so tired she’d have caught Alec like she promised.
A pug is killed. A friend’s cat gets out and doesn’t come back. At play group Cory brings up the topic. One mother shrugs—“Well, they let their dogs run out in the field by the river.” No one seems concerned, even when Cory points out that the coyotes have been seen in the middle of the day.
“That means they’ve lost their fear of us.”
The women all look at her as if to ask, “What is there to fear?”
Finally, in the second week of her vigil, a scrabbling wakes her. He is coming snout-first under the fence. Cory doesn’t move. It isn’t because she’s not alert. Her mind is clear, her muscles ready. She’s so alert, she’s not at all sure she was sleeping so much as thinking with her eyes closed. But she lets him come fully under the fence without betraying herself. She wants to make sure he has no escape. When he stands he barely reaches the top of the new rugosas. Pieces of the shrub are caught in his fur. He shakes himself as if they’re water, but Cory can’t tell if he manages to lose any thorns. Then he raises his head and sniffs. His erect ears quiver. What can he detect? Can he smell her boy’s peanut butter breath? Hear the murmur of his toddler dreams? Cory’s hand is on the rough tape above the bat’s knob. She closes her fingers around it, feeling the gritty texture.
The coyote moves toward the house, but slowly, with a self-consciousness that makes her sure he knows something is different about the yard tonight. How often has he been here? Does he know the lay of the land as well as she does? Better? Cory eases to a stand, leaning against the willow as if it were an army at her back. The coyote looks toward her. Even in such dark, and between the hundreds of switches dense with leaves, he seems to catch her eye. Evidence of nocturnal talents denied her and more proof, she thinks, that we aren’t God’s favorite.
Cory comes from beneath the willow’s protection, the bat held ready to strike, her feet swift on the familiar lumps of grass. The animal runs, and Cory’s nerve, about to falter, strengthens. Her shoulders are stiff and her hips click at full extension as they haven’t since she was ten, playing tag. “Stay away from my boy,” she huffs, out of shape, her breath held low in her stomach. “Stay the fuck away from him,” she snarls, as the coyote reaches the rugosas. She’s behind him and then he’s gone and she’s tangled, tripping, falling on the useless roses.
The next morning Scott notices scratches on her face, long, narrow red welts, the dermatographia of pursuit. Or escape.
“I was in the woods yesterday, dumping out those old flower pots. I think I’m having a reaction.”
He looks at her quizzically, believing but uncertain why she looked fine when they went to bed.
“Delayed,” she shrugs.
That weekend Alec stays with her mother and they go out to dinner. Scott brings up having another baby. “It’d be good for Alec to share you.” In the last year he’s become concerned that Alec is too attached to Cory, unaccustomed to being without her for even an hour.
Cory reminds him—falsely—that she’s been off the pill for months.
“But we haven’t really been trying.” He raises his eyebrows like Groucho Marx.
She laughs. “Let’s get to it then,” she says, knowing her son is safe. Her attention cannot be divided.
Alec’s moods don’t improve. One night he wakes crying and Scott discovers she’s not in the house. Cory doesn’t hear the crying—windows closed, air-conditioning on–but she sees the light go on in Alec’s room. Before she can get to the house, the slider opens and Scott’s there. “What are you doing?”
She’s holding the bat. “I thought I heard someone out here.”
“So you came out by yourself with a kid’s baseball bat?”
Cory hadn’t realized until then the bat was small and remarkably light. She swings at him in mock menace. “I could do you some damage.”
Alec begins to complain of stomach pains and when Cory takes him to the doctor and insists they scan him, they find a tumor. For a week she cannot eat. She exists on the brink of tears, her throat tight and chest weighted, as if someone is sitting on it. She sleeps next to Alec’s bed on the floor, her vigil now attuned to sounds of choking or a change in his breathing. She imagines the tumor expanding like a balloon. Can it creep into his throat over night, like the coyote into their yard? How foolish of her to think cancer was innocent. Intent only matters in books and movies. Nobody gives a damn about it in real life.
When Alec plays outside she sits in the patio chairs with the baseball bat by her side rehearsing what she’ll do, how she’ll spot him coming up behind the pine, in the cover of the forsythias. How she’ll rush him, yelling for Alec to run inside. Run, run as fast as you can!
Then on Thursday at 2:00 the doctor calls. It’s a benign tumor. Alec will need surgery, but he’ll be fine.
And he is. The surgery, no less harrowing to wait out than the pathology report, goes “beautifully.” Or so the doctor puts it.
“What’s a beautiful surgery?” Cory snaps, unsure what she’s angry about.
Cory buys a gun. She locks the bullets in one box and the gun in another and carries the keys to both in her pocket. At night she ties them to the string in the waist of her pajamas and tucks them inside, against her navel. For a month she goes to target practice. The recoil hurts her arm, but the ache reassures. She’s taking action.
Scott thinks she’s at yoga. He’s happy to be trusted again. “I won’t let him out of my sight.”
On a cool night in September Cory waits for the coyote with the gun in one hand, three bullets cradled in the other palm, ready to load. He emerges from between the thorny roses as if they were air, or he were a specter. Cory slides the bullets in as quietly as she can, and though he stops, listening, he doesn’t run. She waits longer this time, lets him get closer to the house. She’s placed some dog food and meat scraps in a bowl behind the pine, where the neighbor’s garage will block escape.
He skulks across the lumpy lawn, sniffing. After a few minutes, he finds the food and begins to eat. Cory parts the willow’s whip-like branches and moves silently across the grass. She gets within range, but creeps closer, wanting a full-proof shot. No ricochet. No leg wounds. His shoulders are low, his tail down, his face intent on its find. Under the pine the ground changes to a million brittle needles. Crunch and his head turns. She can’t miss now. He’s got nowhere to go. She raises the gun and he growls. She thinks aim, steady, squeeze. It’s only a few seconds, five at most, before she realizes she’s waiting for him to lunge. Come get me you motherfucker. She can’t shoot him otherwise. This shocks her. Wasn’t that the plan? Preemptive strike.
She steps closer. One, two. “Come on,” she growls back. He snarls, his voice deepens, she steps again, and then he’s gone. Across the lawn, through the roses. Cory shouts after him, “And don’t come back!” but she knows he will. He’s seen her now for what she is.
Tomorrow she’ll have them put in a second fence, dig it deeper this time, and put razor wire at the top. She’ll get quotes on security systems. Change out the doors with the glass for solid and add a second deadbolt. She’ll have another set of fire alarms and carbon dioxide detectors installed. She’ll ask around about the Persian neighbors. She’ll get a shortwave radio and build a safe room in the basement stocked with food and bottled water and first-aid supplies.
She’ll get rid of the gun somehow.
But for now she just unloads the bullets—counting carefully one, two, three–then throws them as far as she can into the woods. Back inside, she creeps into Alec’s room and huddles on the floor beside his bed, crying big, heaving tears of shame and defeat. What has happened to the world when a mother cannot kill for her child? It is small comfort knowing that, if they come for him, she’ll do the next best thing.