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September 2001

How Coyote Got His Howl

A long ways back, when the earth still listened more than it spoke, the land did not bellow but whispered instead. And in that quiet time only a few creatures had voices and even fewer knew how to use them. The two-legged creatures had voices and yes, they knew how to use them. The earth could already hear that they used their voices too often and sometimes much too loudly.

The older ones knew that the gift of speech was not something to be taken lightly and often would tell the young ones to treasure their voices and to only speak when one actually had something to say. The young ones would usually listen quietly and patiently until the older voice had finished, and then the laughing and jabbering and chirping would begin once again as if the young ones had two mouths and only one ear, which was certainly not the way things were.

There were many animals without a voice in this beginning quietude of the earth. The coyote was one such animal. The wolf could speak, but the coyote could not. Coyote was jealous and did not think it fair that the wolf was granted a voice while the coyote had to remain silent. Although the wolf had the important job of announcing the phases of the moon and the location of the good hunting grounds, and only used his voice when he had something important to say, it did not matter to the coyote. For his part, coyote had nothing to say. He had nothing at all on his mind, in fact, except the idea that he would somehow get a voice of his own even if he had to steal one.

The voices of the children were especially tantalizing to coyote’s ears. Their laughter and lively yammering cut through the quiet air like the edge of the wind through the tall grass. Every evening when the fires had died down, the coyote pack would lope along the edge of the camp hoping for a chance to steal away with some young voices.

But as long as a scrap of color still hung in the darkening sky, a voice could not be taken from its owner. The sun knew who owned which voice and could show the face of the speaker to prove the ownership. But once the light was gone and the soft black of the night had wrapped itself around every creature’s face, when a voice rang out, who could tell where it had come from? In that first moment of dark confusion, a voice certainly could be taken and it most certainly would not be returned.

“As darkness falls, so too must silence,” the elders would gravely tell the children as families quietly prepared for the evening rest. “Laughter and chatter in the gathering dark brings the stealthy ones to our camp. They steal our meat; they steal our blankets and they watch and wait to steal our voices.” The children, who had seen the glittering eyes of the coyotes at the edge of the camp in the evening, knew that the words were true and as the sun set, all was quiet in the darkness and the coyotes had nothing to steal.

One evening, as the crisp fall air sharpened the smells and sounds of the settling earth, the children begged their elders to be allowed to go camping on their own. “We will return with herbs for the winter foods and smooth willows for the basket weaving,” they promised eagerly. “Grass shoots held tightly in the hand can become nothing,” they argued, “The hand must open so the grass may grow.” The elders smiled at hearing the old words tumbling out of mouths so young and they agreed to let the children go.

“Remember, children,” warned the old ones, “the days are shorter and the darkness comes quickly. Guard your voices as the night falls. Laughter and silly talk will draw the coyotes.”

The children nodded and laughed and rolled their eyes as they rolled their blankets and packed their food for the trip. They had heard the words so often that they did not need to listen anymore. Then off they ran into the tall grass, whooping and leaping and yipping with the delight of sound and motion and freedom.

The day passed quickly and without the steady, even gaze of the elders to dampen the exuberance, the children became louder and sillier as the day wore on. They did manage, in spite of all the laughter and teasing, to gather the herbs and the willows that they had promised. By dusk, all the plants had been neatly tied into bundles and the blankets had been laid out and the children were settling down for the night.

Out of habit, their voices became quiet as the color faded from the sky. There was still so much more that each one had to say, however, and so the whispering began. Their voices became louder even as they tried their hardest to keep quiet. Laughter bubbled out here and there as the children shared jokes and stories. Finally they could hold it in no longer, and the children threw back the covers and burst out laughing. It was too delicious to be on their own with no one to tell them when to go to bed or when to be quiet.

Up they jumped one after the other, throwing blankets, tickling one another with willows, rubbing herbs in each other’s hair. The laughter was so loud that not one of them noticed the coyotes creeping closer through the grasses, their silent mouths open and their tongues hanging out. And as the last bit of light soaked into the damp grass, the coyotes flung themselves into the center of the yelping children. With a snap of their jaws and a click of their teeth, the coyotes had captured the voices.

Away ran the coyotes, yelping and yammering with the high voices of the children captured deep in their throats. They ran this way and that, saying nothing at all but reveling in the sheer joy of making a loud racket. The strange new voices reached the ears of the elders back at camp.

“What is this animal who speaks with nothing to say?” they whispered to each other. “And why do these voices remind us so much of our children?” they wondered.

Just then they heard the rustling of grass and the running of feet as the children tumbled into camp, their eyes wide and frantic in the dim light of the fire.

“What has frightened you so that you have no words to explain?” But the answer was echoing across the land. The coyotes had stolen their voices.

By Ruth Gilmore; September 2001

I welcome any comments or helpful critiques that you may have regarding this story. If it might be of use to you in your teaching, feel free to use it. I only ask that my name be attached to the story as I may try to rewrite it someday as a children’s book.

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