Summer 2007 Volume One Issue Three
Coyote Discovers Mars - Emily Mah
Coyote was born into chaos. A lone technician decanted him from his artificial womb and toweled him dry. Around them stood the ruins of the Valles Marinaris genetics lab, which had been destroyed by a rockslide a few months earlier. Nervously the technician glanced at his email alert which read, "Cydonia Base has lost its primary scout dog. Replacement required at once."
When Dr. Begay, chief ecologist for Cydonia, came to collect the animal one year later, he was very upset. "What have you done, enhancing a coyote like that?" he raged. "You make us wait a year for a replacement, and now this?"
Coyote cowered in one corner and the technician in another. "I lost most of the dog embryos in the rockslide so I took this one out of the wildlife library," the technician explained. "It's close enough."
"It is not. A coyote is already much smarter than a dog, and much more unruly too."
"Well, it's all I have," said the technician, just a touch more boldly. "Take this one or go back to having robots carry your instruments and set up your beacons."
The ecologist's broad shoulders sagged. Robots were expensive, and getting spare parts meant dealing with the bureaucracy on Earth. In the end the two struck a deal. Dr. Begay gave the technician money and the technician reluctantly handed over a small black box.
"You won't need to use this much," he said. "I've taken him out many times and tested him like any other scout animal. He obeys the voice commands just fine."
But Dr. Begay only shook his head and put the box in his pocket. "My Navajo grandparents told me all the Coyote Stories. Never trust one that pretends to be behaving."
The technician opened Coyote's cage and Coyote jumped in. Dr. Begay loaded the cage into the back of his truck and drove up and out of the Valles. Coyote watched the lab vanish into the distance and lowered his tail. Vainly he scratched at the cage door and whined. He had liked the technician. Dr. Begay seemed cruel.
The truck drove for the entire day out across a flat, dry plain before stopping at sunset. After donning an oxygen mask, Dr. Begay opened Coyote's cage and let him out to do his business and get some exercise. "It's not that I hate coyotes," Dr. Begay explained in a muffled voice. "Coyote is one of my favorite folklore characters, but for your sake I hope you're nothing like him."
Coyote cocked his head to one side and looked at the doctor. The man had a stocky frame and dark skin, very unlike the technician.
Dr. Begay noticed how Coyote peered up at him, so he squatted down and reluctantly scratched him between the ears. "How much English do you understand? Walk over there." Dr. Begay pointed.
The doctor shook his head and laughed. "This is what happens when you give a coyote enhancements meant for a dog, a double dose of intelligence," he said. "Do you know the story of how Coyote got his cunning?"
Coyote didn't, so he sat down on the hard packed Martian dirt and hoped Dr. Begay would tell him. "Well," said Dr. Begay, adjusting his mask. "At the beginning of the world all of the animals were alike. Cougar didn't have his speed, Bear didn't have his strength, Bluebird didn't have her wings, and Coyote was just like the rest of them." Dr. Begay paused and adjusted his mask again.
Coyote put his ears forward and back. He didn't know what a bear or a cougar or a bluebird was. He had heard the term "animal", and he knew that he was an animal, so he imagined these creatures as strong, swift, or winged coyotes. Of course, the only wings Coyote had ever seen were on insects. Mars didn't support any birds. Coyote tried to hold this image in his mind as Dr. Begay went on.
"As the world was being created though, gifts were made for these animals, and First Man was to hand them out. Man decided that he would have the animals line up one morning, and give one gift to each. When Coyote heard about this, he was determined to get the best gift.
"So that night Coyote only pretended to fall asleep with the other animals. After a few hours he got up and bounded over to where Man slept. 'I will stay up all night,' thought the Coyote, 'and be the first in line.' But staying up all night is a boring business. After a few hours Coyote felt his eyelids drooping, and he thought, 'This will never do.'
"But he had an idea. He picked up a large rock from the ground and held it in his teeth. 'If I fall asleep,' he reasoned, 'I will drop this on my toe and wake up.' It was a good idea at first, but soon Coyote's jaw began to hurt. He looked down and saw a stick with a fork in it lying near by. This he stuck into the ground so he could prop his chin on it.
"'Now I can rest my jaw,' thought Coyote, and he promptly fell asleep. The next morning all the animals awoke and lined up, and you can imagine how amused they were when they found Coyote sleeping with his chin propped on a stick. They didn't dare wake him though. Instead they got their gifts and tiptoed away. Bear got strength, Cougar got speed, and so on until all the gifts were given out. Coyote awoke just as the last animals were leaving. He was so startled when he realized he'd fallen asleep that he jumped, and the stick broke. He landed right on his nose, crunch! That is why a coyote's teeth are all broken in the back.
"Man came over to Coyote and said, 'All the gifts have been given out, I'm sorry. You will have to make do with only your wits.'
"This made Coyote very sad, but there was nothing he could do. He went his own way and ignored the other animals laughing at him. To this day Coyote has had to be the most cunning of animals. He has done this so well that he's known as the Trickster."
Dr. Begay stopped talking and adjusted his mask one last time. Coyote cocked his head and put his ears back.
"It's just a story," said Dr. Begay. "There are many, many Coyote Stories. I'll tell you another one tomorrow if you like. Helps pass the time between here and the terraforming base."
Coyote decided he would like that very much, though he couldn't tell Dr. Begay in words. He sat up straight instead and put his ears forward. The ecologist didn't react but instead climbed back into the truck and went to sleep, leaving Coyote alone out on the starlit plain.
After a moment, Coyote got up to examine his surroundings. He ran and he ranged that whole night, exploring the new sights and scents, breathing the thin air. He finally found a small hollow beneath a boulder where he curled up and slept for the last few hours of the night.
In the morning a tingling feeling all over his body jolted him awake. He got up and took a step back towards the truck, then another. Only by running could he keep the tingling from driving him mad, and in a few seconds he was at Dr. Begay's feet. "There you are," he said, putting a small box back into his pocket. It was the same one the technician had given him the day before. "Back into your cage. Time to move on."
Coyote shook himself, wondering what the tingling had been, but he climbed back into his cage and the truck traveled another day over rough terrain. The air was getting even thinner and colder as they made their way up a long hill. That night when they stopped, Dr. Begay had to wear a thicker mask and an insulation suit when he went outside.
"I have a test for you," he said to Coyote as he popped open the cage. "There's a beacon planted near here, I want you to find it and bring it back to me."
Coyote pricked up his ears at that, and the corners of Dr. Begay's eyes wrinkled with a smile.
"If you'd like, I can tell you how you got your gray fur when you come back."
Without hesitation Coyote took off, swiveling his ears and sniffing the air. Soon he heard the faint, high-pitched beeping of the beacon, and so he ran over to it, dug it out of the loose dirt and carried it back to Dr. Begay. It was just like the tests he had done for the technician back at the laboratory.
"Well, that was fast. I suppose you want another story?"
Coyote sat down and put his ears forward. Dr. Begay looked at him, and after a moment he sat on the ground too. "Do you really understand what I say?" he asked.
Coyote cocked his head to one side.
"Bark if that's a yes."
Dr. Begay's eyes widened behind his mask. "Too smart for your own good, I say."
Coyote let his tail go limp.
But Dr. Begay had already unfocused his eyes and was gazing out at the deep red landscape. "Which story was it?" he asked. "How you got your gray fur?" He gave Coyote another scratch between the ears. "It's been a while since I've told these stories to anyone. But let's see . . .
"Coyote once, in his travels, met Rattlesnake and the two got along famously. Because Coyote was a gracious friend he invited Rattlesnake over to his house for tea. Only, Coyote didn't think about how small his house was or how big Rattlesnake was."
Dr. Begay paused and thought. "You must understand, many Coyote stories are told by pueblo dwellers."
Those words didn't make any sense to Coyote. He was busy wondering what a rattlesnake was. Dr. Begay scratched the side of his mask, as if he were scratching his nose and continued to explain pueblos.
"Coyote lived at the time in a pueblo style house. That means the door was in the roof and a person entered via a ladder. The firepit was set in the middle of the room." He sketched a square with a dot in the middle in the thick Martian dust to illustrate. "When Rattlesnake came over to visit he came through the door in the roof and had to wind his way around and around the room until he nearly filled it with his coils."
Coyote was more confused than ever about what a rattlesnake was, but he tried to take in the essence of the story regardless.
"Coyote was very mad about having all the space in the room taken up, but he didn't let his annoyance show. He served tea and the two friends talked for a long time. Afterwards Rattlesnake invited Coyote over to tea for the very next day. Coyote agreed of course.
"But in order to get back at his friend, Coyote got a long rope made out of jute - that's juniper fiber - and tied it to his tail. When he arrived at Rattlesnake's he came down through the door in the roof and had to run around and around, filling Rattlesnake's home with coils of jute. Between Rattlesnake and Coyote's tail, the room was very crowded indeed, but if Rattlesnake minded, he didn't say anything.
"He served tea and the two friends ate and talked. Little did Coyote realize that the jute had fallen into the firepit and caught fire. As the two talked the fire crept along the jute rope, around and around, until Coyote realized the room was filling with smoke. 'My tail!' he shouted, leaping up and clambering up through the door in the roof. He ran and ran, but still the fire caught up with him. Just as it began to singe his fur, he reached the Rio Grande and jumped in. That is why the Coyote's fur is tipped with black as if it's been singed with fire."
Coyote didn't like that story. It was the second one in a row that had him doing something foolish and inexplicable. Dr. Begay had a far off look in his eyes though, so Coyote sat still until the ecologist came to, shook himself, and got up. Before getting into the truck, though, he reached down again and stroked the long fur on Coyote's back.
That night Coyote ranged over the rocky landscape and noticed there were small pockets of life carving out a niche for themselves. Sparse grass grew in sheltered hollows and tiny insects flitted over the ground.
The next morning the jolting tingle returned, but Coyote tried to resist it. First he chewed his skin, then he rolled on the ground, but the tingle got worse and worse until Coyote found himself bolting for the truck. Dr. Begay looked satisfied to see him return, and twisted the box he held in his hand. "Into the truck," he said. "We will get to the base the day after tomorrow."
Coyote jumped into his cage and curled up on the floor for another day of traveling. This time the terrain was very rough and the truck had to swerve back and forth around large boulders. The air became even thinner, and the hill steeper. That night Dr. Begay had to put an even thicker suit on before going out to open the door for Coyote. When he spoke, it was through a microphone.
"Would you like me to tell you another story once we're done with our test tonight?" he asked.
Coyote decided that would be fine, so he put his ears and tail up. Dr. Begay took out the little box and Coyote's skin started to tingle. The tingling became worse and worse until finally Coyote leapt away in confusion. "That's right," said the ecologist. "I'm trying to guide you to a specific site. See how fast you can get there."
With his ears back, Coyote took off at a run, darting first this way then that. Each time he made a wrong turn his skin was on fire. Off across the landscape he ran until he came to a chalk marker on the ground. Finally the irritation stopped and he was able to pause, panting. He noticed that he was in a shallow ravine full of vegetation. Out of the corner of his eye he saw movement. He snapped his head around and saw a small, long eared animal go bounding off under a bush. It was unlike anything he'd ever seen before, but he found himself crouching down instinctively, preparing to stalk it. Suddenly the tingling returned. With a yelp he jumped up and ran back to the truck.
"Well done," said Dr. Begay. "You learn fast. Maybe the technician was right about you. Maybe El Coyote can become a good scout animal."
The ecologist patted him on the head before sitting down beside him. "I told you before that in folklore the Coyote is the Trickster. He's someone that can never be trusted, always trying to get the upper hand. There are many stories about how the Coyote tries to gain advantage, only to have it backfire on him."
Coyote laid his ears back in dismay. His skin still hurt from the tingling.
Dr. Begay put his head to one side; then said, "Of course, why tell you the bad stories about Coyote? Would you like to hear a nice one?"
That made Coyote prick his ears up. There were nice stories about him too?
Dr. Begay still didn't pay attention to him. Instead he furrowed his brow and was silent for almost a minute. Coyote paced impatiently, then sat back on his haunches. Overhead Phobos shot into view and began its orbit overhead. Seeing this, Dr. Begay smiled again. "Do you know how Coyote helped create the stars?" he asked.
Coyote lay down and put his chin on his paws.
"Well, in the beginning there was no such thing as nighttime. The sun never set and the animals soon got tired of its constant heat. They gathered together and formulated a plan to cover the sky with a dark cloth for half the time. This would enable them to cool off and even sleep. However, they decided that the cloth couldn't be all black because then it would be too dark and they wouldn't be able to see.
"So what they decided to do was gather up shiny river rocks and place them on the cloth in pretty pictures. Each animal would be allowed to put a picture of itself on the cloth so that at night these patterns would shine down on them. Of course, every animal got a picture except for Coyote. He had caused too much trouble and was too untrustworthy.
"When Coyote heard that he couldn't have a picture in the sky, he was very upset. Rather than complain about it though, he decided he would work very hard to gain the other animals' trust. He worked night and day to haul river rock up to where the animals had laid out the dark cloth, and he watched with envy as the pictures were composed.
"For ten days he hauled river rock and helped the animals put together their pictures. Finally the cloth was ready to be put in the sky. 'Friends,' said Coyote, looking as humble as possible. 'I understand why you don't want me to have my picture on the cloth, but might I have just a little corner to put a little coyote? Just a small one?'
"The animals talked it over, but they all agreed that Coyote should not get a picture of himself. This made him angry, but he was careful not to let it show. He put his head down and asked, 'Well, then might I be allowed to put one rock on the cloth? I promise not to mess up anyone else's picture. Just let me have one rock?'
"The animals consulted with each other and finally decided that yes, he could put down one rock. Coyote dashed to the river and found the biggest river rock he could carry. No one said anything when he hauled it up and made his way across the cloth to place it. He was careful not to step on anyone else's picture and he found a blank patch where he could drop his one large rock. The cloth was now ready to be put in the sky.
"Coyote made his way back to the edge, still careful not to mess up anyone's picture. Just as he was about to step off the cloth though, he reached back, grabbed it in his jaws and flung it into the sky. All of the pictures were jumbled and the river rocks made only random patterns. The animals were furious, but there was nothing they could do.
"So that is why the stars are so scattered, without logic. And on Earth there is one large rock in the sky, Luna. It's bigger than Phobos or Diemos and at night coyotes often raise their noses to it and howl."
Coyote did not raise his chin once the story was over. It was yet another one about how selfish and untrustworthy he was.
"I like that story," Dr. Begay went on. "In my line of work it has special significance. Thanks to Coyote, the cosmos is random and ever changing."
Still Coyote kept his chin on his paws and waited until Dr. Begay got up and went into the truck. Only then did he get up to make his way back to the ravine full of vegetation, which he followed for over a mile. Plants thrived on this part of Mars. Food bounded across the landscape. Coyote surveyed it, taking it all in with his nose and ears. Finally he fell asleep on a soft bed of grass and dozed until the tingling jarred him awake again.
This time he tried even harder to resist, but no matter how he rolled or chewed his skin, the tingling only got worse. Step by painful step he made his way towards the truck, breaking into a run only periodically. Once Dr. Begay came into view, Coyote cowered down to the ground and glared at the man. Today was the day they were supposed to arrive at the terraforming base.
Waves of pain washed over Coyote, causing him to twitch. He eyed the box that Dr. Begay held in his hands, and watched him twist it. The pain got even worse.
When he could stand it no longer, he got to his feet and walked forward as steadily as possible. Once Dr. Begay saw him, he twisted the device the other way and let the pain lessen. Coyote walked forward with more confidence, head high, eyes bright. He walked right up to Dr. Begay, and with one swift motion jumped up and grabbed the device in his jaws.
"Hey!" shouted the ecologist. "Bring that back."
Coyote ignored him and danced away.
Dr. Begay kicked the ground, hard, raising a cloud of dust that only seemed to annoy him more.
Coyote dropped the box onto the Martian soil and looked at the doctor impudently. He opened his mouth, let his tongue loll out, and smiled his Coyote smile. Then he picked up the device again and took off, leaving a cloud of red dust in his wake.
As the sun climbed across the pink sky, Coyote raced along the ground below. The Trickster had finally arrived on Mars.
- END -