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Totems TOTEMS, PART 1: "Coyote Understands His Dreams" By Laurie E. Smith

Summary: First part of a much bigger story, which will be rated R, although this chapter is PG-13. WARNING: this is a story with supernatural elements (which I'm trying to work with in such a way that you won't find suspension of disbelief impossible), and it will involve a m/m situation at a future point. Consider yourself warned.


TOTEMS, PART 1: "Coyote Understands His Dreams"

In the American southwest, there are blacktop highways that run a straight and lonely course through hundreds of square miles of flat, windy, open desert. Towns are few and far between here; and on a clear day, under a cloudless blue sky with a glaring and unforgiving sun suspended almost directly overhead, there comes a time that it seems will last forever.

It was in that time between times that, alongside a ditch beside the highway, a coyote -- lean, sandy, with sharp dark eyes and a long bright grin-- was "goin' along", as the locals say: looking for food, looking for water, looking for sex, looking for something to do. The heat lay on his back like a heavy blanket and his throat was hoarse with panting the searing air, but he kept up the pace he had set at dawn, a loping and seemingly effortless stride that could cover many miles in a few hours.

Coyotes are intelligent, as any man who lives near them for any length of time will tell you, and many men would say that the last thing one of them needs is greater trickery or keener wits... and they might be right at that. But Coyote hadn't sought the opinion of men when he picked this particular coyote to slip into, and if you'd asked him he would have laughed out loud and explained that he didn't give a flying piss what men thought about anything, much less that. Besides, he would have added, men stopped believing in him generations ago, so why would they even worry about it? That suited Coyote just fine: it was easier to trick humans when they didn't think you were even worth noticing in the first place.

Today, however, he wasn't up to any special trickery, or on any great adventure: he was just "goin' along", riding passively in the body of this particular coyote and passing the time by chewing over the general state of his existance -- which sure as hell wasn't what it used to be.

Fewer men sought his help or respected his power now than at any other point in human history. Even a few generations ago back they had KNOWN how to treat an avatar of the Coyote totem, whether he came to them as a coyote or as a man! They paid him honor. They heeded the wisdom of his words. They offered him their meat, their drink, the warmth of their fires -- and of their women...

Coyote grinned and licked his chops, loping a little faster over the dry hot ground.

In the old days, oh, he could go from dusk to dawn to dusk again, eating and drinking and making mischief and making love to every female in sight (or any male that caught his fancy, for that matter) -- and the humans would make up stories about it to last through centuries. Well sure, they'd yell and kick up a fuss over it, but that was part of it too -- and they understood that there was a balance to be kept, and they respected Coyote's part in keeping the universe on the right track.

Nowadays, they were a helluva lot more likely to curse him and take a potshot at him with one of their firearms. Guns! Now there was an advance he could have done well enough without, thanks just the same. How many of his people had died choking on their own blood, or writhing from the blood-poison of bullets, or suffered wounds that left them barely able to survive and finally killed them after interminable suffering? Coyotes, like most animals, did not often comprehend the passing of time. Every breath encapsulated an eternity; every thrill of pleasure was utter heaven; every heartbeat of pain, the depths of hell.

Coyote hoped that the dog he was riding didn't get shot today. It was like dying himself to feel the life pass out of one he had entered, even though Coyote himself was an eternal thing and not subject to the rules of birth and death.

There was a gas station up ahead. He could smell it: the oily tang of gasoline, the hot smell of tar, the thick choking stench of exhaust. He was headed there because there was a hollow behind the station where water often collected, and the coyote was growing thirsty.

But today there was something else there, too. A vehicle -- noteworthy enough in and of itself, because the station was on a seldom-travelled route -- and more importantly, the smell of food. The coyote's nose came up, sniffing the wind as he started trotting faster, and the scent of meat and bread and milk made his stomach twist tight on itself with an audible growl.

When the gas station came in sight a few minutes later, he slipped down into the ditch and ran silently along the bottom. The man who owned the gas station had never had a gun before, but the coyote was by nature a cautious animal. He got as close as he could safely get while maintaining cover -- that is, to the garbage bins at the east end of the station's lot -- before poking his head up for a quick look-see.

There was a van parked at the pumps on the north side of the ramshackle building; Coyote barely noticed its colors (black, with a thin tripe of red), being far more concerned with where the smell of food was coming from. There were three men inside the station, he could plainly hear that much, and the faintest sounds of even breathing from inside the van itself. The man in the van was asleep. The other three voices sounded calm, and their footsteps were unhurried; Coyote decided that they must be picking out goods to buy from the station's limited stock. It would be safe to come out for a short time.

The smell of food was coming from a fifth man who was sitting in the shallow block of shade beside the station's east wall. He was crosslegged in the dust, hungrily devouring a hamburger that he had pulled out of a greasy paper bag, and apparently oblivious to everything else.

Coyote hopped up out of the ditch and ghosted closer on soft feet. The man seemed not to notice him...

.... but for a second, looking at the man, Coyote felt apprehensive -- as if a brief current of charged air had rippled across his fur and raised it in crackling waves, like the first hints of a coming storm. He stopped in his tracks, staring at the eating man. He suddenly remembered his most recent dreams, which had been vaguely restless, and the other totems -- elegant fox, powerful leopard, strong white bison -- that were woven in and out of them. They had not spoken to him, and when he tried to chase them they faded away.

This man made him feel like that way again.

And those voices in the station... not the man who owned it, no, not him... but didn't the other two sound familiar from his dreams, like the clear call of a bison and the deep rumble of a great cat's throat?

Coyote did not like to feel afraid. He drew back his upper lip in a faint snarl and stared at the man in the shade.

"Why should I be afraid of one mangy human?" he asked no-on in particular.

The man looked up from his meal and caught Coyote in an offended glare. "Hey! Who're you callin' `mangy'?" he demanded.

Coyote sat back on his dusty haunches in surprise.

"Well, hey-howdy!" he exclaimed when he'd found his tongue again. "You can understand me!"

"'Course I can," the man said, like it was a matter of everyday fact.

Curious, Coyote drifted a little closer, encouraged to boldness by the hamburger in the man's hand. "What's your name, son?"

"H.M. Murdock." He took a bite of the sandwich; Coyote heard meat compress and lettuce crunch, and it made his stomach roll over and whine. "What's yours?"

"Well, I sorta don't have one, seein' as I'm riding a coyote. If I were inside a man, that'd be a different story." Coyote fixed his eyes on the hamburger and licked his lean chops. "Don't s'pose you could spare me a bite, could ya, friend?"

The man looked surprised, and then a little chagrined, as if suddenly realizing that he was guilty of bad manners. "Well, sure! Here y'go." He leaned forward to toss the rest of the hamburger on the ground a ways in front of him. "Help yourself."

Coyote scooted forward. Three bites later the burger was gone. When the human opened a bag of potato chips and started tossing them onto the dust, Coyote gobbled them too.

They sat companionably enough for some time, eating without speaking. When the last chip was gone and the keenest edge had been worn off his hunger, Coyote sat back and studied the man with narrowed eyes while licking his chops.

"I gotta admit, you threw me for a loop back there," he admitted. "Not many humans can hear me these days."

Murdock shrugged and made a quirky grin. "I hear lots of things other people don't."

"I'll bet you do," Coyote grinned. This man had an peculiar and specific aura about him, and when Coyote looked into his head he saw more than just the brokeness of the man's mind. He saw a transcendance of perception that came to humans only rarely, and always as a result of terrible suffering. In the old days this man would have become a shaman, one who walked between the worlds and dealt with older and greater Powers on behalf of his people; perhaps, somewhere in another country's past, his ancestors had done exactly that.

Even more specifically, when Coyote saw himself echoed back in the man's dark eyes, he knew that this man was one of his People. Coyote was his totem. Even though he wore bare skin instead of fur and walked on two legs, this was a man who howled as keenly and loudly as Coyote did himself; he was lean and sandy and rangy, a trickster, a contrary a shapechanger -- and a survivor.

The physical coyote's body shivered in the hot sun as the ancient Coyote spirit studied Murdock with a mirthless smile. His dreams were beginning to make sense now.

Threads were always converging in the great tapestry that men called reality. Coyote was one of its weavers, and the thread of H.M. Murdock's life had just been placed in his hands -- a trickster thread, a fool's thread, a thread that could be woven into a pattern of great power. Not now, oh no, but later. In time, his place in Coyote's portion of world-weaving would become clear... and then there would be a new tale to tell of Coyote's cunning and daring.

But not yet. He didn't see the whole pattern yet. He didn't even see where it was going to begin.

But he would soon.

"Come on, Murdock, let's go!"

It was the voice of the White Bison man. The coyote jumped up and skittered away toward the garbage bins, taking Coyote with it. He stopped it just short of the ditch and turned around to look back.

The Leopard was glaring at Murdock with bright, fierce eyes."Crazy foo's feedin' a coyote, Hannibal!"

Murdock unfolded himself from the dust, balling up the paper bag and the chip packet in one hand. "Aw, c'mon, B.A., just look at him! Ain't he the cutest thing you ever did see? And he'd be great company for Billy!"

"Get in th'van!" B.A. ordered.

The white-haired man watched the coyote thoughtfully for a moment while Murdock made a light-footed fake around B.A. and tossed the ball of crushed paper into a nearby disposal bin. The coyote crouched low to the ground, as if the leader's gaze had struck it a physical blow, and slunk quickly down into the ditch again.

The three men got into the van with their still-sleeping comrade, who made an audible whining protest as Murdock leaned up to B.A.'s window and yelled "'Bye, Mister Coyote!"

"Shut up, foo' -- `s just a coyote!" B.A. growled. He pulled back onto the highway, heading west toward the declination of the sun, and within moments it was out of sight.

When things quieted down again, Coyote came up out of the ditch. He went behind the station and had his drink of water, and then took to the road again, looking for something else to fill his hungry stomach or give him sexual relief.

"Goin' along", the way he always had.

And waiting for Murdock's pattern to reveal itself.        

Totems by Laurie E. Smith