Originally published in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Worlds, September, 1998
Every Westrian child knows the story of the Cataclysm, when the old powers of the Earth rose up in wrath against the destruction caused by men and reclaimed their sovereignty. They know how some of the survivors eventually learned how to speak with those powers and made a Covenant with them. But few stories about the first generation, the ones who had to make the transition from the old world into the new have survived. This is one of them.
The old man came to town on the first hot day of summer, when the dust lay thick on the road and the cicadas sang in the ripening grass. A dull haze covered the great valley, veiling the mountains of the Sierra and the coastal hills so that the town seemed to float, disconnected from the world.
It was pretty well true.
The terrible times of the Cataclysm were past, and the Old Powers, having destroyed most of the works of man, didn’t seem to care what we did in the space they left to us. These days nothing ever happened here except when Captain Jack came with his men, and that was the kind of excitement, my father said, that we didn’t need.
The stranger appeared at the edge of town, just outside Ben Nunez’ wagon shop.
Before the Cataclysm, the shop had been kept busy repairing the machines that broke down on the road. That was when Ma was a little girl and Ben a young man. Now he spent most of his time watching the road, waiting for business that never came.
Sometimes when Ma couldn’t catch me for chores I would go down there and wander about, curling up in the dusty upholstery of the old cars and wondering about the people who used to sit there and the places they had travelled to. I guess we all spent a lot of time looking backward, and why not? There was nothing to look forward to that I could see.
I was perched on the hood of an old Cadillac, listening to Ben and his brother Will argue over their checkers game, when a shadow lengthened past the door. Then an old man came into view, leaned his staff against the wall, flipped up his shirt and started to piss on the ground.
“Hey! You can’t do that here!” cried Ben.
The last yellow drops splattered in the dust. The old man turned, the brim of his hat shivering and his stringy grey hair lifting a little in the dry wind, replaced his clothing and grinned.
“You got anything to drink?”
“So you can piss it away?” asked Will.
“Gotta refuel–” the old man answered mildly, but his amber eyes gleamed.
Ben grunted. “I won’t deny a man a drink of water.” He reached for the big glass jug and offered it. The old man took the bottle, his long fingers caressing the smooth surface of the old glass. We watched, eyes widening, as the entire bottle went down.
When it was empty, the old man belched, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and handed it back. Ben started to replace the jug on its shelf and stopped, nostrils twitching. Even I could pick up the decidedly alcoholic odor coming from that direction, and though we had all seen the stranger empty the bottle, it looked half full. Ben took an experimental sip, raised one eyebrow, shut his mouth, and corked the jug once more.
Will leaned forward. “Where you from?”
The old man gestured vaguely back up the road.
“You came from Cow Town?” These days that’s what people called Tracy.
The stranger brightened. “Some pretty girls up there. You got any pretty girls?”
Ben frowned. He had a daughter, born when he’d given up hope of more children after the big sickness. “Not for you–“
“That’s all right. I’m not particular.”
Will gave a snort of laughter. “The girls might be.”
“You particular about work?” Ben asked then. “You better be willing to earn your keep if you plan to stay in this town.”
The old man bared stained teeth in a grin. “What do you need?”
“The Widow Washington’s pump doesn’t work. Can you fix that?”
“A pump?” The stranger’s hips twitched suggestively.
Will shook his head. “A water pump–” he said repressively. “And she’ll pitch you out if you say a word out of line. In the old days she was the minister’s wife, and she don’t make allowances.”
The stranger looked unconcerned. “Where’s she at?” Like a thirsty plant revived by the water, his skin had plumped out, and he no longer seemed so old.
“I’ll show you–” I got to my feet. The long yellow eyes slid towards me, though he must have known I was listening all along.
We started down the street. During the Cataclysm, earthquakes had opened cracks across the surface, and time and weather had widened them. Sometimes in the summer the men of the town would try to fill them with gravel, but each winter plants sprouted in the crevices, their tiny roots completing the work that the Cataclysm had begun. What had once been a four lane road now had barely enough good surface for two wagons to pass. Some folks hated the weeds and would pull them out ruthlessly–the only action against the Green Powers they were now allowed. But others had a superstitious fear of even so small an act of rebellion.
“What do they call you, girl?”
“Marcie–” The old man’s strides were longer than they seemed. I had to skip to keep up with him.
“Huh–” those yellow eyes considered me. “A name should mean somethin’. I’d name you ‘Poppy’ for yer bright hair.”
“All right–” I lifted my braid, squinting as the red-gold strands caught the sun. “What do they call you?”
He gave a snort of amusement. “Oh, I got a lot of names. Sinkalip or Tsistu, some call me, or Manabozho. But some just say ‘Old Man’.”
I stared at him. “But what’s your real name?”
“Oh–that’s a secret. Think I’d tell just anyone? Anyhow, unless you figure it out for yourself it won’t mean a thing.” The amber eyes slitted with laughter.
For a few minutes we walked in silence. How about ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, I wondered, remembering one of my grandmother’s tales. But that name came from another land. I looked at the stranger’s long nose and yellow eyes and grinned.
“Think I’ll call you Mr. Coyote–” I said, grinning as he stopped short, eyes wide.
“Now why’d you choose that name?”
“Why not?” I frowned, feeling an odd tingle, like you get on a day when the wind is high and anything you touch can shock you. “It suits you. We had an old dog that was part coyote–you remind me of him.”
“Do I now? Well, that’s all right then.” He laughed again. “How many families in this town?” he added suddenly.
I hesitated, trying to reckon without using my fingers. Sometimes the old folks in town would try to get a school going, like they’d had when they were young, but there weren’t many children left, and we couldn’t see the point in learning about a world that didn’t exist anymore.
“There’s my family–Ma and Pa and my grandma and my brother Joe. Old Ben has a wife and a daughter, and Will lives with them. Then there’s the Tomsons on Peachtree lane–” I listed twenty more households before I got to the Widow Washington, who lived alone. “And of course there’s folk from the Valley farms that come in on market day. I’ve seen near a hundred fifty people all at once in the square when Captain Jack came with his men.”
And when he left, I remembered suddenly, there had been five less of us. I could still see the five still shapes [on the ground, and old Ben’s daughter crying ’cause the Captain had said he’d be back for her next year.
The old man snorted. “Last time I was here, this town had three thousand.”
“You mean Before?”
“Before the Guardians came back, yeah–what, you still afraid of ’em?”
My parents had taught me not to name the Cataclysm aloud. In one year, the old folks said, the whole world had collapsed in earthquake, flood and fire, and when things calmed down at last, those humans that survived were at the mercy of the First People, the old powers of the Earth that now ruled the world. Nobody I knew called them Guardians.
I had never seen one, but grandma told me once about the day the Trees came down from the hills and walked through the town. She said that grass pushed up through the side-streets and vines twined around City Hall and tore it down. All the gas stations were leveled, too, and the mall where the market square was now, and the electrical plant at the edge of town. When the Powers finally went away, only a few buildings remained, and the only road with paving was the main street through the town.
“That happened when my mother was a little girl,” I said, not answering his question. “You don’t look that old.”
“Oh, I’m older than I look!” he laughed.
I shook my head, figuring he was teasing me. Right then he didn’t look old at all.
We walked past grass-covered mounds where houses once had lined the road. Here in town, everything useful had either burned or been scavenged long ago. The minister’s house still stood beside the ruins of the church. The Green Powers had not killed humans directly–they said Reverend Washington had tried to defend his church and died when the roof fell on him. But the house had not been touched. Its paint was flaking, and the gate had been mended with rawhide thongs, but the flowerbeds that edged the walk were newly weeded, and the roses were in triumphant bloom.
I went up the creaking steps and knocked. “Hello–” After a moment the knob turned. “Miz Washington, I’ve brought a man to fix your pump.”
The door opened wider, in the darkness a dark face appeared, framed by a halo of silver hair. I motioned to the stranger to follow me in. “This is, uh –Mr. Coyote. He just came to town.”
For a moment she stared at him. Then she sat down again. Her Bible lay open on the table by the chair.
“I have seen the seven angels with the seven trumpets, and the army of locusts.” She jabbed at the page with her forefinger. “Babylon is fallen, and the evil of the earth has been consumed by wind and water and fire. But where is the angel who will take up the Blessed into paradise? You’ve been other places–has the angel come? Did God forget about us in this town?”
She leaned forward, peering at Mr. Coyote through her scratched glasses. I flushed with embarassment.
For a moment he just stood there. Then he pointed to the bowl of flowers on the table. “Why do you grow roses?”
Mrs. Washington blinked. “Because they are beautiful. . . .”
Mr. Coyote nodded. “Then for you, the angel comes.”
I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by that, but it seemed to satisfy the old lady. The crazy look went out of her eyes; she closed the book and levered herself out of the chair.
“I can’t pay you–” she went on in answer to his nod, then remembered that no one used money anymore.
“You feed me,” he grinned, looking like a young man. In amazement I saw the stiffness leave her posture.
“You get the pump working again, child, and I’ll do that. I’m too old to carry water from the creek anymore.”
“Miz Washington has a great garden!” I put in, looking from one to the other. “Lots of things no one else can get to grow.”
There was no doubt about it. This time the old woman smiled.
The next few days Ma kept me busy with chores. Everything we ate we had to grow or trade for, and there was always weeding, or carrying water from the well. It took awhile for me to realize there might be another reason for keeping me close to home–it was getting towards the middle of the summer, when we would have enough crops harvested to make the town worth another visit from Captain Jack and his men.
The weather grew hotter. I heard that Mr. Coyote had finished fixing the widow’s water pump and was still living there, sleeping in the toolshed and doing odd jobs for others in the town. Night by night, the moon grew like the gourds in our garden; her pale light lay across the Valley, nearly as bright as day. From the coastal hills came the faint wild music of the coyotes, and one night, when the moon was full, I thought I heard, so clearly it seemed to come from somewhere close by, another coyote howling his answer.
I opened my window and stuck my head out, but the sound seemed to move around, as if the animal was wandering the streets of the town. That seemed unlikely. These days we buried our garbage and scavenged the dump for materials that could be re-used. Even a coyote wouldn’t find much to interest him here. Eventually the concert ended. I went back to bed, but strange and shining forms continued to make music in my dreams.
Just before Midsummer clouds gathered and lightning stalked across the Valley floor. That night it rained, and in the morning, when the puddles were beginning to steam in the sun, Captain Jack rode in. This year close to fifty men were behind him, hard-eyed and weathered, with wide-brimmed leather hats and jingling shirts of chain-mail. They made a brave show, but Ma whispered that they looked gaunted, as if the other places where they took tribute had let them down. That must be why they had shown up here so early in the year.
Not that they were about to admit it. They rode in pairs, the pennons on their lances fluttering bravely. Captain Jack himself was mounted on an Appaloosa mare. He had an old-fashioned shirt with military patches, like Ma said the soldiers used to wear in the days when there was still a real army, and he carried a rifle. His bugler blew a commanding call on a dented brass trumpet, and he waited for those who had not already come out of their houses to gather in the market square.
One of the men had a sheet of paper and was checking off people as they came in. I looked over and saw Will and Ben and his wife, but I began to get a sick feeling in my belly when I didn’t see their daughter Jenny. Captain Jack had noticed her absence too. He was frowning.
“I make the tally one hundred and eleven, sir,” said the clerk. “Same as last year.”
“Not quite the same,” answered the leader. “That man–” he pointed at Mr. Coyote, who was standing with the widow Washington, “is new, and the Nunez girl ain’t here.” His dark gaze fixed Ben. “Thought I told you I’d want to see her next time I came.”
“My apologies, sir. Jenny’s not feeling well.” Ben said tightly.
“Well, that’s too bad. But I’m sure she’ll be well tomorrow.” He grinned mirthlessly. “Me an’ my men work hard, protecting folks like you–seems only right we get a little rest and recreation when we come into town. You do understand. . . .”
Ben’s face flushed dangerously, but he nodded.
“You want entertainment?” a new voice brought the captain’s head around. “I know lots of songs an’ stories, make you laugh–“
It was Mr. Coyote, looking even older than the first time I saw him, his long nose jutting over his wispy grey beard.
Captain Jack stared at him, and if there was more amazement than amusement in his grunt, at least Ben had time to ease back out of sight among the crowd.
After the captain had finished making speeches, the crowd broke up to gather the stuff he’d asked for. My Pa talked about war-lords and tribute, which seemed a fancy name for a few vegetables. He and Ma were still arguing about it when I managed to give them the slip and ran off to Ben’s shop.
He was there with Will and some of the other men, and Jenny, in her usual blooming looks if she hadn’t been so scared, and Mr. Coyote. I went over to Jenny, who hugged me hard, then pushed me away.
“You shouldn’t be here, Marcie–“
“I’m Poppy now,” I corrected. She stared at me as if she scarcely heard, then shook her head a little, her eyes evaluating my figure.
“Still flat as a boy,” she muttered. “You’re safe for awhile, but I guess you’re old enough to know. Do you understand what that man wants with me?”
“To take you away and make you work for him–” That much I had gathered from listening to my parents talk.
Jenny gave a snort of bitter laughter. “You might put it that way, but I wouldn’t mind cleaning house and mending clothes and that sort of thing. He wants to have sex with me, like a dog does with a bitch in heat–does that make it clear?”
“And you don’t want him to–” I added, nodding wisely.
“I want to get married to a man I can love, though goodness knows where I’ll find one.”
The men’s voices were rising, a bitter, ugly sound. They pointed to the old tools, discussing ways to use them as weapons. Ben’s face flushed when he talked about how the chisel would sink into the captain’s belly, but even I could see how likely it was that Ben’s blood would feed the earth instead.
“I can’t run away,” Jenny whispered. “They have horses, and they know every inch of the land. My father can’t fight him. Rather than let Captain Jack kill my family, I’ll be his whore.”
“No, no, you don’t want a dogfight–” another voice cut through the babble and I recognized Mr. Coyote’s drawl. “You want to have a party. . .”
I could see jaws dropping all around the room. Mr. Coyote showed his teeth in a grin.
“Right now, this captain expects trouble. You act all nice tomorrow when you bring the food. Tell him yer grateful for his protection. The women gotta bake some cakes, and you bring out the beer.”
“We don’t have very much–” said Mr. Tomson. Every summer there were always arguments about whether we could spare any of the grain for booze.
“Don’t worry,” said Mr. Coyote. “There’ll be enough. Trust me. . . .”
Ben and Will traded glances, and I knew they were remembering the day the stranger had arrived.
“I believe you–” said Ben, choosing his words carefully. I suppressed a giggle. I wouldn’t have trusted that old man as far as I could throw him just now.
“But what about me?” asked Jenny.
Mr. Coyote looked her up and down appreciatively. “You come. Put on pretty clothes, act happy to see him. But you don’t go away with him, oh no–” again he grinned. “Trust me.”
The men got to work gathering supplies, with a look in their eyes that set sick flutters going in my belly. Whatever Mr. Coyote had in mind had better work, because if it didn’t the men, even my Pa, were going to fight for sure. Nobody knew if Captain Jack still had ammunition for that gun, but there was no doubt that his men kept their lances sharp. I didn’t want to see my father’s blood soaking into the earth of the square.
By nightfall, the square was as full of folk as I’d ever seen it. Good smells of cooking food made me breathe deep. Despite the tension, there was a festive feel to the air. The Tomsons had even donated one of their pigs–in addition to the one they had to give Captain Jack, that is. I still didn’t know what Mr. Coyote was planning, but I could see what he was doing. In the center of the square he was directing the men who were building a bonfire. He must have gone to the hills for the wood himself–I didn’t know anyone else who would dare. At least it was all deadwood, so we wouldn’t have the Tree folk marching down to take their revenge.
The men Captain Jack had left on guard grinned broadly as he came marching back again. Even the captain’s sour look softened a bit as he took it all in. He brightened still further when the Nunez clan arrived with Jenny in tow, wearing an old party dress of her mother’s with her lips reddened and a bow in her hair.
He said something to one of his men, and presently Jenny was being escorted to the table they had set up for him and given a chair by his side. He put his arm around her and she stiffened, gazing at Mr. Coyote in appeal. He grinned back at her and trotted over, carrying a tray with a jug and glasses. That proved an effective distraction, and from the captain’s expression, I guessed the beer was better than he had expected.
As the evening progressed, he certainly drank a lot of it. So did his men. I wouldn’t have thought there was that much beer in the town, but whenever a bottle was emptied, Mr. Coyote would take it away and return with another that was full. By the time all the food had been served some of Captain Jack’s riders were already stretched on the ground, snoring. The captain himself pawed at Jenny when he wasn’t drinking, but there were too many distractions for him to give her his full attention.
As the evening went on, it seemed to me that even our folks were having a good time. Miz Washington had on a purple dress I’d never seen her wear before and a red rose in her hair. The Nunez brothers still stood stiff and watchful on the sidelines, but Joe Tomson had got out his guitar, and some of the others were backing him with a catch-all jug band. Mr. Coyote had got a drum from somewhere, and pretty soon people began to dance.
In the confusion, I didn’t notice when he handed the drum over to Will Nunez and disappeared. By this time, Captain Jack was drunk enough so that the beer was no longer his first priority, drunk enough so that Jenny could still fend him off without too much difficulty, though his fumblings were getting more persistent. I got my courage up enough to sidle over and distract him with silly questions–there was never a man born, my Ma used to say, who didn’t like to boast about his deeds.
“You be glad you got Captain Jack t’ take care o’ you–” he said, patting Jenny’s hair. “There’s other gangs would torch this town and take the women without askin’. But I figure that’s like eatin’ all yer seed corn. Way I see it, we keep the others offa you all and you feed us, unnerstan?”
Jenny and I nodded. It wasn’t feeding him that we objected to. He might be more thoughtful than most, but he was still a predator.
He was halfway through a meandering account of a fight with one of those other bunches of “protectors” when light blazed suddenly on the other side of the square. About time, I thought, peering under my hand to see who was carrying the torches. I’d been wondering when Mr. Coyote was going to light the fire.
But it wasn’t Mr. Coyote. All I could make out through the radiance was the flutter of a flowered skirt I didn’t think I’d ever seen before. I looked around the square. All the women in town were accounted for. From the back I saw a tangle of ginger hair crowned by a wreath of roses. Who on earth was this woman who was carrying the torches, hips swinging rhythmically as she danced around the fire?
Will had picked up the beat, and the other musicians followed. Three times the fire-bringer circled the heap of wood. By this time people were clapping out the rhythm and stamping so hard the earth shook and the glasses rattled against the jug. Then, with a howl of triumph, she threw the torches. They arced towards the wood like lightning, and exploded in a pillar of flame.
Captain Jack jerked back, swearing. The fire-bearer turned, and I glimpsed a long nose and glowing eyes in a brown face that looked oddly familiar, though I knew I had never seen this woman before.
Whoever she was, even I could see that she was what men called ‘sexy’. Her hips swayed with each step, and big breasts made the flowers printed on the cloth of her dress flutter as she moved. Every male within view, including the men of our town, sat up, tongue lolling, as she came towards us.
“Hi there, big boy,” she said in a throaty voice. “Whatcha doin’ with those little girls? What you need is a real woman– come on an’ dance with me!”
She leaned forward, chucking Captain Jack under the chin, and my senses swam in the wave of rose perfume. Jenny was so stunned I had to pull her out of the way as he lurched to his feet and stumbled after the strange woman towards the fire.
If the music had been lively before, it was crazy now, and everyone was dancing. Even Miz Washington was hopping around with Will Nunez, and Ben had his wife by the hand. Jenny twirled alone, hair flying, and I jiggled in place, trying to keep an eye on her and still see what was going on by the fire.
Captain Jack was grunting with effort, sweat rolling down his face as he tried to get a hold on his partner. She certainly touched him enough, with a kiss here and a brush of hip or breast there, but every time he tried to hug her she managed to slide away. Everyone else was too excited to notice, but it made me laugh. Maybe that’s why I was the only one who saw what happened when he managed to grab her at last.
For a minute it looked like he had a good armful of woman. Then she dissolved in a shower of sparks. The flowered dress and the roses slithered through Captain Jack’s grasp, and the sparks solidified into a new shape, four-legged and furry, with a long nose and glowing yellow eyes.
For a minute I just stared. Then I grabbed the rifle that the captain had left leaning against his chair. “Look everybody! Captain Jack is tryin’ to make love to a dog!”
It was a pretty good yell. The music stopped. Everything stopped except for Captain Jack, who was still clutching at his furry partner, whimpering. But it wasn’t, as I had first guessed, a dog. What squirmed out of his grasp was unmistakeably a coyote, and male at that, who looked back at us for a moment, tongue lolling insolently, then trotted across the square and disappeared.
Everyone saw it, and everyone heard in their heads the familiar voice of Mr. Coyote–
“Well I’ve made a fool of him–the rest is up to you!”
There was a moment of amazement, and then we all began to laugh.
After that night, Captain Jack was never the same. One or two of his men tried to give trouble, and a couple ran off, but our men were the top dogs now. Ben Nunez took the rifle, and he was the one who made the deal with the riders, to keep them fed if they would work with us and help build a meeting hall with a wall around it that will defend us all if others should come. After awhile people started calling him our head man. It’s a job he seems to do pretty well.
Last year Jenny got married to one of the riders, a young one, and I stood up with her. The other men are beginning to pay attention to me, now, but none of them interest me. I’ve always had the feeling I was waiting for something, and last night I found out why.
The moon was full, and the coyotes were singing on the hill. I couldn’t sleep, and I went for a walk at the edge of town. Just past the old wagon shop I saw a whirl of sparks in the grass. But there was no fire, and no wind. It got solid, and in another minute it was a coyote, yellow eyes glowing and gingery fur a-glisten in the light of the moon.
“Hello, Mr. Coyote,” I said then, wondering why I wasn’t afraid.
“Hello, Miss Poppy–” he answered, but by that time he had changed again, and what stood there, despite the long nose and sardonic eyes, was a very good-looking young man. . . .
By the time I got back to my bed dawn was on its way. Tonight I’m going to meet him again, and I don’t know if I’ll ever go home. Coyote says it’s time to change things once more, time folks stopped being afraid of the Guardians and looking back to the time Before. He’s got a lot to teach me, and I think I’m ready to learn.
And I can guarantee that something will always be happening when Coyote is around.
This story was originally published in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Worlds, an anthology published for the Fantasy Worlds Festival in 1998. The deadline for turning it in was in April of that year, and I still had not actually started the story when I left for the Science Fiction Writers of America’s annual conference, which was held that year in Santa Fe. Although I had the best of intentions, there were too many interesting things to do at the conference, and I did not write a word.
Until the banquet.
Every so often the organizers of the Nebula banquet make a serious miscalculation in their choice of speaker, usually by picking someone who is apparently clueless about the people he is talking to. In this case the speaker was singing the praises of interactive fiction as if no one in his audience knew anything about creativity. In such situations I am afraid my fellow-writers are not the most courteous of beings. In this case, there was a general exodus. My strategy for enduring the pain was marginally more polite. I grabbed every piece of paper within reach and began to write this story.
Maybe Coyote had something to do with that, too.