Deep in the wetlands and marshes of Medauquay, the stars were still visible in the dark night sky. Insects called to each other in the blackness; now and then a voice went quiet, as a lizard or toad silenced the singer. Frogs called out as well, seeking mates. Distant splashes of amphibious escape from wading birds, or an alligator slipping into the murky waters. The Coyote threw another piece of wood onto the small campfire; the crackle and snap of the hungry flames added to the chorus.
The Karankawa were a tall people; Coyote, too, reflected this. Well over six feet tall, its body was mostly that of a human man, nude save for a small loincloth. A well-muscled chest and powerful arms and legs; the Karankawa were known as the Wrestlers, and their physiques had earned the reputation. But a canine head topped human shoulders, and sandy, brown-gold-grey tipped wiry fur grew down the Coyote’s human back. The same fur dusted over his chest and grew more heavily over hidden parts; this Coyote lacked the tail that some carried, but loped on long-jointed, doggish lower legs.
Now that the fire was fed and there was wood enough to carry the hours, it was time to tell the stories. The flames gave light to see by, and smoke would keep predators at bay.
Stories. The stories were life, the life of a people. And the Karankawa told them with living voices, as living things, rather than carved into inanimate stone, or thin, dead-bark books.
No. These stories were special. They deserved to be told and remembered.
And so the Coyote began.
Back in the olden days, when the mountains themselves were young, the land you now call ‘America’ was a wilderness of a thousand different tribes. We were wild, then: pure children of Gaia. We were Hare and Crow and Coyote; Bison and Bear and Fox. We had not heard of Humans, then, not until the first boats came down the Western coasts and hide-wrapped feet crossed the Great Northern Bridge. Some came following herds and schools and pods of whales; some came from curiosity; others came for war.
These new children of the Earth settled the West, from the Northern Lights to the Southern Stillness. We of the Olden Age sought them out and were likewise sought in return. They worshipped us, the Two-Legged Ones did. They admired Raven’s cleverness and Eagle’s daring manner. They praised Bison for his strength and Hare for his fleetness of foot. Jaguar taught them stealth among the Southern jungles; Coyote taught resourcefulness. These were our gifts to them, and in return they gave us praise and taught us the arts, and crafts, and words.
Those who would become our people came first from the islands beyond the great Eastern marshes – what you call ‘Florida’ now. They spoke of old rivals who had driven them from the isles and to the mainland to the north. But the Calusa and Apalachee wished no strangers in their lands, and again the people fled. Months turned into years and from there to generations, and little by little the tall, tattooed tribe wandered west. They followed the coastline, guided by Alligator and Crane. How long they wandered, not even they could recall, but one day they came to land that bore neither hut nor tipi nor campfire smoke. No human footprints marred the mud. They had found new land, our land, and in these Olden Days, those who we called Father had not yet met the Two-Legged before.
But meet we did, as they came to our shores and partook of the pecan groves along the river banks. They found our land was good for them, and we watched from a distance what these newcomers would bring. Month by month, this distance shrank, until soon at night we skirted the edge of Two-Legged camps and scented Human, un-masked by alligator grease and mud. We were skittish and uncertain, for it is in our nature to beware, but these who called themselves ‘Kalinago’ came not with shouts and hefted spears, but with open hands and gifts of fresh-killed game.
Months turned to years, and from there into generations, and from wary neighbors our kinds became fast friends. They shared their fires against the chill at night; we lent them our ears and noses to help hunt down prey and protect against those who would again chase the Kalinago from their homes. Such was their devotion and friendship with us that our pups played like brothers, and their wise men dressed in our skins to become more alike to what they cherished. The day came that even the difference in our blood no longer mattered. Just as our children played together, so did our adults bond together, and from one such pairing was born a set of twins. The older bore a Coyote’s fur and ears and black-tipped tail, but a Two-Legged’s form and mewling face.
They called him ‘Karankawa’, a lover of dogs and beloved by them, and as he and his brother grew, it became clear that a new way had come. The older brother was more Coyote; the younger, more Man. But Karankawa understood our speech and took our form, and could tell more fully our stories to our Two-Legged. His brother rose to chief of the tribe, and inherited their father’s resourcefulness if not his shape.
The tribe flourished, and soon all of them called themselves the Coyote’s people, and took his name. No longer ‘Kalinago’, but ‘Karankawa’. The brothers took wives among the women of the tribe, each man in his given form. And once more the wife of Coyote bore her husband a set of twins, and once more the older twin was male, and bore his father’s head and tail.
The older son was Talnejanana; the younger, Kodanksol.
And all of these things, their father told them.
As he spoke, the Coyote moved. A collection of mid-sized stones of irregular shape and form lay near the fire. One by one, with slowness, each one was in turn picked up and laid in order.
Talnejanana sired a set of twins: Hamala and Kotakuwai. Kotakuwai sired twins as well. This is our way and our nature: one child of the Coyote’s breed, and one child who is Man. Like Talnejanana his father, and Karankawa his father before him, Kotakuwai’s eldest child was a son. He was named Kisekwan, and all of these things his father told him.
It was in the time of Kisekwan that the Sickness arrived from the south. The Maya, the builders of great cities of stone and sand, had grown beyond their ancestral lands. They formed an empire on land and on sea, but exploration was not without cost. Somewhere in the jungles, they discovered a blackness unnatural in essence. It poisoned them inside and out, and even their gods grew depraved. The Maya warred their way through the lands of the Tamaulipec and Coahuiltec. They crossed the great sea in grand canoes. Their leaders were brutal and hungry for blood; their obsidian blades, the macuahuitl, sliced down all who resisted.
The Children of Gaia fled before the sickness. Those who could not or did not fell victim to it. Great Jaguar succumbed, and panic ensued amongst those who escaped. We of Coyote listened, and judged discretion the better part of valor. We were a small tribe, scavengers and hunters, not warriors. When the Aztec fell to darkness, what could we do? The women and children were sent into the marshes, while we tracked the path of footsoldiers and canoes. We sent word to Bison and Raven and Wolf, to warn those ahead. But even then, one by one, the voices fell silent.
The Lipan; the Shawnee; the Lenape. Each were touched and affected. The Sickness reached as far as the Iroquois and Wabanaki; the People of the Long Houses, and the People of the Dawn. The Long Houses had great strength in numbers, and in the end they fought back the Sickness and its soldiers. Those of the Dawn drew upon a sacred light which blinded Jaguar’s eyes and burnt down his people. It is said that this light came from further still, brought by warriors of another tribe. Three nations combined; the Maya were defeated and the Aztec driven back. Their canoes were torched and sundered; their people slain to a man. Only south, in their homelands, did they remain, where we dared not ventured. Crow and Raven swore to tell the tales; Wolf swore to be ever-watchful. The Sickness was not gone but merely dreaming.
Kwasha was the son of Kisekwan, and all of these things his father told him.
The years after the Sickness brought changes. The warrior tribes, drunk on success and violence, expanded their lands by claiming others’ as spoils of war. The Lipan turned against us, and in turn came to war with Mescalero. The Numunu fought the Tickanwatic. The Niukonska, tall like we are, came south to flee the Long Houses’ now-iron hands. Again our stealth and reclusive nature saved us, for no one wished the marshlands we called home.
These were the Quiet Years, even with such turbulence, for the years to come would be harsher still.
In the Quiet Years, the Karankawa thrived while others traded blows. Kwasha sired Hajohakik, who brokered peace with the Lipan. Hajohakik sired Bahakway, in whose time this peace broke like rotten wood. Bahakway was known as a great leader; he traveled far to meet the chiefs of other nations, and returned with promises of a dozen more: that we would live in peace and support each other, against whatever new challenges would come.
Bahakway was already grey with age when Kwanshemi, his son, was born. It was Kwanshemi who was shaman when the reeds began to whisper, and Kwanshemi who would face the sickness anew.
This plague came not in the form of ancient shadows, but in that of pale-skinned men. We knew them as Kahakwemi, the people of the earth – the Spaniards, who marched overland and left corpses in their wake. They brought with them horses and weapons of steel, diseases and different gods. The horses armed our enemies, and bullets tore through smallpox’d skin. Their gods gave them the mission to save us from the Hell they had brought; they built buildings where we should worship, and attempted to teach us the error of the Old Ways.
So many died from the Spanish plagues. Entire families, entire clans, lands left desolate for hundreds of miles. Villages with more dead than survivor; the living fled and left the corpses to rot, lacking hands enough to bury them. Days later, those who ran had died as well. The trading routes became wastelands, and every settlement a graveyard. Not even the Mayan sickness had done this.
It was our fault, said the Spanish priests. Our fault that the plague claimed our children and our wives: God’s punishment for our sinful ways. If we would worship their god instead, perhaps he would be merciful. If we gave up our tongues and our legends, perhaps we would be spared. In every tribe, there were some who defected. They staggered to the mission buildings and knelt down before crosses, and died with prayers on their lips.
We of the Coyote were immune to the Spanish pox, but our mates were not. Kwanshemi’s first and second wives died young; one in every three met death in those years. But those who survived grew stronger, and their children resisted the pox better than their fathers had. By now there were too few of us to protect and support ourselves alone. The Lipan, too, had been decimated, and grief had softened their hearts. We lived together — it was better than dying alone.
Kwanshemi’s third wife bore a set of twins: Kubakaita and Kwanawil. They were born into the end of days, and lived them as opposites. Kwanawil, the younger child, was bold and fierce. Kubakaita, ‘Laughing Coyote’, was no warrior. Laugh he did, as a child, but growing up soon stole his smile. Where Kwanawil did, Kubakaita observed. Where Kwanawil was brave, Kubakaita thought too much.
These were the sons of Kwanshemi, and all of these things their father told them.
The stones were becoming a pile now, as the Coyote told his tale. The placement slower, more careful, to ensure none rolled from their appointed place. The words came more slowly, too, echoing the sorrow of the events they described.
The younger brother, Kwanawil, was a warrior in the olden ways. He grew tall and strong, and a proud protector of his people. He courted maidens, Lipan and Karankawa alike. Still young, he fought the Spanish with his heart full of fire, only to die to the French instead. When the king of the Red House took Kwanawil’s bride as a slave, three hundred Karankawa men went to save her. The belch of canons and rifles hurled smoke that could be seen a day’s journey away, and less than one hundred of Kwanawil’s band returned home. He was not among them.
His death heralded the coming of the Anglos, who stole what little land and livelihood remained. Mexico, then, was independent and had thrown off Spanish chains; its people skirmished with the Anglos over water and land. But independence we understood, and any enemy of the Spanish and the Anglos were surely friends to us. When war loomed again, this time between the usurpers to our south and the invaders to our north, the Karankawa sided with the former. The war lasted less than two seasons, but claimed another score of lives. Our chief, in Spanish called Jose Maria, died defending a nation not even his own.
Kubakaita no longer laughed. Kubakaita no longer smiled. Less than one hundred remained; then less than eighty; then just sixty-five. Among these were Kubakaita’s wife, and only one son, with dark-tipped ears and a nose like his father. The Anglos had no mercy for those on ‘their’ lands now. No mercy for the allies of the Mexican state. In the year 1858, horses and screaming men attacked at sunrise. Kubakaita fled.
The Tickanwatic – the Tonkawa – had sided with the Anglos, and fought the powerful Comanche in exchange for survival. The Comanche and their allies rewarded the betrayal with death. Nearly half of the Tonkawa fell north of the Red River, and the survivors – less than two hundred – were herded onto iron rails to be sent north into squalor. Kubakaita went north as well.
Bison was no more. The great herds had been hunted into nothingness, and the spirit that led them could not be found. At night Kubakaita roamed and howled and grieved, but no voice came to answer.
North. Wolf’s realm, thick with trees, but here, too, the tribes had fallen. The Shawnee had been forced south, to fill the emptiness where Bison had lived, and to live what remained of their lives in a graveyard of skulls.
North. The half-bloods of the Cree and Lakota lived here, in the shadows of Anglo war forts. They traded in Bison’s skin and Beaver’s corpse, and knelt so fervently before the crosses that had killed their fathers.
It was here Kubakaita hid, taking the form of a half-breed child. He threw away his name and called himself Hatsokonayla. He threw away his gender, and cloaked himself as a girl. And thus Hatsokonayla lived – in fear and in shadows, changing as the world around him changed as well. She learned the Anglo language and Anglo ways. She learned to take without being seen, and live off what was stolen. She learned not to think of old stories and old names, and she learned to forget that she was alone.
New wars waged, and Hatsokonayla changed. She fled through the World Tree and across the Great Waters, to the ancestral Anglo lands. She heard of ruined places further still, and went to haunt abandoned buildings and pick through remnants of shattered lives.
Things changed. Stranger things than Coyotes roamed streets in human forms. Plagues more deadly than the Spanish pox. Gods more cruel than those nailed to crosses. And in time, so much time, Hatsokonayla discovered one much like her. One who had also lost her people, and outlived the memory of the memories.
Trust did not come easily. But it came. It came wreathed in stories and legends wedged between smartphones and TVs. It came trembling on two legs and on four, and shivering with uncertainty.
And in the end, Hatsokonayla sired twins. The eldest, Caselejota. The youngest, Wístakwe.
Now the final stone was placed; the burial cairn completed. His wife moved over from her silent seat by the fire, and wrapped the half-man in her arms, murmuring soft assurances that he was not alone. Kiowa was silent, and if he could have cried through coyote eyes, the tears would have flowed for days.
There was one more thing to say. Just one more, told from father to son to grandson, unending. Of all the traditions the Coyote had abandoned and all the sacraments unfulfilled, this one could not be broken.
And all of these things, I would have told you.