Meeting the Trickster
This story comes from a week-long meditation retreat at Springwater Center, on a mountain ridge in the Finger Lakes region of western New York state.
Waking to the dainty trill of the bell, I glanced out my window. Still dark, no moon, but a light blanket of new snow silvered the night.
I splashed cold water on my face in the bathroom, quickly brushed my teeth. Then I went quietly through the hall, the only sound the rustle of clothing as other retreatants joined me. We entered the meditation room, finding our way under a single subdued light to our black cushions. I sat by my window, listened to the breathing, watched the slow gathering of day over the new snow. It was the fifth day of retreat week at Springwater.
The sun peeked over the ridge to the north, its warmth on my face a benediction. The handbell chimed softly, signaling the end of the sit. I rose with the others and began the round of walking meditation; but then impulsively exited the line, descended to the ground-level entrance. Putting on coat, hat, and boots, I stepped out into the new day. The air was crisp and clean, more bracing than cold. I headed toward the big meadows at the top of the ridge.
I passed the pond, came out onto the meadows. They seemed quilted by the snow—the tussocks of grass sticking up through the snow the pattern, and the lines left by the wind the stitching—in this great random quilt. I glided over the meadows and into the woods. And there found that the light blanket of snow was the perfect medium for the imprints of every animal in the neighborhood. Suddenly I was reading a book, the pages of which told the story of every creature who made these woods its home. Even the tracks of tiny birds and of chipmunks were etched with astounding clarity in the snow. I began tracing the tracks, reading the stories, awed by these creatures who made their living out here in the woods in the depths of winter, naked and alone—what a miracle!
I followed a rabbit’s tracks. They wandered hither and yon—the rabbit, clearly, checking out the various twigs, mosses, who knows what—as sources of food. And then there were other tracks—large canine tracks—and the rabbit’s tracks were no longer casual and meandering: They stretched out, made off into the distance in a straight line. And overlaid on its tracks were the prints of the canine, their size astonishing. I guessed they had to be made by a quite large dog—someone’s poochie out on the razzle—though I tried to imagine they were made by a wolf (suppressing the truth that my own species had long ago murdered the wolf in these parts). I left off reading all the other tracks of the local community and began following the story of this single dead-serious chase. The rabbit’s prints were farther apart now; and the wolf’s prints also spoke of strenuous effort, of stretching the sinews to the limit. For the wolf as for the rabbit, life itself was on the line.
The story in the snow was a koan indeed: Should I be rooting for the rabbit or the wolf?
But I left off the pursuit of the drama before the denouement. When I turned back, the rabbit was still at maximum stretch, knowing that its life depended on the next all-out leap, the next duck under branch or fallen trunk; hearing behind it the hot breath and the heavy fall of paw on dry leaves under snow. The wolf too was still driven by the rabbit’s scent, and the certainty it must eat or die. When I turned back, there was as yet no blood on the snow, but also no separation of the two sets of tracks.
I headed back toward the center, this time skirting the other side of the big meadows, entering woods again. Every leaf which had not been shed was etched in snow. No breeze stirred, the silence absolute. There was only breath and woods-smell and the vertical lines of tree trunks against the blanket of snow.
Something moved among the trees. I froze, focused. Then I saw him: a coyote, moving light-footed and silent as a shadow among the tree trunks. No, there was no doubt what I was seeing: My buddy Sam had brought over a couple of coyotes he had trapped for me to see. But they had been dead. Lifeless objects. Caricatures of Coyote. This was a magnificent creature, vibrant and alive to the tip of every hair.
It was in full winter coat, thick and shaggy, and of various hues–browns and greys and off-whites. I surmised it was a dog—that is, a dog coyote as opposed to a bitch—because I knew that coyote bitches are significantly smaller than the males; and this was a big animal.
Though obscured from his sight by the trunk of a large oak, I could see he was about to come onto the path right in front of me. I was electric with excitement; but also with a quick rush of fear. True, I knew that coyotes are extremely shy, and are quick to avoid humans. Still, I did not have even my walking staff with me: I knew that, if for some reason he did take exception to my being there, he had all the offensive weapons.
I stood, breathless, and watched him come on. He emerged from behind the oak and was suddenly full on the path, no more than twelve feet in front of me.
There was no division between his awareness of me and his reaction: When the hazel eyes registered my presence, he was already in retreat, springing gracefully backward, spinning lightly, loping away. I stood and watched him run—not in full retreat from me, but in an arc that gave me wide berth, while keeping to the direction he had been traveling—out beyond the big meadow, into the woods teeming with chipmunks and rabbits.
I watched him until out of sight—magnificent, graceful, at home on this landscape where I was a stumbling stranger. And as I continued on toward the center, elated beyond measure, I was now—I must admit—rooting for the coyote.