Liz was suddenly awake. The stars spread out overhead like diamonds emptied on a jeweler’s cloth, and between them and the moon the desert glowed with a soft, cool light. She shivered with the chill of the night, the thin blanket not quite keeping her comfortable. Groggy and disoriented, she focused her eyes with some effort. When her vision finally cleared she peered into the clear air and saw the lean, rawboned figure of a coyote not more than ten feet in front of her.
Ray, already awake, reacted to her swift intake of breath with the faintest hushing noise, and a whisper in her ear, “he’s okay. Don’t scare them.” The brush of his breath across her skin was such that she had to suppress a shiver.
Liz willed herself to lie still, but her heart drummed in her chest. The coyote froze, looking over at them. His eyes gleamed green and amber in the light cast by the dying embers of the evening’s fire. Though his coat appeared tattered and tufted in the moonlight, his face was refined; long and slender and topped by two large ears that appeared to Liz to be out of all proportion with the rest of him. He moved with a quick grace that she hadn’t expected; his legs were long and painfully thin, but he moved quickly, and surely, and so quietly he seemed to float above the sand. He seemed impossibly wild, and more exotic than anything she had seen before. She was amazed to find that while she felt attenuated by his nearness, she was not afraid. There was no menace about him; just a kind of simple wisdom in his gaze.
She was utterly spellbound, and in that moment she felt as if she, too, were a wild thing. She experienced, driven by instinct, an expansion of her senses, previously dulled by the constant inundation of city life. Here, however, in the presence of this ghost of a dog, she could hear and feel and see and smell everything. She could feel every stone beneath her; the heat of Ray’s chest behind her. She could smell the coyote’s breath, foul and mammalian, and the mustiness of his coat, similar to but distinct from the smell of the domestic dog. She could hear his soft breathing, slightly huffing as he smelled them. She heard, also, the soft scrape of one of his paws turning in the desert soil, shifting the dust and sending a pebble tumbling.
Then, the spell broken, he turned and bounded away into the scrub. Liz almost cried out at the loss of that moment. A few seconds later, an eerie yipping howl came up, and was answered from all around her. It was impossible to tell how many there might have been; their voices cascaded together into a chorus of lost souls.
From behind her, she felt more than heard Ray’s chuckle, deep and graveled with sleep. “Aren’t they marvelous?” he asked softly. “Aren’t they marvelous.”
The howls began to ebb, and to drift off into the distance. Ray squeezed her shoulder, and a few minutes later she felt his breathing settle back down into that deep, slow, sleeping sound. Liz, still awake, felt her senses more keenly attuned than ever. She felt as though she could hear each scraping twig and brush of windswept sand for a mile in any direction, and the hints of movement in the nighttime gloom kept catching her eye. Both made it impossible to sleep. So she lay there, feeling the cold of the desert night seep into her from the ground.
She looked out at the sere and ghostly landscape and felt a sudden wave of loneliness sweep over her. This was a strange place, she knew nobody here. The land itself had an alien flatness that seemed unnatural to her. The noises of the city, of water and of leaf were replaced with this strange discordant music of wind and stone and coyotes singing. She knew nobody here, knew nothing about this place, and she had no idea when or how she’d get back home. She felt as though a slow fire had burned its way through her, leaving her cold and empty and as near to collapse as a burned-out building.
She had never felt so lost in her life.