Animal Instinct

We’re only halfway through this hike, approaching the longest hill on our walk and Luna’s lagging behind a bit. I’m not annoyed. She doesn’t like to leave home much and she struggles with serious anxiety. She’s nervous today, more than usual. She prefers to avoid people altogether and even though there are frequently people on these trails, she braves herself for me. Also, today there are Cooper’s hawks taunting us from above, setting her on edge. They’re relentless in their screeches.

We’ve been good friends going on four years now. She’s always ready to be indignant on my behalf. I respect the way she weighs her options between primal reaction and public decorum. Mostly every conversation we have results in the realization that there’s more than one way to be a human. She doesn’t believe in the perfectibility of the individual. Neither do I. Most importantly, she never mistakes my silence for quiet. Our friendship has grown out of choice, not need. I’ve never been friends with a dog before.

“Pick a side. You’re making me dizzy.” I’m polite about it, but I feel like she’s herding me.

She’s kind of all over the path. First, she’s ahead of me on the left with a quick pace that’s hard to keep up with. Then she’s dragging her feet and falling behind me and to the right. She’s glancing around way more than usual as well. I’m not sure she’s even paying attention to me.

“Why’re you circling around me? I’m trying to talk to you here.”

I study the outline of her face in the late afternoon shade. I think that maybe she wants to be listened to rather than listening to me, but that’s not it. She’s out of sorts today.

She comes to a halt on the hill where new gravel has been recently spread, and both of us slide a bit sideways. The air is crowded and thunder rumbles in the distance.

“Come on. It’s getting late,” I insist.

She stares at me like I’m something written in a language she doesn’t speak and she refuses to move.

“What?” I gesture with expectancy and now some small annoyance.

The Cooper’s hawks have silenced themselves.

Her body tenses. She’s staring at the ridge in front of us.

The hair on my neck prickles. “Luna, what IS it?”

So far this is a simple story, but true stories are rarely simple.

Right where the gravel hiking trail curves just slightly to the left at the top of the rise, and just to the right of the trail through the trees, beyond the place where shadow flows into sunlight beaming from the low western sun, and perched atop a fallen tree, is a coyote.

My body cycles through all of the physical shorthands for involuntary terror, but I hold my place, aware that I need to convey that I am not distressed prey, here for the easy taking.

Even though my violence is everywhere and my breathing is paused forever, I’m aware of the damp, summer air on every inch of my exposed skin, and the thick stench of mud in my nose from the creek that runs below us. I’m aware that the coyote is about 50 yards away. I’m aware that there is no way we can make it down the path to get help way back in the parking lot if he chases us, or if he decides to call for help. I’m aware of the way the sun drips through the trees and pours around the coyote making his face darker than it should be. I’m aware of the way his white fur lies in contrast to his blonde fur, puffs out in the middle of his chest, and runs up onto his neck and into his muzzle. I’m aware of the way my left hand tightens on my mostly full water bottle.

We all stand here, eyes locked, awareness dawning, options evaluated, and decisions made in this humid moment, the size of just a half of a breath. The coyote’s tail flicks slightly. His hackles are raised and so are his hips. He’s calling us intruders. He is beautiful only as a warning.

Luna’s voice rumbles, her chest a symphony of threat. She is a war cry echoing off the afternoon storm. Her bones and muscles and heart no longer face the right way. Her lips are pulled up and back, her teeth prominent and ready for use. She is shaking from the inside out and she wants to kill the coyote in his skin. She is shredding the air in front of us.

She lunges on her leash, cursing the coyote into the void. A string of obscenities flies from her mouth as she hexes him. She is his calamity and she swears she will tear him to nothing. She is everything and she is imminent.

I wrap her leash around my wrist to hold her near me as gravel flies from under her dedicated paws. The path in front of us ceases to exist for her and she is ripping the heart out of the coyote and stomping it to little pulsing pieces. She fills the forest in front of me, offering her life, guarding my existence.

She is the coyote’s last warning, but he doesn’t even flinch.

The thunder rumbles low and long, warning that the sky will open soon, dumping its life-giving force here. A vicious crack consumes the forest.

I make myself huge, my survival welling up in my chest, pushing my life up through my throat, across my tongue, and out of my mouth. I am rage. Sometimes the smallest and loveliest places harbor the worst and most useful monsters, the kind that smile at you in the light of day, but will slice you in an instant if darkness descends. My monster roars alongside Luna’s and I throw my water bottle with all of the precision I can muster. It lands short of the coyote, but I am surplus evil. I am the shadow side projected onto my enemy. I am a malevolence not fated to end here on this trail with my Luna girl. I maintain eye contact with the coyote, while I shuffle two feet to the left, and pick up the largest piece of wood within my reach. I hold it in the ready position.

The real world is a beautiful mess, governed by unthinking underlying laws and guarded by the deep patterns we trace through the stories we weave as we tumble through our existence. The real world is full of our created meaning, our purposeful mattering, and our becoming. The real world is full of mother’s who love so fiercely that when they are driving and they slam on the brakes, their first instinct is to fling an arm out so their children will not crash into glass and go bodily into the night, even though their children are safely strapped in car seats. The world is full of leashed dogs, who love so fiercely that when they are on a hiking trail and a predator presents itself, their first instinct is to act as a shield, flinging themselves in front of their humans, so their humans will not crash into the end and go bodily into the night. It’s born into us as genetic information passed down through DNA or not.

I remember somewhere that I read that dominance is about personality and intelligence, rather than brawn, and I wonder which one of us has the best DNA, which one of us has the superior ability to evaluate, and which one of us has a more honed instinct to protect. I wonder exactly which one of us stands to lose more. I wonder if I can safely reach the knife in my pack.

The trees shush about under the orders of the building wind, the underside of the leaves showing themselves, warning us to take shelter. The coyote lowers his head just barely and slightly flattens his ears. His left paw lifts several inches and his tail droops noticeably so it’s just lower than his back. I roar again, my voice animal to me, and then I wait.

A few fat raindrops fall onto the trail and thunder rolls across Luna’s ferocious growl now vibrating low and resonating in her chest. She’s warning that she’s not finished. He breaks eye contact, bobs his head low, his tail falling flat against his hind quarters, and he slinks off over the ridge and into the coming storm, never glancing back at us.

We wait several moments, me clutching my big piece of wood and Luna barking with such deep urgency that I barely recognize her voice. Then she’s pulling me back down the trail towards the parking lot a mile away. I follow her lead.

We don’t speak. We don’t stop to see if muskrats are sheltering under the wooden footbridge. We don’t pause to hunt for frogs and snakes in the weeds by the pond. We don’t slow down to ponder the ancient willow. Every couple of moments she stops to look behind us. She makes eye contact with me every time she circles me counterclockwise, herding me, guarding me, nudging me gently behind my knees. She struts, her tail held high, gloating and snorting every so often with a vicious shake of her head.

When we arrive in the parking lot, I open the sliding door and sit on the edge of the minivan. We’re soaked to our skin, but we stop to process what happened. Luna checks me for injury, nudging and licking every part of me, my feet, my knees, my arms. She presses her face into my abdomen, and then licks my neck and face. Only after she is assured that I’m uninjured does she tend to herself.

She releases a cacophony of whines filled with distress and uncertainty, and then she drops at my feet, lying on her back, belly exposed, complaining that enforced proximity via her leash limited her heroism. No, no, no, I sooth. You were brilliant. I drop to my knees right there, in the rain, in the parking lot, the black top radiating a sticky, stenchy heat, and I bury my face in her chest. I tell her that the world is not a theatre for heroism.

I cradle Luna on my lap and whisper to my amygdala, look how close we got, right up to the edge where there is no distinction between things great and small, where all of things that matter stand before us piled up waiting for judgement come due, where everyone is known by standing in relation to the things we protect.

The raindrops sizzle on the pavement, birthing a mist that hovers low over the entirety of West Woods.

I wonder what I am as the strong scent of Luna fills my head, her warnings still slamming off the trunks and the branches and the creeks. Her resolve booms through me. We are shifting in each other’s truth, so that when we finally separate, me to drive the minivan, and Luna to resume her place just behind me, I am fiercely unsettled. My fur is drenched and matted from the downpour, my snorts still come at intermittent intervals, my paws ache from the gravel on the trail, my bark is raw from issuing threats, and my claws are sharp, still ready for piercing. My animal instinct refuses to calm, but I will not crash into the end and go bodily into the night.


Image: Photo by Jana Shnipelson on Unsplash.

Melissa Mulvihill
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