Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Tricksters in the night

Late last night, Uncle Merlin and I the only ones awake, each of us focused on our respective computers, when a screaming outside the front windows startles us out of our virtual realities.

Animal screaming.

My first thought was that an owl had got a rabbit. But it kept screaming. And it moved around the house.

It sounded to me now like a hawk. A loud hawk. A loud, very big hawk. A hawk that would make an eagle insecure about its size. Unless it was an eagle. I've never seen an eagle around here. I can't remember seeing a hawk either. There are hawks all over the Cape, but not in this neighborhood. I saw an osprey this morning. Took a fish out of the Mill Pond. But I don't believe any of them, ospreys, eagles, or hawks, ever work nights.

A screech owl, maybe?

A screech owl with a megaphone.

I went outside to look, as if it wasn't night, as if it wasn't pitch dark.

Uncle Merlin didn't come with me. He had an important auction to monitor on ebay.

The screaming continued. Sharp, raspy, single note screams with pauses of three and four beats between them. I followed the sound out into the backyard and "watched" as whatever it was seemed to rise up into the top of tall old black locust behind the house next door. I tracked whatever it was with my eyes, as if if I stared intently enough I would develop super night vision and the thing would suddenly become visible to me.

Suddenly it was at ground level again and swinging around the neighbor's house to the street again. I chased after it, chased it down the street, chased it halfway up somebody's driveway, where I suddenly realized that it wasn't in the air anymore, that it probably never had been. Sound plays tricks in the dark.

Whatever it was had stopped moving, and I stopped too. We remained that way, "staring" at each other.

The screams had been dying for a little while now. Softer, they sounded to me more emotional, irritable, angry but not at me, at someone particular, but there was also a note of loneliness, as if whoever was irritating it was also breaking its heart.

I swear that's what I heard at the time, because in a moment you'll be accusing me of 20/20 hindhearing.

The screaming stopped but it, the screamer, was not silent. It was making a quiet noise in its throat, like the moaning of a sad dog.

There was enough ambient light from the house at the end of the driveway and I thought I could now see a gray-white shape sitting in the far corner of the yard.

Sitting up, like a dog on its haunches.

The front door of the house opened and a tall, white haired man stepped out onto the front stoop.

"Who's that?" he demanded in a far from welcoming voice.

"Hi," I said, "I'm from the up street. I heard a weird noise and I'm trying to find out what it is."

"It's a bird," he said. He didn't say it in a helpful way.

"That's what I thought when I heard it the first time. But I never heard a bird that loud."

"Bird," he said again.

I got the hint.

"Well," I said, "Goodnight."

He didn't say goodnight back.

The ghostly shape at the corner of the yard had disappeared.

I wandered off.

Uncle Merlin was waiting for me on the front porch as I walked back up to the house.

"I think it was a coyote," I said.

There have been coyotes on Cape Cod since 1985.

"I know it was," he said. "She was looking for her pup."

"How do you know that?"

"I saw the pup scurry across the backyard after you went out. It was headed your way."

That explains the screams then, she was calling for him. Unless what was screaming was what the coyote had between her jaws.

"Then I think I'm glad I didn't catch up with her," I said.

"She probably wouldn't have liked it if you'd come between her and her pup."

"Probably not." I thought about what might have happened. "They're not all that big," I said. They're not. The first time I ever saw one in the daylight I thought I was looking at a very large fox for a second. "And they don't really want to have anything to do with us. Wouldn't have been like coming between a mother bear and her cub."

Coyotes keep their distance from people. They aren't timid, just respectful. They have been known to follow people out walking. Trail them down the street. One can be behind you and you wouldn't know it. They're probably hoping you're a litter bug. Coyotes will eat pretty much anything. Taxidermist opened one up once, it had been killed by a car, and found a Burger King hamburger box in its belly.

"Not an experiment you'd want to try," Uncle Merlin said.

"No, it isn't," I said. "Would have liked to see them though. I've only seen two others."

The first time I saw one was on the beach late at night. If you run into a coyote in the dark on a beach when you are not expecting to meet one, when you don't even know yet that there are coyotes on Cape Cod and would never guess that an animal you've always thought of as prefering deserts where they can sit on rocks and howl at the moon at night and chase roadrunners by daylight, you do not think, Oh, a dog. You think, oh damn, a coyote. Coyotes slink with a guilty, thieving, shifty look that identifies them as distinctively as a sign around their neck.

"I see them all the time," Uncle Merlin said. "One comes around wanting to play with Al."

Al is Uncle Merlin's dog.

Coyotes avoid people, but they try to mix with dogs. They really do come around looking to play.

With dogs they're own size or bigger.

Little dogs annoy them.

Or make them hungry.


Some little dogs and cats have chased after coyotes and disappeared. The dogs' and cats' owners have watched them rush of into the woods after a coyote and that's been the last they ever saw of their pets.

Hasn't happened all that often, but it's given coyotes a bad reputation.

I'm not saying it's undeserved. But coyotes have helped the populations of ground-nesting birds. Coyotes will eat most anything, like I said, except, apparently eggs and birds. Animals that eat eggs and birds---skunks, raccoons, possums, and cats---avoid places where they might run into coyotes.

Uncle Merlin's dog is not little. He still doesn't let Al loose when there are coyotes in the neighborhood.

"But you let me loose," I said.

"I was involved," he said.

"On ebay," I said.

"I'm the top bidder."

"Good for you."

"You probably weren't in any danger."

"Nah," I said. "I was fine."

"Sure you were."

"Wish I could have seen it though."

"They'll be back," he said.


Uncle Merlin went back inside and shut down his computer and said goodnight.

I stayed up for a while, listening.


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