A coyote is not supposed to be licked on the nose. That’s the trouble with urban wildlife; no one knows where the boundaries are anymore. Bears get lost in backyards, Boy Scouts stumble into mountain lion dens, alligators slip into swimming pools, hikers walk through beehives. Coyotes are especially forgetful at remembering that whole “mortal enemy” divide thing.
Coyotes, man. Those are some cunning little bitches. The pack in my neighborhood is more threatening than the gangsters up the block, who mostly stand in front of a liquor store and ride bikes and throw tennis shoes on telephone wires. Harmless. The coyotes, in comparison, decapitate kittens, take the heads, and leave the bodies on the sidewalk.
So. If you have a dog near the more sylvan part of Los Angeles, a lot of people tell you to look out for coyotes. Half the people who tell me to look out for coyotes are subliminally asking if my dog is, in fact, a coyote. Thirty scruffy pounds of reddish brown fur, pointy ears and a huge tail, I don’t blame them. I also don’t correct them. If they can’t tell Penny, a terrier mutt, from a coyote, I don’t want to aid in their survival.
When I met my dog, she feared stairs, brooms, abandonment, creaking windows and men’s feet. The ghosts of a past life were haunting her. I’d cup her pointed ears in my hands and bring her muzzle to mine, assuring my little dog that all her human friends were trying to forget their own damaged pasts and she would fit in just fine. I would protect her. I could discern the things that would hurt her and the things that would not, and I would point the way for a rehabilitated life.
When my little nervous dog does reveal the strains of coyote blood she may or may not have, I do what any good mother would do: experience equal parts adoration and terror, then ignore the problem. Once while we slept in the same room, to the lullaby of coyotes in an adjacent parking lot, Penny sat up and howled one long, low, somber howl. This is coming from a dog that doesn’t bark (ever) so I dismissed her as the culprit and checked the house for a deranged intruder. I found no one, no one but my silly little dog sitting up in her bed, just as confused as I was about what she had done. We eyed each other suspiciously, went to bed, and never talked about it again.
Until the nose-licking.
A hundred feet behind my building is our garage and a few feet behind that is a fence. The fence separates our condominium complex from a steep, 20-foot ridge with big trees, some shrubbery, the occasional raccoon, and a murder of crows. Nothing, not even the overflow Costco parking lot, is visible behind it, leaving one to imagine that the pitiful sliver of chaparral extends far beyond the ridge, spilling over to a desert landscape untouched by suburbia.
After our morning walk, Penny likes to sniff around the garage area, her own little reconnaissance mission to make sure the corgi in the next building doesn’t leave anything marked in his name. She plods around the asphalt, anticipating the scent of her enemy’s little urine trail, until one morning, the trail introduces something different. Something unexpected. She stares at the ground, head cocked, ears pointed, tail up, as perplexed as if the ground had just sniffed her back.
Now she’s a bloodhound, tracing some winding scent trail. She twists left and right, three sniffs for each step, a detective sleuthing a clue that’s about to go cold. We round the dumpster, both our eyes to the ground, when the fence stops her path. Her wet nose traces upwards, aligning perfectly to a hole in the chain link fence that is filled with another black nose. Only this one belongs to a coyote.
Neither of us have been this close before. Both my dog’s and the coyote’s fur blend to one big carpet of reddish scruff and exactly the same mirrored pose: pointed ears and curled tails, noses meeting inside the wire diamond of the fence. If I weren’t so enraptured, if I had been distracted by a neighbor, or if I had just passed another headless kitten, I might be more alert to prevent what happens next: Penny’s perfect pink tongue slips out of her mouth and licks the coyote’s nose.
And the coyote stays still. It’s as if two siblings, long separated from birth, meet again in the wild, far from where they were born. Neither moves an inch, but not in the tense, brink-of-war way that dogs on the sidewalk give look at each other. They lock black eyes and meld minds. When Penny cocks her head left, the coyote mirrors his to the right. When the coyote shifts his back paw, Penny shuffles hers too. I’m not an owner to any animal. I’m a witness, either permitted or forgotten to observe this familial exchange.
Then. It’s over. Releasing each other like embarrassed lovers, both seek distraction in the bramble around them. Mine sniffs a rock, the coyote paws at some leaves. They cease to exist to each other, and slowly, nonchalantly walk away. Penny sniffs her way back towards me. The coyote scales the ridge and only when at the top, stops to turn around and steal one more glance at Penny.
My brain turns back on and wants to scold my dog.
“What was that?”
“Just this coyote I know,” her big black eyes say.
“Well do you have any idea how dangerous that coyote is?”
“So weren’t you afraid?”
“Of course not. It’s not the first time we’ve talked.”
I look back up the ridge and see no sign of the coyote. But something is different about my dog. Is it her own confidence in herself, or does she sense my changing feelings about her, less afraid for her helplessness and more impressed by the bravery she’s hiding?
She stares back at me. How often have I had the chance to stare the wicked, wild version of myself in the face, lock eyes, exchange a wordless secret, and then let the moment dissolve into the forgotten history of bygone things? I look at my silly dog and wonder what she knows that I don’t – that the stairs and the brooms and the feet really are to be feared, but the animals in the parking lot are not. That the boundaries I erect are my own, but are merely swimming pools to alligators, and backyards to bears.
Lindsay Indermill is a dog lover, book collector, and yarn hoarder. She’s worked as an associate producer for The Ellen DeGeneres Show, story producer for Nat Geo, Syfy, and MTV programming, and freelance producer for The Hollywood Reporter. In 2014, she’ll begin a creative writing M.F.A. program. She fuses her love for fine food with her passion for women’s issues through her blog, SuperGirlSupperClub.com.