This segment is from a longer piece, Plato’s Alcove, which won an honorable mention in Torrey House Press’s 2011 Creative Non-Fiction Contest. You can read the entire entry here. Plato’s Alcove is about my first trip to the desert back in 1982.
In the desert one day I met Coyote, the Trickster-God. We greeted each other and sat in the shade. I opened my canteen and drank then offered Coyote a drink. When he thought I wasn’t looking he wiped the canteen’s mouth. Then he drank.
€œThank you, € he said, handing it back.
I asked Coyote, €œWhy is this place so beautiful? €
He laughed and said, €œI’ll tell you a story that explains everything. €
Used to be (said Coyote) the world wasn’t like this. Earth wasn’t even earth. A great, watery business, it flowed together and apart, rising and falling. There were no plants, no coyotes, and no people €”only the world, and it couldn’t speak. Each day Sun called out to it, but the world stood silent. Moon signaled across the darkness but the world made no sign.
Now a great Maker, Ma’i, Coyote, who goes from place to place and star to star, passing by Earth stopped to consider it. Seeing this sphere formed at the very limits of the laws he shook his head.
€œWhat god did this? € he asked. €œIt’s the work of an imbecile! € To show his contempt he relieved himself on it. A seed passed through him and fell into the water. Then Ma’i went away.
Waves tossed the seed then struck a drift of land. The seed was cast ashore. Instantly the ground doubled over it and sank.
Moon and Sun continued to call to this world but nothing happened. Then one day, something did happen. A green tendril rose up through the water. With this tendril, the world found its tongue.
(At this point, Coyote ceased speaking and began singing this shapely song.)
turned to face Moon
and Sun who looked on it with
deepening interest. It grew and became a tree
rooted like a tongue in the mouth of World’s becoming.
Moon and Sun sang to the tree words like water to thirst,
words like love to longing: Here we are and here you are
at the spring at the root of dawn. Branches erupted from the trunk,
each a forest unto itself. These branches overhung quivering formative elements:
earth, air, water, fire. Tight buds pushed from the ends of bare branches like words
forming on the tip of a tongue. They gasped in petalled utterances €”
Parti-colored flowers, alike and unalike. Fragrance from this Tree of Heaven
ripened the awaiting hour. The flowers fell like stars
into elemental morasses. Some plunging into water became fishes.
Some falling in fire became dragons and the phoenix they say
makes its pyres of red cinnamon bark. Some striking earth landed on four feet.
Some falling through air turned to birds who speak the feathery idioms of flight.
Two fell €”plop, plop €”into warm brown mud. These became man and woman.
Everything began talking at once. Moon and Sun laughed, saying,
There is nothing anywhere, ever,
like the shining moment of conception.
Thus the world went from a sullen place
to one of many utterances.
Earth and Sun spoke in terms of life
and to Moon the world
responded with silver tides.
The tree faded but the life
that came of it multiplied
like saplings in a thicket
of wild coyote willows.
(Here Coyote stopped singing and spoke once more in normal voice.)
But of all creatures living, First Man and First Woman (I’m skipping a bit here, said Coyote) were peculiar, because while there was no doubt they had been born of the tree they behaved as if they hadn’t. Earth felt the relation and spoke to them in the sweetness of her fruits and the coolness of her waters. It caressed them with breezes and visited them in quiet places. But still First Man and First Woman acted like they were they only thing happening, which caused problems for everyone.
So Earth sent something more obvious by way of speaking to them, namely Strong Spirits. Like the blossoms that fell from the tree, each formed according to its element. There’s Desert Strong Spirit, Strong Spirit in the Sea, Star Strong Spirit, and so on. They tease Woman and Man, coaxing them beyond themselves, calling to them to join the rest.
Coyote finished his story and said, €œWell, what do you think? €
€œIt’s just as you said. It’s a beautiful story and explains a lot. €
He nodded. Waving a paw at land and sky, he said, €œThis whole business is very ecological, economical, and remarkable, don’t you think? €
€œVery, € I said.
€œThe Strong Spirit of this place has shown you this. €
Then he said something that sticks in my head to this day.
€œWhat do you suppose . . .. € he said, then stopped. He coughed, €œAhem, ahem. €
€œWhat? What is it? € I asked.
€œWhat do you think we’d do with our big brains if we weren’t all the time using them to get ourselves out of trouble we’ve gotten ourselves into? €
I stared at the stones as if they had asked the question and not Coyote.
I said, €œHuh, I haven’t the slightest idea. €
Coyote slapped his thigh.
€œExactly! € he said.
Patricia K. founded Wilderness Interface Zone in 2009. She has published a novel, The Pictograph Murders (Signature Books 2004) as well as essays and poetry. Some of her poetry appears in the recently released Fire in the Pasture: Twenty-First Century Mormon Poets (Peculiar Pages Press 2011) as well as in its cultural predecessor, Harvest (Signature Books 1989). Currently, she lives in the Four Corners region of the Southwest with her husband, three children, two cats, and a variety of seasonal and permanent wild residents.
3 thoughts on “Tree of Life by Coyote (as told to Patricia K.)”
Lovely and hilarious, and food for thought.
Kind of like Nephi’s vision on peyote. Interesting re-creation myth. I especially like “formed at the very limits of the laws”, €œIt’s the work of an imbecile! € and “he relieved himself on it”.
The punch line is classy, too.