Tuesday, July 31, 2018

A Story About a Coyote Story

I return to our table. The hitcher is chatting with our server. In the hitcher’s hand is a black felt pen and in her lap a sketch book open to a drawing of the ficus behind her. The server asks how long it took her to become an artist, and the hitcher says:

“I’ve always been an artist -- I was born that way. When my mother went out she would sit me at the kitchen table with a box of pencil crayons and a roll of paper and I would draw. Sometimes she would tell me a story while making my breakfast and I would draw what I saw in my head. But most times she didn’t and I just followed my hand, adding colours as they occurred to me. Sometimes the drawings didn’t look like anything, and those are the ones I remember best, but not the ones my mother kept.” 

“Abstractions?” says the server enthusiastically.

“You could call them that,” says the hitcher, returning to her drawing, touching it up. “But I’ve never liked that word. Abstractions from what, right? Like they started from people or buildings or landscapes and turned into something that didn’t look like anything?”

A couple comes into the lounge and the server leaves to attend to them.

“What were some of the stories your mother told you?” I ask.

“Oh, you know,” says the hitcher to her sketchbook, “stories from storybooks. Stories she had read to me so many times she knew them by heart.”

I watch as she blacks out the spaces between the leaves of her ficus, bringing the plant closer to her, as if into focus. She blacks out a few leaves and it looks as though a wind is passing through it.

“I remember one story,” she begins, her voice slow with concentration, her ficus now shimmering. “A coyote story about the arrow-trail that the Lower Earth People -- the Animal People -- a chickadee -- made with its bow and arrows to link them to the Upper World Land; how the Grizzly Bear was the last to climb this long line of arrows and broke it; and how the Lower Earth People who were already up there found everything -- all the food -- guarded and then, after suffering many suns, made their way back to the arrow-trail, only to find it was no longer there.”

“How did they get back?” I ask. 

“They jumped,” she says. “Sucker jumped first, thinking the blue part was water, but landed on the rocks beside it, smashing his bones into a million pieces.” She looks up. “That’s why suckers are inedible -- too many bones.” Returning to her drawing she tells me how Bat was next, but was so excited to jump that he forgot his wings and flattened out.

A moment passes. “And that’s why bats--?” I ask.

“That’s why bats are ugly,” she says quickly. “They used to be very handsome.”

Another moment passes before she holds up her drawing, moving it closer to her, then farther, turning it this way and that.

“What about Coyote?”

“Oh yeah,” she says, closing her eyes in concentration. “First Coyote turned himself into a pine needle, which fell fast. Then he became a leaf and floated gently to the ground. Then he returned to his own form.”

I recognize the passage. A recitation of the penultimate paragraph from Mourning Dove’s “The Arrow Trail”, which I read last week after I was introduced to Coyote Stories(1933) by a classmate, Mourning Dove’s great-granddaughter, Corinne Derrickson. “And after that?”

“After that,” the hitcher says closing her eyes again, “the Animal People were content to stay on earth, where they belonged. The breaking of their arrow-trail was the will of the spirit-chief. He did not want the Animal People bothering the people of the Upper World Land again.”

The first thing that occurred to me after reading “The Arrow Trail” was Genesis 11: 1-9, the story of the Tower of Babel. But in Genesis, God’s concern is not with those on Earth mingling with those in Heaven, but of a unified group whose tower would protect them not so much from another flood, but from another Act of God.

God writes:

“6. Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.

7. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.

8. So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.

In 2007, the theologian Theodore Hiebert offered a new interpretation of Genesis 11: 1-9, “arguing that the story ... is exclusively about the origins of cultural difference and not about pride and punishment at all.” I am not sure I buy that. Seems if cultural difference is valued, then why would it be predicated on the dissolution of something as positive as a group who came together to protect their families from floods and physically meet with the deity responsible for them. I share this with the hitcher.

“I don’t know,” she says. “The Bible was not a popular book in my house growing up.”

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