Sunday, May 01, 2005

Do unto others...

To continue with Indian animal lore from Sahagún, he tells us about coyotes. The story he tells sounds like some bit of African or European folklore: maybe such stories are found throughout the world.
There is in this land an animal called cóyotl, which some of the Spanish call a fox, and others call a wolf, and according to its characteristics seems to me to be neither wolf nor fox, but an animal native to this land, it is very hairy, with long fur; it has a large bushy tail, the ears small and pointed, the muzzle long and not very thick and heavy, it paces constantly (literally, has nervous legs), its nails are curved and black, and the animal is very alert, and it is very furtive in the hunt, crouches and waits in stealth, looks in every sort of place for his prey and is very cunning in stalking it. When he wants to attack, first he "echa su vaho contra ella para inficionarla y desanimarla con el" (I am not sure what this means: either "lets his prey catch his scent to confuse it and discourage it for him" or, if a more literal rendering is correct then it must be talking about magic, "he blows his breath towards his prey to contaminate it and dishearten it.")

This animal is devilish: if anyone robs his rightful prey from him, he notes it and waits and obtains vengeance against that person, killing his chickens or other animals of his household, and if the man does not have any such thing so that he may thus avenge himself, he waits for the man to go out on the road and puts himself ahead of him, howling as if he wants to make him a meal to frighten him; also sometimes he will be accompanied by three or four others to scare him, and will do this either by day or by night.

This animal has a nature refined and grateful. Now in our times the following notable story is told about one of these animals:
A traveler going along his way saw a coyote that made a signal with his paw that he come to it, and, hesitant with fear, the traveler went toward where the animal was, and as he got near it, saw a snake was wrapped around the animal's neck, and the snake's head was being held tightly to animal's body inside his foreleg. This serpent was one of those called cincoatl (a poisonous snake found in cornfields). When the traveler saw this business, he thought to himself, "which of these two will I help?" and decided to help the coyote; he took a green stick and began to hit the snake, which then unwrapped itself and fled into the weeds,and also the coyote went fleeing.

And after that a little while the coyote returned to find the traveler in the middle of some cornfields carrying two live hens in his mouth by their necks,and put them in front of the traveler who had freed him from the serpent, and made a signal that he should take them, and he followed after him till he got to his house, and within 2 days he brought him a rooster as well.

This animal eats raw flesh, and also ears of corn, both fresh and dried, and he eats cane, chickens, bread, and honey.

When we first came to the house I now live in on the outskirts of Austin, the land behind us was an extensive empty field, where the owner's teenage sons would go dove hunting during dove season, sometimes sprinkling us with birdshot if we were sitting in the yard. The boys were not very good shots. Otherwise, the land behind us was used for grazing cattle.

The owners of our house, at the time we bought it, had 21 chickens on the premises, and Kay wanted to own chickens, so we stipulated in our offer that the chickens would transfer with the property. And so it was that we got to be the greenhorn proprietors of a bunch of free-range hens in the back of our long, narrow 1 1/4 acres. They were housed in a henhouse at night, except that I was careless in penning them up most evenings. Nevertheless, the chickens got along OK for several years, although two or three a year would disappear, probably having gotten out and killed by dogs, or racoons. We didn't know for sure. Finally, the population had gotten down to about 10, and then suddenly we began to lose one every night I did not lock them in the henhouse. And since at least one usually escaped being put up at night--I had not, like a good chicken farmer, convinced my hens to roost in the henhouse habitually--our flock dwindled alarmingly.

At last, there was only one. I put it up every night, determined to foil whatever the predator was, but early one morning I heard a commotion in the back, and I went out in the yard just in time to see a magnificent coyote, perhaps the best fed coyote in Austin, clear the back fence, which was 4 feet high, by a good foot. Coyotes are very athletic, more so than dogs, and this coyote was heavier by 2 or 3 pounds than when he came in. I found the chicken wire pulled loose at one corner, I guess by the coyote's teeth, and blood and feathers inside the henhouse.

This was the only time I ever saw the coyote. He knew he had gotten the last chicken, I suppose, and hence no longer had any reason for concealment. If only I had done him a good turn, I would own chickens to this day. According to the old Mexican story. But at least they never howled at me, hungrily, as I walked on trails on Onion Creek.

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