This story is by E. S. Spaulding and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
When the story first breaks on all the locals news stations, when the reporters come in their vans with their camera crews, when the photographer snaps the front page photo that shows me muzzled, pumped full of tranquilizers, tongue lolling out of my mouth, my neck still strung up in the cable noose of the catch-pole, they call me “beach wolf”. By the time animal control explains that I am, in fact, a coyote- though my size is certainly much closer to that of my wolf ancestors- the story of the big bad beach wolf who ate little red riding hood has already taken flight.
I know they will kill me for this, and I can’t imagine the relief it will be, not to be. Not to be starving, not to be cold, or hot, or aching, not to have to endure the grueling march of this bleak life anymore. I pray it will be quick when they do it.
Every day when I wake up again and find myself still muzzled and stiff, locked inside a metal crate, I am hopeful that this will be the day when it will all finally end, this bad dream of a life. But it doesn’t happen. My surroundings change but I remain bound and caged. Humans dressed in white prod me with strange objects. They inject me with fluid that burns, and stand around me with their peering faces pressing in close, watching my every move. I chew off patches of my fur and where I haven’t, it begins to fall off anyway in big black tufts. I am fed dry pellets, just enough to survive on, until I stop eating. They aren’t deterred; they force the food in a tube down my throat instead. I was wrong when I thought that hunger was the worst thing that could happen to me. It would’ve been better to starve to death, to have my emaciated carcass be picked apart half-alive by gulls on the beach till I was finally swept out to sea.
At dawn and at dusk, I patrol the beach and the streets jutting off of it. I spend my days sunning myself out on the riverbank and my nights slinking along the dunes and weaving through the humans’ backyards, prowling for rabbits and mice- maybe an unsuspecting housecat to get into an argument with. More often than not I end up eating beached crab, eyes long pecked out by the birds, or whatever I can scavenge from the remains of someone else’s fish dinner. More often than that, I end up eating trash.
The first time I was awoken in the thick heat of summer by loud pops from the beach, I was seized with a paralyzing terror that this was it: humans come to perform a final mass extermination of our kind. I’d always been told that people would wipe us out long before the earth finally collapsed in on herself. The sky exploded with fire; humans screamed down by the water. The birds were silent and the fish flitting back and forth in the tidepools disappeared into the shadows. When it all settled, the air smelled like lightning, but I was still breathing.
I remember that fear while scrounging through trash in the frozen winter months, and it doesn’t seem such an awful fate now. Guns are quick. Fire too. Poison takes longer, but it’s still just a drop in the bucket of time. Starving is such a slow, torturous sickness.
The sea bellows and roars in the winter. It is an angry mass of grey and blue in the weak daylight. The wind tears through the dunes. The three story villas with the balconies and sculpted hydrangea bushes quiver in the storms. The houses and their cars are coated with sand and salt. Foam licks at the roads, crawling up the shore and oozing onto the blacktop. All sorts of things wash up by the sea. I step through rubber tires and glass from the constant development, sandblasted beer cans carved into battered shivs by the waves, and colorful shreds of balloons, knotted ribbons of pink and red and blue, tangled throughout clumps of black and red seaweed. Fisherman’s rope and rusted segments of lobster cages dot the shore. Trash and sea have fused together everywhere I look, humans forever leaving their indelible mark on nature.
I was taught to fear humans. If you hurt a human, you might as well be dead because mankind will always strike back, and when they do, it will be merciless. There will never be justice for a being they consider lesser. I know this for fact; I have lived on the shore for twelve years, the oldest coyote in my pack by nearly a decade. They all die so young these days, but I can never seem to.
Our pack is descended from coyotes and wolves alike. We have lived on the beaches of New England for sixty years, since we were pushed back east to the very edges of the land, searching for food. Our wolf ancestors were here in the beginning, living harmoniously with indigenous people for hundreds of years until white men arrived and began forcing out all who had been here before. These men hated the wolf, calling him wicked, persecutor, and bloodsucker. They set traps by the hundreds and infected those they captured with disease that spread to the whole pack. They laced the remains of buffalo and deer with poison and left them for the wolves to gorge themselves on. A small number escaped up north and survived there for over a century, eventually mating with coyotes who had been forced there from their homes in the west. We are sometimes called coywolves, hybrid creatures larger than western coyotes and smaller than the great northern wolves. The humans seem to hate us as much or more than they hated our ancestors. They drive us further and further from our homes and into theirs, and then punish us for it. They fear us, the same way humans fear everything- irrationally terrified, yet brazenly cocksure at the same time. So they trap us, hunt us for pleasure. They hold coyote killing contests- posing victoriously for photos with their weapons in front of piles of our dead.
The family has been coming to the seaside for years. There is the mother, an old woman now, whose long-dead husband bought the house when the coast was just being built up with summer cottages, vacation homes for the wealthy. There’s also her grown children- a mess of bratty little ones between them- and a dog: one of those muscled, jowly ones, with a big dumb tongue hanging out of her mouth. The dog is well-fed with mush from a bowl, plates to lick clean, and something called “treats.” The humans cook meat over a metal box of flames outside at night and I lurk in the shadows, drooling. I don’t dare enter their yard while they’re out there; I know their kind. They’d harass me if they saw me, or worse, shoot me for sport. These men don’t hunt to feed themselves, or protect their families. They kill because they can, because they think their power gives them permission to destroy every good and natural thing.
The children are awful, especially the littlest, a girl less than five. She is always screaming or throwing rocks at the rabbits that nibble at the perennials in her grandmother’s backyard. I watch her prod her puppy with sticks while she sleeps belly-up in the sun. The good-natured dog jerks out of slumber but doesn’t snap at the girl. What’s a little taunting from a human child to a dog who is treated by people as one of their own, superior to all other animals, and the only one worthy at least of protection, if not respect?
I don’t plan it, but I realize after it happens that I’ve been waiting for the chance. The sun is starting to dip low in the sky, streaking pink over the river, when I wake up from an afternoon nap. I am nestled beneath some brush on the outskirts of the dunes, just a few yards away from a lightly used footpath that leads to the riverbank. The terrible little girl from the house on the corner stands alone on the path, staring at me. She wears a red dress and her freckled summer skin glows like a ghost in the sunset. I blink my yellow eyes once and let out a yawn that flashes my big teeth. The girl opens her mouth to scream. I lunge and it might be a dream, the way it all speeds up and slows down all at once, but I couldn’t say. The hunger keeps me in a fog at all times. I leap and my teeth find purchase. She is the best meat I’ve ever tasted, the most delicious last meal.