Coyote and Crow
We will take back what is ours. Hungry white folks have been stealing Indian souls for hundreds of years. Only recently have we started to take back what we lost. Little by little, piece by piece. Ancient white people used disease and muskets to take our souls, now we take them back by way of casinos and highway-side shops.
I work with my friends. They are my partners, my accomplices, my defenders. It’s Fox, Bear, and me. Fox is the clever one. He knows how things work, but more importantly he knows how to pull secrets from people’s heads. Bear is the biggest Indian I’ve ever met. He’s six and a half feet tall and as wide and strong as a buffalo. He’s the muscle. He’s there to lift things, or punch things, depending on what needs to be lifted or punched. I’m able to see the whole picture. I’m able to figure things out, so I plan things. I guess that’s why they call me Crow.
We forgot our real names out of necessity. It’s a good thing for thieves to have no real names. In our line of work it’s also a good thing for an Indian to have no tribe. It’s hard for people to find you when you have no home. I won’t trouble you with the details on how three Indian boys became art thieves, because it’s a secret to everybody. The less you are, the less white people can take from you.
There was a museum near us, and they had put up a totem pole in the middle of their building. Many non-Indians don’t understand totem poles. They aren’t religious symbols or idols to worship. The poles tell tales of a people or a family. Indians are the best at making myths and telling stories, and even stories have souls. A local tribe had requested they take it down, but many people don’t bear enough guilt to hear the plight of the noble savage. So my friends and I decided to take a more direct approach. Fox had whispered his charm into the ears of a woman who worked at the museum. For two weeks he gave her sweet wine and sweet nothings, and he pulled out her secrets. We knew how to get into the museum, and how to not be seen.
Bear and I stood in a darkened parking lot, waiting for Fox to return.
“He is taking a long time,” said Bear.
“Patience,” I said. I often had to remind Bear of the concept.
“I’m getting nervous.” Bear was nothing if not an honest Indian.
Feet climbed down a metal ladder, and Fox descended from the roof. He walked over calmly, occasionally stepping through fields of light from the street lamps.
“Any problems?” asked Bear.
Fox winked. “Not when you know which wires to cut.”
Fox had used his nimble fingers to pluck the girl’s keys from her pocket earlier that day, so we had easy access. We entered through the back door, and made our way through the offices towards the showroom floor. The totem pole was easy to find, being the tallest thing in the building. It was surrounded by other art. There was a statue made of shoes, and a chair made of brambles. These things had no stories, no souls. Fox and I studied the pole up and down, deciding the best way to move it. Bear was reading a sign on the wall.
“This is from the Kwakiutl,” said Bear.
“Smoke-of-the-world. They were people of fish and cedar,” said Fox.
“Do we know any Kwakiutl?” asked Bear.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “All Indians are cousins.”
Bear continued to read the sign out loud. We learned what the figures were on the pole. From top to bottom they were a raven, a beaver, a grey whale, a wolf, a mythological being, an owl, another raven, a killer whale, and another mythological being. I wondered who or what the mythological beings were, with their large, circular eyes and angry mouths.
We hoisted the pole on our shoulders. I was in front, Fox was in the back, and Bear was in the middle, holding most of the weight. He probably could have carried the whole thing himself if it were not so long. It was heavy, but the strength of our ancestors spurred us on. We carried it through the loading dock and outside.
“What if we are seen?” asked Bear.
“That’s why I’m in front,” I said. “My eyes have flown everywhere around here for weeks. I know where the darkness is.”
That must have been some sight, three Indians marching down streets carrying a totem pole. But it was our goal not to be seen. We crept past dark homes and empty buildings, careful to avoid the circles of light that littered the city. We approached a forest on the southern part of town, and made our way into the wood. On the other side at dawn we were to find transportation that clever Fox had procured for us. The moon’s pale light guided us until we came to a clearing.
“I need to rest,” said Fox.
“Charming Fox not used to hard work?” I asked.
“My legs aren’t built for carrying. They’re built for scampering.”
“This is as good a place as any,” I said.
We laid the pole down as gently as a thud could sound, and we sat.
I had the best eyes, so I took first watch, when the night was darkest. Bear and Fox were fast asleep, and I listened to the world around me. Crickets were singing their lullaby, and mice and possums scampered through the leaves and bushes, hoping to avoid the gaze of owls flying silently overhead. I studied the totem pole, and wondered what story its faces held. I wondered how many souls went into its shaping. Something rustled behind me and I turned around. Even in the dark I saw his brown-grey fur and black tips. I saw his white feet and attentive ears. It was Coyote. He sat down next to me.
“What are you doing here?” I said.
“I heard a tale of three Indian fellows who stole a totem pole.”
“It is true,” I said. “But what are you doing here in this forest? Why aren’t you back on your plains or your desert?”
He licked his paw. “Curiosity.”
“As good a reason as any I suppose.”
We sat in silence for a while, listening to the world.
“How do you know they want to go back?” he said.
“The souls. The animals. How do you know they weren’t happy where they were?”
I thought about the possibilities. “It’s not for those people to decide where these souls rest. That lies with the people who created them.”
Coyote smiled, as much as a coyote could smile. “You have no connection to their people. You’re a Plains Indian. A horse-person.”
I scoffed. “All Indians are cousins.”
“If you say so.” He looked up at the sky.
It is said that many ages ago Coyote put the stars in the sky. How exactly he did it was a mystery.
“How did you put the stars in the sky?” I asked.
“Depends on who you ask.”
You should always be careful when dealing with Coyote. I knew he helped some people of the plains free the buffalo, and he brought the secrets of fire to other men, but I also knew he could be a cheat. He tried to swindle other people out of meat and shelter, and he tried to steal the names of the other animals. Every tribe has a different story about him.
Coyote yawned and said, “Let’s play a game.”
Ah, clever Coyote. He’s wearing the fur of a trickster.
“More like a wager. There is a hill just over there. We will race around it. If I win you take the souls back. If you win, you take them where you will.”
"No," I replied. “You are too swift. I'm a slow runner and can never beat you."
"Well, I will tie a rock to my foot," said Coyote.
"If you will tie on a big rock, I will race you."
"While I am tying this rock to my foot, you go ahead. I'll give you a head start and then catch you."
“What will you do if I refuse to race?”
“I am hungry. And your friends look quite delicious.”
Racing Coyote would be the best choice.
We walked over to the hill, and Coyote began tying a rock to his foot. I took off running. I knew he would try to trick me. As soon as I was out of his sight, I ducked into a brush pile and hid. As soon as Coyote raced past, I turned back and went to our starting point.
I laid on the ground, gazing at the stars, and waited for Coyote to make his way around the hill. Eventually he arrived, panting and tongue hanging from the side of his mouth.
“You are faster than I thought,” he said.
“Seems that way. Now we can take the pole where we wish?”
He nodded. “Naturally. That was our wager.”
I said goodbye to Coyote and walked back to the edge of the clearing where my friends were sleeping. But they were not there. Nor was the totem pole. There was nothing but grass and silence. Where were my friends? My partners, my accomplices, my defenders? They had abandoned me.
Oh Coyote, you great trickster you.
Coyote howled, and I ran back to the hill. He was studying his stars.
“Where are my friends?” I said.
“They are gone, and they’ve taken the souls with them.”
“Did you convince them to leave?”
“Of course I did,” said Coyote, still gazing at his work. “You didn’t think I was actually racing you, did you?”
“But why? Why would you do that?”
“Foxes are naturally quiet, and bears are sound sleepers.” He finally looked at me. “Crows are noisy.”
I stood there, stunned.
“Why help us?” I asked.
“Souls should rest where they were created.”
I sat down on top of the hill next to Coyote and hung my head.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Now they’ll make it back to the Smoke-of-the-world, the land of fish and cedar.”
“But now I’m here alone. I have no people and no name. I don’t want to be a lost soul.”
He sighed and said, “Do you know how I put the stars in the sky?”
I smiled. “Depends on who you ask.”
“A long time ago, back when our people were brothers, I was tasked with putting the stars in the sky. They were supposed to be arranged in an orderly fashion.”
“But the stars do have patterns,” I said.
“Not all of them,” he replied. “I was given a bag of stars and I put some of them up in certain pictures. I named all of the constellations. I remembered almost all of the animals. I named the bear and the wolves. I named the rabbit tracks and the Northern Fire. I named almost everything. But in my impatience I slung the rest of the bag out, and the stars flew across the night. Worst of all, I had forgotten to place myself in the sky.”
“Is that why you howl at night? Because you’re missing from the sky?” I asked.
“That is why I gave the people buffalo and fire. So they remember.”
He look longingly into the sky. I comforted him the only way I knew, and scratched the top of his head.
“Look at my work,” he said.
I looked to the sky, and suddenly I saw it through Coyote’s eyes. I saw the bears and the wolves. I saw the rabbit tracks and the Northern Fire.
He spoke softly in my ear. “I have set a path. Follow the souls of our brothers, our kin, and you will find the Fox and the Bear.”
A hazy trail of stars that started at the Northern Fire flowed past the wolves and through the rabbit tracks. I turned to thank Coyote, but he was gone.
I thought about the possibilities.
Ben Honea: "I am originally from Texas, and a member of the Comanche Nation. I received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Kentucky in 2016 and have resided in Lexington ever since with my partner Michaela."