aka An Old Short Revived from the Dead By Writing Camp / The Result of a Neil Gaiman Kick
They parked the old Chevrolet in a tiny, cramped lot that had faded yellow lines and more gravel in it than pavement. A large log-cabin-esque building lay at the other end of the parking lot, flanked by two chipped wooden moose statues. Worn picnic tables were set off to the side of it in a square of green attempting to be a camping spot. Olivia and Jean were the only ones there. MOUNT AIRY’S HISTORIC MUSEUM, the aged sign on the cabin read. TAXIDERMY, GIFT SHOP, AND PICNIC SITE. VISITORS WELCOME.
Jean and Olivia got out of the car, the former marching up to the museum’s stairs with the latter drifting in tow behind her guardian, the little girl pulling at her dyed hair with displeasure. As Jean ushered her through the door, a faint bell chiming above their heads, Olivia didn’t think the moose statues looked friendly.
The inside of the museum was an archive of aligned shelves and a dust-cloaked library, but with cheap snow globes shot glasses, and lines of slumped stuffed animals instead of tomes. They had entered the gift shop. A spinning shelf of postcards stood next to the wooden shelves, still full of cheery faded pictures. Deer antlers, the stuffed and mounted heads of animals, and their skins lined the walls. Olivia saw a basket full of rabbit pelts for sale, $8 each. She quietly rested her fingers on the rabbit fur around her waist. Jean had made her dress up. Olivia didn’t question why. Deities were weird.
Jean seated them at a round table with a tacky plastic red-and-white checkered tablecloth. Olivia played with the small pink and yellow bags of sugar while she settled into the seat across from her.
“Are you sure he’s going to be here?” Olivia said, poking the sugar bag.
“He’ll come,” Jean said, tapping her long nails on the table. “This is a place he would be at. He’ll believe us,” she muttered to herself. Olivia heard the ‘me’ behind the ‘us.’
“Is he going to help us bring everyone back together?”
Jean broke out of her distracted murmuring to look at Olivia, and the curious, hopeful expression on the smaller girl’s face. “…yes. He should, if for his own entertainment.”
“That’s good,” Olivia said, flipping over a sugar bag. She thought of having lots of others close around her again— even if they weren’t her writhing, biting mesh of siblings. “Having everyone back together is going to be good.”
Jean didn’t reply. Olivia fell to toying with the salt shaker, just wanting to do something with her fingers. Jean crossed and uncrossed her legs a few times. They waited in silence. Olivia was debating on whether or not to try and pull a napkin from the dispenser to shred it when all the light in the room seemed to give a soft flicker.
“Well,” a sly, soft voice said, curling through Olivia’s ears and making her hair stand on end, “what do we have here?”
Jean sat up straighter in her seat. She looked around the room, seeing no motion throughout the dust-sprinkled and cluttered gift shop.
“Coyote,” Jean said sharply.
“Ah, look,” the voice said, and Olivia swore she could hear it coiling through the air. “It’s some visitors. What would bring you to this area? Tourism? The lovely view?”
“Oh, neither,” Jean said, tone casual and flippant. “Just… passing by. I’m Jean. This is Olivia,” she added, barely tilting her head at the little girl across from here and not missing a beat. “I had a feeling you would be here.”
There was a quiet rattle, and Olivia stared as she saw the snow globes along the top shelf quivering, their glass sides clacking together in a wave. Flakes of fake snow vibrated.
“And I am,” the voice, outdoing her flippancy a mile. “Funny, how things end up this way. So how was the drive up here, Cassandra?”
“It’s not Cassandra,” Jean said stiffly, and Olivia could see her fingers curling into a fist, just a little. She hated that name. “And I’m here to ask you something.”
“I’m sorry; it is Cass instead?” Coyote said, cheerfully ignoring her dangerous tone. Olivia wriggled in her seat as she saw the quivering move down the shelf of snow globes like a wave— but she didn’t look again. Jean had warned her about this. “Cassandra always felt too formal. I was never much for it. Formality, that is.”
“Coyote, we need to have a talk,” Jean said. The snow globes stopped rattling.
“Really? About what?” A teddy bear on top of the shelf swiveled its head towards the table, lifting its stuffed arms as it spoke.
“I haven’t had anyone seek me out for a while,” the smooth, slightly high-pitched voice said, and abruptly, the first teddy bear went limp, and the other next to it perked up and turned its dusty head.
“—for any conversation,” the next bear continued.
“I— we— have come to ask your help for something,” Jean said. She didn’t bat an eye at the shifting teddy bears, but Olivia could feel her watching them move along.
The voice gave a disappointed whine that almost made Olivia jump, and it gave her thoughts of slender, skinny-chested dogs with handlebar ribs.
“What? That’s it?” Coyote said. The next row of teddy bears lifted their heads. “You haven’t come to talk with me, or banter—”
The next section of bears rose, with dull button eyes.
“—or deliver news?” the final bear said. It sighed, a dusty, clothy breath of cotton and stitches. “You’ve just come to use my god status? That hurts, y’know.”
“Our situation hurts, Coyote,” Jean said, a slight snap to her tone. She was leaning closer to the table, and a strand of her hair was hanging in her eyes. Olivia squirmed uncomfortably, and Jean paused. She looked at Olivia before taking a deep breath and straightening up, tucking the strand of hair behind her ear.
“I’m sorry that we’re not here just to chat with you,” she said, new patience to her voice. “But you’re the most powerful god here that we can still speak to, and we need your help. Are you not always waiting, and are you not always hungry?” she said smoothly.
Coyote gave a quiet chuckle, a genuine one now, and it overrode the muffled, cottony tone of the teddy bear. Olivia thought it sounded just like the yipping of his namesake— or his children, depending on how you looked at it. She wondered if Coyote had as many children as she did siblings… and if he hadn’t seen them in as long as she had.
“I always liked the Navajo,” he said. “They were a clever people— growing, when all others expected them to die. In short, doing the opposite of what they were told.”
“We come with a similar mission, Coyote,” Jean said. “We are being told to fade and back down like the belief in us has, but it isn’t exactly what either of us would like.” She craned over the table. “We need your help to find the others that haven’t disappeared.”
There was a long silence, and Olivia could picture a skinny coyote luxuriously stretching its limbs, taking its time before it moved. Jean was getting tenser as the seconds passed. Olivia was reminded of the aching silence that had surrounded her before, the silence that ate all in its nothingness, and she suddenly needed to hear Jean’s voice. She leaned out in the chair and grabbed Jean’s hand, clumsily looking for warmth. Jean didn’t look at her— but she squeezed back.
“I spent my past lives looking for just a glimpse of you,” Olivia remembered Jean saying. “I’m not letting you go now that I’ve found you. And you’re not going to be alone.”
“Why?” Coyote said, finally speaking up. Olivia blinked in surprise as she couldn’t find the location of the voice, but then she saw one of the rabbit pelts rising and snaking out of its bin. “That’s the thing about traveling: you may not see your old accomplices and companions for two thousand years or so. It’s just part of the lifestyle.”
“This isn’t our lifestyle; Coyote, we need to know where they are,” Jean said, trying not to glare at the rabbit pelt rising up next to them. The place where the head had been on the rabbit curved up, trying to fold over and form a face once more. “Odin sleeps beneath Uppsala and Scandinavia, Anubis refuses to leave the pyramids and wherever the hell there’s a canopic jar stuffed in a museum, and no one knows where Osiris is; Amaterasu disappeared into her shrine at Ise Grand some five thousand years ago with Apollo— and that’s just some of the big gods!”
Jean waved her hand. She released her hold on Olivia.
“Badger, Helios, Nótt, and Mafdet— or any of the minor gods— haven’t been seen for years, and that’s the tip of the iceberg; no one knows where they are,” she said. “They could have disappeared or gone into hibernation when their religions died. We need to find them, and to do that, we need the help of the god who stole the moon and stood in its place— someone who’s traveled the land, and saw from the heavens. You could search the same amount of land in a day that we could in a year.”
“Apollo. Heh. I remember his twin Artemis,” Coyote said, a dry rustle to his voice as the pelt shifted and squirmed. “She wasn’t fond of me taking her place, even after I’d freed her from that box Eagle carried. You would have thought she’d be grateful. At least she was pretty, but mmm… not quite my type. Too Greek.” The rabbit pelt twisted upside down before flopping back into the container, and the postcards in the stand rustled and bent into paper mouths as the voice came closer. “And Badger— HA! Tell me, is he still sore from my win at the ball game? Handling the sun and facing defeat is enough to sear your paws and make you hide down your hole for thousands of years in shame, hehe.”
“You haven’t heard from him?” Jean asked, raising her eyebrows. The postcards bent in her direction.
“No,” Coyote said, and the cards flicked and shuffled themselves on the top shelf. “Not for a while, but—”
The voice moved up to small stuffed fish on the wall that twisted to look at them, its wide mouth closing.
“—a sore loser did Badger make.”
Olivia was fascinatedly watching the faded fish wriggle its fins and tail when she felt a sudden warm breath on the back of her neck.
“Now,” the voice whispered behind her ear, “who do we have here?”
Olivia locked up. The voice was snide and cunning, but just as ancient and resilient as the trees and sunlight. The warm, earthy smell of forest floor and smoke-brushed fur filled her nose. It was the opposite of the stench that had filled her lonely box…
“You’re a young one, aren’t you?” Coyote said in amusement. Something intangible brushed against the back of her neck like the arc of a prodding canine nose. “Hardly old enough to be away from your littermates. But you’ve snuck off and ventured out anyway. Now, what drove you to do that?”
“I don’t… I don’t know…” Olivia muttered.
Jean, seeing how Olivia was frozen, sat up sharply. “Coyote, this conversation is between you and me; you stay away from her,” she barked.
“You introduced her, didn’t you?” Coyote said. “She sits at this table with us. She is part of our chat.” He turned back to Olivia, and she immediately smelled the rich scent of the forest and endless running again. “What’s your name, little whelp? And I don’t mean what she has told you to tell everyone else,” he said. “I know that’s not it.”
His tone grew duplicitous as the voice moved to Olivia’s other ear.
“Then again, whenever Cassandra tries to tell the truth, she’s not believed, so why bother with a lie?”
Olivia was trying not to drown as the voice wove a snare around her, and the keening edge that belonged to a dog’s whine clipped away at her tied tongue. She was supposed to keep quiet about her real name, Jean had said so; but the voice was so sad at not hearing what little secret tidbit she had to say, and it was so warm and welcoming and pine-smelling, and it just wanted her to keep talking so they could both laugh—
“Coyote, enough,” Jean spat, slamming her hands on the table and rising out of her chair. Olivia felt one last breath near her hair, Coyote whispered something into her ear that made her eyes widen, and then he and the smell of nature were gone.
“Don’t be upset, Cass,” Coyote said, turning back to Jean. “I was just being polite, for once. Even if you know someone’s name already, shouldn’t you ask? Set a good example for the little pup who’s had no good ones. You’ve already tried to darken her enough,” he said, and a breeze in a breathless room played with a strand of Olivia’s oily, dye-saturated hair. “Eons alone in the corner of a box makes you pale as snow, doesn’t it? Huh, I’d figure. You look like one of my daughters,” he mused.
“You who knew she— we need your answer; are you going to help us or not?” Jean demanded, glaring at the pair of antlers on the wall that quivered faintly.
“You’re so impatient and bound to your decision,” Coyote said, and each word was punctuated by a clack of hanging whitetail deer antlers. “You and Eagle would get along well. And to answer your question—”
The stuffed head of a deer opened its mouth, turning its once stiff head and speaking with a clack of a hard base beneath.
Jean stared. So did Olivia.
“What do you mean, no?” Jean said, her voice shooting up a few pitches in something that could have been anger or desperation. “You can run over the land as quick as a shot, you’ve been the moon; it would be easy for you to just dash over the states and help us spot them—”
“To be frank, cities bore me,” Coyote said, and the deer head yawned before it stilled again, and the pheasant next to it leaned back its plumy face. “Why run over them when I can run over the country here? I have hundreds of miles of green forest to flit about. The Virginias, Tennessee, and Kentucky are just fine, and the Carolinas, now and then.”
While Jean was spluttering, Coyote was moving, and Olivia watched in captivation as he gave each of the stuffed animals life and before he passed along to another. He was nearing the table again, but moving higher up towards the ceiling, and Olivia turned around in her chair to watch him go.
“I don’t feel like going north. Or south, really,” Coyote said, his voice taking on the soft twang and rustle of when he was within a pelt. He squashed up the face of a mounted coyote skin— one that was stretched over a circle frame, placed over and within intertwined threads of a giant dream catcher— and Olivia felt something catch in her ribs.
She blinked before noticing that the coyote pelt stretched out above them was glossier and brighter than anything else in the store, and there was one small white crescent above the bridge of its muzzle, as clean as a bite taken from the moon. Olivia’s heart jumped when she looked into its empty eye sockets and found a dim spark— something that spoke of the sky itself, and one fateful, binding bullet being fired.
“It’s you,” she whispered, looking at the moon marking and the coyote’s eyes as the realization clicked. “It’s your symbol.”
Coyote’s eyeless socket sparks glowed brighter for a moment, watching her.
“It’s pointless to leave my grounds for a purpose I’m not fond of,” he finished. And for a crystalline moment, when she met his eyes, Olivia felt the song of the forest and trickery loud and clear. “It’s not worth the effort.”
Jean shoved back her chair. She stood up, not noticing Olivia’s bright-eyed staring, and grabbed her hand.
“Alright. That’s it. We’re leaving,” she said. Olivia could feel her hard fingers shaking and clenching her own smaller fingers much harder than usual. She tugged Olivia out of her chair when she wouldn’t move. “Olivia, get up. We’re going.”
Olivia followed her like a baby duckling as Jean gave a stiff bow to Coyote. “Thank you for your time, trickster,” she said. “We won’t ask you for it again.”
“You didn’t ask for it the first time,” Coyote said slyly. Jean ignored him. She and Olivia went marching out the door, back to the car. Olivia waved to Coyote on the way out. His pelt blinked at her.
Jean had been relatively calm when they first climbed back into the car and started back down the gravelly scenic drives, but by the time they were turning back onto what constituted as a main road, she began to unravel. She had shoved the butterfly clip back in her hair, and when they turned a curve, her teeth were gritted, and her face was livid.
“I cannot believe him,” she growled, stomping the clutch so hard it was as if her foot would go through the floor. Jean was roughly twining her red scarf back around her neck as she spoke, her other hand wrapped in a claw around the steering well. “‘I don’t feel like going north or south’ my foot; he ran over the damn U.S. east coast for fun in three days, and I know, because it pissed Hermes off for weeks. If we could still talk to Hermes instead of him, we would, and he knows it. That rotted ball of fur,” she grumbled, ignoring how Olivia was staring out the window.
“And to think I made the mistake of believing he would better than the other big gods. He’s just like the rest of them. He doesn’t care that we’re trapped and fading, and that none of us can find each other anymore,” Jean said. There was a slight crack to her voice, and she was focusing on the road. Her knuckles on the steering wheel were turning white. “He just cares about himself.”
“I don’t think so,” Olivia said. Jean turned to look at her.
Olivia remembered the coyote pelt stretched across the dream catcher, and how the dim shine appeared in the eyeless sockets that were trapped and woven into another net, left to hang on a dusty wall. She remembered her siblings flying away without her, and everyone laughing at Jean and her true lies, until the latter hated her name and buried it. And finally, she remembered Coyote’s quiet whisper to her before Jean had made him pull away.
You are a symbol all your own, last of Pandora’s box. Go, while you’re untethered.
Olivia looked back at Jean.
“I think he’s trapped, too.”