When the howls begin my body tenses as if electrified. One long piercing howl lifts and then descends into a chorus of screams and yips and barks. Higher pitched than that of a wolf, less throaty, the discordant wails shatter through my consciousness and rip me across time and space.
We could hear them downstream. The early moon had set hours before, and our fire had grown smaller as we prematurely burned through our meager woodpile. Even though we all owned small caliber rifles and small gauge shotguns, our fathers had prevented us from bringing them on this campout because it was our first alone any significant distance from the house. Something of a rite of passage among rural kids, in our father's eyes this was a chance to humble us a little and teach the importance of preparation. We did not realize it at the time, but their knowing laughs as we ventured into the woods, with the sun setting and only two bags and a handful of snacks among the three of us, indicated memories of their own childhood. And now, with the moonless darkness pushing against our small fire and the chill of night becoming pronounced if we sat for even a moment, our enthusiasm for spending the night at the creek diminished rapidly.
As the first sound of the pack gathering raced upstream across field and forest to our place in the bottom, we could pretend to not be afraid. Even though none of us were old enough to have had our voices deepen, our culture did not often openly admit fear. But as the sound increased and we realized the smallness of our collected firewood, a sense of urgency descended on us. We had made camp on a sandy wash near the murmuring water. About 50 feet separated us from the creek itself, and half that distance away a thin wood bordered the water. On our other side open field stretched away several hundred feet to the base of the hill leading out of the valley. The hill itself sloped gently through a heavy wood until opening on another pasture which bordered our farm. None of us wished to make that trip in darkness unarmed.
The three of us picked the largest available firebrand from the dwindling flames and hurriedly moved as a group into the thin wood near the bank. Grabbing whatever driftwood that had collected at the base of the trees during the most recent storms, we raced back to the mental comfort of the light. The howling started again, only closer. We swept the ground clear of wood and dry brush to the very edge of the firelight. Our hackles had risen on the first howl, but the frantic activity of trying to build the fire up temporarily busied our minds. But as we noted the silence in the valley, as if an invisible line just outside the light muffled all sound, the goose pimples returned. We drew close to one another at the edge of the fire.
The first set of eyes, gleaming with reflected fire, seemed to float in the darkness.
In a blink they returned to the darkness, but then a second pair appeared to the right, followed by two more to the left. The sounds of uncertain sniffing could be heard in the tall weeds beyond the sandbar. One of us hurled a rock into the darkness, but it only resulted in faint sounds of rustling grass.
Terror fueled imaginations strung us out to the point of snapping. Except for the ghostly eyes, the pack remained hidden in darkness. The fire kept them from coming closer.
Back in the comfort of my modern home, surrounded by brick walls and a privacy fence, the keening still evokes a primal alertness. I worry that my young daughter will be awakened, but she sleeps soundly through the gathering of the rout. She is not old enough to have accumulated many fears of the night, nor had the opportunity to face them by a dwindling fire. I again remember back to that first encounter with coyotes. Ultimately, our fire held out longer than their interest, and they passed us by, racing upstream to whatever the midnight hours held. The coyotes became a frequent point of discussion among the small farms in our valley that year. They seemed more bold than in the previous year, with one large male sauntering across a local farmer's yard in broad daylight, despite the persistent threat of dogs. Occasionally we would find one hanging over a barbed wire fence, stiff with rigor mortis, where a local had shot and left it as a warning to the rest of the pack. We boys eventually found the den deep in the wildlife area that bordered the farms, but quickly left and never returned.
Now grown, with the threat of a night hunt usually a dim memory, I have other things to worry about. Will I have a job next month? Is my wife happy? What does the future hold for my daughter? But when I hear this new pack near our neighborhood, miles and miles and years and years removed from our first meeting, I am reminded that once, millennia ago, we worried about more pressing things. We worried about the fire and the night.