Coyotes and River Nymphs
Mr. Henschel says coyotes are skittish creatures, which means if you come across one in the ravine near school you should bang on pots and pans or shout or whistle or stomp. Generally make a ruckus. In the classroom, we all stomped and yelled and banged our desktops for practice and Mr. Henschel plugged his ears and nodded.
Nine times out of ten, he shouted, a coyote will turn and run.
All well and good for Mr. Henschel, my mother said later. She unpacked my schoolbag and held up the sandwich container I’d turned into a slug habitat. Mr. Henschel’s not living with Thoreau.
I pointed at the slug. Actually that’s Empress Avalon, I said.
That day I had gone to see the River Fairy on the way home. She was on her throne, the log with a watchful eye, where the two rivers split, by the Great Salt Marsh. This was really rare to find her there on her throne, I told Mom. Usually she’s out performing great deeds.
Oh? Mom moved to the cutting board and steadied a red pepper.
Humans, I said, are allowed to visit the River Fairy without being invited only if they bring a plant or animal who hasn’t received its name.
Oh? Mom said again. She stopped slicing to look over at me. Just be careful, Eleanora. In your enchanted forest.
The lady was standing in the creek, washing her long pitched-black hair upside down with a white bar of soap. But the water there is brown and silty like in Janitor Jenkins’s mop bucket, so I didn’t see how she expected to get it clean. When she stood up and saw me watching, the lady turned away.
Hello! I called from the edge of the water. Are you washing your hair?
She didn’t answer.
I gave her out and said, Are you looking for jewels, then? There’s jewels hidden in this river.
Next to the towel lying on the ground near my feet, something flashed silver. I reached for it.
Don’t touch! She splashed over. Don’t touch razors! She was dripping everywhere, snapping twigs, hugging her wet clothes against her body. Younger and smaller than Mom, but almost as short as me. Her eyes were the colour of raisins.
Do you live here? I asked her. Are you a river nymph?
The lady’s bluish lips stretched into a smile. She had a space between her two front teeth.
I told her about my loose molar and she said she had a sore tooth and we laughed at each other, being so much the same in the middle of a forest. She’d never heard of the River Fairy or Hobgoblin Bob, who stashes the glittering jewels in the riverbed. She’d never heard of coyotes either.
Well if you see one, you’re supposed to make a lot of noise, I said. Bang a pot, for example. I don’t have one with me.
She thanked me for the warning. I have to put on dry clothes, she said. Her flip flops smacked away.
I’ll hold up your blanket! I called after her. Like at the beach, I explained. Like when you don’t have a change room but your mom makes towel tent around you and – hey, actually, have you been to the end of this path?
She didn’t want me to hold her blanket. On the rock where she’d stopped, a pair of pants and a T-shirt were folded on top of dirty white Reeboks. I thought she was gonna grab them, but she just stood there, looking down in a different direction.
Finally the lady said, Please. Leave me alone.
On the way home, I imagined her dunking her head in Mr. Jenkins’s bucket on wheels, him cranking that handle and wringing out her long hair, like he did with the ends of his mops.
Another day, she was sitting under one of the king willows, eating from a plastic bowl. I waved.
I forgot to tell you I’m Eleanora Nuttall, I said. What are you eating?
She held out the bowl and there was rice at the bottom.
What’s your name? I asked.
She chewed for a while. Everybody calls me Amy, she replied.
So that’s your name?
My name is Luzviminda.
Luzviminda, I said, trying it out a couple of times. Pretty! So that’s what I’ll call you. I like to do things right.
I asked her where she was from and she pointed up the slope behind us, to the other side of the enchanted forest. On that side, not the side where Mom and I live, the streets have houses big as airplane hangars, which are garages for airplanes. Dream Homes, Mom calls those homes. Real castles.
That’s where my Dad went, I confessed to Luzviminda. My Dad and his Fancy Piece.
Luzviminda said she looked after three boys; ages two, six, and eight.
So where are they now? I asked.
Home. Sometime is with mother.
She asked me whether I found any jewels lately. I didn’t answer. I was too busy watching her pack her food containers away into a sack and hoist it high up with a rope she swung over a tree branch. When she was done, she dug out a piece of string from the hockey bag beside her.
My girl like to play this, she said. With the string she made a web between my hands and showed me how to pinch and pull different parts to make string designs. As if I didn’t know cat’s cradle.
You have a girl too? I said.
Not here. At home.
Home. Home. Lying down to sleep that night, questions about Luzviminda kept bumping into each other in my head. Like, why did she wash her hair and eat rice in the forest when she had a Dream Home so close by? Finally I fell asleep and had a nightmare. There was a coyote running through the forest, chasing Luzviminda and sinking his teeth into one of her bare, tanned ankles.
When school ended for the year I went to summer camp, then away to cottages of Mom’s friends and relatives. So I didn’t return to the enchanted forest until nearly the end of August, when the water in the creek is down to a trickle and the weeds have grown up to my shoulders. This time, my neighbour Gus Guffy followed me.
Luzviminda spotted us high up in the climbing tree. Are you OK? She shouted.
Hi! Hi, Luzviminda! We’re climbing.
She said, Come down, Eleanora. Is too dangerous.
No it’s not.
Come down, please, she said. For me.
We climbed down. Luzviminda took my hand and squeezed it, then said she was sorry for touching me.
It’s OK, I told her. Was it? I thought.
She looked a lot older, somehow, and not as clean as before. I noticed Gus’s mouth hanging open.
Gus, I said. This is Luzviminda. Or Amy, I guess you can call her.
What? He asked. Why does she have two names?
Gus hadn’t gotten any smarter over the summer. I said, In case you can’t pronounce the real one.
He squinted at her. So it’s an alias.
No! Luzviminda said. Alias is for criminals. I am nothing wrong.
Don’t worry, I told her. Gus doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He just tries to use big words.
Gus squinted at me, then, and my throat tightened up. Too late. Gus took off down the path, elbows swinging.
Maybe we hurt his feelings, I mumbled.
Eleanora, did you tell anybody you see me here? Luzviminda asked.
No. I looked in the direction Gus had gone and said, Well, Gus knows. Did you do something wrong, Luzviminda?
No, she said. She unzipped her hockey bag and brought out a silky scarf that she unwound from a picture frame. She held it out to show me.
My daughter, she said. Coming from Fillpeens. She wiped her cheeks. Eleanora, I’m too scared.
Oh, I said. I didn’t think the girl looked scary at all. I told Luzviminda that her daughter had nice barrettes.
Fillpeens, she said. A place so far away.
I found out Luzviminda was saving money to send her daughter a plane ticket to Canada. She admitted she wasn’t supposed to live in the enchanted forest, but she didn’t want to use her work money to pay for riding the bus or for another place to sleep. She wanted to pay for the plane ticket. She took back the framed picture and wrapped it carefully. So don’t tell anybody I am here, she said, or else my daughter will not get money.
I didn’t think it was a good idea that she had left her daughter in the first place. In fact, I was kind of angry with Luzviminda for doing this, but that only made me try to be nicer to her. I can give you some money, I said. I have two piggy banks.
Luzviminda didn’t seem to hear me. She has twelve years soon, she said. She has five years when I go. She will be happy with me?
Um. I don’t know, I said. I watched her small fingers moving, twisting open the little ball of string.
OK, she said. So let’s play a game again, Eleanora. Let’s play.
No thanks. Actually, I think I should try to find Gus.
Gus had a bad habit of tattling when he was upset. I left Luzviminda behind, sitting on the big hockey bag.
Sergeant Guffy and Mom were still talking in the driveway, under an umbrella, and I was supposed to be eating the mountain of cheese and crackers in front of me. I kept thinking of Luzviminda, who must be the reason Gus’s father had come over. I got up and went to the window again. How did she keep dry out there when it rained this hard?
Soon Mom led Gus’s father inside. He was wearing his police uniform and he waved at me through the kitchen doorway. I waved back. Puffy Guffy, people called him. His voice was as high as Gus’s.
To my mother he said, Or it could be that her visa’s no longer current. That could be why she’s on the run.
Mom said, Eleanora, can you come here please?
It happens, Puffy said. They lose their job for some reason. They don’t want to go home. They’re afraid to inform anyone that they’re unemployed.
I dragged my feet over to them. Sergeant Guffy squatted down in front of me. He smelled like restaurant mints and fried chicken. Hello, young lady! I understand you might know where to find a woman called… Amy?
That’s not her real name, I said.
He glanced at my mother. To be honest, Madeleine, I’m also thinking about the suspect’s own protection. Behind his hand, he said, Coyotes.
Oh? said my mother. Has there been a sighting?
No. Not recently, Guffy replied, lowering his chin and his voice.
For some reason I started giggling, about a deadly serious thing like the existence of coyotes, right in front of deadly serious Puffy Guffy.
You know, Mom said, squeezing my shoulder, I’ve told this child a million times not to go into that nasty culvert. But she’s so… dreamy, Burt.
I could see Mom’s neck and cheeks had turned pink. She said to me, Your friend Gus says you visit a woman who lives in the woods. Sergeant Guffy wants to know where he might find her.
I looked down at my shoes, and thought, nasty culvert? Never once did you tell me not to go into the woods! And why are you asking me, when I already told you about –
Where is she? Guffy blurted.
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t answer.
His big eyebrows lifted. Well, he said, if you can’t describe the location, Eleanora, I know you’re brave enough to take me and your Mom right there. A big brave girl like you.
Oh, Burt. Do you think that’s necessary? Mom asked. Now, in the rain?
I wanted to ask him what exactly there was to be brave about. Then I remembered the coyotes. Grown-ups always wanted you to be afraid of something. But Gus’s father wasn’t staring at me because of a coyote. Suddenly I had the idea it was Luzviminda he wanted me to be afraid of. I looked at my mother. Did she want that too?
In a quiet voice I said, Didn’t Gus say where we went?
Sergeant Guffy stood up slowly, crossing his arms over his belly. No, he said. Gus wasn’t able to… No. Gus was not forthcoming.
Puffy Guffy scratched his cheek and said, All he could tell me was that you introduced him to a, uh, a short woman living in the ravine. He looked from Mom to me and me to Mom. Hey, he said, I just wanna nip this situation in the bud. Before anybody gets pinned for vandalism or trespassing. Drug dealing.
Drug dealing? said Mom. I can’t imagine a nanny would…
If she is a nanny, he said. She could be a tramp or a pervert. Some kind of refugee. Either way…
Either way, you want her out, said my mother.
Of course, he said. I think we can all agree on that around here, can’t we?
Mom smiled and took a very long breath, then bent down with her back to Sergeant Guffy. Eleanora, she said, now I want you to think carefully. It’s important for you to tell Sergeant Guffy the truth about whomever it is you’ve met in the ravine. My mother blinked hard. None of your fanciful stories, Eleanora. Not like the ones you were telling me this afternoon.
Before lunch, Mom had caught me emptying my teddy bear piggy bank. I told her about Luzviminda who looked after the three Grube boys, aged two, six, and eight, and about her daughter, living so far away, waiting for an airplane ticket, and who was twelve now and used to be five and liked to play cat’s cradle.
The Grubes of all people, my mother had said, taking my piggy bank into her lap. The poor woman.
But now Mom was saying nothing to Puffy Guffy, about Grubes or airplane tickets. She was just squeezing my shoulders and taking long, careful breaths. I looked into her eyes.
She’s not exactly…a woman, I said. Luzviminda – that’s her real name – sometimes she sleeps under the king willows. No, high in the king willows. Because she likes the sound they make in the breezes. Luzviminda’s a river nymph, and river nymphs make music from the sounds of the forest.
What? said Sergeant Guffy. He tilted his head.
In a louder voice I said, That’s their special power. Luzviminda is the queen of the river nymphs, so she can make music as good as Taylor Swift’s.
What in…? said Sergeant Guffy. What is she talking about?
My mother got to her feet, saying, I’m sorry, Sergeant. Eleanora, go ahead and speak directly to Sergeant Guffy. Repeat what you’ve just said and don’t spare any details. I think there may have been some misunderstanding between you and Gus?
Maybe, I said. I don’t know if Gus got much of a look. He was really freaked out. Sometimes he… freaks out kind of easy.
Sergeant Guffy let me go on a while about the enchanted forest until he lost his patience and made an excuse to leave.
Mom and I rushed to the living room window to watch him speeding home in his cruiser, so fast his tires screeched at the corner.