A Dirge for the Prairie

Fiction — Moonlight in the grass, specters on the breeze.

Andrew Johnston
12 min readJul 9, 2021
Photo by Priss Enri on Unsplash

Out on the high prairie on a brightly moonlit night, there’s no sound more ominous than the sharp keen of the coyote’s howl. The raspy shudder of a rattlesnake is a terrifying sound, but an experienced trailhand can push down his fears and deal with the danger — not so with the coyote song. Don’t compare it to a wolf’s howl, either. The song of the wolfpack is this strong and muscular wail, an intimidating sound that speaks to the beast’s primitive need to stake out its territory. It is a fearsome sound, while the coyote song is a sound of sorrow. It is all dissonant and haunted and it calls out to the dead to rise and dance to its eerie tune, and if you’re in the wrong place when you hear it, that could be what comes next.

I had a friend, Carlos was his name, who was out there on just about the perfect night for a coyote sonata, one of those pretty nights with that big, brilliant moon hanging heavy over the still air. He was about half a man when he came back to camp, sweating through his gear and raving about a revelation. Seems he’d nibbled on the devil’s trumpet out there and when the coyotes commenced to howling, well, his mind just plain couldn’t handle it. He didn’t hear the howls, though, but the voices of the dead — mostly family members long since deceased, but also someone he knew who died out on the trail. Carlos talked a lot about that one, slurring out a name that no one could quite catch and speaking darkly of bad deeds. In the depths of his madness, Carlos said he’d killed the man in a dispute over some lady, that it started as a just a scrap until Carlos picked up a stone and smashed in the other fella’s head. Course, we didn’t believe him back then, not with his head in that state. Real as his pleas for forgiveness seemed, we took it as the devil’s trumpet working its ugly magic. Thing is, though, even when he came out of it and sense came back to him, he still swore that the coyotes had powers to stir the dead, that he’d actually heard from people who’d passed on. He believed down to his bones that what he had seen out on that prairie was real.

Now I’ve seen some things I can’t explain for the life of me, but I didn’t believe Carlos no matter how insistent he was. That I could explain real easy — he ate some bad plants and had a real bad night, no need for ghosts to explain it. But even though I knew that he was more than a little crazy that night, it still got me to thinking, thinking and worrying. Maybe it’s just because those coyotes always sent cold chills dancing across my nerves even before Carlos had his head turned upside down. It wasn’t just me, either — no one in the camp wanted to go out alone when the moon was big. Most of them would rather take their chances with the rattlers out on a black night than set out under the full moon and risk hearing that coyote song, least of all when they were by themselves. Carlos never quite went back to normal, and a lot of us figured we’d sooner go with a quick death from a snakebite than rotting slow in the head. Shoot, I wasn’t any different than the rest of them.

But fate, well, she’s a mean old gal, and I ended up off by my lonesome beneath the light of the full moon. Can’t remember how it happened — one too many shots of whiskey and I just went staggering off, I guess, or maybe I was a man possessed. It was the booze or the magic making that choice because I’m damn sure that I wouldn’t have left camp on my own gumption. All I know is that I ended up out there on the open prairie, moonlight licking off the grass, with the coyotes lurking in the murk just at the edge of my vision. They weren’t hungry enough to attack a man, or angry enough, or scared enough. They were more like curious old dogs keeping a close eye on something unfamiliar that wandered into their territory. That’s the thing about coyotes — they aren’t fearsome like wolves, not at first brush at least.

And then they started into it, started singing that haunted old song, the one that lives in my dreams and shakes my soul to this very day. They sang that song, and their voices wove together and split apart, and then they were real voices — human voices, men and women and little kids. They were voices, but not speaking words like you or I would understand them. These were the voices of lost souls, not speaking because words don’t mean much to them, but just letting out these terrible moans of loss and pain. It was a sound tortured enough that I just about failed to notice that I couldn’t see the coyotes anymore. Instead there were pallid outlines of people colored silvery-gray in the moonlight, all twisted and stretched like the phantoms living in a trick mirror. Some of them I couldn’t place but most were folks I’d met before, and in the center…if there was any mercy in heaven and earth, this would have flown out of my brain and never returned to mock me.

The silhouette in the center belonged to my Pa. He was a sight, standing out there half-faded into the prairie night, but I could see him well enough to be sure. Pa…he looked just the way he’d looked on the day he’d died, the day he had that accident. I would give away a fragment of my immortal soul if it meant that I’d never have to see the likes of that again, if this experience hadn’t convinced me that I was already damned through and through. Pa was turned away from me and as soon as he moved, I made tracks. I didn’t wait for him to speak — couldn’t stand the thought of hearing that coyote song coming from his lips — so I just clapped my hands over my ears with as much force as I could muster and I tore off. Not to camp, not to any town, just anywhere else, anywhere without those mooncast things.

The crew found me the next morning just after dawn, passed out in the tall grass on the edge of camp. I was a little more clever than Carlos — didn’t tell them a thing, just let them think I had an ordinary bad night. Didn’t help much, though, not with fear and rumor already running roughshod through the camp. Everyone suspected that I’d encountered the coyotes even if they weren’t willing to say anything. That was fine by me — let them think what they want as long as they weren’t in a chatty mood.

Really, I didn’t think too much about it — didn’t want to. As far as I was concerned, I went a little crazy because of some bad whiskey and the memory of what happened to Carlos. A coyote’s just a big dog, ain’t nothing magical about them. I kept what I saw a secret from most of the folks, but I did let the mask slip a little bit just once. It was maybe a month later and I was chatting with this old scout by the name of Anse. Anse likes to think of himself as some kind of philosopher of the wilderness, always sitting by himself and ruminating about the beauty and terror of it all, spouting off all the native wisdom he’d picked up and just doing whatever was in his power to seem brilliant. Over the last of our coffee, I mentioned that I believed Carlos when he saw the ghosts, and Anse got this look to him like he knew that I’d seen them too. Then he said something that proved it to me because no one would say this to a person who wasn’t a believer. He said that the prairie has no memory, but the coyotes are different. The coyotes don’t belong here, he said, and that’s why even the natives were a little afraid of them. They’re beasts out of time, and that soul-twisting music they make is them letting just a little bit of their own place into ours. We were never supposed to hear that song, and the ghosts are our minds trying to reject what our hearts can feel.

I’m not the smartest man, and maybe I am a little superstitious, but I wasn’t about to believe what Anse said about mystical coyotes. I was telling myself that the whole thing was a bad dream and I just needed to rest my head a little more, take some time off in town, get away from the animals. At least, that’s what I was telling myself before I saw my Pa again. This time, it caught me by surprise — moon was only a sliver, I was in camp the next time the coyotes made their racket — you could just barely hear them, just a few ghostly notes over the evening breeze, but it was enough to stir up the dead.

The night was darker this time but there was light enough that I could see him, standing out by the cooking fire and just staring my way, and this time I was near enough that I could see him just like he was on that day. My Pa wasn’t a big man but he was a rough one for sure, all gristly muscle and tree bark skin and stiff beard hairs that could just about cut you if you came too close. Call it the curse of a life lived on the edge of the tame world, scraping around for a new opportunity. He was only a shadow on the cusp of the moon that night, really just an impression, but I could see him well enough to make out the wound that finally did him in. He’d fallen into a ravine while we were out hunting and split his head clean down the middle on this ugly jagged rock. It was a real trial for the undertaker to make him look presentable for the funeral — good work, too, because I didn’t ever want to see him split open like that again. But then came that song and now here he was just like when I found him in that ravine, with that bloody rift running from brow to neck, gray squish leaking out onto the ground.

That was the state he was in when the coyotes showed him to me, a walking corpse with no right to still be alive. He didn’t look happy to see me, or angry, or sad. Mostly, he looked surprised — yeah, surprised, just like he looked in that last moment of life before he slipped into the ravine. He looked surprised to be standing there in that prairie under that fading moon and looking at his son again. And then the surprise flickered away and his face turned hard and he spoke to me, and this time I couldn’t cover my ears fast enough, so I heard just one word: YOU. That was it, but really drawn out, like a rusty knife being ripped out of my belly. YOU. There was blood dripping from that word, those three letters sent to cut and maim.

“YOU.” I thought a long time about what that meant. Maybe I should have just let Pa tell me what he was thinking. Then again, maybe I don’t really want to know what he was about to say. Course, I can always guess, and I think I might know based on what happened that day. We’d been fighting before we went out — not a brutal fight or anything, just the little fool things that fathers and sons squabble over, just a lot more than normal. It sure jolted me that he wanted us to go out together that day, but he was happy to have me along. Blood always counts for more, he seemed to be saying. We didn’t even make it to supper when he was struck down by the worst luck mortal man ever saw. I only saw my Pa’s face for a second before he went over the side, but I saw something in his eyes before he did. Yeah, he was surprised that he was falling, but I think he was more surprised to see me standing there. Did he think I pushed him? Sure, we quarreled, but he was my Pa and I’d never do anything to hurt him. But did he understand that, or did he go to his grave thinking that his own flesh and blood sent him there?

I wish I could have talked this over with someone — should’ve been easy, I wasn’t the only one who saw the ghosts that night — but everyone who understood was gone. Carlos hit his wit’s end, got good and drunk and jumped in a river. I went to see Anse to see if he knew some way to break their spell, but Anse…well, I guess he had a few demons of his own, because he up and took off two days later and no one saw him again. I hear that he found a job in a saloon somewhere up north, but I never went to see him — I don’t know, I figure if a guy wants to disappear, you ought to let him. As for the rest, either they didn’t see anything or were lying to me and everyone like me, and I wasn’t about to go looking for anyone like me. I have enough ghosts without inviting any more on board.

I stayed at that outfit for a little while but I knew it wouldn’t last too long. New men showed up to replace the ones who went out of their heads from the ghosts. The coyotes scared me to death and no one knew why or wanted to know why. I used to slip out with my rifle when everyone else was drinking and take shots at them. Killed a couple of them, too, although my aim’s not much to write about so mostly I put holes in the prairie. No one likes coyotes too much so I never got in trouble for it, but they did think I was peculiar. Course I never told them why I did it — they would have just thought I was moontouched and I didn’t want a reputation as the crazy one in camp. They’d see it for themselves one night, and then they’d be in the same place as the rest of us.

Sleep didn’t come easy in those days, and when it did it just made me wish for another long night. My dreams were ugly and weird, but they felt as real as waking life, like they were things that just hadn’t happened yet. Each one always started the same way, me out alone in the grass of the high prairie, all lit up by this queasy pool of light that didn’t really come from anywhere. This time, the coyotes didn’t make a sound, they just crept out of the grass at the edge of that light and lay there, staring at me with those greedy eyes of theirs. Pa was there too, laughing like a drunken old fool, laughing like he was back from the grave. The sound of that laugh sparked something in the coyotes and suddenly they were on me, stained teeth bared, blood pouring free from the wounds in my legs. I couldn’t run and I was too weak to fight as the coyotes made their meal of me. I could hear only one thing over the sound of the primal feast, just a few words: “…AND I PAID YOU BACK, BOY.”

This was the last straw. I was real lucky and the coyotes were calm for a while, but that didn’t matter much — the ghosts were haunting the prairie, maybe even haunting my skull. Of course I made tracks before the next full moon, for whatever good it might do. If the coyotes were going to take me, they’d have to chase me to the ends of this world and back.

The prairie isn’t my home anymore — too unfriendly these days, too many bad memories. For a while, I picked up odd jobs in the cities of the area — I felt safe, you can’t here the coyote song over all the fighting and drinking — but then that became too much, and I still felt like Pa could be out there somewhere. I made my way west until I hit the ocean, then set off to sea. That’s my life now, hopping onto whatever ship needs my bones, hauling goods in Acapulco or the Orient or the Spice Islands. Some folks think it’s exotic but I never got a taste for the salt spray and I never quit thinking about the prairie. It’s been two years since I heard the coyote song, and I wish I could say that I was safe for sure. But the thought of that sound still sticks in my head and won’t let go. Some nights, when it’s clear and quiet, I still cock my head and listen for the howling. Some nights, I see my Pa in my dreams, accusing me of vile things. And sometimes, when the moon is full and the wind is blowing hard, I wonder if my Pa is still out there, running with the coyotes and looking for his boy.

Originally published at https://vocal.media.



Andrew Johnston

Writer of fiction, documentarian, currently stranded in Asia. Learn more at www.findthefabulist.com.