Kevin Keating’s first novel The Natural Order of Things (Vintage 2013) was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes/First Fiction award and received starred review from Publishers Weekly and Booklist. His second novel The Captive Condition (Pantheon 2015) was launched at the San Diego Comic Con International and received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal.
The Pietà of Saint Blaise
At twilight they make their way to the edge of a deep forest of Douglas fir and mighty hemlock. In single file they trot along a high limestone ridge overlooking an eight-lane interstate highway. One by one they weave their way down an icy switchback and then, to the blare of horns and screeching tires, dart across a steady stream of oncoming traffic. Somehow all six of them survive the perilous crossing. Near an underpass strewn with smashed bottles and crumpled cans, they quickly assess the terrain before moving on. For the next mile there are hills and trees, but soon the land becomes flat and barren as a windswept prairie. There are no sturdy oaks and hickories to shield them from the drifting snow, no rock ledges and caves where they might take shelter for an hour or two from the brutal winter gusts blasting across the great lake to the north. Here there are only roads and more roads.
They trot along the vast, empty lots of an industrial parkway, and in the shadow of a tractor trailer they listen with frightening intensity for the mice and rats that have left prints near a long row of storage garages. Between the buildings a fierce wind whips up a flurry of blue plastic bags. They keep moving. After a few miles they see the silhouette of a lift bridge. Around the bend the buzzing streetlights reveal a factory ringed with a razor wire fence and perched precariously on the steep slopes of a twisting river valley a jumble of wooden shanties. Here the snow becomes patchy and uneven. A fine gray ash coats the telephone poles and the railroad tracks that vanish into the inky darkness.
For the next twenty minutes they tramp along a smoking hellscape of cone-shaped slag heaps and a row of blast furnaces that eject from their tall black stacks blue flames that seem to singe the low-hanging clouds. At the sound of crackling brambles along the riverbank, their ears involuntarily prick up. They move quickly. A solitary doe, separated from the herd, skitters in a panic onto the ice. Though they are badly malnourished, all six give chase and manage to take down the doe. They drag the steaming carcass back to the embankment, and for the first time in many days, they feed on the flesh and bones of a fresh kill. Yapping and whining, they dart in excitement around the body. Around them the ice begins to rumble and groan. Upriver a horn calls mournfully in the night. With sharp squeals of alarm, they leap away from the embankment as the ice splinters and suddenly explodes. Moments later, an iron ore ship, navigating the treacherous oxbow bend, casts a beam of blinding white light across the translucent monoliths. Taking cover behind a rock pile, they watch helplessly as their kill gets swept away by the shifting ice. They do not howl or whine. Instead, they lick with relish the blood already freezing to their pelts and then keep moving.
An hour later, as a crescent moon floats above the rooftops of a residential street, an invisible bird caws mockingly from a sagging powerline. In the orange glow of city lights, they slink through a chaos of shadows and alleyways. They pass a sprawling apartment complex, a squat brick schoolhouse, a bus shelter that reeks of urine. Across the street from a mean little windowless tavern, they watch men stumble scowling and cursing out the door into the frozen waste.
Somewhere on a lonely avenue lined with chestnut trees and the scattered shells of rusted cars, they come to a church, its walls of rough-hewn stone towering above them like a granite cliff. After investigating a hole at the bottom of a smashed and splintered door, they lower their heads and like penitents returning from the frontlines of war enter the church pass under the imposing arched entranceway. Inside, pale light filters through the stained-glass windows and falls in thin green pools on the overturned pews in the transept. The midwinter wind batters the steeple, and the buttresses creak like the hull of a ship in heavy seas.
In the nave they pace back and forth before a devotional sculpture of the Virgin. In her arms she holds the broken body of her son. The painted wood from which the figures were carved came from a walnut tree felled a century ago in the forest. While the others congregate behind the altar, one of their number pauses to mark the pedestal and scratch at the gaping holes driven into the man’s feet. Under the gilded dome of the apse, they make their den in a pile of embroidered linens and dusty hymnals. Just before dawn, to the wail of sirens and the sound of a distant train, they finally fall asleep, a mother and her five pups, at home in the sanctuary of Saint Blaise.
Despite the poverty and squalor that surround the church, the coyotes need never fear going hungry. The neighborhood abounds with feral cats and small yapping dogs and impossibly fat rodents that waddle night and day from the sewers. The streets and alleys are piled high with uncollected trash, and behind every restaurant there is a dumpster overflowing with a buffet of greasy scraps. On such hearty fare the pups grow big and strong. But now through the nighttime streets comes a bearded man in baggy fatigues. An expert shot hired by the mayor to exterminate the coyotes, he smells almost as wild as the animals he tracks. He sleeps in snatches during the day and at dusk embarks upon the hunt. Meticulous in his work, he kneels in the snow to study the prints, the droppings on the sidewalks, the tufts of coarse brindled hair stuck to the tree trunks and crooked lamp posts. For bait he uses roadkill, always placing the flattened squirrels and deer parts, under the same oak tree. He does this for several days, and from his perch on a sturdy limb he patiently waits for the coyotes to feed. Once he establishes the number in the pack, he begins to eliminate the juveniles. By springtime only one survives, the runt of the litter. Decidedly slyer than his brothers and sisters, he has avoided detection. He is also faster than his mother who was shot through the heart on the night the man finally discovered their den.
Having escaped through a new hole behind the sacristy, the coyote, now nearly full grown, roams alone through the alleys and brick lanes. For several days he sleeps beside the fireplace of an unoccupied clapboard house, its chimney protruding like an obscene finger from the empty lots all around. Nothing disturbs his sleep until early one morning when he feels the floor begin to vibrate. In one of the rooms upstairs a pane of glass comes crashing to the floor. On the street outside, a crew of men in hard hats and orange vests gives the signal. Without bothering to inspect the house for the usual drunks and junkies who take shelter here, the crane operator swings the boom and drops the wrecking ball straight through the roof. With a cry of terror, the coyote leaps through the empty doorway and sprints across the yard.
For the next week, he creeps around street corners and keeps a wary eye out for humans. He sleeps in a culvert, then a shallow hole beneath a tool shed, then a wooded knoll in a public park. He traverses weed lots filled with the rusted levers and gears of enormous, antiquated machines. He stands before the colossal wreck of a warehouse where books were once printed, packaged and shipped to locations around the world. A dozen or so artists have illegally set up their studios here, and over the course of a week they manage with what little food they have to coax the suspicious creature inside. Every Friday they frequent the local animal shelter to procure rawhides and cans of donated dog food, and though they are desperate enough to eat some of the gelatinous chow and use the rawhides to create the strange, twisted architectures of an imaginary city, they always set aside a generous portion for their new friend. Off in a dark corner, in a heap of tattered towels, they even build him a cozy bed.
He spends the summer there, coming and going as he pleases. He wanders freely through the enormous lofts with their cloying chemical odors and clouds of cigarette smoke. At night he explores the surrounding terrain, slinking into an abandoned cannery and peering through the basement windows of a Russian bathhouse that has been in continuous operation since it first opened its doors a hundred years ago. Before dawn, with a masticated rat or squirrel or rabbit dangling limply from his jaws, he returns to the warehouse. In the feeble lamplight, he observes the artists stitching together huge hunks of tawny rawhide or splashing paint on canvases big as billboards. They seem to be at their most productive, their most wildly imaginative, in the early hours before sunrise.
Whenever they pause to take a pull from the nearest beer bottle or smoke a little grass, they sit beside him and from their grimy hands feed him kibble. They praise him, stroking his back, and tell him how they respect his true nature. For the whole of nature, both good and evil, has an important role to play in the creation of new things. He plays for a few minutes with the stuffed animals and squeaky toys they’ve given him. Then he stares panting into the lofts, watching the shifting shadows on the crumbling brick walls. Untroubled by the loud music and maniacal laughter that echo continually through the vast corridors and stairwells, he closes his eyes and soon falls fast asleep in his warm bed.
Fall brings an even greater abundance of fresh food—pigeons, possums, racoons—and during the month of September he eats to his heart’s content. He is less cautious than before, and in broad daylight he trots with bloated belly boldly down the boulevard. One smoky October afternoon, on a residential street of weather-beaten bungalows, he forages for food in an overturned trashcan. As he pulls a putrid T-bone from a plastic bag, he hears an unusual sound. He sidles into a backyard and finds to his delight a makeshift coop of plywood with a corrugated tin roof. Behind a stretch of poorly maintained chicken wire, a hen and her five chicks scratch mindlessly at the dust and peck at the seeds scattered around the coop. It takes only a matter of minutes to rend a hole in the wire and slaughter all six fowl. He darts back and forth through a flurry of bloody feathers, and in his frenzy he barely feels the hot sting of the bullet. It rips right through his body and penetrates the plywood walls of the chicken coop. The man, hiding on a high limb of a craggy oak near the powerlines, shifts his elbow and adjusts his scope.
The coyote bolts, leaping over fences and trampling flowerbeds. Instead of returning to the warehouse, he somehow finds his way back to the great stone church and squeezes through the hole behind the sacristy. Bright sunlight shines through the stained-glass windows, and the church glows with a green intensity that reminds him of the days when he freely roamed the forest. In the nave he collapses beneath the ornately carved statue but does not see the tortured faces of the mother and son. He sees only the ancient tree from which the statue was made. Blood bubbles thick and warm from his gut. His breathing becomes irregular, and his dark eyes become distant and unfocused.
At the west entrance one of the doors scrapes sharply against the tile floor. Though he can barely lift his head, he detects the slowly approaching figure of the bearded man. In a final effort to intimidate his foe, the coyote emits a low growl and flashes his teeth. The man stops near the statue and before taking aim says something about the patron saint of animals. The coyote rests its heads against the cracked pedestal and emits a heavy sigh. Then the rifle shot erupts like an organ blast through the abandoned church.
© 2020 Kevin Keating