Silhouette in the headlights

Author: Michael Benz ’09

Driving back at dusk along Los Osos Valley Road, I dwelled on the just-vanished sunset, deepening below the California horizon. It had stained the low-lying clouds pink and scarlet. Its light glimmered in the crashing waves. I was a glimmer, too, on that coastline, vanishing as soon as I appeared. Earlier, walking back to the car, I had admired the darkening mountain ridges and the lavender sky above them, so heartbreakingly pure.

illustration: Eva Vázquez

I drove back to San Luis Obispo as the dusk deepened. Foothills loomed on either side of me, and a line of red taillights next to yellow headlights stretched before me — a procession of gliding ghosts. The line was a thread through space, unerring, taut with speed, with force, with inevitability.

But then, through this line, I saw a silhouette break: a black ridge rising from the road, two ears pricked against the night’s darkness, and two eyes flashing in my headlights’ beams. My heart stopped, plunged like an anchor. Those were canine eyes; those were canine ears. Its whole body, lying across the yellow median line, had flashed by me in an instant.

“Oh no. Oh no. Oh no.” It had been hit by a car. Worse. It had been hit by a car but was still alive. My chest seemed to cave into itself. It was lying in the middle of the road, bleeding, bones crushed, lungs heaving, straining for life, wasn’t it? It was looking into the oncoming headlights, in uncomprehending fear, without hope. Already accepting its fate.

That poor creature, suffering alone, for no reason. I hated this fate. It was still alive, wasn’t it?

The feeling gripped me in an instant. I couldn’t accept that fate. I didn’t know what I would do. But the outcome didn’t matter. I only wanted to get to it, touch its fur, let it hear my voice. I wouldn’t let it die alone, uncomforted, unmourned.

I pulled over onto the shoulder.

Turning around, parking to the side, I fixed its body in my headlights’ beams and trotted out to where it lay. His back was turned to me, and his head was now resting on the ground. I peered over; his eyes were closed. Was I too late? I saw its long, straight snout and its feathery fur, mottled gray, black, dun and auburn. It was a coyote.

Was it breathing? I crouched down and spoke to it. “Hey buddy. Hey there.” He didn’t stir. I reached out and pet its fur, the soft fur along its rib cage. I leaned over to look at its eyes. For only an instant, I saw the slits open, saw his eyes, weakly, darting back to look at mine. Those eyes, wary, narrow, defiant. It didn’t want to move its head. But I felt it breathing, faintly.

Without another thought, I slipped my left arm under its shoulder. I did it carefully but swiftly. Then my right arm under its haunches. He lifted his head, looking over his shoulder, only watching. There wasn’t a single feeling that could be read in that face, only watching. I hefted him up and hugged him into my body. His head hung over my left arm; as I carried him, he levered it up and then let it droop again. He accepted this force that was moving him.

I walked him briskly over to the passenger side of my rental car. For a brief moment, I tried to think. I had been moving in a trance, following the promptings of my pulse. But the decision was already made. If I couldn’t leave him in the middle of the road, I couldn’t leave him at the side of the road either.

I tried to pry open the door with my right hand but couldn’t. I had to set him down, and he strained with the lowering. Was I hurting him? What were his wounds? He was uncannily calm. I didn’t want to spook him. I wanted whatever trust I could have. Even if I could feel his injuries, there would be nothing I could do for him. There was only one thing I could do — take him to someone who could heal him.

I opened the door. He was glancing around now, moving his head stiffly. I gathered him back into my arms and set him down on the passenger seat, head towards the driver’s seat, hind legs facing the door. As I ran over to the driver’s seat, I glanced at my hands and my arms, the parts of me that had touched him. There was a small, smeared swatch of blood on my right hand. So there was blood — but no grievous bleeding. But there was a dampness, a clear liquid and a musky smell.

I buckled up and looked over at him. It seemed he could barely keep his eyes open. But for a moment there, as I sat in the driver’s seat and looked at him lying curled next to me, we seemed to see each other. He stared down his snout at me, unblinking, eyes watchful, with no sign of malice, fear, trust — only watching. I saw him fully for the first time. Such a long, slender snout and such entrancing, narrow eyes — I saw a wild, ancient dog, fierce, wizened, inscrutable.

I didn’t care that he could kill me. He didn’t care that I could kill him. He had seen death before, hadn’t he? I felt no fear, either. I was going to defy fate with whatever compassionate spite I could wreak upon it.

I sped back to San Luis Obispo. I called animal hospital numbers and was turned away. They weren’t allowed to take wild animals. I called the guys at my Airbnb and drove back to their apartment. They had a small patio attached to their apartment, entirely enclosed by a high wooden fence. They said I could keep him there overnight.

Pulling the car around to the back gate, I scooped my coyote up again and laid him on a pile of blankets. He looked around, alert, then settled his head down onto his paws. His breathing was labored. When the sliding glass door screeched, he scampered under a chair. I was amazed to see him move like that: quick, fluid, unbroken.

I fretted over him, fearing that he wouldn’t make it through the night. He had no visible wounds, but there was no telling what might have been injured internally. In the morning, I would call Pacific Wildlife Care, but that was a long night away.

The only thing I could think to do was walk to the nearest grocery store, buy a pound of ground beef and set it by the foot of the cave he had made for himself. And then I had to try to sleep.

When I woke in the morning, I went to the glass door and squinted into the patio, looking under the chair. He was still there. I looked closely. He was still breathing.

I stepped onto the patio and lay on the concrete, facing him as he faced me. His eyes were alert. He was calm, self-possessed. I could see he had eaten half the ground beef. I talked to him, told him someone was coming to take care of him.

A few hours later, Bob, the coyote expert from Pacific Wildlife Care, came by in a pickup truck, with crates and nets on long poles. This wasn’t his first coyote wrangle. When we went to move the chair, the coyote scampered away, tried leaping over the fence. Finally, cornered, he conceded to being snared in the net, and we coaxed him into the crate.

I heard from Pacific Wildlife Care a few weeks later. My coyote had been in a fight with another animal — he had puncture wounds that had gotten infected. The staff thought he had run into a car and had been lying there, stunned, when I picked him up. They’d given him antibiotics, and he had recovered. Bob got in touch with me to find out exactly where I’d found him. He wanted to release him nearby, so he’d have a chance to find his family again.

I like to imagine that he is still roaming those dark hills, through lavender dusks like the one I walked through before finding him. He will die someday. So will I. What does it matter that I scooped up his limp body from the middle of a lonely road? All that matters is that look we had, peering into each other’s eyes. Defying the blind cruelties to the end, severing the unceasing, uncaring line of headlights in the night.

Michael Benz’s essay was one of two-second place winners in this magazine’s 2016 Young Alumni Essay Contest. He lives in Oakland, California, and works in San Francisco as a research analyst. He also writes and makes music.