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A creeping disquietude stole through her, nerve to nerve. She was anxious not about the coyotes on the porch but about something she couldn’t name—a threat so primal that reason was blind to it and instinct revealed only its rough contours.


Counseling herself that she was too mature to succumb to the easy fright of childhood and adolescence, she nevertheless retreated to the stairs, intending to return to the bedroom and wake Neil.


For perhaps a minute, she stood with one hand on the newel post, listening to the drumming rain, considering what to say after rousing him from sleep. Everything that occurred to her sounded to one degree or another hysterical.


She was not concerned about looking foolish in Neil’s eyes. During seven years of marriage, each had been a fool often enough to have earned the lasting forbearance of the other.


She nurtured an image of herself, however, that sustained her during difficult times, and she strove always to avoid compromising it. In this self-portrait, she was tough, resilient, tempered by terror at an early age, seasoned by grief, qualified by experience to handle whatever fate threw at her.


At eight, she had endured and miraculously survived an episode of extreme violence that might have left any other child in therapy for decades. Later, when she was just twelve, an invisible thief called lymphoma, with quiet violence, stole the life from her mother.


For most of her existence, Molly had not shied from a truth that most people understood but diligently suppressed: that every moment of every day, depending on the faith we embrace, each of us continues to live either by the merciful sufferance of God or at the whim of blind chance and indifferent nature.


She listened to the rain. The downpour seemed not indifferent, but purposeful and determined.


Leaving Neil to his sleep, she turned away from the stairs. The windows remained faintly luminous, as if with the reflected glow of the aurora borealis.


Although her disquiet slowly gathered the force of apprehension, just as a revolving hurricane spins ever greater winds around its dead-calm eye, Molly crossed the foyer to the front door.


Flanking the door were tall, French-paned sidelights. Beyond the sidelights lay the porch onto which she had looked from her office.


The coyotes still gathered in that shelter. As she drew near the door, some of the animals turned once more to gaze in at her.


Their anxious panting painted pale plumes on the glass. From behind this veil of smoking breath, their radiant eyes beseeched her.


Molly was inexplicably convinced that she could open the door and move among them without risk of attack.


Whether or not she was as tough as she believed herself to be, she was not impulsive or reckless. She didn’t possess the fatalistic temperament of a snake handler or even the adventurousness of those who rode rafts over white-water rapids.


The previous autumn, when a wildfire churned up the eastern face of the mountain, threatening to cross the crest and sweep westward to the lake, she and Neil had been, at her insistence, the first among their neighbors to pack essential belongings and leave. Her acute awareness of life’s fragility had since childhood made of her a prudent person.


Yet when writing a novel, she often shunned prudence, trusting her instinct and her heart more than she did intellect. Without risk, she could get nothing on the page worth reading.


Here in the foyer, in this false-aurora glow, under the anxious gaze of the gathered canines beyond the French panes, the moment had a mystical quality, more like fiction than reality. Perhaps that was why Molly considered hazarding onto the porch.


She put her right hand on the doorknob. Rather, she found her hand on the knob without quite recalling when she had put it there.


The roar of the rain, escalating from a cataclysmic chorus until it became the very voice of Armageddon, and the witchy light together exerted a mesmerizing effect. Nevertheless, she knew that she wasn’t falling into a trance, wasn’t being lured from the house by some supernatural force, as in a bad movie.


She’d never felt more awake, more clearheaded. Instinct, heart, and mind were synchronized now as they had rarely been in her twenty-eight years of experience.


The unprecedented September deluge and everything about the odd behavior of the coyotes, not least of all their uncharacteristic meekness, argued that the usual logic didn’t apply. Here, providence required boldness rather than caution.


If her heart had continued to race, she might not have turned the knob. At the thought of turning it, however, she felt a curious calm descend. Her pulse rate declined, although each beat knocked through her with jarring force.


In some Chinese dialects, the same word is used to mean either danger or opportunity. In this instance, as never before, she was in a Chinese frame of mind.


She opened the door.


The coyotes, perhaps a score of them, neither attacked nor growled. They did not bare their teeth.


Amazed by their behavior and by her own, Molly crossed the threshold. She stepped onto the porch.


As if they were family dogs, the coyotes made room for her and seemed to welcome her company.


Her amazement still allowed a measure of caution. She stood with her arms crossed defensively over her chest. Yet she felt that if she held a hand out to the beasts, they would only nuzzle and lick it.


The coyotes nervously divided their attention between Molly and the surrounding woods. Their rapid and shallow panting spoke not of exhaustion after a long run, but of acute anxiety.


Something in the rain-swept forest frightened them. Evidently, this fear was so intense that they dared not respond to it with their customary snarls, raised hackles, and counterchallenges.


Instead, they trembled and issued soft mewls of meek submission. Their ears were not flattened to signal an aggressive response, but remained pricked, as if they could hear the breathing and the subtle footfalls of a fierce predator even through the crash of rain.


Tails tucked between their legs, flanks trembling, they moved ceaselessly back and forth. They seemed ready, at any moment, to drop as one to the plank floor and submissively expose their bellies in an attempt to forestall an attack by some ferocious enemy.


Brushing against Molly as they swarmed the porch, the coyotes appeared to take as much comfort from contact with her as they did from their pack mates. Although their eyes were strange and wild, she saw in them some of the hopeful trust and need for companionship that were qualities common to the eyes of the gentlest dogs.


Her amazement gave way to astonishment as a humbling flood of emotions never experienced before—or never experienced this strongly—swelled in her. A sense of wonder, childlike in its intensity. An almost pagan feeling of being one with nature.


The humid air thickened with the odor of damp fur and with the smoky ammonia scent of musk.


Molly thought of Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt, whom artists often depicted in the company of wolves, leading a pack in pursuit of prey, across moonlit fields and hills.


A profound awareness of the interconnectedness of all things in Creation seemed to arise not from her mind, not even from her heart, but from the smallest structures of her being, as if the microscopic tides of cytoplasm in her billions of cells responded to the coyotes, the unusual storm, and the forest in much the way that Earth’s oceans were influenced by the moon.


This extraordinary moment was supercharged with a mystical quality so supremely grand in character and so formidable in power, so unlike anything Molly had known before, that she was overcome by awe and trembled with a peculiar exhilaration that was almost joy. Her breathing became quick and shallow, and her legs grew weak.


Then, as one, the coyotes were seized by a greater terror than the fright that had driven them from the woods. With thin, desperate bleats of panic, they fled the porch.


As they swarmed past her, their wet tails lashed her legs. A few looked up entreatingly, as though she must understand the cause of their fear and might be able to rescue them from the enemy, real or imagined, that had chased them from their dens.


Fast down the steps, into the storm, they traveled in a tight defensive pack, not hunting now, but hunted.


Their rain-soaked coats clung to them, revealing lean forms of bone, sinew, and stringy muscle. Always before, coyotes had looked aggressive and formidable to her, but these seemed lost, unsure of their purpose, almost pitiable.


Molly crossed to the head of the porch steps and stared after them. Although irrational and disturbing, the urge to follow was difficult to resist.


As the coyotes descended through the night, the forest, and the queerly luminescent rain, they frequently glanced back, past the house and toward the top of the ridge. Suddenly seeming to catch the scent of a pursuer, they whidded among the pines, as swift and silent as gray spirits. And were gone.


Chilled, hugging herself, Molly let out a pent-up breath that she’d not been aware of holding.


She waited, tense and wary, but nothing followed the pack.


In these mountains, coyotes had no natural enemies capable of challenging them. The few remaining bears foraged on wild fruits, tubers, and tender roots; they stalked nothing bigger than fish. Although bobcats had survived human encroachment in greater numbers than had the bears, they fed on rabbits and rodents; they would not chase down another predator for food and certainly not for sport.


The musky scent of the coyotes hung on the air after they departed. Indeed, the odor didn’t diminish but seemed to ripen.


Standing at the head of the steps, Molly held a hand out past the protection of the roof. In this cool autumn night, the glimmering rain slipping through her fingers proved to be unexpectedly warm.


The phosphoric water limned the wrinkles of her knuckles.


She looked at her palm. Head line, heart line, and lifeline shone brighter than the rest of her hand, suddenly scintillating with mysterious meaning, as if some previously unknown Gypsy heritage had manifested in her, complete with the ability to foretell the future from creases in her skin.


When she withdrew her hand from the rushing rain and sniffed it, she detected even more strongly than before the scent that she had attributed to the coyotes. Although not appealing enough to be called a fragrance, it was not unpleasant, either, and was as rich with subtleties as the air in a spice market.


She had never before experienced such a scent. Yet within the intricate matrix of this unique smell, she detected a tantalizingly familiar substance, simple in its nature. The more determinedly she strove to identify this core odor, the more its slippery name eluded her.


Although it smelled like a complex mélange of essences and exotic oils, the rain had the character and consistency of ordinary water. She rubbed it between thumb and fingertips, feeling nothing unusual.


Gradually Molly realized that she was lingering on the porch in the hope that the coyotes would return. Standing among them, like a lamb among lions, trembling on the brink of some revelation, had been such an awesome experience that she longed to repeat it.


When the coyotes did not reappear, an ineffable sense of loss overcame her. With it arose anew the feeling of being watched that earlier had stirred the fine hairs on the back of her neck.


Sometimes the forest appeared to her as a green cathedral. The massive pine trunks were columns in a vast nave, and the spreading boughs formed groin vaults and fan vaults high overhead.


Now, with the reverential hush of the woods replaced by the din of the downpour, the gloom coiling among the trees seemed to be of a different character from that on any previous night. The god of this cathedral was the lord of darkness.


Disquieted again, Molly backed across the porch, retreating from the steps. She did not for one moment look away from the encircling forest, half convinced that something would fly at her from out of the pines, something that would be all teeth and temper.


Inside, she closed the door. Engaged the deadbolt. Stood there for a moment, trembling.


She continued to be surprised and disturbed by her emotionalism. Driven by a kind of instinct, less of the mind than of the heart, she felt reduced from womanhood to the overwrought reactions of a girl—and she didn’t like it.


Eager to wash her hands, she hurried to the kitchen.


Approaching the open door, she saw that the light above the cooktop was still on, as she had left it when she’d heated the mug of milk.


At the threshold, she hesitated, suddenly expecting someone to be in the kitchen. Someone who had come in the back door while she had been distracted by the coyotes.


More emotionalism. Foolish. No intruder waited for her.


She crossed the kitchen directly to the back door, and tried it. Bolted. Secure. No one could have gotten in that way.


Coruscating curtains of radiant rain silvered the night. A thousand eyes might have watched from behind that sequined veil.


She lowered the pleated shade over the window beside the breakfast table. She dropped the shade at the window above the sink, as well.


After turning on the water and adjusting it to the hottest temperature that she could tolerate, she lathered her hands with liquid soap from the built-in dispenser. The soap smelled like oranges, a gratifyingly clean scent.


She had not touched any of the coyotes.


For a moment she did not understand why she was scrubbing her hands so determinedly. Then she realized that she was washing away the rain.


The curiously aromatic rain had left her feeling…unclean.


She rinsed her hands until they were red, half-scalded. Then she pumped more soap and lathered up a second time.


Within that mélange of subtle but exotic scents had been a vaguely familiar odor, smoky and ammoniac, that Molly had not quite been able to identify. Although she had flushed the smell from her hands, it now returned to her in memory, and this time she was able to name it: semen.


Under that spice-market variety of exotic aromas, the rain had exuded the fecund scent of semen.


This seemed so unlikely, so absurdly Freudian, that she wondered if she might be asleep. Or sliding into a neuropsychotic episode.


The inexplicable luminescence, the seminal rain, the cowering coyotes: From bed to foaming faucet, every step and moment of the experience had a hallucinatory quality.


She turned off the faucet, half expecting silence when the water stopped gushing. But the tremendous roar of the unseasonable rain was there, all right—either real or the soundtrack of a singularly persistent dream.


From elsewhere in the house, a sharp cry sliced through the monotonous drone of the storm. Upstairs. It came again. Neil. Her calm, composed, unflappable husband—crying out in the night.


With too much experience of violence dating from the age of eight, Molly reacted with alacrity, snatching the handset from the nearby wall phone. She keyed 9-1-1 before realizing that she hadn’t gotten a dial tone.


Over the open line came an audial tapestry of eerie, oscillating electronic tones. Low-pitched pulses of sound, high-pitched whistles and shrieks.


She hung up.


They owned a gun. Upstairs. In a nightstand drawer.

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