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Coyote Man, Mr. President & the Gunfighters

by Gary Snyder
(Reprinted in KJ # 51

Mr. President was fascinated by gunfighters. Expert gunfighters were invited to his White House, three thousand of them, like guests in the house. Day and night they practiced fast-draw and shootouts in his presence until the dead and wounded men numbered more than a hundred a year.

The Senator from the Great Basin was troubled by this, and summoning his aides, said, "I’ll give a basket of turquoise and a truckload of compost to any man who can reason with Mr. President and make him give up these gunfights!" "Coyote Man is the one who can do it!" said his aides.

Pretty soon Coyote Man turned up, but he refused the turquoise. He said, "If Mr. President should get angry, I might go to jail. What could I do with turquoise then? And if I do persuade him, then you’d owe a million wild ducks."

"The trouble is," said the Senator, "Mr. President refuses to see anybody but gunfighters." "Fine!" said Coyote Man, "I’m good with revolvers."

"But the kind of gunfighters Mr. President receives," said the Senator, "all wear starched uniforms and have shaved cheeks; they glare fiercely and speak in staccato sentences about ballistics and tactical deployment. Men like that he loves! If you go in to see him in your overalls you’d be wrong from the start."

"I’ll get me the uniform of a gunfighter," said Coyote Man. After a couple of days he had his gunfighter’s costume ready and arranged an appointment with Mr. President. Mr. President’s guards had their big Magnum revolvers on Coyote Man as he entered calm and soft. "Now that you got the Senator to get you an appointment what do you think you can tell me?" said Mr. President.

"I heard Mr. President likes guns, and so I have come to demonstrate my skill to you."  "What’s special about your skill?" said Mr. President. "My shooting strikes and kills at every shot, and doesn’t miss in nine hundred miles," said Coyote Man.

Mr. President was pleased and said, "I’d like to see you shoot it out.!" Coyote Man said, "He who draws the revolver plucks out emptiness, teases on with hopes of dominance. Leaves last, arrives first. Allow me to show my capacity."

Mr. President spent a week checking out his gunfighters. Three dozen were wounded or died in the trials. The survivors were instructed to appear on the lawn and Mr. President sent for Coyote Man.

"Today let’s see you reach for the revolver with these fine officers. What will you shoot? A long or a short barrel?"

"I’ll use any type," said Coyote Man. "It happens I have three revolvers. You tell me which to use — but first I’ll explain them."

"Let’s hear about your three revolvers," said Mr. President.

"There is the revolver of the cosmos, the revolver of mankind, and the revolver of state."

"What is the revolver of the cosmos?" asked Mr. President.

— "The revolver of the cosmos? The Milky Way is its grip; the solar winds, the barrel. Its bullets are stars, it sights by the beams of pulsars. It spits out planets and bathes them, spinning, in heat and light. The ninety-two elements aim it; the secrets of fusion fire it. Wield it, and countless beings leap into life and dance through the void. Conceal it, and whole galaxies rush into nothingness. When this revolver is manifested the whole earth flourishes, the skies clear, the rivers sing, the gardens are full of squash and corn, the high plains rich with Bison. This is the revolver of the cosmos."

Mr. President was at an utter loss. "So what is the revolver of mankind?"

"The revolver of mankind? The twelve races are the grip; the three thousand languages, the barrel. Forged in the Pliocene, finished in the Pleistocene, decorated with culture, it aims for knowledge and beauty. The cylinder is the rise and fall of nations, the sights are the philosophies and religions and sciences, the bullets are countless men and women who have pierced through ignorance and old habits, and revealed the shining mirror of true nature. It takes its model from life itself, and trusts in the four seasons. Its secret power is the delight of the mind. Once grasped it brings harmony and peace to the planet; like a thunderbolt it destroys exploiters, and dictators crumble like sand. This is the revolver of mankind."

Mr. President said, "What is the revolver of the state?"

"The revolver of the state? It is used by men in starched uniforms with shaved chins who glare fiercely and speak in staccato sentences about ballistics and tactical deployment. On top it blows out brains and splinters neckbones; underneath it spits out livers and lungs. Those who use this revolver are no different from fighting cocks — any morning they may be dead or in jail. They are of no use in the councils of mankind. Now you occupy the office of Mr. President, and yet you show this fondness for gunfighters. I think it is rather unworthy of you."

Mr. President took Coyote Man to the dining room and the waiter brought lunch. But Mr. President just paced around the room. "Hey!" said Coyote Man, "Eat your lunch! The affair of the gunfighters is over and finished."

After that Mr. President didn’t come out of the Oval Room for three months. All his gunfighters secretly took off their uniforms and sneaked away, back to the businesses and offices in various towns around the land from which they had come.

Special thanks to Burton Watson

(After the "Discourse on Swords" in the Third Century BC Chinese Chuang-tzu text.)

— Reprinted with kind permission of the author, Gary Snyder, from Left Out in the Rain (New Poems 1947-1985), North Point Press, 1986.

Illustration by Robert Williamson 


Copyright held by the author

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