Halle and Albert Ryder have lived forty years in the Sonora desert, not among people, but among the native animals they love. Residues from a mine foul the groundwater, and the couple can no longer use their well or provide water for the coyotes who come each evening to drink. The coyotes are a beautiful and important part of the couple’s lives, and they have adopted a naming scheme using the brand names found on trash they pick up in the desert, figuring thus they would never run out of names. One coyote, first seen as a pup trailing alongside a javalina with two babies of her own, is clearly exceptional. To honor his mystery, Halle calls him Brand X.
Throughout the novel, interspersed chapters show the rapid decline of the aging couple bereft of their beloved wild coyotes, but the main focus is on Brand X as he seeks to quench both a physical and a spiritual thirst. Other coyotes follow him. A vicious trapper epitomizes individual human evil, and the societal destruction of habitat and disharmony with nature is epitomized by the exploding minefields of the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground. Few of the coyotes survive the journey to the great ocean, and the seawater is too salty to drink: Skywater remains mythical. Brand X and the female who has become his partner make their way back to their familiar desert homeland. Halle has died; Albert welcomes them; the question of drinkable water remains unresolved.
Popham’s genius is to give such vivid and realistic details of coyotes that their survival becomes vital not only for the coyotes themselves but as a measure of contemporary human consciousness.