Hyena. O Hyena. No one makes charismatic calendars of you. No one photographs you against the sunlight, with the wind riffling your furs. Your furs are gobbeted with carrion, and as for the sun, well, you’re not in the habit of posing nobly for it. Hyena, you show up to eat whatever’s not moving fast enough to get away, and you don't bother much with whether it’s dead or not-dead. As long as chunks of it will fit between your powerful jaws, well, you're golden. Not golden. No, you're never that. Fed. And that is your gift.
Hyena will eat the faces off sleeping people, and that's obviously horrible, but it's worth pointing out she'll eat the butts off dead wildebeest, too. It's not like Hyena is looking for sleepers to maul. She's a meat-seeking missile, and not very particular about what she finds. You’ll never see Hyena in that episode of Portlandia where the couple asks too many questions about the chicken’s provenance, and wind up living in an abusive farm-cult. Hyena doesn’t care. Is it meat? Can my jaws fit around it? Voila.
Actually, I wonder. Would Hyena care for the chickens horribly immured in Tyson meat-silos? Or would she slink away, horrified by a stench even Hyena can't abide? Stack upon stack of de-beaked, de-clawed, near-immobile birds, shitting on each other's heads while fattening relentlessly on the powdered remains of their ancestors. Hyena turns to the house, looking for something juicier, with sleep apnea.
Lately I've been feeling Hyena energy a lot in myself, as a kind of irresistible pull towards the dark underbelly of things that would prefer to remain all bright face, all the time. I walk in, sniff something hidden, and my jaws tighten. Hyena-nose, knows. Here’s a thing that no one wants to acknowledge. Here's a question that brings the whole endeavor out of its conventional disequilibrium. So, why are we doing things this way? When we say this, don't we really mean that? When you come home, and I want to bite your face, what does that mean?
Carrying Hyena energy to term is exhausting, not least because nobody wants to always be the dark fairy at the feast. Couldn't I just once be a fairy who actually receives an engraved invitation, and has a golden bowl with her name on it waiting at the table? Couldn’t I happily piece together my cashmere fairy-outfit, while humming pleasant spells to myself? Right now, no. Right now, this is not my work.
What I mean by carrying hyena energy to term is not some Rosemary’s Baby kind of scenario at all. Instead, it's a commitment to being with old pain when it wakes up, squalling, and finding out how to feel it without fearing it. I am walking down a logging road in the far North of New Hampshire with Timothy, when it starts up. No one will ever love me. There is no place for me in this world, and my voice cannot be heard. Ah. Hyena starts eating my insides, but I’m not willing to let her have that meal. So, what else could be present? I realize I need to poop. I tell Timothy, There’s some old pain rearing up right now, plus, I need to poop. He stops with Elliot, and Chloe follows me into an old, logged clearing off a side road. Which tree? That one: small, maple, deciduous, off to the side, good for leaning against. Poop! Out comes some hyena, kindly met by frosty ground. Wet leaves make excellent toilet paper, and Chloe is a good woods-pooping mentor. What else? My voice. My voice is strangled from the inside right now. Timothy suggests Here Comes the Sun, which is not on Hyena’s Top 40, but works fine as a warm-up. We come to Slewgundy, a fine, smooth oxbow in the Dead Diamond River. More voicework – sounding, squawking, singing together, voices building as we, sure enough, drink in the sun. Chloe and Elliot dry their river-soaked hyena-furs on the rocky shore.
On the way home, we sing round after round, weaving our voices together in harmony and listening. Did I know that Hyena wanted sentimental Thich Nhat Hahn songs? No, not at all. Would it work again? Definitely not as a formula, but as a general approach, noticing that Hyena is waking up, and attending to her, feels essential.
O Hyena – you are eating away the dead parts of the world, the habits that no longer work, the sad magic of pretending. You are welcome to that work, and if I steer you away sometimes from what is sleeping, but not dead, I thank you for the reminder to wake up.
People have wolf t-shirts and wolf notebooks. Every conservation organization in the US wants me to send back the nickel they’ve hot-glued to their mailing, and Save the Wolf. PETA and the ASPCA share gruesome urgings to end cruelty in dog-world. But nobody ever asked me to protect the Hyena. That’s a mission I’ve had to come to all by myself, a secret commitment that no one’s going to salute via free, personalized holiday greeting cards and mailing labels. So be it.
Day after day, I embroider my white wedding dress, and day after day I wear it for the photographic record I am keeping. The white dress, surprisingly, is my Hyena suit – the one that shows me to myself. Here, naked, in long-johns, in boots, on new snow. Here, shedding all the old agreements not to speak of this, and not to notice that. Timothy has a Hyena suit too, which includes one of the first items of non-white clothing I owned after leaving the monastery. It’s a brown fleece jacket that somehow wound up in a plastic bin full of stinking, rotten potatoes. After that, it was so horrible to be around that he left it out on the front lawn in the snow and mud for a whole winter. In spring, he washed it, and started wearing it again, paired with some tattered fleece pants from a long-ago expedition to Torres del Paine.
The suit becomes a corpse.
The corpse lays out in the open.
Time and water, wind, snow, and rain bleach its bones.
And it comes back.
It comes back.
When experience has been marked by horror and pain, it can take a long time for all that to work its way through. It can take strong jaws to chew your way out, and the willingness to risk being hurt and hurting others. The creature’s not going to be an easy ally: she’s going to snarl and bite and snap, and you’ll need a steady hand at the back of her neck when she’s preparing to lash out. You’ll need to learn to choose what she meets, and when. You’ll need to learn how to open old cages that neither of you really needs, any more.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.
108 Names of Now