We don’t know much about subways, around here, unless you count the woodchucks’ burrows, and the squirrels’, and that one weird one, I couldn’t figure out who lived there, but whoever it was had three perfect red amanita growing in their front yard. Yes, there are ways under around here, subways among the underbodies of mushrooms and ferns, hemlocks and beech, dogfeet, and the feet of deer.
Elliot finally killed the woodchuck that lived under my studio. I say “the” but probably it’s more like “one of the.” Someone has been gnawing on the siding since this happened, and my guess is that those teeth belong to another member of that clan. Anyway – yes – I let the dogs out that morning, and they ran out, straight to the woodchuck’s corner. Chloe came back when I called to get in the car, but not Elliot. I called again, and he appeared, with the woodchuck’s portly body held in his jaws. “Oh, fuck, dogs!” I exclaimed in shock. “Fuck!” Elliot put the body down and got in the car, like I asked him to. A gift. A surrender. Fuck.
For various reasons, we have about six snow shovels lined up against the house, even though it is August. I picked up two metal ones, and scooped the woodchuck’s body up in one shovel, having first rolled it over with the other. Heavy. Very dead, though intact as far as I could see. I walked over to the sumac at the edge of the garden, carrying the body with the shovel, and then paused. Belly up. Strong teeth, dark whiskers, muscles relaxed. Something released a little more inside his body, and some urine trickled out.
I had a job interview to get to, plus I needed to get the dogs out into the woods beforehand. Having no time for a proper woodchuck funeral, I rolled the body out of the shovel, onto the shady ground under the trees, and walked away.
A grave is a subway.
For the next few days, the woodchuck would often come to mind. Was he really dead? Could’ve been an amazingly strong freeze response? I spotted his grey-brown-white fur among the blackberry leaves. Dead. Should I have buried him? I’d be walking in the woods under bright-blue skies and think, No. Better to have a sky burial and the chance to transform above ground. At night, I would sometimes get a strong sea-miasma smell of decomposing woodchuck. Hello, friend. Who knows what you will be next? You are free.
A diagnosis is a subway.
Right around the time all this was happening with Elliot and the woodchuck and the charnel grounds, my mom was navigating the transition between the initial, urgent manifestation of her cancer, and its subsequent steps. She texted me that her chemo would require “un boîtier” to be implanted in her chest. I freaked out. “Un boîtier”? That could be the size of a Tonka truck. Don’t go cutting up my mom to stick large foreign objects in her body, you disembodied medicine-ghouls! I talked with her. She told me the thing to be subwayed under her skin is the size of a five-franc piece. “It needs to be done,” she told me. It’s okay, insofar as any of this is okay.
Fear is a subway.
All fungal growth is the visible part of endless subways. The night after my mom went in to have her chemo port implanted, I ate black trumpet mushrooms I’d foraged from the top of the hill we live on. I texted my mom a picture of one of these in my hand, telling her that as I harvested them, I thought of her father, dead now some thirty years. “Trompettes de la mort,” she texted me back. Death is a subway leading back into appreciating my ancestors, who spent a lot of time hunting animals and mushrooms, and training dogs to help them do these things.
Memory is a subway.
I eat the dark mushrooms, sautéed in butter, with a single, long green onion from the garden, and mashed potatoes. My mother would’ve used shallots, but I like the double-foraged quality of this improvised recipe. I even like cleaning the black tunnels and shaggy skins off the potatoes before I cook them. Nothing’s perfect here: a meal from the subways. I don’t really taste death’s trumpets as I eat them, but then, isn’t that how it goes?
Transition is a subway.
Job interviews, job letters, speculations and agreements. I am on a train and I’m not sure where it goes, or which station will be the right one at which to disembark. I step off sometimes, run my fingers over the golden mosaic tiles, lapis squares, monuments of what’s above, or what has been. Then I wait for the next train to come along and carry me in its hard, plastic seats, its upholstered velvet seats, its clattering tunnels of connection.
You don’t want to stay in the subway too long, lest your eyes turn red and your skin rabbit-white and transparent. The woodchuck had to leave his borough for dandelion greens and marigolds. Most days, this worked out fine. One day, it didn’t.
From inside the subway, it’s easy to forget the qualities of the above-ground world – its brightness and busyness. It’s easy to get lulled by darkness and endless movement without commitment or stopping and staking a claim. I know the dark-dragon quality of the subway, and its power, but I also know that human life, this human life, can’t be lived there without surfacing.
I make mistakes, screw up the calendar, go into the places that scare me, and meet them. It’s not obvious how these awkward, searching steps add up, only, I know they work better than refraining does. They work better than staying in subways that bar memory, bar mourning, bar the clarity of struggle, and bury the wide-open sky.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.