Ascher descended the dirty tiled steps into the labyrinthine subway terminal. Few used the subway these days; fewer still held onto the railing. He felt a creeping unease overtaking the city, a hostility. It was strange: there was a time when sterile environments had given him that feeling.
Ascher was one of the few who still used the subway – and the railing. They grounded him in a way that felt worth the risk, connected him to a city that had once felt like a great big home. But he walked straight down the middle of the stairs today, hands in the pockets of his damp overcoat, chin tucked into his fraying scarf.
At the foot of the staircase were bulging waste and recycling bins with no discernible differences in their contents. He was sheltered from the wind now but he could still sense its signature mixed in with the warm subterranean air. Walking down a long hallway, each adjoining passage he passed had its own presence. Cool and numb with the sourness of damp iron. Warm, sweet and fermenting. Roasted nuts and rotted wood. Ancient and faintly like overripe mangoes. He could hear a saxophone wailing and squeaking, and the faint sound of an accordion somewhere farther off. He began turning right at the end of the hallway out of habit but caught himself. Left. This once.
The tiles weren’t dirtier in that direction, just less disturbed. Settled. Passing through a broken turnstile, the short corridor opened up into the huge station hall. It had a vaulted ceiling of blackened brick with four rows of steel columns running along the length of it. Arches connected the columns which made the hall look better than it should have.
The air was thick and stale, acidic at first but as the sting wore off, he could smell something like lingering sage or Palo Santo. Paint chips collected in piles along the walls. On the opposite platform an old man sat on a smooth wood bench clutching a kerchief in his hand, an expression of anxious relief on his face, like someone who had found a rock to hold in rapids.
The air in the hall started to move. Ascher walked to the edge of the platform expectantly but a light shone from out of the far tunnel, illuminating the left side of the old man's face, indicating that the incoming train was headed in the opposite direction. It hadn't yet entered the station when the old man stood and looked across the vast hall, his gaze settling on Ascher. The train shot into sight and Ascher wondered if he saw the old man's face crack into a hopeful smile before the blur of cars passed between them.
Long seconds passed as the station tunnel inhaled the faint light filtering through the grates far above and exhaled the train deep into the city. The empty wall across the two sets of tracks stared back at Ascher.
He sat on the weathered bench, head tilted back against the wall. He was picking at the peeling paint absentmindedly when something flitted into his peripherals. A butterfly? It must have fallen through the grates in the ceiling.
As it passed down into that great cathedral, a thought crossed his mind. A feeling.
He stood and skipped to the platform's edge hoping to catch it as it fluttered toward the tracks below.
This was no place for a butterfly, he thought. Or was it a moth?
He squinted to keep track of it against the darkness of the tunnel as the air began to move again and the insect bounced and twirled in and out of dusty shafts of light. He reached out for it just as the headlights of the incoming train seeped into the station hall illuminating what landed in his hand to be only a leaf, curled up at the edges with an oddly long stem. It really did look like a butterfly. It looked so much like a butterfly, in fact, that he decided it was.
The train shot into the station with all that ballistic, mechanical violence of progress, buffeting Ascher with lashes of acrid air. The leaf blew up out of his hand and back toward the bench behind him. He turned, his eyes following it in the dim light as the train came to a halt. The whipping soot finding its way into his mouth and eyes. The attendant shouting for him to board. He stood there for a moment, motionless and reeling. He wanted to take the butterfly with him, to rescue it from the city but felt silly going back for it. He felt the way he did when he suddenly realized he was walking in the wrong direction – like the gaze of the world’s collective consciousness was fixed upon him, judging his silly soul – only this time he felt it more acutely.
The attendant called to him again, louder now. His voice somehow incredulous, bored, mocking, and annoyed, all at once. Cowed, Ascher stepped onto the train and found a seat by the window.
From the foggy window of the departing train, Ascher strained to make the butterfly out amidst the debris. As the train passed into the darkness of the tunnel, he loosened his scarf and unbuttoned his coat.
Just a leaf, he thought.
As Ascher struggled to push away thoughts of the butterfly, back at the station hall fresh tendrils of Palo Santo smoke curled up through the dimming shafts of light. It lay precisely where he had last seen it until the next train roared into the station, barreling through the gauntlet of stagnant air, the butterfly rustling and rolling in the turbulence as leaves are wont to do.
* * *
There’s something about travel. Movement. Purpose. Direction. Aimlessness is crushing. Optionality, immobilizing. A single goal. A focus. Sometimes it can be anything. Just something. One thing. Ascher felt most alive when he was, paradoxically, closest to death. Danger gives us a single blessing: conviction. We must survive and that is all.
And so it is with writing. Too many options. Too much to write about. So I create danger. I say: be honest or perish. Not from the Earth, but from grace. Speak honestly or die. I’ll write one true thing. And then another. And then another. And soon I was writing.
At first, I wrote things that actually happened, as they happened. Then I wrote things that actually happened and chose how they happened. Soon I wrote things that hadn’t happened but were still true. Honest.
I found that there were two kinds of truth: factual truth and metaphorical truth. Truth of fact is important, of course, but so is metaphorical truth because it allows us to get at truth when we don’t have all the facts.
Believing that a porcupine can launch its quills is advantageous even though it’s untrue. That belief will encourage the believer to keep a distance from porcupines who can move much faster than one might expect and so are nonetheless dangerous even without ballistic quills. The distance is still advantageous and the belief just as helpful.
Similarly, honest fiction is a way of reaching for something true, but perhaps ineffable, free from the restraint of facts. This is how we are able to create culture, tradition, and legend. To grapple with the ought and the is. To see things that are not and imagine what if. I believe this is the role of the artist: to be a medium between the audience and some truth, some profound feeling; a conduit to the ineffable. In this way we grow larger. We ennoble each other. We scratch the surface of infinity.
Leaving is just an abstract, but true, feeling, expanded into an episode.