(Content note: descriptions of historical euthanasia, use of racial and misogynistic slurs.)
The Miner’s Union got here first, in 1903, when they blasted the tunnel through the schist. They came from Colorado and Pennsylvania, from Ireland and Italy, Scotland and Canada; they came to work inside the mountain, one hundred eighty feet below sunlight. It was not like other mountains they had blasted through. Already it was the city, and already it was a breathing creature, even if its bloodstream was still being dynamited out of the rock. Breathing creatures are hungry ones, and the city took the miners twice: once with joy, into its pubs and brothels and theaters, into its rooming-houses in Spuyten Duyvil—and once with blood.
It does take blood, to make a city. That’s part of the problem. We haven’t figured out how not to feed ourselves on ourselves.
Schist is hard rock, and miners hard men, and mining bosses harder still: it was ten-thirty at night on October 24 of that distant year when the brothers McCabe ordered the day’s last dynamite blast. Last of three. Two was the recommended maximum for safety—two to let the rock settle, until the next day’s shocks. But cities have demands, and so do subcontractors. The men from the miner’s union filed in to the newly-wide tunnel: a German boy, the electrician William Scheutte; two Black miners from the Colorado tunnel, Hargraves and Crocker; and at least fifteen Italians. We don’t have all of their names. That’s maybe why we are still feeding ourselves on ourselves, two hundred years on from when they carved the subway out of the rock for the first time. 22nd-century remembrance culture goes a long way—it has to—but we hadn’t paid attention for so long. Whatever their names were, we can’t get them back now. The rock ate them entire.
Up here the subway cars rattle along in the dark, a perfect rush of speed. We’re deep enough in the island that there aren’t even water-walls to keep the sea out. The sea never got this high, even during the worst of last century. These are the original tunnels. 191st Street, the platform a blur of faces. The slide of the doors, the inevitable Please stand clear of the closing doors, a refrain so much like a common prayer that it is just as ignorable. Up here the line’s not crowded yet. Up here I’m sitting with my earplants turned up, playing the latest shatterharmonic track from DrownDrone and NewUndoneLondon’s collab mix loud enough to shake the bone-conductor points in my skull, trying to get ready for the day. Up here the faces across from mine are closed-eyes easy with early morning exhaustion, sharp-edged: a man reads a newspaper, the clear foldable plastic sheet changing as he scrolls through it. I think he’s reading in Haitian Creole, but I’m bad at deciphering backwards letters, even in English or Arabic. Not without the translator on, and I can’t turn that on when I’m not on company time, unless I want to answer a lot of awkward questions about what right I have to use all the metal inside my head that isn’t mine. Aside from listening to music. No one cares about the music; streaming data to vibrate your inner ears isn’t proprietary social technology, even if you do it with proprietary hardware. Instant translation, though, that the company owns and I don’t.
The doors close, finally. We go back into the rushing dark.
The three-hundred-ton boulder which fell on the miners was five feet wide and forty-four feet long. It had been dislodged by the blast; the slightest movement would have set it free, and there were so many tromping feet, vibrations in the walls and the new-made floor. It crushed them when it fell. They were buried there. The rock-dust went all to red, soaked through and spreading. Those few who were not entirely under the boulder were pinned, a limb crushed, a skull cracked. The screaming reached the street. One hundred eighty feet to sunlight, and the screaming reached the street. A Catholic priest named Thomas Lynch went down into that filthy dark and knelt in the puddles of blood, the puddles of water, put his hands on the dying men. The story goes he gave them last rites. There were doctors, too, with their own salvations: morphine, enough of it for mercy.
They carried the bodies out in pieces. The ones who came out at all.
When I was a teenager, I rode this line down to the drowned Bowery and the elevated skyscrapers in the Financial District every day—I was working for my grandfather then, and he was a lawyer, construction rights and solar—and I didn’t know about the miners under 191st. I had to learn later. But I know they’re still here. With us in the dark. Sometimes I am sure they bought us the city, the vast machine of it that still runs despite everything we’ve done to the world. Sometimes I think that if we’d never sacrificed them, we’d never have had to have despite. Cities work by old magic, though, and there’s only so much you can plan for. They make demands. They grow and they die, and they make us, too, we small vicious brilliant things, and we grow and we die too, under their care, and we murder and nurture them the same.
Symbiosis is pretty core to most of the remembrance ethics. The company I work for puts out pamphlets and monographs on it, pamphlets for the general public—different pamphlets for us employees, with more theoretical and technical details—and monographs for academics and policy advisors. Sometimes I wish it wasn’t so convincing—us and the city, death and growth, how we’re all one system like a breathing body—but it is convincing, and I believe it. Believed it even before I got all this metal installed in my head. Before I started working conflict resolution. I believe we wouldn’t be here if remembrance ethics wasn’t convincing. The sea would have eaten us, or the wildfires, or how there aren’t maple trees anywhere south of Nunavut anymore. In the dark inside the schist I tell myself the miner’s names again: Schuette, Hargraves, Crocker. Thomas Lynch, on his knees in the rockdust and the blood. I do it every time we go through here, my own common prayer: I remember you. You bought this for us.
When we get trained, we’re supposed to find some forgotten, silenced voice to hold onto, to make ours. To never allow to disappear again. It’s part of the practice. The miners weren’t the ones I started with—there are so damn many voices to choose from—but the miners are the ones who stuck. They’re the ones I dream about. I guess that’s because I’m a New Yorker, and I’ve never been anything else.
And then I open my eyes and the man on the other side of the train has shut his newspaper, tipped his chin down to his chest, fallen asleep with the grace of the habitual commuter. We pull in to 181st—still deep, but not as deep—and there’s a flood of new bodies, enough to fill all the seats and press shoulders and armpits and asses against one another in the aisle. Nobody makes eye contact. That’s respect for you. Tourists don’t get that. But I grew up here. You don’t look at people who are just minding their own business, especially if you haven’t got any personal space.
The crush of people is lulling, an anonymity of pressure. Bodies are bodies: everyone on this train needs to get somewhere, and everyone’s got flesh to carry around. The language the flesh speaks doesn’t matter so much when you’re on your way to work. The religion the flesh bows to, even less. Almost all the time. The subway’s got its own social norms. I’m so used to them that I don’t catch the trouble at the other end of the car until it’s gone past trouble and into being a problem.
We’re in the long tunnel between 168th and 157th, the one that curves so much that it takes an extra three minutes longer than you think it will to arrive. A bad dark, sometimes. The lights in the car don’t flicker anymore the way they do in films of subway riders from the 21st century—everything’s on lithium-sulfur batteries now—but the steady glow makes the tunnel darker. I think of ghosts: of angry ghosts, the miners made of red pulp and rockdust—
Later I’ll realize I was thinking of the ghosts because it’s easier to imagine the vengeful and deserving dead than come to the conclusion that some assholes are going to commit a hate-bias crime on your commute, and you’re on your way to your job where you turn yourself into a repository of intercultural rage and do the 22nd-century equivalent of speaking in tongues to defuse it, and so if anyone in this subway car has the skillset to stop what’s about to happen, it’s probably you.
My company trains us to talk about ourselves in the second person, in a crisis. It’s one of the ways—there are so many ways, technological and chemical and plain psychiatric—that we get enough distance to do what we do. So I’m thinking you should stop this while I shoulder my way out of my seat and through the mass of commuters. I’m short and I’m a ciswoman and I’m not imposing—one of the job requirements is that we look neutral, we look like people who could be anyone. No identifying marks. Racially ambiguous—white enough for white people to assume, not quite white enough for everybody else to get worried. On the job I don’t wear hijab, on the job I’m a blank slate. But in the subway I’m a person, still, I’m just me, my headscarf’s blue and gold print tight around my forehead and I’m only five-five if I stand up straight. So I have to elbow a man in the ribs to get him to move in order to get close to what’s happening.
Get close to where there are five kids, all New Yorkers born and bred by the look of them, two Asian and three white, schoolfriends maybe. Early adolescence. They’re yelling at a woman who is cringing back in her seat, staring at her hands. The usual slurs, you know? Go back south! Drowning not good enough for you, fucking refugee? Hurricanes think you too ugly? And worse things. The woman’s wearing a FEMA-issue uniform, mouse-blonde hair, cheeks that look thinner than they should be for her bones. She can’t have been here for more than a day or two. She’s probably commuting to her first day at her first New York job, some City-sponsored work placement if she’s still wearing FEMA rags. We get a lot of climate refugees dumped on us. Both because New York can handle it and because the city’s got some of the best sanctuary laws in the country—you feed a city on enough blood and sometimes it blooms flowers the red-stained dead could never have dreamed up—
If I was at work, I would have used my translator and all the rest of the metal inside my head, and turned myself into a hollow vessel for those kids to scream at: spoken back to them in their own idiom, held on to their rage. And I’d have done the same for the refugee in her FEMA coverall, let her talk or keep not talking, been a receptacle for her silence if I had to—and then have played her silence back to the kids, in language they could understand. (At work, I’d have played their rage back at the refugee, too. We’re conflict resolution specialists. Everybody has to hear everybody else.)
I’m not at work. I’m commuting. I can’t turn on the tech without the company’s permission anyway—I could ping the emergency-use hotline but there’s never enough service underground, and who knows when they’d get around to answering the query—so it’s just me and the hundred-odd other bodies in this car hurtling downtown. The subway does have its own social norms, and one of them is ignore the problem. Nobody but me is going to intervene here. We keep a certain peace by keeping silent in shared space. The law of the subway is that we’re all New Yorkers, and we mind our own business when we have to, because everybody’s got business, just the same.
And then I think of Thomas Lynch on his knees in the water and the blood, for no reason at all but being a witness to sacrifice. And I get between the kids and the refugee.
I do it like I just needed to hang on to the metal pole she’s sitting next to in order to keep upright as the car goes around a corner of the tunnel. And then I turn to her, and I say—English is probably the best I can do, she’s probably not going to know Arabic if she’s an Alabama or a Louisiana climate migrant, and there’s nothing else I’m fluent in—I say hi, ma’am, how’s your morning going? You know your stop okay?
Doesn’t drown out the kids, just yet. They’re kids, so this probably won’t end in violence, even when they throw a few old-fashioned towelhead! and terrorist bitch! at me to go along with the slurs they were slinging at her. She doesn’t talk to me, either, not at first. No reason she would. I’m not even sure English was the right choice, my Spanish isn’t great but I could manage a couple of words without the translator—but if I keep talking to her, the rest of the people in this car will rotate around, they’ll make a human space where they recognize this woman as a person. We’re New Yorkers, and one of the other laws of the subway is when someone fucks up we all shout them down. It’s already happening. I’m babbling away in useless English, chatting her up like I’m her sister, and one of the other commuters—big, dark man, nice suit, slick sideways cap in metallic navy with little Yankees logos all around the rim—says, “The hell business you kids got with this lady,” and the air goes out of most of them.
Most of them. One of them doubles down. One of them is too scared to stop—something in him is driving harder than social censure and adolescent shame. He looks right at me right before he shoves me. As if he’s daring me to stop him. I go sprawling, just as the doors open on 168th. The floor of the car is dirty from a million shoes. I’m going to have bruises on my elbow and my hip. He shoves me, and then one of his friends—gleeful in violence, in having something better to do besides feel like shit about himself—kicks me in the stomach. All five of them run out the open door into the station.
Most of what I can do with the tech in my head I can’t turn on by myself. We’re conditioned not to use it without permission. Without being in a courtroom or a therapy session, without taking the right empathy-spike pill and being told now, be open, be a vessel for hurt. But sometimes pain shorts out that closed circuit.
I think Schuette, Hargraves, Crocker. I summon up all my ghosts. The tech kicks in. I feel like I’m floating, inches above the subway floor, and my mouth pours out a language made of impulse and fear: it’s still English, but it’s the English those kids speak, the one that turns how dare you be here when we were drowning too and still are into go back south. I speak that language, and I speak it back to them like I am an amplified broadcast. I shout their slurs and their violence down the platform as they run, their own voices rebroadcast through their skulls, through earplants and any installed tech they have. Through just plain bones if they don’t. I shout what they aren’t saying, too: how their homes are seascapes now, how they are hungry, how not a damn one of them ever got to eat an apple. (I ate an apple once. I was nine. It was the only apple I’ve ever seen, and I don’t want to know how much it cost my mother to find me one. She had apples all the time when she was a child.)
I wish I didn’t have to do this, to carry the rage of these five kids in me like a stone, to send it out after them, to turn it into a language everyone on the platform hears in their own mother-tongue, in their own vibrating inner ears. But this is the problem with symbiosis as an ethical principle, without the distance of drugs and dissociative tech to keep us safe: being symbiotic with humanity is remembering how often we leave each other to die.
It probably doesn’t do anything, my shouting. It might. People do hear—the tech is good, I’m going to get chewed out by my boss for using it off company time—but they have to want to listen, and no one out there knows why they’ve got weaponized rage and sorrow in their skulls, resonating in the bone-conductors instead of music.
But when subway doors close, the guy with the Yankees cap takes my arm and helps me up. I nod at him. I fix my hijab, and hang on to the center pole, balanced and easy as we move. Nobody says anything, anything at all, as we go back into the dark—nobody needs to, we’re all here together, and some people are sleeping, and some people are reading. The blown-open schist under the city has held itself up for two hundred years so far.
Thomas Lynch on his knees, I tell myself, and they heard the screaming from the surface, and I breathe in and out and think about holding back the sea a little longer, with my own hands if I have to. With my own voice.
(Editors’ Note: “A Being Together Amongst Strangers” is read by Joy Piedmont on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 34A.)
© 2020 Arkady Martine