For years, I’ve seen the dark old porcupine lumbering like a sleepwalker along the edge of the dirt road. Late at night, she steps aside from car lights and from the cloudy dust of tires.
This is not the porcupine of poems, the one that eats the hand-salted shovel handle and is killed because it desires to swallow what men have touched with their working hands. It is not one of the sleek young porcupines I have seen in the tops of winter trees, silent, their dark eyes looking down over the cold white forests, nor is it one of the fast ones who leave their quills in the muzzles of dogs.
This one is torn and lame and her undignified quills are broken on one side, as if she has slept them tangled. She hobbles and limps away from her many batterings. She wears her history, dark and spiney, and there is a light in her, a fire around the dreary sharp halo of quills.
She has grown and walks and lives and continues, red blood pulsing through her heart and arteries, the red muscle lying over and upon itself, the organs so perfect inside, the air passing in and out as she breathes.
The black claws of her feet are like lacquer. This is the porcupine of the dirt road, the porcupine of the cattle fences, the animal of dark nights where I would see her from the shadowy corner of my eye.
One Evening I Find Her lying dead beside the road. She has come closer to the houses than usual. The thick hairs are visible among the broken quills. I look closely at her, the clean long gaze that death permits us. Her face is sweet and dark, her inner light replaced by the light of sky. The drifting clouds are in her eyes.
As for me, I have a choice between honoring that dark life I’ve seen so many years moving in the junipers, or of walking away and going on with my own human busyness. There is always that choice for humans.
I lean over and pick sage and offer it to this animal old woman who lived on earth, who breathed the same air that for years I have been breathing, and that breath prays for all creatures on earth. I remove some quills. I prick my fingers several times, bent there in the dust pulling the sharpness out of death.
By the next morning the porcupine is already sagging. She is nothing but bony angles beneath fur and quill. Her face is gone, and suddenly I notice that the road is alive. Yes, it is moving and alive, and the motion of it surprises me. I turn to look, and the road is full of thousands of fat white maggots. They are leaving the porcupine. The road is an ocean of white. It has a current. Some of the maggots are turning to beetles and flies before they even reach the other side of the road. A wing breaks through here, a black leg there. They lose their white skin, and in their first changing of life, they are crossing the road and are being eaten on the other side by ants that are waiting there.
In that crossing over, that swallowing, the battle of life with life, the porcupine lives on. It lives on in the buzzing of flies and the ants with their organized lives. In its transformation, life continues. My life too, which stopped only for a small moment in history, in the great turning over of the world.
Linda Hogan is a Native American poet, academic and environmentalist. The winner of a Lannan Literary Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the America, she is also a Guggenheim Fellow (1991).