S Is for Subterranean

William Kelly Woolfitt



Jack Savitsky shovels hard coal in the Lansford mine. In the dark, the damp, the clamor, maybe he sees his beautiful colors again. With oil paint, prismacolor, chalk, he makes pictures on Masonite, cornflake boxes, barrels, the walls of the mine: pictures of mushrooms, roses, miners in red shirts, blue trains, the peaceable kingdom.


Big Bone Cave

A farmer named Johnson lights a candle inside a limestone hole on his property. All he hopes for is a sack of rat manure he can spread on his crops. While he digs, he strikes wonder, he strikes bone: ribs, backbone, pelvis of a giant sloth, its skull, its teeth.


Child Miner

In the green hills, a boy works in the mine, learns the loudness of men, their glinting teeth and icy hands. And he learns the snorts of mine horses, the clang of shovels, the boom of fired shots.


Daily Cycle

So that her circadian rhythms may be studied, Stefania Follini moves into Lost Cave, a Plexiglas room. “Living in a small space can be beautiful,” she says. No clock, no sunlight. She has books, a flood lamp the scientist tells her she cannot turn off. Her body changes: she stays awake for twenty-five hours, sleeps for twelve, doesn’t know when to eat, loses bone density, loses weight.



Irene McKinney tells us: “Under the earth there are black rooms your very body can move through. You enter the open mouth and slide between the glistening walls.”


Fire in the Hole

In the green hills, the boy wears a gas lamp on his hard-boiled hat, throws shadows in the dynamited rooms of coal, each smaller than the last.


Giuseppe and Nicoletta

Stefania befriends two cave mice, names them, shares her beans and seaweed with them, makes them a swimming pool from a plate.



“Mining knocked the hell out of us,” Jack Savitsky said. He vomited when his feet touched 1,000 feet below Lansford. The coal dust would tear his air sacs, harden his lungs, and block his blood.


Inner Earth

Linda Hogan remembers visiting a hot springs cave: “I love this inner earth, its murmuring heartbeat, the language of what will consume us. Above is the beautiful earth that we have come from. Below is heat, stone, fire.”



In the green hills, he busts the coal face, props the roof. The dark around him is sluggish, thick, he’s sealed in a jar of muscadine jam.



Under our fields, imagine the tunnels, the chambers that are branching, branching—a world where sunlight is a parable, the flowers are stones.



Those fields, laced with fissures and pits. From those pits, the whirr of wings, songs rising, the warbles and trills of bats: pipistrelles, long-eared, Eastern red, some silver-haired.



The scientist watches Stefania through cameras, instructs her over a monitor. She places electrodes on her head, draws her blood, collects her urine, sends samples to him through a tube.


Nickajack Cave

Octavia Zollicoffer Bond remembers the underground creek, the spacious halls domed with granite, the boulders of many tons, stories about the Cherokee families who hid there after Colonel Shelby stole their corn and burned their towns.



In the green hills, he contours the surface, joins men who runs dozers and Vulcan shovels. Piling the felled trees like trash, he tries to ignore the dust and diesel fumes.


Peter Monkeys

were the boys who belly-scooted through dusty limestone caves, bringing out niter dirt for the soldiers who needed it to make gunpowder. To move their bags up a steep slope, the boys used branches shaped like wishbones.


Quecreek Mine

Seventy-five million gallons of orange water pours in when the miner breaks the wrong wall, trapping nine men in a low room. They try to stop the rise with cement blocks, scribble notes to families, tie a cable around their waists so their bodies won’t be scattered.



In the green hills, he works the hoot owl shift. With his daughter, he joins a Holiness church, drinks grape juice, washes feet for sacrament. Whatever they take into their bodies gets transformed. There is more dust, vomit, and blood. Their well water gets too bad to drink.


Seventy-seven hours

On the fourth day, the drill cuts the ceiling and the rescue shaft reaches the nine Quecreek miners, who have been breathing black damp. Who are wet, weak, shivering under soggy canvas, their fingers purple. Who are exhausted, terrified, still alive.



When Patricia Hampl hears a dripping fountain, she thinks of a cool cavern within which water runs steadily, timelessly, making its slow, hypnotic mark on the stone, the ear, the brain.



Through a pipe, heated air was sent to the Quecreek miners. Through a borehole, supplies were lowered: flashlights, lamps, candy, blankets, raincoats, drinking water, glow lights.


Voice of a Stranger

A Quecreek miner says, ”After the rescue, strangers would write songs for me, or call me on the phone to hear me talk, or approach me on the street and ask if they could touch me. They thought I was a miracle.”



To pass the time, Stefania performs tai chi and fashions items from construction paper. She creates a window with lace curtains framing a star-filled sky.



In the green hills, his body’s a strip mine. Stitching his belly shut, this incision site: a line of Xes. Lead in his piss. His panting mouth. Spine and ribs busted by draglines. His lungs like rivers, the dust thick there, the poison waters trapped.


Your God

Stefania hears the scientist say the experiment is over. He says, “We will not ask you for more data. I am your God, talking to you.”

“I didn’t think you would find me down here,” she says.

She leaves her room, climbs out of the cave, puts on sunglasses, walks into the bright.



In Adair Cave, zigzags in the mud floor, a pattern of diamonds, more lines, messages the long-ago people traced with mussel shells.


William Woolfitt’s poems, short stories, and essays have appeared in AGNI, Blackbird, Tin House, The Threepenny Review, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of three poetry collections, most recently Spring Up Everlasting (Mercer University Press, 2020).