Sean Gill is a writer and filmmaker who has studied with Werner Herzog, documented public defenders for National Geographic, and was an artist-in-residence at the Bowery Poetry Club from 2011-2012. His stories have been recently published or are forthcoming in McSweeney’s, Pacifica Literary Review, Eclectica Magazine, Spark: A Creative Anthology, and Clackamas Literary Review. His Web site can be found at seangillfilms.com.
He thought of it often, long after he’d grown old and spent, long after the shaft was sealed off and the mine buried. Sitting on his porch at dusk, cracked red hands folded in his lap, he studied the haze of the distant skyline and saw the faint profile of his mirrored past, a lonesome childhood entombed in darkness. Now his body was breaking down, disintegrating and crumbling away, like dust and nuggets of rock chipped from the surface of the coal face. At times like these, he’d get to thinking how it could have turned out differently, and he’d catch hold of the crazy thought that he was down there, still, or at least a part of him was. Where did it go? Where is the man who was really meant to be?
He could no longer recall the face of his dead brother, yet his memory of the mine had not wilted. The sight of two dozen men and boys tunnelling like beetles among the jagged, ugly rock. The fear that the girders would fracture at any moment, the seam of coal buckling and unleashing an unstoppable avalanche of black death. The pure, insufferable heat of the mine, licking from the flames of the lamp-lights, issuing from crevices, flowing up from the bowels of the earth. The noise, the terrible clamour, the roar of the conveyors, the clackety clack of the rail-carts, the squealing of the winches which raised the steel cage above ground and into the light. You never felt relief upon emerging at the surface, only the unremitting taint of that pulverized stone, the bones of the earth ground into powder and caked inside your navel, grimed beneath your eyelids, smeared between your toes; the musty scent clinging to your nostrils and the dust drifting in your lungs, settling finally like a bank of blackened sand at the bottom of a fleshy hourglass.
Was he still down there, waiting for the cart, alone in the dark? Did his own living ghost wander the mine, trapped, like the soot that still fluttered, nearly alive, within his own rotten lungs? The dark thoughts plagued him, and he yearned for repose. One day the weight would be lifted and he’d feel it shift in his gut, like the turning of an enormous key deep in the mantle of the earth.
You can try to break an animal, but you’re never sure, not really. It is much easier to break a man, and easier still to break a child. The old man considered this, rocking back and forth, wondering if the girders that supported the heavens would ever give way and bury the earth forever in a vault of dust and shadow.