Sometimes, when the rain falls hard during a warm August night, the morning emerges clouded by scattered patches of fog. It was one of those mornings; the Orson Brothers Coal Mine appeared blurred behind thick, hazy curtains left by rain the night before. The fog loomed over the iron equipment sheds, the ore storage facilities, and the large main building that housed both the manager's office and the massive rusted elevator that carried men and boys in and out of the bowels of the earth. It was early, six 'o clock, and the dawn illuminated much of the mine yard but left portions of earth and a few small mining carts in dismal shadows.
The mine usually hummed and shook with the bustle of a workday, but for now things were silent. Sump Stevenson rested on a wooden bench in one of the equipment sheds, looking up through a small crack in the iron roof, watching the passing fog and the slow emergence of pale sunlight overhead. His hair was deep brown with touches of dull silver over each ear. It was matted and ragged, not having been washed for days. As the sun grew brighter, it slowly lit up the features of his face. It was thin and wiry with muscle. Under a layer of sandy stubble it was undeniably warm, carrying a smile that could brighten even the foggiest of mornings. Still peering through the crack, hazel eyes turned upward, Sump thought about his wife.
She was six months pregnant, and spent the days at home resting or reading. Sump suspected she was bored, since she had given up her secretarial position during the time. She loved to work; it made her feel useful, she'd say. But when you're carrying something as precious as a child, it's better to rest than be wedged in front of a typewriter. It pained Sump to be away from her during these days. She needed him with her, but money didn't permit a vacation. He figured that when the time drew nearer for her to give birth, in a month or so, he'd take time off and devote himself to her. He hated putting his job first, especially when work couldn't possibly compare to the importance of his wife. She meant the world to him, but bills poured in day after day that needed paying. In the long run, the early mornings and endless days of toiling underground would be worth it, he thought. He kept focused on a time in the future when he wouldn't have to work so hard, picturing it like a beach in the tropics; warm and inviting.
As he sat gazing up through the hole in the roof, the far-off howl of the morning whistle penetrated the little shed, seeping in through the cracked boards and sheets of rusted iron roofing. It was six-thirty, time to get to work.
Sump pushed open the shed door and stepped out into the mine-yard. Silence soon gave way to the dull sound of miners pouring in through the front gate. They came in one by one, each carrying a thermos of coffee or lunch in a grease-stained paper bag. They were men and boys, some as young as eighteen. The boys always looked hopeful, wearing a certain look about their faces, while the older men knew better. Their faces were hard and cold, rough from too many years of mining. If you worked at the mine too long, some of the men would say, you started slowly turning to coal on the inside. It crept into you, they said, infected you. After a while your heart was as black as the ore you mined.
Sump wouldn't let himself feel that way. He stood as a pillar of hopefulness surrounded by decay and ruin; positivity was the key to staying right inside, to keep from turning to coal. Some days were harder than others, sometimes the dark recesses of the subterranean tunnels invaded the mind, oppressed it. Yet Sump kept an eye on the present, knowing full well it would one day glide into a future of security. He worked at keeping the hopeful look, the one that young boys wore. He began his walk up the gritty slope to the main building and thought of his wife and unborn baby. He had to keep hopeful, not letting the coal get into him, for their sake.
The path to the main building was nothing more than a worn tread in the earth weaving between equipment sheds and towering piles of coal. The mine yard was vast, encircled by trees, and overlooking a deep quarry that held broken machinery and a few dilapidated storage houses. There was a constant plume of thick black smoke rising from the smokestack of the main building, coal smoke. The machine that powered the elevator relied on coal for fuel, and each day a few men would be appointed to engine duty, feeding small piles of ore into a hungry furnace. Usually the boys were stuck with the job, newcomers, since all the older miners knew better. It was a terrible position that Sump remembered well. The heat of the massive furnace gobbling up coal and spewing out smoke and power was enough to make a grown man cringe. You had to be careful, especially when handling your shovel; the metal absorbed the sweltering heat like a sponge. Sump knew a man who lost the use of his right hand when another miner accidentally hit it with his spade. It burned the flesh clear off, leaving only a blistered mess and a heavy stench.
He entered the main building and headed toward the elevator in the rear right corner. Sump's assignment for the past few weeks was to repair a support beam in one of the southern tunnels, the deepest section of the mine. The tunnel had gone unused since the beam had given way that July, taking two men with it. Sump was making progress with the task. A group of miners had already cleared away the dirt and rock that resulted from the cave-in, and all that was left was to replace the beam. It was a one-man job, and so he did the work alone except for the company of a small yellow canary in an old cage.. It was customary, especially if you were working by yourself, to have a canary near by. The birds could be lifesavers; if you dug into a vein of dangerous gas and didn't realize it, the canary would let you know, giving its life as a warning to others. According to some of the miners, the birds died quietly, leaving only a small puddle of blood at the bottom of the cage. The gas got inside their tiny bodies, ate away at their organs. It must be a terrible way to go, Sump thought. In a few rare incidents, the birds didn't perish right away. As a result, the gas invaded the senses of miners, quietly tugging at their reality, or in extreme cases, driving them into maddening hallucinations. If you heard the faint echo of a man conversing with himself, all alone in the dark recesses of the ore tunnels, the canary had failed and gas was seeping through the walls.
He stepped into the elevator with a group of about seven other miners. The chainlink door was pulled closed and all at once they were enclosed in an iron cube, eight feet by eight feet. There was nowhere to go but down. One of the men pushed a large round green button and the iron chamber began to shake, roaring and screeching as the engine fired up. Sump looked above him at the rusted metal pulley as it slowly started turning. The elevator hopped, then began its slow descent down the shaft. The noise of the engine faded as they dropped farther into the earth, like standing underneath a bridge as a locomotive barreled overhead and finally passed.
Sump stood at the back of the elevator, leaning against the railing and chainlink wall that separated the men from the layers of bedrock and shale. It got cooler as you went down, deeper into the ground and out of the sun's reach. To his right, a boy shivered slightly. His face was pale and smooth, not like the hard faces that surrounded it. He had to be about seventeen or eighteen, maybe even younger. He was probably from a poor family, maybe had a single parent, and was forced to go to work in order to keep the bill collectors at bay. Sump looked at the boy's helmet. It was clean, not dented, sparkling as the light from overhead dwindled. The lantern that was fixed to the front still had a fresh covering of smooth glass. His boots were clean, no sign of soot or caked mud. Sump looked down at his own boots, soiled and scuffed around the toes.
"You new?" he said as the boy shivered again.
The other miners remained motionless. Some glanced over at the boy and one leaned in and spit a wet clump of chewing tobacco through the elevator's chainlink wall. The boy moved his head slightly, but didn't respond.
"Hey," Sump said, "didn't you hear me?" The elevator shook violently for a moment, creaking and grating against a narrow segment in the shaft. The chamber slowed, scraped past, and then regained its pace.
"I said, didn't you hear me?"
The boy turned and looked up at Sump, nervously opening and closing his fist around the handle of his pickax.
"Yeah," he said, "I heard you. Sorry."
"That's alright," said Sump, looking up to the light at the top of the elevator shaft. It got smaller and smaller, more distant. The long cables twinged with the weight of the men and the iron cube. "You new?"
"It's my first day," the boy said, venturing a anxious smile.
Sump smiled back. His face was warm, not flat and expressionless like the other miners. He had a rough look about him, but an overall sense of gentility that shined through the layer of stubble and wrinkles of a face that had seen hardship. He was respected by the other men, mostly because of his optimistic nature; inside bloomed the hope of a child. Looking at the boy beside him, he remembered his first day.
At sixteen, Sump was a chubby, bashful kid who had been tossed out into the world to fend for himself. Things were rough at home, his father ran out on his mother with another woman and she was left with a dingy apartment, one son, and no money. With no other options, his mother pushed him to take the mile and a half walk through the woods to the Orson Brothers Coal mine and ask for a job. It was an easy choice for Sump to make; work or starve.
It was a cool, crisp day in October when he set out through the forest on his way to the mine. The trees clutched orange and red leaves, which floated down to the ground with each hint of a breeze. They fell before him as he walked, like rose petals in the path of royalty. He kept his mind finely tuned, knowing the hard labor which awaited him but pushing the thought way back into a vacant corner of his mind. Sun shown down from above as he walked, listening to the sequences of crunches and scrapes his boots made against the dirt and gravel in the road. The woods were vast, and he walked for some time without any hint of the outside world. It was peaceful, there was scarcely any noise, save the occasional rustle of leaves or chirping birds. Soon up ahead, spreading up over the horizon, Sump could see a cloud of thick black smoke twisting and bouncing in the wind. As he walked on, he saw the source of the plume; a slender pipe connected to a large iron roof. It was the mine's main building, a sight he'd soon become familiar with.
He approached a large iron gate and gazed up at the weatherbeaten wooden sign that hung from a pole by two rusted chains. Orson Brothers Coal Mine, it read. Sump would see the sign each morning for the rest of his life. Some days it would sway in the breeze, and some days it would cast off pearly drops of cold autumn rain. On this day, it hung motionless in the sun, a looming glimpse of his future.
He passed through the gate and made his way between the masses of soot-covered miners and crooked shanties to the main building. It brooded over the mine yard like a huge dark parasite, sucking the life out of the earth below.. The manager's office was a small square room in the left corner of the building. Through the sooty film on the outside of the windows, Sump saw a thin gray figure, hunched over what looked like a desk. He grasped the cold metal door handle and pulled. The door came open with a hideous metallic shriek that seemed to echo through the yard. Small orange flakes of rust fell from the old hinges, mingling with coal dust in the dirt. The manager looked up, annoyed. He was a small man, fat and greasy, with a thick gray beard and pale eyes that sank into his skull. He peered through a pair of bifocals at the boy who appeared in front of him. Sump stood silent for a time, searching for his voice under a heap of apprehension. He fumbled nervously with the tails of a soiled denim shirt.
"I came for a job." The words were dry and labored.
The manager looked Sump up and down, his pale eyes twitching in the poorly-lit room. He leaned back in the tattered chair with his hands on the back of his head, raising his eyebrows.
"Ever work in a mine before?"
Sump shook his head, words didn't come.
"Ever work anywhere before?"
Sump looked down at the dusty linoleum floor and shook his head again. The manager chuckled, the corners of his thin mouth stretching into a slender grin.
"You afraid?" he said, leaning in and resting his elbows on the edge of the desk.
Sump looked up. He was afraid, but he didn't want to say so. It was better to be brave, he thought, courageous. The mine was a dangerous place, he had heard stories of terrible accidents; cave-ins, inhalation of poisonous gas.. He thought about the blinding darkness of death and stared deep into the manager's vacant eyes.
The manager chuckled again and sat back in his chair.
"Good," he said, "you've got yourself a job."
He asked Sump's name, scratched it in pencil into a ledger, and told him to get suited up. He was to start out in one of the northern tunnels; a new vein of ore had been opened and they were working hard to get it all up to the surface before the deadline. They always worked under deadlines. Coal was needed to fuel companies and industries in many of the surrounding counties and towns. Fresh shipments of ore were needed each month, and it was up to the men to scrape it all out in time.
After leaving the manager's office, Sump found one of the equipment sheds and gathered supplies: mining boots, gloves, helmet, pickax. Under the manager's instruction, he joined a group of miners and boarded the iron elevator.. Soon they were swallowed into the earth, and Sump watched with amazement as the layers of rock and soil glided by. Light faded, making it hard to distinguish between stone and ore, everything seemed to blend together. He looked around the chamber at the other miners. They were older than he, some only by a few years. They leaned up against the sides, their heads bowed, staring down at the iron floor blanketed in soot. Their faces were smudged with mica and shale, glistening like stardust if the light caught them just right.
The elevator jolted as they came to a stop at the bottom of the shaft. One of the miners pushed the door open and they all exited the chamber. Sump looked ahead of him into the long entry tunnel, lined by rows of lanterns on each wall. He watched the men walk into the cavern, getting smaller and smaller as the light cast ghastly shadows where they passed. The air was still and damp, smelling of mold and wet soil. Sump looked in as far as he could, seeing only shadows and flickering light.
As he stepped out of the elevator, the toe of his boot snagged the iron lip on the floor, causing him to stumble, arms flailing wildly in an attempt to catch himself. His hands slid down against the chainlink walls, but couldn't grasp a handhold. Before he knew it, he had slipped through the gap between the elevator and the tunnel. It was only about a foot and a half, and as his body careened down the earthen wall, he felt the gritty sting of dirt and stone scraping against his cheeks, peeling off skin.
It was a good six feet from the bottom of the elevator to the pool of brackish run-off water below. He squeezed his eyes shut, not knowing how far he would drop, or what he would land on. In an instant, his body lapped against the water in a great splash. Above, the men in the tunnel crouched on their knees to peer under the iron cube into the shaft. There was barely any light, but through the dim flicker sent off by lanterns, the boy's figure could be seen writhing in the three-foot pool below. They laughed hard. It echoed through the mine, into the elevator shaft and down to Sump, lying in the pool, stunned. A mixture of water and ore formed a thick sludge that filled his mouth. It tasted horrible, sharp and gritty. It slid down the back of his throat without warning. He stood up quickly, rubbing the sludge from his eyes, gagging and spitting frantically. The men laughed, and at length one of them stretched out a burly arm to help the boy back up.
Sump was heaved up through the small gap and planted firmly on the tunnel floor. He was soaked, his skin caked with muck and soot. The men slapped each other on the back and pointed, tears formed in their eyes from the stress of laughter. The man who helped him patted his shoulder, smiling.
"You alright?" he said, pressing against Sump's body with his firm hand.
"I think so."
The miner looked around at the other men and let out a hearty chuckle. "You got a name, son?" he asked.
Sump looked up at the man, wiping the sludge from his forehead.
"Don't tell me what it is," the miner said, "from now on you'll be 'sump'," he gestured down toward the pool at the bottom of the shaft, "in honor of your first mining experience."
The other men roared, their laughter shook Sump's very frame. He was nervous, but chuckled lightly. The miner again patted his shoulder and walked away.
From that day on, no one knew him by his true name. At times he was annoyed at the label; he didn't want to be associated with the dark pool of run-off at the bottom of the elevator shaft. But as the weeks turned into months, and months into years, it took root. It was a reminder, a sort of voice that spoke to him from the back of his mind telling him to stay hopeful, not to let his heart turn into a puddle of grit and mud like the sump. Later, he was told by the other miners how lucky he'd been. The sump was routinely drained every few days; if he had fallen just a day before, his body would have crumpled against the stiff, muddy floor.
The elevator let out a loud metallic moan and slowed to a stop at the bottom of the shaft. Sump gazed up at the small speck of light that radiated down on him from the surface. It was so far away now, so distant. He flipped on his helmet lamp and looked down at the boy again.
"Don't worry," he said, "you'll be fine."
The boy smiled, relieved. He looked up at Sump with hopeful eyes. "You got any advice?"
Sump laughed, moving out of the elevator into the tunnel's mouth with the flow of men. He looked back over his shoulder at the boy. "Yeah", he said, "keep an eye on your canary."
Busy miners poured in and out of tunnels like ants preparing for harsh weather. The lights from their helmets and the lanterns above created a dismal illumination that hung over the mass. They looked like shadows rather than men, gray spirits on an unknown quest. Sump followed the main tunnel deep into the heart of the mine. It wound and shifted until, unless you had a compass or a map, there was no way of knowing where you were, which way you were going.
It was damp in the inner tunnels, murky water dripped from the rock ceiling, falling in small circular pools or seeping into the earthen floor. Tunnels were five or six feet wide, and about seven feet tall. The walls were damp, jagged in some spots with thick stones or sharp rock edges. The air was thick and creamy. A musty smell loomed, like fresh rain on a spring day, only stronger and mixed with a warm sooty scent. Some miners hated the smell, cursed it violently and rejoiced upon emerging in the afternoon air at the end of a work day. Sump didn't mind, he had grown rather fond of it. It was somewhat comforting. He felt that way about the mine in general, or tried to most of the time. It was a dangerous place, but he found security in its perils. He knew it sucked his life away, kept him trapped from the world outside, his wife and unborn child. Yet at the same time, it was all he'd known; like an old blanket or a worn pair of shoes. Eventually, he thought he could beat it and achieve a better future, a better life. Working extra hours in the mornings and afternoons, he figured in a few years he'd collect enough money to catch up. After that he'd ease off a bit, allowing the layers of built up stress and pressure in his mind to slowly peel away.
The beam from his helmet lamp dashed back and forth off crystals of quartz as he ventured deeper, creating a spectacle of shimmering light against the murky pools. He was alone now. The others were left behind to do their work in new tunnels, opening up veins of ore or blasting through solid rock walls. The darkness slowly enveloped Sump as he trekked, and loneliness crept up behind him, sending a cool chill up the bones of his spine.
His thoughts wandered once more to his wife. He wondered what she was doing in their dingy three-room apartment in the industrial district. It must have been about ten in the morning, and Sump pictured her curled up under the red afghan in her favorite easy chair, napping after breakfast. The radio would be on, caressing her with soft melodies. The window on the opposite wall stood open, sending in a hush with the warm morning breeze. She would be glowing, one hand resting on the arm of the chair, the other sprawled across her swollen stomach. He longed to be there, to trace the contours of her shoulders with a rough sooty hand. He could almost feel her silky strawberry colored hair as he approached the tunnel which housed the fallen beam.
The tunnel was much darker than the others. The beam had torn one of the lanterns down as it fell, extinguishing the yellowish haze that usually bathed the ore covered walls. Sump followed the path from his head-lamp up to the shambles of broken wood. The floor was littered with oak splinters and gravel. When the massive beam split, the ceiling caved, pummeling two men with debris and blocking the rest of the tunnel. It took a week, but a group of miners cleared the ore and stone away, recovering the two bodies and hauling them away in mining carts, their rock-pounded faces covered by soiled burlap..
Two posts were left on each side, used as support for the large beam that ran the width of the ceiling. The shattered beam had been taken away and a new, fresh beam now stood propped up against the left post. The other side hung down, its end resting on the ground, forming a sort of oaken "N" in the middle of the tunnel. Beyond this, about ten feet in, the tunnel ended. Men had been hacking away at a new coal vein when the disaster struck, preventing them from going any further.
Sump's recent task consisted of chopping away the remaining block of splintered wood that sat at the top of the right pole; it had to be cleared before the other end of the beam was hoisted into place. It was a hard job; the cave-in added a load of pressure to the top of the wood, making it difficult for Sump to dislodge the block.
The only company he had were the pickax, his helmet-lamp, and the small yellow canary that stood perched in the dust-covered metal cage. The cage hung from a rusted iron spike driven into the stone wall after the accident. During the time the miners were clearing away the ore and debris, there was worry that the cave-in may have opened up a vein of poisonous gas. The canary was brought in from another tunnel just to be safe. There it remained, spending its days and nights surrounded by the darkness of the surrounding earth; a speck of pale yellow on a gloomy gray and brown canvas.
The bird's cage was old and beaten. Tarnished vertical bars surrounded the canary under a dented metal dome. The floor was lined with dirty newspaper and the casings of various seeds which fell from the small dish attached to the bars. The canary was small and thin, its delicate feathers touched here and there with splotches of black coal-dust. It rested on a wooden perch that spanned the width of the cage, looking at Sump through dim spheres. It never chirped, never made a sound; Sump had been working in the cave for weeks and hadn't heard its sweet song. It stayed forever perched, its little head darting back and forth with each move Sump made.
He positioned a small wooden stepladder at the base of the left post and climbed a few steps until he could reach the area where the thick block was wedged. He worked ceaselessly until noon, pounding and chopping at the heavy wood. Chunks and sharp splinters exploded and rained to the ground with each blow. Sweat beaded on his forehead as his strong limbs swung again and again. The block still remained, yet in a smaller form than when he'd started. It was gnarled and deformed, jutting out at different angles.
Sump grew weary, his arms congealed as he worked, growing heavy and sloppy. It was time for a break. He dropped his ax on the dirt floor and sat down, resting his back against the rock wall. He looked at his boots, coated with soot and dust. All was silent except the steady dripping of water from the ceiling into a small pool in the middle of the tunnel. He watched as the tiny drops collected and formed a thick transparent orb that hung above. There it paused, then bobbed for a moment and fell to the ground, sending ripples out from the center of the pool that pulsed against the edges. Over and over again, the tiny drops made steady ripples, never-ending.
Sump was still looming over the puddle, studying the movement of the water, when something happened. All at once the pool shook with mighty force, the earth groaned as clouds of coal-dust and a storm of pebbles and bits of ore rained down from the ceiling, ricocheting off Sump's helmet and bouncing on the gravel floor. Sump raised his head in surprise. In an instant, all was quiet again. Directly across from him, in the dented cage, the canary stirred. He stared at it, watching. Then he brushed the soot from his sleeves and began to rise. Again, in a split-second, the earth roared. Sump shut his eyes tight as the fog of dust and soot invaded his sight, stinging it with dry force. He stumbled lightly, gripping the post for support. The canary flew around frantically, knocking against the bars and the metal dome of the cage as it swung back and forth on the iron spike, rhythmically creaking. Sump leaned up against the wall, looking up at the ceiling, confused. Then it hit him; they were blasting.
There was no time to think, he had to get out. The blasting was too close; they were unaware of his presence in the tunnel, probably trying to get through a rock slab or a layer of thick shale. The other miners in the vicinity had been warned or evacuated, but Sump was too far in. They had forgotten about him, about his task to rebuild the support beam deep within the labyrinth.
Before he had time to move, the mine growled again, much louder. The force of the dynamite shook the tunnel with unbelievable power, sending down a hurricane of debris. He shut his eyes again, grasping the post hard. It happened too quickly, there was no time to act, to register what was going on; he was stuck in a barrage of disaster. The post howled under the shaking pressure and began to splinter under the weight of the layers of rock and ore above. Shards of wood erupted as the oak gave way, shooting across the tunnel with sharp speed. The sound was deafening, like gunshots going off at Sump's ear. He jumped back and fell against the tunnel floor, sliding across the gravel as it ripped and tore his clothes and skin. The helmet soared from his skull, knocking against the opposite wall and spinning in the air as it splashed into the small pool of sooty water. Surprisingly, the lamp stayed on, shining up at the swinging metal bird cage. Sump forced his eyes open just enough to watch as the cage swung away from the iron spike, fell to the ground and bounced toward him. An avalanche of rock and ore then poured from the ceiling as the great mine purged from above. The fresh beam was caught in the flow, the right end digging into the soil as it cracked under the pressure, again sending a storm of splinters into the air. A mighty chunk of black ore came barreling toward Sump, whose eyes were again shut, colliding with his left shoulder. He was pummeled back against the floor gripping his shoulder as warm blood seeped out of his flesh and through his fingers.
Then it was finished, all was silent. The light from his helmet flickered sporadically against the heap of stone and chunks of wood, then finally went out. Sump was enclosed in darkness; he lay face up on the gritty mine floor, breathing hard and clasping his shoulder with a bruised right hand.
He lay motionless, struggling to reason what had happened, how badly he was hurt, and what, if anything, he could do next. Taking his right hand from the wound, he placed it firmly on the ground beside him and pushed himself upright. His whole body revolted, sending pulses of violent pain coursing through his veins He squeezed his teeth together hard, grunting as tears formed at the base of his eyes.
Now sitting up, he paused to catch his breath. It was completely black in the tunnel, and difficult to distinguish where he lay in relation to anything. Squinting, he moved his head slowly back and forth in an attempt to catch and seize any little bit of light, a gleam coming through the wall, anything. He struggled to his feet, dizzy, and stretched out his right arm, feeling the darkness for any sign of the wall. His left arm dangled at his side, burning intensely. He knew if he tried to move it, the pain would only worsen.. It was obviously broken, useless to him now.
His hand passed through the dusty air in waves, reaching for something to grab on to. He stepped forward slightly, his fingers brushing up against a jagged piece of stone protruding from the wall. He followed it slowly to the right, taking small steps and carefully passing his hands over the dirt and ore. He kicked something suddenly with his boot, a metallic clink startling him as he paused. His helmet. He bent over and fumbled around with his hand, at last clasping the dented edges. The light had gone out, but Sump was Hell-bent on getting illumination back. He lightly tapped the lamp against the rock wall, hoping to jolt the filaments of the bulb into working again. Nothing. He tapped it again, harder, the sound bouncing off the walls and back into his ears. Still nothing. Once more he swung the helmet at the wall and it slammed against the stone with a loud crack. The light flickered rapidly, then reached a steady, golden glow. Sump's soul rejoiced; light was a step in the right direction, he thought. Quickly and carefully he placed the grimy helmet on his head and looked around, basking the tunnel in yellowish rays..
He was trapped. The ceiling had caved in, destroying the beam and blocking the exit. A dense pile of rubble stood between him and freedom. His spirits sank into the depths of his stomach, he felt nauseous and weak in the legs and collapsed on the tunnel floor. Leaning his back up against the wall, he looked up at the gloominess of the ore and rock that made up the ceiling. Heavy tears formed in his eyes and slowly crept down his face, running over his cheek and sailing down his neck, moistening his shirt collar.
Emotion poured from his face uncontrollably. He thought of his wife, asleep in her easy chair listening to the radio, unaware of what had happened. He pictured himself standing over her, looking down as she lay silent with his unborn baby, the red afghan draped over her shoulders and hanging down to the floor. He longed to drag his fingers through her hair, the scent of coconut shampoo drifting past his nose. Closing his eyes, he inhaled deeply through his nose, trying to smell her hair, lost in the thought. At first all he smelled was the sooty murk of the soil and ore, but soon a strikingly different smell invaded his senses. It was faint, but still distinct; a sickly sweet smell, like rotting melon or rancid pork. At that moment the canary stirred in the battered cage that lay on the tunnel floor. Sump's stomach turned once again as his mind ran through possible sources for the smell. The canary stirred. Gas.
Gas was entering the enclosure through an unseen gap in the ceiling. The eruption caused by the dynamite blasts had opened a vein of poisonous gas that burrowed through the soil and was leaking into the tunnel. It was a small amount, not yet strong, but Sump knew that long-term exposure would end in death. Ghastly miners' stories echoed through his subconscious; terrible hallucinations, violent seizures. He glanced back at the bird, which sat calmly perched on the edge of its overturned seed dish. He would be alright as long as the canary stayed alive.
Sump closed his eyes again and wallowed in a feeling of being overwhelmed.. His mind raced, thoughts crashed into one another and created a thick cloud of panic. It must be at least one now, his wife may still be napping, or perhaps she's awake, just sitting in the chair letting the warm breeze pour over her small nose, through the tiny hairs of her sandy eyebrows, past her deep gray eyes, and down across her thin red lips. She looks down on the street from their apartment, eyeing the corner of Vine Street and Crane, wishing it was six when Sump would come strolling around slowly, his warm smile reaching up to her through the whiskers and layers of caked soot. What would she do without him, how would she get by? And the baby and bills, what would become of that? Sump let his head drop between his knees and sobbed deeply. What would he do without her?
He was sitting quietly in the small earthen room, his chest heaving with sorrow, when he heard a small sound tugging at his ear. It began as a dim echo, a low moan that seemed to come from some distance, and soon developed into a wave of something familiar; a voice.
It was calm, deep, and soothing. It bathed him in a gentle sense of queer relief. Fading and rising in his mind, it continued.
"Sump, you alright?"
Sump raised his head sluggishly, wiping his eyes. He looked around hoping to discover the source, but was disappointed when all he saw were three rock walls, the heap of rubble, and the twisted metal bird cage.
"Who said that?" he said, once again inhaling the sultry scent of gas.
The canary stirred in the cage, drawing Sump's gaze. He stared at the dainty creature, standing steady on two toothpick legs, its dim eyes gazing out through the rusted bars. Sump's vision became distorted. The bird's small form grew blurry in the pale lamp-light, until all he saw was a dusty yellow blob resting behind wavy vertical bars. He wiped his eyes again and focused.
"Down here, in the cage," the voice filled the sooty cave, "the canary."
Grasping his shoulder with his good limb, Sump dragged himself over to where the cage lay battered against the dirt and leaned his head down to peer in. The bird remained still, cocking its head to the side to meet Sump's confused gaze. He grimaced.
"Birds don't talk."
"Believe what you like," the voice returned.
The light from the helmet lamp began to flicker wildly again, casting strange pulses of light against the tunnel walls. Sump quickly removed it and swung it down against the ground repeatedly. It flickered slowly and went out, submerging him once again in a pool of darkness.
"The light went out, Sump," the voice said.
He continued to slam it against the floor without success. The rapid clinking of metal on gravel resonated in the cave.
"I know," he said, growing increasingly frustrated. He gave a final swing at the ground. The flight flickered somewhat, then regained the steady glow.. He placed it back on his head, matted hair sticking out over his ears. The canary fluttered its wings and changed positions on the seed dish.
"Who are you?" Sump asked, leaning in to get a better look.
"I don't have a name."
There was a long pause. Sump felt extreme pressure invading his head; it throbbed under the metal helmet. The sharp smell of gas got thicker, floating up into his nostrils, into his mind.
"Why don't you give me a name," the voice said at length, cutting the silence.
Sump plunged his soot covered cheeks into his ragged hands and closed his eyes with a sigh. He winced in pain, trying to collect himself, to ground himself on something firm.
"Johnson," he said, his voice muffled by his great hands.
The name rang in his ears and repeated itself in the back of his head, swirling around with the throbbing pressure. It was quiet again. Sump sat slouched up against the wall with his face in his hands, fighting the pain in his head and the flow of gas through his nose.
After a time he opened his eyes, looking down at the canary still rested on the seed dish. Its motions slowing to sluggish waves; gas was filling its little body. It raised its head and peered up at the tattered miner.
"What," replied Sump, leaning his head back, staring up at the ceiling. He was getting weak; sweat formed in the palm of his hands, making them cold and clammy to the touch.
"Are you afraid?"
Memories rushed back into Sump's consciousness; his first day, the leering manager chuckling under his breath, the brackish sludge in the sump. The throbbing in his head spread into his eyes, which streamed tears through his fingers in sooty wet trails. All his life he'd avoided fear, ignored it. Now, in the face of disaster, he had no choice but to accept it. Chances were he'd never leave the cave, he knew that. By the time anyone realized he was down there, it would be too late. There was no telling how thick the rubble was, it might take weeks for anyone to get to him. The blasting might not be over either. One more quick explosion and he would be crushed by the immense weight of the earth above. Rocks and piles of ore would fall from overhead, snapping his bones and pinning him down, helpless.
Sump clutched his head, the pressure and pain driving into his every move.. He thought of the surface. It would be warm and sunny, a perfect August afternoon. Soon his wife would station herself next to the window, diligently watching the corner for her returning husband. He wouldn't come, she'd wait ten minutes before she started worrying. Ten would turn into twenty, twenty into forty. Her hands would tremble against the chipped paint on the sill and she'd hurry to the phone to call the mine. They wouldn't know where he was, they'd say, and the unborn child in her swollen womb would stir.
Sump peeled his hands away from his face, placing the right one back on the bleeding shoulder. Through the slicing sting of shattered bone, he forced his left hand to reach for the bird cage. Struggling through the pain, he unhooked the latch that held the tiny door shut, and let it swing back against the rusted bars. The canary paused, looking awkwardly at the opening, then hopped slowly out of the cage onto the mine floor.
Perching itself on the chunk of black ore that had mangled Sump's shoulder, the canary stood silent, trembling slightly as its little frame became increasingly filled with poisonous gas. The light from the helmet beamed down on the little creature, casting a huge distorted shadow against the opposite wall. The bird's small black eyes glistened in the hazy glow. Sump and the bird sat motionless, peering into one another's eyes. Suddenly, the room pulsed with yellow light as the lamp began to give way once more. Sump remained still, watching the canary's shadow appear and depart rapidly in the light, like a fleeting shade.
The light vanished and the earthen room was dark again. Sump shut his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall, the dirt and ore loosening in clumps, weaving themselves into his dry hair. He faced the ceiling, settled on the mine floor listening to the sound of his own breath growing heavier, labored.
The voice was fading, transforming into a mere echo in his weary state. His breathing hastened and the pain in his head and shoulder intensified with each passing moment. He opened his eyes in the darkness, bright white and pink blotches appearing before him with each throb of pressure. The thick sour-sweet smell of gas draped over him, he could taste it now, building up on the outside if his teeth, on his dry tongue.
"The light went out, Sump."