No Depth Can Bury the Family Guilt
"The Mine" by Nathan Harris, recommended by Electric Literature
Introduction by Halimah Marcus
If you’ve ever seen one, even from a distance, you know a mine is a wound in the landscape. Cavernous, raw, and man-made; evidence of all that society takes from the earth, and the human bodies sacrificed in order to pillage it.
In “The Mine” by Nathan Harris, the titular site also presents a psychic wound. When the story begins, a young man has died in the deepest part of the mine, known as the crypt, which the workers believe to be haunted by a vengeful monster called the Grootslang, an “evil that is born from our wrongdoing.”
Because of this legend, the workers refuse to enter the crypt to retrieve the body. The timing is inauspicious for Nicholas, the story’s narrator: potential investors are due for a tour of the facilities that same day. Nicholas is the first African captain of a mine in South Africa. Mining runs in the family—his father was a surveyor, but quit after Nicholas’s brother died in an accident. Following the tragedy, Nicholas’s father implored him to leave as well; Nicholas refused. But when his boss brags of his unique status at the mine, Nicholas only feels shame: “I am an obedient and nothing more, a man paid to own the deaths of others.”
The extent of the wrongdoings that may have brought about the Grootslang are personal as well as systematic. Nicholas is a cog in a machine—once a worker himself, now in charge of them. His calluses have grown soft while his consciousness has hardened. He feels survivor’s guilt over his brother’s death, but cannot allow himself to feel culpable in the future deaths of similar men. In refusing to heed the worker’s superstition, he refuses to take seriously their fear and grief.
Like the mine at the center of the story, Nathan Harris has written a tale of astonishing depth, with horrors below the surface. “The Mine” is a story of industry, of imperialism, of environmental exploitation, of hubris, and of personal responsibility. It is also a story of a very bad couple of days at work. The best writers, like Harris, know how to excavate both.
– Halimah Marcus
Editor of Recommended Reading
No Depth Can Bury the Family Guilt
“The Mine” by Nathan Harris
A boy has died in the crypt. (I’m told this is what they call the bottom of the mine, now: the crypt.) Benji, my surveyor, has come to tell me the news. As he stands before me, I notice that grime has crept into the folds of his face; that his overalls are stained with streaks of mud. The air conditioning in the trailer seems to unnerve him, bringing him to flinch as it cranks to life once more, a steady breeze causing his shirt to flap upon his chest.
“This is a problem,” I tell him.
Benji nods, knowingly.
“When can he be retrieved?”
“The others refuse to go. They are afraid.”
He shakes his head, as though disappointed in himself. “They believe there is something evil in the deposits. That the dead boy has been claimed by a monster. That it would be wrong to bring him back up.”
The air conditioner stops and the trailer falls silent.
“I see,” I say, for many of the boys who work in the gold mines are from the bush, and I know their beliefs to be primitive. Even my own father—who grew up under a hut in a village he came to disdain—took to such nonsense on occasion.
What must be understood is that the executives are to arrive later today. They come to tour the grounds periodically, and there cannot be a corpse rotting away, no matter if it is unreachable, no matter if they will never glimpse the horror themselves, for there are many horrors here, and all of them must be hidden on the day these men come.
“Take me to them,” I say. And Benji, his shoulders falling in acquiescence, opens the door to guide me out.
Few are familiar with the brightness of the sun after a morning spent underground: emerging from the deposits, the sudden prick of heat upon the skin building to a burn, as if in time it might torch you to cinder. I worked the mines when I was younger, under the supervision of my father, and so I know the sensation. Nowadays, I mostly see its power on the faces of the miners when I approach them. They work tirelessly, noiselessly, and yet their fatigue can be gleaned from the way their knees buckle when their wheelbarrows falter on a ridge of stone; in the slouch of their shoulders when the pickaxe grows too heavy on their back as they carry it to storage.
The mine shaft is before us, workers steadily flowing out of the elevator in their yellow hats and suspenders like bees exiting a hive. Benji has us turn towards the smelter—its innards, bright as lava, sending swirls of heat into the air as it is fed endless quantities of ore. The boys in question are lined up under the break canopy, awaiting my arrival. Sweat masks their faces, and I know the feeling of wanting to undress under the weight of the heat: to find the nearest source of water and jump. (There is a perversity here, for when their shifts end, they will find only the chill of the night; and by the time they take to their showers in the barracks, the shiver of the cold will be as unwanted as the sweat that came before it.)
There are individuals versed in retrieving bodies from the mine. It happens, perhaps twice a year, and it must be handled with great care and discretion. It is reported to the attorney for the company that backs us, a man I have never met and know only as a voice. It is of the utmost importance that the matter remains confidential–including the payment to the dead man’s next of kin. So in such an instance, when the boys who are trusted with the task are reticent to do it, the occasion has become delicate enough to require my full attention.
“Boys,” I say. Benji stands at my side, his arms tucked into the pouch of his overalls. I pace before them like their superior officer, telling the same story I have told so many other employees, perhaps these same ones. “Did you know that I worked these very mines when I was your age? That what you fear, I once feared? That my own brother died under rock-fall? I had only waved goodbye to him the very morning of the accident. If I had not been holed up with my father, learning how to manage the books, I would’ve died alongside him. In a sense, we, too, are brothers.” I point at them now. “Tethered by this place. But as I did my duty back then, you must now do yours.”
I stop, then. I face a boy who is staring at me with great resolve. The sun has broken his face into a leathered mask like that of a man twice his age. He is so dark that his skin matches the blacks of his eyes, and it is the yellow of his pupils, the ravages of some burgeoning disease, that shines brighter than the rest of him.
“The body is in the crypt,” he says. “Where the scientists go, we do not.”
I look to Benji, who nods in confirmation. “They say he went on a dare,” Benji tells me. “He fell from the path as he descended.”
So this is what they mean by the crypt. Scientists overtake a segment of the mine each winter, examining microbes in an astonishingly deep vein of earth. The dig goes so far underground that it often makes the news. The boys fear what might be found there. It is wholly irrational, for it is merely another cavity of dirt, but I now understand the problem.
“I need this taken care of quickly,” I say. “I will double your wage for the day.”
The boy who spoke stands tall now, defiantly taking the shirt laid upon his shoulder and wrapping it upon his head as he steps into the sunlight from beneath the canopy.
“The Grootslang lives in the crypt. We do not go there.”
“The Grootslang,” I say, under my breath. An elephantine being with a serpent’s tail. Bush folklore. More nonsense in a day far too full of it.
“It will make you see great horrors,” the boy says. “Torment you in ways you cannot imagine.”
I breathe in, and smell the tobacco on the boy’s breath–then there is the stench of the heat, of the day’s work, like hot piss emanating from his being. I turn to the mine elevator. On certain days, exhausting days when I stay long after the rest have gone home, I have eyed my brother there–waving, beckoning, as though I should come to him. The darkness coalesces then, absorbs the specter whole, and it is gone in an instant. Is this their fabled monster? A child’s fear of the dark?
“What is your name?” I ask the boy.
“Felix,” I say. “We will speak again soon. And Benji.”
“Make sure the men carry on working as if nothing has happened. As it must be. Appearances and what have you.”
My employer has called to inform me he is on his way, so I know to wait for him in my trailer. I sit there, twirling my pen, thinking. I had asked Benji if there were any others who would retrieve the body, but all those who might take on the job have formed a pact behind Felix; he is, Benji told me, a reformed criminal, a man who knows death and does not flinch from it. I will need his help. I have to reach him, somehow. Make him do what must be done.
There is then a knock at the door, and they do not wait for me to answer before coming in. There are six men in all, led by Ross Fletcher himself, the face of Tibor Holdings, the largest mining outfit in all of South Africa. He is wearing a polo and khakis. They are all wearing polos and khakis. After this meeting, Mr. Fletcher will take them to a golf course two hours away, an idyllic place of combed sand and green fields, and the other men, prospective investors, will tell their colleagues that their money will not be scrutinized once entrusted to such a conscious enterprise as Tibor Holdings.
“Nicholas!” Mr. Fletcher says, his hand springing towards my own.
“Sir,” I say.
His teeth are immense, his pectorals full, and when the air conditioner turns on once more his nipples appear with a sudden wakefulness.
“These men are from London, Nicholas. They’re eager to see the facility.”
The men, wary, hands behind their backs, nod to me. I nod back. Once this is done, Mr. Fletcher’s presentation begins, an exchange we have had so many times it’s taken on the air of theater.
“This photo, behind Nicholas, that is his father. He was a surveyor here, a wonderful worker . . .” The men are nodding again, eager to consume this narrative. I look back at the photo myself. These visits are the only time I do so. My father in his church suit, his bony jowls and thick lips, eyes beaded, like he cannot make out the photographer before him. The pride in the straightness of his back. Look at me, he used to say. A twig of a man. An African from the backcountry. Yet look at what I have done. Think of what you will do . . .
The men are staring in my direction. It is my turn to speak. “Yes,” I say. “I thought nothing would stop my father from working until that tragedy took place. The loss of my brother was too much to bear. He never stepped foot near the mines again.” I do not say that my father was a near-mute after the accident; that the few words he shared after it were put towards the task of getting me to quit my job right alongside him. That my refusal to do so was the greatest shame of his life behind the guilt of letting his firstborn die.
Mr. Fletcher steps forward, now. He is adjacent to my desk, and I allow him the spotlight.
“The least we could do was give Nicholas the chance of an education. In short order he returned and took us up on our offer to become the first African captain of a mine. He runs the entire production. His story is remarkable. I would say it’s one of Tibor Holdings’ proudest achievements.”
He does not say that though this is the only mine of its kind, it is a mere token of significance. I am an obedient and nothing more, a man paid to own the deaths of others.
His hand—a fleshy mound, soft and child-like—is on my desk. The thought of this slab of wood, this wood he owns and allows me to borrow, brings to mind my dinner table at home. My father had it made of African Teak, large enough to sit twelve, running the length of the dining room. He would sit at its head, relishing his authority, deciding who would give their thanks before the meal, declaring his need for another helping and expecting the dish to be placed before him. My brother and I would sit on opposite sides of him. Often, as my father told stories, or gave commands, I would rub the swirling knot of wood upon the tables’ underside, as though it might give me strength, some means to escape my father’s scrutiny, the next command I did not wish to answer to, the next piece of wisdom he would quiz me on in the days that followed. I feel for it, now, under my desk, that knot, knowing it is not there; knowing there is no reprieve from the moment that is upon me.
“We’d love to take a tour inside the mine,” Mr. Fletcher says. “Where are the hard hats, Nicholas?”
The room has grown so hot I feel the need to disrobe, to lie upon the floor and discover the coolness of each vinyl tile I might find there. “We are, unfortunately, conducting a safety review of the mines,” I say. “It is a full-scale, top-to-bottom effort. We can’t have any visitors inside.”
Mr. Fletcher’s gaze finds me, and I feel my insides flinch. His coolness, his ability to show no feeling, frightens me.
“Did you not know we were coming, Nicholas?”
“It is a terrible oversight, one for which I apologize. It will not happen again.”
He is still hiding his teeth, and soon begins to crack his knuckles despondently, some vague assertion of power.
“You will be spending the night at the Prince Grant Estate, no?” I say. “Why do you not take the tour tomorrow, when you come back this way? We will be ready, then.”
“The mine is quite a detour . . .” Mr. Fletcher eyes his guests, but they are silently shrugging, for this is vacation for them, and it would appear they don’t wish to take on any further responsibility than that of a guest. “. . . So be it. Tomorrow afternoon, then. We will work off our breakfast with a walk in the mines! What could be better?”
The men laugh at this so loudly the trailer shakes. There is absolutely no reason for them to laugh this loud. Mr. Fletcher squeezes my shoulder—as though pinching a child’s cheek—and leads them out. He does not look back at me—only waves with the back of his hand.
I arrive home at night, the moon bright in the cloudless sky. The veranda sits empty, the wooden shutters on the windows open just enough that I can glimpse movement inside. Although it is beautiful, I have always found this place strange–a white-washed, colonial home my father had built some distance from town, beside a marsh that holds no life. I have no idea why he enjoyed such desolation, but I am of the impression he treated this place as a sanctuary of sorts; a place he could rule when he had so little power to his name.
I exit the car, and at the sound of my daughter’s voice I can feel my shoulders fall limp, a pressure escaping me.
“Who is this intruder at my home?” I ask. “I’m calling the police!”
She runs wildly, wobbling to and fro so recklessly that I nearly break down in tears. It is remarkable that this can happen every day. That I might never grow tired of seeing her sprint towards me with no care except for the wish to feel my arms wrapped around her.
“It’s me, Lila,” she says, her face falling into the crook of my neck.
“Lila?” I act stupefied. “But my daughter could not grow so much in a single day.”
“I have!” she says.
A silhouette is before the door. The child’s nanny. Lila’s mother and I, although not divorced, live apart. She is a nurse in town with a condominium near the hospital. She works in marathon shifts that last days; she then takes Lila for extended periods, however long she wishes. When she brings her back I often mention that she looks fatigued, that she should come in and rest, and she tells me that I should feel the same sympathy for the mine workers who frequent her clinic with such exhaustion that they cannot keep their eyes open long enough to speak in full sentences. I then once more appreciate the distance that separates us.
Imani, the nanny, informs me that Lila finished her homework earlier in the evening. I see my daughter’s books spread out upon the dining room table and nod. The lights are on in the kitchen, in the living room, as I prefer it. There is no reason a house of such bounty, of such beauty, should be shrouded in darkness. I wish to see it all: the family portraits on the wall; the cabinet with my diploma; my father’s medal of service; the bowl of appreciation that Benji delivered to me after his promotion (inscribed as so: To a fine man, my boss); the long couch with fluffed pillows that I often fall into with a tumbler of whisky.
“Would you like some dinner?” Imani asks.
The smell of the spices waft through the air. She is often making some recipe from her home village, some obscure stew with game meat, the sort of offering you envision being stirred in a cauldron.
“What is it?” I ask. “I imagine you have made something . . . unique for us.”
“Not really, no,” she says. “Just tacos. Lila’s favorites. Would you like some?”
“That would be nice.” Lila is pulling on my pant leg. She asks to draw with me in the dining room while I eat. I tell her to go there. That I will join her soon. When she is off, I inform Imani that she may retire for the night when she has prepared my plate. I then excuse myself to go shower, to cleanse myself from the remnants of the day.
As I eat, I watch Lila draw beside me at the dinner table. I wipe the long curls of her hair from her line of sight, smile down upon her as she pokes her tongue from her mouth in concentration.
I retrieve a scrunchy from the living room, attend to her hair, putting it up before returning to my meal. I love the child’s hands. I think of my father’s hands, as rough as the paws of a feral dog, calloused over as though boils festered at the root of his every finger. My own callouses have disappeared over time, and there appears to be some evolution, some law of good, that will afford my daughter’s hands to be forever soft: saved perhaps, for gesticulating orders to a boardroom full of executives; or for leading a classroom. She will not be dull like her father. She will not have his scars. The opportunities are endless, and it is the income from my work that has allowed this. There is a life of wrongs made right by this fact, and the nature of this truth is something her mother never understood.
I sit back in my chair, the very chair my father once claimed, and take in the sight he assigned himself when building our home–the marshland that faces out from the back of the property, a small bed of murky water that strings itself to the greater body of the Limraso River. It was a walk my father and I would take on occasion, prattling along the river-bed when it was dry, each footstep locked in a vice of mud, our hands playing against the surrounding reeds. If he was in a particularly good mood, our strolls would become a game of tag. I recall him running ahead of me, out of my line of sight, yet I could make out his head atop the grass, floating off in the distance, bobbing as he sprinted away. When he had reached a clearing, he would turn and point to me with a mocking laugh, and I would enter a sprint knowing he would turn and escape me once more.
The water is high, now, and the marsh appears as a pond might, the surface twinkling, spotted with the reflection of the stars, and it is no coincidence that my father has come to mind in this moment, for there is a figure–right there, if one looks closely— floating above the marsh, a sculpted void that cuts through the darkness, a shadow that presents itself in the shape of a human, lithe and decrepit, wavering, as though it might disintegrate in the wind.
The figure, as though sourcing life from the light of the moon, molds flesh, grows real, and before I can look away, lanky limbs have protruded from this shadow form—a single hand has risen up from its arm. It points to me before vanishing.
“Papa,” I hear my daughter say. “The picture is done.”
I do not look at my daughter, nor at the marsh, but rather I close my eyes, feel under the table, once more seeking the knot of wood from my youth; and when I cannot locate it, as though time has grooved the table’s contours smooth, I abruptly stand, so quickly my daughter drops her marker.
“It’s time for bed!” I say.
“Come now,” I say.
“You didn’t look at the picture.”
“I will look as I tuck you in.”
Lila waits as I put my dishes in the sink, standing with her head cocked, the picture limp in her hand. I return, leading her upstairs, each step creaking as we ascend. I’m eager to remain calm, to think of anything beyond what I have witnessed. It is a saving grace that there is life in every corner of this home, pleading to be freed; the walls bleed memories, and they consume you at every turn. To take a step, to touch the handrail, to open a door, offers access to endless recollections: my father’s hand upon my backside as I run from punishment; a glimpse of my mother slipping into her bedroom to nap away the afternoon. Even as I enter Lila’s room, meeting the sweet smell of her candy-scented hairspray, the brightness of the walls, a child’s yellow, I cannot help but strip away the paint, the years, and envision the bedroom that was once mine and my brother’s.
I have her under the covers. Safe, her eyes finding my own as I look over the picture she’s set on her nightstand. There is nothing to it. Lila and her mother and I, holding hands, in the manner all children draw families, one row of stick figures. One row of smiles.
“Your hand,” Lila says.
It is trembling.
“Something has come over me,” I say. And once more, as my mind scrambles for relief, I am lost to the past, thinking only of the silence of my home, the strange quality I felt lying where Lila now lies when I was a teenage boy, of how peaceful it was with my brother dead and gone. Not smelling his odor from across the room. My contempt when he would rise for a glass of water, rousing me when I had only just fallen asleep. Such guilt knows no bounds. Even now, I have the urge to sell this place and start anew elsewhere, only for it to be undone by the shame once more, as I envision the home razed to rubble by its future buyer. This image transforms in my mind to that of my brother somewhere in the shaft of the mine, the walls closing in on him. Rock crushing him flat.
I put the picture down and rise up from the bed.
“Shall I leave the night light on?” I ask Lila.
“But you always tell me I must be brave, papa. That I should keep it off.”
I am peering out the window. There is nothing but darkness.
“We can make an exception,” I tell her.
“I’m brave,” she says.
“Of course you are,” I say, leaning down to kiss her forehead.
I turn off the nightlight and say goodnight without even waiting for her to do the same. I walk briskly to my room as though there is something to run from. And yet before I enter, a noise (could it be laughter?) filters out from Imani’s bedroom, opposite mine. I listen to muffled sounds, and before I can stop myself, I find that I am knocking on the door.
The noise quits. There is a shuffling, the sound of objects being moved. I have never done this before, knocked at such an hour, but something has unsettled me. The floor trembles with some unseen fragility, and the walls of the hallway narrow. Sweat has leaked down the span of my back and into the cleft of my behind. I am not well.
“Imani,” I say.
Her voice is nothing more than a peep. “Yes?”
“May I open the door?
The room is spotless, the bed made, the walls unadorned. Imani is on the floor, sitting before the trunk pressed against the front of the bed. The phone, its cord snaking from the wall, sits on her lap. I’m not surprised by the arrangement. I often used to eavesdrop on her conversations. That was until I heard her, once, speak of my marriage. Saying how I was to blame for the dissolution. The certainty in her voice as she gossiped still rings in my ears whenever we speak. Our distance from each other has been sealed ever since, and if it wasn’t for her closeness to Lila, she would no longer be here. But the question at hand feels urgent. It must be asked.
“I have interrupted something,” I say.
“It’s my mother,” she says, pointing to the phone with an index finger. “Is that okay? You told me it would be okay to call once I have finished—”
“It’s fine. Perfectly fine.”
Her eyes are doe-like. Her skin shines pure. She is a different person here, left alone in this space. A young woman that laughs and cries, I am sure; a young woman of great vibrancy, of complicated personality. A young woman I am now intruding on. And just as quickly as I have spotted this hidden person, I notice her eyes contract, her smile fade, and I realize I have worried her. Not by my presence, perhaps, but by what I might need. By the news I might bring.
“I only have a question,” I say. “I wish . . . to have your opinion. I have heard of a beast. A mythic beast. I believe they refer to it as The Grootslang. Do you believe in this thing?”
The phone erupts in noise, and Imani listens for a moment before lowering the volume, apologizing to me for the interruption. “It is nothing.” Her smile is false. “My mother has outbursts.”
I mutter something indescribable even to myself, some show of acknowledgement, realizing in a single instance how little I know of this girl. That she has an aged mother who screams on the phone; the strange quality in the spartan nakedness of her walls; her ability to hide in my own home and remain so quiet.
“You tend to your mother,” I tell her. “It is late. I should get some rest.” I go to leave, but she says, “Sir,” and I turn back.
“I do believe in it,” she says, with a confidence I find haunting. “But I believe in many similar things. It is only part of our tradition, to believe in the evil that is born from our wrongdoing. It is the mark of our people, no? My mother tells the story of when—”
“That’s all and well, Imani,” I say. “I believe I am too tired to hear such things right now. Perhaps save it for Lila, if it is not too frightening. I shouldn’t have asked.
The start of her answer was more ridiculous than my question. She looks down, then. Her legs, lanky and childlike, are sprawled in a knot beneath her. Her pajamas so large the tops curl over her hands, the bottoms fall over her feet. It is unbecoming, to be speaking to such a young woman in so serious a way. And the moment, if there was one, is gone.
I leave the light on in the hallway as I head to my bedroom. She will turn it off when she sees it’s been left on; by then, I hope, I’ll be long asleep.
A phone call wakes me. It is Benji. There is trouble, he says. I should arrive as early as I can. I dress in the same clothes I wore the day before to save time. I decline the oatmeal Imani offers me and leave home before Lila wakes.
It is Benji who sleeps in the barracks, overseeing the boys. I can count on one hand the times he has contacted me so early, and almost all of them involved the birth of one of his children or a matter of equal urgency. I can only imagine how much conflict he must deal with on his own, with two hundred young men in such close quarters, and yet not once has he asked me to be involved in a single quarrel.
The sun is only now rising, and one can glimpse it between the twisted forks of the leadwood trees, bright gasps of orange that follow me as I pass other cars. Soon I am on site. I wind down the path into the bowl of the mine, the descent silent enough to feel like I am floating in my car. As I park beside my trailer, Benji is already approaching me. I wait for him, his legs swishing slowly in his overalls, and as he draws near it is difficult to ignore what lies behind him: an endless stretch of yellow uniforms and yellow hard hats—my workers, standing listlessly as one, staring at me.
I step out to greet him. There are whiskers of a mustache, and this is perhaps more foreboding than the sight of the workers. The man is always clean shaven.
“Perhaps we should speak in my trailer,” I say.
Benji nods solemnly. “To keep up appearances, sir.”
“Yes, Benji. To keep up appearances.”
I offer him a bottle of water from the mini fridge. He declines, and is already speaking as I take a seat behind my desk.
“The worker who has died is beloved. Very well thought of. He has a wife, an infant, a little girl. The others are aghast that his family has not been notified. That he has been left in the crypt —”
“Do not call it a crypt,” I say. “It is a site of science. For heaven’s sake, they are returning in a few months to resume their work. I will not surrender to such language. You shouldn’t either.”
Even I realize how strange my outburst is. Benji blinks once, a cautionary measure, before continuing on. “The others cannot believe he has been left to rot in the site of science. The more religious believe a cleansing should take place in the mine. All of them believe the body must be retrieved immediately. They will not work unless it is done. It is a protest, sir. An organized protest.”
The words are supposed to strike fear in me, but I do not share his concern. In fact, I clap my hands together joyously at the development. “Benji!” I say. “This is good news! Let them do their ritual. Let them get the body. Bring the candles, chant the chants. Whatever must be done.” Already I am thinking of the coroner arriving in an hour’s time; that this will be taken care of by mid-morning, before Mr. Fletcher has even finished his brunch at the Prince George Estates. The mere thought has brought me to near ecstasy. “How quickly can they manage the job?”
Yet Benji merely slouches against the wall, his hands clenched in a ball against his chest. The pouches beneath his eyes are so evident, so full, that I wonder if there might exist a procedure to drain them. He appears defeated.
“They won’t do it themselves.” His voice is so low I can hardly hear him speak. “They believe you have made a bargain with The Grootslang. Brought it into existence.”
“Not this again.” I realize that it is pity that drives Benji’s words. That he is worried about my end, not his own. The task before me is clear. My charge as a leader. The call I must answer.
“I will go,” I tell him. “I will retrieve the body myself.”
There is a sense of resignation knowing what lays ahead of me, and I find that my voice is calm as I ask the other workers where I might find Felix. I smile at them politely. I even offer one man a handshake. And yet when my eyes fall upon Felix himself, under the break canopy, casually eating chips, I am quickly overcome by anger. His eyes, still black as night, are strangely tranquil, looking upon me with an empathy so perverse I have the urge to strike him.
“You are leading a protest,” I say. “I should have you fired. I should put your name on a list. Did you know there’s a list? A list of men who will not get hired at any mine. You have made quite the error.”
His eyes are fixed upon me, and his mouth seems to move independently from the rest of his face. He speaks in one tone, a single string of words, as though all of them, each connected to the one before, have been in a line in his mouth, awaiting my arrival to be unspooled.
“It is you that brought The Grootslang upon us. Your conscious lies with Peter, and so the beast calls your name.”
“Who on earth is Peter?” I ask.
He shakes his head, and I realize my mistake too late. “The boy,” he says. “The boy who died.”
“What do you want,” I ask. “If you were to go down with me—to get the body and have the men return to work—what would you ask for in return?”
He speaks so quickly it’s apparent the thought has been on his mind for some time, if not since the beginning of the whole ordeal. “I wish to be a surveyor. To be paid like a surveyor. To have Benji’s power.”
“I could use another. Consider it done.” My willingness to compromise takes him off guard. And for the first time his eyes wander from me, and I know they have landed upon the elevator at my back. His cheekbones, sharp enough to draw blood, suddenly twitch, and I wonder if it is from the fear that courses through him: the same fear now coursing through me.
“The sooner the better,” I say.
He takes the cap lamp at his side and places it upon his helmet. He mumbles what appears to be a prayer and then smiles wickedly.
“Whenever you are ready,” he says.
I turn my face toward the elevator. There is nothing inside that might save me from what is to come.
In the mine, it is always night. Illumination is key, and yet permanent installations of any lighting system are too burdensome a cost. A few lamps are made use of throughout the primary shaft, the active workings. The rest of the journey must be done by the cap-lamp alone, a light which shines forth seemingly from one’s own skull. A third eye, the miners call it. We do not need our lamps yet, but I know we will soon.
Felix is beside me, the folded stretcher tied to his back. The length of the mine runs before us. To stand still, to witness the thing in silence, creates such overwhelming awe that it exacts the dimensions of a living being. To feel the rock wall is to feel it throb, no different from a pounding heartbeat.
“This is it,” Felix says.
The elevator is thirty minutes to our rear. We have walked some ways. And now we see a small brow of the wall, a crevice expanded to the size of a small human, where the scientists made their own way.
We dip through the hole and find ourselves facing what feels to be an impenetrable shroud of darkness. There is no up or down. Before us is infinity, and there is a pull to it, like the tug of a rope around one’s chest. I quickly reach for my cap-lamp, which casts a bright beam down the length of nothingness before me.
I have surveyed the maps left by the scientists, and so I know to follow the path before us, turning once we reach the far wall. The descent is slow, a sloping trail like any other, and yet there is no end to it. Neither of us look to the side, where Peter has surely fallen, for it is clear the light will meet nothing but further darkness, more dust skittering in the air from the wall of the cave like insects in flight.
“Two miles,” I say.
Felix says nothing.
“There is nothing to fear,” I say. “It is a jaunt in the mine like any other. Like all that have come before this one.”
“But you are scared. More than I am.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I say. “I do not fear creatures that lurk at the bottom of a mine.”
“It is not just in the mine.” His voice is low and certain. “Is that what you have taken from the legend?”
“I do not know the legend. I do not wish to know the legend.”
“The beast is born from our wrongs. It is in you. Just as it is in me –”
“You must quit. I refuse to believe that you go on like this in your private life. That you speak to those close to you in the manner of an ominous sage, dispensing wisdom. I have no time for it.”
A moment, and then the boy speaks once more in a mutter. “You only ask me to stop because you believe my words are true.”
“Is that so?” I ask, holding a hand upon the wall, moisture dripping under my sleeve.
“It is as I said. It is in you, just as it is in me. And perhaps you fear that more than the rest. That we are no different from one another.”
My legs wobble with fatigue. The temperature rises like a warning. And quite suddenly there is water beneath our feet, puddles and ankle-deep mud, announcing the end of the descent. The bottom of the mine.
We stop at once. Total darkness does not speak to what lays beyond this point, what extends before us. It is an absence. A void. The senses, beyond the mud gripping my feet, have nothing to register. I am afloat, wholly and totally, and I only become bound by the touch of Felix, prodding the small of my back.
“We must backtrack to where he would’ve fallen,” he says.
“Just a moment to rest,” I say.
But he is already moving. I cannot keep on with conversation. It is as though I am progressing through the cycles of sleep, inching towards a dream, a flurry of babble erupting from some crease of my brain that I cannot access on my own volition. I wish for it to stop but it will not. It is then that the sounds meet me: uproarious laughter, recognizable at once as the men from my trailer, Ross Fletcher’s investors, voices jarring enough to make me turn to seek out the source, and yet in the time it takes me to wheel around the noise has minimized itself to a piercing howl, and then nothing at all, and soon Felix is asking me if I am alright, and by then it is only my heartbeat I can hear, so loud that I wish to scream so I might mask the noise of my own terror.
“Are you okay?” Felix asks again.
“Perhaps we should turn back,” I say. There is a desire to sit down. To scrunch up into a ball and allow the mud to envelope me. To be done with this business. Yet as the thought passes, I hear Felix gasp, and I look up, quickly, to find the outline of an object standing before us.
“The scientist’s equipment,” Felix says.
It is a light of some sort, crane-like, perched against the tunnel face.
“Why would they leave it?” Felix asks.
“They are returning,” I tell him, but the sight has emboldened him, and he is running forward now.
“Felix, wait,” I say.
I do not move. I adjust my line of sight to keep him alight, and he is now upon an enormous box, sturdy as the shell of a turtle, unwieldy upon the ground.
“A generator,” he says. “They have left their generator.”
With my cap-lamp, I can make him out before me. Alone in the abyss. So far from me, yet in the great chasm of darkness that binds us, we are closer than any other humans might possibly manage in so vast a space. He has a cord in hand. I can feel dust coating my throat; my body seize. The sound of a motor, of a howling animal, blows over me like hot air. And in the time it takes to blink, the time it takes to gasp for a single breath, a crushing light illuminates the mine with the force of a detonation. There is Felix, his back to me. Behind him, a table of fathomless dimensions; a table of African teak that runs on endlessly into a darkness that supersedes the light. The table is crowded with men. It is only immediately behind Felix, at its head, that I spot my father facing me, his eyes wide with terror, his lips sewed shut, maggots squirming through the stitching, his finger pointing at my chest. Beside him is my brother, his cheeks broken into his skull, blood spilling from his forehead, beckoning me with fingers limp as noodles, flicking towards me pathetically. There are hundreds of miners behind them, standing stoically in their yellow vests. They are all staring, all silent, rotted and grotesque, and it is as though I am looking in a mirror reflecting itself, for I can see it go on so far that the illusion plays upon itself, and at the far end, a dot lost in a canvas of horrors, I spy a figure that could only be myself, for when I raise my hand up to cover my mouth, it is the only parcel of space that moves, and it is then that the light dies, and darkness consumes the crypt once more.
“The body,” he says. “It is right ahead of us.” I hear then, the sounds of him cranking the generator once more. Yet this is of no use. The crypt remains black.
“Did you not see it? Follow me, Nicholas. This way.”
I turn, then. And the voice I hear, demanding I return, calling me back, is only an echo by the time I have stopped running.
I am home before lunch. Felix has retrieved the body. The coroner, I know, is on his way. Full working production of the mine on offer before Ross Fletcher has arrived; just as I hoped.
And now there is a strange comfort to the sound of gravel crunching beneath my car, the sound that signals my return home, to this small plot of safety. Imani greets me at the front door. Her arms are crossed. A stalled and baking heat lingers in the air and I wipe my brow as I approach her.
“What is wrong?” she asks.
I say no words, but rather turn from her, sit on the steps of the veranda, looking off upon the road from which I have just arrived from.
“Tell me,” she says. “Something is the matter.”
“Please sit,” I say, tapping the tiles of the stairs. I cannot help but smell the scent of flowers that leaves her, so welcome after a day at the mines, and I wish to thank her, and yet of course I do not, knowing she could not even begin to understand how welcome her presence is after all that has come to pass.
“You have me worried.”
“What if nothing is wrong?” I ask. “What if things are finally right?”
“But you are here. You should be at work—”
“I have put Benji in charge. He is a fine man. And he has a new surveyor to lead. A very capable fellow. A brave man who has made right by me. They will work well together.”
The trees in the distance are countless, lifeless, so scorched by the sun as to be left without a single leaf. The expanse of dirt is the color of iron. It is endless. And yet from here there is a remarkable nature to the sight; the landscape in the distance converging with the bank of the sky, like two segments of a painting in contrast. A brilliant design. One that will repeat itself endlessly. And the reassurance I draw from this is so great that I feel my shoulders fall, my neck go slack, for the first time since exiting the mine.
“It is strange,” I say. “I don’t know when Lila comes home. How do I not know?”
“The bus pulls up in an hour,” Imani tells. She points, then. Down the road. “She will run from there. Just as she runs to you when you pull in.”
To think I have not once seen the sight of my daughter running from the road up ahead. I imagine it to be even greater than when she greets me after a long day at work, my little dust devil in motion, her lunch box bouncing against her side, her hair one bobbing mess. I know that I will wait right where I’m sitting until I witness it. There is nothing else I wish to lay my eyes upon. Nothing else that might save me from the terrors I have witnessed.
“I should continue cleaning,” Imani says.
At this, the phone inside begins to ring. I know instantly it is Ross Fletcher, ready for his tour. Wondering, no doubt, where I have wandered off to. I tell Imani to let it ring, repeating myself once more as it goes on, and on, until finally it is quiet once again.
“Stay here,” I then tell her. “Please. Sit. Just . . . just until the bus comes.”
She shifts beside me, the bracelet on her wrist clanging like a chime.
“Tell me,” I say. And the words feel random, yet ordained, and altogether urgent. “Tell me your story. Of this village you hail from. Of your family. To have someone under my roof I know so little of. It seems wrong, no?”
A wind pulls over us. Imani looks at me with uncertainty.
“My grandmother hails from a small village south of here. She’s told me many stories, yet most of them are tall tales, as you might put it, although I often wondered if they were true . . .” She does not know what she is allowed to say, and yet silence will not do. Not now. Not with what I have seen still playing in my head. “You really wish to know, sir?”
My heart is pounding. Yet somehow, so far from the mine, so far from my past, I am at peace.
“Imani, it would be an honor to hear them told,” I say. “Carry on. End only when you find it right to. You have my ear.”
Her voice overtakes the air; the wind. Finally, I am able to close my eyes and keep them so. And all that is left to do is listen.