Beneath

Julie Ries

Beneath


Grass Valley, California 1900


She is waiting for him, underground.

Starlight, and the crunch of boots on snow. Pine boughs black against a blacker sky. The order of the world is reversed: the ground gives a kind of light, while the sky is darkness.

She is waiting for him, in their secret place underground. In winter it is cold, harsh with the dank scent of earth, a grave filled with her living presence. When she dies, he will bury her. He is all she knows, or will ever know, of life and the sun.

His fingers seek the shards of sugar, rock-hard and razor-sharp, that he chipped off the loaf for her. She had never tasted any until he gave it to her, and the first time her breath came in a long gasp of surprise.

Warmth climbs through the metal pail to his hard hand. Beneath the lid is a mutton pasty, a saffron bun, a container of tea, and more sugar. White sugar, Nell’s best sugar, kept for guests. His girl will take it between her soft, dark lips. If he listens he will hear her swallow, see the movements of the muscles in her throat. This is all the payment she asks for. When she’s had it he will slide his hand over her back to the place where the smooth muscles begin to swell. Her heat and smell rise under his hands. She will do whatever he wants, reading his movements, responding to the thoughts before they form in his mind. She knows her business. But she does
demand her payment first.

She depends on him for food, water, for her very life. Once he was sick with the typhoid, a week of shits and coughing, and when he reached her she could do nothing but rest her head against his sleeve.

Nell knows nothing about the sugar, and she won’t, the bitch. Her days are filled with light and cards, laundry and gadding. Once he had washed himself all over when he got home; they thrashed in the sheets at night, and talked. No longer. He passes the brothel at the end of town, the dirt path where doxies go strolling in the forest on fine days. His early training kept him from going there. Mam, clutching his arm with damp fingers, begging him to forsake drink and sin if he weren’t to end like his dad. Such a scholar you are, she’d said, stroking him. Like your granddad, the Methodist preacher in Penryn. Such a life as he wanted, once.

Into the blackest part now. Thick trees touching overhead, and a thorny break. Granite boulders. Shapes of men like the giants in the earth.

Now into the camp. Moonlight glitters on the long troughs filled with liquid mercury. In the day they are lined with men stirring the rock and ore. A man could slide gold into his boot and be shot in the back by the overseer, or, more likely, die of blood poisoning where the quicksilver riddled his skin. The stirrers sicken and fail differently than the miners that go beneath: teeth fall out, gums bleed, a few go mad. They put men sick with clap at the trough, it heals the sores.

He walks faster. She is waiting, his girl Ellen is waiting, bound to a metal hook hammered into the rock. He remembers her first time. She fought him then, crashing her sides against the traces, straining against the ropes, bellowing through the iron he had forced in her mouth. Eyes rolling white in the gloom. When he got her down to the drift, alone in the last crosscut, he had been surprised at how strong she was. He tried to soothe her, but had nothing but kicks for his pains; she caught him in her teeth. The scent of her piss, copious, puddling, filled the darkness. Each time he came she would go for him, lunge for him, and he didn’t want to use the whip in his pocket, didn’t want to scar the smooth haunches, her delicate legs. Sometimes he came home with his face fucked—a black eye, to Nell’s obvious scorn and
content. She stood with a smirk on her face; he told her he’d been jumped by Chinamen near the warehouse at Nevada City. It was rough there, although it was the Yank tusses who stood mostly, waiting for the strange men to rise like rabbits from their tunnel, in a clatter of tongues and a stench of the poppy.

Now he reaches the mouth of the blackness, the exhalation of dust from the body of the shaft. He is the first again. He likes to be the first. He stands until a round of lanternlight, small as a firefly on a summer evening, glints far down the path. The pit boss, maybe. His mate Trevennick, maybe. He moves into the collar for a moment’s rest by the stove. Someone on the night shift added a fresh lot of wood.

In a minute more men come, wordlessly, in a tramp of feet. The heavy gate slides over, rasping, to the rock wall. He pulls his scarf tighter and steps inside. If he were three days dead he’d hate that musty stinging at the back of his throat. For hours, even after a basin of hot and a change, even after Nell’s bread and rashers, it clings to him. It haunts his insides like a ghost.

The cold air seeps through his clothes and his gloves and all through him. By the merest ray of lantern-light he finds the iron barrier, lifts it, and climbs into the mantruck that will take him down. Nineteen men file after him, with a great rattling of lunch pails and “budge over.” A puff, and the light is gone. With care, he secures the lantern between his legs and reaches beside him for the bar. The skiptender blows two warnings on the horn. In a second, he’s shooting down into the ground, faster than a bird can fly, falling in total darkness but for the sparks shooting off the rails. The smell of hot metal mixes with the shriek of the cart. He’s been at it so long now that his body braces for the final thud, for the final whack, with a tension like cumming and then t’s over, the jolt that’s like to disconnect his skull from the bones beneath. His fingers find the lantern and relight it. And then he rises, stiffly, and makes his way round the bend. He was right. He is the first.


***


She waits for him, just turning her head over her shoulder. He slides his hand over her warm smoothness before pulling the gift from his pocket. The softness of her mouth against his skin. For a moment she leans against him, and he feels the tightness that he carries with him begin to give way. Tears sting his lashes.

Dimly, he can hear echoes from the other drifts. She spends most of her life in the dark, half-asleep. They need each other for comfort beneath the ground. The first time he came there, as a child, it was a lark to ride down the chute. To see the hidden world where Dad and his friends lived: not hot like Hell where the Devil abides, but cold like a grave. Mates slapping his back and saying he looked likely. At tea Dad told him tales of Cornwall. The failing tin mines, riots when the men went hungry for bread, babies reared on dripping and swedes. The day word came from across the world: gold veins in black earth, rivers of shining pebbles, nuggets the size of a man’s fist. A place called California.


***


Then came the day he went down in earnest. It stunned him. For the whole shift he felt that he could not wake. Darkness, bad air, his head throbbing from the fumes of nitro. He had gone beneath after boyhood in the Sierras: sun glinting on snow, blue sky blazing over deep forest, a pine schoolhouse that smelled like incense in a church.

Sixteen and a mucker at half pay. Dad fallen to lung rot, Mam speechless as stone. Nell’s belly swollen, forcing the wedding. He didn’t know that would end in blood on the sheets, the floor, the path to the privy, like the marks of a fox kill in snow.

No reason to keep at it but for Ellen, no reason for his heart to keep thumping in his chest. Nell would be as pleased as not if he never came back. She knows his life is insured, he took it out before the child came, the girl that lived for a month. He can still see the small face, frozen as it was on the lace pillow: the cheeks wax-pale beneath the scabs of pox. He and Nell had staggered arm-in-arm to church, dumb with sorrow that their love had wrought a coffin.

***

He tried to kill the parts of himself that wouldn’t stay beneath, but his soul rises through the rock. Each day he fights the beast that lives in the dark. Not Ellen, but the anger. There is something in his boot, something that gleams almost as good as gold, sharp enough to break the skin, break the sin, flood brightness over the pit boss. But that he won’t do. He feels another choice shaping itself in him, one he’ll bear. Nell can console herself with that Dennis. Live with Mam. Take to walking by the tracks in a feather bonnet. It’s all the same to him. A matter of days, only, till the veterinary rounds. And that hour, when the hard bullet enters her living brain, is when he goes up, rolls his shirts and Sunday clothes in a bundle, and takes his place among the living things of the earth. He will turn his hand to anything so as it’s life.

Once, in summer, he passed the master’s garden; saw his Chinese butler bringing tea, his daughter playing on the grass. White dress and flaming hair, as if the gold had nourished her. Cheeks red as if the life of himself and his mates ran in her. Bracelet shining like the vein in dark earth, eyes blue as the sky he seldom saw. He once heard that a murdered man’s eyes hold the image of the killer inside, like a tiny photograph. Maybe that golden child dwells in Ellen’s eyes. He won’t let her stay in his own.


***

Most evenings, darkness with nothing but a moon. Whiteness in the black, like the creamy film stealing over Ellen’s fine eyes. He felt a sick shock when he saw it first, then could do naught but stroke her softly, hoping she would be spared the knowledge of it. So many of the mules have gone blind. The overseer told them it was from the lack of light, it must be so. Sight will wither and die as unused senses will. And he feels sometimes as if the same is happening to him. A film between him and the world, between him and goodness. And the men sing, still, of the lust for the mine. All of them, roaring in chorus on the descent in the mantruck.

God knows if there’s a reason for it; if greed and bread were worth the sin of breaking her. Her fragile breath, the fluttering pulse that snakes through her heavy flesh like a thread, her hunger, the wet streak from her lips shining on his hand in the lanternlight, all driven by the machines and the need for gold. Soon there will be nothing of her, her body used by the rock, and she will stay here. Never again will she see the sun. Her life will be served, and she will stay for eternity in a narrow cleft in the rock. Lazarus, he thinks, and prays that a day will come when the stone will roll aside, light as thistledown, and her blind eyes will see the sun, the other sun.

Julie Ries

Julie Ries is a writer of historical fiction at work on her first novel. Her fiction has appeared in Guernica, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Ark/angel, and was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize by Colum McCann. She holds a B.A. from Yale University and an M.F.A. from New York University. Set among Cornish-Californian gold miners at the turn of the last century, her story "Beneath" was inspired by a tour of a mine and its haunting records of greed and sacrifice.

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