Nobody ever says we have coal in our veins; they don’t have to. We have black half-moons under our nails when we wake in the morning; we ooze like oil when we skin a knee, split a knuckle fighting. We aren’t afraid of the dark or closed spaces. We don’t crave the daylight like some people. The night shifts, or the mine shifts, always worked out fine for our families, always had, even in the old country before the wars that made great-grandpa pick up and cross the ocean.
Our parents drink too much after their shifts, on Sundays take us to the coal-altared church with dark circles beneath their eyes, pray that the mines will hold on, hold on. The railroads close, leaving empty tracks stitched through town, across the countryside. We walk along the tracks until our stomachs rumble like a cave-in and we turn home again, the moon a lantern too pale to keep us safe.
One by one, though, the mine shafts flood. Or collapse. Or are chained shut. After a while they just started shaving the mountain apart like a block of shrink-wrapped something at the butcher’s, but now they don’t even do that, and us kids stand in the street at the bottom of the mountain and look up at the scarred side of it, the culm bank, the last listing machines that they brought in and left weeping rust onto the rocks in a long, fresh-roadkill smear. We eat glistening black licorice coal candy until our teeth are outlined by it, until we’re sated, sick from the high astringent feeling in the back of our throats, in our noses.
Just a few more years and we would’ve clocked in for our first shifts, worn our first serious boots, plonked hard hats on our heads. One high school closes and they cram the two together, old rivalries sorting and shaking down in a raw-nerved three weeks until a dress code change comes and we have a single enemy to unite against. Some of the school musters enough to give a damn about the sports teams, but not us. They’re like the bright side to our dark coin, the teen movie to our reality.
The movie theaters close, one two three, all walled off like grown-ups that forgot how to dream, and we pry the plywood off of one forgotten window near a rusting dumpster, crawl inside with stolen cigarettes and square green bottles of Jägermeister and sit in gilt red velvet, in the moldering, unending hush, look at the screen—first blank, then graffitied, and finally slashed and torn and pulled apart.
We eventually go to the mines anyway. We’ll be damned if they keep us out. Or maybe we’ll be damned by going. No difference now; there’s no money for college and there’s no jobs and there’s just the mines and the town rusting away from the edges. There’s a chain on the crooked gates, but the mines want too strongly to embrace us, their cavernous exhalations ushering us inside. The walls are shiny, damp in places, the supports petrified by decades of coal dust. Beer-brave, we say that if we sense danger, we’ll leave. But what we sense is welcome.
Every once in a while, somebody’s grandparents go to the old country for a visit, and when they come back, they talk about how all the relatives who could would come see them, wherever they were. They’d take trains for the entire day, just for lunch. They were family. They were welcome. The mine is like this. It embraces us, shuts out the noise from the new highway, from all the unhappy houses. The mine shuts out the anger, and the disappointment, the uncertainty, and says yes, I know you. I’ve been expecting you for so long. I’m so happy to see you at last. I have such gifts for you.
After all the broken promises, the things we’ll never get, it’s nice to hear about gifts for once.
That first night, we find helmets with lanterns that will never go out. It’s our initiation, it’s the ability to enter the mine as we are. We leave curious but happy and stumble home with the dawn. Our parents, exhausted, worn to jerky with worry and bills, don’t notice.
We get our boots next, the way we always wanted. Heavy like responsibility, perfect fits as soon as the laces are tied, no pinching or gapping, no crunched-up toes. Boots to live in, boots to work in. We explore the tunnels first with held breath and then more boldly. Nothing will hurt us here. Nothing can stop us here.
There’s still coal, of course. It just isn’t coal that was worth mining. It’s coal that’s deeper down than anybody was going to go anymore, but we go. The air is sweet and astringent for us, like all that black licorice, and we pick up pieces to handle, to marvel at the oil-slick rainbow mirror of it, and then, eventually, to chew. And this is our final gift, the one the others prepared us for. Once we start taking the coal, we need our helmets less and less. We walk further into the mines, into the cathedrals of the mountain, feeling our hearts and minds open in a way that never happened during church. Feeling such a deep understanding of what’s around us, of how we’re rooted in this earth, of how hard it has been to move forward.
We aren’t sure, actually, if our gifts are from the mines or from what is within the mines. We think these gifts are things we always had, suppressed, now broken free. Dug out. There is an important job to do, and we go through changes to fit the task, gradually, so gradually our parents don’t notice, and then all at once, our stomachs growling, grinding, not from hunger but from coal, our eyes pale, blinking lanterns the size of dinner plates, our fingers blackened, our forearms streaked up past the elbows.
We can no longer go to our parents like this, but there’s always a point when you can no longer go home again, isn’t there? The mountain is our new home, our real home, and we stray to the surface to feel fresh air on our faces less and less. The sun doesn’t hurt us, exactly, but we also gain no warmth from it. Our comfort now is the bones of the earth.
We are the most perfect team this mine has ever known, and only the mine will ever know it. The tunnels, passages, are full of equipment that was never removed, that was too old to be repaired once it finally broke down, that was half or more buried when a cave-in occurred. There were bodies in the cave-ins too, definitely, even though nobody has ever talked about that. How many of our families have buried closed coffins? How many of our families have men who no longer walked right, who no longer stood straight, who no longer coughed clean? But this won’t happen to us. The mountain has embraced us and nursed us, and we have become the mountain’s children instead of the mountain’s invaders.
We have not yet reached the heart of the mountain, which is deeper than any miner has gone, deeper than any miner could safely stand. We chew coal and we blink our headlamp eyes and our boots find sure footing as we wind our ways to the tunnel’s dead ends, and as we sink our fingers into the stone, sometimes porous, sometimes fracturing in sheets, and we tunnel further, deeper. It is warmer here than we expected; there are cold spots, but the warmth is enveloping, comforting, supportive. It soothes our muscles as we grow stronger, then strain further as we push our limits. It soothes our hearts as we occasionally think of our parent’s faces, one of the few things we miss.
The last time we look at the night sky, it is too big, too open, too alien. We are too used to the weight of the mountain above us, the tunnels blanketing our shoulders. We are too used to the absence of light, and even the pinpoints of the furthest stars are too bright, like the new headlights cars have that sear the eye and leave us dazed. The last time we look at the night sky, the moon is down, and for that we are thankful; surely we would have been flattened by her regard. We have to do it, though, one last time, before we withdraw into the mountain for good. Before we go down, down, down to the final tunnel, breach the final wall, and reach the throbbing dark heart of it, locked away from the mountain, in the mountain.
And when we do, it is as though we have removed some significant barrier, cut a chain, released a shackle. The mountain takes a breath around us, seething hot air pressing our skin, patting us on the head, good job, good job. We have done as the mountain has asked, and returned its gifts thousandfold. There was once an age in which mountains walked, before they became rooted, and now, in control of its heart once more, our mountain will walk again. It is roaring, screeching, as it pulls free of the rocks and soil that surround it but are not a part of it, and if the town looks out its windows, it will see the stars blotted out as a mountain takes its first stumbling steps, walking into its next future.