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an Excerpt from Drowning in Darkness
by Peter Oliva
Copyright 1993
Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved


There is darkness inside a mountain that is unlike the night, another world where methane swirls next to the coal face like a warm current in black sea. The gas seeps through mine-shafts and tunnels, marbling both rock and air. It can seduce a miner to sleep, to dream, to abandon life. An invisible river quietly winds past his cheek, under his nose, threatening to carry him away. One breath and all his senses leave him, or perhaps he leaves them. His brain numbs, frozen on his last thought. His legs buckle, suddenly boneless. And then he dreams.

The gas softens the cobbles, eggs, nuts, peas and fines of coal into sponge, cushioning the miner's fall. It penetrates and turns coal soft, making the rock just as boneless his legs. But more often than not the methane pulls him further away than the coal floor, further into darkness. Carried along by sleep, with the current tugging, swirling around him, he drifts deeper into the mountain. After awhile, his safety light fades in the distance.

Older, more experienced miners tame the gas and channel it to dig their coal for them. By redirecting the fresh air coming up through the man-way with huge tarred curtains they steer those same swirls of methane toward the face. They work the gas back into the face, expanding the coal, bubbling soft coal chunks right out of the wall, scraping away layers of darkness. Coal sponges tumble from the seam, along with iron deposits the size of skulls that threaten to break bones and crack heads. The methane rivers probe the face and the coal bounces, gets shovelled back, dropped down, railed out.

Horses, as slow and smudged as chinook-filled skies, haul the box cars up through the tunnel and out toward daylight. As the miners move further into the seam, minute shards of dust hang in the air, wash over their leather boots and eventually flood the tunnel with more than just darkness and gas. The men twist and swim through this dust. The coal peppers through them and they push themselves through shadows that move only grudgingly.

There is Celi: carving into the darkness, breathing Turtle Mountain's dust, breathing the mountain itself and carrying its dust out of the mine with black, portmanteau lungs. Celi: with coal cheesed under his nails. Celi: wet and grainy, dust spreading like sepia over his body, making his hair thick and blue-black, his skin shoe-shined into darkness. Celi: finally becoming the mountain, the water, coal seams, rock shards and all. Disappearing.

He cannot see anything except what his head-lamp lights for him. Water, almost invisible to the pinprick of light in front of him, dribbles down the walls, veining the night. The brattice curtain bulges beside him, holding back the clean air, while gas flutters against the coal face.

And through this fog, through currents of methane, dust and stone, Celi steers the curtain like a sail, one hand on the tarp's mast, the other on his pick, clearing rooms with clean, straight lines. As he moves further into what was once, only a moment ago, solid black rock, he bends the currents, sparing coal pillars that sustain his tunnel. The men behind him support these pillars with ten-foot timbers that grow and stretch thin within minutes to meet the cap rock. The ground is rising. The floor heaves under their feet, defies gravity every second. Timbers pivot and creak into place, groaning to each other as they hold down the floor, as they push up the roof. Foot by foot the men hammer and wedge their timbers into frames and cross-sections, following Celi into the seam as if escaping a wooden skeleton that forever chases them.

With invisible breakers of methane and dust billowing in front of him, Celi sails his men away, through the mountain's moonless darkness.

Copyright 2006-2008 Peter Oliva. All Rights Reserved.