The air was thick. Thick, hot and full of a black dust. You could almost touch it. He tasted it on his tongue, spitting it out in wads onto the dirt floor. He was a young man of 33, but he no longer felt young. He felt worn out and used up. His skin was white, but the dust covering every inch of his face, arms and chest gave his skin an odd grey hue. The tunnels themselves were pitch black. Once you were down in the mine, the light of day was left behind, and the only light was the candle you brought with you. Buy it yourself and don’t forget it. He hated the dark, but he’d learned to accept it and live with it long ago. The holes they worked in, held up by wooden beams that could give way if someone bumped them too hard, were where they spent most of their days and sometimes half the night if their quota wasn’t reached. If he didn’t control his imagination, it seemed the walls closed in on him as the hours wore on. He picked up his pickaxe and swung, gouging it into the wall. He hoped it would not collapse on him – another fear! Ten months ago, he had heard the “Mother”* speak. She had said they were cowards if they didn’t stand up for themselves. She was right, though he hadn’t felt like a coward. You couldn’t do this job if you didn’t get the better of your fear. But something did scare him – starvation. They couldn’t eat if they didn’t buy at the company store-they only had the useless mine currency. And he didn’t know how to do anything else. He was scared of one of them being sick with nowhere to go, watching his family die one by one. But he had listened to “Mother”, and she was right about something else. They were hardly any better off now – his wife had miscarried 2 babies working these mines. His oldest boy, only 13, had already lost 3 fingers. And now, as of 6 months ago, his 9-year-old worked the tunnels. ‘We need the small ones,’ the boss had said. ‘The demand is getting higher,’ he had said, ‘and if we don’t fill it, somebody else will.’ In the past 18 months there had been 2 explosions and a bad cave-in. 30 men dead, 2 women and 8 children. After the last explosion, they organized and went on strike. That’s when the bosses brought in the militia and they were beat so badly they couldn’t work for days. And then came the strike-breakers, the blacks from further down south. He knew somewhere inside, they were not to blame. They didn’t have anything, either, and had probably heard the same promises he had - a good, solid job. But he had risked everything and saw himself losing it all. When they came, the strike lost its leverage. So he turned his anger onto them. They had stolen the jobs and the chance to make the mines safer, to stop them making the children work, and to earn a wage with dignity – that’s the word “Mother” had used. And now, nothing had changed. And his two young sons were slaving in the mine, just like him. He looked over as the children were brought down from the surface and he watched now as his youngest was lowered down the long shaft in the corner, into the narrow tunnels below. He knew the boy was scared and tired. He came home bruised every day, and it was only a matter of time before he lost a finger, an arm, or a leg. He decided then, the union had to be revived. It was dangerous, but it was dangerous not to. The owners were greedy and cruel, depraved in their hunger for the wealth they stole from all of them who worked the mines. His enemies were not the soot-covered men and women who scratched like he scratched to survive, but the fine-clothed men who took it all for themselves. He would fight, this promise he made to himself. That’s when he heard it, the explosion, muffled and expansive. Children’s cries followed the reverbing blast that shook the ground beneath them. He tried to distinguish is son’s voice…but couldn’t. The shaft was gone, but the screams persisted. They were not all dead! His heart beat into the center of his brain as he and others broke out of their momentary shock and jumped forward, digging with their bare hands. The cries continued, there was still a chance! He dug in desperation, ignoring how his hands bruised……and he prayed.
Jay was far down the road now, though how he knew that, he did not know. He took a deep breath, knowing this “phenomenon” was coming to an end, but it wasn’t over yet. Every part of him felt wounded, as if those lightning bolts had indeed pierced his entire body. He followed the path opening at his side……
She was dancing. The soft suede clothing moved gently over her as she swayed her balance from one foot to the other in turns and prances, her arms gathering and giving in gentle gestures, her knee-high leather shoes pliable over the ground beneath her feet. The smell of sage and cedar emanated from her wrinkled skin and her headdress of colored beads and the feathers that trailed down her braids attested to the serious nature of her ritual. She was strong and supple in her movements, despite her old age. Though she was alone on the plateau, she had no fear. Her spirit animals protected her, and her brother animals knew she meant no harm. Her ceremonial song of ancient origin traversed over her entire vocal range, and she sang it until her consciousness reached the gate of her ancestors. They greeted her spirit, and, in the stone circle, she sat on her fur mat and listened. Theirs was a language of currents and waves, and only in deep reverie could she understand them. “A people of broken spirit will come. With them they bring great change and great destruction. They have forgotten the sacred bond with earth, and lost faith in kinship. They will not see you, and in blindness they will try to obliterate you, our history and our knowledge. What will happen we cannot say, save you will need your strength. The earth and her children will be very sick. Remember…..protect, but do not hate. Defend……but do not revel in slaughter. Speak our ways, teach them, give them to all who will hear. Connect with other ways that are of the same mind. Stay the sacred path!” The ancestors became quiet and retreated. She gathered her things in the bundle, placed it on her back and looked to the horizon. The vast forest spread out below her, beautiful and enduring, and she tried to imagine how this land could be anything other than what it was at that moment. Though she knew it would not happen in her lifetime, she felt frightened for all her children. She thanked the ancestors for their wisdom and trust, asked forgiveness of the small creatures for her disturbance of their home, and set off down the mountain to her village.
The road was almost quiet now, a few lights dancing like leftover fireworks, still unpredictable but non-threatening. He was very tired, but no rest was granted. He must endure as those in his visions had endured. The open way was off to his left. He could continue walking straight, the road was free enough……but he was not, not yet. It was his choice now. He turned to the left.
He looked in the mirror of the medicine cabinet. He was a man with stringy hair, bloodshot eyes and ugly stubble on his face. He was not young, but not old either – just worn out and used up. He was…….his father. The cold water he splashed on his face made him groan, and without bothering to dry, he walked across the hall to his bedroom and sat on the bed. He hated this – the morning after. His vision blurry, his brains swimming in his head, his body like dead weight, his stomach like curdled milk. And now it was all too often. He stood up slowly, wanting to do…….something. But what? For a year now he hadn’t had a job. He sat back down on the bed and let a foul-smelling belch escape his mouth. A long while, he tried to focus on what he should do, as drops of water fell on his hands. God, I didn’t mean it! I didn’t mean any of it! He had been angry about something and put his son, only eight years old, out of the house. He had hit him, he didn’t know how many times, and thrown him out. It had stormed badly, but he had been too drunk to notice. In his stupor, he had forgotten him and left him out all night. This morning, when he realized, he’d opened the door, and the boy, soaked and shivering, came in, put on his pajamas and laid in his bed. He stood up again, now knowing what he needed to do. He went to the kitchen and looked in the phone book. Family services. The boy’s Mom had been gone for 2 months. She wasn’t coming back, that was sure. He’s my son, but I can’t take care of him. There’s nothing I can do for him. He picked up the receiver and dialed the number. The woman on the other end asked him some questions, and after a brief conversation, said someone would come that day. He woke the boy up, told him to get dressed and pack his things. He was leaving. The boy kept asking questions. Why? Where? What was wrong? He was crying, kept saying he was sorry. But he didn’t answer the boy’s questions or even look at him. He closed the door to his son’s room, went into the kitchen, sat down and waited for somebody to come.
Jay, back in his body, watched the man fall. His arms hung at his sides, the gun loose in his hand. The adrenalin and the giddiness were gone, replaced - now his whole being was weighted down with sadness. He got it. These people were his past, his history, a part of him and his make-up. They lived in his DNA – they were imprinted on his being and he was a consequence of them and their memory. For him, they had awakened and given him the gift of sight - of hindsight and, surely their intention, of foresight. The empathy that had been blocked out of his consciousness and suppressed deep in him had returned in the space of a moment. The memories his ancestors had shared forced him to see and feel himself. Now he could feel beyond the anger and aggression, beyond the satisfaction of causing pain, to feel his own. What would happen next, his superiors would take him in, maybe fire him if the backlash was big enough, maybe just put him on leave. But in the end, nothing would happen. It never did. He would be free to live his life. But his illusions of power and supremacy were gone. He had been used, and he would not be used again. He had been trained to focus on the worst part of himself, the parts that were broken. He had been appropriated for someone else’s benefit. But now, the disappointment, the fear and the isolation that had made him vulnerable to control, were in his own hands. And he would find a new way. That young man was dead – a sorrowful, irreversible truth – and he would see him falling whenever he closed his eyes at night. He became conscious of the loud, angry voices yelling at him, so ready to take him down. Another officer came and took his gun, patted him on the back and led him to the squad car. As he lowered his head to climb in, he asked his ancestors for courage.
*Mary Harris “Mother” Jones
Jay’s uniform clung to his skin, pasted there by the thick sweat teeming out of his pores and running down his body. The heavy material stretched over the flexed muscles of his arms and torso as if it would tear any second. But he was not consciously aware of it. His adrenalin rush was too high, the highest he had ever felt it, pulsating currents coursing through every part of his body, culminating at his forehead and temples, detaching him from the reality of the ground beneath him. Unconsciously, he had waited for this day. His eyes did not swerve from the man who was falling less than 5 feet in front of him. His heartbeat raced. His breath was raw and wild. But his hands were steady. He knew he was good! Ten seconds ago, he had willed those hands to tense and squeeze, and his finger to press the firing mechanism. Almost imperceptibly, he had jerked and the explosive pop had hit his ears. He had watched the bullet enter the man’s shoulder, jerking him sideways and slightly upwards. And again, the other shoulder - and again, the abdomen, and again……six times, in quick succession. Just like target practice. All other sound and motion had lost their relevance, and only the pop, the flight of the bullet, the jerking man, the pop, the bullet, the man, the pop, the bullet, the man…..mattered. Jay felt high, almost giddy as the seventh bullet was charged. This time he had aimed for the heart.
Abruptly, in that moment, everything went dark, just for a fraction of a second, as if someone has turned the sun off and then on again. The bullet had emerged less than an inch out of the barrel. He could see it there because everything was frozen……stopped, like a film projector stuck on one frame. Nothing moved, and neither did Jay. No sound, utter silence, as if something had just…..swallowed it. Before he could even formulate the question of his sanity, reality shifted again and he was on a dirt road. Every muscle in him tensed. The world slashed into white lightning, like demonic shooting stars, ripping through the space around him. Armageddon?! He always thought it would be a glorious battle of righteousness, not…..a personal nightmare! The clapping thunder crashed into his ear drums till he thought they would erupt in his head. Jay had always been afraid of thunderstorms. They were, for him, evil, bellowing giants coming down on him. This one terrified him. Jay lost his balance, falling, curled up, to his knees. Looking around in intense fear, he looked for a way to get out of the storm, but he could see nothing, nothing but the sharp bolts that flung themselves in every direction around him, hitting the ground just inches from his feet, just missing him. He could feel their heat, the currents of electricity. He shut his eyes tight and tried to close his ears to the deafening noise, but it sifted easily through his fingers. He had to escape this place! He opened his eyes again and saw to his right a way out, narrow and treacherous, but less treacherous than staying where he was. He scrambled up and ran, hoping he might avoid what felt like his imminent death. Then, he was out of the storm. But he was……someone else……
He was crying so hard he could hardly breathe. And the minute he caught his breath, the screams would come again. He looked at his hands – they were dark brown and very small. He was 4 years old, almost 5. Sitting in the back of a wagon drawn by work horses, he was jostled every which way, his arm held tight by a man he didn’t know with white skin. He didn’t know where he was or where he was going. He had heard his Mama scream his name in desperation, had seen her trying to run for him, had seen the overseer hold her back though she fought him with all the strength she had, had heard her wailing voice call him long after he could see her, until he was too far away to even hear her anymore. With every cry of his own, he called and called, sobbing, “Mama! Mama!” over and over again. His face was streamed with tears and his body wracked with panic and terror. The wagon jerked to a stop and he was pulled down off of it. Voices talked. The man who was still holding onto him yelled at him to shut up and smacked him hard across the face. The shock of pain made him cry harder until the second one came. His cheeks seared as a third one battered his face, making the world spin around him. His panic and terror escalated and he was silent, his breath caught in his chest. He didn’t want to be hit again. Barely able to stand, he started shivering. He felt so cold and all he wanted was his Mama to pick him up. The man dragged him to a small house, into a darkened room with a cot and threw him on it. Finally released, he curled up tight, lay still and closed his eyes. When the man left, he opened his eyes and whispered again and again, “Mama…Mama…..Mama”, hoping she would come, until he could no longer speak. After a long time, the shivering stopped, a numbness overtook his body, his mind squeezed shut, and he just stared out into the room, seeing nothing.
Jay was back on the road again, as suddenly as he had left it. And though the storm continued crashing around him as before, it was the visceral anguish of loneliness and utter despair that sent shivers convulsing through his body. He wished it would leave, he wished the memory would go, but it was his memory now. A way was open to the left. His will to go on was drained, but he went on, and became again…..someone else…..
His eyes fluttered open. He was very high up, almost at the crest of the hill. He could feel his life draining from him, heavily and very slowly. Almost naked, his light brown skin was burnt and cracked from exposure to the sun, wind and heat. A putrid smell of blood, pus, urine and feces emanated from his body. The searing pain in his hands and feet that had sent him to the edge of unconsciousness, waned to a dull ache after a while, but returning again if he moved. And as his body lost strength, the involuntary downward pull slammed it back. Trying to remain still, his blurred vision cleared somewhat, and he looked around at the others. There were at least sixty like him, hanging on the t-shaped gallows erected for enemies of the state. He knew these men - some closer, some more distant, some by name, some by sight, some beloved friends, some not. But he recognized them all. They were freedom fighters, like himself. Whatever differences they had, and they had had many, their objective had been the same – an end to Roman tyranny and Roman domination, the right to be a free people without obstruction or interference. As these thoughts came, the passion of them lifted him up. But he was too weak. His body sagged, and the pain returned. They had pledged to die for their cause, and now they were. The Romans were relentless, heartless and blind. He didn’t want to die. Even now, he wished to God he didn’t have to. Life…….was desirable. Involuntarily, he pulled at his hands to free them, and grunted in pain, almost fainting again. He had sworn to himself not to cry out. His vision blurred to the point that everything ran together in a jumble of shades and colors. He so desperately longed to see his wife…….and he prayed she would not come. The soldiers harassed and ridiculed the women, and sometimes worse, shoving, kicking and some even raping them. Nothing was beyond the Roman soldier. “Don’t come,” his voice, hardly more than a whisper, was harsh and cracked, dried out. “I am here!” He heard her voice, though he didn’t know if it was real or in his mind. His vision, no longer focusing, was turning to darkness. But he reveled at the sound. She spoke to him, quietly, soothingly, and a lightness came gently over him. It was almost over.
The lightning storm had lessened slightly and the thunder was not as overpowering as before. But Jay’s mind, preoccupied with the memory, with thoughts of loss and freedom, of sacrifice and love, did not notice that his fear had eased and softened. He rubbed at the palms of his hands. The way out was clearer this time, but he went with wary hesitation, wondering who he would be, and where he would find himself, and if he would live. But he knew, his only choice was to enter…..