the miner and the girl
Published in The Preface, October 2019
Misty Mountain stood in its usual place, vast and unmoving. If one were to fly like a bird and look down upon it from a distance, one would notice how the wide expanse of trees looked just like moss on a cone-shaped rock. The mountain kept in itself the memories of natives, then pioneers, then miners. And of the men whose names were carved on the walls of the quarry, there was one who still loitered about and was unable to leave the place.
This young miner knew darkness as the day’s true color, as the sun stayed behind the mountain’s cavernous side, letting a large shadow fall over it all through the day and past evening into night. He preferred the shade, felt the least translucent in it.
On that day - which the miner thought to be sometime in late October - he knew that though the sun’s heat had kissed the tips of the highest trees, the cold under their roots would win out. And just like it did everyday, that cold would turn into a mist that would soon prove impenetrable. Misty Mountain had surely gotten its name from this daily occurrence. The miner himself had learned of it when he’d joined the coal company in 1908. He had just turned seventeen that year, and still he saw the mist as a boy just shy of eighteen. Through the decades, it was the mist that had rendered a countless number of hikers irretrievable to their home-folk. The mist had given him purpose, which resulted in a stockpile of bones in the Northeast Quarry, nearby to where his own lay, brittle in moldering rot.
He was lonely and every hiker offered the prospect of company. He had yet to perfect their fall. To make it match the manner of his own.
For the miner had concluded that were someone to land in the spot where his decaying figure lay, surely they would stay there with him and keep him company. In the days that had spun into a century, he had considered every possibility why he alone had stayed behind out of the hundreds that had died alongside him. It couldn’t have been the gas or the dust, for all the miners had breathed it just the same.
He had fallen three feet, eight and three-quarter inches from the rest of them, hitting his head on a lever on which they’d relied daily to keep the coal-carts from derailing. It was this irony - he’d surmised - that caused him to stay as the watcher and the keeper. For directly after the disaster of 1909, the mine had been shut down.
But on this October day, headlights ascended, waving in and out of the tree-studded ridge. They were square in shape, the left one ever so slightly dimmer than the right. There was nothing familiar about this type of light to the miner, even though he had seen such things over and over for more nights than he could comprehend. They wove up his mountain, reminding him of dim oil lamps that drunken men carried as they stumbled home from the tavern. As the lights approached, illuminating the fog the way a bright moon would behind wispy clouds, the miner stepped quickly behind the trunk of an old oak. It was nearly as old as he. His step made no sound and his sharp inhalation drew no air, still he felt a stir in his chest and loins. He played this game with himself, pretending to hide, when he knew none could see even an outline of his presence. Without peeking, he listened to the motor’s purr as it passed by him and stopped at the path that led to his shack.
Earlier that day, he had dreamt of hikers at Hornet Bypass. This often happened to him. There was an old woolen blanket folded on a bench by the shed. It had bonded together in permanent pleats, like tar-covered wood left out in the sun, its creases glued so close that not even a termite could squirm between them. The miner had taken his daily place on it to keep watch. And it was there where the things that concerned him traveled like news on the wind into his mind.
Today, crossing and uncrossing his legs, still in stiff britches blackened by soot, he knew by the pulse of that wind that hikers would be coming at sundown. He had let himself become bemused, considering for longer than usual, how they must have unclasped that heavy chain by the ranger station two miles down the windy mountain road. He wondered whether or not they had hooked it back in, or maybe left it lying on the ground? He had sat thinking of this seemingly small detail that would determine whether or not anyone would come looking for the new arrivals.
The door of the car squealed as the first visitor stuck out his colorful rubber shoes that were laced up with clean, white laces. He was young, the miner concluded and watched the boy step out onto the soft earth which was covered in a deep layer of long, brown pine needles. As the other passenger - a girl - exited on the other side, the miner could see a hungry smile on the boy’s face. The miner walked closer now, unable to resist getting a look at her. For a long while she kept her head turned away. The miner proceeded closer still, until he stood just inches away. By merely lifting his hand, he could have touched the her long, very light hair.
At the swift twist of her neck, he saw what had made the boy’s mouth open in thirst. The same sight made the miner’s eyes begin to feel as though they were growing tissue inside their concave pits once more. She was lovelier than any girl he had seen in life or in death. Was it her sheerness? Her skin was so milky white, he could almost see through it. It seemed to the miner that she was close to death. Close to him. This thought incited a new desire in him. Not for mere companionship, but for something he hadn’t craved since he’d been alive.
Curiosity. Not just to hear the sound of her voice. But to know what she might say. He lingered behind her, staring and breathless. As if she might speak his name at any moment.
The girl held a flat, palm-sized lamp over her head. The light, like magic, dimmed after a few seconds. Then she chuckled, tossed the rectangle into the car and shut its door. The boy and girl met in the rear, embraced for a moment too long. The miner held his gaze on them. He felt anger start to flare, but then the boy and girl separated and started on foot toward his shack.
Usually, travelers left their cars in the designated lot where the sign said: Welcome to Hornet Bypass at Misty Mountain. Please keep away from the quarry. Stay on designated hiking paths. Park closes at sundown. No alcohol allowed. Pets must be leashed. Daily, the Miner walked to the sign and read it, but the young boy and girl who had just arrived had driven past it straight to the edge of the wood, where the path to his shack started. That was how the miner knew that they had come looking for him.
Their laughter made the miner think of a chisel, and for some reason, he found it difficult to wait for them to find his shack. He concentrated on the predictability of their stumbling search for it. He followed behind them, yards away, and smelled them, rather aggressively. He inhaled deeply to get the full recipe of how they might land, a vision he had learned to foresee by the body odors of his visitors. In the girl’s smell, the miner recognized something surprising.
He stopped and searched for it. It was the smell of his own loneliness. A deep, terrifying hunger. A rather welcome shock. This was a scent that would not fade soon. She brought with her much less of that otherness from their city, from their homes, that the boy had brought with him. Or was it wishful thinking to make her into a creature of the mist, like himself? It helped him picture her landing on the right spot. Hitting her head on the lever. He could see the blood, already, dripping from the hole in her head. Her long white locks, like a horse’s tail, dragged through ripe mulberry bushes. He felt a stir in his chest at the thought.
A long moment passed before the miner realized that he had lost sight of the boy and girl. He rushed around the shack, only to find her sitting on his blanket, the boy standing over her, her chin in his hands.
He watched the boy push the girl against the wall and kiss her incompetently. In his life the miner had - in his own opinion - mastered the art of necking a girl. Surely this girl would have agreed with that sentiment, if he could only prove it to her.
As if reading his mind, the blonde girl laughed and turned away from the boy. Then, to the miner’s shock, she spoke to the boy. About himself.
“He’s probably watching us,” she said playfully through her soft pink lips.
“Hell yeah,” said the boy, leaning closer. “Let him.” He pushed her head sideways against the decrepit boards of the wall.
“Not here,” she said.
The miner crept closer and lowered himself slowly against the shack, until his eyes were level with hers. For an instant, he could swear she was looking directly into his eyes.
“Not yet,” she said, turning away and shoving the boy off herself. There was surprising force in her long, thin arms.
“Where?” asked the boy, who had tumbled backward.
The miner followed the girl with his gaze. She was walking straight toward the Northeast Quarry entrance. “This way, I think,” she said. A branch broke under her feet. “I wanna find the ghost,” she said, throwing a mischievous look to the boy, who was following her.
There was enough mist to blind them both.
The miner waited by the shack. Why would she jest about looking for him in the quarry if she’d looked right into his eyes? He was unwilling to admit she hadn’t seen him. He waited for the sound of their voices to change from near to distant. From hitting the side of the mountain to reaching its echoing canyon inside. When he heard the change, the miner neared the entrance, not needing to look where he was going. He knew the way.
“This is it,” the girl was saying when he arrived. “The haunted quarry. You scared?”
The boy produced a torch-light that was losing its vigor, creating a slight, yellowish circle around himself. He lit the entrance with it. “Scared? More like, turned on.”
“Whoooo… Miner?” the girl said. “Where are you?” she sang. Her voice rang, sending the miner somewhere into the distant past, where he hadn’t been since he’d been alive.
Her voice made him want to eat the sound of it, to feel its warmth go down into his hollow gut. He wanted to taste her, for even imagining her flavor on his tongue put him back in his hometown. Once more he could feel the sweat in his palm, seated at the back pew of the Catholic church, next to the girl he was after. He was there again, waiting for mass to be over when the heavy church doors let them out into the noonday sun. He was running across the street after the redhead, the heat rising from the pavement, then following her into the ice cream parlor. A rush of cold cream down his throat. The redhead’s hips moving into his, her curls tickling his nose as he inhaled her sweet scent.
The miner opened his eyes, wanting to see nothing but the white-haired girl. What was the shape of her neck? But the sunken pit of moss and dirt at the entrance to the quarry was empty. The girl had gone all the way in, led the boy in with her, past the criss-crossed wood barrier to the collapsed pillars where the rails vanished under the rubble.
The miner hurried behind them, a charge in his loins from his daydream. He realized he’d almost missed the moment. It had come quickly. The thought of missing it frightened him, and for one powerless moment it seemed to him that the girl might find the place on her own. That her foot might slip on sleeper and she might fall wrongly, never hitting lever on the way down—
There was an exhale of pleasure. Then a gasp of pain.
Entering the cave, the miner saw both sweat-covered bodies of boy and girl intertwined on the exact spot where the miner wanted her to stand. The miner held as still as he could, doing his best not to be distracted by their buoyancy, their youthful skin stretching taut over their bending bones. He looked away and willed - with long forgotten prayers - for them to separate. He begged that only the girl should slip. That her perfect landing in the bottom of the quarry would not be obstructed by the boy’s grip on her.
The boy growled and leaned on the rock-wall behind him, gasping.
The miner could wait no longer. Quickly, he moved toward the girl, sliding his black, sooty sleeves behind her, wrapping them around her naked waist. Then, he willed the emptiness inside him to condense and deliver one sharp tug as his fingers - with their dirty, overgrown nails - dug into her milky skin.
“What the—” she said, feeling the prod.
The miner pulled her against his chest, into himself.
The girl screamed and resisted. Her foot caught on a rusted spike in the rail and she flailed her arms as she fell, her body slipping right out of the miner’s grasp.
For several moments, the scream of the boy congested the cavern. He shouted her name, time and time again, until the sound of it had no more meaning, and it turned to dust on his dry tongue. Breathless, the boy stood with his hands over his privates, his back glued to the stone wall.
The miner passed the boy like a stranger on a platform. He reached over the rusted rails to see where she had landed. He lowered himself down the ledge and let his hollow hands lead him to her, estimating the space between her warped arm to the heap of bodies and bones nearby.
The miner could tell three feet, eight and three-quarter inches the way a skilled sailor would know east from west. He had measured the distance over and over for a century. He lowered his coal-stained face next to her mouth, hoping to feel her final exhale, to ensure she had passed from one world to another.
This time, he would not miss a single beat of the clock. In fact, he knew no more time. The century had spun on its axis, like the wheel of a cart. He had waited through it for this one death, which was so much like his own. The simple slip of a foot. Twist of a heel.
The miner touched the berry-blood wetness of her white hair, now spun and disheveled, but all the more beautiful to him. Her death developed under his soiled hands, knuckles black with waiting.
Then, the girl opened her eyes. Gasping in a lungful of old coal dust - and needing nothing more to breathe - she saw him. The ghost she’d come looking for.