by Sam Rhodes
No matter where they looked, my eyes refused to rest until they found the mountain; its blade gored through the horizon, and rust trickled down its slopes. Its sides swirled with streaks of raw pastel, drawing my gaze along smooth spirals colored dull and ripe like Easter-eggs. It looked back, too. Most people came through Ogygia on the way to Temuco from Talca, looking for work. When I arrived , the foreman Rashimon had told me that no one expects to find work here, but they always do. The mountain eats them up, he said; makes miners out of all of them; shows them the treasures that perspire in the guts of the earth.
Most of the miners lived in shanties that sprawled out from the base of the mountain; the settlements cut through the rainforest that surrounded the rock like the first spears of ice that dive down from the frozen surface of a lake and slice through its water. Some of the shanties were hewn into the fat roots of the trees that still hugged the south side of the mountain. He said that whenever a new man appeared in the town, a girl of three or five would grow to be of age over-night, and in the morning they would wed and, and the new man would become part of the excavation crew.
But not all of the miners took this gift. Some of them chose to live alone on the smooth dip of the mountain, spending their days working inside and their nights pressed against the cool rock, smoking salvia and whittling dolls of wood and feeding fires with the lush rot that fell down from the canopy of the rainforest. It wasn’t uncommon to see a man with his pupils dilated larger than the slit of his eyelids carving cryptic symbols into the pulpy limestone that bled through the skin of the mountain like sweat seeps through pores; hacking with an axe that had been blunted past the point of rescue. When their eyes would die and their minds snap, they would say that they had seen the Spheres, and that God was a clown’s face.
* * *
Our torches carved out into the darkness, giving shape to the negative space. Ore streaked the flesh of the earth, synching slabs of rock together like ligaments grip and pull at the ends of bones. I could smell the money in the place, through the smoke and the sweat and the fear of the miners; through the smashed-scarab smell of the earth, my nose sucked up the scent of a new condo in Maryland. I turned towards Rashimon.
I said, “So, what’s the take from this mine?”
“Eight-hundred-forty-thousand,” he said.
“No, a day. You must be quiet if you are going to watch.”
He held up his hand, and our group stopped. This part of the mine had a different smell than the entrance: rosewater, peaches, plums, figs. It was lit not with electric lights and headlamps, but a thick cluster of candles which sagged into the pores of the limestone floor. It was almost as if an altar of wax had been pushed out from the rock. A kid, baying madly, screeching, was dragged into the chapel from a further room in the mine. The rope around its neck had burned its way into the meat of the little goat: its throat bulged out around the noose and swallowed it up. A woman, covered in soot and mud, was pulling it to the center, into the soft heat of the candles. She lay down, and forced the howling goat on top of herself. Then she slit its throat. A silent scream forced its way from end to end of its mangled vocal chords. The kid kicked at the woman’s stomach and chest, leaving bruises and hoof-shaped cuts. There was a soft crack, her pelvis collapsed. Her mouth was pulled taught and twisted to her chin by invisible, pinching fingers; but she did not make a sound. The thick blood carved troughs in the soot and the dirt that groped her skin.
I looked at Rashimon, “Why… why are you doing this?” Silence sloped between us. “God damn it Rashimon, why are they doing this?!” Rashimon did not answer. He waited until the last drop of blood had left the goat before speaking.
“We do not reject the duty afforded to us by the size and shape of our hands.”
“What, what the Hell does that mean? This is… this is disgusting.”
Rashimon said, “You may not understand, but we have not had a single death in these mines. We know what it is to take from the earth, and we know the cost. What is taken must be repaid.”
The blood woman rolled over; the goat did not fight her. It was dragged, four or five feet, to the base of the altar. My stomach felt chewed up like cud. Rashimon turned to me.
He said, “You have seen, now you must see.” In his hand was a small glass pipe, like the one I had used in high-school. He took a hit of whatever was in it, and then passed it to me.
“What?! You want me to smoke, now!? I’ll get paranoid! I’ll jump into a chasm or fall on a stalagmite or-”
“You want to know why. You must see. Use your torch.”
“I’d rather not burn off my eyelashes.”
“A regular lighter will not be hot enough. Use your torch.” My eyes begged his to take leave of me, but he would not look away until I had choked on the pipe. At first I felt nothing, except that something was very funny. A laugh painfully swelled out of my throat. My body was separate from that laugh: it had come from somewhere else.
The earth swallowed me up. A clown’s tongue drooped out of its mouth, down, down, always down, and into nothing. I was Maria, and Maria was me. A plastic man kissed her feet, tonguing the spaces between her toes, groping it savagely with the pad of his tongue. His eyes could only see Maria. His head stretched out from his neck, then his body ripped itself from the floor, he wrapped his arms around his self and tore at his hips; his nails dug in and ripped at his flesh, and he tore it off in chunks; they peeled off of his thighs like scabs, and fell to the floor with the dull thunk of clay hitting the sculpting table. He was laughing. Maria frowned, and punched the man in the face. She admired the exquisite vibrations that were elicited from the contact, and savored the feeling of his left side shattering, inhaling the sonorous groan of teeth being torn from their roots; jubilantly scraping moon-shaped indentions into the flesh that tightly guarded her knuckles. She imagined what the punch would have felt like if the man were lipless: if, denied that cushion, his teeth had come into direct contact with her brooding fist. She imagined the craters that would have been left by those heavenly bodies, exposed and gaunt against the raw strips of flesh that clung like children to the breast of her bone. She was laughing, then I was all teeth. The world colored itself in around me, boundaries grew like mold, rooting in the void, and I saw muddy veins of ore rippling through thick limestone. I was laughing, and I couldn’t stop. My eyes felt like they had been caked with gravel and then licked clean.
“We must go, now. This land must be left to feed,” Rashimon said.
I followed him out of the mine, looking at nothing.
* * *
When night fell, the mountain was set ablaze with cooking fires; the miners were smoking wild boar and goats on spits over crude fire-pits. The blood woman walked up to me. I knew she was Maria.
“We always eat fresh meat, though there is not a hunter among us: the animals walk to the village, their temperaments softer than freshly spun cotton.”
“What? They just walk in?” My eyes shook themselves from her gaze, and found the rock. “Will you show me where?”
She took me to the south side of the mountain, where the nape of the woods brushed up against the adipose rock. A marsh of blood washed the grass at the base of the mountain. Maria turned to me, “This is where they come. It is as though the smell of rotten flesh attracts its opposite. Here the living graze on the bones and the spoiled fat of their brothers. The men of the village take these twice-chewed bones out of the field and use them to erect monuments of protection; to scare the creatures who live beneath the mountain and to suck the gods out of heaven and pit them against the shadows that move.”
“Creatures? Like, moles?”
“No, like me.” She smiled, and then she laughed. “Your eyes got bigger than a child’s when I said that. Come, there is work to be done.”
“Work? Now? But the day is over, the men must be exhausted.”
“If they do not find the new veins in time, then they will dry up. Come. It is your first day in the village. You must work, too.”
* * *
Rashimon handed me a pick-axe. “This is to be yours.” The weight of the axe mashed an imprint of the raw grain of the handle into my palm. Its weight made the muscles swell until they stretched my skin. We had been walking through the tunnels for hours, silent. They would not tell me what we were looking for, just that they would find it. Rashimon stopped.
“Here, this one is new.” He pointed to the left, into an artery that crept further down, into the earth.
“What do you mean, new?” I asked.
“It was not here yesterday.”
“What?” Rashimon took out a cigarette.
“Rashimon, wait,” I said, “shouldn’t we bring some canaries in first? I don’t want there to be an accident.”
“The Devil will protect me.” Rashimon flicked his lighter into motion. The fire hit me, and then the sound. I watched Rashimon’s face liquefy and pour onto the floor. He fell down the slope of the tunnel. When he stopped, his body was still burning. Shimmering in the light of the smoking torch, I saw streaks of copper, iron, and gold ripping through the walls of the cavern below. The miners behind me grated their vocal chords against the grimy air. I could not see their faces, but I knew they had been shook; where once a marble bust had sat now shrieked a burial mask. They ran back; torches abandoned, axes wildly flung; into the blackness of the tunnels that led towards the entrance. I took off my hardhat and set it on the ground. My shoes slipped off, and I sunk into the tunnel.