The electrical cord banged against my calf. My headlamp barely cut through the cloud of rock dust ahead and my head rang from banging my hard hat into the top. Roof bolts stuck out at crazy angles and the wind, increasing in velocity as I neared the choke point, whipped at my clothes, intent on ripping them from me. The cloth was stiffened by repeated sweating, soakings in diesel and hydraulic fluid and then headlong falls into coal and rock dust. I was beginning to feel as though I were in Mordor, carrying some awful inheritance back from whence it came, to cast my birthright into the fiery pit of forgetfulness. The man who was supposed to be accompanying me, twenty years my senior and spoiled from a lifetime of working in union mines, had long since turned back, handing me the end of the thousand-foot-long cable without a word. I could see the fear in his eyes, smell it on his clothes and in the air around him.
His stubble was soaked with sweat. The exertion was more than he had bargained for, when he gave up his union pension to return to work in the bowels of the earth, where the rocks groaned around us, a reminder that we were standing where no man should rightfully be. He played out the cable as I drug loop by loop forward, stumbling through the dust. Rock dust is sprayed liberally in these deep coal mines as a means of fire suppression, a feeble attempt to feign control in an unforgiving and hostile environment. It may save lives, but it chokes one’s lungs and makes finding secure purchase for your feet nearly impossible. You are forced to just stumble along, tripping and half-falling as you go, dragging heavy loads behind you.
A rock fall had forced the mine foreman to place massive pumps into the area in order to draw down the water enough to allow air, driven by great fans at the surface, to circulate through the mine, providing oxygen to breathe and ventilating carbon monoxide, sulfurous gases and methane into the outside atmosphere so that miners working underground could live. Groundwater had fallen from above from the fracturing of mining operations and drowned the shaft through which air had to pass. The pumps had shorted out and burned the cable into, causing a mine fire at the location of the fall, which was nearly two miles past the end of the track line, where diesel powered machinery could access.
Sparks flew from the ruined electrical cable as I trudged forward, my lungs screaming from the work and from the reduced oxygen in the atmosphere. Smoke tore at my lungs and I was soaked yet again as I blindly drug my cable through another area inundated with contaminated water. There was barely room enough to keep my head above water between the surface and the top. I turned my head sideways as my mouth disappeared into the bilge, breathing through my nose. I was shocked repeatedly by the current and I abstractly wondered why someone had not shut down the breaker for the electrical line. In places it writhed like an angry snake, shorting and sparking and angrily shaking its blind face in the darkness, briefly illuminated by my passing headlamp.
At times I was nearly paralyzed by fear. Despite my heritage, the last of many generations of miners who had dove deep into the earth to extract ore so that others may become rich, nothing had really prepared me for this. I could hear the rocks talking, booming with the stress placed on them by the sudden ripping away of strata. The grumbled as their slumber was disrupted, vexed by the disturbance, angry that someone had awakened them after hundreds of millions of years of peace. I begged them not to take me, to allow me to pass protected, to remember my ancestors and look kindly upon me as my whole future was still ahead.
Fear rode with me, as real as the breath that I took. I trusted that the atmosphere was safe, as I had no way to check it. I had left my canary, no longer a live breathing thing with feathers, but instead a sophisticated electrical device behind so that it would not be ruined by water. How I regretted that decision! Every mountain bump and groan made me realize that this could be my last. I could see my fear – it was green, angry, not the soft, multi-faceted green of the mountains or the sea, but shiny and hard, with shifting faces. I considered turning back, of leaving my fear in the darkness, of making my way back to the light, where I could be safe, where nothing could hurt me, at least not maliciously, where I could breathe without torture and not ring my head against the belly of a mountain. I stumbled on.
I found the pump, grounded and lifeless, drowned by water. I freed it from the mud and rock dust and muck that had cemented the intake nearly shut, wrenched it from the bottom, thankful for a moment for the water as it made handling the sheer mass of the pump a bit easier. I stripped the connections free, and wired up the small radio that I had carried with me into the live electrical line, wincing as current raced through me, stiffening my muscles and causing my heart to beat erratically. A roof bolt, weakened by its short struggle with the sandstone above it, suddenly shot out of the top and drove nearly a foot into the ground just by my bowed head. I worked on. I had put aside my fear, and I was carrying on with what had to be done.
I finished my task. I radioed out that the pump was live, and I heard a brief cheer as the water began to go down and the measured air velocity immediately jumped back into the safe zone on the computer equipment outside the mine, somewhere safe. I gathered my tools and prepared myself to return to the light. It was a long way back, working through my fear again as the mountain boomed and the old gods talked around me, their vexation palpable in the silence as the wind noise decreased. It would be a long way back, indeed.
But I would make it.