Dad liked to call my brother St. Gregory the Great. He said when Greg sneezed, he always sneezed three times in honor of the Trinity. Mom said Greg did tend to wander around with his head in some other world, that was true. And every so often, Greg just had to grab somebody and say, “What we really need to figure out is…” or, “Why would you want to do that?” or, “Look at this!”
Last New Year’s Eve, Greg shook me awake after midnight because he’d just realized the year 1961 was the same upside down as it was right side up. I said, “O-o-kay-ay…?”
Greg said, “Well, then!” And he was gone.
This summer, the night before I was supposed to go down the Crownfire shaft to help Dad with his electrical work, I woke up because I couldn’t breathe. This was because Greg was sitting on my chest, it turned out. Not only that, he seemed to be trying to crush my throat with some sort of cold double-barreled vice. I heard him whisper, “Per intercessionem Blasii liberet te Deus a malo gutturis et a quovis alio malo.”
Latin. I even recognized some of the words. Greg had been clutching my throat with the crossed candles they used for the Blessing of St. Blaise, two rods of beeswax slick as marble.
“There, Deke,” Greg said. “That’ll take care of it.” He shoved to his feet and staggered out the bedroom door. I said to myself, Why does he always think of these things at night?
The thing about St. Blaise was he saved a boy choking on a fishbone, and so became protector of all throats and all maladies thereof or anywhere near. I guessed Greg wanted to do something for me before I went down the Crownfire, but he didn’t approve of the official patron saint of the mines, St. Barbara. See, the deal with Barbara was that her bad pagan father had been blown up by lightning, for being bad, and for being pagan, and by some really unbelievable jump Barbara became patron saints of miners, because miners blow things up.
So Greg picked St. Blaise as a better bet. He told me once if you lighted the St. Blaise candles in the evening, all over Butte miners’ throats would burn clean of pain as if they drank hot clear soup.
I’d already had my throat blessed, back in February. So the real question was, where’d the candles come from now, in August? We had this big old brontosaurus of a house and Greg would hide things, under floorboards, over the furnace, behind drainpipes. Already I’d discovered—and left untouched—a votive candle in its little crimson shot glass, half of a bottle of sacramental wine, a silver holy water shaker.
In the morning Dad found me huddled in my blankets in the middle of the room, waiting for the alarm clock to go away, sure there’d been some mistake.
“Get up,” Dad said. “Uppity, up, up. Come on, Deke.”
I did get up, and I did say something, though maybe not from a language people normally used in the daytime. When I seemed to have enough momentum in the direction of getting dressed, Dad turned to go, then turned back, and leaned on the doorframe.
He said, “Your Mom doesn’t think we should go. She makes it sound like you’re some kid out of Oliver Twist. Like, Oliver of the Borogroves? Artful Dodger of the Way Down Underground?” But he didn’t wait for an answer.
See, the Borogroves were these thousands of miles of played out and closed down tunnels and shafts and drifts under the city of Butte. Greg said they should be called the Borogoves because that’s what the word was in Alice in Wonderland. But Eddie, the miner next door, said Alice might have been an authority on rabbit holes, but she didn’t know jack shit about hard rock mining, or about the Borogroves. Anyway, Dad was trying to charm the Company with this theory that the Borogroves might still have something left. The new wiring system for the Crownfire was the key, he said, and he was just the guy.
When I went into the kitchen, I didn’t see Dad, but Mom was sitting at the table wearing what big sister Veronica called her Good Gray Fairy bathrobe, ragged and furry and with pockets full of cigarettes and dimes and baby teeth. So I sat down across from her, and poured milk into my cereal bowl. Mom watched me, drinking her little jelly glass of anemia wine. She was saying, “When you really think about it, there’s really no way a child should ever go down into one of those holes.”
I wasn’t sure who she was saying it to. I stirred and stirred my Cheerios. I couldn’t see why Mom kept going around and around about the thing, about me and the mine. I knew it wasn’t actually legal, but it wasn’t all that complicated: Dad wanted to save money, and I wanted to gather money together. I always wanted to do that. I needed as much money as possible so I could get away from these people some day.
Then Dad was standing right behind me. He started rubbing my shoulders like a trainer warming up his fighter for the ring. His hands were hard, and big enough to slide around my neck with room to spare, and strong enough to pry muscles off my bones.
Dad had been telling me how important this job was for his career and everyone’s future, but now he told Mom that this little job was all for me: “Deke, he keeps getting lost in the shuffle around here, this is something for him to do, something of his own.”
As Dad and I were going out the door, Mom was pouring herself another little glass of anemia wine. Mom was tired all of the time, and she said red wine encouraged red corpuscles, giving new strength to the blood. She’d go back to bed as soon as we were out of the house, but now she was saying, “Oh, I guess you’ll take him down there. You’ll do what you do want to, you always do.”
If you went by the Crownfire right before a shift change, you might see the miners gathering around getting ready to go down, but Dad wanted to wait until the mineyard was empty before we went in. Anyway, as we sat in the car, Dad was going on and on about it, how somebody owed him a favor—that’s what he claimed—and how the Company would look the other way. Not only that, this would be specialized, contract work, so the Union couldn’t squawk either, or so he claimed.
Finally, the yard quieted enough for his liking, and we got out of the car and went through the gate.
I’d never been so close to a mineshaft before, but couldn’t see much under the looming iron gallus frame, or headframe, just the gate and the elevator car, what the miners called the cage. The hoist man said, “I knew you were bringing your helper, but didn’t think you were working with a dwarf.” Ho ho. But from somewhere Dad had scrounged up a miner’s hat that fit, even if it didn’t have any batteries for the lamp. Dad said my job would be very simple, and I’d do better without the distraction of the lamp anyway.
Dad had already done most of the work, running mazes of wiring into the parts of the Borogroves that might be reopened. I’d be in charge of this board he’d fixed up, a piece of plywood about three feet by three feet, with dangling wires and about 50 green Christmas lights in a grid marked off with letters and numbers. My job was to see which light went on and when and for how long, or to notice if it went on and went out right away, or if it didn’t go on at all, and write everything down. Dad used Christmas lights because he had to do the whole thing on the cheap, but I was disappointed he didn’t use multicolors. Dad said his way was the professional way, green for go.
So there we were in the cage, and I wasn’t ready when the hoist man let us loose. We went down fast as a carnival ride, faster. I was lifting on my toes, maybe turning weightless. In free fall, like an astronaut. Outside the cage, darkness and light flickered as we passed level after level. I couldn’t quite catch my breath, until we yo-yoed to a stop at the 3,800-foot level.
I’d known it would be warm down in the Crownfire, but I started to sweat before the cage gate swung open. I could tell the mine was dusty and itchy, and—I didn’t know how this worked—it somehow smelled sweaty out there, down here.
And a funny thing, the mine looked like a fake cave, somebody’s lousy idea of a counterfeit cave. Where were the stalactites, where were the bats? Caves needed to have some kind of flow. This place looked like they hacked it out with an ax, jammed in some timbers, threw down a track, scattered a few prehistoric light fixtures around.
Lugging the light board, I followed Dad through the shaft station to where he’d set up shop between a timber and a ventilator pipe. His splintery little workbench held a collection of tools along with an electrical box with guts of coils and cables and switches spilling out.
I was still looking around when Dad took the light board, and said, “Remember, all you have to do is know whether a light’s on or off, right? And write it down? Here, Deke, this is ON. Now this is OFF. Now that’s not too much trouble, right, Deke?”
I could tell he was nervous because he was acting like I was stupid. He went back to the shaft station, pulled the signal on the hoist, and the cage rattled away, back to the surface of the earth without us.
Dad came back to the workshop and started splicing the light board wires into the tangle from the electrical box. When he was finished, without another word, he handed me a clipboard. Then he turned and headed down the main tunnel, until he was lost in lights and shadows. I hadn’t told him I’d left my lunch and water back at the cage, but it was too late to do anything about it now. I wouldn’t see anybody else down here, he’d told me, because this level was all Borogroves, no miners, no station tender.
Now what? I wished I’d brought a book along. I was walking back to the shaft station when the lights went dark, every single one. I turned around and took a few steps towards the workshop, but stopped when I realized my directions were already mixed up.
I hadn’t expected all the lights to go out. Or had Dad explained everything about the situation and I’d missed it? I had the clipboard in hand, and so I pulled my pen out of my pocket, ready for action, just in case. I couldn’t see anything, but kept clicking the pen, glad it was a ballpoint, because the nuns only let us use fountain pens.
It was completely dark, all right. Really, Dad’s shop had to be just a few steps away. And what about the shaft station? And the shaft itself? What direction? What if I wandered back that way and the gate to the shaft was open? I wasn’t sure how deep it was there, though I knew there was a deep pool of mine water at the bottom.
The thing was, I kept expecting the mine lights to go back on again, or at least for the green lights on the board back at the shop to start up their patterns. Then I’d just walk over there and do my work. We’d never talked about how long I’d have to wait for him to get going with the testing. I clicked the pen, I clutched the clipboard. I waited.
Maybe Dad was keeping the lights doused so I could see the lights on the board better, maybe, when they went on. As they surely would.
But the dark kept not going away. I could hear the blurp and hiss of the pumps, the drip of copper water. The pumps! So the power hadn’t gone out completely. They said there was acid in copper water, it could burn you, eat holes in your skin if you didn’t watch out.
When those sounds stopped for a minute—for no good reason—it seemed to me that if I listened hard, I could hear a creaking overhead, or murmurs from below my feet. Then the pumps would start up again.
How long had it been dark? An hour? Half an hour? Two hours? I was having trouble with time. It was like lying awake waiting for morning, and finally sneaking another peek at the clock, and finding you couldn’t have been more wrong, time had been puffing out or shriveling up like a dead fish. I wanted my watch with the radium dial, but I’d left it home on the dresser. Dad had given me his watch, but the dark dial didn’t do me any good.
I sat there, in the very warm, too warm dark, feeling sort of stupid. Dad played practical jokes on us, sometimes. In fact, he thought we could learn a lot about what life was really like from practical jokes. That’s why they’re practical, he said.
I thought a practical joke would mean a little more action than this, though. There was nothing to do, sitting there, sitting in the dark. Wait. Don’t move. That was what you did when you were lost in the woods, I knew. I wasn’t really lost, of course, but I knew I was still supposed to just cool my heels, stay put, hold tight.
And then they’ll come and find you…. Wouldn’t they? Even though I wasn’t lost. I knew I’d just mess things up if I moved around. Dad knew where I was. He knew exactly where I was—probably—as he wandered around doing his electrical things. So I waited.
I tried to take a nap. I took off my miner’s hat, curled up on the ground, and tried to use my folded hands and the clipboard as a sort of a pillow. I was quiet, but it was ridiculously uncomfortable, and it was hard to tell if I was really falling asleep: that’s how dark it was.
I remembered how when I was little, and Mom and Dad were fighting out in the living room at night, they’d turn the television up, as though adding chase music and galloping horses and gunshots would fool anybody.
It didn’t fool me, and I’d burrow down in the bed. I wouldn’t just pull the covers over my head. No, I’d slide and creep way down to where the air was strange and hot and silky. I’d flatten and spread out like a starfish at the foot of the bed, and you couldn’t tell I was in there at all. I’d tell my sister Veronica that from there I could tunnel my way into the Borogroves and could surface under her bed, or anywhere in our house, anywhere in Butte, maybe anywhere in Montana.
Now if I could somehow reverse the process and wonder into the Borogroves and somehow end up back in bed again….
Don’t think of the Borogroves. Don’t go anywhere near them.
Usually, the Borogroves were boarded up to keep miners—or someone like me—from wandering into them, but I knew Dad had opened at least some of them for his work. I was getting thirsty, not hungry yet, but so thirsty. I tried to think: had my canteen and lunch bucket actually gone back up the shaft with the cage? Or had I put them on the bench outside the cage? It should have been easy to get over there, even in the dark, it wasn’t that far away. And what if I made my way to the station—was the gate open?—and moved my hands all around, slowly, inch by inch, and found my canteen and my bucket?
Maybe I could detect where the shaft would be by carefully waving my fingers and listening for air currents, if I was careful, and sure, I’d be careful. But where to start? What I needed to do work out a search grid like they did to rescue people, or a spiral pattern, they did it that way, too, right? But how could I mark it? I’d need a hammer and chisel, and yes, knocking away rock would take a while.
I was starting to think maybe this wasn’t a joke, maybe this was Dad’s idea of making sure I’d never want to be a miner when I grew up, like making you smoke cigars until you threw up, or throwing you in the deep end until you refused to learn how to swim, or however that worked. Since I wasn’t at all interested in becoming a miner, he was really wasting his time.
But Dad was the only one who knew where I was, and if something happened to him…. Like what? Like anything…. Anything that could happen down here. Or maybe Dad was just doing this so he could be the hero, the big man, for rescuing me. And maybe he’d think I’d be grateful. When I had light again.
I stood and took a long straight step away from where I was, and then another, and another. Then I had the idea that, okay, maybe I could do a grid this way, if my steps were precisely the same length. I turned 90 degrees, and took another step, turned 90 degrees, took another step. Two more turns, two more steps, and I completed a square. Now I leaned down and ran my hands over the dusty rock of the ground, just to make sure it was there, maybe. I was encouraged, this might work, I might be able to find my way, if I could keep each stride to the exact same length, if I kept my turns to a perfect 90 degree angle, if I checked my squares every fourth step, if I could keep track in my head of all the steps and turns and squares….
I took another step—and smacked head-first into the shop timber. I did see some light then, a spray of sparks in my head. Should I have been happy? I’d made it back to the shop at least, but instead all I could think of was how stupid I’d been to have forgotten to wear my miner’s hat, even if it didn’t have any batteries.
I’d hit my forehead right above my nose, the pain was just banging away. Not only that, the heat was really getting to me, and dust was somehow trickling down my throat. I leaned back on the timber, and slid down to the base of it. I was starting to wonder, couldn’t your eyes sort of starve from lack of light? Didn’t that happen to fish in caves?
Could I be blacking out? The idea made me start to laugh. I whispered it, Blacking out. And said it out loud, worked my way up to screaming it. Blacking out! Blacking out! Blacking out! Then I started laughing until I started coughing.
Maybe the real problem, the reason I was stuck down here, was that something had happened up there, up in the rest of the world. Maybe the Russians had dropped the Big One at last, maybe that was it. So I’d never get out? Or maybe this was the best place to be, then, if the surface of the earth was a smoking radioactive ruin. Eddie used to say copper was so vital to America that Russia had a missile with Butte’s name on it. Butte was important, Butte was a primary, A-list target, he said.
So if that happened, maybe I needed to start searching for water down here, water without acid in it, hopefully, and maybe I could find and eat giant mushrooms like in Journey to the Center of the Earth.
But I stayed where I was. Eddie used to talk about miners trapped in the mines, by fires, cave-ins, electrical malfunctions. When they came out—if they came out—they wanted things, Eddie said. Sometimes, just a long hot shower. Or they might go to church, some of them. Or they’d head right over to the whorehouses on Mercury Street (and then go to church, Eddie said). Or they’d drive up into the mountains, high above the smoke line, and just breathe for a while.
One guy they pulled up out of the dark quit right there on the spot, then spent the rest of his time drowsing in sunlight all day and reading all night with every light in the house on. He eventually moved to California, they said. But another saved miner started walking around all night. He liked night, he said, because it was dark as the mines, but there was nothing over your head, the night was open all the way up.
I hadn’t been down in the dark all that long. Had it even been a full day yet? A day and a half? But it seemed to me I was starting to forget what colors were like. I thought about how I’d seen light after banging my head, but no, I couldn’t bring myself to do it again, no, thank you. After a while, I noticed my eyes were burning, maybe reacting to the dust, and so I started rubbing them, gently, and then harder, because I was starting to see these little points of white light. I just started grinding away, and there were these snowy little fireworks behind my eyelids.
I wondered if I could conjure up blue, by thinking hard about the sky maybe, while I rubbed, but it didn’t work, I couldn’t seem to get anything going. Green would have been nice, the color of the Wyler’s limeade our family liked to drink. I tried different angles, pressures, rhythms of eye-rubbing, but no, green never came. Mom always added a drop of food coloring so the Wyler’s would be even greener.
My eyes were burning more than ever, and I finally had to leave them alone, and the white streaks slowly drained and faded into the black.
Red…. Red would have been good, a fresh wet cherry cough drop maybe. Once when I was seven or eight years old, Greg and I were over in Eddie’s yard, one of the best places to play in the neighborhood, what with the junk cars, the tall summer grass, the collapsing shacks and old woodpiles that were hard to tell apart. We could see Eddie out on his porch, could hear him coughing, a kind of crackling and crowing, a ripping open. When this happened, we’d usually pretend we didn’t notice, and just went about our business. But this time Greg turned to me and said, “You’ve heard of lungfish, right?”
I said, “Yes.” I had, sort of. I’d heard something about lungfish.
“Well, Eddie’s got a bad case, a real infestation. And he just has to work those lungfish out.”
Eddie was hacking and spitting as we watched, and then he launched something out into the yard, gleaming red. “A Crimson Lungfish,” Greg had said. Greg told me Eddie’s infestation had come from the Amazon jungle, that he’d been quite the explorer before he decided to dedicate his life to mining copper in Butte, Montana. This might have been the first thing Greg ever told me I didn’t believe, but all that summer I couldn’t stop thinking about those lungfish, released, swimming like red rifle bullets through the grass.
In the dark, fumbling around Dad’s shop, I remembered how Eddie and his friends had said that nine bells, in sets of three, meant trouble in the mines. Nine bells… or nine buzzes… or nine hoots from a horn. So that’s when I started banging on the pipe up the timber with a wrench, nine beats:
here I AM…. here I AM…. here I AM….
TROU-ble IN the MINES….
TINK… TINK… TINK….
here I AM…. here I AM…. here I AM….
When the electricity came back on, my eyes slammed shut, but it was too late, there was all this prickly dazzle inside my head. All I’d wanted to do for the longest time was see something, and now I was afraid to open my eyes. Maybe I’d damaged them? And then the light had finished them off? When I peeked, slow lightning seemed to coiling around everything.
Finally my eyes started calming down, tears streaming, though I wondered where they came from, I was so dry inside. And then I saw Dad coming, striding down the tunnel towards me. He didn’t look like he’d been having such a good time either, with dust and burns and grease stains all over his coveralls. When he reached me, he didn’t say, “Thank God,” or “The main thing is you’re okay,” or even, “Well, let me tell you what happened….”
No, he just said, “What in bloody blue hell were you doing?” He took the wrench away from me and banged it much harder on the pipe than I ever could have. Just one bang, though, leaving a huge dent.
I’d been there in the dark six and a half hours, Dad said.
“Six… and a half… stinking… hours….” Dad said. “Not even a bloody blue shift. Those miners think you’re nuts, they don’t want anything to do with you. Or if they ever do anything with you, they’ll do it for a joke…. Well, you better hope they think you’re a joke, that’s the best you can hope for.”
I heard everything about everything all the way up the shaft, all the way across the mineyard, all the way to our car. He threw the light board—I heard glass breaking—the clipboard, his watch, and even the miner’s hat I’d been wearing into the trunk. He did hand over his canteen, though, when he noticed I couldn’t seem to talk.
I was able to say to rasp out at him as we got in the car, “Did we just steal that hat?”
He didn’t answer, didn’t look at me, and we gunned on down the road. I just kept drinking from the canteen, rolling the transparent water around my tongue and down my throat. After a while, Dad said, “You know, the Company is going to pretend this whole thing didn’t happen, and my contract is out the window.”
A bit later, he said, “Well, they weren’t really going to give me a contract anyway. They’d owed me a favor, but only the favor of pretending they were fair.”
He kept driving the way he was driving. He jolted to a stop when our driveway appeared, slammed his door open, and jumped out. He was halfway to the house before he spun around, came back to open my door, and planted his hand hard on my chest. He said, “Well, come on now.” And he lifted me out by a handful of shirt, and maybe ribs, and dumped me on the driveway. He took his canteen away, got back in the car and took off, gravel cracking.
Maybe he’d come back later tonight. Sometimes he came back at night.
I went inside, but nobody seemed to be home. In the kitchen, I poured a glass of water and stood looking out the window, tracing with one finger the bruises on my ribs and above my nose. Then I noticed Greg below in the backyard, doing pushups. Lately, he’d been doing pushups to ward off cancer.
Greg collapsed into the grass. After a minute, he stood up and walked around the corner of the house, and I heard the side door to the basement scrape open and closed.
That was strange. I found a box of matches, eased open the other basement door off the kitchen, stepped into the dark stairwell, eased the door shut. I was about strike a match when I saw the wavery cone of Greg’s flashlight as he drifted by the foot of the stairs. I sat down and waited, and then I heard him leave the way he had come, the side door creaking.
If I explored the basement, maybe I could figure out what Greg had been doing. Maybe I could find the St. Blaise candles. Maybe I just wanted something from Greg. Or maybe I thought when you stole something already stolen, everything just cancelled, turned inside out into being okay again.
I was still holding my match ready. It would have made all the difference down in the mine, just to hold a match. I struck this one, sniffed the sting of sulfur, watched the buttery flame. I wondered if one of those old trapped-in-the-dark miners ever burned his house down after being rescued.
Photo of old light bulbs against dark background by Scott Norris, courtesy Shutterstock.