Sābanto - The Copper Briar
A young worker woke up to a short but piercing whistle, and opened his eyes to a room that was almost pitch black. Neither sunlight nor moonlight reached this far beneath the surface of the earth. The chamber that held him had been dug into the coal rock, more than a kilometer deep in the mine. Only a small kerosene lamp, turned to the lowest possible setting to conserve precious oxygen, lit the place which housed a hundred men cramped inside. The air was thick with black coal dust that found its way into his mouth, crunching between his teeth, tasting of nothing more than moistened rock. It surrounded everything like a fog, entering his lungs with each breath.
He brought his hands, blackened with coal dust, in front of his face. His face was the same color as his hands and the faces of other people around him. Only the whites of their eyes were distinguishable in the near-total darkness. His hair was naturally black, but it was even darker now, and heavier, caked in dust.
He climbed down from his bed, which moaned metallically from the strain, and put his bare feet onto the hard, cold, and slightly damp stone floor.
He hadn’t slept well. There was a constant sound of distant drilling and hammering as people worked around the clock. He couldn’t fall asleep, tossing and turning, too tired to sleep, not being able to find a horizontal position that would relieve him from the pain of his muscles and joints. People around him coughed and moaned as they lay in their dirty bunks, slowly spitting their lungs out onto the floor. After he finally did fall asleep, he was woken up by loud voices in the corridors. There had been another accident—a worker had collapsed at his station and been mutilated by a drilling machine. They killed him out of mercy.
He coughed and spat on the ground. He’d fallen sick two weeks ago. When he was last outside, up in the village, he thought he’d seen blood in his spit. That had been four long shifts ago and he felt the sickness progressing. He was already thin from the hard work—skin and bones, really—and the worsening cough was eating him alive. His clothes were dirty, just like the rest of him, and they hung on him like a sack.
Two more shifts, and he’d line up at the rusting elevators to go up to the surface and be allowed to breathe the fresh mountain air in the town nearby. That’s how it worked here. Six days of work and one day off. Back in town, he would collect his weekly payout of ten Flicks. He could spend them on anything the company store sold, but there was no doctor to treat him. He’d go to the mine director’s office instead, and if the guards didn’t kick him out and hit him across the ribs with their batons, the man would see him. He’d ask for a few days off to get better. He’d exchange the Flicks he saved for tickets—real currency—and the guards who blocked the roads to prevent contract breakers from fleeing would let him through. There might be a doctor in the next town, although it was quite far to walk. If the director rejected his time off request, he’d endure the remaining four weeks of his three-month contract as best he could. Many were able to finish it, so why shouldn’t he?
He left the room with the rest of the men, and the armed guards marched them through the dark corridor to another chamber dug in the rock that served as a kitchen. There were many already standing in line to get their ration of food. Once his turn came, he picked up his breakfast and sat down at one of the long, crooked tables with the rest of the workers. Two free meals a day had sounded perfect when he’d signed the contract, but they gave him only a bland watery soup in a tin bowl and a piece of dark bread that turned even darker when the coal dust settled on it.
He coughed again, grabbed the corner of the stale bread with his dirty hands, and ate most of the piece. He didn’t know if the dust on his food would make him sicker, but he couldn’t afford to leave it uneaten. After this morning meal, he’d work hard, breaking the rock and pushing full coal carts for twelve hours, with no breaks. He threw the small piece of remaining bread onto the floor for good luck, as the other workers said to do. Feeding the rats was useful. They detected poisonous gas much quicker than humans. Who’d be first to flee when it was too dangerous to continue working, the rats or the guards?
A loud cough rattled his lungs.
He got up, returned the empty bowl, and made his way to the assembly point in the black corridor to meet with the other workers who were lining up and waiting for the guards to allow them access to their working stations. He didn’t speak to anyone. The silence between the men was broken only by their coughs.
A few minutes later, a loud whistle sounded. It marked the start of the next shift. The column of a hundred men moved slowly forward. He walked, dragging his feet, further into the mine. The workers were indistinguishable—dirty, and wearing rags. The men blended into the dark walls that surrounded them. The sea of heads walked deeper into the mine, fading into the darkness and the lingering dust.