It was June, the middle of the day I was supposed to quit being a boy.
We were all of us sitting in rows watching Miss Pipe chalk out a problem on the board, a problem I wasn’t going to bother with. Normally I would, but not today, not now.
Someone had made a colored-paper pinwheel on a yellow number two pencil and it was making its way around the room and now it came to me.
The day was still and warm and bright. The windows all opened out onto the redbuds standing on the edges of the dry playground, and there was no breeze to catch the paper corners. I breathed in, and because of this day being the end of things, on purpose I took in the smell of the redbud, and the dusty hot smell of packed dirt, and the lead of the pencil, and also a whiff of something different, maybe some rain on the way, as if I’d never smell those things again, or if I did, they’d be changed somehow. And then I let the air out, slowly, measuring the flow of it. The pinwheel began to spin freely, the paper anchored to the pencil eraser with a silver straight pin.
I took another breath and blew again. The pinwheel made a sound, soft like bird wings flapping, and the deep color went from purple to lavender with the speed of the whirling. My breath turned the thing from dark to light, almost transparent, like something seen through water.
Then I heard the small sound of someone standing beside me. I looked away from the slowing pinwheel and into the face of Miss Pipe, framed like a picture in the window, her and her clean white dress. I couldn’t see her face. She was dark against the bright window, but I could see she held papers against her dress in one hand. The other hand she reached out to me as if to say, “come along,” or, I don’t know, maybe, “stay put.” My heart took a little jump under my shirt buttons.
“Yes, Miss Pipe?” I asked.
She stepped closer to my desk and when she did she moved out of the window frame. Now sunlight showed her face. A small line gathered between her eyes, and her mouth went up at the corners in something like a smile, but thinner and sadder.
“The toy, Clemson,” she said. “I’ll have to take it.”
I noticed I was holding the pinwheel up in front of my face like a hand mirror. I set the pinwheel on Miss Pipe’s hand.
“Thank you,” she said. She looked at the pinwheel and her mouth opened as if she was going to say something else. Then her hand closed around the number two pencil and she closed her lips around that thin smile, and she looked at me and nodded and tucked the pinwheel in her pocket. Then she handed back my paper and she went on down the row.
I looked down at my paper. Two hundred fifty words on the topic “I believe…” was the assignment. Across the top margin there stood an “A” and one comment in Miss Pipe’s firm lettering: “Good Luck.”
“Clemson Harding, because this is your last day, I’ve chosen you to read your paper aloud.”
Oh, Jesus Pete. I stood and walked to the front of the room, clutching the paper in my hand. I could feel everybody looking at me, but when I turned to face the class I saw in fact that half of them were staring out the window, and that made me feel more easy. I gripped the sides of my paper in front of me like a shield and I began to read out loud.
“I am awake but I don’t know it yet.” I glanced up over the top of my paper at Miss Pipe, then down again. “I hear the tang-tang-tang of the woodhen knocking on the chimney cap and the rattle of beak on tin snaps my eyelids up like roller shades, and I’m out of bed and out of the house and I’m feeling the damp on my skin and I’m feeling the sun hot red on my eyelids, and the small gritty bits of earth under the soles of my bare feet don’t trouble me at all. I run flying toward the creek in the woods. I run there so typical I wear out a path in the ground getting to the water. In the trees, now, I run slower, lightly, because the ground is springy with fallen things and growing things. I’m dodging trees and panting like a dog, which is something I believe I want more than anything in the world. I get to the creek and I drop to my knees in the spongy place along the bank and I lower my head and reach my two hands into the creek, cupping water. I see myself, but the running water is nothing like a mirror. I can’t make my face out to be anything more than a white shadow. Now I splash creek water on my face and it’s so cold and sharp it almost hurts. It takes my breath clean away.”
I glanced up again and my little sister Esther was looking right at me. I dropped my eyes to finish.
“I believe that a person should get up as early as possible, especially in summer. I believe a person should be wide awake.”
Two hundred fifty words exactly, including the woodhen knocking, if anybody wanted to count. I hurried back to my seat and people clapped because that is what we do when some poor kid has to get up and read in front of everybody like that.
And that was how it ended, my last day of school. Everybody clapping as if I’d done something special or I’d won first prize. But I hadn’t done anything, except what I was told. And where I was headed there wasn’t any prize. I knew all along some day I’d have to go, follow in Pap’s footsteps, but still, in my daydreams I was someone else altogether, someone out in the world, out to discover things. New things, interesting things, things like what you read about.
Now I packed up my pencils and my papers and my windbreaker and Esther and I walked right out the door as easy as if it didn’t mean a thing. I guess I half-thought someone would stop me.
I walked by Miss Pipe and she put her arm out straight in front of her. I took her hand and shook it once, up and down, like I’d been taught, and then let go.
“I hope you’ll stop by and visit when you can,” said my teacher. Her voice sounded dry in her throat. She squinted into the sun behind me, and then shaded her eyes with her hand.
I looked at her, almost directly into her face, I’d got that tall, and I nodded. “I will.”
I folded my essay paper longwise and I played with the hard crease of it, tapping the fold against the knuckle of my thumb in slow beats. I stood and watched Mickey and Junie and the other kids scatter the way we all do after school. Tomorrow, Mickey and Junie and the rest—Esther, too, if she was up to it—and Miss Pipe and one of her clean, pale dresses, they’d all be back here again. Not me.
Leadanna, Missouri, is a Company town. Most of the men and some of their boys work in the St. James Lead Company mines. They wake up before the sun, and step into an elevator that takes them down into the ground, five hundred feet or more into the mine. They put on their cap lamps, and that burning carbide is their weak light all day long. I shouldn’t say “them” and “they;” I should say “we.” I was about to become a miner, too, now I’d graduated the eighth grade. Not graduated so much as left.
The insides of my eyelids began to smart. I rubbed one eye with the back of my hand, and then I crushed my paper into a ball, packed it good and hard, and pitched it away into the bushes at the edge of the school yard. The ruffling of the hawthorn leaves scared up a pair of robins and they flew away.
“Come on, Ettie,” I said to my sister. We turned and walked away down First Street toward home. At one end of town was the Charles A. Snow school, and at the other end was the St. James Lead Company’s American B mine, and in between, First Street, Second Street, and Third all struggled to stay in neat lines as they rolled up and over the ridges of limestone buried in great shelves below. The residential streets were lined with one-story houses, each with one or two front steps and a saggy porch and bare or peeling or painted clapboard siding, all the same and Company owned. And then closer to the mine on Main Street huddled a little gathering of businesses: Miller’s Store and The Tunnel Tavern, and Travers’ All Day Breakfast. I could see the giant chat dump looming over the other edge of town, and beyond that squatted the lead mine where at this time of day Pap was still on his shift, and where Grampy had worked till the miners’ consumption made him sick enough he couldn’t go down anymore.
I stopped and stared at the chat dump. It looked so solid, permanent, as honest a mountain as old Taum Sauk. But it was really just grains of sand, piled there by miners like Pap turning the earth inside out. One good puff of God could blow it all away.
“You okay?” Esther asked.
“Sure,” I said. “I’m fine.”
“Liar,” said my sister.
She laughed and grabbed my hand in her small ones. At first I curled my fingers under so she couldn’t see, then I fanned them out. I knew she wanted to count the white spots on my fingernails and see how many lies I told.
She counted under her breath while I held my hand still. “Six!” she said. She dropped my hand and counted on her own fingers. “A gift, a ghost, a friend, a foe, a letter to come.” That was five fingers, one hand. Then the thumb on the other hand, stuck up skyward as if to say “okay!” She looked up at me. “A journey to go. That’s for six,” she said. “Your fortune.”
I nodded. Fair enough. “Okay, Ettie,” I said. “Let’s go.”
Tomorrow I would celebrate my birthday. I know to the minute what time I was born because Ma remembers those moments, those things that might be taken for signs. She used to watch and see I didn’t smile in my sleep, a bad sign I might be talking to the angels.
My birthday, June 2, 1924. I would turn thirteen years old at exactly eleven in the morning, and I would be completely in the dark.
The morning was cool and the air felt clammy on my skin. A chilling breeze swept fingers of mist around our legs, as Pap and I came up over the rise and down into town past Miller’s.
“Best part of the day, right here, Clemson,” Pap said.
Mouth full of biscuit, I didn’t trouble myself to answer.
“Our folks have lived in the Southern Missouri Ozarks a hundred year or more,” Pap said. His voice faded and drifted off, like the mist in the hollows. He swept a hand back over his shoulder and then pointed ahead of us, and my mind followed, running along the whole of the Lead Belt, a swath from Fredericksburg to Bonne Terre.
“Oh, I know it might not seem like much, heading down for a long day of it like we are,” he said, his voice warming again. “But I tell you what, Clemson—we’re part of it. Part of the land, part of the Ozark Mountains themselves.”
I swallowed a dry gulp of biscuit. I wished I’d had time for a longer breakfast, something strong and salty. A plate of bacon might have screwed up my courage a little tighter. “I’d rather be part of Wappapello Lake, fishing for crappie.”
“Or part of the woods, climbing a redbud. Or part of my own backyard, playing fetch with the dog I don’t have,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” Pap said. “Soon you won’t feel the dark so much. Your cap lamp will be your best friend.”
I kicked a stone down the street ahead of me. “A dog would make a better one.”
Pap sighed. I’d talked about my wanting a dog before. Once or twice.
Beyond Travers’ All Day Breakfast, the chat dump rose up like the hump of a ridgy-back beast, making the buildings look small.
“It rivals the ancient somber peaks that hem it in and give it birth,” I said.
Pap looked at me like I’d said something French. I shrugged. “I read it in a poem one time,” I said. “About the chat dump.” I looked up at the housing for chat transport running like a scar up the steep slope, and dumping rail car loads of rocky debris even at this hour.
“Poetry,” Pap said, and he nodded like he knew all about that poem already, and plenty others besides.
We followed the road around the great mountain of the chat pile, and when I saw the rolling mill, the powder shack, the office, the head frame, any poetical thought went straight out of my head. It was everything exactly the same as I’d seen a hundred times before, but it all looked different. Dirtier and older and scarier.
I took a few deep breaths and studied the ordered windows of the mill. I counted windows while we walked on, to steady myself. The twenty-first window was broken, I noticed, and that little careless hole in the glass gave me an uneasy, churny feeling, cold, down in the pit of my stomach.
About fifty men stood around the head frame, waiting to go down, all dressed in drab clothes, but clean, all with caps—mostly soft felt fedora types, some hard hats like mine—each one fitted with a carbide miner’s lamp.
A man I knew called Mr. Sawyer hailed us.
“So, I see we got a new recruit!” he called. He squinted watery eyes at me. “You afeared, young Clemson?”
“Nope,” I said, fast and loud.
“Well, you ought to be,” said Mr. Sawyer.
Pap started to walk away, leaving me with the lunch pails and Old Saw.
I called out to him. “Pap?”
“You’ll be all right while I go check us in with the Shift Boss,” he said, and he disappeared into the office.
The moment the door swung shut behind Pap, Old Saw leaned forward eagerly. Stringy gray hair hung around his white, sickly-looking face. His cheeks sunk in where he was missing some teeth. A whiff of his breath made me figure what teeth remained must be rotting in his head.
Sawyer scratched the sandpapery gray stubble that lined his jaw and looked me up and down. “Boy, I got some stories that’ll liketa curl your hair!”
I had been afraid of Old Saw all my life—that witchy hair, those awful sunken cheeks, those grubby, yellowed fingernails, the whiny voice. I didn’t want to hear any of his stories. But Pap had told me to stay put.
“Bout four years ago, a rough colleague of mine called Charley Underwood died a horrible death,” Sawyer began. I glanced around to see if anybody might be going to rescue me, but nobody did.
“Charley used to ride the shaft cage whenever it was called to the different levels of the mine. He took me and a bunch of boys on the crew down to begin our shift, and we’d only gone a little ways from the shaft when we heard something. We ran back, and do you know what we saw there? Why, it’s a sight I’ll not soon forgit.”
I shook my head slowly, sure I didn’t want to know, but just as sure he was going to tell me.
“It was Charley Underwood’s ruin of a body. Fell two hundred feet down the shaft to his death. I’ll spare you the rest.” He smacked his lips, as if holding back the gory details gave him as much of a charge as telling would have.
Old Saw sat back and slapped his thighs. “What do you think of that? Give you a case of the heebie-jeebies, don’t it?” he cackled.
“Yessir,” I mumbled.
Pap came over just then. “Come on,” he said. “Lead Man says we’re all set.”
Old Saw stood up. “We’ll talk more later,” he said. He pointed at me with a bony finger and shuffled away.
We walked over to the elevator cage. The head frame that operated the elevator loomed over us like a gallows. I felt sick. I didn’t want to set foot inside that cage. But I went, and I felt almost as if I wasn’t really the one taking the steps that moved my feet, like I was only watching someone who looked like me. Eighteen or twenty of us pressed in the cage and the shaft operator closed the door. The elevator jerked once, then began to sink. I turned my face up to the roof of the cage, and through the metalwork grille I watched the square of daylight shrink smaller and smaller and then disappear. I clutched my cap to my chest and I choked out a word, just one small whisper of prayer: God.
Then the cage dropped with a screech that made me wince. I thought maybe I could let out the scream I felt bubbling inside and nobody would hear. But I kept it in. I only heard it in my ears. God.
Now the men fired their cap lamps. I watched their faces change in the new, false light. Their eyes disappeared in shadow, cheek and jaw bones jutted out. Pap gave me a nudge, and so I hurried to set the cap on my head, and I reached up and struck the wheel with the palm of my hand, making the sparks that fired the flame. The little wheel scraped my hand. I wondered if the soft pads of skin would harden and toughen, if I’d be numb to it one day.
And then the cage lurched and stopped, and the operator threw the door open. The men poured out the cage, and I moved with them. Somebody elbowed me in the rib.
It was Otto Pickens, a skinny, freckly boy I used to know from school. He was still freckly, but he sure wasn’t skinny any more. He looked like a man, and him only one year older than me.
“I heard you was coming,” Otto said. At first I thought he said he’d heard me screaming, and it took me a second to understand. I didn’t want to seem scared in front of Otto. He shuffled out the cage, rolling his big shoulders, and I got moving, too. At school I was better at my numbers and my letters than him. But look at Otto, now, the easy way he held his pick, eyes calm and blue as fair weather. Numbers and letters don’t matter in the deep dark. Muscle and stone-cold nerves matter, and he had them plenty, like a man. Looking at him, I wished I was strong, too, and not scared. To know I’d make Pap proud. I felt myself staring, and so I glanced up beyond Otto’s wide shoulders. I thought I could see the tiny speck of light way up there where the shaft met daylight. But I squinted my eyes to see better, and saw it wasn’t anything.
I lowered my eyes, cleared my throat. “How you been?” I asked Otto.
“Good. Pretty good. You had about enough of school, too, then.” His voice was full of knowing.
I looked away and then back at him. I nodded slowly. “I guess.”
He smiled, small. “Enough of the sun, and playing ball, too, I reckon.”
I stared at him. Maybe not all of a man, yet, then. Or anyway, a man still new at it, and with memories of being still a boy like me.
“Let’s go, boys,” Pap called.
Otto smiled. He rapped on my hard miner’s cap and I ducked my head.
“You heard him,” Otto said. “Let’s move on.”
We all climbed into waiting rail cars, and then the locomotive began to move, ferrying the crew along the adit tunnel.
The locomotive passed by a couple of men hugging the side of the tunnel.
“Those are the roofmen,” he said to me. “They’ve finished checking for loose back.”
“Otherwise, a chunk might fall and liketa crush a man!” said Old Saw. He licked his lips with a quick dart of his tongue, like a lizard.
We had to duck our heads at a few spots, or else get a crack from a support timber running crosswise. Then the car stopped and some of us got out. The men all seemed to know what to do, and where to go. I didn’t know anything, so I followed Pap. The area we were to work was high enough to stand up in, and wide enough for five men, with rock columns left at regular enough intervals so the roof wouldn’t collapse and bury us. The mine smelled like a hole in the ground, like dirt, until most of the men lit their cigarettes and then I fairly choked on billows of smoke. And more horrible, it wasn’t long before I began to gag on the stink of pee. Old foul piss. My stomach heaved and then I was grateful for the smoke, which was at least better. The air in the tunnel felt cool on my skin, but I was sweating like a pig. And the noise! Explosions, hammering, the thock of fifty shovels, the muttering of the men and all their other bodily utterings, the clanking sound of rail cars moving constantly along the track, all this noise but you couldn’t hear anything. Frightful and also familiar, in the way a nightmare can seem familiar. There was nothing about the mine that would ever change my first impression: It was a busy little hell straight out of the Bible. I stood there and felt like I might burst into flames.
“Let’s get to work, then,” Pap said to me. And we began to muck ore. We shoveled the heavy rock and ore into containers that got put in the underground rail cars, to be hauled away and later crushed and milled and the lead extracted. That was it.
I shoveled and shoveled and shoveled. At one point I wondered about what Miss Pipe might be writing on the board, and who might be sitting at my desk by Mickey. Mickey’d been kind of jealous of me leaving school and going to work. I think he half-wished he was different. His father sold automobiles at a dealership up in Bonne Terre. Mickey could stay in school and go on and be a big shot, too. Most boys got to stay in school. But we had Ettie’s doctor bills, and Grampy off the job, and like Pap said, I was able, even though I was having my doubts about that.
My hand stung all of a sudden, and I saw I’d been working so hard I’d worn a hole in my glove and another one in my skin. I took the glove off and inspected the wound. It was bright red and shining. I blew on it and it burned like fire, but I felt an odd satisfaction about that raw blister.
My stomach growled and I thought it must be about time to break for lunch and so I asked Pap what time it was.
He drove his shovel in the ore and stood and pushed his cap on his head to look at his wristwatch. He nodded once and set his cap right before answering me. “Eight-thirty,” he said.
Eight thirty! Only one hour and a half had passed. It wasn’t even close to lunch time. Lunch time was three and a half hours away. I kept working. I don’t know how long.
“Now here’s a boy who makes a good miner,” Pap said after a while, giving Otto a clap on the back. Otto had three full drums lined up in the time it took me to fill one half of one drum. My cheeks burned hot. I turned my face away and my lamp lit up the earthen wall hot as shame. I thought I’d been doing okay. I thought I’d been doing so great I’d earned a hole in my hand and a rumble in my stomach. But I hadn’t been doing okay at all.
“It’s all right, son,” Pap said, looking in my bin. “You’ll catch on and you’ll naturally get stronger as you go.”
I went back to mucking. Another long while ticked by, and I struggled with my enemy the shovel, and still the work dragged on. I wanted to get away from Pap, and from Otto the Man. They weren’t looking, and I snuck away, not far, just a little ways down into the tunnel we’d come in on. Just a hundred feet or so. I leaned against the tunnel wall and I closed my eyes and I took several deep breaths. It had to be close to lunch. A break, some food. Ma likely packed me something special on my first day, and my birthday at that. Lousy birthday.
I ran my fingers over the hard shell of my miner’s cap, brushed off the dirt. Pap had given it to me first thing this morning as a birthday present. It had looked too big, and I doubted it would fit, but I put it on, and it fit okay. Pap was grinning at me, satisfied, and Grampy was shaking his head, and Ma was dabbing at her eyes, and I had felt proud and sick with dread, all at the same time.
When I was little, younger than Esther, I tried on Grampy’s cap. It was so big it was like sticking my head inside a cave. I’d said something out loud inside the shell of it, something jokey, and my own voice sounded funny, unfamiliar and muffled, as if I’d been swallowed up whole by the cap, or the cap had by a sour magic turned me into someone else. But, “Look at my little man,” Pa had said, sounding proud. And then I’d swaggered around all over the house wearing that cap and I’d felt big.
Now I slid my back down the wall and let my knees fold, and I sat there like a little kid. I wondered how long I could hide. Pap would notice I was gone, I’d better get back. I didn’t want to go back. With a quick movement, I reached up and put my light out.
I sat there. I opened my mouth and my eyes very wide. The darkness was as thick as wool, like a felted blanket pulled over me, pressing over my face, folding into my eye sockets, wrapping down over my nose and mouth and I could scarcely breathe. My heart was pounding and I knew the dark was not filling my ear holes because I could plainly hear my blood rush and pound, and the pounding, too, of the men shoveling and the rail car pounding on the track in another dark tunnel somewhere close. I took great gulping breaths of woolen air. It was as frightening as any nightmare I’ve ever had.
I shot my hand up and hit my palm against the wheel to quick fire the lamp— hiding in the dark had been a bad idea, a stupid baby idea—and I knocked the cap off the side of my head and I heard it thud and skitter. I scrambled on all fours like a mole till my hands found the cap, and then I stood, breathing hard, one hand holding the wall of the tunnel. I held the cap under the other arm, and now, turned this way, I could see lightness where Pap and the other men were working, and I went toward it. I stumbled out of the tunnel with the confusing, sickly feeling of waking from a bad dream. I saw the figures of the men hunched over their shovels like trolls, and nobody even looked up.
I fired my lamp and went over to where Pap was working.
“What time is it?” I asked him.
He set his shovel aside to look at his watch. “Goin’ on eleven,” he said. He pushed his cap back so the lantern wouldn’t shine in my eyes. He smiled, teeth white in his dirty face. “How you likin’ it so far?”
I couldn’t think of a single good thing to say about this horrible place. I was still breathing hard from my little game in the pitch black. “I miss the sun,” I said, stupidly. My voice came out high and thin, like Esther’s. Because there’s missing the sun on account it’s gone behind a cloud, and then there’s missing the sun on account you’ve been buried alive.
“You get used to it,” Pap said. Old Saw opened his mouth, a gash in those greasy, sunken cheeks, and he laughed.
I made up my mind that very morning at eleven o’clock: there was no way on God’s earth I was going to end up a miner.
Winner in the Middle Grade Category in the 2009 Katherine Paterson Prize, judged by Katherine Paterson