Coal Miner's Devil
I keep forgetting how little I knew in the beginning. How little everyone knew. It's not as if I'm that much older now-is there that much difference between sixteen and seventeen? And it's not as if I have a lot of answers now. I don't kid myself about things like answers anymore.
But when we started downriver-even after all the chaos in the refugee camp-I kind of prided myself on how I had my act together. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
No one had their acts together, at least in my family. I kept thinking, well, maybe all of this trouble will pass over, and electricity will start working again, and the Scythians will retreat to wherever they came from, and the Empire will give back their land, too, and people will be able to use their cars again and drive wherever they want to, and the government will find a cure for the plague, and we'll go back to St. Paul and I'll start my senior year, none the worse for wear. And everyone would have stories after coming back-crazy stories, to be sure. But stories that couldn't hurt people anymore.
Of course, some people wouldn't have come back. But a lot of people would! And then life would resume more or less where it left off. There would be a lot of memorials and speeches about "healing" and "averting disaster."
That was how I thought things would happen, in the back of my mind, for a while. But each day downriver, that hope-or maybe something halfway between hope and fear-became fainter and fainter. And I remember the first time I began to understand that things might not be the same again. It was when my dad told me this story. I was still clutching my old life, but for the first time I started to catch the drift. What made it odd was that my dad wasn't good at telling stories. But I think he was trying to tell me something important- something that he didn't quite understand himself.
Our boat, the Prairie Chicken, was bivouacked on the muddy banks of the Mississippi, near what used to be Red Wing. We were eating dinner in a run-down public park alongside the river. At that point in the journey no one was starving, and we were stopping overnight. It was almost like a picnic, except for the wannabe snipers on the boat, boys my age, watching out for roving bands of horsemen or just ruffians. There were refugees shacked up in the old rail station on the other side of the broken dock. I could see their little cooking fires through the oilskin windows. I felt sorry for them, stuck there like that. I didn't go and offer them food, though.
If I'd known about what we were all going to go through later, I might have tried to tell them: It's not safe anywhere, so you might as well hole up where you are, you're doing the right thing.
There were sandwiches with rye bread and ham for everyone. I had no idea how those were scored, or by whom. I raised a fuss. I didn't want to eat it.
Macy, eat, my father said, as we all sat down on the grass and unwrapped the sandwiches from the butcher paper.
I shrugged. I knew that I was being juvenile, but couldn't help it. The bread was soggy and the ham had these mottled spots and I honestly thought that this was the worst thing in the world. We had these bottles of sugary iced tea to drink. The iced tea was warm and a knock-off brand I'd never heard of-SUNSHINE! I managed to sip it. I wanted Diet Coke. Every inconvenience seemed like a mortal threat. My dad stared at me, but no one else seemed to pay attention to my little psychodrama. Mother nibbled, patting my hand once.
Instead of eating, I watched the boys on the boat take their best shots on the remaining windows of Red Wing. Their only usable guns were these antique M1s from World War II that they got God knew where. The shattering startled me. The crew was a little giddy. They must have thought the plague and the war were in a lull. They shot at Fire Station #5, a bed-and-breakfast, a sports bar, a pottery factory. The sun had nearly set, and the moon was low and full. Then I saw them aim their guns toward the rail station, where the refugees were, but Dad stood up and waved his arms at them. I was embarrassed at the time, but looking back, it was a brave thing for him to do. He motioned his arms toward the main town, like he was trying to land a jumbo jet. After a few tense seconds-there was nothing keeping them from shooting my dad-they went back to shooting out the glass in abandoned buildings. Dad sunk back to the ground, breathing heavily.
That was stupid, Ciaran said, stuffing half his sandwich into his mouth.
They could have been hurt, Dad said.
Who are "they"? Sophia said. Do we know them?
Dad shook his head. Well . . . they would have been shot. Those kids with the guns . . . they're the stupid ones.
Listen to your father, Mother said, though her words didn't seem connected to the argument at hand.
Sophia shook her head back in reply. It was clear she agreed with Ciaran. I didn't think she wanted anyone hurt, but she wanted Dad hurt even less. She put her hair in a ponytail and ambled back to the boat to flirt with the marines. Mom went back to the boat to sleep-we knew she was sick then, we just didn't know how sick. She was mumbling while she did this, and I caught a pained look on my father's face as he watched her walk away. Ciaran-I didn't know where Ciaran went. He had gotten up when I wasn't paying attention. He disappeared a lot, often with Xerxes. Xerxes was our dog. And Ciaran was my younger brother. And since I'm on the subject, Sophia was my older sister. I think that covers it.
About a half-dozen black geese landed near us and I threw my sandwich at them. They pounced on it, ate the ham. I didn't expect carnivorous geese. I did expect, though, my father to get really pissed off at me. He didn't, though. He just stretched his legs and, waiting for the latest pane of glass to finish shattering, he started telling me the story:
Once there was a coal mine deep in the mountains of West Virginia. That place might as well not exist anymore. The coal mine was hard to find, but people kept looking for it, because the mine was deep, which meant work. People were desperate for work. They would travel for days through mountain fog to find the sloped shantytown that had grown around the mine's opening. One man who started working there decided to go into the mine after dark. He had no family and no real prospects. He never knew what his purpose in life was. He decided to go into the mine because he had heard stories from some of the miners who had traversed the deepest areas, that the mine connected to a maze of limestone caves that had no end. Also, he was spectacularly drunk-rye whiskey was the chief culprit, but the devil had slipped a little something extra into the miner's whiskey jug.
What do you mean, something? I asked my father. The geese were fighting over bits of ham.
He startled and took a swig of his iced tea. An intoxicant of some kind, he said.
Do you mean kef? I said.
No, not kef, he said. Christ. You haven't tried it, have you? Tell me you haven't-
I haven't, I said. I shifted on the log I was sitting on. I just heard about it in the camps. Why don't you finish the story?
Even then, I knew how to nudge my father. As much as I loved him-and maybe it was out of love that I manipulated him, or at least tried to- there was no way that I could have told him that I had tried kef with my friend Stacy, who I would never see again after leaving St. Paul. I didn't even like kef, but if my father had found out, he wouldn't have cared about my not liking it.
Okay, my dad said. The story then:
With only a lantern, a pick, and a burlap bag, the miner secreted into the mine. His mine. He claimed many times, to anyone who would listen to him by the whiskey still, that he knew it better than anyone. He could rarely make out faces in the constant fog, so he was never sure whether his arguments were persuasive. He snaked downward. His hands followed the grooves and pockmarks made by picks and crude dynamite. Down gangplanks over underground streams, down rope ladders to the deepest veins. Soon enough he had to crawl. Hearing roaring water, he stopped in a shaft that was difficult to fit through. Water rushed above him. His light gave out, but he kept going, feeling the texture of crags and juts. After what seemed like many days, he saw light ahead. His eyes adjusted and he moved closer. The light was from a giant diamond, cut and struck into a thousand hard points. When he reached the diamond, he saw a small head inside of it-
A head? I had to interrupt and ask. What kind of head? A human head?
There was lightning to the east, even though it was October and not hot. There was a lull in the target practice. Or maybe the boys had gotten drunk-sick and wandered to their straw beds on the keel of the Prairie Chicken, to have sour dreams of their old lives. The river bluffs were high above us, littered with burnt Cape Cods. My father was getting impatient. I had expected this, his crossness with me, and it became so familiar to me that I would often mistake it for warmth. He was proud of his outward disposition, like a nice watch, and I'm sure he saw it as a valuable quality on our flight. A kind of toughness. Its utility varied in practice, but I was too afraid, or ashamed, to tell him this.
Especially when it broke down.
I was starting to get hungry, but I didn't want to give him any satisfaction.
Yes, a head, he said. Now listen:
So the man touched the diamond and peered closer at the head. The surface of the diamond was brilliant and hot. The head was the devil's, and the miner recognized it as such from sepia illustrations: high cheekbones, rosy skin, tiny tusks in the forehead. The devil's features were pretty much the only thing he remembered from Sunday school. The devil's eyes were closed, but opened when the miner touched the diamond. The eyes themselves were small diamonds.
You found me, the devil said. You found me in a piece of coal.
That I did, the miner said. What do you want with me?
If you can carry me back to the surface, I'll give you anything you desire.
Anything? the miner said.
The devil closed his eyes and opened them again. Okay, one thing, he said. But that one thing can be anything.
The man had nothing else going for him. He agreed, and was never heard from again.
My father turned away and finished his iced tea. He looked up at the stars that were beginning to come out. He was an astronomer, before we had to flee.
Um, aren't you going to finish the story? I said.
That's all, he said. Shoo. He said this last part to the geese, who were edging closer to us. He kicked his foot out and the geese scattered. Now it's time for bed, Macy, he said.
That's not enough! I said, raising my voice a little. I was pouty, I admit, about the stupid story. Maybe it was the hunger pangs. The coxswain, who was stirring a fire a stone's throw from us, looked over in our direction.
My father didn't shush or scold me. He was past admonitions that night, which scared me. He peered at me like that miner looked at the giant diamond with the devil's head inside. Or maybe like the devil looked at the miner.
Not enough? he said. It's never enough.
The Coal Devil's Miner
Carson had heard that story in the refugee camp on Pike Island. Up the river, where the Minnesota River fed into the Mississippi. A lot of people were telling the story, and no one knew why. Macy needed to hear it. He worried about her more than his other two children, though he would never let anyone know this, not even his wife. And especially Macy, who was too self-conscious for words. He dreaded what she might find down the river-monsters of men who would prey on her idealism. He didn't know how she would react, whether he had prepared her for anything that would come. He was naïve, too, he knew that-the absentminded professor in full force-but worked hard to hide it.
He worried that she took after him.
Carson had actually heard the tale from a man claiming to be the man in the story. Carson didn't believe him. But who knew? They had been standing at one of the latrine stations on Pike Island. The Imperial troops weren't crazy about the home brew served nearby-a guy from Eden Prairie who used to brew beer in his garage started the venture to make a little extra money-but they weren't teetotalers by any means and had enough crises on their hands. Minnesota was the northern reach of their territory. Fort Snelling, which overlooked Pike Island, was the last redoubt, and no soldier wanted to be there.
Carson had intuited from a very early age not to trust people who told stories while they were pissing. But it was hard to turn away- not only because they were both using the latrine, but also because the man told the story of the devil and the diamond with utter certainty.
Where did you end up? Carson said afterward. Right after you disappeared?
The man looked at Carson. He was thin and wiry. He had a smudged face. Here, he said, and then he pulled his pants tight with a sash and walked to the makeshift bar.
But then, two days later, Carson heard the same story from a woman who doled out sugar and tea on the east end of Pike Island. She also claimed to be the miner. She was about Carson's age, ruddy in the face, crooked-nosed, but nonetheless attractive in a sunburnt way. She looked like a hippie but swore she was Scythian, working for some vague nonpolitical aid organization, to help the poor refugees. She hadn't switched sides in the war, per se-as if there were only two sides. At any rate, the sugar and tea were welcome, so Carson listened, again, to the story of the miner, the diamond, and the devil. Carson didn't bother asking her anything about her life: how she ended up in Minnesota, what she had wished for deep in the mine, and so on. It wasn't worth it. The miner's disappearance was almost a punch line. Everyone liked to tell that story, and break off the end of it, like a dead branch from a tree.
Excerpted from Total Oblivion, More or Less by Alan DeNiro. Copyright © 2009 by Alan DeNiro. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.