Authors: David Nickle
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Short Stories
“The Pit-Heads” © 2012 by David Nickle
All rights reserved.
Published by ChiZine Publications
This short story was originally published in
by David Nickle, first published in print form in 2009, and in an ePub edition in 2009, by ChiZine Publications.
Original ePub edition (in
) October 2009 ISBN: 9781926851792.
This ePub edition November 2012 ISBN: 978-1-77148-054-3.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Paul Peletier and I drove up to Cobalt one last time, about seven years ago. It was my idea. Should have been Paul’s — hell, almost two decades before that it
his idea, going to Cobalt to paint the pit-heads — but lately he hadn’t been painting, hadn’t been out of his house to so much as
in so long, he was convinced he didn’t have any more ideas.
“Bullshit,” I said to him, ignition keys jangling in my fingers, coaxing him outside. “You’re more of an artist than that.”
“No,” he said. “And you’re not either.”
But Paul didn’t have much will left to fight me, so he grumbled around the house looking for his old paint kit, the little green strongbox filled with the stuff he euphemistically called his Equipment. Then he climbed into the cab of my pickup, grunted, “Well come
, Picasso, let’s do it,” and we headed north.
Just to see.
There are other things to paint in Cobalt, after all: the black-and-umber tarpaper houses, built high on the rock with materials as likely stolen as they were bought; the roads wending dangerously through the lips of bedrock, like the untended streets of a medieval town; the grocery, built on top of an old mine shaft, a three-hundred-foot-deep root cellar where the owners dangle their overstock of meat and cheese against the improbable heat of high summer in northern Ontario.
We’d painted them all before, in every season and under every sky, and when the pit-heads were still up, they never got old.
So we turned off Highway 11, parked by the grocery and set up our easels. Paul dallied a bit in his strongbox — took out the old silver chain and put it around his neck, muttered a little prayer from his Catholic school days. And then, because there was nothing more but to get started, he reached into his kit and took out a blank pallet, squeezed out some acrylic from the little magazine of ancient paint-tubes he kept in a dark recess of the kit.
I even remember what we were painting. I’ve still got the panel at my studio — it’s not very good, a not-very-confident study of one of those houses, rambling up a slope of rock and perched on a foundation of cinderblock. In a fit of whimsy, I included the figure of a man, bending down at the septic tank, tool box at his feet, an expression of grim determination painted on his tiny face. In fact, no one came out of the house the entire time we painted.
Or should I say, the entire time that
painted. Paul just sat there, lifting his brush, swirling it on his pallet. Setting it down again.
“Nothing here anymore, Graham,” said Paul, fingering the chain at his neck, and squinting over the still rooftops of the town in the too-bright summer sun. “They’re gone.”
“They’re buried, you mean.”
Paul shook his head, and he smiled. “The mining companies’ll say it’s because of taxes. Hailiebury taxes dearly for a pit-head, next to nothing for a cement plug over a dark shaft.”
Then he looked at me, the tiny pewter Jesus at the end of the chain caught in a vise-grip between his thumb and the hard stem of his brush.
“As long as the price of silver stays low, the pit-heads stay down. Holes stay covered, to keep the weather out of the shafts. That’s the story, eh, Graham?”
“I guess those miners had the right idea, then,” I said. “I guess it’s time to go.”
“I guess so,” said Paul.
And so we packed up our brushes and pallets and paintings, and we followed the miners’ example. Paul was inordinately cheerful on the way back, and so was I, I have to admit. There was an ineffable feeling of freedom leaving that town — finally admitting it was over for us there; we were strictly on our own, from that moment on. We made jokes, shared a few carefully chosen reminiscences, were just like old friends again on that four-hour drive south.
But much later, back at my own place in the cold dark of the early morning, I woke up with the once-familiar scream in my throat — memories of the miner Tevalier’s age-yellowed flesh, his cruel and hungry grip, renewed in my blood.
Trembling alone in my bed, I vowed to myself that I would not call Paul Peletier, and I would not go to Cobalt again.
Paul was the first one of our little group to visit Cobalt, and when he reported back on it, he didn’t tell us the whole of the story. Not by far.
It was 1974, just a year after Paul’s divorce, and he was making ends meet teaching landscape painting classes to art clubs in and around North Bay. In April, he drove up to Cobalt at the invitation of the Women’s Art League of Hailiebury, and spent a weekend critiquing the septuagenarian League ladies’ blurry watercolours out at the Royal Mine #3. He told us about it in July, when the four regulars in our own little Art League — me, Paul, Jim Osborne and Harry Fairbank — were camped on the south arm of Opeongo Lake, on what would turn out to be our last annual midsummer painting trip together.
“I wasn’t up there to work, which is why it was such a damned shame. It was all I could do to keep my paints in their tubes,” he said, leaning against the hull of his canoe as he spoke.
Jim took a swill from his thermos and grinned. Jim worked as a lawyer back in the city, and at the end of the year I figured he bought almost as many paintings as he produced. Privately, Paul told me that he thought Jim Osborne painted pictures the way that other men went fishing: he didn’t want to catch anything, just get out of the rat race for a few days every summer and escape to the bush.
Keep your paints in the tubes
.” Jim rolled the words thoughtfully. “Or did you mean keep your tube in your pants? Those art club biddies can be pretty spry, I hear.”
Paul laughed, but it was a distracted sound, barely an acknowledgement. He was never easy with vulgarity.
Paul continued: “The geography around this town is spectacular. It’s all rock and scrub, a few stands of poplar and cedar here and there, and it’s had the life mined out of it. But I don’t think it’s possible to make a bad painting there.”
Jim was about to say something, but I shushed him. “High recommendation,” I said.
Paul grinned. “The pit-heads outside Cobalt are a Mecca for those ladies — they swear by them, and I can’t argue based on the results.”
“Practice makes perfect,” deadpanned Jim.
Paul gave Jim a look, but I cut in before he could comment. “Just what kind of pit-heads are these?” I asked. I was only twenty-five then, and almost all of the out-of-town painting trips I’d been on had been with Paul and the rest — which pretty much limited me to Algonquin Park and one quick trip up to Lake Superior.
Paul pulled out his sketch pad and began roughing out an illustration: “Here’s what they look like.”
Harry put down the paint-smeared panel he’d been swearing over all afternoon and studied Paul’s drawing in the failing light.
“Do you want to do a trip there?” Harry finally asked.
Paul swatted at a black fly on his neck, and examined the little bloody speck on his hand. “It’ll be one hell of a drive — about eight hours from your place in good weather, and I want to go up in November when the snow will have started. It’s a long way to go for a painting.”
Harry took another look at the sketch, then at his own failed oil painting. “This — ” he threw his arms up to include the entire Group-of-Seven, Tom-Thomson splendour of Algonquin Park on a clear summer evening “ — is already a long way to come for a painting. And by the looks of things tonight, I don’t even have a decent one to show for it. Give me a call when you’ve set a schedule; I’m in.”
Paul smiled and set down the sketch on the flat of a rock for all of us to see. It was crude, but I think it may have been the most accomplished work we’d ever seen from Paul to that date. His carpenter pencil had roughed out the thick spruce beams that splayed out from the narrow, peaked tower head, which Paul had represented with a carelessly precise rectangle of shadow. The trestle emerged from the far side, a jumble of cross-beams and track that draped like a millipede over the spine of a treacherous spill of rock. The thin curves and jags suggesting hills and a treeline seemed like an afterthought — although Paul would scarcely have had time for one. He had completed the whole, perfect sketch in less than a minute.
“Any other takers?” Paul asked, in a tone that suggested there might have been a real question.
The forecast had called for frozen rain in the Hailiebury area, but by the time we pulled onto the mine road the air was just beginning to fill with fine, January-hard snowflakes. They caught in the crevasses and crannies of the low cliffs that rimmed the mine road, making thin white lines like capillaries of frozen quartz.
I watched Paul’s taillights through the scratch of snow. He drove an old Ford panel van, and he had set up a small household in the back of it — a foam-rubber mattress near the back for sleeping, a little chemical toilet tucked in a jury-rigged bracket behind the driver’s seat, a big cooler filled with enough groceries to feed him for several weeks if need be. And a 12-gauge shotgun with a box of ammunition, in a case beside the mattress, for painting trips during bear season. Paul made his living from his painting, but it wasn’t enough of a living to spring for a week in a motel every time he went off on an overnight painting trip. The rest of us followed his lead.
It was scarcely four o’clock, but darkening towards night already, when we finally reached the pit-heads of the Royal Mine. We pulled up on the edge of a wide gravel turnaround maybe three hundred feet downslope from the nearest of the two pit-heads.
The turnaround was near the top of a great boulder of a hill, gouged by glaciers from the tiny slit of a lake that was barely visible through a stand of poplar to the north. The two ancient pit-heads rode that hill’s peak, like signal-towers for some forgotten empire.
“We won’t have enough light to get any work done tonight,” said Paul as he emerged from his van. “But we should be able to go up and have a look inside before nightfall.” He hefted a big, ten-battery flashlight on a shoulder-strap he’d tied together from old bootlaces.
Harry put his hands in the small of his back and stretched, making a noise like an old man. “Are those things safe?” he asked.
Paul tromped past him up the slope towards the nearest pit-head.
“Not entirely,” he said simply. “No, not entirely.”
The pit-head was in disuse that year, so the main room underneath the tower was black and empty. Before anyone went in, Paul speared the flashlight beam inside and ran down a brief inventory of what would otherwise have filled the darkness: the great cable spool, driven by a diesel motor in the back of the hoist house, connected to a wheel that would perch in the very top of the tower, where the belfry would be if this were a church. The bare rock floor of the hoist-house was empty, though, the tower just a dark column of cold, lined by beams and tarpaper; according to Paul, the Royal company had moved their operation out of here three years ago, and had warehoused anything remotely portable in Hailiebury. He ran the flashlight beam across the floor in the middle of the chamber, where the cable would have attached to the lift platform. At first, I couldn’t even see the mouth of the pit: Jim had to point it out.
“It’s pretty small,” said Jim, and he was right: the hole leading into the depths of the Royal Mine wasn’t more than eight feet on a side.
“This was one of the first mines in the area,” said Paul. “One of the ladies from Hailiebury told me it dates back to 1903, when the whole silver rush got its start. Story goes that a prospector found a vein of silver by accident, getting his boot out from where it stuck in a crack in the rock. This pit wouldn’t be legal if it’d been dug today — the minimum width now is something like ten feet.”
“You sound like a Goddamned tour guide,” I said.
Paul chuckled. “Why don’t you go in and take a look for yourself, Graham?”
Not taking my eyes off the pit, I stepped inside the structure. The top of the tower was partly open, and the north wind blew a steady beer-bottle C-sharp across it.
“How deep is it?” asked Harry.
“I didn’t ask.” Paul’s flashlight beam followed me like a spotlight as he spoke.
As I got closer to the edge of the pit, it seemed as though the ground were actually sloping inward towards it, growing unsteady beneath my feet. A smell of machine oil and something like must wafted out of the hole. I stepped back.
“That’s good, Graham,” said Paul, motioning me back to the wall with the flashlight. “Don’t get too close to the opening. I’d hate to have to tell your mother we left you at the bottom.”
Both Jim and Harry sniggered at that, and I laughed as well, with deliberate good humour. I backed up a few more steps, until my shoulders were pressed against an old wooden ladder. The wood felt soft, ancient; like it would crumble under my weight.
“You find this place inspirational, do you, Paul?” I asked, fighting to keep the quaver out of my voice.
“The Art League ladies swear by it.”
The ladder shifted minutely behind my back. From up high, a sprinkle of sand fell, catching like a miniature nebula in the flashlight beam. I tried to imagine how far that sand would fall into the earth before it found something to settle on.
“Well, we can’t let Graham here soak up all the juice,” said Harry. He stepped inside and peered up into the dark, nose wrinkling.
“Smells in here,” he said finally. Jim stepped inside, sniffing.
Behind me, the ladder shifted again, and more dirt fell into the mine. The wind shifted up a half-tone in pitch and with it, the timbers high in the tower creaked. I let go of the ladder and inched further along the wall. I felt like a reluctant suicide on a high-rise window ledge.
“Paul, be a good man and swing that flashlight up there,” said Harry, pointing to the top of the ladder. His voice was quiet, almost a monotone. Paul obeyed, and slashed the beam up through the cascade of sand, to the place where Harry pointed.
“Jesus H. Christ!”
I don’t know which one of us yelled it; it might have been me, for all the attention I was paying. The only thing I know for sure is that it didn’t come from the narrow platform at the top of the ladder, where the light-circle finally came to rest.