Authors: David Nickle
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Short Stories
“The painter’s life isn’t for everybody,” said Jim, still relishing his new artist’s eye as he peered at the trees and hills through the “L” of his thumb and forefinger. “No shame in admitting that now rather than later.”
Paul crouched against the wheel of Jim’s Buick and stared at the pit-heads. They were black as coal in the scant morning light.
“No.” I rubbed my hands together — feeling was beginning to return to my fingertips, and I figured that by my second cup of coffee I’d be able to hold a brush again. “I came up here to paint some pictures.”
“Suit yourself,” said Harry.
And so I fell into the ritual of genial artistry that the three of them had established a decade ago and I had joined three years past. After an early breakfast, we all readied our paint kits, slung them on our shoulders and set out in different directions, to find our spots for the morning. Then it was work, about five hours straight, and back to the camp to compare notes and share some lunch.
In the afternoon, we’d go back to work — sometimes in the same spot as the morning, sometimes we’d swap. We tried to avoid one another while painting — there was no point in two of us working the same view — but we’d occasionally wander by between panels, just to see how the other fellow was doing.
As the week wore on, I found that I was doing most of the wandering. After finishing a half-dozen so-so studies of the pit-heads, the lake below them, the remains of a fallen spruce tree that lay smashed across the back of a boulder bigger than Paul’s van, it seemed as though I’d exhausted the possibilities of the place.
So I wandered. And I watched, as Jim and Harry, even Paul, found their art in the skies and the soil of the Royal minehead, and turned out some of the most accomplished work of their lives.
Harry painted the pit-heads almost exclusively. At first, he chose the highest vantage-point, and worked in tight series’ of sketches that took my breath away. He used primarily shadow in preference to line to define form, spotting nuances in the light that I, with my art-school trained eye, could only see in the land after studying one of Harry’s panels.
Jim did a couple of studies of the pit-heads, then moved off downslope to the lake, where he watched the ice as it spread its crystals, submerging and cracking here and there as winter struggled to solidify its hold on the mine lands. His paintings were abstracts, eggshell whites and stipples of grey and blue — November ice was personified there. It was a complete departure for Jim that was no less shocking to him than it was to the rest of us.
Paul stayed with the pit-heads too. But unlike Harry, who circled them almost daily, Paul remained in a single position, and worked a single canvas, three feet on a side. In the past, Paul’s work had always been characterized by a broad brushstroke, form suggested rather than stated. Colour had always been his medium.
With this canvas, Paul had discovered detail. And with his nightly visits to the pit-head with the other three, he had found the art with which to convey it. As I watched the intricate tapestry of his painting take form, the realization came to me:
Paul Peletier wouldn’t need to teach art lessons in Cobalt any more. With work like this, he’d be able to write his own ticket.
None of the three were very good company when I visited them. Part of that no doubt was my fault; I’d been staying in Paul’s van — alone, awake most of the night and with a shotgun on my lap. It was clear that I made them uncomfortable. And they, frankly, had better things to do than pass the time with me — they moved brush between pallet and panel with the hungry compulsion of newfound genius.
In my sleep-starved state, I compared badly against them. My outlines were tentative, frequently poorly drafted; my colours became muddy and indistinct as I tried again and again to correct them, make them match the land there, the sky.
On the fifth morning at the pit-heads, I knew I couldn’t put it off any longer. When we finished breakfast and split up for the morning’s work, instead of getting my paint-kit, I went back to Paul’s van and picked up the shotgun, a box of shells, his flashlight, and a coil of yellow safety rope. As stealthily as I could, I made my way back up to the pit-head.
The cloud had broken that day, and the mineheads were bathed in clean sunlight for the first time since we’d arrived. But as I stepped inside, it was as ever, dark as midnight.
I tied the rope off against one of the larger beams supporting the tower. The shotgun had a strap, and I hung it over my shoulder while I wrapped the flashlight string around my forearm. It dangled aiming downward as I lowered myself into the pit.
By this time, I’d stopped being angry with Paul. I still wasn’t about to come around to his way of thinking, but I realized that he hadn’t been lying to me — he was only thinking of my best interests as an artist when he brought me here. He was doing me a favour, opening a door.
And he was, in large part at least, right. The destination beyond was a place that I very much wanted to be. It was just that Paul’s door was not the route I wanted to take to get there.
I wrapped the rope twice around my waist, looped and tied the end, and, kicking the last vestiges of snow off my boots, lowered myself into the shaft.
I only lost my footing twice, both times near the end of my descent. The walls had become slippery with ice, and the first time I managed to recover my footing perfectly. The second time came just before the opening of the topmost tunnels, where rock had given way and crumbled around the tunnel’s edge. I clutched the rope as it burned against my mittens, swinging free in the narrow shaft. Eventually I propelled myself inside.
The smell I’d first noticed at the top of the pit was stronger here: Heated metal and smouldering engine oil, an underlying
that pervades old industrial sites — or, I guess, mineshafts that’ve gone dry.
I slung the flashlight in front of me, lowered the shotgun to my side, and peered ahead.
At the time, I don’t think I knew precisely what it was that I was looking for. I certainly wasn’t there to let the miners — the creatures, the
— feed on me; I didn’t want to cement any transaction in that way. I still like to think that, had they been given a choice, Jim and Harry would have come to the same conclusion.
These miners had something, all right. But they weren’t only doling out art lessons — those miners took something different away in return for their blood. And simply because they had so far only bestowed in exchange for blood was no reason to assume that blood was the only coin they understood — or that trade was the only way to draw the genius out of them. I hefted the shotgun to remind myself of that possibility.
The tunnel was wider than it was high at first, and I had to stoop under lips of shale and thick, tarred cross-beams as I moved along. After a time, the tunnel widened out to a space that must have been used as a lunch room when the mine was active. I played the light over the few artefacts that the miners had left: a metal-topped table, surrounded by four folding metal chairs; a stack of more chairs, leaning against an oblong wooden box — an oblong box! — which I pried open with shaking hands only to find it empty but for three badly corroded car batteries.
Sitting on the table was a fabulous anachronism — an ancient oil lamp, with a single crack snaking up from its base. Layers of soot made the glass nearly opaque. It would make a good still-life, I thought, and laughed quietly.
I should have brought my paint kit down.
Beyond the lunch room, the tracks ended and the tunnel took a steep downward slope. There were no steps, but long stems of cedar had been bolted to the rock wall on either side, making banisters. I descended the staircase, such as it was, and at the bottom found a room filled with buckets, made of wood slats and iron hoops and filled with a black liquid that was, after all, only water. The tunnel continued beyond that, and as I followed it I noticed that the long wires and wire-mesh lighting fixtures that had been stapled to the ceiling had been replaced by ornate lamp shelves, such as one might have found in a home around here, before the advent of electricity.
I had stopped for a moment, resting against the wall between two of these low sconces, when the miners found me.
Three of them stepped into the light, and stood frozen there as I hefted my shotgun. Unlike the first creature I’d seen in the pit-head, these wore nothing but a few rags over limbs that were taut with sinew. Their eyes were round and reflected back the flashlight beam like new pennies. The hair on their scalps and their chins was thin, and shockingly white.
“Don’t come any closer,” I said.
In response, the tunnel filled with a low chattering. I caught fragments of thick Quebecois French, mixed with other sounds: whistles, clicking; a pig-grunt; a wet, bronchial wheeze.
I don’t think they understood me any better than I understood them. But they understood the shotgun all right. The trio watched me for a moment longer, then one of them turned and vanished into the dark. When the other two followed, I was after them.
We ran deeper into the mine. If the floor had been rough as the upper tunnels, I don’t think I would have been able to keep up. But the rock down here was so smooth it seemed to have been carved, not dug.
The creatures finally escaped me in a wide room — so wide that its walls were beyond the reach of my flashlight. It had a low slate ceiling, supported with thick wooden posts at regular intervals. I stopped, scanned my flashlight across the shadows around me.
Bonjour, mon petit.
It was the same voice we’d heard in the pit-head. The one that had spoken to Paul, with such familiarity.
Paul had called it, what?
Monsieur Tevalier. Mon père.
“Show yourself,” I said.
Monsieur Tevalier’s breath made a frosting on the hairs of the back of my neck.
I whirled, barely in time to face him. But I couldn’t get the shotgun up as well. The flashlight fell to the ground and I felt his talons dig into my coat. I only caught the barest glimpse of his face as he lifted me into the dark. The mutton-chops had darkened, and the flesh on his cheeks had reddened, plumped out with the new blood.
Vous étudiez avec le maître,
” said the vampire — then, in thickly accented English: “
I show you the way
How was it for Paul, the rest of them? How was it for the miners, for that matter — who made their own dark bargains here in the earth beneath Cobalt?
I can’t say for sure, but it must have been different than the darkness was for me. The twin punctures of the vampire’s teeth would have been an utter shock to them — until the moment it occurred, they would have had no reason to expect such a complete invasion as the vampire would have perpetrated.
I was prepared for the attack, though. Where five days earlier I might have looked away — forgotten the assault — as Monsieur Tevalier pierced the flesh of my throat in the rooms beneath Cobalt, I did not lose myself.
Tevalier spoke through my blood, and I was attentive. He and his kind had been in the land here for as long as the mines had been in Cobalt, moving between the great rocks that remained when the world last thawed. As my blood pulsed down his throat in clicking gulps, he showed me: the earth pulsed too, and that essence that moved through it also flowed through Tevalier, through me. If Tevalier drained me, swallowed all my blood, then the earth’s pulse would be all there was. The clarity would be absolute, because I and his land would be as one. In the early days of Cobalt I wondered at what the miners, the prospectors, would have made of that clarity.
Because that was the secret of Tevalier’s gift. It dwelt in the razor-line between my heartbeat, absolute insularity — my life — and the earth’s simpler rhythm, a final subsumation to the external — my death.
Should I ever stray too far, one way or the other, there would be Tevalier, waiting in the pit-head to nudge me back onto the artist’s one true path. Did I understand the depth of my dependency? he asked me through my blood. I felt his tongue on my neck, rough like a cat’s. Then, with the care of a physician removing a long hypodermic, he withdrew.
I thought again about the prospectors — thought about the strange town they had built on the earth above, the mining companies that had prospered in it, and the terrible bargain that had founded it.
Did I understand the depth of my dependency?
Before he could withdraw completely, I swung the barrels of the shotgun up, pressed them against the brittle flesh and bone that covered the vampire’s heart.
“Je comprends,” I whispered, and pulled both triggers.
The hardest part of getting out of the minehead was the climb up the rope, something I hadn’t expected. But the run up along the tunnel had proven exhausting, and I was lightheaded already with the loss of my blood. When I fired off the last two shells back into the tunnel, the recoil nearly knocked me into the shaft. The buckshot did its job, though, sending the two vampires that followed me screaming back into the depths. I wanted to rest then, wanted the escape to be finished, but of course I could not, and it was not. I had to ascend the rope.
I lost the shotgun, and nearly lost the flashlight on the way up. Finally I did have to rest, so I tied myself off and dangled there in the shaft, the timber creaking above me and my limbs feeling like meat below; I had the feet of a hanged man.
From the depths, the vampires whispered a cacophony. I had removed their head with Tevalier, taken the one who had made them, shown them their own line — evidently, they had much to discuss. When I resumed my ascent, the whispers had grown quieter, and nearer.
It was near noon when I reached the top of the shaft, and that may have been what saved me. Cobalt is too far north for the sun to have shone straight down the open tower in November, but it made a bright yellow square among the upper rafters, and the light filtered down through the dust to make the pit-head brighter than I’d ever seen it. Clutching at the numbness in my throat, I stumbled to the door and out into the afternoon.