Earth to Earth

Earth to Earth

J.S. Watts

At the end, we all return peacefully to the elements that gave birth to us—unless the element that took us claims us first and for itself alone.

The world is full of echoes: the fading shadows of the taken. Water flows with the spirits of the drowned. Flames crackle to the anguished screams of the burned. The thin shades of those whose last breath was ripped into the air flock the ether and those whom the earth swallows lie absorbed within its vast unforgiving darkness.

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The town of Blackhill squats deep in the heart of the Draymar Mountains. It has been a mining town for centuries. Coal runs under its skin and in its blood. It was home to the first Draymar Mine, and then the Great Draymar Mine and then the New Great Draymar Mine, but the mining ended in 1927 with a cave-in at the New Great Draymar that claimed the lives of over one hundred men, tearing out the bleeding heart of the town and seventy-three fragile families.

On that day, Death walked through the town’s streets hand-in-hand with despair. For the families left behind, it was the not knowing that inflicted the most damage. Many men were killed instantly, crushed like dry seeds by the weight of the mountain’s falling guts, but others…  Those cursed ones lived on for days after the cave-in, buried alive in their waiting graves while the earth and rock around them slowly ate them: absorbing their breath, their strength, their anger and hope, and finally closing-in forever on the husks of the men they had been and taking those too.

My only son died in the disaster, leaving behind a distraught young widow, an endlessly grieving mother, a baby daughter who’d barely had the chance to know him and taking with him the future of our family. He had been the focus of all our hopes: the way out of the coal dust. He shouldn’t have been down the mine that day. We thought we had given him a hard-scraped escape route, an education invested in by our back-broken labour and the daily struggle of our lives, but with a new baby, he needed more money and such were the times, he went down the mine to work a shift or several alongside me. On the day of the disaster, he had gone down into the dark to work one last shift. He never came back up.

His loss and the manner of it were bitterly unbearable, but worse still was my solitary knowledge that it was not an accidental death. I knew it was murder, but I could do nothing with that knowing. It surrounded me, held me in. There was no escape.

Without the mine, Blackhill withered and declined. Those that could, abandoned it and its all-consuming poverty. McKillip, the mine owner, was amongst the first to go. He had lost a mine but had gained a fortune through insurance deals. He went off with his young family intact to start afresh in another town, abandoning the one his mine had gutted.

Years passed, even if their passage no longer seemed relevant. Changing times brought fresh opportunities for some. In due course, the son of the mine owner returned to Blackhill, though whether he did so in the knowledge of his father’s past actions, I neither knew nor cared.  What drew me to him was the blood that pumped through his veins: his father’s blood. I sensed it and it awoke the living hatred that had held me together all the while. Time became relevant once more: it was time for revenge.

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Marcus McKillip came back to town on a storm-battered day. It felt as if the elements themselves were protesting against a McKillip’s return. The wind tossed leaves into the air and then branches as if they were leaves. Rain poured down like the torrential gush of water from a giant hosepipe. Under the weight of so much water, the earth became heavy and started to move, sliding down the hillside towards the road that McKillip was on, but he drove a flash, fast car and out-ran the mudslide.

“Eh, it’s a wild night out there, boys,” was all he was heard to say, and then he smiled, as if the anger and wildness of the elements was of no consequence. A home-coming drink at the local inn and he was off to reclaim the family house. I observed and waited.

The next day there was an unexpected earth tremor, but McKillip kept on smiling as he went about his business. “It’s good to be home,” he said and he made himself properly at home, reopening his father’s old house, reclaiming its formal garden from the natural wilderness it had become, digging deep into the poor soil that many of us had greater cause to call home. The earth showed him what it thought of this. The earth tremors continued for days and more mud slid down the hillside towards the town, but not far enough to do any real damage.

Then the purpose of McKillip’s return became clearer. He sent men to the mine with measuring devices and surveying equipment. He did not dirty his own hands, just stayed at the family house where he shipped-in rich, fresh, alien soil for the garden and the thirty new rose bushes he had ordered: soil that did not come from the Draymars. His feet no longer walked on our earth.

A week after the surveyors and engineers left, he announced he was re-opening the mine as a theme park. The graves of brave men, the workplace and lifeblood of hundreds more, turned into a mindless place of amusement for the unknowing, thought-free public.

Safe in his father’s grand house, McKillip watched as the diggers came, gouging into the soil and rock that had formed us, tearing up our past and then unceremoniously uncovering things Old Man McKillip must have thought covered up for good. Revealed at last to the knowledgeable few was evidence that the ’27 cave-in had not been a natural disaster.

Marcus McKillip came to the mine then. I watched and waited to see what he would do, all the while the blood-hate pounding inside me like a shaman’s drum. But I held back. Yes, he was his father’s son, but he was not his father. Some faltering vestige of humanity held me back.

I looked on as Marcus McKillip stared down at the sabotage that was the brutal work of his father, the physical manifestation of his father’s greed and the black ruin it had brought crashing down on us. He said nothing, but smiled, a slow thoughtful smile and still I hesitated. Then he was gone, back up the hill in his fast car to his grand house and gardens. Within the hour the McKillip family secret was once again buried, this time beneath one hundred tons of pulverised rock and liquid concrete. The work of constructing a tawdry theme park around our suffering and misery continued unabated.

It was as if the earth had been holding its breath and then finally let go. There were more tremors and mudslides, this time more destructive, but McKillip just brought more men in to shore-up the workings. Finally, the unquiet earth claimed a man, but it was not McKillip. Accidents happen and McKillip did not care. He felt no need to come back to the mine.

Eventually, despite the restlessness of the earth, the monstrosity was completed. It was called the Draymar Theme Park Museum of Mining, but it was no academic temple to the past. Children, and adults little better than children, were to ride fake coal-trucks down thrill-inducing slopes into what was left of the original mine, laughing and screaming within feet, and sometimes less, of where men had struggled and lost, desperately relinquishing their souls to the soil. It was an intolerable abomination. And still, McKillip stayed away from the mine.

The day of the “Museum’s” grand opening and at last Marcus McKillip came back to the mine in person to gloat over his desecration of our rock and soil. He walked slowly up the new path to the old pithead, past the waiting crowds, smiling broadly as if he thought he had laid claim to a fresh gold mine. 

He took the new, shiny cage, far bigger than the original had been, down into the mine and then began a slow, satisfied, lone walk along the new corridors and passageways he had created. His expensive leather shoes glided over the smoothness of the artificial flooring. His pride oozed from the pores of his skin and into the air that surrounded him. I could smell his heavy aftershave, no doubt expensive, but certainly not subtle, and the pride that underlay it. I whispered his name, but there was no sign he heard me.

He continued the inspection tour of his grand work. He slowed as he neared the site of his father’s iniquity. It was buried beneath the new flooring, but there was still an old access passageway, left, no doubt, for authenticity’s sake, that skirted the area. I whispered his name again and he paused and then stepped off the new pathway and into the old passage, his shoes making contact with the soil and dirt of ages that had accumulated there. He bent down and scooped up some of the dry earth, letting it run between his fingers as he walked further down the passage, away from the new and into the old.

I waited, close to where Old Man McKillip had secured his own family’s future by taking away mine and the lives of one hundred and four men in their prime. For a third time, I whispered McKillip’s name and this time I think he heard me. He stopped and looked around. That was when I made my move to restore the true balance of the Earth.

The floor of the old tunnel shook and soil began to shift, trickling gently and unnoticed at first into the passage from the walls and ceiling and then accelerating its cascade. Mud and coal dust began to pour into the shaft. Out in the new area, honest dirt was sliding behind and around the fake mine fittings, but Marcus McKillip would not know this. It was his turn to be trapped, becoming rooted to the spot as his expensive leather shoes sank into the loosened earth of the tunnel. He shouted out. Fear took hold of him. But it was not just fear. The earth continued to shift. Verticals buckled and horizontals tilted. Thick fingers of soil and coal dirt seized his ankles and then his calves, wrapping themselves round him like stout blackened vines and pulling him backwards and down into the ground. As he fell, the rock itself parted like torn flesh to allow him entry to the bowels of the mountain and the deeply buried grave that had waited over thirty-five years for McKillip flesh and bone to lie in it. Then it began to close back over him, filling his eyes, nose, and mouth and suffocating his final frantic cries.

Now it is his: his grave, his coffin, his shroud. He will, though, have to share it with what is left of what I was, but he is welcome to it. What do I care now? Vengeance is mine: an elemental truth enunciated and let go. The anger that has held my echo captive flows with McKillip into our resealed tomb. In the earth I died. In the earth for so long I remained. To the earth I now return.

J.S. Watts

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