I cannot remember what happened. It is a hole, a blank spot, an infinitesimal chasm. The moments leading up are hazy, as if I saw them through layers of gauze.
The first moment I see most clearly, the day I saw my two options: go under these mountains, or starve. No third option. There never is. Everyone wishes there were. In the end you would rather sign away your life and spend your days underground than let them wither and crumple into the soil of the woods.
The rest bleeds together. Drawn into each other in a maze of caverns, watching the sun disappear as the lift descends. The sounds of metal on stone, of wheels on tracks, the occasional warning of fire in the hole.
All the same. The same charges and detonators, the same carts filled with lumps of carbon. The same hopeless faces smeared with soot. The same fear of missteps or overlooked cracks, plunging down into the same earth’s crust. The same black dust crawling down into our same lungs, same reassurances and promises bumping round our same boiling brains.
Same. All the same. Until it isn’t. Until that permanent moment falls out of place and into the endless air. I do not remember it, but I know what happened. Everyone knew what a cave-in looked, sounded, felt like, well before their first day going underground. Cave-ins filled the air around us as we grew, the knowledge of them, the threat that they could happen at any time, the darkness and the rumbles and the way that they froze the days and nights as everyone above ground frantically dug to save those trapped.
This wasn’t that. Cave-ins do not burn. They are not ignited by errant sparks or dropped matches. They do not fuse sinew and dirt, ancient stone and nerve endings, reshaped and gnashed together like cogwheels’ teeth. They do not plant nightmares in the walls, the sound of men’s voices ripped from their throats as they come undone.
This is the way, the only way, I found myself here. Buried in the soil and the tectonic plates, of them but not of them. Dreams and futures lost to the inevitable. Don’t call me ghost. Don’t call me anything.
What happened to me was nothing memorable, let alone special. It happened to so many others, with me, before me, after me. Blurred into so many other moments like it and unalike it, is there any indication that “me” ever existed on any meaningful level?
No. The gap between this moment and the vast sky had dissolved even before it happened. There is nothing to prove we existed. Our echoes are faint, drowning in the mammoth expanse of what is regardless of want, happenings bigger than comprehension. Soon they’ll be barely a whisper, taking that space of folk songs and stories, leaving those who hear them to wonder how much was truth, how much was legend, and whether it really matters. Soon, even the whisper disappears.
There is only memory left, though memory is a strange thing to call what happened and happens in the inevitable. The inevitable that lives in every inch of black, gritty stone, pounded and shaped by great ages of pressure, slowly worn from jagged towers into gentle slopes. Deep transformations, the kind that unfold under the gaze of dying stars. Against such monuments, such deep and elemental time, there is little room for anything like what we thought mattered.
These fading moments are now fused into an enormity only possible beyond the bounds of what you still call history. They are imperceptible until something tries to cheat time, to reveal with explosions what took eons to make. As we did. As we were coerced underground, making a choice that we already made for us. To find the deep, black veins that are traded and sold but should stay put. An affront. A foolishness. A necessity.
I do not remember what happened. But since then, memory is all I am.