Mykhail Kruchevich had hit his wife only once. Whether he had then considered her possible response, he could not now remember, nor could he recall what had prompted him to raise his hand. But respond she did. With no hesitation, no look of alarm, Vlada had faced him without shrinking, an absence of protective action of such surprise to Mykhail that he was paralyzed waiting for the hand she should bring to her cheek to stem the sting of his first and only corrective slap. But Vlada did not deign to touch her face, did not cower or cry out. Instead, Vlada’s eyes locked with his, and as Mykhail hung in an addled pause, she raised the hot end of the coal poker and touched it to his open palm. It took a moment and the smell of charred flesh for Mykhail to realize she had burned him. Even in the moment when his mouth opened in a yelp and he drew the hand to his chest, Mykhail knew he deserved the pain.
Thirty years had passed since the burn had hardened to callous, and though neither attempted violence to the other again, Mykhail bore the tight scar, and when Vlada angered, the shape of his fingers formed spectral welts along her cheek. That vision seared Mykhail’s heart so deeply that when it rose he visited Father Yspecky and confessed anew not only the recent action which had called it forth but also the event in which he had placed it in her flesh. As she wrapped the wound, Mykhail had dropped to his knees, not in pain but to beg for her forgiveness, and each time she greased and padded the branded palm so that he could hold the shovel, Mykhail, as he did now, again asked God to forgive him his original act of sin.
Of the scarred hand, all Mykhail could feel at this moment was a throbbing around the poker burn. Though his eyes were open—he blinked to be sure—he could see nothing. His miner’s lamp had tumbled and its flame had expired in the dust that followed the rumbled breaking loose of the coal car. A moment before the car creaked, Mykhail had heard the pop as the brake-block cracked, that sound followed by a brief pause in which Mykhail, coughing, already lurching with a pipe to sprag the car, anticipated the grind of the iron wheels against the iron rails, followed at increasing pace and volume by the clack of the half-loaded car drawn by tonnage and gravity along the slope of the face he and his young buddy Len Rustovski were to clear.
Rustovski’s footsteps, if he were running as any sane man should, were dampened by the echo of the car scraping against gravel and rock, while the ring of their two dropped shovels faded against the length of the open coal seam. It was backed by no scurry of rats, a good sign. Distant sound was muffled and lacked tinniness—rock had fallen between. Mykhail Kruchevich faced the dark and tested his ability to move more than his eyes. He began with the hand with which he had struck Vlada. He could flap it in a space between the wooden slats of the now stopped car and the wall of coal against which he recognized he was pinned. He inhaled, and found his breath halted. He exhaled, and found that as breath left him, a great weight compressed his chest.
Mykhail came as from a distance, but the rumble had deadened his ears, and Mykhail had no sense of the direction from which Rustovski’s voice came. Mykhail’s brain built a map. Rustovski would be below, of course. Hung on the rock, Mykhail could not orient. Below to the right or the left? It did not matter. He’d heard Rustovski. Rockfall must not have completely closed access to the main chamber. Young Len had breath enough to shout, and so he might not be badly hurt. If he could have, Mykhail would have sighed. His children were grown, but young Rustovski’s boy had yet to walk. Mykhail could not draw breath, but in the silence between Rustovski’s calls, he was glad to be the one in need of digging out. He turned his thought to this, aware that until the coal car was moved, each breath would be smaller. Where was his shovel? Could he reach it? Could he answer Len by tapping the head of the shovel on a rail?
Always the shovel. Always the dirt. The youngest of seven, ever since his mother had pulled him from the breast and sat him on the little scrap of rug, Mykhail had been choking on dust and gagging on gas. Wood smoke and pig lot. Grain chaff and offal. Ash and steam. Outhouse, garbage pile, black-damp, and anthracite. Shoveling had not only ruined his lungs, it had also suffered his hands. Once limber enough to carve cloth-thin slices from the fat of a butchered hog, since he’d crossed the Atlantic, the bones of his hands had broken and healed in the hard curves of grip and shaft. Some days now, Mykhail’s fingers crooked so stiff he had trouble buttoning his pants. Better him than Rustovski trapped by the car. Soon, breath and strength failing, Mykhail would have been put to the breaker anyway. But he needed the shovel now, though it be the last time he picked one up. Mykhail stretched the arm, but the splayed fingers of his branded hand could not reach the shovel and he could feel neither arm nor hand on his other side. He could not tell whether, when he told them to, his legs moved. He could not tell where his feet rested. No matter what he willed, all he could feel and hear was the ragged draw of his own shallow, shortening breath.
Anthracite. Such a word. The musician in him liked it. Before he had begun to feel the black dust clog his lungs, Mykhail had hummed at his work, a three-beat mental refrain of anth-ra-cite pacing exhale on the lift-hoist-turn of his shovel, silence on the inhale beat of rest as the shovel returned to the pile of rock forever at his feet. He’d been a loader, a laborer, all his anthracite life. He had the coal tattoos, the blue-black bags under his eyes, and the jagged, sucking breath to prove it. He could not even whistle, and the only thing he might bang was his head against black rock.
What had Vlada packed in his bucket today? In the pocket of his jacket, he had found the hankie, a swatch of clean cloth that smelled of sunshine and lye soap. Though the scent and brightness of the cloth faded through the work shift, Mykhail looked forward to pausing in the shoveling to clear his nose. He could have spared Vlada the washing of it, could have, like other miners, held each nostril in turn to blow down onto dirt, but the hankie was of their love-bond. She had never neglected to fold it the familiar way, to place it without his noticing in the pocket of his coat. She had never forgotten to wrap a red pickled egg in his bucket with lunch or to meet him at the door of their kitchen at the end of his shift or to wipe clean the beds of his miner’s boots as he bathed. She had kept him patched, with scraps padding the knees of his pants to soften his bones as he knelt, softening his neck by lining the collars of his shirt and coat with flannel, softening his footsteps by darning the heels of his socks almost before he felt them thin. It was for her that he had taken up the shovel, and they both knew it. After he paid off the debt, after his shovel had earned them the money to buy land in the old country, he had meant for them to go back. He had pressed her against him and prayed. He would have promised her anything and meant every word that fell off his lips as he whispered into her hair. But she demanded so little, and why she had followed him, why she had taken his hand when he held it out, he had never been sure and never asked. After they crossed, she had never again set foot on a boat. If she had looked back, if she felt regret, she had never let him know.
Mykhail drew air into his mouth, and though his tongue felt the fine, greasy grit of coal dust, what he tasted was the fatback Vlada fried for him each morning. What he swallowed was not black rock but the creamy yolk of the egg Vlada had pulled from the pot that dawn, handing it to him hot and wrapped in a rag, offering him also, as always, the small spoon with which to tap the shell and scoop the meat. It was not a smile exactly that she offered with the egg, yet her face wore the soft countenance of comfort content with giving comfort. Mykhail took another breath, lifting into his nose her scent of ripe grapes.
He had closed his eyes, he realized, but his nose told him the dust was settling, and he opened his lids. Nothing. In his nostrils was the odor of coal oil, but he smelled no smoke, saw no flame or ember. Good. His eyes burned, but nothing had caught fire. He found that the back of his tilted head rested on a ledge in the rock, but he could lift and turn it. In no direction could he see a light. He closed his eyes and held his breath: air moved over his lids and lashes. He sniffed but could detect the odor of neither methane nor sulfur. He exhaled. It would not be poison gas that killed him today.
What killed him today. Each time he rose toward the light, each time he stepped off the lift at top, a miner turned his face to the sky, seeking to feel not earth but sky above him. To breathe sweet air. To hear the din of the fans and breaker, the working of the colliery. Each time a miner stepped to the surface of the earth, he knew he had cheated death one more numbered day. The life above ground filled him and he hungered then to fill his lungs with clean air, to shout, to thin his blood with drink, to quell the rolling in his belly with bread and meat. To laugh, to love, and then to sleep. He washed, yes, but mainly because the washing was required by she who baked the bread and cooked the meat, who padded the knees and lined the collars, who packed the buckets and tended the wounds. Left to his own, unwashed and stinking of drink, Mykhail would have returned to sleeping in sheds with swine.
Except for the fatback, Mykhail had not thought of his pigs in years. As a boy, before he and Vlada had stood before the priest, he had carried shoats under his coat, kissed their heads, and kept them warm against his ribs as if they were his hoofed kin. No one complained when he curled in the straw, his back against the heaving side of the hot sow. How many dawns had his mother banged on the pot, waking them all, children and swine, the sound of his name clear through the thin shared wall of their room and the shed. He curled with the barrows and gilts until he heard the voices of his brothers and sisters nearly finished the morning meal, after his mother had called his name many times, when he feared that if he failed then to rise, no black bread would be left for him at all.
It had been more than half his lifetime since he’d eaten that bread. He could conjure the flavor, but unmistakable in his mouth now was the taste of blood, and it was not a mirage. The salt and iron of it were not unpleasant. Mykhail licked his teeth, swallowed, and waited. He had not bitten his cheek or tongue. Nothing dripped down his face to his lips, and he had not been cut about the mouth. Blood flooded over his teeth again, slow but rising.
Since the day he had, by way of making known his promise, given Vlada a pretty shoat, Mykhail had gone hungry not one day. In her apron, sweets. In her dimpled hands, raised dough. In the air close about her the scent of ripening grapes. She never failed to feed him, even in times of strike. He had sharpened the blade of the shovel, and she entered the woods holding it like a staff, their children trailing behind her, the strings of her white apron waving in the breeze. Mykhail could not always identify what she returned with in the bucket. The pockets of her apron and the faces of the children might be berry-stained. The knees of her skirt might be green, her ankles scratched. Vlada would rub a dampened rag over her forage before she wiped her muddied shoes. Whatever it was, when she put it in a pot, it tasted good and sustained them.
Just as Vlada’s had, Mykhail’s body had grown, his bulk mostly shovel-muscle, hers the roundness of the matron. A well-fleshed wife bespoke a well-lived life. They had grown fat because God had blessed them. Though their sons had died, two before they drew breath, Vlada had borne and raised their daughters. When he breathed his last, Irina, the youngest, would comfort Vlada. Irina would be a help. Vlada would not be alone and this thought made him glad. Mykhail’s mouth had filled. He swallowed, licked the thick liquid off his teeth.
St. Michael’s Benevolent Society would see to the funeral. While the women of the church brought food, St. Michael’s men would see that the widow Kruchevich and her daughter had coal for the stove. In the seasons of trout and venison, Mykhail’s women would eat flesh. Vlada’s chickens, her garden, the forage, would see them through the rest. Irina would bring home sweets, day-old rolls and too-sticky hard-tack from the households for which she tended children, cleaned and ironed. It would be weeks, a month or more if they were fortunate, before they would have to move from the company house. There would be the death benefit, and Vlada had the can of bills and coin. There were the married daughters. Vlada was resourceful, and Mykhail prayed now that God, family, and church would help her find her way. He lifted the scarred hand to cross himself but it was caught by the rim of the car.
Mykhail could no longer swallow the blood rising in his throat. It thickened, pasting his lips, drying at the seam. Mykhail Kruchevich drew his diminishing strength to his face and willed his lips to part. The effort pressed closed his eyelids, behind which bloomed the blue of the low flame dancing on the skin of the culm bank, the blue of the wing of a jay. Mykhail’s lips split, the blue shifted, took on shape, and as cool air filled Mykhail’s mouth, he felt hooves thrash in water and saw the sow wild-eyed under ice. He had not been able to save her, and when she floated up bloated in spring, he watched from the hillside as wolves opened her at anus and belly. The wolves settled in and slept near her three nights.
It was wrong, what was said, that the mine was the bowel of the earth. It was not dung Mykhail had been loading into lokie cars for thirty years. He remembered the sound, how the miners paused, waiting for the settling of the earth to halt. The wolves crunched bone, licking out the rich, sustaining grease. Rustovski’s tag would be counted for this car at the scale house, and though it might sticky the hands of the breaker boys, Mykhail’s blood would be washed from the coal before it was sold. Dusk or dawn, shadow on snow shone blue, and Mykhail knew now to be dusk. When the wolves moved on, Mykhail sought to gather what little might be of use and found necklaced in the oily, shit-specked mud only the ice-sow’s shining teeth. Almost nothing had gone to waste.
The dust had settled. Mykhail tried to attain the feel of rest. His breath was shallow, but he calmed it and heard the crackling in his chest. They had remained until Vlada’s tender gilt was roasted and shared while the village danced with the bride, paying for the privilege by placing into the apron of her silent sister coins to see the couple started. In the rhythm with which he had filed down the points of tusks, Mykhail now called air to and from his nostrils, and wolf pups lapped greased snow. From the hillside, Mykhail felt wind shift and lift his breath, heard wolf-pup teeth crack blood-steeped ice, and he prayed again to be forgiven for striking the blow.
© Bim Angst
[This piece was selected by Damyanti Biswas. Read Bim’s interview]