The Miner: A Brief Existential Tale

With each hammering blow, flecks of stone and earth fled the miner’s violence, skittering across the ground around his feet.  He drove the shaft deeper and deeper into the darkness, resting only when the exhaustion overtook him, only when the strength was gone from his bleeding hands, when he could no longer endure the agony of his quivering arms and trembling shoulders. Only when the throbbing in his back was no longer a wolf wailing in the distance, but stood before him, head low, a ravenous, snarling beast, would he flee into restless sleep.

But even in his sleep the miner toiled.  He had become Sisyphus straining against the boulder’s weight.  Restless dreams of unconscious longing drove him as he pushed the cart upward toward the surface, the faint light above growing brighter with each step. The rhythms of his pounding heart and labored, disembodied breath paced him, until he would finally stagger into the white glare of the sun. Sometimes, in momentary blindness, he would stumble, catch himself, avoiding the untimely tipping of the overladen cart.  Other times, though, he would fall onto his already bruised knees, and once more find himself reloading the cart with the detritus of earth and rock.

Spread throughout the shaft, at seemingly random intervals, he would drive rough hewn timbers into the ground, bracing joists above them, reinforcing the ceiling suspended inches above his head.  The smoldering kerosene laden torches he hung throughout the shaft did little to cast off the darkness, spewing as much oily gray smoke as light.  The torches cast macabre shadows throughout the mine.  Occasionally, the miner would believe he had been joined by some wayward, fellow treasure-seeker, as he watched his own shadow dance before him. There were even times in the echoes of lengthening shaft, he would hear voices, someone calling to him from the surface, beckoning him to give up his labor, to abandon his quest.

But the miner would not—could not—heed their pleading.

“Just a few more feet,” he would mutter. “Just a few more.  Then I can rest.”

*****

The miner could not recall the exact moment his quest began.  There were times when he had pondered it, this longing for treasure.  Perhaps, if he had not found some success in his labors along the way, he would have given up long ago.  But he had found a few gems, some gold coins, and even a diamond or two over the years.  Never enough to make him wealthy, to be sure.  But enough to keep him going.  Enough to fuel his thirst, rather than to slake it.  Yes.  There were moments of clarity when he understood his madness.  But he had learned the skill of prevailing against the lurking sanity with which he wrestled.

He felt the earth trembling before he heard the sound of earth falling in the shaft far behind him. This had happened before.  It was nothing to concern himself with.  When the ground below him began to shake more vigorously he braced himself against the wall and waited.  A small fissure opened above him. The earth had righted itself once more, as it always had.  Realizing he had been holding his breath, he released it, eagerly sucked in another.   An eerie calm settled over the shaft as the final bits of debris fell from the precariously hanging ceiling.

The miner bent to retrieve his shovel and felt a single cool drop of water fall lightly onto the back of his neck.  He looked up at the fissure and saw more gathering at the its edges, moisture clinging to the rocks like a small child clings to his mother’s neck.  Another drop, this one larger, landed on his cheek, carving a path in the dirt and sweat of his face as it ran down to his jawline. Then the drops became a steady trickle.  He cupped his hands beneath it, letting it pool in his hands, then splashed his face and neck.  What good fortune, he thought.  From this fountain he could wash, drink, and renew himself more quickly for his work. Once again, he set about his task.

Lost in his effort, the miner had not noticed the water pooling at his feet until it had soaked through his well-worn boots.  His thin socks and worn leather boots were little match against the invading water. But he stayed focused, keeping at his work.  It wasn’t until the cart required another trip to the surface that he found himself concerned about the rising water.  This won’t do, he thought.  I will need to find some way to divert the water, or to seal the fissure when I return. But before he made his next pilgrimage above, he would need to set another torch.

In the small confines at the end of the mine, the torch illuminated the face of the walls better than he had hoped.  He gave his eyes time to adjust, taking a moment to survey his work.  That’s when he saw it—the walls of the mine twinkled like stars in a spring Montana sky.  He removed a dirt sodden kerchief from his pocket and wiped the sweat from his burning eyes.  Then the miner took his hammer and chiseled away at one of the glistening pieces of the wall, dislodging one of the glistening chunks of material.  He strained to focus is eyes upon it, to examine what now lay in his scarred and calloused palm.  His pulse quickened.  He would need the sun’s light to be sure, but he was almost certain.  Finally, after so many years, after so much back-breaking toil, he thought, this what he had been searching for.

*****

His trek to the top of the mine seemed interminable.  He had needed stop and clear several piles of debris from his path, remnants of the earth’s shudders several hours earlier, before he could continue.  Now seeing the daylight from above he quickened his pace. The light strengthened his resolve, fed him like a shoot of grain freshly emerged from a farmer’s field. He pushed forward, finally rising into the  late afternoon sun.  The miner pushed the cart a dozen yards or so from mouth of the shaft.  Not far enough to warrant tipping it, but far enough to justify reexamining the glistening piece of ore he had dislodged from the wall after months of labor.

The miner sat down on a bench he had crafted long ago.  One that he had moved from the mouth of shaft after shaft, the bench that had become an alter of disappointment again and again.  But this time, perhaps, it would become an alter of celebration. Gingerly, he removed the piece from his kerchief from his pocket into which he had folded his find. He wiped his hands on his pants leg as his eyes fully adjusted to the afternoon sun and unfolded the cloth.

His hands were trembling, his heart full of hope.  He fought to steady his breathing.  Then, as if pulling back the veil to this Holy of Holies, he pulled back the final fold of the cloth, revealing what he had hidden there.  The miner gasped.  He took it into his fingers, holding high into the light.  The stone glimmered with promise.  He rose, moving to the cache of supplies a few feet away, removing a small pane of glass.  The miner took the stone and scraped it across the glass, etching a deep, perfect cut across the glass.  Then he did again.   He returned the stone to the kerchief and returned it to his pocket.  Then he carefully examined then pane of glass.

Running his thick index finger across the etching, the miner, enraptured in the joy of his precious find, did not hear the rumbling in the distance—did not feel the movement of the earth below his feet. The only trembling he felt emanated from within him. He tried to still himself, tried to think what he must do next.  Long ago he had staked his claim.  Perhaps he should sell an interest in the mine—get some help with reinforcing the walls and ceiling and widening the shaft. He could buy some new tools.   His mind was racing—even as his body was weary. He staggered, shaking with from exhaustion and hunger.

Then the realization of what was happening spread through him. He struggled to remain standing as great waves of earth moved below him.  It was too much.  He fell.  Rose. Fell again.  Finally, he gained his footing and raced toward the mouth of the mine just in time to see the belching maw of dust and smoke, like a dying dragon of yore.  In abject horror, he saw the shaft collapsing into a tomb in which his treasure was now buried.

*****

Opening his eyes, the miner wasn’t sure if he had slept or fainted.  Wiping his face, crusted blood on his left temple he understood.  He pushed himself to his feet and found water he had stored with his cache of supplies and drained several helpings from a battered tin cup.  The miner patted his left pocket and felt the reassuring bulge of the only treasure he had rescued from several hundred feet below him.

He climbed a few dozen yards up the slope before him, saw the sun rising in the east, and surveyed the panoramic glory of the mountains surrounding him. Then, reluctantly, he let his gaze fall across the expanse of his claim, witnessing the destruction the quake brought.  One by one, he checked them.  The abandoned shafts dotting the mountainside into which he had dug had all been destroyed. A few, as if some kind of cruel deceit of the gods, teased him with varying sized apertures into which he might still squeeze.  But the one from which he had just emerged, the one which held the treasure he had sought for so long, was utterly impassable.

The miner stood in silent contemplation.  He heard the scree of a hawk in the distance—nature herself seemed to be mocking him.  In the distance, he saw storm clouds gathering. With time, the winds and rain would wash away every sign of his labor.  He heard a voice on the rising breeze.

Later, he would wonder about that voice.  Had it been nothing more than the hallucination of a mad man? Some atmospheric anomaly carrying a voice from miles away?  An apparition?  Whatever it was, he decided, didn’t matter.  In time, her words had brought him comfort.  She had revealed something deep inside of him.  Something buried like the treasure at the end of the final shaft he had dug.

*****

It had not been easy to come to grips with her revelation.

The overwhelming truth of what she had revealed made him sob for several days when he first heard her. But with time, even as his chest heaved in grief, he knew the comfort—the peace—would come.  The miner had long ago learned the difference between regret and grief, so he allowed himself the grief.  He let blade of truth pass through him again and again, each wound cutting away a bit of the not-so-benign tumor growing upon his heart.

The miner was clutching it when he died, that gem he had recovered the day the earth sealed the passageway to his dreams shut.  The gem had become a talisman to him—a thing to remind him of what he was and what he would become.  His death had been far easier than most of his life, but in the final moments before drawing his final breath, the miner was at peace.

While the gem might have secured a lavish tomb for him, he had never entertained such folly.  He was buried in a simple coffin.  Atop his grave was a simple granite headstone inscribed with an epitaph of his own choosing.

Here lies a simple miner who found his treasure.