The Black Mountain

The mist was heavier than usual this morning. And it was extra cold. Most of the miners were gearing up, putting away their tankards of steaming hot tea and stuffing their mouths with as much bread as they could before they went underground. The open pit bunch were a bit more leisurely, rigging up their explosives for the blast. As for me and my boys, we hung out in the shadows, waiting for them to make the first blast and run in with our shovels. It was no way to live our lives, always on the edge, leaving wives and kids behind, all wondering if they’d have money for shoes this school term. I sighed heavily thinking hard about life.

“Do you still get scared?” The kid chirped up, looking at me with keen eyes.

I scowled as I pulled this kid out the way; he almost got run over by one of the patrol cars. Out of the team of us illegal guys, he was definitely the smallest, the scrawniest and most inexperienced. It was his first time ever going into the pit by himself. He usually loaded the ore for his boss, but, as he happily told me, the boss let him “graduate.”

The first siren sounded. A heavy silence settled over the pit and we all waited with baited breath. My men begun to gather their shovels, pick up their sacks, lace their boots and say their prayers because you never really knew what happened in the pit. We never spoke about the pit.

Seconds passed, but no blast was heard. All the men swore except the kid.

“What’s wrong?” He asked, nervously.

“They misfired,” the biggest member of our team said, gravely.

“It’s not safe today. We shouldn’t go,” someone else said, grumbling.

“The fog is a bad sign,” another person agreed.

“Are you guys for real? Big men like you, scared of a bit of fog? Maybe you can stay, but as for me, I gotta eat. And right now, my woman is talking about valentines; I need the money,” I said gravely.

Dissent rippled through the group of illegal miners, all waiting for bait that wasn’t theirs. Looking out over the distance, I could see the pit manager rushing down, driving furiously in his land cruiser to check the line of the explosive. He spent five minutes out of sight and emerged running fast back to his car. In record time, he had driven the required distance. I looked away and in a blink of an eye the pit caved in.

Some men said all they ever saw was black ore; black like death. But I’m an idealist. What I saw was glittering bits of metal, that sent my children to school, that kept my house well stocked and that made my wife happy at the end of the day. And that’s all I needed at this point. I never asked for this life, but at the end of the day, I chose it. So many men would always say if I was born rich, if I went to school, if this or if that. But as soon as I could talk, I understood that no one gets equal chances in life. Maybe the illegal route wasn’t the way to go, but sometimes it’s the only route.

The miners were already out there digging, and the trucks had arrived. The loading was usually fast and we all had to rush. The men charged out, shovels in hand and weapons if need be.

“Come on!” I hissed at the kid, who was still awestruck from the blast.

The descent into the pit was slippery. The air was still nippy, and I could see the breaths of the men, vaporizing into the air, looking ghostly. An omen, like they said.

We shoveled hard and we shoveled long. We shoveled like our lives depended on it, because they did. It was just for a sack. A sack of mud and glittery pieces of metal that we would never get to touch. But at the end of the day, that sack of mud would get us one hundred kwacha, and keep my kids’ stomachs full for one more night. So I shoveled as hard as my frozen muscles would allow.

Before we knew it, the bags were full and our arms hurt more than we thought was humanly possible. The next part was climbing out the pit. The fog had become much thicker than I’d expected and the slope was the steepest we’d ever experienced.

“Hey,” the kid chirped, grinning all over his face. He was clearly happy with his first real mining experience. He was slightly bowed under the heavy sack. Looking at him, my heart just broke. He still had a few pimples strewn across his face. He was probably only twenty-one or twenty-two. He had a future.

“It’s six hundred meters back up,” I said to him, “let’s hurry up and make the climb.”

It was hard climbing, barely being able to see what we were doing. The fog was still very heavy, and the slopes of the pit were crumbling. The higher we got the more the fog cleared out. I looked back and saw the kid struggling with the weight if the sack on his scrawny back. He slipped from time to time, and each time I held my breath, fearing the worst.

I was almost at the top, feeling the glorious sunshine on my face. I smiled, I’d made it out once more. I looked back to smile encouragingly at the kid. He was sweating heavily and really struggling. I remembered what he said, about wanting to make things easier for his mother, wanting to buy his sister new shoes. Pay his brother’s school fees for grade 8. He just wanted to be relevant.

“You’re almost there, kid,” I called out. He smiled at my encouragement and made another step. One more step, I kept thinking. Just one more step.

Suddenly, I heard a scream. I whipped around and saw the kid falling six hundred meters backward, into an expanse of fog down below to his death. I almost slipped out of shock, but found my footing and rushed onto the flat ground, retching.

The men were more subdued than usual, the pit was always scary. No one ever talked about the pit. I took my bag to the truck waiting for me by the gates to the mine. I received my hundred kwacha. Just like a normal day, except that a piece of my soul remained in the pit. I was still alive, but that pit was slowly killing me.

Someone had to tell the kid’s boss. I decided to. I didn’t even find out his name. The kid had a future. He had hopes and dreams. But they were all buried under the black mountain.

M. Nanchengwa

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