As the walls cave in, she clings to the sides of her cage in fright — her tiny claws digging into my callused wrists. As the rumbling dissipates, dust covers my head lamp and darkness falls. She continues to shriek for a while and then tweets her disapproval of being put in this position of significant discomfort. I lay a reassuring hand on her.
I look out the window as the steam engine rolls into the station.
Deep Creek, Kentucky.
My nostrils flare as I breathe in the fresh mountain air, my senses heightened with views of the Appalachian mountain range rising above the fog over by the distant horizon. I shiver from apprehension and the early morning chill.
There are very few people about on the station that early Autumn morning and so, the burly mustachioed man in his orange overalls is hard to miss. I jump off with my luggage onto the platform. He approaches hurriedly and introduces himself as the foreman. Meanwhile, a group of five mostly nineteen, twenty-year-olds has also disembarked from the train. They amble along toward us clearly recognizing the foreman from his clothes and his hard boots. I shake hands with all of them. Among them, a tall and lanky redhead smiles awkwardly at me. He turns to the side and spits out some tobacco. He gently wipes the back of his arm over his mouth. A light brown stain coats his white shirt. He has a banjo hung across his shoulder. At sixteen, I am clearly the youngest among the lot.
“Alright lads! It is eight dollars of pay for a week’s work. Get yourself measured up — you get two pairs of denims and pullovers, mining boots and a headlamp on loan from the Company,” he surveys our faces. “If you got a backache, toothache, or a cold…,” he chortles, “you get your sorry asses back to your Mama.” I and the others grin ear-to-ear.
“Mr. Hughes is a godly man, yessir!,” he continues referring to the mine owner, “but any of you boys so much as cast your eyes on his lovely daughter Ms. Bertha, he will shoot you down that I promise.” We burst out laughing.
I imagine Bertha with her blue eyes, blonde tresses falling over soft-toned shoulders, and with a smile straight from the heavens. I have not even seen her, yet I am already in love. The rest laugh again at something that the foreman has said. I snap back from my reverie upon hearing my name.
“Ain’t that right, Mr. Jones?” he asks looking at me quizzically. I stutter and nod in agreement not quite comprehending but too embarrassed to ask.
We load our belongings onto the horse carriages outside the station. As we trot along the narrow lanes, a lone store appears into view. The Company Store — it reads. The foreman explains that the store sells food, soap, other daily necessities, cigarettes and beer (yessir!) he confirms — all for purchase and that the monies are to be deducted from our pay for the next month.
“Alright, you start early Monday morning at the mine and you come back out only at sunset on Friday. Soak in the light, boys!” he says pointing at the sky dramatically. “And take a deep breath.” He closes his eyes and draws in a lungful of cool air. We all look around and fidget, unsure of what to do next. At long last, he exhales and lets out a deep sigh.
I cannot help but notice the deep furrows forming between his brows, his graying hair and the calluses in his hands. He coughs, a most disturbing type of cough.
That night, I bunk at the Company housing with the redhead originally from Greensville, South Carolina. At nineteen, his teeth are already stained with tobacco.
Young Bertha floats into my dreams.
HER MAJESTY’S VOICE
I reach for my lamp and raise it up. The soot is all over in the air around me and it scatters the light causing shadows along the walls. Small grains of coal from the walls float in my vision.
“It is just fine, my dear Bertha,” I say loudly and unconvincingly. “They will find us — they know we are here. They know where we are.”
For hours, I cup my ear against the collapsed section, hoping to hear other human voices, in vain — voices of the foreman and Red (as I had taken to calling my bunkmate). I holler until my throat is sore but hear my own echoes from the depths of the tunnels all around me.
Bertha is tweeting nervously by my side. I pour some water from my canister onto a small tin bowl under the cage. She sips frantically. I sigh and settle down on the ground. I lower the wick in the lamp to conserve what oil’s left. I rest the cage next to me and lay a comforting hand on Bertha. I gently clean the soot off her coated feathers.
Hours pass in silence and sleep overcomes me. Somewhere in the distance, Bertha starts to sing. She sings of cotton fields in Texas, farms in Ohio and Georgia, and the beautiful Appalachian trails. She sings of a mother’s lonely heart at the loss of her only son who’s headed faraway for the green hills leaving her in the dusty plains. It’s her lullaby for my soul.
I wish for me to wake up in my own bed. I wish to hear Red snoring loudly on an adjacent bed.
Outside the war rages on. Some are calling it the mother of all wars. It was already in its third year with no end in sight. We called ourselves the Allies, fighting together with the British and the Australians although I didn’t quite know why we were fighting the Germans.
I hear that the Germans have come up with a new war machine and they called it the Tank. It wreaks havoc, I have read in the papers, its shell impenetrable to guns and bullets, its mammoth nozzle spraying blood everywhere and trampling those that refuse to bleed to death.
I wanted to go and fight but am told that I was too young to be on the front. At home, I had my Mama and Father. Father was struck ill with polio when young, his left leg incapacitated him from hard labor. Mama managed a small bakery back home in Mobil, Alabama. I helped her bake for as long as I could remember. But as men left for the war and the women tightened their purses, Mama’s bakery had to shut down. I had to look for a new job.
As we walk with our pick axes and labor in our heavy overalls and boots to the mine, the foreman opines loudly, “Well, the war is good for us miners.”
The coal mined from the Appalachia is routed to steel mills in Pennsylvania. As the government ordered the construction of more bridges and rail networks to move the troops between the bases, the mining operations ran overtime. Steel also makes weapons and weapons support war. Mr. Hughes owned one of the largest mining companies in Appalachia.
The foreman leads us to an opening to the mine and gestures to us. Red and I take a few steps forward and darkness swallows us. As we drop a few hundred feet into the depths of the earth, my eyes are deceived with shapes and forms that exist only in the deepest recesses of my mind. Further down, I imagine the fires that are burning within the core of the earth and here I am, sandwiched in darkness between a world of light up above and one below with fires.
Beside me, Red is shivering. “I don’t like closed spaces,” he confesses.
THE COMPANY MEN
A month has passed since my arrival, at least what the calendar says. However, with days consumed in darkness, time has stopped to exist. Red and I have become the closest of friends. The foreman has been tough but kind. With his graying hair and his gnarled hands, it was hard to believe that he was only thirty-five.
A larger home stands by itself a few hundred yards away across from the street with the company quarters. Mr. Hughes lives there with his daughter. He has been a widower for long, his wife and Bertha’s mother having passed on from complications during childbirth. The foreman said that the widower long mourned his wife and never remarried. On some lonely evenings, he would take out his fiddle, pour himself some bourbon and play long into the night.
But this evening, Mr. Hughes has invited all the mining workers for a celebration. The foreman tells us that the Company has won a new contract with Bethlehem Steel. More coal was needed as the steel factories ramped up production and we are to double our production.
This was the first time I meet with Mr. Hughes. He is a burlesque specimen with thick, curly mustache and a beard. His eyes, however are kind although stories of his ruthlessness as a businessman continue to make the rounds.
Later that evening, we all sit by the fire near make-shift tents, trading stories amid laughter. Mr. Hughes is on his fiddle, Red’s on his banjo and other instruments make up the accompaniment. As the men all join in old songs and new that I haven’t yet heard, I am carried away by the lure of the Appalachian lore. I forget the hard labor of the weeks before as I pour myself and Red some whiskey. The night wears on.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spy a silhouette by the window. A faint glimpse of a beautiful face and the shapely woman behind it. I stare all I can and then the curtains are drawn shut. Bertha, I say to myself. Later than night, I fancy stories of a myriad encounters with Bertha — all scenarios ending in a heavenly courtship, the bliss only interrupted by Red snoring nearby.
After a few weeks, Red and I are deep inside the mine when we hear the sirens from afar. We drop our pick axes and hurry up the shafts of the mine as the horn gets louder and we finally make our way into daylight.
Outside, Red and I catch whispers of someone named Old Joe who didn’t quite make it. The foreman is already present when we get to the meeting point. He tells of an older mine in the vicinity that has collapsed. Old Joe was trapped and there was a hundred feet of rubble between him and humanity. The foreman confirms that there is no way to get to him. Old Joe was one of the first miners hired by Mr. Hughes almost thirty-five years ago.
We attend the services at the local church with Mr. Hughes in attendance. Mr. Hughes praises the good Lord, reminds us of our patriotic duty in this time of war, and blesses mercy on Old Joe’s soul. He then asks for a moment of silence and beckons the foreman to the podium.
The foreman walks us through new safety protocols. And then he presents a few of us with bird cages. As I lay my eyes on the beautiful canary inside the cage, at the sight of her yellow plumage and her amber eyes, I fall in love once again.
“Well, what are we going to call her?” Red asks. He sneezes — apparently, he is now allergic to canaries.
“Bertha,” I say. She tweets her approval. Red laughs and we walk back to our bunks. On the way, we stop at the Company Store and buy some nuts and grains for Bertha.
COURTSHIP WITH BERTHA
Over the next several weeks, Red and I take turns carrying Bertha into the mine — a few minutes at a time at the beginning and then for longer periods as she acclimatizes to the surroundings inside the mine.
Red often plays short notes on his banjo and we notice that her tweets mimic simpler notes. Over time, he experiments with increasing tempo or a change in an octave and Bertha responds with exacting precision. We quickly realize that she can carry a tune and is a fast learner. Much of our Sundays thereon are spent in lessons for Bertha.
I buy her supplies daily at the Company Store. She enjoys eating worms, but her favorite meals are smaller bites of pecans. I enjoyed the paltry daylights in my life pruning her and letting her peck and bite my fingers. I am surely in love — Red teases. I do not mind.
“But only male canaries can sing,” says the foreman when he hears of Bertha’s prowess. He then proceeds to check Bertha out and shakes his head in disbelief. “A female singing canary — well, I will be damned!” he says.
She is my constant companion from the day I lay my eyes on her.
THE MINER’S CURSE
They say that a miner is cursed with one of three things — bad lungs, bad debt, or a bad death. In my months at work, I have now seen them all.
In what must be a couple of months judging by the approaching winters, Red starts coughing — a lot. He complains of breathing and the poor man cannot hold a sentence without dark phlegm shooting off his spittle. He stays off work for the most part. My wages are all but mortgaged with the Company Store — medicines for Red, supplies for myself and food for Bertha. Like most miners, I have sold my soul to the Company Store. A few dollars of change lines my pockets.
I spend weekdays inside the mine with Bertha. Up on the ground, Sundays are spent nursing Red. His skin turns paler by the day almost reflecting the first snowfalls of winter. The foreman comes in with the Company Physician for a consultation. I wait outside with Bertha. The doctor comes out after almost an hour, his face morose and names several possible outcomes — tuberculosis and black lung disease among high among this list of suspect causes. He asks if I know any of Red’s closest relatives.
I go in to comfort Red. He smiles weakly and coughs — his eyes are hollow and red. He tells me that I can have his banjo if the time were to come. I scold him and then bring in Bertha. Distracted, we both play with her for the next few hours.
SONGS OF THE APPALACHIA
Coca Cola — if it had not been for Dr. Pemberton of Atlanta Georgia, we would not be tasting the nectar of America! As thirst taunts me and I am done licking at the last few drops of water off my canister, I start hallucinating. I close my eyes and recall the contours of the bottle to its minutest detail — I am drinking this elixir while driving on those new automobiles designed from Mr. Ford’s factory. I drive by and look at the billboards of Coca Cola along the roadside — and one face jumps at me in particular — a beautiful Southern belle with golden tresses who I instantly name Bertha. I recall the Bertha from my dreams and they share an uncanny resemblance.
I wake up. My lips are parched — by now, it must have been several days inside the mine. I croak a tune trying to make conversation with my Bertha. Her breathing has been getting more rapid and more erratic. Her puffed throat enlarges even more as she labors to breathe in air. Her eyes droop and her body shivers. It is a premonition of poisonous gases forming in the enclosed space.
I open the cage and gently place Bertha onto the palm of my hands. I rest her on my chest so she can feel my warmth. After a long while, Bertha draws a large breath and then she starts to sing. What starts off as a weak and unsure set of scattered notes slowly builds momentum. I close my eyes and let her tune carry me away. As I fly with Bertha high in the sky over myriad lands, the sun shines brightly, the wind caresses my cheeks, and my body, lithe with renewed energy, soars over mountains. Through her song, she leads me as she flies over the Blue Ridge, the mighty Mississippi river, and over the flat plains of Alabama. As her song crescendos and I break through the cloud cover, I see my Mama. Mama, stands forlorn, is looking at the horizon seemingly in wait for me. A small smile is lit on her face as she anticipates my presence. I know that this might be the last time we see each other.
Bertha tweets and I let her nibble on my finger.
Tears run down my cheeks. I am mad, at the unfairness of what destiny has in store for me. I know not how much time has passed but slowly I open my eyes. There is stillness and Bertha is laying on my palms quiet and unmoving. She has used the last vestiges of her energy for her farewell song.
Hunger taunts me and I know that I am prepared. I raise the pickaxe and warm blood spills off my palms. In my mouth, as my tongue rolls off the soft tissue and my teeth bite into a first crunch — I know that her sacrifice was not to be in vain. I have reconciled with fate, no longer in a showdown with destiny, but in complete harmony with what lies ahead of me.
Time passes — maybe a day or two — and I hear faint noises at first that grow louder. Soon, over shouts, I hear sounds of metal hitting rock. I am sure one of the voices is that of Red’s. I stand up, pick up my axe and start digging on my side.
Bertha’s last song plays along in my head.