Twilight Eyes Page 51

Suddenly I remembered that I had not yet telephoned Joel Tuck to tell him that Cathy Osborn, ex-professor of literature at Barnard, would be arriving on his doorstep, seeking shelter and friendship and guidance, perhaps as early as Tuesday or Wednesday. I was annoyed with myself but only briefly. I still had plenty of time to call Joel before Cathy rang his doorbell—as long as nothing happened to us in the mines.

Horton Bluett had brought a canvas duffel bag with a drawstring top. He hefted it out of the bed of the pickup and dragged it after himself as he kicked through the drifted snow at the edge of the woods. Something clattered softly inside the canvas. Stopping just beyond the perimeter of the forest, he slipped one arm into the bag. He withdrew a spool of red ribbon, cut a length of it with a very sharp penknife, and tied it around a tree at eye level. “So you can find your way back on your own,” he said. He quickly led us onto a winding deer trail where no underbrush and only a few tree branches interfered with our progress. Every thirty or forty yards he stopped to tie another length of red ribbon around another tree, and I noticed that you could stand at any marker and see the one that he had left before it.

We went downward on the deer trail to a long abandoned dirt road that cut through the low-lying part of forest, and we followed that for a while. Forty minutes after we had set out, at the bottom of a broad ravine, Horton led us to a long, treeless area for the service of which the road had apparently been constructed. There the land was badly scarred. Part of the face of the ravine wall had been sheared off, and other parts of it looked chewed. A large, horizontal mine bore pierced the heart of the looming ridge. The entrance was only half hidden by an avalanche that had come down so long ago that silt had filled in the spaces between the stones; good-sized trees had grown up with their roots webbed through the jumbled rockfall.

Having stepped around strangely bent and gnarled trees, around the wing of fallen rock, and into the horizontal shaft, Horton paused and withdrew three high-powered flashlights from the duffel bag. He kept one, gave the others to Rya and me. He shone the beam of his light over the ceiling, walls, and floor of the tunnel into which we had come.

The ceiling was only a foot above my head, and I had the crazy notion that the uneven walls of rock—arduously carved out with picks and chisels and shovels and blasting powder and oceans of sweat in another century—were slowly closing in. They were lightly veined with coal and with what might have been milk-pale quartz. Massive, tar-coated support timbers were evenly spaced along both walls and across the ceiling as if they were the ribs inside the carcass of a whale. Though massive, they were in poor condition, cracked and sagging, splintered, crusted in some places with fungus, probably half hollowed out by rot, and some of the angle braces were missing. I had the feeling that if I leaned against the wrong beam, the roof would come down on me in an instant.

“This here was probably one of the first mines in the county,” Horton said. “They worked it by hand for the most part and hauled out the coal cars with mules. The iron rails were removed to some other shaft when this one played out, but here and there you’ll stumble across what’s left of some of the ties sunk halfway in the floor.”

Looking up at the moldering timbers, Rya said, “Is this safe?”

“Is anything?” Horton asked. He squinted at the rotting wood and at the moist, seeping walls, and he said, “Actually this here’s as bad as it gets because you’ll be moving from older to newer mines as you go, though if you’re wise, you’ll step careful all the way and not rest no weight on any of the supports. Even in the newer shafts—say, those that’re only a decade or two old—well . . . a mine’s just a void, really, and you know what they say about nature’s tendency to want to fill a void.”

From his duffel bag he brought forth two hard hats and gave them to us with the admonition that they must be worn at all times.

“What about you?” I asked as I slipped the hood of my jacket off my head and put on the metal helmet.

“I could only lay my hands on two,” he said. “And since I’m just going a short ways with you, I’ll be fine without. Come along.”

We followed him deeper into the earth.

In the first few yards of the shaft, piles of leaves had blown in on dry autumn days and had drifted against the walls where they had been slowly saturated by seepage and had compacted into dense masses under their own wet weight. Near the entrance, where winter’s chilly touch still reached, the moldering leaves and the fungi on the old timbers were frozen and odorless. Farther back, however, the temperature climbed well above freezing, and a foul odor repeatedly rose and subsided as we advanced.

Horton led us around a corner, into an intersecting tunnel that was much roomier than the first, its width in part dictated by the rich vein of coal that had occupied the space. He stopped at once and took an aerosol can of paint from his canvas bag. He shook the can vigorously; the hard rattle of the ball-type agitator echoed off the walls. He sprayed a white arrow on the rock, pointing toward the direction from which we’d come, though we were only one turn away from the exit and could not possibly get lost here.

He was a careful man.

Impressed by his caution and emulating it, Rya and I followed him a hundred yards along that tunnel (two more white arrows), turned into a shorter but even wider corridor (fourth arrow), and went fifty yards farther, where we finally stopped at a vertical shaft (fifth arrow) that led down into the lower bowels of the mountain. That hole was just a black square of a subtly different shade than the black floor of the tunnel and was virtually invisible until Horton stopped at the edge and shone his light down. Without him, I might have blundered straight into the shaft, dropping to the chamber below and breaking my neck in the fall.

Raising his flashlight from the vertical shaft, he directed the beam toward the end of the tunnel in which we stood. The corridor appeared to open into a man-made room of considerable size. “That’s where the vein of coal just petered out, but I guess they had reason to suspect it turned downward and that a wide swath of it could be profitably dug on a lower level. Anyway, they sank this vertical shaft about forty feet, then went horizontal again. Not much farther now before I set you loose, all on your own.”

After warning us that the iron ladder rungs embedded in the wall of the vertical shaft were old and untrustworthy, he switched off his flashlight and descended into the gloom. Rya slung the shotgun over her shoulder and went where Horton had gone. I brought up the rear.

Downward bound, with the ancient rungs wobbling in their sockets as I put my weight on them, I began to receive clairvoyant images from the long abandoned mine. Two or possibly three men had died here before the middle of the past century, and their deaths had not been painless. However, I sensed only ordinary mining accidents, nothing sinister. This had not been a locus of goblin-engineered suffering.

Four stories below the first level I entered another horizontal tunnel. Horton and Rya were waiting for me, eerily illuminated by the beams of their flashlights, which lay on the floor.

In these lower reaches of the mine the heavy tar-coated support timbers were virtually as old as those on the previous level, but they were in somewhat better shape. Not good. Not reassuring. But at least the walls weren’t as damp as those in the higher tunnels, and the wood was not crusted with mold and fungus.

I was suddenly struck by how quiet it was in this deep vault. The silence was so heavy that it had weight; I could feel the cool, insistent pressure of it against my face and against the bared skin of my hands. Church-quiet. Graveyard-quiet. Tomb-quiet.

Breaking that silence, Horton revealed the contents of the big duffel bag, which he was turning over to us. In addition to the red ribbon that we no longer required, there were two cans of white spray paint, a fourth flashlight, plastic-wrapped packs of spare batteries, a couple of candles, and two boxes of weatherproof matches.

“If you ever want to find your way back out of this dismal hole,” he said, “you’ll use the spray paint just like I showed you.” He employed one can now to draw an arrow on the wall; it pointed up to the vertical shaft over our heads.

Rya took the paint when he offered it. “That’ll be my job.”

Horton said, “Maybe you think the candles are here in case the flashlights give out, but they’re not. You got enough spare batteries to cover that. What the candles are for is if maybe you get lost or if there’s—God forbid—a cave-in behind you, cutting off the way out. What you do then is you light a candle and really study the bend in the flame, watch where the smoke goes. If there’s a draft, the flame and the smoke will seek it, and if there’s a draft, that means there’s bound to be an outlet to the surface, which may just be big enough for you to squirm through. Got it?”

“Got it,” I said.

He had also brought food for us: two thermos bottles full of orange juice, several sandwiches, and half a dozen candy bars.

“You got a full day of spelunking ahead of you, even if you just work into the Lightning Company shafts and take a quick peek and head straight back the way you come. Of course, I suspect you’ll do more than that. So it’s likely, even if all goes well, that you won’t be coming out until sometime tomorrow. You’ll need to eat.”

“You’re a sweetheart,” Rya said sincerely. “You put all this stuff together last night . . . and I bet that didn’t leave much time for sleep.”

“When you get to be seventy-four,” he said, “you don’t sleep much, anyway, ’cause it seems like such a waste of what time you got left.” He was embarrassed by the loving tone of Rya’s voice. “Heck, I’ll be up and out of here and all the way home in an hour, so I can nap then if I’ve a mind to.”

I said, “You told us to use the candles in case there’s a cave-in or we get lost. But without you to guide us, we’ll be lost in about one minute flat.”

“Not with this, you won’t,” he said, producing a map from one of his coat pockets. “Drawed it from memory, but I got a memory like a steel trap, so I don’t suspect there’s any wrongness in it.”

He hunkered down, and we did the same, and he spread the map out on the floor between us, picking up a flashlight and tilting the beam down on his handiwork. It looked like one of those maze puzzles in the Sunday newspaper’s comics pages. Worse, it was continued on the other side of the paper where the rest of the maze was, if anything, even more complex.

“At least half the way,” Horton said, “you can talk like we’re talking now, with no fear of it carrying into shafts where the goblins might be working. But this here red mark . . . that’s the spot where I think maybe you’d better go quiet, whisper to each other and only when you have to. Sounds do carry a fair piece along these tunnels.”

Looking at the twists and turns of the maze, I said, “One thing’s for sure—we’ll need both cans of paint.”

Rya said, “Horton, are you certain about all the details of what you’ve drawn here?”


“I mean, well, maybe you did spend most of your boyhood exploring these old shafts, but that was a long time ago. What—sixty years?”

He cleared his throat and seemed to be embarrassed again. “Oh, well, wasn’t all that long ago.” He kept his eyes focused on the map. “See, after my Etta died of cancer, I was sort of adrift, lost, and I was full of all this terrible tension, the tension of loneliness and of not knowing where my life was going. I didn’t see how to work it off, how to ease my mind and spirit, and still the tension built and built, and I said to myself, ‘Horton, by God, if you don’t soon find something to fill the hours, you’re going to wind up in a rubber room,’ and that was when I remembered how much peace and solace I’d gotten out of spelunking when I was a kid. So I took it up again. That was back in ’34, and I prowled these here mines and a lot of natural caves every weekend for the better part of eighteen months. And just nine years ago, when I reached mandatory retirement age, I was faced with a similar situation, so I went spelunking again. Crazy thing for a man my age, but I kept it up for almost a year and a half before I finally decided I didn’t need it no more. Anyway, what I’m saying is that this here map is based on memories only about seven years old.”

Rya put a hand on his arm.

He finally looked at her.

She smiled and he smiled, and he put his hand over hers and lightly squeezed it.

Even for those of us fortunate enough to avoid the goblins, life is not entirely smooth and easy. But the myriad methods we employ to get ourselves across patches of rough ground are a testament to our great will to survive and to get on with the act of living.

“Well,” Horton said, “if you don’t soon pick up your boots and head on, you’ll be old codgers like me before you get out of here.”

He was right, but I did not want him to leave. There was a chance that we would never see him again. We had known him less than a single day, and the potential of our friendship had been barely explored.

Life, as I might have said before, is a long train ride during which friends and loved ones disembark unexpectedly, leaving us to continue our travels in ever-increasing loneliness. Here was another station on the line.

Horton left the canvas duffel bag and its contents, taking only a flashlight. He climbed the vertical shaft down which he had recently led us, and the rusted iron rungs rattled and creaked. At the top he grunted as he heaved himself out onto the floor of the tunnel. Once he had gotten to his feet, he paused, peering down at us. He seemed to want to say a great many things, but finally he merely called softly to us: “Go with God.”

We stood at the bottom of the dark shaft, staring up.

Horton’s flashlight faded as he moved away.

Then it was dark up there.

His footsteps grew softer, softer.

He was gone.

In thoughtful silence we gathered up the flashlights, batteries, candles, food, and other items, packing them carefully in the canvas duffel bag.

Carrying our backpacks, with the larger weapons slung over our arms, dragging the duffel bag, carving the darkness with flashlights, consulting the map, we moved out, heading farther into the earth.

I perceived no immediate threat, yet my heart pounded as we followed the tunnel toward the first of many turns. Although I was determined not to retreat, I felt as if we had stepped through the doorway to Hell.

Chapter twenty-eight


Descending . . .

Somewhere far above, a sullen sky roofed the world, and blackbirds swooped through a sea of air, and somewhere wind rustled trees, and snow blanketed the ground and new flurries fell, but that life of color and motion existed overhead, beyond so many meters of solid rock that it increasingly seemed to be not real but a fantasy life, an imaginary kingdom. The only thing that seemed real was stone—a mountain-weight of stone—dust, occasional shallow pools of stagnant water, crumbling timbers with rusted iron braces, coal, and darkness.

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