The second day, when Jenkins doesn’t come up out of the bung, the Union sends one of their boys over to fetch me to sign some papers.
They have me come up to the Median, up in the express elevator to the Union office. I been in a Union office twice: once to sign my membership forms and once to vouch for Jenkins when she got into some trouble over a deep drop gone sour. Those offices are smaller than the cab of a digger, sure, and hot as hell from the machinery vents. They got two or three boys in there processing slips all day and one of them sits me down, hands me a plastic card and a red wax stick to mark it with.
“Miss Parker, you have authority over Miss Jenkins’s cash and belongings, according to her records.”
I consider on Jenkins giving me authority, and whatall that might mean for her and for me and all that fell between. I think on how much she had, the worth of the cash and how little I have, and what it means to sign on’t.
The boy’s shirt has sweat all down the front of it. In the back of my coveralls I can feel a drop sliding around my shoulder blade. “I’ll need you to sign the release, here:” — he points — “to acknowledge death and transfer of claim, give you what she left and pay off the balance of her dues.”
My time’s a year and some quarter to go, by Union reckoning, and some thousand or so to pay. Sure and Jenkins’s share covers most of that, and I’m not sure about the year, for true.
The Union boy’s about twenty-five, thirty. Too smart to be a miner and too broke to leave. They’d never pay him enough to get for gone. He’d still be pushing paper at sixty, if he didn’t go crazy or kill himself first.
I look down at the paper. “In the event of accidental death of–” it reads.
I look up at the Union boy. “Boysandall find a body?”
“I’m sorry, what?”
About the only Unioners who can understand a word of us is the negotiators, and half the time they pretend they don’t. This boy wasn’t that smart, which made me like him a little.
“A body, boy. Youall find a body?”
“No.” He chews on his cheek, from the inside. “Ah, no. We didn’t. Yet,” he remembers to add.
“Not signing w’tout no body, boy.” I set the plastic card and the wax stick down.
“I have to–” He stops. He’s realizing it’s going for nowhere arguing with me, and sure and I like him a little more.
I get up. “Get’t body’n I’ll sign,” I tell him.
“Miss Parker,” he says. His voice is taking on a new tone that I don’t like. He’s getting that Unioner tone. “Miss Parker, there were four workers that went down on that deep drop. The hover came back with three, and they tell us she fell down a–“
“Chimney, a very deep chimney. Even if we could send a hover down there — which we can’t until a free shift, as you know — we might never find the body. Not ever.”
“Then not signing no form fornever,” I say. I pick up my harness, sling its familiar weight around my hips. “Sure.”
He knows what “sure” means, which is that I’m leaving.
“I’m going to keep these forms here,” he says, while I’m halfway out the door.
“Sure,” I tell him.
I know better than to go for the firmery to talk to Martinosh or Milsen, because they’d had it out for Jenkins from old scores and even if they didn’t giver a push down that chimney sure and they weren’t going to give me a straight answer about it either. Kurfin saves me the trouble findiner by meeting me at the Median bay, leaning up against the elevator gates and giving me her hateful look.
“Don’t you tell ‘em boysandall was me,” she says straight off.
I punch my code for the surface lift. It’ll be a while because we’re midshifts now and the cars will all be down at the work levels.
“Won’t,” I say, “sure and if you give me some kind of straight get-fer on’t.”
“She causden me all kinds of shit,” Kurfin says, “but not me’r them luggersnall pushed her down no chimney.”
“So what happened?”
“You heard it.”
“I heard Milsen punched a hover into a fall, sure. I heard took all four of you to pusher loose and clear a launch squat for lifting off, level enough not to toss youandall down the bung. Didn’t hear no story about Jenkins but for falling down some chimney.”
Kurfin shifts, drops her cigarette onto the floor, watches it burn for a few, then grinds it out, ash drifting through the open grille floor to below. “She fell down, sure. Rocknall covering the shaft, went loose while she were clearing for the hover, dropped her and a boulder or some straight down. We never heard no break at the bottom, neither. Sure and she got what she deserved, Parker; she was a mean bitch and I never liked her.”
I let that fall into silence. Sure and I knew what folks thought of Jenkins, and I knew what it meant that I didn’t sign for herandall in the Union office, come down to it. Come down to it, I didn’t know what she thought of me. And likeden that’s as troublesome a question as how things turned out for her, for true.
There’s answers down in the deep, mid rocks and dark. I think to go down, but sure and I got no hover for to drop, and the rig goes but halfway down’t shaft. Miners, scoutsnall who go and dig and scout further down take hovers, sure, for else the only other way to get a thing down is to drop it. A body could take the lift down to rig’s end and climb down, having belt and clips and a lifetime or two to spare. But I’m no free climber, can barely scramble rock for digging clear, and the ride to take me down to rig’s end might cost me most of the rest of my savings, if I tie up the cab at shift change.
“Rest it, Parker,” Kurfin tells me. “Work your time, save your pay, then get for gone.”
Sure and I might have, hadn’t she said that. Sure and I might have worked out the shift and signed the form, and there’s a lot of things I should and might have done and never did.
“Been two days,” she says. She lights another cigarette, as if she’s giving me some kind of end on’t. The lift rattles up, lights from’t shining up through the frame of the struts and the open grille of the floor below, and we stand for a moment and look at it, look at the gate squealing its grinding open for us. Her leaning silent and still, me leaning silent and still opposite, and the cigarette smoke the only motion ‘tween us.
“Sure,” I say. I make for the lift, with her after me, but at the last minute I turn, giver a push, hard, and she falls back, cigarette tumbling from her hand. Likeden it’ll cost me more than just pay, but I hit the button for express, and before she gets her feet the door grinds closed and I’ve dropped down belowfloor and away.
“Flit, fool, aren’t no answers down there but dust,” she hollers after me, and then I’m gone.
The lift makes its stuttering way down the levels, from the Union down to docks down to bays down to work levels.
Jenkins went for sub-one, which is a few hundred nicks past the bottom of the rig and then some. The express track brings the lift near to rig’s end, where the beams and struts sprout sparse and thin from the rock walls. I come out the lift into the odd quiet, with all that working and the noise it makes either far above, or in the scout and survey tunnels far below.
“Attention,” says the Unioner hail over the lift com, and turning, I give the button a whack to send the lift back home. Might and they’d come down for me, had they the notion I’d do more than stand here and look down at all that nothing and rock for the view. Might and this would begin to look like something for to cool in lockup, or at least more paperwork and a mighty paydock or two. No need for that: don’t plan on getting caught down here by a Union fetcher and a bunch of overeager lugger volunteersandall, for true. But there’s no more going up, now, and if they see the lift coming up likeden they’ll think I’m along with and stay a fetch meanwhile.
Hearing the lift whine up and away, I look back down into the cooldark of the bung. I’ll go down for Jenkins, sure, and for the end of this, whatever it is or was.
Jenkins was a fierce free climber, for a digger. Likeden they’d have made her a rift scout, or even a survey crewman, hadn’t it been for the trouble on that deep drop some time ago.
See, the short of it was that she and Milsen, Martinosh, and Kurfin’d gone down for sub-three to clear a staging site for a survey and gauge crew. Jan Traak had gone with them to boss: he were a lifer but’d saved up enough to jump, and if he got parole he’d be one of the few of us to leave.
Traak was a big, easy-swing type, least that was how he made out’t be and most took what he gave them. Unioners all but offered him Unioner privileges too, so he always had slick on hand to buy a round or ready to loan when you were short. Any lugger’ll like a boss like that, so and it was with most, save Jenkins. Traak and Jenkins tangled regular: she’d call him an ass-licker and he called her a beer-whore and notime they’d be on the floor of Miss Ming’s with fists and slag boots pounding. Sure and we’d drag ‘em off, then they’d jump back to again, till Miss Ming came in and shut us down and tossed us all out onto the street. Then Jenkins and Traak’d start up again, sure enough, out in the front on the dirt, going till they were bloody with it.
So on that deep drop when Traak screwed a crane hitch hauling a gauge cannon and blew off a square forty nicks of ledge and hover and truck and all with gauge explosives, weren’t no surprise when Jenkins refused to cover for him. Traak offered ‘em each some three hundred to share the blame, but he wasn’t the only one hell bent on parole and Jenkins told him to stick it.
They were still fighting when the Union fetchers came, carted her and Traak off to cool, and got a good idea of what had gone by.
Traak and Kurfin and them made the one report, sure, but Jenkins made the other, and the truth passed for clear, as it does sometimes, even here. They all lost wages for the blown equipment, and Milsen and Jenkins lost their dockets for off-rig jobs, but Traak got suspended, and sure and he was mad as hell. He made it rough for Jenkins, after that. Notime he was off suspension he worked on the Unioners, planting rumors and telling lies until about the only stints Jenkins worked were bottom pay digging and lugging jobs.
Then Traak got parole, even after the suspension. He got parole and left the shaft and that, sure enough, was that.
Where I stand it’s only a handful of nicks away before the bung yawns wide and black. Far cross’t shaft must be the other side, though it’s gone and too far at all to see. From above come flicket lights of trucks and cranes back in passageways I dug and lugged with my own hands: I know their turns and curves, miles and miles in darkness.
The swami rests around my hips like a thing you don’t think about but for when you need it. I don’t climb but by accident; diggers climb up only when they’ve fallen down, for true.
Down the side of the shaft runs a route set by the first scouts. Searching along the wall I find it, the painted red arrow and the rusty ladder that drops into nothing beyond.
I clip my rig to the first piton, set my boots on the ladder, climb the three narrow rungs. Then let go to the wall, to the wall and the bung below.
I climb slow and careful, clipping the line off my swami to each piton next, unclipping, clip, unclipping, clip, with a hand on the last one for safety. The pitons are old, and like all mining shuck half of ‘em likeden to be broke or defective. I don’t trust a one of them, and make slow progress.
I think on Traak as I’m going, and how it all had troubled me less than ever it had Jenkins, for true. Likeden there’s more’n one way out’t hole in the end; his wasn’t mine, was all.
Sub-one is deep, and covered in shuck. Sure and a half ton of spare parts and broke down machinery and all gets dropped down the bung a day, and when it’s catched up on the ledges and we go down to dig, we spend a good while just clearing it all up. Sure and we drop it straight down again, too, which is why I’d not like to be a sub three miner, for true.
It’s just as I see the thin ribbon of shuck far below me that the piton I’m on goes foul. I scrabble for rock as I feel it pull loose, but I got no hands for it, and in that way you do when you know it’s for done I think Well, there’s a thing and, calm and all, go down. The piton scrapes, the rope whistles, and I’m falling, kicking out a boot to push from the rock, thinking who in the Unioner office might sign a paper or two for me.
Then there’s a wrench, and I think I’m for gone, but I realize that the rope came taut of a terrible sudden. It snaps me to end, and now I’m headed straight to bear into the wall. I coil up tight, hit like a sack of shuck, and when I come to I’m still hanging there.
Moving hurts, for true, so I dangle, and hang, and rough up against the rock, and take account of a few things. The hurt, for one: shoulder, back, head. I think on Traak again, and the easy way, for’t other. Signing, which I should have done, and Jenkins, and trouble and the worth of her share. The worth of all of this, as it comes down to rock and bottom.
I came to shaft with Jenkins two weeks after I met her in a card hall dancing. She and I were drunk to hell, and likeden we didn’t notice each others’ pits and scars: I liked her long good legs, the way she’d stand with her arms crossed and her hip cocked, and she liked my eyes, which are brown and dull but she said they were like whiskey, and likeden we were drunk and it sounded good at the time. We sat shoulder to shoulder at a card table, sharking the dockboys in the music and smoke. I would have said I felt like I’d known her all my life, sure and if I didn’t know that were a poor excuse for to feel close to someone you didn’t know at all.
But we had an easy feel between us, for true, and we sharked cards a pair like you’d never believe. We danced, too, and by the end of the night I’d got to feel like to go anywhere without her was to go off without a foot, or a hand.
“That’s just the start of a thing,” she told me, standing outside the hall under the dark and dark clouds.
I leaned back against the big sign that said Red’s in blue letters, looked down when she slid her boot along next to mine, so our two boots went side by side.
“Reckon I have a thing or two to do,” she said, “and then we’ll go along together.”
I nodded. “Sure.”
I watched her go away off into the darkness, waited there in the rain while she did what she had to, and came back awhile later with mud on her coat and a big roll of slick bulging the pocket. We went along together, and sure and she was fierce, and I said I loved her, and the roll of slick lay up on the night stand, uncurling like leaves while we tore and bit and struggled like a dogfight alongside.
Weren’t no surprise when five dicks rousted us, and took us away down to the central, and sure and I thought I’d get a cooling for the card tricks when I recollected the slick, and our boots one up against the other.
“She killed a man,” the sergeant told me, and though I laughed and said ’tweren’t nothing, I’d thought to do that a time or two myself, I thought of the slick again and knew for true I was in it.
“She killed a man,” he said, and then I knew it weren’t no dockboy or loan screw she’d put down.
She’d killed a man, and a few hours later they’d worked her under to nothing and she’d told them the knife was mine and I said we’d only played cards but in the end one cheap knife looks a lot like another and I’d known for damn sure what she’d been up to anyway.
Still, likeden they’d never have sent me to shaft, even with all that, except I lost my temper about halfway through and went after the sergeant with his desk chair. Sure and we all have a boiling point, and mine was somewhere when the whiskey wore off and all I wanted was a cigarette and to stop saying “Yes, sir” on things that weren’t at all for true.
Above me, the dirty orange line climbs up into darkness. Sure and I could follow it, rope my way to the route again and make my way down.
But now the hundred marker’s above me, and somewhere a hundred nicks below is the ledge, rubble and shuck and dark and my answers, and seems to me it’s a surer thing to go down to go down than up to go down, for true.
So I reach a sore arm, hand sliding the wall alongside, find a ledge for one boot and a knot for the other, the sliding hand makes its grip, and I test my weight there.
“Sure,” I say to myself, a raw sound in the darkness. I reach for my boot knife, not much good for cutting — but the rope’s bad too, and after a moment it succumbs to blade, and the tug of it ends, and I’m left there hanging on my own, knife clutched up tight in my hand, as if it could catch me.
So Jenkins and I went down the shaft together. We sat in the Union office and filled out our forms, and I helped her with’t because she couldn’t read and write for nohow. We went down for the barracks and chose bunks up alongside, and for the first week or so worked leg to leg lugging shuck.
Jenkins told me she was sorry, in all of that, that she didn’t want to bring me down and the slick hadn’t been worth it anyhow.
“What and it had?” I asked her. “What and if it had been worth it, enough slick for to spend and you wouldn’t say you’re sorry then?”
But sure and it was my own fault too: no need to go and whack a dick with his furniture while he’s turned round for coffee, and I’d seen the slick and known the get-fer, and told her so in the end.
“Reckon if I’d to be down the bung with anyone, then gladandall it’s you,” she answered me.
We were sitting at Ming’s when she said that, first furlough for a handful of fortnights’ lugging, and scraped up enough slick playing cards to have a tug or two. We were drinking the ported beer then; didn’t know any better and to us it tasted just fine, as good as the first lung full of air we sucked coming up out of the dark of the bung. We had the feeling, sitting there, that it weren’t all that bad, surrounded by sweaty drunken miners pounding their boots on the floor while the skinny bedraggled dancing girls got it on on the stage. Weren’t any worse than any other bum job on a gone rock we’d had, for true.
Likeden we felt so good we made some promises, over half-eaten bowls of spicy corn soup.
Then we went off and leaned up together in a dark corner of the shop half of Miss Ming’s, between a stack of tarps and a crate of canned potatoes, til the old lady came and rousted us out with a few sharp words and a slap or two with those long-nailed, big-knuckled hands.
So we went out and stood around on the boards that served as a sidewalk, in the shadow of the handful of buildings clutched up to the skirt of the massive cliffs. Stood out there in the dark looking across the plain at the great hole of the bung, and Jenkins said, “Two years, Parker. Two years and we’re for gone, we’ll get us parole and jump for gone.”
I nodded, and it sounded good, maybe I could even get some slick saved up by then.
“Sure and we’ll make a good team,” she told me.
“Sure,” I said.
But it had been more than five years now; it was always something. We’d got ourselves in a fight, or been on the unlucky shift to pay for a gauge cannon misfire that had popped the twelve-foot chamber back and cut through two of the big steel struts of the rig. Seemed the Union was docking us time or pay for most anything went amiss. Likeden no-one would ever jump for gone, weren’t it for the passing of slick between hands here and there, and a blind eye turned come time to sign forms for to dock pay.
Even for that, Jenkins never lost her sight on’t. Even when we come out’t cooling, she took up my arm in her hard grip and said, “Parker, we’ll get gone from here, sure and we will,” and I grinned with my swollen lip and said, “Sure,” and likeden my voice never trembled at all. I had come to understand that I might follow her anywhere, see, even down here, even for gone. I might follow her to hell or some other place, and it hardly scared me at all anymore that it didn’t much matter which.
It surprises me to feel my hands and feet climbing. Flit and shaking, I expect to step off into nothing or lose my hand on the rock but I climb to one side and then the other, stretching for rock and taking it up careful, not moving my weight until I’m sure, like a granny on steep stairs and no rail.
This is a free climb, I think. The rope end dangles below me into the bung.
Sure and it’s a fair chance I’d lose my footing before sub-one, and I do, but strange and how I’m ready for the fall, and let it go, sprawling out and then tucking up as I hit a pile of shuck and rocks with a mighty crash.
My helmet saves me, like they always tell us it will. I miss cracking my head like an egg on a gauge chamber by a few layers of ugly polylast, and lying there decide I’ve taken worse beatings at Miss Ming’s in the end.
I stumble to my feet. I got a wrench or so in my back, one in my arm, and my right leg won’t quit shaking. Takes a mean body to fall down the bung, I think. I laugh. Meaner than mine, even. I unclip my handlight from my belt, have a look around me.
The ledge twists around to either side of me in a narrow, shuck-covered ribbon. Frontways it isn’t more than fifty odd nicks to the edge, and from there the bung sucks up all light into jet, and from here I can’t even see the far shaft wall, away away across the bung on the other side. Side to side of me the ledge stretches, widening some to the right, narrowing some to the left.
I climb over the shuck, making slow progress. Moving hurts, for true. Shuck and rocksandall crunch under my boots, and there’s not much light for seeing by, ‘tween the wan, guttering handlight and what filters down from the rig to below.
I think I’m likeden to have walked most of the way around the shaft when I come on a wide and half-cleared space, climb up a pile of shuck and look to see that’s it’s the launch squat. Sure and the chimney’s there, with bouldersandall tipped down and towards. I stop to look at it from a distance, at the small dark hole like a child poked his finger in the dirt and pulled it out again. Like the bung looks nights from Miss Ming’s cliffside, for true.
It’s cool and quiet, there down the bung. I come up to the chimney edge, look down into the dark.
“Jenkins,” I say. There’s a long bit of silence, and no echo.
Maybe things’d been different, if we’d not come down the shaft together, I think, or if we had come down and gone off each our own way. But I followed along, from the start of it, and by following along I’d said as much as any words I’d said to Jenkins, in the end.
“All right,” and “All right, then,” I say.
I unclip my harness, and let it slide to the shuck. Swami won’t do me good for nohow, with a few feet of frayed rope and no way to sink a piton even if I had one.
Then, putting the handlight in my teeth, I get down on all fours and turn arse-first down the chimney, holding tight to the rock and letting my feet go over. Then I free climb, shaking and sore, scared to hell and no way to know how far down. But I climb anyway, feet and hands until my foot comes down on a big rock that moves, and I come to rest on the whole of it, haul myself over bellyfirst and find a dirt floor when I sweep out my hands, light guttering already near out.
I slide off the rock, shuffle the distance of the chimney bottom, picking my way over and around the fall.
Undignified to find her bootfirst, and I do, light near useless and shadows deep all round. I nearly trip over the soft of her leg while I go along, where it lies stretched out in my path.
I sit down.
“Sure and this is what you come for,” I say.
I clear rocksandall off her, leaning my shoulder into the big one that crushed her chest. I clear them all and then I sit down alongside; it was a fair lug and I’m spent, for true.
I look down at her. That’s the whole of it, I think. Her face is closed, dead and torn near to nothing besides, and I can’t read an answer there, nor in how she lies, whether she was pushed, or even if she loved me. This seems to me a shame, that and that I don’t have a cigarette to smoke along with her, and so I reach to her pocket for the pack she keeps there, along with a deck and a rig clip or two for spare.
The handlight sputters to nothing, and the slick comes out of the pack in a roll, falling into my hand in the dark almost warm like she had just touched it.
Enough for a miner to get for gone, I count by the light of the cigarette as I smoke it.
I put the slick in my own pocket, and lie back and look up the bung.
Jenkins and I followed each on the other as far as we could, in the end. Might and she knew I would find it, and should a thing happen, take it all and get for gone. Might and she planned to go without me, near soon, in the end.
I lie, and look up, up along the great dark curve of the bung, up past the dull light off the rig, to some hundreds of nicks up there where there might be night or day; sure and I don’t know the difference from here.
“We’ll get for gone,” I say, and mean it.
I stand up with the feeling of being torn away, or tearing myself, for true, but I go to the ragged wall of the chimney, put both my hands on the rock. I put my foot firm into a crack, grip my hands tight, swing up. More’n one way out’t hole, I think with a grin.
There’s a fair mile of rock stretching up over my head. Likeden I’ll come to be a fair free climber myself, along the way.
Copyright © 2002 Kate Bachus
Copyright © 2002 Kate Bachus
Kate Bachus‘s fiction has appeared in SKIN TWO and Best Women’s Erotica 2002, and her novel Sheaves is forthcoming in 2002 from Del Rey. She would like to thank Charlie Finlay and her wife for their help in bringing “Parker” to light. For more about her, see her Web site.