by D.M. Kerr
The narrator ponders the source of creative output, and whether the act of mining that source has any value.
1. I WRITE BASED on emotional experience that has been inside me a long time and am surprised that others are willing to consider listening.
I have often come down here for the flames. Here is deep, a murky cavern. It has not tasted fresh air in many years. The flames spurt and die, casting strange shadows in the gloom. Each time I come, I gather a flame in my arms and nurse it with my breath as I return to the surface. There, it is less precious, for the light makes it difficult to see, but I offer it up anyway. I do not know if it is accepted, for once offered, it vanishes into the blank faces of my listeners. But still I offer it.
I will not keep these flames, no matter how precious they have been in years past. When I was troubled by the world, I used to bring them down here, and watch them sputter in the sickly air, but there was something sweet about each one, and from the one I had brought I would proceed like a priest from flame to flame, until the cave felt hollow and my tears flowed. But I will keep these flames no more.
“This is the cave,” Fredrick said. The gas mask added a mechanical wheeziness to his voice, but it could not hide the reverence in it.
I stooped to enter. Ahead of me, I saw pinpoints of light, a votive of tiny flames, maybe two dozen or more. Each flame sat in its own pool of blackness—the murky tar that sustained it. A few of the fields, the ones closest to us, were empty.
“I used to come here all the time,” Fredrick said. “This was my sanctuary. My private place.”
“Why?” I asked. “Why remove them?”
Fredrick just tugged gently at the pipe of his gas mask, as if it were a beard. He knelt over the nearest flame and gazed at it for a long time. We heard nothing but the rasp of our breaths through the oxygen tanks, the faint crackle of the flames, and the occasional rumbling of the deep toxic gas that underpinned this floor.
“I think we’ll take this one.” He carefully scooped the flame and a bit of the pitch into his insulated rubber gloves. He held it as if it were an offering. The flame continued to burn, thought it seemed less confident now.
“Wouldn’t it be better to leave them here? You can always come and look at them when you want.”
“No,” Fredrick said. The ancient military green of his facemask and the attending oxygen hose gave his chin a look of firmness it lacked in real life. “There’s no joy in keeping things that others never see.”
I considered the irony of his statement when, back on the surface, and freed from our encumbrances, we lowered the small flame, practically invisible in the summer sunlight, onto a small leave and set it afloat down the stream. Would anyone even see even one? I could not imagine how.
2. I FIND THAT, even after writing about the experience, it still replays in my mind; it never seems to shrink.
A blast of light around me. We are near, but not near enough. I rage against something inside of me, some silly decisions that have cost me. But what cost? It is nothing. There is nothing lost. Yet I rage against it. What am I seeking? What old dead dog am I trying to jab with my foot? I don’t know: It all sits beneath me, only every time and again something little floats up to the surface and I let it go.
“Damn! Damn and double damn!”
“What is it?” I ran over to where Fredrick knelt, beside one of the small flames. We had been carting flames for days now, and only a few small flickering ones remained.
Fredrick’s hands were screwed tight, not in pain but in rage. Even as I approached, he slackened them. His mask, as always, revealed no emotion.
“Nothing,” he said, and glanced down at the flame in front of his knees. “Nothing was lost, that cannot be recovered. I tend to forget that.”
Once more I worried about that seething bubble of gas beneath the floor of this cave.
“It’s gone now.” His hands now hung uselessly by his side. “I don’t know about this one. Maybe we shouldn’t be taking any more. It won’t grow, and it won’t die. It will always be a weak flame. They’ll never be worth anything.”
“Whatever,” I said. He had no right to put this on to me. I was only the paid help. “We brought twenty to the surface. They’re all floating now. That’s enough.”
Just as I said that, something burbled in the gloop beneath our cavern, and some gas escaped. The flame flickered bright now, its yellow and ochre light reflecting on the mask’s eye outlets.
“Just wait for them. No need to get angry. We’ll take this one up and let it go. You don’t have to take any more if you don’t want to.”
3. I FEEL BOUND to move forward, even if there is no emotional reward.
Yesterday was hard, tomorrow will be hard again. This sitting on scraping noises is not going anywhere that I can see. I play rough against the handle and hold my jests to myself. No turning, held on side by side by big tuft-coated blocks.
What seemed like ages later, when all the flames had been set afloat, Fredrick took me down the old railway track. We rode a small mining trolley that must have come with the original deed. Fredrick sat in front and I sat behind of the trolley, and we said nothing for hours on end.
We followed the track through a small cutting in the grey landscape, growing ever deeper in the cut until the land fell off and we were on a berm again. The cuttings were the worse part: we could see nothing, and the walls, grey, rough shale, closed in on us unmercifully. The walls echoed the scraping sound made by the cart’s iron wheels.
“It seems like we always are trying to get back into a mine but the land won’t let us!” I yelled, over the sound.
Fredrick did not acknowledge my words, even with a shrug of his shoulders. He continued to push against the turning rod of the cart, causing us to rock back and forth against the tracks. I couldn’t tell if it were a deliberate attempt to slow us down, or if he were trying to temper his despair and anger.
4. I FEEL BOUND up by banality that permeates my writing.
How can the singers feel, I ask, when the words are so far from anything I understand? Their words are common, not turning fresh nor bleating like old tired sheep I understand them. Let me break out! Let me go! I turn from side to side but there is no turning here, only a straight scraping track that takes my time from old to new without a change: yesterday it was hard, tomorrow it is dull.
That evening we spent in a small inn that bordered the track. I had been looking forward to some good food, wine and company after the three weeks with this dour man, but I was disappointed.
Fredrick and I sat at a tipsy wooden table after the meal while a group of men near the fire sang the country’s folk songs. I don’t know if it was because of Fredrick sitting stone-faced beside me, or because of the singers themselves, but I found the songs banal and lifeless. They sang of losing love, of bright flowers, of market fairs but I found I could not connect with anything they said.
Losing love is not like this, I thought. This is window-dressing. Losing love is the dying look in Fredrick’s eyes as he sets the flames afloat on the river. How can people not know what the feeling is?
“Tomorrow?” I asked Fredrick.
“We go.” Fredrick said. “After here it is not so steep. We will both have to push.”
“Will there be fields and streams?”
“No. Only slag.”
5. I TRY TO convince myself that I should ignore this sense of fruitlessness, because somewhere in the past is the key to who I am.
But I still hope. This is a long journey. It doesn’t matter if I’m late. There are answers in the past; there are things there that, if I let the burlap open, would tell me what to tell myself. I don’t mind the fire, I don’t like it, but I don’t mind the scraping away little by little. There is a wall, I’m told. I’m told it has to come down. It will come down, I promise. And it’s a long journey.
“You didn’t appreciate the lodgings last night,” Fredrick said.
We were pushing the cart—the incline was not steep but deceptive. The morning sun burned hot, and perspiration had formed on his ridged forehead.
“I felt unmoved. As if the landscape itself had entered through the mouths of the singers and had removed their souls.”
Fredrick grunted. “Poetic.”
“Aren’t there any trees at all? For the rest of our journey?”
“It’s a long journey.” Fredrick smiled wistfully—the first sign of hope I had seen on his face in a long while. “I don’t mind the scraping away.”
He stopped, and the cart kept moving. Apparently we had reached a crest, although there was no sign in the landscape to confirm it.
An hour later, unannounced, a black stream appeared beside the tracks. I wondered at the debris floating on the calm water, and realized with a shock I was staring at the lights we had set afloat, at the entrance to the mine.
“There are answers in the past,” Fredrick said, when I touched him on the shoulder. “It hurts to look, but there are answers in those flames.”
I contemplated that for a moment. What answers? The flames here, in the fierce sunlight, were only barely alive. We had a long journey, I reminded myself. Something will come up.
“Fredrick, why is the water so still? It’s not as fast as our cart.”
Fredrick motioned languidly with his hand. “There’s a wall up ahead. A dam. It will have to come down.”
6. WHEN I’M NOT pushing so hard for an answer, I suddenly realize the past starts to flake off more easily.
When you believe, you can accept. When you can accept, you don’t push so hard. When you don’t push, little flakes come off one by one. Going this slow will take a long time but I am committed.
“It’s stuck,” Fredrick said.
We had reached a cutting, one of the few left in this nearly level plane. Fredrick and I had been pushing from behind the kart, arms held straight in front of us, heads facing the rails. We had heard scraping.
I glanced around the side of the cart. The walls were too close to the rails here, and the rust-red edge of our cart had left marks along the black, wet slate of the cutting’s walls.
“Don’t!” Fredrick had been about to stand up when I warned him. “It’s not stuck, just scraping.” I pushed at the cart with the back of my shoulders. “If you let go, it will just roll back on us.”
“Then what?” Fredrick asked.
“I’m holding it. Check your side. It’s just scraping, right?”
“Yeah. But it will stick more. Let the cart go back a bit and I’ll get around and dig away the walls.”
“No need. This is really loose shale. All we need to do is push slowly, and let it flake itself.”
“We’ll get stuck. And then we won’t be able to go backwards or forwards.”
“Trust me. It will work. We just need to give the shale a chance to crumble. See? Like that.”
“This will take forever.”
“Stay on it. Slow and steady. Like that. Let it scrape away.”
7. I CONSTANTLY REMIND myself I need to expose my journey to others.
Each little scraping step, each jolt from side to side, reminds me to ask for help. I ask, not knowing if the asker has heard, but I don’t care. In the asking is the help granted. Even if there is no change, even if the next jolt just goes back to the other side, I will wear away this wall flake by flake until it is just an old sodden mound and I won’t be crazy any more.
Our track now led us into an inhabited area. On either side of the cuttings, now, small houses squatted, decorated with knee-height white fences and small, green lawns. Through the windows of the houses, on occasion, we could see people watching, their hands holding cups or plates and drying cloths.
Fredrick did a curious thing: this man that I had come to know as silent and reticent, who had found happiness in a dark cave, his face obscured in a breathing mask, began to ask for help.
The gully in which we travelled was exceedingly narrow. Sharp, dark scale hung from each side, and our cart often got stuck.
“Please, if you can, we’d like a push. We’re on our way to the market.”
“They don’t want to help you,” I said, when another figure turned from its window.
“Helping is not the point. Asking is the point.”
I was about to question that logic when the sadness in Fredrick’s face caught my eye. He knew the danger of his ways and, timidly, was trying to battle it. Even asking for my help had been, I now realized, a struggle for him.
8. I REALIZE WHAT I have written is no longer attached to my self.
When I step into the cold, it seems different. It seems now like I am walking a little higher. The flakes are crunching under my feet, those fires and fears I offered up. Now they just lie about on the ground, no longer part of me. They no longer have any life. They no longer can hold back my soul.
We had finally escaped from the trenches. The plain lay on all sides of us, grey shale stretching into the distance. Our faces were smudged and our clothes torn from the constant pushing and scraping.
Fredrick’s cart ran freely now, although it still squeaked and jolted sluggishly. Fredrick sat a little taller on his seat. A certain pride enveloped him like a cloak and I realized all these past years he had never had a feeling of self-worth. It had been so constant, that lack, that I had just assumed it was part of his personality.
“Look,” I said, pointing at the now blackened concrete gully that ran parallel to our path. “Your baubles have made it this far. Perhaps they will even find fame.”
Fredrick turned away haughtily. “They aren’t mine. Look at them more closely. The life has gone out.”
He was right. In my haste to connect them to Fredrick, I hadn’t noticed the change between these ones and the ones I had set floating near the top of the spring. Those ones had glowed with that strange subterranean flame. Now the oil had congealed over them and the only light they gave was that reflected from the stars.
9. EVEN THOUGH I don’t see an end to this process, I gain a feeling; this is the way out.
So each step forward and back is still a step forward in my mind. I continue to trust, even though if I turned to look back I think I would see only caverns, the same that are in front of me. I don’t mind. I’m on my way out.
Finally, on the third day, it happened. The gully seemed like every other gully, ragged black shale walls, a bleak flat plain beyond, but as we pushed the cart over the cusp, I could see, faint in the distance, the lights of the city.
Although we had been under the impression we were going downhill, we in fact had been making our way further and further up. From this point we could see that the plain before us was indeed falling away, and beyond it, about five miles distance, the rock was subsumed completely in verdant grass and farms. It was perhaps a trick of the clouds, but it really did appear that the sun shown only on the city, bathing it in a soft, amber glow.
“It’s like your lights,” I said, “but so much larger. It’s the image your lights were trying to capture.”
Fredrick said nothing. He did not even acknowledge that he had seen the city, as he loaded our backpacks onto the cart. But I did see him glancing back. His face was taciturn as always, but he seemed to have in it now an underlying glow—not of hope, but, perhaps, of faith.
“Give us a push,” he said. “It’s still a long way forward. But we’re on our way out.”
“D. M. Kerr” is the writing name of a Canadian writer living and working in Singapore, where he teaches IT and game design. His stories have been published in Linden Avenue Literary Review and Beyond Imagination Magazine, among others. He is a founding member of Singapore’s Writing the City project. Even so, he is pleasantly surprised you are willing to consider reading his work.