Emily Finkle, age 14: I got very used to the jingle of chains every time I walked out of the mines to have a breath of fresh air. The mines were not as friendly to breathing as the air outside. My reflection on the polished surfaces of the water canteens often looked like an inverted skull with my nose blackened by coal dust. We all work together here in a mine in the West of Wales; boys my age toting bags of coal from inside the mine passing us, young girls bashing away at the hard rock walls to get to the coal beneath.
We all wore the same clothes, whether girl or boy; trousers soiled by the black gold that we were drawing for people who sat on cushioned chairs smoking cigars, driving their fancy automobiles and eating cheeses of different kinds. The only food we had to eat most of the time was cold porridge and a few pieces of rotten fruit – fruit rots faster in the mines where the heat is trapped by the small openings and the packet of dense air hovering at every cavern opening. The sound of chains jingling as others passed us seemed like hypnotic chimes beating in tune with each strike of the pick.
I barely see the sun. I am in the mine before the sun rises and out of the mine when the sun has long gone down into the horizon. I have accustomed my eyes to the flicker of the lamps we carry into the mines; lamps that cast eerie shadows with every movement we all make. The older children always told me to never sing in the mines or I would die. I wore a piece of cloth over my face all of the time to keep me from singing even when I was happy that my mama had recovered from the flu. Edna, the girl my age who picked at the mine walls just beside me sang once.
She didn’t come back the following morning. Perhaps the older children were right about singing in the mines. Edna never came back to the mines again. I heard she had become thin and sickly and spat blood. Word had gone out that Edna came down with coal fever and died only a few months after singing in the mines. There are dark spirits in the mines they say – spirits that hate the sound of children’s singing voices. So, nobody ever sings in the mines. I’ve never worn a nice dress since I began working in the mine. I don’t know what hide and seek is.
I do know what hide is though – this is what we do in the mines when the big brutes come running in with large leather whips. The often use the whips on the boys – we aren’t allowed to cry, lest the dark spirits get into our open mouths. We whimper, but we try to keep our mouths closed when we get our share of whipping. There’s no point in opening our mouths to the lashes; better to shrivel in pain than to die altogether. My canvass shoes are worn at the soles from walking up to the mine entrances every day. I cannot complain or I would get a heavy lashing.
If we complain we do not get our porridge, or worse, our rest. Sometimes I don’t know where I am bleeding from. My fingers often bleed when shards of rock shatter from picking piercing the young skin on my knuckles. Sometimes the beige dust on the cavern floors turns brown under my feet from the blisters on my soles. I can’t feel the pain that much. I have become so used to the pain that I can tolerate it quite successfully, like I tolerate the whips or the pangs from not having anything to eat sometimes. I often think about leaving the mine, especially at nights when I am on my back staring at the stars.
The stars always stare at me and sometimes they shed a tear or two. Maybe the stars are also tired from being hung up high in the night. I wonder – are the stars chained to the heavens too? Do they also spend eternities picking away at the blackness of night to draw out more of whatever it is they need to draw? I wonder. Today the mines are still where I am headed. The steep slopes have become more challenging today because of a strange pulsing pain in my belly. I don’t know is wrong with me, but I cannot complain, I cannot get lashed by the big brutes.
I find it hard to drag my chained feet up the sides of the slope with my footwear almost clear of its fabric soles. The pain in my soles is not a matter of concern; I have become so used to it; but the pain in my belly is strange, I don’t know what is wrong with me and what I need to do to make it go away. I must find a way and ward the pain away before we enter the mines. I have to take a quick drink. I cannot though, there is only enough water for five drinks – one when we get to the mines, two at luncheon, another at dinnertime, and a last gulp before going to sleep in the camps.
If I drink now, I will have nothing to drink at these times. I cannot – must not drink. The pain will go away. I will have to make it go away by thinking about the stars; how long they have been up there and the pains they must endure just to shine night after night after night. The stars are used to their pain, I have to get used to this pain like the way I am used to the other pains I have – the blisters on my soles, the fresh wounds on my knuckles, the nagging ache at my temples. These are just pains – I have to draw coal even when I often forget where on me does the coal mine draw blood.
I have to pick and pick more, draw and draw more even with the pain in my belly. I must not open my mouth and groan or the dark spirits might enter my mouth like they did with Edna. I must not sing. I must work. I must not complain. Just before noon, I felt a warm viscous fluid trickle down my thighs underneath my trousers. This is the first time I felt something like this – I was scared the spirits might have found a way into me. I gazed down at my trousers in the flicker of the mine lamps. I can see a dark trail on my trousers – blood. I don’t know where this came from, but it was – – blood.