In the first week of eighth grade, my teacher asked my class to research our nationalities. Reinaldo, a seat to my left, said he could track his lineage a hundred years back to his ancestors sailing across Atlantic from Spain. John to my right was half German, and being barely twenty years after the end of world war II, his lineage stopped suspiciously short on his father’s side. Tim was English. Mary, French. Chang, chinese.
Then, after calling upon the rest of the class, Ms. Francisco peered above the lip of her clipboard at me with a frown, “Bring your project forward. It’s time for you to present.” Even after one week of school, Ms. Francisco and I had already found several differences between us. Undoubtedly she had heard of me from my teachers reaching back until kindergarten.
I knew she had waited to call upon me last after seeing my project, a poster board blank save for four black and white photographs super glued on to a bed of dirt.
“This is my father,” I said, pointing at the bottom most picture, which was in color, “Aiden, from the mine.
“And this is his father,” I pointed at a black and white photograph of a man with a scraggling beard reaching down to his waist, “Vulcan, from the mine.
“And this is his father, Fino, from the mine,” I gestured at a still photo, slightly out of focus, of my great grandfather leaning on his pickaxe.
“And his father, Saraph, from the mine,” I finished, pointing to a hand drawn portrait of the earliest ancestor I could find. Despite the years, the age gap, and the errors of the artist’s hand, visitors at my house often remarked on the likeness between myself and him. Perhaps it was the angle of the nose, the set jaw, or his narrow face. But I thought it was his eyes- searching, always searching from it’s place above the mantelpiece, though his body was long buried in our back yard.
“And I am Ash Sterling, a from the mine.”
“No, Ash.” Said Ms. Francisco, her voice taking the tone of a lecturing to one who was slower than the rest of the group, “What nationality are you? What country is your family from?”
Ms. Francisco had moved here the year prior, and she was unfamiliar with the culture of our town. My family was known as one of the mud-walkers, with a line that stretched back to the opening of the mine. Some people even joked behind our backs, saying that us mud-walkers were so dirty that we crawled out of the mine itself. But we were proud of our heritage.
“Here,” I replied, “We’ve been here since the mine began, and no one can remember further.”
“Well it’s not like you just popped out here,” Said John, the German, giggling from the front row, “everyone comes from somewhere.”
“We’ve been here since the beginning of this town. And everyone does come from somewhere, don’t they, John? Even the nazis.”
My foot was in the principal's office before his giggles subsided, and I took the chair I had claimed as my own by the door. I had been there so often that the cushion had begun to conform to the contour of my ass, and my father no longer put up a show to the principal that he cared when he picked me up.
“You done did right, Ash,” My father said, a cigarette smouldering out the left side of his mouth, “The mine gave us everything we got, and will continue giving. Like father done said, you just got to dig deeper. We done been here longer than anyone. This is our town. It doesn’t belong to these outsiders.” He flicked the cigarette, and an ember fell on his exposed arm, but his face remained still.
A little ember never made us Sterlings flinch.
That was twenty five years ago, and today my father coughed the last of the dirt from his lungs before I immersed him six feet under in it. And on his deathbed, he asked me to look behind the portrait of Saraph on the mantel, where I found a small leather bound notebook. Like all things in our house, dirt fell from the pages as I brought it to his bed.
“Ash, don’t never forget who you are. The mine, the mine is our birthright. This is the journal of the grandfather of my father, Saraph. Many said he went insane in his age, but I think he saw some truth. Keep it, it belongs to you now.”
I took the journal from my father, and he fell away from this world, a cigarette burning to a stub still in his lips. When tried to lift him from the bed, I knocked over an ashtray on his dresser, and it scattered over his sheets and lifeless form. Despite hours of scrubbing, I never could remove the stains that outlined where his body had rested upon the sheets, and the holes remained where the live embers had burned into the cloth. Sometimes, when I walk past his room deep in the night, I can just smell a whiff of smoke from inside.
I had worked in the mine since I was seventeen, and by twenty I was known as one of the best men who had ever set foot in the tunnels. And when my father passed, I took his position as head of our forty member team, known for exploring deeper than the others in search of fresh silver veins.
Each night I built a fire in my fireplace, stared at Saraph’s picture with the same searching eyes that would stare back, and read his notebook. Saraph’s words often wound in circles that could well have contributed to why he was deemed mad. But I was determined, and picked out the passages that seemed to bear the most importance.
From Entry 1 Thirty of us escaped from that wretched place, and earth has closed behind us. We escaped like none ever had, but left behind treasure, a treasure too heavy to carry. Here we shall build our town.
*From Entry 24 The brightest gems are found the deepest. This we know. This we have known, and have seen with our own eyes. And we shall take them. *
From Entry 39 Silver from the mine, connect to the silver in us. The pure belongs to us.
From Entry 47 The tunnels collapsed overnight with my hope. They seal us off.
The Last Entry We have failed. Soon age will take me. Alas, I am reclaimed.
And as the years passed, I drove my team deeper into the mine. I had dreams that filled my mind at night. Dreams of silver below, stretching farther than I could ever reach, to the core of the earth that burned hotter that I could even stand.
I had explored all of the deepest regions of the mine but could find no new silver. All the regions but one.
“Today we investigate the softer tunnels,” I said, staring out at my team. The majority of the members had families stretching back as long as mine, though there was a click of outsiders who had only been on the team for a generation or two. At my statement, one of them spoke up, his voice crumbling like fresh dirt.
“The soft tunnels? The one’s prone to collapsing, without enough stone to hold them steady?”
“Those are the ones. The last time they were touched was a hundred years ago, at the opening of the mine. Technology has advanced since then, and we can reach what our fathers could not.”
“It’s too dangerous, even now.” He said, and the other outsiders murmured around him in agreement.
“We press on, whether you come or not.”
Five of the outsiders left our team that day, and our numbers dropped to thirty five. We began carving into the soft tunnels.
Progress was fast as the rock here was already broken apart from tunnels that had fallen in years before. And as we dug deeper, we found bones in the rock, bones that looked far too much like my own and were accompanied by mining helmets and tools. On the hard walls I could see where pick axes had once bored into the stone, until even those fell away and the hard rock returned. But then, five weeks into digging, we broke into soft rock again.
On these walls I could see the marks of digging utensils unlike I had ever seen. They looked like five prongs rakes, and it took me a day to realize they matched the contours of my own fingernails, and appeared as if they dug up, not down.
Then we found more bones, though these were accompanied by no mining gear. Their ends were scorched, burned into ash that flaked away as we removed them.
Dissent grew among the outsiders, and two more quit.
“I don’t like it,” Said one of the remaining three, “How’d these bones get here? Ain’t nobody been this deep. Maybe fell through in an earthquake?”
“I dunno,” Said the other, his headlamp flickering, “Maybe they ain’t human. Maybe something else lives down here. Some other creature.”
The the third whispered, in a voice that echoed down the cave walls and caused even my best men to stir in their boots.
“Maybe we should stop digging. Maybe we weren’t meant to dig this far.”
Then the writing on the walls began, and though I locked the gates each night, I knew one of the outsiders snuck down into the tunnels after dark to try to scare us away. The first appeared, written in charcoal at most recently unearthed portion of tunnel.
Return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. And the first of the three outsiders quit, cursing his way up the tunnels and back to daylight. We were thirty two.
Another week passed, and I found myself sweating so much from the heat that puddles formed in my boots. Then the second message appeared chiseled into the wall.
Punishment to the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.
“It’s Exodus,” breathed the second of the outsiders, before he too departed. We were thirty one.
Then the last message appeared in silver writing.
Greed brought you down here, and greed will bring you back.
The last outsider left, and we were thirty.
But even as the air grew thinner, the tunnels warmer, and the earth looser, I commanded my men to dig deeper. Today I struck iron, and we dug about it, revealing an archway embedded into the rock. There was no writing on it, and I cannot be certain it was human made, but I have never seen something so well formed in nature.
Tomorrow we mine through the archway, and we find silver. I feel it in my bones.