by David Parker Jr.
We keep track of time, even though there is no sunset or sunrise this far underground. There is only night here, hellish, hot and humid, but our foreman Pedro Alavar marks the hours carefully, using his wrist watch or the small clock in the rescue chamber. “Mario,” he says to me as he stands in the eerie light of electric lamps with his bare chest and dirt-streaked face. “It is time to feed Don Cortez his supper.”
A murmuring rises up from the men hunkered along the benches and scattered across the concrete floor where they hover in small groups above electric torches in order to play cards or say their rosaries together in desperate, rhythmic chants. Dinner time. The last supper. Some of us voted not to share rations with Don Cortez. After all, there was so little food, and now we have reached the very last of it. But we are a democracy in the chamber. Ten men voted to let Don Cortez starve, but twelve men voted to feed him. “I will do it,” I reply.
“Good man,” Pedro Alavar says to me.
Above us, the droning. The grinding of drills in the rock. The sound of angels. They are still trying to rescue us, and that keeps us going. On the surface, seven hundred meters above, they have not given up. Numerous crews and steel drill bits are churning through the rock, hunting for us. The grinding sound works its way into our dreams. It creates a hollow sound in our brains and the distant vibrations transfer from rock to bone as we try to sleep in this stifling heat. The question is, how long will they hunt? Fourteen days and nights we have been trapped according to the clock. No one above even knows if we’re still alive. Our emergency rations were supposed to have run out seven days ago. The only sound more horrible than the drilling in the rock would be silence. At one point or another, we have all woken up from a dead sleep screaming because we thought we heard it stop.
Pedro Alavar divides the last of the food and water from the plastic pouches. He has worked a miracle by making it last this long, but even the loaves and the fishes reached an end eventually. We are all very skinny already; it won’t take long for the hunger to drain us of what’s left. I take the pittance allotted to Don Cortez and head to the tunnel. I always feed him before I feed myself. I want the men to think there is some strength in me.
“Mario,” a voice says, and I turn to see that Miguel has addressed me. Miguel is devout, and he leads the men in prayers three times daily at an altar he has built in the sturdy section of the tunnel. He voted to let Don Cortez starve and counseled that it was for the greater good. I also voted to let Don Cortez starve. “God bless you,” he says to me.
“And you,” I reply. Then I step outside the concrete walls of the rescue chamber and into the tunnels. I feel sure that at least ten men secretly hope that I do not return to claim that last pitiful meal that awaits me there in the chamber. But I will return. I always do. I’m like the alley cat behind the butcher’s shop.
Before the collapse, Don Cortez was just a man called Hector. He worked the same shift as me, but he worked with Grupo Nueve. The rest of his group was killed directly beneath the collapse. He said they could hear the whistling of the wood, but it was too late. My group was able to reach the safety chamber. Grupo Seis was able to escape, or so we believe. They were closer to the surface when the tunnel struck.
Now, poor Hector. Don Cortez. Trapped in the rubble. We have honored him for his sacrifice, and now I bring him this last meal. My belly grumbles as I creep around the bend in the tunnel, listening to the drone of drills in the rock, listening for the groan of tunnel wall or the whistle of wood beams. When the rock begins to go, it shifts its weight and squeezes all the air from the wood. The wood whistles before it snaps and brings the ceiling down with it. The tunnel is still very dangerous where Don Cortez lies buried. Much of the support is gone.
This tunnel still fills me with something like terror, but so does everything. Words like safe and unsafe have lost their meaning for me. I walk like a cat, soft and careful, until I come around the bend with my electric torch, and there he is. A head. His face glows pale amid the dark slumber of rock where he lies trapped. A head, and nothing more. As if he were a pale growth, like a tumor conjured from the beauty of the rock. We have laid a blanket beneath his cheek so he can sleep and propped a book open so he can read in the torchlight. The works of Pablo Neruda. He digests them one page at a time. When someone is brave enough to visit, they turn to the next page. “There you are,” the head says from its perch.
“I bring your supper.”
“Jose was here today.”
“He was? He didn’t tell me.”
“He gave me two pages.”
“That’s excellent.” I’m surprised by the twinge of jealousy that shoots through me. I know that men are free to come see the head. There’s no reason to be jealous. But still, there’s this feeling.
“He also killed a girl when he was young.”
“He was angry and he shoved her off a high ledge on the mountain. People thought she fell. Jose has never told anyone that he killed her. He was nine years old.”
“Are you serious?”
“He told me in strictest confidence.”
“Why are you telling me?”
“What am I, some kind of priest? I didn’t ask for his confession.”
“The food is finished. This is the last of it.”
“Listen,” he says. “The drills are getting close.”
“I know. I can’t sleep anymore.”
“Come,” says the head. “Feed me.”
I sit carefully next to Don Cortez and uncover the small portion of food: a spoonful of instant potatoes and two bites of precooked beef from the emergency rations. For dessert, there is a specially-formulated vitamin with the very last of the water to wash it down. “Will you turn the page?” he asks.
“Of course.” I turn the page to a new poem and watch the head chew thoughtfully on his beef as the drills drone in the distance. A cascade of dirt falls from the loose rock ceiling and sends my pulse soaring, but I don’t even flinch anymore. It takes a while, but a man can grow accustomed to anything, even his own grave.
I will be the first to admit that I did not handle things well in the beginning. When the mine collapsed, so did my nerves. Even in the best of days, I’ve always been wary of these crawlspaces of earth and rock, of mineral and iron-ore. I trained myself not to think about the thousands of tons of earth poised above me, ready to crush me into pulp and soot with the slightest shrug. I was a miner, like my father. There was no choosing. There was nothing to chose from. I had a wife, a son, a job in the mine. Ten days on, three days off. I put my boots on, left my village once a week, and went to work in these deep holes.
Then the ceilings came down with a boom and rumble like thunder and the horrible sound of rock rending itself apart. I went to pieces. I don’t even remember it all; it was a blind panic. My body was in hot revolt, beyond control, and even the space between my molecules was charged with terror. The universe collapsed upon me, and I wept. I thrashed. The men held me down roughly, as they were trained to do. I was a danger to us all in a state like that. Finally, I cowered beneath the bench in the rescue chamber and groaned like a man who’d been gutshot.
Now I am the feeder. Years from now, when people read the biographer’s tale of our account, there will be the heroes such as our leader Pedro Alavar, the devout such as Miguel Castanero, and the pitiable such as Don Cortez. The poor head.
Then there will be me, little more than a glorified alley cat. Part of me thinks it will be fine if we never escape from here. Then my shame might lie buried in this rock forever.
This is foolish, I know. Who would die for shame?
“Mario!” Luis shouts as I arrive back in the tunnels near the shelter. “Listen!”
Luis was a dynamite man, but now he is our designated poet. He and the men stand excitedly in the tunnel, their skin glowing in the lamplight. They look like skinny cavemen with their bushy hair and new beards, with their slick sheens of sweat from the wretched heat and bad air. They crouch and scurry. They cock their heads to listen to the vibrating rock and sniff the air. One of the drills seems to be very close. Pedro Alavar tries to herd them back into the rescue chamber. “Back!” Pedro Alavar shouts. “Everyone back. We don’t know what else might collapse.”
Finally, all the men retreat to the crowded concrete chamber to wait anxiously. Daniel, the biographer, makes furious notes in his yellow foreman’s pad. The poet Luis grabs his own pen and gnaws on the back end of it as he stares at the scrum of men crowded around the chamber door. Perhaps he is already dreaming of a victory poem. A poem about ascending into stars and sky and cool, clean air. I look around at the poet, the biographer, the devout. In this democracy of doom, everyone has been elected to their roles. Everyone has their special contributions.
Finally, we hear it break through the roof of the tunnel nearby. A small collapsing of rock and the sound of swirling steel blades. A cheer goes up through the men. “Hurrah!”
Up on the surface of the earth, the driver must have realized that he broke into open space. The drill bit grinds through open air from ceiling to floor, for five feet, and the driver stops the machine. It’s a seventeen centimeter bit, the size of a skinny man’s thigh, but it gleams like a gem in this quivering half-light of headlamps and electric torches as the men scramble back out into the tunnel. Even I must admit that those long glimmering blades bring a certain hope. Maybe there is a way back to the surface after all.
“Quick,” says Pedro Alavar. “Get me the note.”
They have written a note that reads, “22 souls in the safety chamber. 1 man trapped in rubble. We are well and await your rescue.” They fold it carefully and tape it to the drill bit using heavy insulation tape. The bit is hot from churning through rock, and it burns their hands, but Pedro Alavar doesn’t stop. We can’t afford to lose this chance. When the note is attached, he bangs on the gleaming steel drill bit with a hammer. Can they hear that all the way at the surface? We’re more than seven hundred meters down. That is a long way for sound to travel, even through metal. He bangs and bangs.
After a time, the drill bit begins to move, back up into the earth, back into that dark hole from whence it came. It retreats toward the surface, and we all stand silently, peering carefully up into that black hole.
You are heroes, the letter from my wife says. The whole nation watches. The whole world.
“What do you think of that?” I ask Don Cortez as I drop a bite of potted meat with cracker into his mouth and watch him chew thoughtfully. A stench has begun to grow from the rocks around the head. I’m sure it’s partly his excrement, being delivered somewhere into that pile of rubble, and something else too. Some kind of rot. It’s a horrible smell, but strangely comforting once you have settled into it. There’s something organic in it.
We hunker together in the torch light and shuffle through letters that have arrived from above. “Did you know that Raoul gave his wife syphilis?” the head asks.
“Why do you tell me these things?”
“He has two filthy girlfriends in the city and a wife and kids at home in his village.”
“The men still confess to you?”
“The men crawl here to unburden themselves. Like I’m a toilet. Here, would you like to shit in my mouth too?”
“No,” I reply. “Eat your crackers.”
“They think their sins will die here in the tunnel with me.”
“No one else will die in this tunnel,” I say. “We are heroes after all.”
“Of course,” the head replies. “Our bravery is known around the world.”
I steal a glance at him. Does he know about my moments of defeat? Has someone told him? Do they ridicule me behind my back? The head has become a popular destination among the men, a subterranean pilgrimage, our very own miracle like the grotto at Lourdes where the Virgin Mary appeared. I feel strangely proud of this fact, and strangely possessive. I have already asked Pedro Alavar to ensure that all the men seek my blessing before they travel to the head. “For the sake of safety,” I told him. “Only I know all the weak spots in the tunnel, and so many people wish to see him.” Now I will be doubly careful.
When we first found the head moaning in the dark, it was hard to believe he was even real. His entire body was trapped in the rubble, but somehow he wasn’t crushed to death. How was it even possible? At first we tried to dig him out, but the rock is loose here, and we have no supports. It was a suicide mission. At night, I still listen for sounds of further collapse, and every day I half-expect to walk up and find the rest of Don Cortez buried in a tunnel sealed with rubble. But every day it is not, and I continue to creep in. It began as my repentance, but now is something more.
We sit here and listen to the groan and pop of the shifting rock. He and I watch cascades of dust fall from the wretched, low ceiling, and I read to him from the letters and newspapers, following his favorite sports scores and basking in my own closeness to the head.
Our family, friends and lovers have gathered at the mine. Hundreds of them. Maybe more. They have built a tent city around the mine entrance, and it grows bigger every day. Supporters come from everywhere. They are on the news and reporters flock around like pigeons. Our families send letters that arrive in a small, blue capsule that comes down through the hole. The capsule also brings food, water, medicine, books, newspapers and dominos. The men have begun to call the capsule, “The Dove.” It brings olive leaves from distant shores.
It also brings surprises, such as when Raoul discovers that both his girlfriends and his wife are gathered above. “I hope you are rescued,” the wife writes, “so I may beat you with a hammer when you come back home.”
Now all the men fear the same punishment. Who knows how many wives and girlfriends are gathered at the top, wearing matching T-shirts with their loved one’s face emblazoned on the front. Perhaps the authorities have to keep them straight. Who’s here for Raoul? All the ladies here for Raoul please step this way. Are these kids with you? Okay. Okay, now who’s here for Luis? Luis? Okay, yes, ladies, please step right over here.
This is the only time I have ever felt superior for not having a girlfriend from the camp village or from the city in the valley. Even my wife used to tease and say no other woman would have me, but now I am glad there is only one for me. My situation might be complicated, being trapped seven hundred meters beneath the surface of the earth, but my correspondence is simple.
The blue Dove arrives in the hole once more, and everyone looks to it with some trepidation. What news from above? Now that we have food, water, and the world’s attention, we have settled into an uneasy waiting game. We know we won’t starve to death, but still our bodies shrivel in the rock dust and darkness. Our spirits atrophy even as we pray around Miguel’s hand-built altar. How long can we actually live like this? How much can they really do to save us? No one has been rescued from this depth before, not ever. In the heat, men begin to snap and growl like dogs.
Pedro Alavar opens the Dove and discovers a small video camera sent by the state news service. He holds it in his hand for a moment and then looks up. “This is magnificent,” he says. “We shall show the world our strength and our faces. If they know our faces, they will keep digging.”
“Here,” Raoul says. “Let me hold the camera and you can speak to the people.”
“Very good,” Pedro Alavar says. He takes a seat so he can sit up straight, and then addresses the camera. “You can see we have grown thin and we face many challenges, but we are strong, and we are with the people.” He goes on for a short while about the conditions of things and then concludes with, “God bless you all.”
Then Raoul takes the camera on a wandering tour of the facility, and you can see why he has so many girlfriends as he laughs and charms the camera, almost like he’s flirting. He introduces the men and flips the camera around so he can speak directly to the lens. “This is our poet,” Raoul says as he sticks the camera in Luis’s face and then spins the lens around to address himself. “He is a master of words. He used to be a master of dynamite, but he has been converted, like the prostitute who reclaims her virginity when she is wed to Jesus. Aren’t you like a young virgin now, Luis?”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“He even had a book of Neruda once,” Raoul tells the camera in a conspiratorial tone, “but we gave that book to Don Cortez. The poor head. Perhaps you will meet him too if you are lucky. But first I will show you the latrine and the chapel. We have built a grand society.”
At first, Raoul seems friendly and funny, but soon he starts to seem frantic as he talks to the camera, almost as if he were confiding in the machine, as if it were his one true friend. “The others would like to eat me,” he says. “Well, they can eat this,” and he suddenly aims the camera at his own exposed cock which dangles limp as he swings it around with dramatic sweeps of his hips.
That’s when Pedro Alavar finally says, “All right, Raoul. It’s time to turn the camera off.”
Thank god for Pedro Alavar. It takes three men to separate Raoul from the machine and calm him, and he demands that we send the video exactly as is. “That is for my wife!” Raoul cries out. “Juanita, I love you!”
The next day, after we have returned the camera to the surface, the Dove arrives again. This time it is full of pills. Prescription tubes full of Xanax. “This will help,” is all the note says.
Soon, most of the men lie around in a pharmaceutically-enhanced tranquility, with their eyes half-open as they play cards on the floor, chant the rosary and listen to the sounds of the drills. Bigger drills now. Big enough to drop a pipe or pull a whole man up to the surface. Giant drills chewing through the earth, coming to get us, droning on and on, sending vibrations from rock to bone. The recurring nightmare has changed now, and one by one the men wake screaming and dreaming that the drill has come through the ceiling and ripped them to shreds.
Miguel the devout passes close by me and he hisses, “This is your fault.”
“What’s my fault?” I reply.
“Your precious head is a curse upon us all. A sorcery.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
Miguel hisses at me, loud enough for even the dazed men to look up, and then he slinks off toward his homemade altar in the safe part of the tunnels.
Luis and I just look at each other. Then I escort him in the opposite direction to feed Don Cortez and turn the page for him. “Ah, look, the poet has come,” Don Cortez says when he sees us crawling toward him through the narrow tunnel. “To what do I owe this honor?”
“I have something for you,” Luis says.
“Letters?” the head asks. “Or better yet, the sports page?”
“I have something even better,” Luis says. “I have written a poem about you, Don Cortez.”
“Oh god, no,” says the head.
“Would you like to hear it?”
“Please, no. I can’t take any more poetry. I’m sure it is a beautiful work, but you must save it for the angels. How did Rangers do against Colo-Colo?”
I’m about to tease the head for being so curt, but I can see from the bruise-blue color creeping up the edges of his face that he is not well. He flinches from pains, and his stench has grown stronger. “Are you hungry?” I ask.
“They say the drill is very close. We will be home soon.”
“That’s wonderful,” says the head.
When we arrive back near the rescue chamber, all the men stand excitedly in the tunnel once again with their matted hair and rangy limbs glowing in the lamplight. The big drill is beginning to get close. It’s following the path of a previous drill, bearing down through the smaller hole. Large quantities of rock and earth have begun to fall from the smaller hole now, landing in the tunnel, as the big drill presses down from above. Finally, the men have work to do. Real work. Moving earth. They’re so excited they sing as they organize into twenty-four-hour shifts to haul rock from beneath the hole and keep the tunnel clear. The work is grueling, especially for sun-starved men who have lost half their body mass from being trapped underground for weeks and weeks. Vitamin-deficient men with skin fungi and bleeding gums. Heat-pressed men with bloodshot eyes and wheezing chests. They grunt and curse and sing as they move the rock with hand trucks and low-slung, motorized haulers. “Go!” Pedro Alavar shouts as the next shift streams out of the chamber to take their turn beneath the hole.
Finally, the whole ceiling trembles and groans. Pedro Alavar brings the team back into the chamber to wait as the big drill grinds and chews its way through the last meters of rock and erupts into the tunnel like the sword of San Miguel striking from heaven. No one says a word this time, but some of the men weep openly as the giant steel bit slowly stops spinning and gleams wicked in the half light.
It takes six more days to line the escape route with safety tubing and to cast a concrete landing pad here at the base of the hole. Six days of anxiety, adrenaline and nerves. Six days of men snapping at each other and almost coming to blows. Now that they can clearly see the exit route, the minutes spent in the tunnel have become even more torturous. It would be a curious tragedy if we clawed each other to death just moments before we were to be rescued.
“Men!” Pedro Alavar begs. “Hold yourselves together. We are so close.”
But for the first time, I see real mutiny in the glittering eyes that look back at him, and it fills me with dread and excitement at the same time. We have been waiting and waiting and waiting and now finally something is going to happen. Something real.
But then something else happens: a man arrives. He has been squeezed into a long, narrow pod and lowered seven hundred meters to where we stand waiting. He looks like an astronaut stepping out of his capsule. He wears a safety suit and harness, boots, a mask with visor and respirator, a helmet with built-in lamp. He seems huge as he crouches in the tunnel and reaches out to grip Pedro Alavar’s extended hand. “We meet at last,” he says.
The men look ragged compared to this astronaut and they stand about and leer at him with eyes gleaming and teeth shining out of their filthy faces. They look like they might eat him, even Miguel as he shouts, “God will save the devout!”
Pedro Alavar keeps a great poise about him as he shakes the astronaut’s hand. “Welcome, brother,” he says.
I race to Don Cortez, almost reckless as I crawl and slip through the wreckage of the collapse. “Don Cortez!” I say as I come around the bend and enter the small glow of his lamp. “We are saved!”
But the head does not answer. Fear presses up into my throat, like coal slurry filling a canal. “Don Cortez?” I choke. But I already know. Even from here, I can see that the life has left him. The head has died in the night, or in the day; I don’t know which it is any more. He is almost the color of the rock, and if I didn’t know that he was there, I might not even notice his motionless shape lost amid that mound of rubble. The head is misshapen now too. It appears a rock must have fallen from the ceiling and smashed him.
I crawl over, into the stench, and hover above the lifeless form. It is hideous. The blood has turned black beneath the skin, and a gash hangs open where the rock must have struck him, revealing the cracked bone of his skull. The rocks are caked in blood. His lips and tongue are swollen. The pale moons of eyeballs glimmer from behind the half-shut lids. The miracle of the head has ended. And of course it has. What did I think, that I would somehow remain the keeper of the head? That I would carry it out of here in a box and feed it in the village square? That I would travel with it across the country and let people bow before it like some kind of sacred relic?
Now I will be the miracle. We all will. We’ll rise from this hole into the clean air and sunlight and a million people will embrace us. We will be the living returned from the realm of the dead. We will slowly become men again and regain our proper names and roles, even you, Don Cortez. You will be a man called Hector once again, buried in a cemetery on the hillside, and no one but me will dream of you sleeping in the rocks like this, keeping all our secrets.
I close the book of Neruda. I turn off his small lamp. I crawl back through the wreckage and leave the head alone in the dark.