Russell had quit his job as a coal miner on his twenty-fifth birthday, though still, five years later, he would, at various times of exertion, spray flecks of occasional blood when he coughed. He was as big as a horse, fully in the prime of his life, and to look at him, no one would ever have guessed that he was not completely healthy.
Sissy knew it, as they had had numerous conversations, increasingly intimate, on their lunch and dinner dates during the last month, though this was their first trip together, a full day’s drive from Mississippi to West Virginia, to revisit the country where Russell had once worked, and to go canoeing in that country.
Sissy was both excited and nervous; they had left Mississippi long before the sun had risen, and all day she had been filled with the feeling that the day was like a present that was waiting to be unwrapped.
By early afternoon they had passed through Alabama and were up into the foothills of the Appalachians. They drove deeper into the mountains: up craggy canyons and down shady hollows, as if driving, disappearing, into the folds of the earth. They passed the leached-out pale-faded brushfields of revegetated strip mines, as well as the slaughterous new ruins of ongoing ones: big trucks hauling out load after load, pouring out rivers of black diesel smoke from their riddled tailpipes as they thundered wildly down the twisted mountains and then groaned and growled so slowly back up the hills.
They got caught behind one such slow-moving caravan and, rather than fight it, they pulled over and went for a short walk into the woods. Russell could feel a cool breeze moving through the old forest, and told Sissy that on that breeze he could detect the odors of an abandoned mine.
She did not believe him but went with him looking for it, watching him work into the breeze like a hound, casting laterally until the scent disappeared and then changing directions and casting forward in the opposite direction, zeroing in on whatever odor he was able to discern from all others. Sissy could detect only a faint coolness, no scent; but in this manner, as if they were being woven into a fabric, Russell led them right up to the lip of the old adit, and they stood before it, not seeing it at first, for brush had grown over the opening.
Russell crouched down and parted the leaves, and Sissy saw the dark opening, scarcely wider than a man’s body. She leaned in and felt the breeze issuing from it, cool against her sweaty face. The mine’s breath stirred the damp tendrils of her hair, and carried the faintest hints of sulfur. She wondered if old rocks smelled different from new rocks: as if such things had changed slightly in the last several hundred million years. She thought possibly she could smell the faintest odor of men, too, and wondered how recently, or distantly, they might have been gone from this place.
Emerald-bright moss grew around the hole; wild violets formed scattered bouquets, as if someone, or something, had been buried below and was being honored.
“How far down does it go?” Sissy asked.
Russell lay down on his belly and examined the hole. It was barely wider than his shoulders. A yellow butterfly drifted past his face. “There are rungs hammered into the walls,” he said. “We could climb down and see.”
“Do you think it has a bottom?”
“It has to have a bottom,” he said.
“You go first,” Sissy said. “What do I do if you fall?”
“Crawl back out, and wait for me to climb up,” Russell said.
“Will it be cold or hot down there?” Sissy asked. Russell didn’t answer; he was already lowering himself into the hole. It was a tight fit and his hips would not quite fit, so that he was stuck already, half in the earth and half out. He strained there for a moment, then wriggled back out.
“Do you mind if I undress?” he asked.
“No,” said Sissy, and watched as he kicked off his shoes and pulled off his shirt, heavy denim jeans, and finally his underwear.
“Tell me why I should go down here with you?” said Sissy.
“You don’t have to,” he said, and eased back into the hole.
She paused, then looked around before slipping out of her own clothes, paused again with her bra and underwear shock-white—the light coming down through the green dappling of leaves felt warmer, different, on her bare skin—and then she slipped out of those as well, folded her clothes neatly next to his rumpled pile, and descended.
“You blocked out the light,” he said, from ten feet below.
She looked up. “It’s still there,” she said.
The adit was slick with spring-trickle: the limestone walls were smoothed with years of water-seep, and felt good against her back and chest. There was not quite room for her to draw her knees up double, and she wondered how Russell could make it; wondered how he had been able to endure his old job, working among men half his size.
Out of nervousness, she wanted to talk as she descended, but it was difficult for him to hear what she was saying: he kept calling “What?” so that she was having to spread her legs and crane her neck and call down to him, as if trying to force the sound waves to sink—like dropping pebbles, she imagined—and in the darkness she could not tell whether he was fifty feet below her or only a few inches; and she descended slowly, not wanting to step on his fingers.
Sometimes when she stopped to rest it seemed that the curves and tapers of the borehole fit the same curves and tapers of her body, though only in that one resting place, and it was an eerie thought to consider that perhaps for each and every point in time there had always been a perfect and carved-out resting place waiting for her, and that occasionally she might be drawn unavoidably, instinctively, toward that fit: that she could do no wrong.
Fantastic paranoias began to plague her as they descended below one hundred feet. She believed that they had traveled at least a mile. The portal of sky above had diminished to less than the size of a penny, and her breath came fast now as she imagined some skulking woodsperson coming upon the telltale scatter of their clothing and finding a boulder to roll over their tomb. She paused and lowered her head to her chest, forced herself to chase the thought from her mind, but there was nowhere for it to go; like a bat, it fled, but returned. She felt chilled, and was seized with the sudden impulse to make water, but held it in.
Fifty feet farther down—moving as slow as a sloth now—she imagined that they were using up all the air and another twenty-five feet after that, she imagined that although Russell had been a nice enough young man, a gentleman, on the earth above, the descent and the pressures and swells of the earth would metamorphose him into something awful and raging; that he might at any second seize her ankle and begin eating her raw flesh, gnawing at her from below.
A trickle of urine escaped. She stopped again, clamped down, hoped that he would not notice it from the spring water. Despite the coolness, she was sweating; muddy and gritty, now.
There came a grunting sound from below her, pig-like in nature, and her heart leapt in terror, certain that the transformation had begun.
“Oh, man,” Russell said, “I wish I hadn’t eaten so much.”
“Are you stuck?”
“No, I’ve just got to go.”
“Can you wait?”
“How much farther do you think?”
“Any minute. Any time now,” he said.
The penny of light above had disappeared completely.
A little later, a little deeper into the hole, she heard Russell cry out in what sounded initially like fear.
“What is it?”
He was right below her, thrashing and bumping, so that at first she thought he was falling.
“What is it?” she asked again. She felt him climbing up below her, his hands and head up around her ankles, and she scooted up quickly, bumping her knees against the wall.
“Oh, Christ,” he said. “It was a shitload of bones down there. A wad of bones. Something must have fallen down the hole and gotten stuck there. God,” he said, “I was all tangled up in them.”
Sissy was quiet for a long while. “What do you think they are?” she said. “Do you think they’re human?”
“I guess I should find out,” Russell said. He descended from her ankles back into silence. A few seconds later, she heard the stick-like clattering of bones as he kicked his way through the nest of them: the brittle snapping of ribs and femurs. God, she thought, if they are not human, I will go to church every Sunday for the rest of my life, I will become a nun, I will …
“I heard them land,” Russell said. “We’re almost to the bottom. Careful, they’ll scratch you some, coming down through them.”
“What are they?”
“I don’t know,” Russell said, and then a moment later, “Okay, I’m on the bottom.”
At first, after the constriction of the adit, the space around her was divine: open air all around her, and she felt a set of railroad tracks beneath her feet, tunneling laterally through the coal.
She hunkered down and peed. There was too much space in the total blackness; she felt that if they ventured left or right of the adit, with its lightless surface high above, they would never find it again, but Russell said that they would be able to feel the ladder rungs hammered into the wall, and would know also where they were by the tangles of bones beneath it.
“What kind are they?” she asked again. She had moved nearer to Russell and reached out to touch his shoulder and kept her hand there, as would a tired swimmer far out in the ocean who found, strangely, one rock fixed and protruding above the waves. Even that close, she could see nothing of him, though she could feel the heat from the mass of his body.
He crouched and began sifting through the bones, sorting them by feel, nearly all of them long and slender, until he found the skull, which he groped in the darkness: felt the ridges above the eyes, the eye sockets themselves.
“Deer,” he said, and handed her the skull. He could not see where she was and accidentally pressed the skull into her belly.
She took the skull from him and examined it. The relief that it was not a human seemed to her to give them a freedom, a second chance at something.
“All right,” she said, “I guess we can walk a little ways.” She reached for, and found, his hand.
“Wait here a second,” he said. “I’ve really got to go.”
He left her standing there and walked down the tracks. He was gone a long time. Sissy sat down and wrapped her arms around her knees and waited. She kept her back to the wall. She kept listening for Russell but could hear nothing. She imagined that he had gone a long way. She wondered if he had come to some junction in the tracks and had taken a turn and gotten lost. Perhaps one junction, and then another.
It was no matter. She had the adit directly above her, or very near her. She could feel the slight upwelling of breeze, still rising as if to a chimney, though she supposed that at nighttime, as the air cooled, it would begin to sink back down the adit, falling with an accelerated force that might be exhilarating, deafening.