In the glimmer of candlelight, John bends over his shovel and grunts with the strain of it all. I catch a glint as he turns to unload. Breath is a prisoner in my throat. He’s looking at me. It’s impossible to imagine golden wheat hills and blue mackerel skies in a darkness so utter it roars. We haven’t seen daylight for weeks. The sun rises and falls while we are consumed by the tunnel. Six days a week we exist in permanent dusk. The seventh, we try to sleep it off. We are all moths. I am glad for the dimness when John passes by. I am glad for the dirt on my cheeks. On a bright cloudless day, he couldn’t ignore the blush painting my skin. It’s impossible to imagine silence down here. It chimes with noise so thick it pins us. Like mud in a bog, we wade through. Strikes of metal on stone. Scrapes of shovels on gravel. Shouts of men working like horses. Whinnies of horses working like men. Screeches of cart wheels on iron tracks. Growls of explosives, each more savage than the last. Clear the space, move the rock. Bombs shatter the dark. We all know we cost too much to keep safe. Ribbons of light rain down from ventilation shafts, remind us that safety is possible. But to raise us out of the tunnel is too much an inconvenience, too much to ask. Instead the blasts happen with barely a warning and the bombs eat at our flesh. Maggots digging deeper, until we’re pitted with holes. At lunchtimes John whistles between mouthfuls of crusty stale bread. His song a lighthouse. There’s lard on his breath. Sometimes he gives me a swig of his ale. I inhale the yeast and the salt from his lips. He teases, places his cap on my head. The darkness made more as cloth slips over my eyes. Under that hat, I briefly forget Jane and the baby. I briefly forget my boot in a puddle. I briefly forget the taste of gunpowder. The air is easier to breathe. Briefly. He hands me a piece of cold pork: ‘Someone should feed you, your wife’s obviously not up to the job.’ We are men of the murk. We don’t know one another’s faces. Still, I’d know John amongst any crowd. Smell, taste, echo of a whisper, strong calloused fingers. I imagine a life in the tunnel where skin can meet skin, dressed only in shadows. Fingerprint smudges of brick dust at the back of my neck. The blast extinguishes all light. We’re scattered like seeds on a breeze. Deep groans of pain build to a thunder. There’s a voice missing. I crawl in the dirt. Soft belly snags on shards. I find his hand. Dig my thumb into his wrist, frantic for the drum of his heart. A low whistle begins. My lighthouse in the twilight. I keep my hand by his. Warm fingers reach out. Briefly. Flex towards one another. The candles are lit. The low light a punch to the face. John flinches away. The flames burn bright in the black of his eye while his tune digs into my soul. We are alive. Alive, but not really living.
Martha's recent work can be found in Perhappened Mag (Heatwave), Flash Flood Journal, All Female Menu and The Film Magazine. She juggles multiple WIPs with looking after her two young children. Tweets at @poor_and_clean.
perhappened mag 2020 best small fictions nominee for the return.