by Steve Carr
Tacitus awoke, startled by the silence from his wife’s side of the bed, rolled over onto his side and was relieved to see Alicia, his wife, was breathing. She usually snored as she slept, not a loud snore, but noticeable and constant. In the dream he had been awoken from, feeling alarmed even before he left the dream world, she had been smothered by the hand of God. The hand was invisible, but in the dream, he was certain it was God’s. He wasn’t religious and sometimes doubted that God existed, despite being raised a Catholic. Everyone in his village was Catholic, though, so not wanting to stir up any resentment among his neighbors, friends, and family, he kept his lack of interest in religion and his occasional doubt of God’s existence to himself. An obedient and dutiful husband, he attended mass and took communion every Sunday as Alicia wanted. Just to make certain that the steady rise and fall of her chest was her actually breathing and not some trick of his imagination, he placed his hand on her breast.
She awoke instantly, not liking to be touched while she slept. Sleepy-eyed, she glared at Tacitus. “What are you doing?”
He quickly pulled his hand away. “I thought you had died.”
“Feeling my breast won’t bring me back from the dead,” she replied.
I know, but I had a dr. . .”
She cut him off. “Why are you starting an argument so early in the morning?”
“Mi amor . . .”
“This isn’t the time to try to sweet talk me,” she said, tossing aside her sheet and sitting up. “You start your new job today and Carina will want to be fed soon.”
Unintentionally and unconsciously he glanced at her swollen breast.
She immediately caught where his eyes had wandered to, if only for that brief moment. “You’re as bad as Fabian. He never gives poor Jazmin rest,” she said. “He will sex her to death one day.” She got out of bed, put on her robe, and left the bedroom.
He slowly got out of bed and put on his new miner’s clothes, which were actually no more than an old pair of jeans and a shirt with a torn pocket, but new in that this would be his first day wearing them for his new job, going into the mines to dig out the coal. He almost didn’t get the job when he repeatedly pressed the man doing the hiring for an answer to why machines weren’t digging it out. Tacitus spent enough time at the saloon, El Jaguar Sediento, in the nearby larger town, talking to other men better informed than he was to know that machines were taking over many jobs once done by manual labor.
“Do you want the job, or not?” the man – who had a name tag clipped to his shirt pocket that had been accidentally turned around – asked, acting as if he were about to toss Tacitus’s application in the trash basket next to his desk.
“Si, si,” Tacitus replied quickly. “I need to work.”
From the other room, Tacitus heard Carina crying. “Now her breasts will get some use,” he mumbled. He put on his socks and boots and went to the window. The sun hadn’t yet risen but the air that came in carried with it, night and day, the moist, warm air, generated by the breeze blowing across the surrounding rain-soaked hill that rose high above the village a few hundred yards back, and through the dense rain forest on other three sides of the village. He closed his eyes and inhaled through his nostrils the faint fragrance of orchids. The myna birds and cockatiels were having a busy, noisy, and song-filled morning. He turned from the window and steeled himself for one of Alicia’s breakfasts. Admittedly he married her because she was beautiful, not because she could cook, but he wondered how difficult can it be to fix scrambled eggs properly?
The truck that took the mineworkers from the village to the coal mine was parked at the start of the road that cut through the forest to the major road leading to the mines in one direction and to the nearest town in the other direction. Carrying the new tin lunchbox Alicia had sold her deceased mother’s silver broach to buy for him, Tacitus walked to the truck, his boots clotted with mud gathered from the streets in the village. He climbed onto the truck, followed by Fabian, who looked haggard, as always since marrying Jazmin. Fabian was nineteen and had worked at the mines since age sixteen. He and Jazmin had been married for only eight months.
The two men sat down next to one another on the wood benches that lined the cargo bed. Each man who climbed into the truck afterward sat down, greeting Tacitus with “Bienvenido a los raspadores del túnel.” Tacitus hadn’t given much thought to going into the mines as scraping it out of the tunnels, but he heard one of the men at the saloon say, “Coal is scraped out like the inside of a decayed tooth.” The last of the fourteen men from the village climbed into the truck just as the sun began to rise. Its light shone first across the top of the hill.
On the ride to the mine, the men joked around about their bulging stomachs and argued about politics and football. Marriage was spoken of in crude and sometimes vulgar terms that Tacitus didn’t engage in. At El Jaguar Sediento he had a lot of things to say – funny, sexually graphic, and insulting about the local prostitutes – but he never talked about Alicia in that way. If it weren’t for the wedding band on his finger, most of the men at the saloon who didn’t know him already would have had no idea he was married. At the road between large, rocky hills, the truck he was in pulled into a line of trucks carrying men from other villages. It slowly made its way on the muddy road, coming to a stop about twenty yards from one of the gaping holes leading into the tunnels. He and the others climbed out of the truck as the men who had worked the night shift came walking out of the mine, covered in dirt and coal dust, so blackened by the dust they looked as if they had been burned to a crisp.
As Tacitus entered the tunnel he was handed a pickaxe by the supervisor, Quique, a surly looking man with a crooked nose and skin permanently stained by coal. Tacitus walked on, following close behind Fabian who had a shovel resting on his shoulder, like a soldier carrying a rifle. Tacitus held his breath as entered the dimly lit passageway leading to a world of darkness hidden beneath a world filled with light.
At the end of his shift, Tacitus walked out of the tunnel, dirty and drenched in sweat. He deliberately gasped, trying to swallow as much fresh air as quickly as his lungs could take it in. He felt as if he had been holding his breath the entire day. Squinting from the sunlight he made his way to the awaiting truck where Fabian was already seated. Tacitus climbed into the cargo bed and sat down next to him. They said nothing to one another, silenced by the exhaustion of working in the mine. As the truck filled with the rest of the men, none of them said anything. They sat with their backs bowed and their heads hung. Once back at the village they waved weakly to one another as they went their separate ways home. Before going into the house, Tacitus looked at the hill behind the village. “Be careful or one day that God that is supposed to be up there (he pointed to the sky) will scrape out your insides too.”
As soon as he walked through the door, Alicia yelled at him. “You’re filthy. Stay outside and I’ll bring you a bucket of water, soap, and fresh clothes.”
“You want me to wash my body where everyone can see me?” he asked, embarrassed at the thought of it, even though he saw the men who lived around him who worked in the mine do the same thing.
“No seas un bebe,” she said, repressing the urge to laugh.
“I’m not being a baby,” he said as he backed out the door, sulking.
While standing outside, leaning against the doorframe, he watched as his neighbor, Rodrigo, stripped off his clothes and stepped into a tub of water, and washed off as his wife poured water over his head. Rodrigo was middle-aged and had a bulging stomach like the men had joked about, but he didn’t display any hesitancy in exposing his naked body. Rodrigo and his wife talked and laughed as she helped him bathe. When Alicia appeared at the door and handed him the bucket of water, he said, “Aren’t you going to help me wash?”
“Estas loco?” she replied. She then tossed him a bar of soap, his clothes, and slammed the door. Minutes later, hiding his private parts with one of his dirty socks, he poured the bucket water over his head and watched as rivulets of black coal and mud ran down his body. He was almost finished when Fabian appeared at the corner of Tacitus’s house. Fabian whistled in the way a man whistles at a woman. “If I leave Jazmin, will you marry me?” he said, followed by an outburst of laughter.
Tacitus flashed him the raised arm ‘up yours’ gesture. “Estúpido,” he said. “What do you want?”
“Jazmin and I just had our first fight. I’m going to El Jaguar Sediento for a couple of cervazas. Do you want to come along?”
“What was the fight about?”
“She wants to have a baby right away. I don’t.”Tacitus began to dress. “We waited ten years before having Carina. Waiting that long was a mistake. Give your wife what she wants.”
Fabian scowled at him.
“How are we going to get there?”
“For a very small fee, one of the men from the mine will take anyone from the villages there. I just called him. You coming?”
“Yeah.” He finished dressing and placed the empty bucket and dirty clothes at the door. As if the cloudy sky had suddenly sprung a water main break, rain poured down. He glanced worriedly at the hill behind the village and left with Fabian.
Inside El Jaguar Sediento most of the men there who worked at the mine hadn’t gone home yet and sat huddled together at the tables, still covered in coal dust, looking like piles of dirty laundry. They seemed to be competiting for who could be the noisiest. Rowdiest of them all was Quique, who Tacitus thought looked as ugly then as he did at the beginning of the day’s shift, but at least now he was laughing, uproariously, as if laughter was his way of expelling the grime that had collected in his lungs. He had known Quique by sight for many years. Before being permanently laid off, Tacitus worked six years for an NGO on projects related to rainforest animal conservation and protection, and during that time he had no interest in getting to know Quique. He still didn’t.
Tacitus sat at the bar with Fabian, Rodrigo, and two other men from their village. The mood was sedated and grew more introspective with each cervaza the men quickly guzzled down.
“Once you get enfermedad del pulmón negro it’s only a matter of time before they lay you in the ground forever,” Rodrigo said. As if to prove his point he began involuntarily coughing and didn’t stop until he took a large swig of cervaza.
“I don’t plan to work in the mine long enough to have my lungs turn black like that,” Fabian said.
“Jazmin and I plan to move to the coast, work in a fancy hotel, and grow old together, happy and always as in love as we are now.”
The other men nodded approvingly although they knew such dreams rarely happened.
“I pray God hears you,” Rodrigo said. “My wife and I once had those kinds of ambitions.”
“God!” Tacitus uttered derisively. “If there is a God why does he not improve our lives without us having to work so hard to do it?”
The others looked at him, astonished, slightly fearful.
“Tacitus, my friend, don’t say such things, God will hear you,” Fabian said in a near-whisper.“It’s just as likely that eyesore of a hill will hear me,” he said, and then gulped down the last drops of his cervaza. He slammed the bottle on the bar. “I must be drunk. I’m suddenly missing Alicia nagging at me. I’m ready to go home.”
The last piece of furniture that Alicia hadn’t sold after Tacitus lost his job was the armoire that her grandmother had given her as a wedding present. She had sold most of the dresses that once filled it, leaving only a few still hanging on the rod. She kept them to one side and used the mirror she had Tacitus install on the inside back panel to check her hair. Some days she mourned the loss of her vanity dresser as much as she grieved the passing of a loved one. Holding Carina cradled in the crook of her arm as she breastfed the infant, she looked into the mirror and ran her fingers through her thick, lustrous hair, grateful that while some parts of her body were showing signs of aging, her hair was no different than it had been when she was a teenager. It was then that she heard the front door being opened. Tacitus was home.
He picked up the bucket that Alicia had set there as if it was now a permanent fixture since he now worked in the mine. He never mentioned it to anyone but he found having a two-year college degree and being unable to find a job and reduced to becoming a coal miner, humiliating. His clothes were thoroughly drenched from the ten minutes it took to walk from the main road where the impromptu taxi had let him and the others out, through the village, to the front door of his house. The downpour hadn’t let up during the two hours he was at the saloon. Forgetting for a few moments that he was hugging the bucket tight against his chest, he watched as Fabian and Jazmin walked past him, snuggled against one another, both dripping wet. She had been waiting for him at the main road, unable to restrain her joy of him returning as soon as he stepped out of the vehicle.
“Mi ángel,” he cooed to her all the way back.
It was at that moment that there was a cracking noise as if a giant egg had just been cracked open, followed by an earth tremor that strongly shook the ground under Tacitus’s feet. The hill split apart, spilling hundreds of tons of rocks and liquified earth onto the village, washing over homes and streets so quickly that no one inside or outside had time to react.
In the days that followed, the men from the nearby villages and the nearest town dug through the mud searching for survivors.
Fabian and Jazmin were pulled from the mud, in a loving embrace, dead.
Alicia was discovered alive inside her crushed armoire, still holding onto her perfectly healthy baby. Tacitus clawed his way out on his own, wearing the bucket on his head.
About the Author:
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 550 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews, and anthologies since June 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.