No. 1

She looks closely at the ground as we move down the narrow slot canyon, hoping to be first to find a fossil. Not just any fossil, a better one than any I will find. Special because yet again she has beaten me at my own game.

Number-two son scrambles from rock to rock, scuffs dirt and attempts to kill all the innocent wildlife within range of his throwing arm. He watches closely, and should I bend down to look at some nondescript pebble, he'll be there before I am.

He's no faster though, than number one, who has learned both to dog Momma's footsteps and keep an eagle eye on number two in jealous speculation. He would do better by looking under his right foot, just now.

They all watch me from the corners of their eyes.

And I? I wonder at their brief fascinations and frantic scurryings back and forth as though the landscape were made just for them. Eons of uplift and downfall and brief violent wrenchings, just for them. Stone death, despair and rebirth, just for them and their hands.

No wonder they always win.

I wonder why they think that I always lose?


No. 2

We're waiting for daylight: Bill to bolster his argument that it can't be done, and me to say it can. After a while the sun decides in my favor and Bill is pissed off. I think his boss told him that the contract money only allows for three out of five locations. He must have pressured Bill to come up with excuses for not doing them all. I'm pissed too. Sure, I'm fresh out of school, but I'm trying to do my job. Why can't he just do his?

The crew is pissed. They take their cues from Bill. He's the boss. What he says goes, and it embarrasses them that some dumbass college kid is trying to tell Bill he's going do it anyway.

We get the drill rig set up on location, at the side of the road on a clear and cold North Dakota morning. The hillside rises above us on one side, and plunges down on the other. We're in the Badlands. The hillsides are innocent of vegetation, and banded with clay and sandstone, and coal. Sometimes I can look downhill and see what we'll be drilling through for a few hundred feet. Sometimes I can look up and see what is no longer there, where I stand: old shorelines and river deltas, coal swamps and killing grounds.

It takes twice as long as usual to set up, to test the controls and get started drilling, but finally the earth starts to give as the drill bites down. Right now, with the hole so shallow, the drillers are just using high-pressure air jets from the drill bit to blow the cuttings back up the hole. If they didn't the bit might overheat and we won't pay for that kind of mistake. Soon though, they're going to have to start blowing water mist into the hole to keep it going.

***

I'm working away looking at the bits of cuttings as they come to the surface in the mud that fills the hole. Yellow sand. We're in a poorly cemented sandstone. Yellow-gray muck with the consistency of snot, bentonite clays. There were volcanoes here, then. Black to brown grains, hard, like metal. Some sort of black sand. The grains stick to a magnet. Was there a beach here also? Cool.

I'm taking a break for lunch when Bill comes back, shaking his head.

"They ain't no return," he says, "The mud's going somewhere. We gotta stop drilling. Sign this so we can move on. Unexpected Conditions."

It's a form that says that USGS agrees to abandon the hole. They'll get paid the full rate, anyway. I'm about to sign when he says, "Told you so."

So, it's an impasse. I won't sign and he won't move.

After a while I go look down the hillside. Somewhere down there the coal seam we were looking for should crop out on the side of the hill like a black streak. It isn't there. There's a sheet of brown liquid that sure looks like the drilling mud, working its way down the hillside. Damn!

"You're right, Bill," I say. "We hit a coal seam that's been weathered so much it's like a big pipe. All the mud went into it and came out the side over there where the coal comes to the surface." It's supposed to come back up the hole, carrying the cuttings with it for me to examine, lubricating the hole, and keeping the drill bit working.

He is right. We cannot drill further here, but I won't sign to abandon this hole. I will sign to move it instead about a hundred yards or so, uphill.

Bill is having a fit. His joy at hearing the college kid give up was short lived.

"Whatta fuck! Don't you understand? It goes out. We can't drill here. "

He goes on and on.

We're moving again, finally. It's early afternoon and Bill and his crew are grinning like cats. Dumbass college kid. They'll show me now.

We've moved the rig, about a hundred yards away and at least 30 yards up to the top of the hill. Bill's won. I owe him a case of beer. He got the rig up to the top of the hill after I bet him he couldn't.

I ask Bill if he wants to make another bet.

"Sure," he says.

And I tell him, "But you've got to do it like you're really trying, and if we get down as far as the mud came out before, and it doesn't come out again, we have to finish the hole, and you owe me two cases of beer and I don't owe you any."

***

It's dark now and the trip back seems endless. Bill is quiet but I can tell it's really bothering him. After a while he asks how I knew.

"It's the way ground water works when it's near the surface." I tell him. "It tends to follow the surface slopes. If there's a hill on the ground, there's likely a hill in the water underneath. So it was likely that if we went to the top of the hill nearby, that the ground water would have stayed above the coal even during dry spells, and it wouldn't have dried out and cracked like it did over there. "

Over there, where this all started.

"You get that from books?" he asks. I nod.

***

We're back in town and Bill has gone in and bought me the two cases of beer he owes me. He's not mad anymore and the crew doesn't know what to think. By their standards one or the other of us should be the "winner" and the other should be mad. They don't understand why I'm not rubbing it in, and why Bill is OK with it.

There's only one place to go eat that late at night in nowhere North Dakota: the bar. We order a Tombstone pizza and try not to gag. Six nights in a row, so far. Maybe I should have let them win after all. Then we could have gotten a steak. After a while everyone starts to unwind and the questions come from the rest of the crew. Bill tells them how it works. He knows it now and he's the boss. Best for him to explain.

Back at the motel the night clerk gives me a wink. The beer's all been put away, divvied up between the crew, waiting for them beside their beds, on ice. Bill won't get any, but he doesn't drink that much anyway. Tomorrow the crew will take me in as one of their own and Bill will see that and have to go along with them. They won't tell him about the beer. It will be our secret.

***

The stone has its secrets also, grudgingly shared, but shared nonetheless. We learn about it in school and then go out into the world to learn still more. Sometimes we share our secrets with others. It doesn't matter if they don't understand. For them it is enough to know that the good earth gave them water to make a beer so clear and bitter that it forever reminds us of a North Dakota night, in the fall.


No. 3

As I scramble down the hillside through the twisted brush and oaks, I can see that the valley is small and self-contained: neat in its simplicity, man-made. It is shallow at first, and then descends for a few hundred yards until the valley ends at an abrupt wall of stone. It's as though God had thrust a scoop into the Arkansas hills like a giant child playing in the sand, and lifted all the rock away.

Dogwoods lining the valley walls tell me this area was mined out decades ago, and that there is plenty of water here. Good. This one area will provide all I need to complete my report. I'll be able to map the layers that the great scoop cut through, and draw the cliff face in good detail. I have been searching all day for an exposure like this.

This morning I packed a light load, and I'm glad I did. It isn't hot, but there aren't any roads in this worked-over land and I am worn out. World War II's great consuming hunger reached even here to northwest Arkansas, hungry for the coal hidden underground. There is hardly a section of this county left that hasn't been mined out. The surface is pocked with craters, and so the streams and rivers all run crazy.

I'm here to see what impact more surface mining would have on the natural environment. That's a laugh. There's hardly any natural terrain here: our hands never lay lightly upon this land.

***

I am walking along the base of the cliff and not paying attention to my footing, when I walk a step too far. A crust of mixed ice and dirt, leaves and coal over running water gives way. As I fall I throw my arms wide and my field-pack and gear land behind me. The suddenness of my fall and the shock of cold water leaves me gasping. A moment earlier I was standing on a bench of weathered black coal that lay below the telltale sandstone. Now I'm up to my chest in deadly cold water. A strong current tugs at my boots and only my out-thrown arms keep me from being dragged under the crust. I can feel my legs going numb already in the cold, and I twist to look over my shoulder. Where is that tree that was nearby? Are the roots within my reach?

They aren't, and my turn has caused me to slip further down, and now the cold black water is tugging harder and my legs are swept up. If I move much more I'll go under for sure. My God — any god if there is one — help me now. Please.

I have one good try in me before the cold claims me. Time is running out. The strap on my field-pack is close enough to grab. I try to snag it on the nearest root, my lifeline.

I am able to pull myself up onto the bank, but not to stand. I weep, suddenly, from fear and the horror of almost dying like this. If I hadn't reached the strap, if I had gone under, the current would have dragged me beneath the cliff-face to die in the dark, cold water. No one knew where I was going to be today. No one would ever have known what happened until they came back to this godforsaken area, and excavated the rest of the coal — and found me. I would be a bonus, a curiosity in five paragraphs in the local paper.

***

After a while I start again. My notebook is still dry and there is work to do. Best not to get behind, it is a long ways back to my car and it is already late afternoon. There is still more work to do.

The last mile of my hike back lies before me. It is dark, and I cannot see my way clearly. Dogs have been following me for a while, at first just one or two, but now a pack. They are wild. Feral. Town dogs who lost their warmth and security, or the descendants of pets the miners left behind 40 years ago. I should be afraid, I guess, but I'm not. Just now I can't feel anything but numbness and the ache of walking for miles in wet boots. My feet are clumsy and I am exhausted. From time to time I lean on the stick I cut, to rest. The dogs come a little closer every time I do. So, let them come and I'll deal with them. I survived the sucking-dark water; the dogs are not so bad.

I never looked back at them. I never let go of my walking-stick, and never looked back and began to run, and they never came. They just quietly faded away to their hills.

So here I sit in my car, and my hand will hardly hold this pen, and I must write it down so that I will never forget how it feels to be this... alive.

***

In the old days the hand of man lay lightly upon this land, or so they say. I think there were just fewer of us then. Fewer to take from the land and fewer to fight over what others had. Now we're like a pack of dogs, always on the move. We cast back and forth across the good earth, ripping up the coal to feed our wars. We forget that we are not the masters here. The stone has its own ways, and its own dark and hungry holes, traps for the unwary, and in the end, graves for us all.

[Originally published in River Walk Journal]
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