Stories, poems and other musings from the mind of a writer who suffers from World Builder's Disease
And of course! It had to be mines.
Creed hated mines. And caves. He’d hated them for nearly as long as he could remember. He’d been young, perhaps no older than five, when he’d experienced his first real terror. He couldn’t even remember the exact name of the small town where it happened; they were all the same to such a young tike as he’d been.
Back then, his father dragged him along, across the Australian countryside in search of honest work. They’d hop onto rail cars, or into the back of some flatbed whose driver was kind enough to stop and offer them a ride. They never lighted anywhere for long. Always on the move.
Their homes had been the stockman’s barracks, hot and unwelcoming places full of gruff, hard men, weathered, whiskered and whiskeyed. And when young Kes was not bored to tears while his father was out working the land (or put to work himself at the ranch), he traveled, jostled and sore-bottomed along the nameless rails and roads of the outback. Or, when his pap hadn’t lost his wages in some shady, smoky game, Kes would be wedged behind his father on whatever horse they happened to keep. They traveled ranch to ranch, job to job.
Pap Creed had what he’d called itchy-feet, and ultimately that same wanderlust had crept its way into Creed’s heart as well. It was a fact as well, he had to admit, that he’d also picked up his pap’s penchant for having folk insist that he move on, usually on account of his temper, of course—another trait he shared with his beloved, late father. But for all his gripes as a boy, Creed wouldn’t have wished for any different life growing up.
The incident in the mine happened outside a nameless ranch, miles from some nameless town. He couldn’t even remember the boy’s names, nor quite what they looked like. They were of an age, he guessed, older by enough to have the type of world wisdom—and cruelty—that bullies tend to foster. Creed hated bullies as much as he hated caves. Caves, he could avoid—most of the time. But back then, he was bored and lonely, and young. At odds, he’d met the group of older boys practicing at the boomerang.
The boys had encircled him; five, he thought, maybe six. He didn’t have much experience with bullies, and certainly didn’t have the knack back then at that tender age to recognize when he was being had. He thought they were including him in their game. He remembered his excitement, and the happy feeling to have made some friends.
But the leader of that feral pack began poking at him with the boomerang and asked him all sorts of questions. He’d long forgotten the actual questions, but the memory of them, circled all around him and laughing at his naive responses, will ever be burned into his memory. As would the deep-rooted desire for their acceptance. Hell, any boy that age would feel the same.
It was then that they asked him about the mine: had he ever seen one? Been inside one? He hadn’t, but was excited all the same. They told him about a nearby mine, long abandoned, a place they would play sometimes. A secret place that was theirs alone. The entrance was nothing but a small dark break in an otherwise unimpressive and overgrown hillside. A faded wooden barricade blocked the pitch dark tunnel beyond, but the boys had pulled away the slats on one side, replacing them again, they’d told him, once they left for the day. The adults were none the wiser, and they had made Kes promise to never tell.
“If you say anything, to anyone,” the head bully had promised, “the ghosts what live in these mines will haunt you for the rest of your piteous days.”
They were proud of their secret place, the bullies were. Kes recalled agreeing to that promise, and keeping it for years afterward, despite what had happened in the cave. Maybe even because of it.
His next solid memory of the event was being guided down the long, seemingly endless dark shaft. The leader of the pack had a lone mining lantern they’d stashed inside the entrance. As he raised the lantern before him, shadows crawled along the rough walls like countless spiders, rats and dark beetles. Kes caught himself holding his breath as they slogged along the narrow tunnel. Like the railway leading to Holcolm, the ore-cart rails had long since been salvaged, leaving an uneven series of disintegrating wooden planks—he’d later learn they were called ties—running down the middle of the shaft. The young Creed at first hopped gleefully from one to another, until he felt them squish and crumble, rotten, under his feet.
At the time, the shaft seemed to go on forever, but it mustn’t have been all that deep; a half-mile he’d guessed when he reflected on it in later years. But to a five-year-old boy, it went on and on and on. And that was on the way in, when there had been light.
The shaft was warm, and rough, and strewn with cobwebs in the recesses. At one point, Kes remembered hearing a huffing, squeaking noise ahead of them. They all laughed as a dozen bats—black jaggedy things—erratically zipped by them. One even touched his shoulder as it flew past, to his delight. The memory always conjured up that ancient nursery rhyme:
Snips and snails
And puppy-dogs’ tails,
That’s what little boys are made of.
But as Creed knew now, many boys were made of even darker stuff. Worse than any natural things, like bats or spiders, or other things that Creed had always taken in stride. These boys had been worse, for a fact. They had cruelty in their souls, even at such a tender age.
The long, lone shaft curved and bent. To this day Creed had no clue what had been mined therein. The tunnel ended in a small natural cavern, nearly twice as wide. It had a collapse of rubble at the far end, and glistened with a trickle of dark, earthy-smelling liquid. Thick blackish-gray webs dangled from dark recesses like shaggy fur.
Next he knew, the boys pushed Kes before them, into the dark grotto. He stumbled, and splashed into a shallow pool. The ground and walls all around him, glistened a ghostly red—wet reflections from the lantern. Amazed, Kes saw little fish flitting within the pool’s incredibly clear water. He bent low to look at them, and could still recall the fantastical wonderment about the little pool of life, so deep beneath a forsaken hill in the middle of a huge expanse of arid countryside.
Startled, he jerked backwards and fell flat on his bum as the small pond exploded with movement. A dark, blue-black yabby lurched from beneath a stone below the surface, and violently grabbed one of the fish with its pincer. And in the blink of an eye, it retreated back under the rock. Kes stood, turning to see if any of the other boys had witnessed the little crayfish. Before he was able to face them, he felt a sharp pain in his side as one of them kicked him. Then he was shoved, hard. He landed face first into the shallow subterranean pond. His mouth hit something hard and filled with the bitter taste of blood.
It was then that the cave went dark. They’d doused the lantern, the bastards.
Laughter filled the cave, its echoes receding, carried along with the boy’s clomping footfalls as they fled the cave, leaving Kes in total darkness, wet and bloody.
Shock filled Kestrel’s dazed mind. He wasn’t exactly sure when he fully realized what had happened, whether it was then in the pitch dark, or later as he fumbled blindly searching for the way out of the long, seemingly endless shaft.
Those bullies had lured him here, deep within a dangerous and abandoned mine shaft. They mocked him, lied to him, and led him to think they accepted him as one of their gang. Now he was alone, utterly. He could not see his hand in front of his face. Blood pounded in his ears, and fear of being lost there forever choked at his throat. Tears, shameful tears, flew from his eyes. Big boys don’t cry, pap had told him. Ordered him. So many times. He was supposed to be a man. The thought of it only made the crying worse.
He realized, from the warmth of it, that he had pissed himself. Only babies pissed themselves. Babies and drunks. He pissed himself, he’d cried like a little girl, he’d been so stupid. What was father to think? What would he do when he found out? How could he face his pap? He wanted to lie down and die, right there in the cave, sopping wet from tears and the pond and his piss. His sobs redoubled as he wondered if his urine had hurt, or perhaps killed, those little innocent fish whose crime was merely being subject to his folly.
“For shame!” he could hear his father say. “And you call yourself a son of mine?”
The shame, the guilt stabbed at him.
He could not say how long he sat there, ass-deep in the water, before the tears lessened, then finally subsided altogether. Not even the fear of being pinched by the yabby had roused him from his awful sobs. The jeering daggers of mockery from the fleeing boys had long faded, their echoes now only a memory, piercing his soul.
Kes finally gathered up the jewels to face the fact that he had to move, had to pick himself up and get out of that cave.
Had the tunnel not been one relatively straight shaft, with no side-passages, he might’ve indeed remained lost there, in that abandoned and forgotten place. Panic continued to well in him. It was a terrible dread that would haunt him all his days.
Kestrel barely remembered his long departure through the tunnel. As an adult he guessed that he’d blocked it out. He did remember the dirty, slick and slimy feel of the walls as he groped his way out, and the tangles of webbing that sent wriggling, spiky nightmare horrors through his flesh and into his spine.
A blind dread filled his heart as he strove to retrace his steps out of that place. That dread lead to several more bouts of panic, and the panic led to outright collapse. At one time, he thought he could hear scraping and chittering sounds behind him. He imagined a terribly large yabby, crawling up behind him on its spidery legs, blood-soaked pincers raised and chopping the air as antennae probed this way and that, for a tasty five-year-old caught all alone in the dark.
Once, he felt a distinct chill run through him, like he had stepped on a grave. The creepy sensation led his mind to think about the ghosts that the boys had warned him about. “They closed the mine because of those ghosts,” the lead bully had told him. “You don’t want them to come and git you while your are sleeping, do ya?”
No, Kes did not want that. He collected up his courage and stumbled onward, until a bleak gray glow formed in the dark distance ahead of him. The grey eventually grew into yellow lines of sunlight, peeking through the slats of the barricade, and he allowed his heart to finally settle. He swore he would never, ever, ever, go into a dark place like that again. Ever!
Kestrel reached the barricade, only to discover the bastards had refastened the loose planks. The pricks had boarded it back up. Worse, they’d also rolled a large rock over it. Cunts. He was calling them all the dirty words his pap used (and told him not to use till he was older). He didn’t care if they were bad words. Those fuckers deserved them, and all his anger.
He used that mad feeling to escape. It took all his effort to push his way out of the cave. His tears may have fled, his shame transformed to anger, but the terror of the experience would stay with him forever.
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