by Chris LaRoche
They started just before dawn and continued well into the night, numb to their own existence. The surroundings choked off by thick black clouds of hot dust and debris. The relentless banging and grinding bounced off the striated permafrost walls that dripped with the remains of an ancient ice and echoed off the distant Byrranga Mountains like an eerie cry of a thousand babies. Now it was strangely quiet without the repetitive drumming from the mine, the horn having blown a couple of hours ago marking the end of the sixteen hour work day.
I sat on the rooftop just outside my bedroom window wrapped in only a woolen blanket, sheltered from the blistering wind by the crumbling chimney. I watched through burning eyes as ash fell from the silver streaked sky like snow. It can get brutally cold here in the Siberian Arctic along the eastern most point of the Taymyr Peninsula, but the heat that radiated from the man-made crater that lay open only half a mile away was enough to shed an artificial warmth even in the harshest of winters.
With the peninsula shrouded in darkness for six months of the year, Papa would tell me stories of a glorious time, a time when the sky was lit up by millions of stars. A collective light so bright you would simply forget the time of day. A time taken for granted and long forgotten. But not by me, as I sat there hoping to catch a glimpse of a shining diamond in the sky. Not one carved out by the nearby mine. Papa would say that the stars had been gathered up by a weary traveler who upon his return would cast them out into the heavens once again for all to see. Sadly, not too many people even look up anymore.
Papa’s been gone five years now. Taken by the very mine that I so despise, the mine that put food on our table and a roof over our heads. A mine we didn’t ask for but begrudgingly got anyway. All in the name of progress. At least that’s what the government said or led us to believe, while they continued to line their own pockets. But at what sacrifice? A crippling of its people and of a planet we so desperately cleave to. A heavy burden for a boy who just turned fourteen. And all this time, I have yet to see a single star.
I mistakenly reached up with both hands to wipe away the tears I fight so hard to keep inside that I started to fall from the roof, sliding down its wet, slippery pitch. I tried to catch myself on an old, rusted antenna but it was just beyond my reach and then I was at gravity’s whim. That immediate feeling of helplessness with nowhere to go but down. Luckily the landing was soft from the thawing tundra of the summer months but my pajama bottoms were now wet to the skin.
Filling my ever lingering emptiness was a pressing and powerful need to be at the mine, to look down into its great depths, into the very soul of the dreaded beast. With just the blanket to keep me warm I started to walk, not even realizing it but I wasn’t wearing any shoes. Funny, you think I would have been cold.
I set off along a worn out path made from decades of thundering trucks until I was at the northern most edge of the mine. I crawled through a hole in the security fence and caught my left ear on a jagged piece of metal. I reached back and felt blood as it trickled down my neck. A battle wound to mark the time. I got to my feet and weaved through abandoned mobile units and broken down machinery until I was at the very mouth of the pit, with nothing to keep me from falling to a sad and painful end.
Without fear or foreboding I sat on the precipice, my legs dangled out into nothingness and closed my eyes. I waited and waited, time seemed to be standing still. Then suddenly, visions flooded my inner most thoughts. Visions of a better time, a future time, a time I knew in my heart to be a possibility. I am floating over a tree line of huddled spruce and the grassy lowlands watching a herd of reindeer rumble through a flock of grazing geese. The geese fill the air with a cacophony of squawks and retreat to the safety of the beautiful blue sky. Then with a crack like lightning, the scene shatters, replaced by complete and utter desolation. I am staring down a vast and deserted wasteland, scattered with the bones of a forgotten generation. Everything is gray. I fall to my knees and allow the acid rain to pour over my ashen skin. Franticly, I shook the visions from my head and painfully opened my eyes. The distress was holding me prisoner, like a mask that I couldn’t take off.
I sat for a while, the anger slowly building inside of me until I could no longer contain my frustration. “Why have you brought me here?” I screamed, not caring who heard me, not that anyone would. “What do you want?” I was shaking, fists clenched, eyes piercing the inner sanctum of the mine. A small ball of light suddenly appeared and began to slowly rise from the blackness below. A resplendent light of the coldest blue that enveloped me in a warm embrace. At the top of the pit the ball of light vibrated, sending out pulses like ripples in a lake.
“Son, I need you to listen.”
The voice surrounding me, protecting me. “Papa, is that you?” My voice cracking at the shock of familiarity.
“Yes, and no.”
“Where are you?”
“Everywhere and nowhere!”
“I don’t understand!” His answers reducing me to that little boy of nine years old.
“You will in time. Now I need you to listen. It’s time to end this devastation and allow our people and the earth to heal. Reclaim what is rightfully yours.”
“I cannot say, because it isn’t up to me. But what I do know is that you will find a way.”
“Because you, like so many around the world, have this very light inside of you. A light not given but created by you, by the love and sheer wonder for where you live.”
“What about the visions? Were those real?”
“Yes, but only one of an infinite number of possibilities. You and you alone create the world as you see it by the choices you make.”
“How will I know what the right choices are?”
“Just look to your heart and you will know.”
“What happens now?”
“Run and don’t look back!”
“Run? Run where?”
“Home, back to the life you were meant to lead.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m giving you back your future.”
“I’m not ready for this, not without you!”
“You are son, trust me. Now go!”
“But I have so many…” And just like that the ball of light went out. “No!” I cried in anguish. “I need more time!”
“Time is something I cannot give.” And that I understood.
I stood up, just a little taller, shook the blanket from my shoulders and let it fall into the pit. It rose high into the air from the updraft like a wraith and then disappeared. I turned to go but not before whispering, “Thank you, Papa.” The wind gusted heavily and carried with it a faint but discernible, “No son, thank you.” A smile cracked at my hard exterior, breaking down five years of heartache and for a brief moment I felt the earth smile too.
I ran as fast as I could, my lungs filled with crisp dry air that burned in my chest. I ran around to the back of the house, grabbed for the cold steel rungs of the ladder that led up to the second floor fire escape. I dragged myself back up the slippery roof and crested the peak right outside my bedroom window. Just in time to hear and feel the low rumbling of the entire mine caving in on itself, letting in the sea to swallow up thirty years of plundering. The cleansing going unnoticed by the people whose senses had been dulled a long time ago.
“Arkady, time for bed.” Mama pleaded from the kitchen. “Say goodnight to Papa and come inside.”
I looked up to the heavens and for the first time saw a glimmer of hope and said with a full heart, “Coming Mama!”