June 26, 2010

Margaret A. Frey

The Eight-Day Men

We kept our senses until the light failed, the last lantern sputtering down on day three. We kept our spirits up until Ruggio begged the Holy Virgin, spewed prayers and the Act of Contrition for the sake of our wretched Protestant souls. A thousand times.

With songs and laughter, we drowned out Ruggio's words then switched to bitter complaints about hard-nosed bosses and shifty lawyers. They'd pay for their rotten oversight and promised safety measures, always two steps behind a collapse or fire. We'd make them pay, if we weren't all dead. Otto Muller said we'd be converted Harp Players by then.

We kept our dignity until the hunger and thirst, the God awful loneliness made us wonder if we'd passed on, unsuspecting ghosts. We shouted out one another's names. Twenty-one men. As minutes stretched into days, our tongues thickened; our speech grew slow and weak. They were voices we barely recognized. They were names we no longer believed in.

On the eighth day, we were rescued, hauled from the drift mouth like the ore we'd mined—black, rank lumps of men. Topside, the light blinded us. We tipped our grizzled chins to the sun then bowed low, retching up the crisp November air. We were creatures of darkness but our wives, sisters and mothers covered us with kisses and cheered our return.

Otto Muller took a single breath then died on a stretcher, an unrepentant Lutheran. For the rest? We kissed the ground and rejoined our families. Over frothy pints, we told our stories to eager reporters, who tagged us the "Eight-Day Men." The headlines fueled the nation's imagination, making heroes out of frightened men.
We kept our fears secret but for sweaty dreams that yanked us awake with exhausting regularity. The boys—nippers and mule tenders—those rescued earlier, slipped from youth to sullen manhood as quick as a page turning. A conjurer's trick, some whispered. Or the mountain's revenge.

We kept our heads, while the best of what we were stayed buried, nearly 500 feet down.

For a long while, we envied Otto Muller and spoke his name with hushed respect. While we stroked our loved ones, repeated our tales of luck and good fortune, we knew the truth:

Otto Muller outsmarted everyone. He died, yes. But he died only once.


Margaret A. Frey writes from the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Over the years, her work has appeared in numerous online and print venues. Right now, she's researching and dreaming up a longer work on the American coal industry. When she's not, she's romping with her canine literary critics. Her furry companions prefer walking and playing to writing. Who knows? They could be on to something.

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