coke (kok), n. [north Eng. Dial; prob. < ME, coke, a core < IE. Base *gel-g, rounded, ball-like, etc.], coal from which most of ht gases have been removed by heating: it burns with intense heat and little smoke, and is used as an industrial fuel. V.t. & v.i. [COKED (kokt), COKING], to change into coke.
He didn’t like the way his clothes always smelled like sulfur or that his wife would scrub and scrub without ever getting his shirts or denim overalls completely clean. He didn’t like the way the gases made him hack or the feeling of needing to preserve air, to breathe shallow and infrequently. But he liked the coolness and the darkness. He liked the feeling of being in a space that not everyone was allowed in.
He had been working the mines for twenty years now, like his father and his father’s father before that. There wasn’t ever any thought of what else he would do. There wasn’t much else to do in Milnee and leaving wasn’t a consideration. So he went into the mines. He had heard the warnings from older miners. He had seen the way they coughed. He had visited them in hospitals with the curtain of tubing surrounding them. Problems with their esophagus. Problems with their lungs. Every breath feeling like a jagged homemade knife probing a little deeper in their chest, spreading blood and infection.
He tried not to think about it because he didn’t have any other options. Today, he was working in a very deep and narrow part of the cave. He had been lowered down, with three other miners, by sturdy yellow rope. When he looked up, the hole at the top looked no bigger than a tiny prick made by a pin. He thought of when his son was little and how he had showed them how to make a pinhole camera. He had watched as his tiny little hands fumbled with the black paper, holding his mama’s sewing needle awkwardly.
“Just a little bitty hole,” he told him. “We can always make it bigger if we need to, but we can’t make it smaller.”
The little boy’s eyebrows furrowed in concentration as he finally punched with enough power to push the needle through. He looked up tentatively.
“Perfect,” he had told his son.
The little boy’s face had lit up like a firework with pride and accomplishment. Now that they had the shoebox with the hole on top, they needed to put the film paper inside and figure out what to take a picture of.
His thoughts were broken by the voice of his fellow miner.
“It’s time to move down a bit more.”
He nodded and wondered how long he had been just standing there, staring off, pickaxe by his side. Had it just been a few minutes? More? He pointed his head downward to shine his headlamp on the path he was walking and the men walked deeper into the dark. The thing about mining, he had learned, was it gave you a real appreciation for time. The time it took for this coal to form, the time it took to break it up and take it out. He wondered how many people considered that when they sat around their hearth, when they hung iron pots of stew in their coal-burning stove. This was backbreaking work but he had always been a quiet man. He liked the time to himself to think.
After the men had stopped, he took his axe and began to hit at one of the walls to his left. He could hear the clang of the axe hitting the rock and could feel the reverberations from contact through the metal to his hands. After years of this, they were much easier to take and now it was almost as if the axe was an extension of his arms. The axe itself took the brunt of the movement and by the time it got to the bones and sinews in his forearms, the small pulses were miniscule.
“You, daddy,” his son had said. “I want to take a picture of you.”
“Well, son, this isn’t like an ordinary picture. Whatever you take a picture of has to stay still for a real long time.”
He could see the boy reconsider and try to think of something else he might like to preserve on film.
“How about the tree out back?” he suggested.
He told him that sounded like a good idea and they set up the box on the back porch. It was mid-day and he figured there would be plenty of light left to capture the shot.
The father and son left the box there and returned for it in the evening. When they went to look at it, they could see the magnolia tree, tall in the distance. But they can also see the trail of leaves that had begun to fall. They were like streamers, like bits of light coming down throughout the image. It reminded the father of when he was little and used to lie out at night with his brothers watching shooting stars flash through the dark blue sky.
“It doesn’t look like a tree at all,” the boy said.“It looks like something on fire.”