by Karen Jennings
Already for two months the men had lived underground, unable to tell day from night, working and sleeping in darkness; so that when the cave-in occurred, preventing them from escape, nothing altered for them. What had been black and shadow remained as it had been, as did the heat, and the smell of rock.
Eleven men remained in a small chamber. They had water and food, and torchlight until the batteries ran out. Four of them had worked legally, before losing their jobs, along with 50,000 others. They spoke of their rescue with confidence and shared stories about their families, their children. But the experienced ones, those who had mined the abandoned shafts previously, remained silent, knowing that many would have died in the collapse, and that those few who had escaped would not go for help in fear of arrest. The syndicate bosses, they knew, would do nothing.
Youngsters, fourteen, fifteen, seventeen, watched the two groups of men, trying to gauge what their own reactions should be. They had come down the mines during the school holidays, extending their vacations so that they could make money to take back to their families. Underground they suffered. Thoughts of soccer, of girls and of the sky stayed with them. They missed home-cooking and sweets. Hawkers, sent by the bosses, sold them food at prices too frightening for them to say out loud. In the first week the boys watched with fascination as the men pulled out bankrolls of hundreds to buy a few beers. But soon, as their wages came and as the heat of the place entered muscle and bone, they too bought beer, unflinchingly.
Working naked in the heat, slamming their picks into rock, their bodies ached and changed. Muscles formed where none had been and they watched each others’ frames spreading out, thickening. In the dark they had become men.
On the fourth day, though they had used them sparingly, the torches went out. The men stopped speaking then, as though without light there was no more place for words. Afraid to move in the dark, the boys urinated where they lay. They grew sticky, itchy. Some time afterwards sounds came to them through the rubble. The men scrabbled for stones and used them to tap at the rock walls, a steady rhythm, calling the rescuers towards them. On the fifth day they were able to hear voices, and by the sixth day the rescuers had broken through the collapsed wall.
The miners were dragged past kilometres of rock and debris, up to the surface. In the light, in the air, the boys gaped, their eyes streaming. The brightness surprised them, and the cold. They had been brought up naked, coming away from their months underground with nothing but their new bodies.
Later, in a cell, the youngest of the boys had not stopped gaping, nor had his eyes stopped streaming. He sat on the cement floor, leaning against the wall, refusing the bed. In the cold light of the upper world he had seen his fellows, seen what they had become in the ground. Scarred and stooped and coughing, deformed, frightening. What they had become was nothing like a man, in no way anything man-like. They, and he too, were fit now only for the dark underground in which they had been made.
Short story excerpted from Away from the Dead by Karen Jennings, published by Holland Park Press in 2014. Copyright © 2014 Karen Jennings and Holland Park Press. Republished with permission of the publisher.
Image by Least of These
 Rife in South Africa, illegal mining causes the deaths of hundreds every year. Zama-zamas (Zulu for ‘chancers’) live underground for months at a time, dying in police raids, fires, cave-ins and terrible conditions.