A faded sign warns the intruder “Do Not Enter”. The large gray hill looms large and dull below the mill, where nothing subsists and no animal dares venture.
Winter wind slaps the mountain over the narrow portal, the mill clangs dryly on the hillside above us. Children run, screaming after a mangy mongrel. I call my sons to keep them safe, safe from volatile compounds, from mineral particles, from cyanide and the unknown. Snakes have long retired to impoverished mines and abandoned prospects. They will writhe in a spring dance when the world awakens above them. Ready as we will be to hunt for whatever has survived.
Winter wind burns the lungs as I stumble down the path to chase chuckars away from the mining camp, away from hungry dogs and idle youths. Tomorrow the sleek gray partridges will be dinner for my own children, and I watch them grow, the bird, the hare, never taking more than we need to live on the arid land. Dogs dig the ashen hill for whatever died there.
Winter wind, green and dry, inflames my nostrils with cyanic anger, I scream in the zephyr. The miner’s children play king of the mountain on the oxides of horror-zinc-lead-or silver. I scream in the weather, though no one can hear me, nor much less care in the race to futility. School is too far away, their mother is too drunk, their father works underground. Their future looms large and rich as the dreams of the poor. I am but a stranger in a sterile land. Winter wind stirs caustic ripples about the ochre mound. Its peak is round like an old bald head covered with dripping crevasses of dried pus, caked for a half life. Miners die young above the ground.
Curious teens approach with blasting caps in hand, ready for the holidays of fire and crackers. I warn everyone to stay clear of the dangerous explosives, the tallest turns around and pulls his full frame as large as he can stretch. “There’s no danger, I light those all the time” he fights the blustery gusts and draws nearer to my sons, I tilt my head to the right in a quick motion, all three run in the direction of my gesture. The two kids that tail their big hero erupt in spontaneous bursts of laughter that echo in the canyon across us. As the wind dies down, sheets of vapors and ethereal dust drop like drapes of gossamer cloth fainting upon the hillside.
The eldest of the juveniles finds a pack of matches and a lighter in the depth of his brown pants. He shows the goodies to his accomplices. “Now we can have fun” he declares at the top of his lungs. I shake my head and walk to him. His eyes recede in his flat face, no smile moves his dry lips, the youth recoils sideways to avoid my gaze. Shaking a firm “no” with my entire torso, I tell each of these miner’s children that their fathers will be punished or fired if the bosses find out they are in possession of mine property.
“Who’d tell’em?” they simultaneously ask, I reply “the ambulance driver”, “uh?” “oh, yes after your face is peppered by sulfur and metal” they turn to each other like chipmunks checking for the eagle’s shadow on the ground. “My dad is a powderman, he giv’em to me all the time, I never blowed mysef’ up, I know what I’m doin’”.his jaw juts out a good inch forward and his mouth closes under certainty of power.
“Have you seen any old metal stoves around?” I inquire. All of a sudden faces come alive and they stumble upon each other to show me where the best of treasures can be unearthed. We follow them, they erupt in a myriad questions about my accent, my kids, my clothes, what do I know, what they know, a veritable fireworks of curiosity and giggles takes place in this new sand circus. “Have you ever had jackrabbit? It’s good. And I know where you can get a hundred of them birds you were chasing up there—I can find some real good stuff for you in the old dumps, wanna come with us?” “I’ll show you!”.
The afternoon spent running on burro trails down the canyon mouth, we are all loaded with ancient artifacts, old tools in various states of disrepair, dolls with missing heads, chipped glasses, glassless spectacles, twisted wire and unreadable signs that invite hilarious guessing. We part newfound friends at the crossroad to our shacks. Making dates for further explorations on week-ends or summer vacation, job allowing, metal prices willing, never knowing when the ore runs out or when the miners call it quits.
I am in the yard, sorting our collected prizes by immediate use, expected re-use or flat out creative purposes. Suddenly a sharp sound splits the still air above the valley. The boys and I stare at each other, we all stand stiff and frozen. We recognize the agony behind the scream. More yelling follows, I find myself running down the steep gravel road, I slip and glide not remembering that I am barefooted. The younger teens run toward me “don’t tell nobody! Don’t tell on him, please” they beg, scared little boys that they are, they still don’t believe powder is dangerous. I must promise before I approach the fallen oldest one. A few spots mar his face with driplets of blood, but his right arm is quite chewed up. I don’t believe he is a candidate for infection, the very heat of the burn must have cauterized his wounds. “as long as you keep the area clean, you’ll be fine, but you may hurt for a long time. The stuffing has left his ego, he whines and stares at his arm, someone’s little boy has played with fire and his daddy won’t feel sorry for him, his daddy will know he has taken these from his work jacket. There will not be any pocketfuls of presents anymore. Fait accompli!
I run back to our house for bandages and sterilizer. My sons have waited with trepidation. I regale them with descriptions of flesh and blood, the hanging skins and smell of scorched meat, making appropriate grimaces to emphasize the gruesome accident. To send a warning of caution in all things that burn or go boom! A chill courses through my veins when I think I have spotted more than mere curiosity in the youngest, I believe I have seen genuine attraction to risk taking in the bluest of his eye.
Mill gossip soon carried from shack to house kept me informed on the health of the teen. His father was later given his last check with a promise of not mentioning that he had committed the dreaded powder theft, code of honor among diggers. Never leave a job with a price or a crime on your head. He was a good man with a regular son. City or country, boys-will-be-boys is an expectation in the harsher places where men make a hard living up or down below. And mothers are often absent for all obvious and not so obvious reasons. Boys will be men. Maybe.
Winter wind blows upon the hill where all children breathe. A lone buzzard circles in the fading day.