The Miner and the Opera
by Chariklia Martalas
We were given new uniforms for the occasion. The patrons of this charitable event would be watching us watch the opera, gazing to see if we were becoming enlightened. Enlightenment needed clean clothes, even though we would only be sitting in a makeshift theatre on the mining grounds.
“We couldn’t take them to a real theatre,” I heard one patron say.
We were told to stand amid the patrons before the opera started; they could see the labourers that they were benefiting, and we could thank them for this beautiful occasion. A patron whose nose was so elongated it formed an umbrella over his lips kept grabbing me by the arm whenever I tried to move away from him.
“The truth of the matter is,” he said, “that in as much as it is a duty of The Society of Civilizing Recreational Activities to provide quality activities for the lesser-born, we cannot spoil the furniture of an actual theatre, even if they do have clean uniforms.”
The other patrons nodded profusely while listening intently to his lecture on the difficulties of preserving the theatre’s dignity and ensuring that the activities of the society be done well for the benefit of the poor miners who never see daylight.
* * *
I had never been to one of these events before, because I was relatively new. I was too young to come with the first pioneers; I had come to the mines of Zolot only a year ago. I heard there was quick turnover for miners like me; we all came from Jigon. My planet was too small to fit us all. Houses became only big enough to stand in, with special beds made to sleep upright. We could barely bend down to relieve ourselves properly. Bodies were always touching inadvertently, with no space for true privacy.
Work was hard to find, and so was food. Poverty had crept in, and even the well-off weren’t safe from it. I was taking up too much space; my family was struggling in a house that was smaller than others. So what option did I have but to come with the droves leaving the planet for the mines of a richer promised land?
We were told that we could come for a couple of years, and money would be sent straight to our families, with food and accommodation being provided for us. We were warned that if not enough of us came, Zolot would look to other places in the Empire for workers, and Jigon would never see an opportunity like this again.
Of course they didn’t need to scare us like this; there was already a line to sign up that stretched deep into the heart of our shantytowns. Everyone thought leaving would be a chance to breathe. I don’t think anyone could really anticipate what it truly means to breathe underground.
* * *
Our brown uniforms branded us as ex-inhabitants of Jigon, and we were further identified by our nails filled with earth and skin that was cracked from chemicals, a brotherhood that made us indistinguishable in the eyes of the patrons.
The patrons, on the other hand, wore tight clothes that showed the bumps of their skin and their facial features purposively caricatured. Grander ears, noses and lips were a sign of wealth, privilege and distinction.
One woman came up to me, her ears protruding from her head and fingernails as long as overgrown talons. She touched my face and traced the lines of my nose and lips and then pressed her nails into my cheek so that they would leave a mark. She then squealed in delight “I just touched a Gonny! Such delicate features!” I flinched at the word, but my overseer gave me a look and my open mouth shut firmly. The patrons were not to be corrected.
* * *
I had made a friend in the camp, which we couldn’t leave. Siwan had been in the mines long enough to know that miners either died in the mines or were sent back to Jigon when they were finished. This confused me; I never met a miner who had been sent back.
“You lousy Gonny,” he would say to me, “hold the machine at this angle or you will find yourself back on Jigon as a ghost.”
It was hard to make friends. No one wanted to spend the extra energy talking after the long days of work. Everyone would shuffle out of the mines as silent as the dead, barely even looking beyond their feet.
After my first few days in the mines, I was grateful, although the work was hard and grueling, with fumes filling our lungs and heat blistering our hands. Every day there was an incident of at least one worker getting injured or dying. Anyone could get trapped under fallen rock, have the machines falter, or have our lungs give out after spending more than 12 hours underground every day.
After those first few days, my gratitude withered away. All I wanted was to figure out how I had been sold deliverance only to land up in a worse condition than standing up continually. On Jigon, I was at least with my family, and my hands were not peeling off.
After a few days of abject misery, I was itching for someone to talk to. To talk with those who understood and maybe feel some sense of family. The silence pressed down upon me. I thought I was going to crack before the cheap machinery could get to me. I decided that I would smile to everyone who caught my eye, admittedly hard to do when no one looked beyond their feet.
But one day, I caught one person’s eye, it was Siwan, who was strange, as he had a habit of always looking upwards. He would gaze at the procession and laugh a maniacal laugh at the absurdity of it: so many men reduced to being mutes.
I talked to Siwan about how much I missed home. How my mother would have wrapped my hands gently and my father would take me to a corner and give me a stern talking-to that would make me feel stronger. I told Siwan that I would rather take suffocation on Jigon because there was still suffocation on Zolot, albeit a different one. I told him that I wanted to go home because my family needed a man.
“Listen here, Gonny,” he said. “To survive here is to relinquish what you have of home. It is just too painful to contemplate. Be strong and realize it’s just you, the rock and the machine. Your family needs you here.”
I listened to him, and it helped, especially the feeling that I was helping my family by enduring. But as soon as I turned the machine off, memories of home came flooding back, and I had to pause to be able to breathe again.
* * *
Some of the patrons were scared of us. We could tell because they avoided us as if we were contaminated. We were feared and yet were exotic playthings that they could grab and touch. One even plucked my hair to see if it was the same consistency as the gelled monuments that were elaborately styled on top of their heads.
Zolot, head of the Empire, had a society that was both repulsed and fascinated by those that were under their thumbs. I have to admit that we were both repulsed and fascinated as well; we gawped at their deformed facial features.
The patron with the umbrella nose grabbed me again. “This,” he cried, “is a superb specimen of why we chose Jigon as a planet for our labourers! Look at his broad chest, his pulsing muscles all with the tiny features of his face showing his lesser intelligence.”
I was becoming angrier and angrier. The best I felt I could do in protest was to try wiggling my arm free from his “delicate” fingers.
He gripped even more tightly. “Look! This one has strength of will. Who would have thought?”
There was an eruption of cackling laughs. I started laughing as well just to make them feel uncomfortable.
* * *
For all the luxury that spilled out of the crevices of Zolot, no such luxury existed within the compounds. When summer entered the atmosphere, the mineshafts would quake from the heat, and our heads would burst, for the air was thick even when we came up out of the ground. We had to sleep together on wide but not long concrete beds where there was always a risk of the spread of lice and other infections.
The irony was not lost on us: we were fulfilling the dream of lying down but were now being pressed together. Summer disease swept through us, and we begged our overseers to let us sleep outside to feel some cool wind on our skin. They always said no; they couldn’t lock the doors if we were outside. Maybe we didn’t perform our sicknesses well enough to warrant mercy.
Many dead bodies were found pressed together in the mornings, those who were left didn’t know who had coughed on whom first. The overseers were not worried, because they could always travel across the stars to Jigon and find more of us.
Jigon must now be breathing and living more easily. I am sure the rich are even lying down, because their sons were the first to go. We couldn’t see where our earnings were going, but I could only hope that my family was using them wisely. This was the thought that got me through the winter when our concrete beds froze beneath our bodies.
Siwan was the one I would always sleep next to. It was a comfort to have someone next to me whom I could talk to in the night. Feeling his breath on my neck was the moment when the compound felt like a kind of home.
He would breathe in rhythms and, if I couldn’t sleep, I would track the movement of his breaths. Sometimes he would draw me close and squeeze his body against mine, and I would put my hand in his hand. In winter, we huddled as close together as possible, our stomachs pressed together, our heads touching. We stank of dirt and chemicals, our breath heavy from the stale food, but I didn’t care, because I had one thing more than the rest of the miners: I was choosing whom I wanted close to me; I had chosen my friend.
* * *
The compound was beautiful for the first time. The Society of Civilizing Recreational Activities had created a game of deception: hiding the ugliness under their new façade of an ornate theatre. The Society must have spent a lot of money creating a stage with a gold-painted frame and royal blue curtains. The frame had gilded angels with pink and bronze wings hanging over portraits of miners in bright blue uniforms picking at the golden dirt. The stage hid the ugliness of the compound: the grey mud and the grey sheen of the concrete walls that were as depressed as we were.
I was in a strange position of feeling relief that I was away from the greyness while at the same time being angry that all this money that was used for the red covered chairs and a chandelier hanging from newly polished wooden beams could have been put towards getting us real beds. The patrons obviously needed their comfort.
The patron with the umbrella nose, the one who seemed to be so enamoured of me, bragged to his friend that we, the miners, deserved a taste of luxury for emotional comfort. “Did you hear?” he said to a man with lips like pillowcases. “There have been some reports of deaths in the mines that were deliberate. We thought that giving them something beautiful was indeed an emergency treatment for their very souls.”
I became very still. My heart suddenly hurt. This night was a lesson in anger but also a lesson in forgetting my own sadness through that anger. But now that sadness crept back into my skin. Finally the bell rang: there it was, the call for the patrons to go to their seats, and I was pushed to the center of the theatre with the rest of the miners.
The seats were so soft that I sank into mine; my body needed to sink. The opera started, and I was pulled into the world of costumes with bright colours threaded together with gold and silver stitching and the voices that reverberated around me as if they were their own heavenly bodies.
I was beginning to forget again, and I was grateful, for I had entered a world of intrigue. I watched the lady of the house fill the room with agony after her lover betrayed her and how that very lover’s heart was broken by a mysterious woman. I was in love with the spectacle.
I didn’t want to enjoy it, because it could give satisfaction to the patrons, but I also loved how lost I felt. I could get lost in the swell of the music that would make my heart rise and fall. I could get lost in the gestures, the facial expressions, the movements of the singers.
But the amnesia that had settled like a fog in my mind would very quickly be scattered by a plot twist that dug into me like a knife. The lady of the house was beginning her last lament. A knife was poised under her breastbone, and she was cutting into her dress. She was singing about how it was time to die and that life wasn’t worth living anymore. She was singing that it was time for her to lose her breath.
As soon as she said those words, I let out a wail of anguish. The whole theatre turned to look at me as I fell to the floor in tears because my mind had collapsed. The opera hadn’t let me stay lost; it had brought me home, back to Siwan.
* * *
Siwan’s body had been found a few weeks before the opera. Crushed under the piles of rock, his body came back deformed and blue. I asked if it was really him, for I couldn’t recognize his face; his nose was completely broken, and his skin was bruised and flattened. Those who brought up the body nodded solemnly. It was him, my Siwan; he was my own.
I fell to the floor and lay down on the soil, holding his body to me just as when we slept. But this time I couldn’t track the movements of his breath; I could feel only myself hyperventilating, and I kept holding his body more and more tightly. I finally let go, because his body felt foreign in my arms. Without his breathing, I felt Siwan wasn’t there anymore.
I watched as they buried his body in the unmarked grave of all the other dead miners. I was cradling myself next to newly turned soil when another miner came to sit down next to me.
“Kuna, I have to tell you something,” he whispered. I couldn’t even reply; I just turned my face towards him.
“Siwan didn’t die by accident. He caused the rockslide himself. He first trapped himself behind a wall of rock and, when we tried to get him out, he said not to bother, because he did it himself. He then asked us to tell you that he says goodbye and then caused another rockslide that finally killed him. It took us ages to dig him out.”
I felt completely numb. It hurt that Siwan would leave me alone. I didn’t think I could smile at anyone else.
The night of Siwan’s death I lay down in our usual place. A group of miners that I didn’t even know were my friends came and each took a turn to hold me. One of them turned to me and asked, “How did Siwan breathe?”
* * *
I had to be taken out of the theatre. Apparently I had caused too much of a disturbance for the patrons. The lament of the lady of the house felt like the lament of Siwan. The music was too overpowering, filling my mind with visions of his crushed body against the dark earth, our heads touching together in winter and his smile directed at me, for he always looked up, away from his feet.
When they tried to pick me up, I thrashed against their hands, my uniform unthreading at the seams and exposing pockets of my skin. I kicked down the chairs and attacked the carpet till it ripped. The patrons must have thought I was deranged, and I was deranged. They didn’t expect anyone from Jigon — with our delicate features — to have so much emotion.
When I cried, the music stopped, the lady of the house paused her lament, and I was the only sound in that makeshift theatre that had cost the patrons obscene amounts of money. Only my wails reverberated through all the people in the theatre, my voice becoming greater than my body would normally allow.
Then I stopped screaming and, instead, held my breath. I was showing the lady of the house what her words really meant. The overseers kept trying to make me breathe, the miners screamed my name over and over again, the patrons watched in fear.
But still I held my breath because it was easier than breathing without Siwan. I held my breath because I was missing breathing on Jigon. I held my breath until I passed out, for grief is exhausting. The miners later told me it was victory, and I believed them.
Copyright © 2019 by Chariklia Martalas