No strange thing can happen here. A silence, a slowness of metabolism that can only replicate itself, nothing strange. A silence, an accommodation to stillness that exists nowhere else in the world today, because a world is continuously escaping the silent implications of here. Some escapes are made possible by the speed of light. Some become red dots of revolution, or television, which move at the velocity of consciously dreaming blood. Then there are the slow crawls of the hungry, some refugees from this place, prodded by a mass scattering of bullets, along whose trajectories only a few thin souls can move with imagination. Bullets do not lie in the dust like dried bread crusts, or shriveled bodies, but deflect. And this is their strangeness.
Locations no longer escaping are cemeteries. But they have found an old way of being.
Here, however, is a new way. The new mode of being not strange.
It begins, with roads introjecting from civilizations and deserts, the asphalt pavement cracked and potholed and strewn with black rubbery skins shed by snakes. Rolling hills surrounding the town are blood-red, sparsely clumped with pale green bushes. Roads approach from all directions, though untraveled, like parched gray tongues through the hills and entering the town, sinking down to its center, blistered and graveled with their thirst. It is a quiet hometown place, simply, with traditional frame and brick houses facing traditional empty streets, the sidewalks warped and uplifted by heat and the pressure of something. Because its original builders were bachelor miners, the homes tend to be small, one and two story in narrow lots, with the obligatory dull bushes and small trees struggling outward in the traditionally thirsty yards; or, as now, that pale green vegetation, spiked with lunoid cacti and poppy-thistle. Traditionally, the inhabitants do not appear on the streets, due to the blaze of heat. A few emerge to sit on front porches as the evening cools; they are almost entirely old, retired folk, whose skins are tired of casting off.
Now and then, along a block, a younger household moves in. The spiky plants are dug out, replaced with sandboxes and swings, and then children's voices, thin and prickly as the ex-plants, can be heard as though far off, inside the overwhelming silence of the air. For the most part, residents are old, and stay inside; or they back their auto- mobiles from garages slowly, glinting in sunlight, and drive inside these cars from place to place along the scarred streets, like soft and pale bugs moving inside metallic exoskeletons. Carriages of chitin, in fact, which, in this town, are traditionally kept in the best condition, clean, tuned, free from all dents or blood.
Down one side of each residential street runs a deep, wide, cemented ditch crossed by arching bridges, one to each house. These great open conduits capture and channel the torrential rains, in their brief but violent season, which otherwise would inundate every yard, home, garage and sandbox and sweep them away through the gulleys of the surrounding hills. A few beings tell stories of standing on the wood and brick bridges during thunderous storms, when the whole sky is black with water and sheets of water pour into the eyes; they tell of watching tumbleweed, small trees, rabbits, porcupine, javelina, mule deer, even once or thrice a small child, even once an adult male, being swept along in the relentless flood, under one bridge and then another and another, out of sight. And, in the case of this town, the swollen flood waters would not be the color of water, but a profound blood-red, stained with this land. The bodies along with all the flood debris were swept through the cement ditches and through the huge drainage pipes on the outskirts of the town, then down through gulleys into stony outwashes, where they would be found, if they were found at all, bloated, unrecognizable, scratched and bruised with rocks and branches, and the red fluid congealed all over them, perhaps still viscous, or dried crackling in the enormous sun.
There are two main streets, crossing each other at an intersection of silence. The business of such streets is simple. A barber shop, a small grocery, a post office, a small variety store, a corner drug store. Large spaces between, hardware, auto parts, unoccupied dirt lots, a café, a beauty parlor. Weedy lots, a church, a gas station a church. On the four corners of the main intersection, for which a stop sign is sufficient, are a gas station next to a fire station, a realtor and notary public, private residences, the funeral parlor. Always these places seem silent, empty, even when they are occupied. In short, the paraphernalia of any small town, with a pervasive mood of slow clocks, and fly-specked and faded display windows.
What is missing from these streets is a laundromat. There is a communal urge, followed strictly by each household, to wash all laundry in private. The history of such urges disappears backward in time, like this town's roads. No one would ever say precisely when or who; the law of secret washings is simply genetically known, and obeyed by all implicitly.
The sole café in town, also, next to the beauty salon, has white curtains drawn permanently in all windows and a realtor's sign taped inside the front window. The Red Inn, it was once called, after the color of the hills. Almost a gathering place in past days, almost lively, it too became at some point of indescribable time inappropriate. The owners changed the name briefly to Our Café, replacing red curtains, tablecloths and lampshades with creamy white décor. Then that name was removed also, the open sign in the window replaced with the realtor's sign, and the curtains drawn and the once bright red doors carefully recoated with white enamel closed in permanence.
Similarly, the town market, next to the post office, sells no fresh food. Almost no food at all. Rows of shelves are virtually bare; of food, that is. There are two short shelves in the rear of the store piled with five and ten pound white muslin sacks of various cereal grains, oats, corn, barley, millet, rice; and one long shelf along the side lined with cans of green vegetables, peas, beans, spinach, mustard greens, turnip greens, okra. Anything green, dark green, for those who crave some variety of color. But no fresh vegetables, no fresh fruits, of course no dairy or meat products. This mode of stocking the town's one grocery outlet was a more controversial decision than the shutting of Our Café; it followed much debate waged between those who still enjoyed soaking some oatmeal or wheatgerm in the fluid, perhaps topped with fresh fruit (pale fruit, that is, like bananas; never strawberries, never plums), versus those town members who advocated a total self-sufficiency on the part of the entire town.
A compromise was reached, more in the service of compassion than reason, as the supporters of self-reliance argued without contradiction that all meat and iron-bearing vegetables were nutritiously redundant. The bland and sugary boxed breakfast cereals and other packaged dry foods were, no one disputed, no longer tasteable. As for dairy products, fresh produce and the popular breads, all knew the increasing difficulty, over time, in negotiating with even renegade, unlicensed truckers from the outside to drive in fresh food supplies daily. Even on a weekly basis; even semi-annually, as time went on, as time does. Among town residents, no one needed to leave, to venture out for any reason; no one needed to drive trucks back and forth between the worlds, to supply the redundance of fresh food, which was a waste of time, even in the guise of neighborliness. Here you have a town satisfied with its hard-earned self-sufficiency, all agreed, even the residents of weaker will.
But, to a perceived cruel deprivation of a continuing felt need, the apotheosis of a lifetime's habits, in compromise, when presented in those terms, agreement was reached with the ex-business partner of one of the town's most successful citizens. From the large city 125 miles northward, transported by helicopter in shatter-proof bundles to the virtually unused runway of the town airport (as potholed as the town's roads), twice yearly from the sky in clear daylight weather dropped the clean white sacks of cereal grains. Also the small variety of canned vegetables. Something deep green, anything green, for those who still existentially craved this one variety of color. Spinach, okra.
What the market shelves did contain, items increasingly in demand for some time, were disposable paper products. Paper plates, paper napkins and tablecloths, rolls of paper towels. One complete aisle on both sides held dozen-packs of paper clothing, the square tissuey paper gowns with open backs and arm slits worn by naked patients in doctors' examining rooms. These had been obtained under certain conditions from a medical supply warehouse across the border southward in a foreign country. Initially, all paper products were trucked over this exotic international border and deposited in the red rock and rattlesnake-infested southern outskirts of the town. This, in sinister predawn hours of the imagination, among whispering and spitting negotiations in two languages of fair price, payoffs, risks and future orders.
The town council had felt demeaned by such negotiations, especially over paper products. Always they had defined themselves as bearers of civilization, while seeing their southern neighbors as genetic bandits. As it happened, the exchange of need and greed across this border had usually been in the other direction; but only the bandits held this view. The men of the town overwhelmingly preferred to deal with their own kind, but their own kind, still affecting official fear and/or horror, would not deal with them; yet. Need is need, as paper is paper. Twice monthly, with the town fund established for this purpose, five rotating volunteers bought on the 3 a.m. deserted border dozens of large cases of paper towels and napkins and tablecloths from the foreigners. Never did they notice that the foreigners were also embarrassed by this scenario, trained as they were to deal in the more manly contraband, drugs and submachineguns; nor that the bitterly large bundles of green paper given the foreign bandits in trade for all the white paper were, in the bandits' minds, a fair exchange for what they perceived as risking their necks in the presence of vampires.
Strange, a town thought never to change, or to change too slowly for verification. Women with lives invested in hierarchies of china, who set out elaborate Sunday dinnertables of gold-rimmed china and heirloom embroidered linen napkins on linen tablecloths, whether guests were dining or not; even for the silent eating of two people. Women who could not dream of using paperplates even in the backyard in summer, because they were flimsy and lazy, and men who would not dream of eating from them, who could in the recent past easily hurl them against the wall, piled full of food, and demand respect. Three sets of dinnerware per household, this was the standard: the painted gold-rim china for holidays and guests, the plain gold-rim for Sunday afternoon dinners, very good stone- ware for weekday and Saturday meals. Women whose households could not afford to meet this standard could at least uphold the ideal by envying it, and seeking good imitations.
This was a way of life. It did not change abruptly. But, staining the lovely cups, saucers, plates, gravy bowls, china ladles; then, washing those stained dishes in the same stain, whether in the raw hemorrhage of the kitchen sink, or in the surgical racks of the automatic dishwasher which were hidden away, but there. The truth was, it would not wash off; something red and sticky always remained on the spoons, terrible rusty stains spread over the table linen. Beginning with paper plates, then paper napkins, paper tablecloths, the beings of the town did not succumb to any personal self-indulgence or modern trend; they succumbed to their own character which, whether public or private, was rational. Rational beings could see clearly that disposable paper eating products were the only rational solution; no room for nostalgia.
Beginning with paper plates, then, the town gradually but eventually changed over many of its proud daily habits in the name of practicality. But not strange, such changes, fundamentally. They were deep in this town's unchanging tradition of recognizing necessity, and being up to it. The transition from china and linen to paper plates and paper napkins was a sane response to a central felt need of the entire community, for disposability. It was not custom they wanted to dispose of, all knew, but a problem that could not be disposed of customarily. The evolution to paper plates truly maintained the town's tradition of remaining the same while adapting, with no tears. When a few households after visits to the abandoned local hospital appeared at their dinner tables wearing the tissuey examination gowns, retrieved as a stroke of ingenuity from the medical supply cupboards that had been left, very quickly, and almost full, no one raised an eyebrow. These paper examination gowns would never replace streetwear or household clothing; they were short, thin and immodest. But as a kind of all-over white bib worn at the dining table, they were sanitary and helpful. With arrangements made, under certain conditions, with the medical supply warehouse over the southern border, the paper gowns became an item of daily use in the town. They were obtained, without much risk, just over the border in stipulated darkness via an exchange of large semi-sterilized plastic transfusion bottles, much in need in the foreign country, and quite full.
Thus, for once, need met need in the continuous bookkeeping of the night.
On one old habit, however, every household in town agreed: all refused to concede to plastic eating utensils, plastic forks, plastic spoons, plastic knives. In no way. On every kitchen and diningroom table in every home the traditional family silver continued to be laid out. In some cases, the floral pattern for holidays, Sundays and guests, and the plain pattern for daily use. The silverware, unlike the dishware and linen, could be rubbed clean with good silverpolish; it was extra work, but worth it. The lingering tang of iron was incidental. Actually, only spoons were really used, dinner and soup spoons and silver labels; but the full silver setting was laid out, proudly, with each meal. It was a way of honoring one's history in the ongoing floodtide of events; and plastic spoons were impossible.
The toilets, also; the bathroom sinks. The automatic washing machine on the back porch. They all took some adjustment, some time. As the president of the town council remarked in private, no one ever said life was easy. There was always that gush of red fluid in the bathroom sink, that fountain of red in the once immaculate white toilet bowl. And of course the red streak on the toilet paper. The men of the town, and the many post-menopausal women, needed a serious period of adjustment to the new fact that they were forever going to appear, in the bathroom, to be having menstrual periods. But they did adjust; in all the bathrooms, in silence, in privacy, where such things have always been adjusted.
As for the washing machines, the whole problem of clothing and laundry, it was quickly found by each woman that every material, no matter what color, when washed in a mixture of 2/3 fluid with 1/3 dry bleach, two spin rinses (cold water wash), emerged a kind of irregular greenish tan, reminiscent of camouflaged combat uniforms. This seemed spartan at first, but became normal.
Normal, in fact, is what everything becomes, when beings strive simply to make it so. Some world news reports about this town, when it first became known, described its residents as "amazing." Not so. Not amazing at all, how each being adjusted in private, in personal silence, without benefit of public discussion or state instruction, or liberal psychotherapy or college extension courses. These beings, of this town, were of solid stock, with generations stretching behind them, with a history and long habit of practicing the rational art of private, silent adjustment to Anything.
So, this was the life of this town, the daily life of its beings. And what of the source of this life? What of the source of any life.
One road leading from town, unlike the other roads seemingly going nowhere, heads northwest for 2 miles through rolling hills to the Excavation Site. This stretch of two-lane road through arterially red hills is devoid of vegetation; one could say the large, sticky clumps strewn around the land's surface were a typical flora of such hills, if flora was understood almost poetically. Under torrential rains, these huge clots break up, dissolve, incarnadine the floodwaters pouring through the gulleys; in storm winds they shake and quiver; under the sun, they shine, congeal on the surface, crack open as scabs on wounds to reveal the viscous pulsing within. As some dissolve, others appear; indeed as flowers, or clots in veins, something organically growing. Apart from these, no brush or cacti, no dark or even pale green thing. The thin gray road moves up and down through hills of blood, that is all.
An unbearably monotonous landscape, that is, were it never to end. But it does. A slow curve around one large hill brings the road to its destination. There, suddenly, signs of enterprise: a corrugated aluminum shack, two parked trucks, lengths of rusted pipe and long rot-eaten timbers stacked in measured heaps against a chain-link fence. And this fence, stretching out in both directions in an enormous circle, a metalloid embrace, surround the vast hole of the Excavation Site; the Pit, as it is called by local dwellers. One must park the car and walk to the fence, look through it, to view the hole's extent and depth. And color; the almost indescribable color and texture of the insides of the Pit.
From the top rim downward, sheer cascades of colors: mauve, gold, rust, purple, pink, silver, blue, incandescent turquoise. Streaks of orange, streaks of fire, yellow streaks of toxic arsenic. Radioactive greens of lime and fungus. Each color spilled over the others, in corroded terraced levels, channeled by erosion, avalanched by rain, crusted, broken open, merged; each geologic texture, as though alive, crawling over the variegated lumps and rubble of the earthly flesh that came before. And over this, the solid spills of individual rocks, orthorhombic crystals, dredging gears, rusted-out elbows, coils of wire, buttons, nails, hair curlers, stray lead bullets, all runneling, flowing in geological slow motion one over another down to the center of the hole. Deep, deep down. The entire technological history of the Pit was thus laid bare to any observer, in concentric layer after layer, vast polychronic slide upon slide, sloping down from the first simple surface diggings, by hand and stick, of the precivilized beings, immemorial years ago, downward through sediments of beauty, sediments of grief, sediments of nothing very important or useful, sediments of historical overthrow, one solid layer of crushed bones; and then further down the notable sediments of great wealth and petrochemical power, sediments of capital gains, sediments of wrapping paper, one solid sedimentary level each of glass, electrical conducting alloy, and stockpiled war materiel.
As the Pit funneled to its center, narrowing, deep, full sunlight only briefly touched those levels and they remained to most viewers a mosaic of bluish shadow; a metal sign attached to the chain-link fence diagrammed these most-recently uncovered sediments and listed their mined contents. Some of which were quite famous. But then the raw earth funnel stopped, became a pool of liquid. A pool of dense, oblique color, sometimes dark red, brown, almost black, it changed with the movement of shadows; or, in the glare of a full sun directly overhead, it blazed thick fiery red, and then like a mirror threw back light. That was all. It was very difficult to get a cool, unshadowed, unglazed view of the actual blood-red color and viscosity of the fluid, and the aerial photographers who attempted flyovers of the pit's pool in search of popular postcard shots had all been disappointed in their attempts. Most had settled for afternoon slants which were romantic, but murky.
The color of this pool had changed with the uncovering and mining of each successive level; with sulfur, long ago, it was yellow, and earlier with azurite it was radiant blue, and of course much shallower. The pool's fluid had been all possible geologic colors, and from some levels intense or muddy mixtures of colors. When, from the previously saturated black ore sediments, printer's ink was extracted, the pool had become an icon of Total Ink; an utter, hard-edged blackness that seemed no pool at all, no thing but a gaping hole into an underworld, where Nothingness was buried. But then that strata also was sponged and suctioned out, piped clean of its ink, and the present color had flooded in. Or, in reality's slow motion, the pool had been pure ink, then ink admixtured with blood, then almost all blood, then pure blood; an organic-technological process. Some people claimed they could smell it, the ink, the blood, that is, and the change from one to the other; but this claim was open to dispute. Such things are hard to distinguish, at deep levels; the Pit is wide, the pool is very far down. One things only is known, that almost continuously small rocks, bullets, ball bearings, curlers, solid strewn crystals, etc., are dislodging, eroding, meandering, rolling, rolling down the ruined terraced slopes into the ambiguous pool at the center, to disappear in its deep well. This has been going on for decades. But the pool continues unblocked, unplugged; nothing fills it up. It is apparently "bottomless," that is, deeper than all past imagination.
No living person knows when the open pit digging began. At one time a thriving Mine Museum was located on the two-lane road, among rolling hills (then simply coarse red dirt splotched with green bushes), halfway between town and the Excavation Site. Lively small-scale models of the various mining methods used throughout the years were on display, and glass cases containing historic mining tools, unusual safety equipment, ore samples and examples of all the other products that had been dug out; charts and diagrams on the walls showed where each mined object came from, along the levels of the Pit, and where it went, into the world, after appropriate processing, packaging, marketing. Historic display cases dramatized the first civilized beings arriving in the region, in wagons and on horseback; they found the indigenous naked creatures squatting in the dirt, digging up small geological objects with bare hands and pointed sticks. Thus the Pit's origin, in what was then only a slight depression of the earth, a sandy little dip. The objects sought by the natives were simple gem stones, turquoise, azurite, malachite, roughly polished and used ornamentally. In the childlike mental grasp of these early beings there was no concept of serious mining, a factor which helped account for their elimination.
With settlement, mining began in earnest at the present site. Men came from everywhere, attracted by the adventure. As several posters in the Mine Museum put it, the town grew with the expansion of "the Pit," and the Pit grew as an expression of the town's spirit. It grew, as all know, into the largest intentional hole on the earth's surface. Innovators, in the early years, introduced various subterranean approaches to the extraction of ores from the earth, but the straightforward digging of a hole, deeper and deeper into the ground, always seemed the most expeditious method for this terrain. Several hundred males, equipped with picks and shovels, simply began digging; as the hole grew, timbers were used to shore up the higher levels of dirt, and these shorings congealed into a circumference of terraces. Later, tracks were built, for rail cars, and mules brought in to haul them; deeper down, around and around; the workforce grew from a few hundred to thousands. When ground water seeped into the working levels, as it did more often at greater depths, giant sponges were brought in to soak up the intruding fluids. When water flooded in, violently, without warning, drowning hundreds of workers, and burying hundreds more beneath tons of collapsed earth, the sponges were hooked up behind the mule-drawn rail cars and dragged down and around the wet circumference, gradually soaking up the waters. The sponges were periodically wrung out by giant rollers (similar to old-fashioned washing machine wringers), into the rail cars, and the water hauled by more patient mules around and upward to the dry surface; the method was a simple as it was efficient. Drowned bodies were usually soaked up also, lodging in the sponge holes, and removed by the same process; if not, the bones were extracted by shovels from dried sediments at a later date. At great depths, the sponges were working constantly, and pipe systems were eventually installed to transport the fluids, which at some point became quite valuable.
The first substances mined were ordinary gold and silver. These were found in veins of upthrust quartz, just below the surface, where the naked creatures had scratched and clawed their savage jewelry from loose dirt. Soon, large globs of copper appeared, and as the gold and silver deposits dwindled, the copper became abundant; by the turn of the century, this Pit was known as the world's largest, most lucrative copper mine, a model of productivity. Death tolls for workers drowned, crushed or suffocated ranged between 1,582 and 1,826 (the discrepancy involved accurate bone- counting), but fortunes made by the legendary few during this period were specific tallies of personal enterprise. (A glass case in the Museum contained mementos of the Copper Boom: silk top hats, gold and ruby or emerald lorgnettes and imported Chinese fans worn by the mine owners and their spouses to the Opera House, located in a fabulous city 850 miles to the northwest. Facsimiles of steamer tickets, also, representing their many romantic ocean voyages. A diamond-studded dog collar worn by one of their poodles when taken out by a chauffeur for short walks along the fabulous boardwalk of a renounced city 2,050 miles to the northeast. And so forth.) It was an extraordinary time. The town's main street was developed, with board sidewalks, several taverns, two hotels that served as brothels, assay office, mercantile store, even a branch bank; mine foremen built respectable two-story houses all in a row. Apart from the local railcar line transporting dirt from the mine to the tailings pile, a small freight railway connected the town with a large city 200 miles eastward; loose shacks inhabited by workers clustered along this track, and those who did not drown, become crushed or suffocate frequently got drunk. The copper lasted about 24 years.
When it ran out, the town waited in a hopefully apprehensive mood for the appearance of the next native element. Geologists hired to fabricate evidence of diamond pipes at a subsequent depth predicted, with the nodding mine owners, that this announcement would provoke a good two weeks of mass voluntary digging. Two weeks passed, three weeks, with shovels flying and several tragic cave-ins; four weeks, five weeks. Workers were digging up nothing but dirt, and each other's bones. Stocks plummeted, one brothel and the branch bank closed, and the mine owners could not be reached for comment as the once vast working force of thousands dwindled to a skeleton crew of 123. After nine weeks of unproductive, unpaid loyal digging, 22 miners remained in a town that had become a ghost town, brothelless, with tumbleweed and loose dust from a very large hole blowing down the otherwise unoccupied main street.
In later days those 22 shovellers would be spoken of with awe. Haggard, half-naked, hollow-eyed, they spaced themselves out around this Pit's internal circumference, sometimes knee-deep in mud and odious femurs, and continued digging. Mining was all they knew. They could not believe this great hole had yielded up its final wealth. Sun, rain and dirt pelted them, several shovels fractured and rotted in their hands, so often the whole sky disappeared from their view and the difference between day and night became rudimentary. By now 1,095 feet down in the Pit, they grappled with the literal bowels of the earth. No one counted time, so it became eternal. As beings already condemned to the depths of Hell, unwashed automatons glued to their shovels with gruesome blisters of flesh, so far down they were mere specks forever, they had but one thought: they were on to something. In later estimates they dug for five months and 26 days. And then it struck.
One shovel, then another, then another, all became simultaneously entangled in a sediment of rotting cloth. Throwing the shovels aside, dropping to their knees, they dug and clawed like maniacs with trembling fingers. Out came three solid feet of compressed oily rags, old underwear, dead uniforms, ripped sheets and filthy things like bloody gauze bandages and monogrammed used handkerchiefs. These items were utterly disgusting and useless; yet the 20 crazed miners (two had disappeared) tossed the pussy bandages and foul drawers into the air like holy confetti, moaned, wept, pressed the dung and disease-encrusted uniforms, etc., to their parched lips and kissed, deeply, like icons. Unpleasant, yes; but where such nasty garbage exists, true wealth is not far behind.
All pain and weariness gone, they gathered up the stinking mess into a huge heap to be disposed of later, and continued digging. They dug carefully now, watchfully, often with bare hands, scanning monotonous dirt for any sign of a change in texture, or color. After eight hours the earth became moist, more like oily than watery, and darkened from mud brown to a slick, blackish gray. They dug. No sound of speech was necessary, they had all stopped speaking long ago. One mind told them they were close to something; they dug throughout a pitchy, moonless night into the dawn. As light trickled slowly over the Pit's horizon, far above, one digger straightened up, sighed, and pushed his shovel heavily into the dirt. The sound returned was not the dull sigh of earth, but a clink of metal.
In a cold sweat, on his knees, he cleared away the oily mud with both hands. With one delicate forefinger he created a dark little hole in the dark oily earth. One moment, two moments; the eternal pause of great moments. Then out it poured: a pure stream of gears. The flow of gears was steady, shining, perfect; as the earth loosened, larger gears poured out. The flow thickened, piled up, cascaded; four of the miners were drowned, crushed, suffocated by gears before they could clamber to higher levels of the Pit, escaping on frantic hands and knees.
And thus the great mine was restored to life, and economic productivity. Twenty-two brave if crazed beings had wrestled with the earth's entrails, and emerged (16 of them) covered with glory. Through their berserk labor, the terrestrial innards had revealed, not raw nothingness, but signs of profound civilization. The mine owners, some with changed names, returned from the edge of bankruptcy, announcing that the hole was more than a mine, it was henceforth to be known as a Gear Industry. They took over, as before, the profitable management of everything. Of the 22 original heroic shovellers who had singlemindedly contributed to the acquisition of this great new wealth, thirteen who hadn't been drowned, suffocated or crushed were committed to mental institutions, while three were promoted to foremen. Rapidly they built three two-story respectable houses, all in a row, with inter- esting statuary in their front yards, composed of large cement replicas of gears.
And thus the resurrection of the town. This time it was repopulated without brothels, a solid family town, appealing not to wild, irregular bachelor miners but to steady, hopelessly entrenched moral beings. The type of beings from whom, hence- forward, the town's peculiar character and style were to grow. Not glamorous as gold, silver or copper, the gear was infinitely more necessary; and the more gears poured from the Pit, the more were necessary uses invented for them. Highways, automobiles and weapons factories, airplanes and wars were mysteriously breaking out all over the globe; these industries demanded gears, as gears demanded them. It was with gear production that the town's first real money was made, not exported entirely to an absentee owner class, but put in the bank accounts of town residents themselves; those smart few beings, that is, of the new middle -management echelon who were simply clever enough to devise cheap, efficient methods of boxing and distributing gears to all corners of the earth now clamoring for gears. Government contracts poured in also; the town prospered patriotically. In addition to the post office flag, which was mandatory, the Town Council appropriated money to erect two very tall flagpoles at both ends of the main street, coming and going. The proudest flag flew, of course, at the entrance to the Gear Pit; and, because some of the new boxing methods did require workers to risk being drowned, crushed or suffocated by the outpouring of gears as, e.g., they crouched on moving assembly belts holding open large cartons while slowly circling 2 feet below the Pit's lower circumference of newly dug horizontal holes in the oily embankments trying to effectively capture the thundering fresh streams of gears flowing from the earth at precisely 1,598 gears a minute (755 to a box), there was also a bronze plaque embedded in cement at the base of the pit's flagpole commemorating all those who gave their lives unthinkingly in the production of gears for the National Defense.
(One Mine Museum wall had been filled with charts, graphs and photos describing the critical historic role played by the production of billions and billions of gears in the development of 20th century mass warfare; and it was considerable. But the gear had its pacific, whimsical and even attractive uses. A glass case displayed gear ashtrays, gear paperweights, a lamp base made entirely of gears; a complete jewelry set of gear signet ring, gear tie-clasp, gear cufflinks and gear belt buckle for males, with a companion set, for the ladies, of gear earrings, brooch, bracelet and necklace. Most impressive was a two-foot high completely gear-constructed dove of peace, carrying in its beak in lieu of olive branch a twist of silver-alloy wire with flowery clusters of assorted gears dangling from either end. All these items were designed, constructed and welded by ordinary Pit workers entirely at their own expense and on their own time; a real show of spirit.)
When the gears ran out, no problem. The legendary gear was followed in quick succession by equally enormous outpourings of nails, ballbearings, screws, the aforementioned lead bullets, and office paper clips. Car windshields and batteries alternated with hand grenades and gas masks. At one point cigarette lighters flowed out at the rate of 1,523 per minute in precise alternation with 1,523 cans of lighter fluid; this was troublesome when they ignited each other (due to worker error) and the entire level erupted in a blazing inferno of metallic flames reaching almost to the Pit's rim. It burned for three nights and three days. Untold numbers of workers were lost, along with the tragic destruction of 8,632,948 cans of lighter fluid and 8,632,948 cigarette lighters.
When the smoke cleared, the pit revealed walls of char and molten rivulets; a season's rain was needed to wash down the blackness. A pool of thick, sooty fluid accumulated at the Pit's center, an uneasy, unspongeable pool. A pool that did not sink back into the soil through absorption, or weariness, but had seemingly begun to well up from this deep pore of earth like black sweat, or serum in a wound. This was a difficult time. The fire had sealed over, cauterized the hundreds of thousands of productive little holes from which such great abundance had recently poured. The earth was streaked with hardness, a surface meld of alloys from so many stray bullets, gears, paper clips, cigarette lighters, etc. Newly recruited workteams went down into the Pit to dig, not with delicate forefingers, but with pickaxes and sledgehammers. As they shattered, uprooted, peeled back this fused metalloid carapace from large scarred flanks and thighs of the damaged inner hole, they uncovered raw blotches of more disgusting things: layers upon layers of half-corroded used sanitary napkins, douche bags, enema hoses and syringes, broken, rotten teeth, and the overwhelming stench of something dead. As before, but with increased efficiency, these nauseating items were gathered into large heaps and disposed of immediately. (The death smell of course lingered until the production of aerosol cans.) And then around the edges of these picked scabs, as it were, from around the nocturnal fringes of such terrible scars and unmentionable uses, something new began to ooze. A gooey substance, pellucid green in color. Shyly at first, and then with increasing ebullience, it crept and flowed and jiggled over the lower Pit surface, covering over the recent devastation like an innocent vegetation or spring grass. Something about it invited tasting. Several workers vomited at the thought. But then one, then another, then another and another, bent over and dipped a delicate forefinger in the happy green substance overwhelming their rubber boots, now, to the knees; and tasted. And found it good.
It was mid-century. A difficult period had been experienced, But a challenging one. As before, so now, sheer persistence had won through. The same caliber of beings willing to dig through sediments of crusty bandages and foul snot rags in the pursuit of gears, had now managed to pick and wade through sex and a half feet of bloody Qotex and other abominations to reach a pure and lucid exudation of green Gello. Of that tough crew of 94, the fast-moving three who were not drowned and suffocated by it (hardly crushed) were given bonuses. A new era had begun. First the lime gelatin was bottled, then sold in tubes like toothpaste; the outside consultant bred to design a method of drying the gelatin into powder before packaging it was, with great success, promoted to vice-president, and a clause was inserted in the new pension plan to help cover certain medical expenses incurred by those workers who might suffer long-term side effects from the extensive radiation they were exposed to during the drying process. The Mine Museum exhibited, not the gelatin dessert itself of course, but two shelves of aluminum molds used by local females in making their renowned Lime Gelatin Supreme. Moods were lifted by the green Gello, and as it oozed steadily from the Pit's steep funnel onto giant cookie sheets held up by teams of gloved and goggled workers for 43 seconds each under huge ultraviolet lamps suspended from enormous booms swung out over the Pit's vast rim, experts stationed in radiation-proof booths watched carefully for signs of an expected change in the gelatin's color, from lime green to strawberry perhaps, or orange or raspberry. This change never came.
Instead, with no warning, at 9:05 on a Monday morning, the hole erupted like a fountain. A department store fountain. From six higher levels of formerly fire-sealed holes, around the entire circumference, hundred of thousands of gallons per minute began to pour in hundreds of thousands of vari-colored streams, for the first time in the Pit's history not successively but simultaneously: red, orange and pink nail polish, pastel hair curlers, wax and varnish remover, 50 shades of shampoo-in hair color, facial creams, and thirteen different exotic perfumes. An incredible sight, a circular niagara of arcing, roaring, multicolored assorted urinations, each mezzanine-like level spouting tens of thousands of streams cascading down through each level of tens of thousands of streams vigorously spouting below; all drilling, roiling, spuming into the frothy pool of lime gelatin heaving and quivering at the bottom. A moment before, the pit had swarmed with 3,587 goggled Gello-driers, fresh from a weekend of rest and relaxation; those few left alive, 45 management personnel observing from the top of the Pit, stood in awe. These were female commodities spouting, like water from a sieve, or blood from a mass execution. A shift to the distaff side had definitely occurred with the appearance of lime gelatin; on the spot, the hole's name was officially changed to The Mercantile Pit, and a whole new approach to feminized packaging and world distribution discussed and diagrammed. The Mine Museum, for the first time in its history, hired two local female beings as guards; one answered cosmetics questions in relation to the glass case exhibits of, e.g., 50 different shades of wash-in shampoo, and the other guided female visitors to the new toilet facility that had just been constructed 60 yards east of the museum for their convenience. There was some debate about removing the gelatin molds from their museum shelves, since despite great filtering efforts management had decided the lime Gello was no longer a profitable item, "due to production problems," as they stated to the press; after three and a half hours of closed-door discussion, the aluminum molds were reclassified as "of minor historical value" and removed to a high, dusty shelf in the rear of the Museum. Following two unsuccessful attempts to separate out thousands of pairs of goggles and plastic gloves from the gelatinous stew (no longer green in color), the deeply contaminated lime Gello was simply siphoned off, dried, pulverized, and sold under a different brand name as "mixed fruit cocktail delight" in the foreign country across the southern border.
And what of the town? A long, luminous mesa comprised its northwestern horizon. A mesa composed of mine tailings, carried by rail from the Excavation Site, heaped levels, lumps and streaks of orange, purple and blue-green superfused with flashes of metal and splintered glass. This mesa glowed uncannily in moonlight, even more so on moonless nights, and no tree or bush grew on it. Up against this magnificent backdrop, as in affirmation of the source of wealth, the homes of the town's richest citizens were built. Five fine two-story mansions with surrounding brick walls and wrought-iron gates on which bronze plaques were affixed saying Beggars and Peddlers Not Welcome.
Descending from this arcanum, block after block of more humble one and two-story abodes, all in a row. Low stone walls, hedges, picket fences, dry little gardens, and very unique lawn décor composed of large-scale cement replicas of paper clips, nail polish bottles, and six-inch mortar shells. Several of the town's long-term citizens had increased their bank accounts by inventing real estate. Straggling along the railroad tracks, block after block of abandoned, collapsing miners' shacks occupying narrow lots were bought up for virtually nothing; refurbished with bright paint, with added garages and back porches, these tiny houses were rented out to ordinary workers in return for very large portions of their wages.
All prospered. Periodically, toxic fumes released by the mine's more exotic products required sudden evacuations of the whole town, followed by mass burials of those failing to run fast enough. At the Excavation Site itself, there were the usual cave-ins, spontaneous explosions, fires, failures of fluid-sponging procedures and so forth, leaving hundreds of workers crippled, amputated, blinded, gassed, charred, drowned, crushed, suffocated or mysteriously missing, with resultant devastation of families. Through it all, the town's honest citizens remained intact and forward- thinking; the unfortunate disappeared; and the rich throve. On the main streets, three more branch banks were instituted, and the daily newspaper gained a reputation for reporting only good news; in its rare absence, columns were filled with historical sketches and local recipes.
When, after more than two decades of reliable production, the town was confronted with the sudden cessation of feminine cosmetic products and furniture wax, a front-page banner headline read simply "New Era Dawns?", followed by six pages of birth, death and wedding announcements, thick-bordered church invitations, and quickly-collected recipes for every type of dessert on earth except gelatin. The men who entered the Pit, masked, rubber-coated and cautious, reported a corresponding black border around each rock, crystalline lump, stray bullet, lipstick tube and aerosal spray can within their purview. Halfway down the terraced slope they experienced an intense blackness seeping from cracks and erosions, welling mutely around their boots; and the pool at the center was no longer nacreous or tessellated by the ambitious mixture of so many oily, astringent and plastoid things. It was pure Ink.
True blackness. As it were, the serum of such news, as white flesh is its paper. A convention of editors meeting synchronously in a large city 225 miles to the northwest was flown in to verify the fluid; after nineteen minutes of deliberation they climbed from the Pit in single file, each with a solid black border around his body, as a residue or solemn halo. They spoke of the unmeasureable contribution of printer's ink to the civilized economy and world political order, to the business of journalism and literary publication not to mention the cartoon industry. Television and newsphoto cameras flashed, capturing the ink aura surrounding these beings; meanwhile the Town Council initiated emergency mop-up operations to deal with the terrific, widening black stain that had begun perhaps as a leak in the Pit's pipes but was now spreading, down the arroyos, into the town's gutters, up through cracks in streets, sidewalks and dusty lawns, seeping, flowing and splotching with the seasons' first hard rains as a kind of journalistic hemorrhage.
Hundreds of thousands of unused perfume bottles were relabeled, filled with black fluid. The increased use of ink in daily life was definitively studied and encouraged. Informational tours into and out of the Pit were conducted for all the world's journalism students and newspaper reporters; as they emerged, outlined in black, they were handed complimentary bottles of ink along with a pamphlet authorized by the town's editor-in-chief extolling the patriotic uses of good news. Plans were underway for a Mine Museum exhibit and symposium documenting the fascinating correlation between news accounts of reality and the absolute non-existence of that reality, when the first hesitant reports began coming in to the effect that the ink was turning red.
In sub rosa, predawn hours mine managers armed with fountain pens entered the Pit. Over a period of several days top- secret codes moved back and forth between the town and centers of government and world trade. There was some mention of a quick promotional campaign advocating the "natural earth tones" of brownish-reddish ink. But by now the pool at the Pit's center was clearly viscid red; when the managers went to test it, their pens clogged, or the words they wrote all looked like death scrawls. And the air was saturated with a thick odor, unlike all others; Dobermans guarding the town's five mansions howled day and night, an incessant whining that became invisible, inaudible as the voice of everything and everyone.
It soaked the rolling hills, pushing gelatinous clots to the surface of coarse dirt. Cracks in the sidewalks filled with red, cement and dust lots permeated with red stains. Red flowing gutters, the flood ditches awash with red. Citizens sprayed driveways and garages with lawn hoses, trying to prevent the disfigurement of cars. But the blood seeped everywhere, and the arroyos surrounding the town were as open veins. The tailings pile began, as it were, to bleed. The five large mansions at its foot, of gray stucco and yellow brick, were perennially streaked and stained with erosions of arsenic, green gelatin, nail polish, or most recently bizarre calligraphies of black ink. Now the mess turned fully sanguine, scarlet rivulets and clots oozed, melted, loosened, flowed down in the rain and heat, and the cultivated gardens were strewn with sticky bright clumps and massive blood puddles. Trees and bushes began to suck up the red fluid from their roots, as did the porous walls of the great houses. Within five days it had entered the town's water supply. A mine manager, sprinkling his front lawn in the summer evening of a dry day, turned his hose on a little garden patch of cacti, oleander and budding agave. The black-flecked water spraying out suddenly turned to rust, clogged, and then with explosive force began pouring a stream of pure blood. With the mental control of an executive he continued spraying plants, a perfect, silent adjustment to this final change, as the red viscosity covered his lawn and garden, his gray pants and canvas shoes, with spatters, globs and blotches of an irrepressible bloody dew.
For his next-door neighbor, the event marked the beginning of a fascinating hobby: a study of the growth effects of spilled blood on local desert vegetation. He recorded the quick disappearance of all known varieties of flowers, and gave his name to a pale green sword-like plant springing up everywhere from the dead flora. Most of all, he declared the problem of chlorosis, or yellow- leaf plant anemia, had with this new diet disappeared from the town forever.
Doctors and nurses also disappeared; with the appearance of blood in the water pipes, the entire small hospital staff fled, citing a conflict of interest. With great regret, the Town Council was forced to close the Mine Museum. The few visitors who did come, after the news got out, were reluctant to park their cars and then walk 25 yards through sticky, scarlet clots to the Museum entrance. In high winds the clots moved, like tumbleweeds of blood. A bridge was built, to accommodate these tourists; but the gluey blobs continued to mass and ooze on the threshold and pile up against the Museum windows. Beings not used to it found this offensive. With the cessation of the tourist trade, the town's residents also realized the market shelves had grown quite bare; no food had been delivered for weeks. At this point the Town Council voted to become officially self-sufficient. Indeed, with blood flowing freely through all the town's plumbing, from home faucets, from drinking fountains in banks and gas stations and even the dusty park, most beings had become quite satisfied with this diet. They had simply, without fuss, grown used to it. And for those who still craved grains and green beans, those accommodations were made.
Some worried about the town's isolation. Incoming roads were silent, mail to and from the outside world ceased. Rarely, a small private airplane flew over in late afternoon, attempting colored postcard shots of the Pit; but these were sensationalists, who never landed, who were not interested in the ordinary, daily life of the town. In a lonely show of spirit, the postmaster and two postal workers devised a combination stamp and postmark for the local mail. Using sponges soaked in blood from the bathroom tap, they dipped and affixed their bloody thumbprints to the top righthand corner of every envelope dropped through their slots. Unfortunately, town residents had little to say to each other, by mail or otherwise; the post office closed. Eventually the postal workers were reemployed as trash burners at the dumpsite east of town. They now shovel great white and red heaps of paper products into the flames, blood-saturated napkins, table- cloths and medical gowns that smoulder and crackle thickly throughout the night, releasing a stench similar to burning corpse flesh; which, of course, everyone has grown used to.
As for a larger world, its expressions of horror, shock, outrage, etc., since the blood was first struck, five years ago, a well of gore seemingly with no cease or bottom; it was predictable. Town residents recalled similar reactions to the first unearthing of gears; even more so to the dramatic eruptions of perfume and plastic hair curlers. Rational memory tells them that in time all had come around; as, in time, all does. Emissaries from the barbaric nations, habitually torn by hunger and war, would in time arrive at the town's southern border clandestinely to negotiate for large, full transfusion bottles. Civilized governments such as their own would dispatch teams of well-armed technical engineers to gather further information on the region's geology; they would want to know how similar subterranean bloodpits could be uncovered, or indeed constructed, in other parts of the globe. For several unimaginable uses. It might take ten years, more or less, for worldly recognition; the town was equipped to wait. (Meanwhile, one shy but reliable signal of a return to the ordinary had already occurred. International agents from the world's largest paper products manufacturing corporation, approaching Town Council members via aliases after midnight on the privacy of the southern border, had tentatively offered one year's free supply of paper napkins, tablecloths, towels, toilet tissue rolls and medical gowns in exchange for the town's exclusive endorsement. This arrangement fell through only because the paper company was adamantly promoting a line of modern, color-coordinated deep pastel pinks, aquas, lilacs and orange-rust shades upon which clots and bloodstains looked more than necessarily garish.
But, the breakthrough occurred. The town awaits an offer of white products.)
From its experience, the town has learned something profound about the nature of its own will, as of the mysterious hidden resources of the Earth. Deeper and deeper, as it had descended into the dark downward and abysm not solely of time but of its own evolution, what it had dug with its historic fingers from this soiled Hole, so to speak, was an implacable knowledge others could profit from, if others would: That the inexorable becomes the simply inextricable, and thus the normal; and vice versa. If only beings strive to make it so. The question of whose blood is never raised. Nor, if the hole extends through the globe to China, could it be Communist blood? Intellectual quibbling is extraneous to the town's experience of itself.
Some beings from the outside have called the pit a Living Wound, citing the bloodflow as a strong proof. But morbid and negative metaphors do not make the world turn; as gears do, for example, or ball bearings. Or as now, the mining of blood.
Beings are very pale here, as befits their genetic heritage. In other places, they will point out -- Africa, Asia, Latin America -- people have good color. But they die like flies. Here, though pale and elderly, the lifespan seems to be lengthening. On a diet of pure blood, no one is immortal, but also no one has died. One household became very ill but that was attributed to an overindulgence of canned spinach, which is toxic.
The predictably few visitors to the town must of course eat the local fare. Any tourists trying surreptitiously to gather up the limited cans of dark green vegetables is given bad looks; the grocery clerk spurns their money and returns the cans to the shelves. The town feels it has no place for types who come to gawk, or Write magazine articles; anyone who sincerely wants to know this town, they argue, must eat what this town eats. And then make comments, or be silent.
As this town is not strange, but silent.
A metabolic silence. Reptiles on rocks in sunlight, the flat red angles of heat surrounding them. Or the empty roads lolling towards town in silent thirst, like long black tongues among the red hills. Or, sitting on front porches in the evening cool, following a violent thunderstorm, as the sky and trees are washed and clear of dust accumulation, listening to silence and the river of blood rushing through the deep cement drainage veins along one side of the street; under the bridges, through the town's sticky gutters and sewage pipes into the burning red arroyos. Or, sponging up the remains of a small backyard dinner, a Sunday picnic among friends; the patio spattered with familiar red spots, the scarlet ice cubes all melted in the paper cups. Taking a bath or shower; spraying cacti with the lawn hose; cleaning the splotched car daily with smuggled jars of silverware polish and several large scouring pads. Or, simply, just standing at the kitchen sink, taking a long refreshing drink from the family faucet.
A metabolism of silent satisfaction, that is, for the simple, earned pleasures of life. Those who run from it deny a personal and private, yet common adjustment, that could be shared by all.
Behind the town, the bloody mesa of mine tailings glows fixedly in darkness. In daylight, it seeps and pulsates, seemingly a living thing, streaked with thousands of rivulets of red fluid clogged with shining thrombi. Beyond it, the Pit, with its bottomless well of blood. Staunchless, silent blood, i.e., which seems to be always flowing, visibly and subterraneanly, towards all horizons. As the town consumes the blood, silently, and silently recycles it, returning towards these horizons its mute and sanguinary mood: of beings undergoing a harmony of ultimate demand and supply.
Nothing is strange here. It is an ordinary town. A common pulse. A deep mineral resource. A consummation of the obvious.
A way of life.