“The Orient Mine”

In Poetry Issue Nine by Barry Silesky


Smoked oysters, red wine, and Darla's brown skin

open to air in the middle of changing her shirt.

I'm drinking whiskey, playing old songs—

the one about the girl we want, the one

who left. The woman outside watching the fire

she built might not be as pretty, but her white dress

and black hair dance in these mountains. The railroad

strike is over, the harvest is coming north.

All the candidates have a plan; they're waving

hands, taking shots at each other. We won't

make any more no matter who wins, but we love

to keep talking: okay, so that woman's a little

hefty. So this job goes nowhere. We'll build

some tables to work off the price of this room.

Tomorrow we'll hike the trail, climb into

the mine. The election's months away.


From the valley floor you can see the old railbed winding out of the mountain, red piles of iron tailings, caves blasted and left, the back of a hole driven half a century into rock. Snow laces the high peaks. Engine rebuilt, suspension gone, the old truck got us here. And it's easy, walking this trail. A meadowlark song floats over cactus, A hawk glides in blue. Then we start climbing. The path switches back and back, ranges open to the next state, the nothing town shrunk to a mound of toys. One truck inches the highway. A duster fogs acres a few miles south. We splash our faces in a stream on the way, sit in a pile of flowers. There's the sound of machinery, flies, birds, a creek spilling down. A stack of rocks painted red marks another trail straight up. Maybe tomorrow we'll go that way, find the ridge they say it leads to and walk it. Maybe we'll take some horses. But today, we're going into the mine.


Two hundred feet down, open and black, they called it the glory hole. There wasn't any gold, just iron ore, low grade, but the price was high enough, the labor cheap. A damp pool seeps cold up the day. The smell of bat guano's everywhere, sweet in traces, pungent, something to gag on in the wrong breeze before it wanes and shifts. We don't see them, but we're told there are thousands, tiny, all male. They could be ghosts, come from another continent to hang all summer in the same caves, wives left hundreds of miles behind. The way down is a toe hole in rock, another, slide and crumble, grip and stretch, face, flesh against stone. Doug and Sue live here, and they've been down. They say it's amazing. They say there's a waterfall inside, frozen so clear flashlight goes all the way through. They say the climb told Sue she was strong enough to do anything. One at a time, we ease over the edge. Loose rock, red boulders, and one slips over, drops ten, fifteen seconds before we hear it stop. We laugh. We've only come to visit. We go back.


It was the other side of an ocean, tropics no glacier

reached. Before mountain, mammal, oil; before

any of us. We were young. Naked in the garden,

the woman I came with hugged a donkey.

She said it was time to tell secrets. I stole a package

of baseball cards. I want her breast in my hand.

She laughed. We sank in a cold spring, soaked and

stared at peaks across the valley, laced white back

to the Divide, all of it twisting and swelling in our hands.

We came back in winter, sat in the hot pools amid

falling snow. And years after she left, after I did,

she stood by a window, nightshirt drawing her

against starlight, as if waiting. I was another visitor.

I lay on her couch pretending sleep. Someone

brought out a mirror, powder to keep us talking

till dawn. It was another life. Another woman

reached for my hand, drank till she stopped talking.

Someone kissed her. Someone danced alone.

I wanted to go home. How about another

piece of pie? Called once to a podium to receive

applause, nerve stalled. I was strapped to a bed.

It’s past time to leave. She went in the bathroom, and stayed.


Of course there's death. A son gone

to needle and bone, the wild cells' pain

and blank sucking the body slack. And this time,

it's not someone else. A midwinter zero for days,

then it warmed and snowed all night. We needed

groceries, nails, and the hardware store closed

at noon. The driveway was fifty yards long, white

to our knees. She said we'd better shovel the whole

way before we drove ruts so deep we'd have to be

towed. It was five miles to town. I had to get out

and no one came to plow. It was the hostages in Iran, the rescue

mission botched. She said when gas hit a dollar a gallon

she wouldn't drive. We laughed. I was falling in love

with someone else. We were going to double the garden

size in spring, can and stock for the whole next winter, build

a porch along the back, a deck to wrap the other side.

It was going to save us. I can still see her mouth stone

as she walked out the door. When I went after her,

she hit me twice. I threw her into the snow,

gunned the truck, spun and slid and rocked out.


Across the valley, they've been planning a village for years,

and someone's finally begun-- a stone house,

but walls thin, with gaps way too big plugged

with mortar, corners not joined. How will it hold

the roof? He doesn't want to know. Summer days are long.

Today, clouds that come down every afternoon

have barely crept over the north ridge by noon.

Maybe they'll hold off this time. I'll soak in the hot pool,

help cure the brain's damage numbing these fingers.

There are cabins, electricity, people every day

strip off their clothes, dip in. It must work.

An hour later it pours. Past midnight the couple

in the next room stuff a towel under the door, but

we can hear the voices. She's crying. Then walking

the deck outside, head turbaned, a shroud in moonlight.


Or it's freezing rain three days and the wife's out

with that guy again. She swears he's "no threat";

that I'm what she chose. If only I could keep it going

the way I used to, though I tell myself that's just another

cartoon and not what a woman wants. Rub her shoulders,

her feet. There are roses. I know what she wants, and

I can do it. When Tom the cat gets bashed again,

the kids are in stitches. The plastic mums

in the window box look gorgeous from here. Isn't that enough?


Morning in Wyoming mountains, vacation, new love

I could hardly believe-- the lucky accident

we're all crazy about, a horse turning up

a slab of rock with tracks of a whole species

vanished millions of years. The missing piece

comes to hand. "Good fortune, unpredictablity,

contingency. The kingdom lost for want

of a horseshoe nail." The story said it was snowing,

and the geologists' last trip back for the season.

There's always a lesson: don't give up. A stitch

in time. Darkness before light. We don't care

if the story's true. It never is, but we don't

want to know. Then it storms, hails. The children wake.

That morning I wanted coffee so bad I bought a knife.

She found a man to tell her how to turn

the knob, pump the handle with a finger over

the vent hole, light the stove. She made coffee.

I carried the knife all summer, never

used it; for years it's lain at the back of a drawer.

Outside this window, the man slumping down the street

needs a jacket, food, a shave. His torn

flannel shirt is mine. He's looking this way.

The candidates are talking on TV and tonight

we're having a party as if to celebrate.

The front stairs are painted for winter and one coat

looks like enough. The kids started school. It was August

when Wolcott found that shale. They'd been working hard,

they kept on, and they found more. He was

"the world's leading expert"; he knew where to look.


Iron bolts stick from the crumbling concrete of the steam engine foundation in the ghost of the old blacksmith shop. There's a railroad spike caked and rusted orange-brown. A locked gate's over a steel culvert. Cold blows up from another country. It's the other end of the mine. By horse and mule, they hauled up lumber, stone, concrete for blacksmith, steam engine, general store. It was almost a town. Now it's scrap. The gate over the culvert's white and heavy. Today we brought the key, and we're going in. We pull the door open, bend to fit the three-foot square, step against the wind. Dim flashlights, hands braced on metal, we balance and ease down. It's slippery, we can't stand or see the bottom, but we're not alone. Someone calls that it's not far, someone else laughs. It's colder.
At the bottom, the light shows a small pile of rock on one side, damp timbers shoring the tunnel, more floating in water. We pick and balance over rock and timber to stay dry. Then the water's higher. Then there's no place to stand. We'd have to wade to go on. The water's cold. It's dead quiet. We don't know what's on the bottom. The ancient beast that lives here must have stopped the ripples just in time to throw us off; she's eaten the snakes, the rats have fled. The stench chokes us. It isn't a dream; but why are we here? The pool must dry up ahead, or it did once, or there's a fork, a different way. No one remembers exactly, but they say the passage comes out at the Glory Hole where we could have climbed down. Doug says we can get there, but I don't want to wade. Didn't we come for fun? On the right, a timber's wedged across a door and there's more rock fallen at the bottom. It looks like we could squeeze through. We push off the timber, slip through the doorway and step. The ground's solid. It's another tunnel, wide enough for two, for the cars that ran the ore, for something we can't imagine. For her. We pick our way over it, laugh at the joke. There's another pile of rock where something caved to narrow the passage, but we pass by. Then a shaft on the right, running straight up, and Doug climbs a few feet, but can't get further. If this rock fell, we'd never be found.


Unwrap this candy, smell it, taste it. Eat it.

Slowly. Imagine a line from the heel of your shoe

to the toe. Tell me, exactly. Write it down.

Of course Keisha won't stop talking.

Carlo's learned to widen his eyes and ask any question

as if he meant it. Do fish have sex? Do dogs

stink more than cats? Who cares about the subject,

how to make the verb agree. The sentence doesn't end.

The real teacher's pretty and young; she'd rather be

anywhere else. And so she is. Gas gauge

on empty for days, first snow on the way,

of course I remember. I was lucky to have the job.

Lurie Watts outweighed me thirty pounds. Out on bail

she'd come with her friends to see the new school, filled

the doorway: "I'm a woman, you best remember."

It was twenty years ago. So Cornelia pulled out

her cigarettes, picked up my book and walked out,

and the whole seventh grade howled after her.

Not that they wanted me gone, or these do now. Third child

murdered at elementary school. Will they learn

to spell their names, how to make someone listen?

Hundreds of thousands wait to die in Somalia, in Europe.

Winter's coming early. The kids are reaching

for the rotten fruit they've stored, they're getting ready to throw.

Once it was a dream. I'm not sleeping again.

They're laughing, crowding against the door.

What town do we move to this time?


The end of the tunnel is a wall. I can't see it, but Doug called, and I believe him. I could follow, see for myself, but my flashlight's weak; I don't trust it to last the way back as it is. Surely he'll be here again with the others any second. There's no other sound. I pan what light I have, barely further than my body can stretch. There's rock. I want a glass of water, a view of clouds camped against mountain tops. What's he doing at that end I can't see? A woman I knew in Nebraska had a gall bladder that went wrong, cancer, children grown and gone. Two in the morning she got out of bed, went to the basement and shot through her brain. Another date's cancelled for the funeral. A creak the other way socks blood to the throat, breath stalls. I don't want to think.

There was still plenty of ore when the mine quit, but the work was hard. What the miners could get wasn't worth it. Another minute, Doug's back. He says we could search the first tunnel, make the dry ground and find the other end. But I've been here long enough. We turn to walk through the door the way we came, over rocks and timbers to the culvert's bottom, flash the light along the water again. Whatever treasure the beast's guarding is somewhere we can't see. I don't want to look anymore. We start up the corrugated drain, and the going's almost easy. Light grows at the other end. Cold wind builds at our backs.


In fall, the bats fly south, meet the wives

they left. I'm welcome back here any time.

In the winter, I can ski, sit in the pools. That knife

disappeared when the old house was sold; maybe

it's in a trunk in this basement. Maybe I gave it

away, or it's lost for good. I've bought others.

I can search the rest of that mine. In the city,

back again, a woman walks by the window,

tight dress cut low. I don't know the language

the couple at the next table speaks, though

I've heard it often. I lean over. I listen harder.

About the Author

Barry Silesky

Barry Silesky has published four collections of poetry: This Disease (University of Tampa), Greatest Hits (Pudding House), The New Tenants (Eye of the Comet), and One Thing That Can Save Us (Coffee House). He has also authored and published the biographies of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and John Gardner.

Read more work by Barry Silesky .

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