By Karen Lynn
Deep in the mines, under the Jansen lift, where the miners’ families lived in darkness sat an ashy Peacock. His spun glass feathers stretched above him, and he held his head high. Now and then, if one of the miners forgot–or chose–not to turn off his lamp at the door, the moving light flashed against the Peacock, against his onyx eyes or his sapphire breast, or tickled against his sweeping tail, and that was all. A glimpse. A fragment of a hope.
Then, as if he’d stolen something far more precious than a drop of oil or a ray of light, the miner would smother the lamp, and return to his cot to sleep.
The darkness was absolute, and yet, even the children knew–to a fraction of an inch–where the Peacock stood. When I shone my light around the cavern, I could see where years of tiptoeing feet had worn down a path around the Peacock, so he stood on a raised platform of dirt.
I was there, but I wasn’t one of them. I was raised on the surface, in the countryside. My family owned real Peacocks, and the glass ornament in front of me seemed out of place and strangely idolatrous. The thing was a distraction, and worse, a waste of resources. And however that impossible thing had gotten to the bottom of a mine, I knew it was stolen.
I handed the lantern to my assistant, and considered. The Peacock was a nuisance, of course. It took up space, and time, and lantern oil, but the real question was morale. I would have to judge whether the company would lose more money by removing the Peacock or by leaving it.
I walked the path around the Peacock, and the assistant followed with the lamp. I circled the bird twice… three times, slowly, and stopped.
By then, the children and the wives, and whatever miners were off shift had gathered. They stood in the cavern, and watched. Looked. They looked at the Peacock in full light for the first time in their lives, and I could not be sure they knew I was there.
The dust dulled the Peacock’s surface. I took a cloth out of my pocket, and wiped the glass. Carefully.
I would have left the ornament. It didn’t take much space, and the reverence they had for it was obvious. A beautiful thing in their dismal lives. That was my decision; the Peacock was invaluable for morale. I would not have smashed it.
The cave-in we’re discussing began in some other part of the mine. The sound of breaking timbers and falling rocks was distant. No one considered evacuation. The ground shook a little under foot, but that cavern was still safe. The walls rumbled. In a practical sense, that was all.
The Peacock’s feathers vibrated, just at their tips, in the beginning. Then, the sound grew louder, and the bird shook, from his brass feet to the crown of his head, and the feathers cracked. One by one, they split at the base, broke away from the body, and shattered in the black dirt.
The light from my lantern lit their faces, one by one, and although that cavern was still intact–and would be intact for another day or longer–they were gone. The miners and their women, and the children who had been raised in the mine were dead. Nothing had touched them. They stopped breathing when the Peacock shattered.
Their empty faces tipped up toward the place where the Peacock had been. The only thing left of the bird was two bronze feet in the coal dust. There’s no chance of survivors.
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