Friday, February 09, 2007


Mort Lethe loved mines, the going down deep into the earth where it was dark and often warm. He loved the danger of it, death rubbing alongside with no sound unless it might be the hiss of gas or a distant sudden fall of rock. Many men only tolerated mines because they loved the resulting wealth, the bright metals or the glittering stones. They only worked there in expectation of escaping. But Mort had been going down in mines since he was a boy and there was a kind of perversity in his love of them.
On the one hand he loved the adrenaline rush of danger, the nearness of death in his own miscalculation or from an anomaly of the surrounding rock or a failure of equipment. It aroused him. But on the other hand, when he had gotten into some narrow tunnel of the main mine deep in the earth, so deep that the oxygen of the air was low and the temperature was high, he liked the smothering, slipping-from-consciousness feeling. It increased the risk at the same time that everything became dreamlike, hallucinatory, filled with strange images. In the darkness, his eyes invented shapes and colors that seemed to dance, to taunt him in an almost pornographic way.
Above ground, he was a physical man with muscles developed by his own youth as a miner -- oh, yes, he had put in his years as common labor. The muscles themselves held knowledge. He wasn’t the sort of thinker who could reason, add numbers, analyze market forces. Rather, he did things by impulse, his subconscious mind forming intentions that demanded to be acted out in ways that surprised and frightened the people around him. Sometimes he was a bit startled himself.
His horse, the huge black stallion he had named “Surcease,” was neither surprised nor afraid of him, but rather absorbed the hidden mind of his rider so accurately that Mort rarely had to use the reins or speak to the beast. He hardly pictured something in his mind before the horse had undertaken it with such force and sustainability as to be nearly superhuman. If he had suddenly unfurled wings and flown through the sky, no one would have been surprised.
When Mort began to make money, he used it to equip his horse with the finest saddle and bridle of black leather with silver trim. He entertained himself by making sure the cast silver insets portrayed skulls and swords. The saddle blanket was a soft fleece, blood-red. Both horse and equipment were kept as clean and polished as labor could make them, but not his labor. He always had men under him.
“Surcease” had followed Mort into a mine or two in the early days, before there was a shaft that required miners to be lowered in a mechanical cage, when a person could just walk up to the opening as though it were a natural cave. This gave Mort an idea and later, when the ore had to be brought out on cars that ran on rails, he bred the stallion to large burros to produce strong mules to pull those wagons of broken rock. Born in the mines, they never emerged. After a year or so the mules went blind, but they stayed strong, adapted to being underground, and lasted much longer than any horse or mule that was used to ranging over grasslands.
When he was wealthy enough, he built a huge house in the high mountain town nearest his mines. Imported Italian stone cutters pieced it together of granite found nearby, adding stone stairs and chimneys. The fireplaces burned coal, since even wood would have had to be hauled up there above the treeline. Not many windows penetrated the thick stone walls, but that was better for keeping the rooms warm and Mort liked rooms dark. In winter, when snow piled up, the reflecting white stuff would hurt eyes outdoors and flood through the windows like searchlights. His mother had always worried about her fine furniture being faded by sunlight and made sure that she had thick drapes to pull when necessary. Mort was careful to include in his house both the fine furniture and the drapes. He liked the way they muffled sounds. Underground it was comfortably dark and so his ears had grown supersensitive in compensation. In the house he heard every creak and click.
Thus, he was distressed that the girl in her suite of rooms whimpered. She didn’t scream, as she had at first, but she never stopped whimpering and he could hear the small animal sound through the heavy mahogany doors, inlaid with ebony. It never seemed to stop. He meant her no harm.
He only wanted a mistress for his house, but he couldn’t make her understand. At great expense he sent for an armload of deep red roses, long-stemmed, thorns removed, and took them to her. But it was a mistake. She had screamed at him, thrown them on the carpet, and marched back and forth over them, talking incoherently about natural living things and how these were from a hothouse, trapped and forced. He hadn’t argued. Simply left and sent someone to get the trampled flowers before they stained the carpet.
The next gift was opium. She liked that much better. The whimpering stopped.

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