Old Man Andrei lit a new candle just before dawn and gripped the cut hem of his wife’s dress and muttered :
Wherefore am I grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
A view from his hovel- the top of a long, icy hill, the outskirts of town, which wound through and past a clearing made for commerce, down to the mine, the tumorous black head of the snake. Andrei lived on the rattler: cutouts from the hill made when more residences were needed, the shack just below him emptied of life months earlier for treason. Around the midsection of the snake road another road bisected its belly that led for the coast, where power emanated. The serpent skewered by outside force and its own negligence. The winter meant that everything was covered in snow, months of snow, that you could not eat lest it roil your stomach – some souls still did. The road piercing the serpent was how all supplies and outsiders made it to the town, the snake now a T with an infinitely long base. It had been years but Andrei knew the road took travelers west to an atoll, and later, a sea. He started his walk to the mine at sunup.
They called him Old Man Andrei for a few reasons. The first being that he was old, clearly, maybe the oldest one there, but civilization had fallen into such disrepair that time’s measurements had fallen by the wayside, broken clock hands in a ditch, days given back up to the sun. His appearance was that of age, clearly, stooped just below the shoulders, long beard, burning, cling-to-life eyes that peeped out beneath bushy eyebrows and was known to frighten unfamiliar passerby. Not a malevolent man, but never smiling. A widower. His wife (most could not recall her name, she perished early since the restart of history) fell to the same plague that affected them all, that affected even that pure snow- a steady cough, surreptitious black and red hiding on the hands, wheezing like Death’s creaky footstep on the floorboard, then He, faster than breath, snatching away the life in the night, no footprints to follow. It never touched Andrei. Or there were rumors that it did, that he was originally blond and all the coal dust turned his hair and beard black, or that he traded his wife to the Devil for his incredible powers of intuition, or that he came up from the earth himself, wasn’t born like a regular man, was found a babe in a seam of iron. The truth was sadder, that Andrei was simply stupefied by twin horrors of his wife’s passing and his closeness to the death of the world, the atomics, and his wife, a forlorn English teacher with a soft twangy way of speech, couldn’t handle the climate. The last reason they called him Old Man Andrei was to separate him from them- he was from the land that had conquered this one, with that gleaming eye, little language left in his head, mumblings and simply an aura and a smell of cold survival, nobility even, he was still a man treading on the earth and not a wretched stone-burrowing creature like so many others. The respect spilled over into fear’s cup, so nobody helped him on his walk up the hill, past the halfway point.
In his ice fishing shack he had a towline and winch which made him a wealthy man. This wealth was hidden from the town in a mile walk south, down the back of the hill that his hovel stood atop, that ached Andrei to the bones. In this contraption he fished and hid his old clothes and his wife’s affects. Andrei was smart, no weakling, he kept these treasures in a waterproof safe he lowered and raised into the lake using the winch and a magnet. Should he ever be discovered his history would die with him. His last source of pride. On occasion he would spend whole Sundays there, just looking out at the expanse. He tried to remember what was beyond that flat platter, that ice horizon. The fish were meager-fleshed but iridescent, sending the eye into rainbow flares, contortions of helical light, sparks of light that could surely be seen from the sky, totally unsafe to eat. Andrei got down on his knees and whispered into the holes, sometimes, in his native tongue, telling his wife that he knew she was there, in so many pieces, becoming the snow itself, starting first with the lungs. Then those particles flew up and mixed with every other one, which he didn’t particularly like the thought of, but he walked carefully through snowdrifts, caught snowflakes, flecks of frozen water on his hoary palm and he knew exactly which ones were her, without any words from either of them. Particles that vibrated a little too hard, that was her. The bombs blew things up quick and blew her up slow… he came with their tide… like floatsam… jetsam? Her name…
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
It speaks to his talent that one day he hauled up a box from the ice that was not his.
Old Man Andrei was a dowser, straight and true. (From this came the allowances he was given – solitary quarters, somewhat less supervision). But work he did. Long brass rod forked at the end, thirty degree angle between the tines, wrapped in a sack. Each morning he took that sack in his hand and walked down the long spine of the road to the other end of the snake. He did not close his eyes during the operation, but opened them overly wide, though they did not seem involved in the process at all, mere twin witnesses to the appendage in his hands – called upon in his account to Heaven – “who here witnessed this witchcraft? I did, LORD,” – debts paid later. Andrei did not know if he believed anything was owed him, but the slender brass did, dodging sinuously another dry vein deep underground. He would never admit to the foreman how little control over the instrument he had, nor did he have the words for such an idea, but touching the metal – touch plus time being warmth – brought a connection that earned him life for a while longer.
Inspections and searches in the tiny colony ramped up – Andrei became vaguely aware, through the fog of the present, that a dignitary was coming from the sea, to see the facilities, the one resource that protected them all, escort the riches back to the coast. Rewarded with life for unlife. Some kind of demonstration. He wasn’t to come, the foreman explained gently; he was vital but fragile, he said, and there would be much excitement, many dangerous foreigners, and no room for methods that did not seem scientific, left unsaid, but it was what they both knew.
It was night. The guards burst in all swagger and blue, piped uniforms, fat brown jolly gingerbread men, bulging flashlights, cattle prods. “Ahhh Mr. Petrol!” That was what they called him. (He passed gas – and was, on a scrap of paper somewhere, Petrovich.) “Mr. Petrol, we are here for our inspection!” Strange elongated high British accents rolled around fat spittle-flecked lips and tan faces, shock troops imported to keep populace in line. Old Man Andrei sat with his back to them in a chair in the corner. This was not his first time. Rifling through drawers, slamming them open and shut for show. Kicking boots around.
“Ooooohhhhhh Mr. Petrol…..” He half-turned to get an electric shock to the ribs, careening toward the corner, legs tucked up under the chair. “Did I TELL you to turn around now? Well, ya can. Now that I told you yew could.”
They gestured to a box – a circled spring, a seesaw machined metal part, a long fluted tube. “Mr. Petrol, what is this?”
The words… they take so long for him to dredge up. “It’s parts for a machine.”
“What kiiiiiinda machine?”
“It’s just a machine. It doesn’t do anything.”
More kicking with black polished heels. More idle threats. Nothing came of it, the guards themselves knowing the consequences of overstated pointless harassment, always a darker blue, a darker gold above them, from overseas, ready with the boot. Just the right amount of pain and embarrassment was a fine art. They finished their mess and left the room. One urinated on the doorstep on the way out.
Andrei walked back one part of the machine from the lake a week, stomach growling from the weight. Food was linked to work and difficult to store at homes- not difficult with preservation or cooking, the cold or fuel took care of that- but the rationing made men’s hands claws- talons- and their stomachs sinners. (Andrei was old enough to remember a young man given bread and meat at the work camp, more than the usual, for his wife and new child. Socially it was determined that not all their rations were traveling back- some lost between pickaxe and home. A real mystery, how healthy that young man seemed. Andrei couldn’t remember what they did to him. Someone was nailed to a pine one year but that wasn’t related, the smell, the sap of the pine, the corpse stuck and stank. Or was it the axe? Looking down, dark cherry stains on a patch of path up to a cluster of shacks. It was the miners, certainly. They have their own affairs… He couldn’t recall. Never the guards. Too fat and tan to be bothered with something like that. What was his name, however he perished? She would know. What was her name?)
Gently the third leg would lift in front of him, gliding up and down- witnesses described the instrument as lighter than air, and subtly influenced by subterranean breezes, they said- the thick wet walls themselves breathing on the rod, whispering, turning this way and that in the turbulence. Otherworldly gleam, even in the dark. Nobody could remember where the instrument came from- Andrei forever had it- a slow shooting star in the dark night of the cave. More than once Andrei would indicate that the target was behind a wall, down some too-narrow passageway (he could not crawl or lie down easily) and the pickaxes and explosives were resummoned. Finally a triple tip, tap, tip would come against the rock. And always behind sharp shale – coal. Black gold, what kept this colony alive, black against the eternal white snow, half water half ash, still blowing in from the east.
The day of the visit. A four-car convoy reached the belly of the snake and the first one turned left, toward the mine. Andrei looked through his open window. Guilt – guilt an indicator of fault, the flower to the fruit of the fault, those visitors that left him behind here, that took his one blessing away. He looked through a lens. The assembly of the machine was over, and was given purpose by this ritual, the gun-making that twinkled out of his past like a gem he’d seen once deep underground. In the crate he found in the lake a wrinkled white note said
We understand that you know the date and time of the appointed visit. There are three rounds included in the package (maximum single clip size). IT IS VITAL that you use the semi-armor-piercing explosive round first, the round with the black tip, to penetrate the windshield enough to allow the following two explosive rounds to enter the vehicle and completely destroy the bodies of the passengers. Nothing less than total destruction is needed to ensure death due to new advances in Eurasian medicine. We also understand that your familiarity with the weapon necessitates no further instructions. Destroy this note immediately. Verso Pollice.
Andrei could not read English. The only words he had left rhymed, he, early-retired Russian gunner, breaching this land clad in lead and black, was the only person in the village to use a firearm. Nearly everything of his fight and his mind was gone. Three rounds, three-point contact. Pushed in with the tide, the salt, white salt, white snow, that made the whites of his eyes that much brighter in response. Spring threaded. Barrel to trunnion. He finished the last of the words he knew peering down the scope of the rifle – trigger pull – he saw spring’s hot bloom…
Sorrow’s springs are the same…
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret I mourn for.
— You can find Will on Twitter.