by Almuth Heuner
Translated from the German by MaryTannert
The muffled explosion hadn’t yet died away before the air and the smoke and the heat rolled through the narrow passageways and engulfed the men. Suddenly there was dust everywhere, and screams mingled with the screeching of the coal carts that had jumped the rails when the blast wave struck them. Karl pressed his forearm to his mouth and nose and tried to breathe through the cloth of his jacket when another miner shouted something into his ear.
“What?” Karl shouted back, feeling around. There was a coal face on the right side, but on the left there was nothing.
The other man pulled on his jacket, and Karl let himself be led. There must have been firedamp somewhere behind them. The roof began to creak and grind and the man’s grip on Karl’s arm grew tighter. It must be Willy—his friend and the foreman. Willy knew how to reach fresh air, the shaft, the cage, and then the surface.
Then he thought: Barbara.
* * *
Barbara stood in the laundry room and scrubbed at the stain in Willy’s Sunday-best shirt. Behind her, the washing bubbled in the boiler.
She’d known immediately, that day, as soon as the sirens began to wail. It was no air raid. Everyone in the settlement always knew right away when something bad happened, and in the seconds that followed, she could see her future: She would have to forget Karl. She couldn’t even bury him; he was the only one whose body was never found after the explosion. But even if that hadn’t been the case, there could only be this one decision: If Willy still wanted her, she would take him. And so it was his child that was born Christmas Eve in Recklinghausen’s southernmost district—Hochlarmark. Here they lived as if on an island, surrounded by spoil tips, the Emscher River and the canal, the streets and the railway embankment. The triangular settlement between the two mines was home mostly only to people from the mines. They knew each other. They kept to themselves.
But even then, Barbara knew she wouldn’t love Willy. After she’d told him she’d chosen Karl, Willy hadn’t talked to Karl anymore, at least not outside of work. Not very nice, she thought, and what she heard from the others about Willy . . . Still, he treated her well and didn’t drink up all his wages in the pub. But she never let little Joe out of her sight, and when times were hard, she gave him her own share of the food.
Willy didn’t like that. “He’s got to learn to handle it!” he always said. “I don’t want my son to be a wimp.” And that’s why he always had Joe hold the rabbit when he slaughtered it.
Barbara sighed, and then held her breath. Had Willy heard her? He was working in the cellar room next door. She bent over the washing and went on scrubbing the shirt. It had to be as white as snow.
She didn’t mean to be ungrateful. Willy brought home money, now they had enough to eat, and it was even warm in the big house that—like all the houses in the settlement—looked out over the headframes that were the center of their lives. It was nice that the foreman’s house had more room than the other colliery settlement houses, which were shared by four families, sometimes even with lodgers who slept in the dark, narrow sheds behind the houses where the toilet stood and the rabbits were kept. That Willy hit her too, from time to time, well, that was surely the schnapps, not meanness—and he was no different from other men in this respect. And didn’t he sometimes say she’d kept her figure?
She didn’t let him see that she always gave little Joe something to eat when Willy banished him to the shed, and that she whispered a kind word when she saw Joe, his lips pressed firmly together, trying hard not to cry from pain or exhaustion. And she turned her head away when Willy slowly pulled his belt from his trousers and wrapped one end around his hand. Afterward, she always told Joe he’d been very brave, his father’s son, because she could see that Joe tried as hard as he could to please Willy. Karl had been loyal to Willy, the way miners were, and when it came right down to it, Willy had been loyal to Karl too, even when they’d stopped being friends. She couldn’t tell whether Joe understood her; he was still so small. Sometimes she said so to Willy, but he just looked at her as if he didn’t understand what she was talking about.
Even so, she noticed everything and kept a long, long list in her mind.
* * *
Glück auf! came the miner’s greeting. Glück auf, der Steiger kommt, thought Joe grumpily, remembering the first line of the “Steigerlied,” the old miners’ song about the foreman, the Steiger. And: Of all people, the foreman who’s coming today is my father.
The other miners pushed each other, laughing and cursing, into the cage. Steel struck steel, and the descent began. Joe’s stomach lurched upward. The air was thick and dry and tasted of iron, and Joe licked his lips furtively. He’d been down the mine before, of course, at the beginning of his apprenticeship. They’d all gone down to see what was waiting for them, and later occasionally to see how the new machines worked. But he hadn’t known then that they’d transferred him to precisely the group his father supervised. Today they were supposed to work on-site and get a taste of the life waiting for them down here.
That’s what his father had said.
Four hours later, he could no longer feel his arms, and his shoulders ached from the vibration of the pneumatic hammer that seemed to get heavier by the minute.
During the break, his father had sent him to get a tool. On the way back, he suddenly found himself in the dark and didn’t know which way to go. Both his miner’s lamp and his headlamp had dimmed and then gone out. He could only tell where he was by the noise. The mine pressed in on him on all sides, and for a few frightening moments he couldn’t breathe. Then a miner appeared at the entrance to Joe’s passageway. And when Joe got back to the break area, his father scolded him in front of the others for not having charged his lights correctly.
The other miners avoided him as much as they could. Of course they did: He was the foreman’s son. And his father wasn’t popular among the miners; there was that too.
Joe didn’t really mind doing the jobs everybody else hated, because it meant he spent a lot of time alone, with nobody to bother him, not even his father. Uncomplainingly he shoveled one cubic meter after another of debris and overburden into the carts, sometimes pushing them hundreds of meters to the spot where they could be connected to each other. His tunnel was a dead end; he knew that. But he also knew his father was only trying to toughen him up with jobs like that. Joe understood that. After all, he was his father’s son.
Usually, by the time his shift ended, he was so tired that he wolfed down his dinner at home wordlessly and fell into bed. His mother rarely talked anyway, and kept house as if she were a machine. When she went to Mass, she spent almost all her time on her knees praying to the Madonna. Joe always lit a candle at the shrine of Saint Barbara, the patron saint of the miners, who kept watch over a small altar in the side chapel at the back of St. Michael’s Church. The shrine was spartan and bare, but there were always candles burning there.
After weeks of shoveling, Joe thought he must certainly have dug nearly all the way to the Ewald Colliery over in Herten. It was all dead rock, interspersed only with the remains of broken wooden supports or pieces of bent iron. The walls dripped and the roof over his head seemed anything but secure. The supports in this old longwall were still made of wood, but his father said they’d hold; they had held just fine for years.
One day, Joe discovered a handful of tiny bones in his shovel. He laid them carefully to one side and began to move the rest of the rock by hand. More bones came to light. He called the foreman.
The miners pushed him to one side and Willy told him brusquely to go home. But the news of what he’d found quickly made the rounds in the settlement: Karl’s long-missing remains. That alone was enough to set a lot of people thinking, but the second report spread like wildfire: In Karl’s skull, diagonally across the brow, was a wide crack that couldn’t possibly have come from the big stone slab—the “coffin lid”—that had broken from the roof and fallen on him when the firedamp exploded. No, it was a crack with such smooth edges that it could only have come from an iron tool such as a pick.
“Then somebody must have killed him,” said the neighbor to Barbara. The neighbor had only moved in recently and hadn’t known Karl, but she’d gone to the funeral just like nearly everyone in the settlement. It was a big day for Hochlarmark. There were even television crews there and the minister-president of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. “It’s too bad you weren’t feeling well and had to miss it!”
Barbara pressed her lips together and said nothing.
The next day, Joe quit his job in the mine, moved out, and began an apprenticeship as a house painter.
Copyright © 2020. Black Legacy by Almuth Heuner