It is June now, three months since the mines had spewed me into premature retirement; condemning me to a life within a cleaner prison. The shattered bones, missing fingers and corrupted lungs are constant reminders of the dark’s efforts to leave its mark on all those who ventured beneath. And when each and every one of us in the brotherhood crawled into the darkness carrying only the dying light of a candle and a pickaxe, jagged rocks sliced through each layer of skin until blood oozed out of our wounds.
As always, my right hand, calloused and swollen, smothers the alarm before it has a chance to rouse me. Although today, despite the many years of muscle memory dominating each movement, I pause as I creak myself erect. My daily routine is disturbed by the melancholic thoughts of James’ birthday, an occasion that I know should be filled with joy. But for some time, all I felt was an empty void. James has not been himself lately. Just recently, he asked me for my old travelling packsack and from that moment on, I have been waiting patiently.
I stiffly rise up onto my feet and cautiously move towards the begrimed door post where my right hand had left its oily residue before negotiating the floor of James’ room. I took one last gaze at James, whose uncovered chest is the colour of alabaster, sleeping untroubled by the thoughts of the mine before continuing downstairs. I kneel beside the fireplace to add another shovel of coal to keep the fire burning. But the flames struggle to stay alight against the strength of the morning wind out to sea. I stare out the window and as usual, the tides are slowly receding, and their relentless and confronting power is no longer pounding against the smooth boulders that lie scattered along the shore, instead they dissipate into the calmness of the vast blue ocean. The tides slowly creep up the golden fine sand of the beach and towards the luscious green grass and the morning dew is still sparkling in the radiance of the rising sun. For once, the exposed miner cottages that line the narrow road along the coast did not wait for the men to set out. All that was left was the howling of the wind, weaving in and out of the now deserted cottages, their chimneys no longer producing the thick black smoke that they had so heavily depended on. With the shovel already in my two hands, I add yet another shovel of coal, before lifting myself back up and trudging over to the kitchen.
Grasping the mortar and pestle, I begin to grind the coffee beans finely, just like the coal dust that had infused itself onto my lungs. Whenever James woke up early, he too would join me, but I had always watched him grimace at my pained expression as I waited restlessly for the water to boil. Every day, the strong black liquid bubbles through my system, helping to suppress the urge to cough up the darkness. I have always enjoyed his company in the morning, and now, sitting alone, I wish that he would come down and return my packsack, but at the same time, I know that I wouldn’t be able to accept it if he did. It was the same packsack that I had carried with me around the mainland as I travelled from one mine to another. It reminds me of the brief days that I had been momentarily liberated from the duty of working with my father and despite being still buried deep within the darkness of the mines in Springhill and Scranton, the underground water there was much warmer.
I have been where he now stands at a bend in the road, with one side widening into the booming Canso Causeway and the other winding its way narrowly back up the steep hills. I remember as I was travelling the mainland working in various mines, I received two letters: one from my father and one from my mother. My father spoke about the longevity of the seam gas at home, urging me to return, while my mother spoke about the end of the seam gas at home, urging me to stay away. Subsequently, the narrow and straight dirt road surrounded by the over-reaching branches of the maple trees and the patches of grass bursting through its surface and the overgrowth shrubs had been etched into the back of my hand. Mangled scars had slowly spiralled from the centre of my palm out towards the edges of each finger, as though they were cars slowly crawling along a one-way road towards the edge of a cliff. To this day, I still desire to travel across the Trans-Canada highway and to watch the cars race along the six-lane highway and to see the open prairies and the lush green grass that continued for miles and miles.
By now, my wife joins me downstairs and we begin to hear the rustling of James’ movements upstairs. I stare out the window towards the vast rolling sea, the seagulls above are squawking endlessly as they glide towards the coast. Although among the pure white flock of birds there is one brown seagull, trailing behind, struggling to stay in flight against the ferocious wind. It is only when the flock turned around, racing back towards the horizon, that the brown seagull started to deviate from the others. It is then that I hear James announce, “I think I’ll go away today.”
My wife asks, “Where will you go? To Blind River?”
I frown as she mentions the darkness and attempting to salvage the situation, I say, “Perhaps you could wait awhile. Something might turn up.” But my words lacked any commitment. I know that this place would not survive, and I wish that I had the clarity that he had in his mind now when I was young. The underground water that my father spoke so highly of is no longer coursing through my blood and it no longer wakes me up at night, rather only the strong liquor that I pour into my blood now keeps me content.
We follow him to the gate and watch him depart for the last time. The darkness of his silhouette fills with the radiating beams of the rising easterly sun and slowly diffuses across the open oceans with its pure blue water glimmering in the sunlight and the endless rolling green hills. Now, only the eerily quiet mines whose entrances are scattered with half buried carts and small cottages with their windows encrusted with the grime of a hundred years of labour remain in the darkness.
My creative piece is written through the perspective of the father exploring the effects of returning to the tightknit mining communities and families of Cape Breton in Macleod’s short story, “The Vastness in the Dark”. Reflecting through internal monologues about James’ imminent departure, the story explores the missing moments of the father’s pain and suffering due to his confinement within Cape Breton. Through this, I highlight that although family can bring each other back together, this can also indirectly inflict hardship and can have unexpected consequences. The opening metaphors “the mines had spewed” and “a cleaner prison” highlight the emptiness of retirement as a result of returning and the psychological prison that he is now trapped within. The flames symbolise the dwindling light on a life without any purpose and the diminishing relationship that he has with his family. Moreover, the lyrical description of the landscape (“the tides were slowly receding…rising sun”) stay true to Macleod’s employment of lyrical descriptions, with the “vast blue ocean” symbolising the opportunities and freedom he could have attained if he had stained on the mainland. Like Macleod, I have used the “Trans-Canada highway” and “narrow” roads to represent the paths that were offered to the father. The large and speedy highway being the path of staying on the mainland, while the narrow road being the path to the confinement of Cape Breton. Therefore, when James decides to depart, the father recognises that by deviating from tradition, as represented by the lone “brown seagull” trailing away from the “flock of” seagulls, he has better opportunities on the mainland and thus does not prevent him from leaving. I believe that this piece is suited towards a young, adolescent audience, illustrating the importance of grasping all the opportunities you’re offered so that in the future you won’t have any regrets.