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That damned bird! It may as well have damned me to Hell itself for all the good it did me. Twenty-two years in this hole and sure, I've had some close calls, but never a dead bird. You don't even think about it till it's gone, that little taste of safety that makes everything easier. I reckon I could have gone with the others, gone with the group and sought safety in numbers. But in twenty years alone with my bird and my vein, I had never had a problem I couldn't deal with. So when everyone else turned right towards the A Block, I went left towards the F Block. My own little slice of Hell I liked to call it; that's pretty ironic now. I wonder, do you think it's ironic? But you don't seem much for laughs.
You know, I don't even think the bird was alive when I picked it up this morning. I was nursing a hangover when I came in, nothing unusual, but between that and the pitch black of the early morning I couldn't tell if it was alive or dead. Or maybe it died on the elevator down into this pit. That old rascal Cliff hustled me as we were coming down, asking me somethin’ about how much money I was planning on losing again tonight. Said he made a killin’ off me last night. I suppose he’s right. I went seventy seven dollars in the hole last night. I woke up this morning in the company of an empty bottle, a cup of chew, and not a penny to my name. Well I guess that's what I deserve. That's probably why you're here.
The one thing I still owned, I dropped when Cliff bumped me. I guess he had meant it to be playful, but it seems I just wasn't having it today. So I knocked a tooth out of his flapping mouth with my famous right hook. Took six of the others to pull us away from each other. Just one more reason for you to come for me.
The cage was still on the ground this whole time, so maybe it got kicked, maybe it was pushed around too much, or maybe the canary that called it home was dead long before I even woke up this mornin,’ frozen because I forgot to cover his cage. I guess it don't matter now. Now that you’re here.
It’s funny really, even after all that fightin’ and such, I still just picked up my little cage without so much as a look at the bird inside. Shows what a dammed fool I am. A dammed fool indeed to pick this of all days to split myself off from the group. Any rescue will come down the main shaft and towards the A Block, there’s fifty men in that room mining away at the biggest coal vein in Maryland. There are a dozen more in B Block, half that in C, and here there's just little old me. Ain't nobody comin’ to F Block, nobody but you that is, and Heaven knows you’re not rescue.
I hardly got in an hour’s work before the explosion. Although I suppose that don't matter now. Nothing at all matters after that boom. That's the sound of nightmares there, a sound that shakes you to your soul, that stirs up all the cobwebs deep inside you. I've had real nightmares like this, dreams I mean. Some dammed fool drills into a gas pocket and blows the whole lot of us to Hell. I wish that's what happened; I wouldn't mind that half as much as this. No, I reckon by the volume and direction of the explosion someone in B Block hit a gas pocket. They caved in the south half of the mine including my path back to the main shaft, leaving me to rot in my F Block, my own little slice of Hell. I reckon that's turned the air sour, but I can't tell you how badly because of our little dead friend here. Maybe I'll get off easy and choke to death. That would be a nice way to go, at least comparatively. I don't know, what do you think?
Who am I kidding, what would you know about dying? Death sure, you’re the obvious expert, but that's not the same thing. You probably don't even need to breath, you’ve got nothing to worry about, and I've got nothing but worry.
If the air won't kill me, I'll die of thirst, or maybe your God in his irony will send me a drip of water, so I can live long enough to starve to death. But, I’m afraid, afraid it won't be any of those things. Somethin’ far far worse, somethin’ of nightmares. I can feel it getting warmer; the explosion must have caught the coal vein on fire, so it looks like I'm due for the worst fate of all: a long slow roasting in my black hearted tomb.
Unless… unless you would kill me. Yes please do, why wait right? You must be a busy man. You’re just waiting for me to die anyway. You’re a demon right? Sent to drag me to Hell. You certainly fit the bill, you've got skin blacker than the coal in here. Except your eyes. Those burning red eyes.
Stop looking at me dammit! Just say it, you know what I am! No need to burn a hole into my soul. Just kill me you son of b****! Do it! That's what you came for, get it over with. Don't let me die like this, cooked like a turkey on Thanksgiving. I don't want to end up like that f***ing bird! So just do it, I'm ready. Come on, I can feel the rocks getting hot already, I can't go down like this. I can't. Just do something! Anything! Speak God Damn you!
Or just stop staring at me with those eyes; I can feel them looking into me, burning their way through me.
Well? Did you find anything interesting? Did you see my old man, see him beating my Mom? Or did you only see me hitting Susan? You saw the drinking for sure, maybe you even know how much I've drank. Yeah, I bet you do. You know the exact number, down to the milliliter. So what is it? Because obviously it wasn't enough to burn this out, this thing inside me. This monster that beats his wife, and hits his kid. This thing that curses the world and spits at God fearing men. Or maybe all that liquor’s just been feeding it all this time. More fuel on the fire, is that it?
Oh look, the smoke is coming in now, and look it's come and turned you gray with it. A new gray robe to cover your black heart. But not those eyes, oh no, still more burning to do huh.
Well what more do you want? You’re not my priest, this is no confession. You’re just some monster come to judge a fellow monster. So what do you say of this seventh generation alcoholic, what do you say of me? A man who cheats on his wife, who gambles away his car, his house, and his whole life, till all he’s got is some divorce papers and a bottle of Jin. Who drove his son to drugs and God knows what else. What do you say of a man who was barely fourteen when he shook the dust of his faith off his sandals and opted for a different sort of church. What do you say!?
You see this! This is the only church I've known for years and years. Black, dark, cold, and just waiting to be set a light. A prison of my own making. A prison that has me breaking out in blisters, that's burning me up. I've made my home into a boiler, that's what I've done. So is that enough? Do your eyes see more? Better look quickly because I can hear the walls cracking; it won't be long before this cathedral of mine comes crashing down. Speak! Tell me what I could have done, you ought to know. You stand there, with coal dust raining down around you and yet you wear armor that is perfectly white. No more black, no more gray, only white. So how do you stay so clean, uncorrupted, unburned? I'm burning up in this hole and you've come to what? Watch me? You look more angel than devil now, white armor when it's snowing coal dust. So you must know, you have to tell me, what did I do wrong? What can I do now?
I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I don't want to die like this. I don't want to burn, here… or there. Tell me, please, how can I escape?
“Do not be afraid of this.”
The angel steps forward, it sets down the mighty shield it carries and puts out its hands cupped together. It’s holding ash, the white soot left behind by burned up coal, and resting in that bed of ash, is my canary. Then the angel is gone, and the bird is in my hands, alive and well. It starts singing, a song to lift a broken spirit, to hold up a falling house for just a little while longer. Then, in the briefest of seconds and the longest of eternities, the collapsed section of tunnel is broken down and lights shine in. The lights of rescuers, that have come to save me. To save a man burned, broken, and beaten, but not defeated. And all of this, as the canary sings.