A Gift

The boy paced around the pile of coal.  His skin was nearly as dark as coal and covered in coal dust.  The air was thick with smoke from the many coal fires in the camp—about as many fires as there were families—and a haze of soot filled in the places where the smoke did not reach.  All around, filthy pigs snorted and chuffed, hanging their snouts just inches above the ashen dirt, and mangy dogs—the other source of protein for the miners and their families—lounged on the hard ground and gazed at the hot piles of coal.

He was waiting for his father.  It was four in the afternoon and his father would be returning any moment.  Everyday as far back as the boy could remember he and his father burned coal until long after dark.  His father would take the basket of coal down from his head and dump the coal on the pile and then father and son would do a kind of dance around the pile, lunging in to poke it with their long sticks.  Once the flames rose out of the pile and the heat grew, father and son would make a wider path around the fire and when they dashed in to stoke it they’d turn their faces away from the awful heat.  It would go on for hours, sometimes six, however long it took to burn the coal down into coke, a fuel they would use to cook their dinner and also take to market.  At first his father would be exhausted from his ten hours in the mine, but the fire and—the boy hoped—being with his son would soon invigorate him and it’d be a pleasant time.

So the boy waited, and waited.  It was not unusual for his father to be late and the boy was not worried, only eager.  He prodded the pile of spent coal and circled it.  His mother and three sisters were there too, swaying outside their tent.  Even with the film of soot on their faces and frilled dresses, they were sundara, which is Hindi for beautiful; pulled back out of their faces their black hair was long and thick, and their thin bodies were womanly despite the slenderness.  They wore turquoise dresses and stood there braiding bracelets, except the mother who cradled an infant.

But the boy paid no attention to them.  He looked in the direction from which he expected his father and now he saw a group of men appear out of the haze and smoke.  There were four or five of them and that was unusual because the shifts ended in ten minute intervals and the miners typically straggled into camp one at a time.  The boy rose his hand to greet them, assuming one to be his father, but none returned the gesture or as much as smiled and the boy realized his father was not among them.  He stoked the pile with his stick and looped around it, and ignored the men as they approached his mother.  He thought that if his father did not soon return he must himself find a basket and head to the mine for some spilled chunks of coal.  There must be a fire.  If it was not started soon the coke would not be ready until very late and then his father would get very little rest before his shift started again and tired his father would not be as productive and would need to work late to meet his two-ton quota and then, and then and then.

And then the boy felt something hard and heavy on his shoulder.  He at once flinched away from it and reached up to touch it.  His bony but strong fingers grazed the blunt tip of the pick as it fell from his shoulder and bit into the baked earth.  He turned and looked down at it.  Around the neck of the pick were several of the colorful thread bracelets that his sisters wove.  He looked up the handle to the hand that held it, a hand like his father’s, but not, and his eyes fixed on the hand.  It tilted the pick toward him, and a voice said, “Take it, Bandhu.  It’s yours now.  It’s a gift.”