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.”