Olga Zilberbourg

SURVIVORS

A methane explosion sealed a coal mine, killing many and leaving seventeen miners trapped underground. They would be able to survive for six weeks on daily rations of two spoonfuls of canned beef, one biscuit, and vodka. They waited for communication from the surface, but so far none had come. After three weeks, a downward hole opened up just a few steps away from the miners’ shelter. It seemed to be filled with breathable oxygen, accented with a faint fragrance of rosehips. The mad Ivan was the first to say, “What if?” And after another three days of sleeping on the ground striated with smut, he hooked a rope ladder to the edge of the hole and climbed down. “Whee-hoo!” he yelled from some distance below. “Come on down, brothers!” Then the rope went slack and he wasn’t heard from anymore.

Despite Ivan’s silence, a few immediately decided to follow. There were many ways to approach the descent. One came to the hole with knees bent, arms trembling. He crossed himself three times before stepping onto the rope ladder. “For what sins are you punishing me, dear God?” Another said, “To hell with it all,” and dove with his feet forward in the tin-soldier position. Still another gulped down his vodka, lost his balance, and rolled toward the hole like a wheelbarrow. The remaining miners assembled in the corridor, whispering, waiting. “Our problem is that we don’t have a leader,” they said. “Ivan,” they said, “he could’ve been our leader. The crazy bastard.” It was possible, somebody suggested, that the Earth got so shaken up, the rules of gravity had shifted. The hole was in fact the opening from the surface that they had been hoping for. That would explain the oxygen pouring forth from it.

Leaderless, the miners split into two groups. One group decided to go down, and the others would remain in the shelter and wait. Members of the first group wanted to divide supplies, but the others insisted that supplies stay put, a brawl ensued, and a few people were hurled down the hole. The two who fought the hardest plummeted down locked in an embrace. After they disappeared, everyone fell quiet and listened. They caught short bursts of sound that didn’t make sense: some said, like firing of a semi-automatic, others suggested popcorn cooking over fire. One miner said, it was mad Ivan laughing from the deep, but that man was clearly mad himself. They carried him to the hole and sent him flying.

“Break a leg!” somebody yelled.

The man laughed as he fell. There were no thuds, no splashes, no cracks, snaps, bursts, yips or yelps—just silence. In the glow from their headlamps, the minerals in the hole sparkled in all the colors of a rainbow. One by one, the remaining miners returned to their shelter and turned off the lamps.

There were six of them left. They increased their rations of vodka, and took to sitting at the edge of the hole with their feet hanging down. A lovely warm breeze tickled their beards. “Once I spent a week at the sea,” one of them said. “This is better.”

“That’s right,” said another. “No wife, no kids, no bosses, no daily minimums. Rest up, brothers. You know what happens after a miner dies? Three days off, then back underground.”

The remaining six were practical, hard-working men. None of them too brave or too cowardly, none too stubborn or too gullible. They had been miners of second and third generation and hardly knew life outside of mining. These were not particularly religious or superstitious men, although they didn’t mind staying home on Christian holidays and abstained from sex before going underground—sex was bad luck. They didn’t believe in ghosts or vampires or aliens or yetis, there was no one among them who believed in magic, even when a hole filled with oxygen opened up in the deep of a coal mine. These men were used to surviving.

“That Ivan,” one of them said. “He always thought he was better than us.”

“He was a lazy bastard,” said another. “He took the easy way out.”

“Some people are never satisfied with what they’ve got,” said the third.

“Have you heard the one about a miner and his father-in-law? They’re both working same mine, but different shifts, and their wives are home alone—”

These men didn’t jump. And they weren’t rescued. So they’re still there, a kilometer underground, by the magical hole, not speaking much anymore.

Olga Zilberbourg was born in St. Petersburg, Russia and makes her home in San Francisco, CA. Her writing is frequently inspired by news from far reaches of the world. Olga’s second collection of short stories was published in 2010 by St. Petersburg-based Limbus Press. Her English-language writing has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Santa Monica Review, HTMLGiant, Prick of the Spindle, and other print and online publications. Olga is a senior associate editor at Narrative Magazine.