Third Place in the Letter Review Prize for Short Stories
New Fiction by Mark Grant
June 29th, 2023
After wiping the grey earthenware bowl, he ate the sodden bread, licked his fingers, and finished the lopsided beaker of sour beer. He looked across the smoky room at three soldiers, dark cropped heads clustered like leg ends of a tripod, their dice clicking rhythmically on the wooden table. The inn was small, its red walls roughly plastered, the pot painted in white outline above the counter advertising the lamb stew he had just eaten. “If you want a good meal, ask for Belismicus’ place,” an officer at Isca had advised him. But even a small inn had no chance of being lost in the compact civilian settlement. From its door beckoned the peaceful smells of charcoal, herbs, meat, and warm wool. He pondered another beer, then stood up, his stool scraping the floor. The soldiers glanced sideways at him, his tanned face strange in this wan place, and uninterested resumed their game. Outside the drizzle, Jupiter’s joke on mortal life so far north. He flung the hood of his goat hair cloak over his head, adjusted the straps of his creaking backpack, and walked along the gravelled road to the fort. At the guard post the steel carapace of a sentry checked his credentials before a red tunicked soldier escorted him to the headquarters building. On the stone flags their hobnailed boots clattered tinnily.
“Welcome To Luentinum,” a balding officer behind a desk said. He got up to embrace him. The office was cold and damp. “You must be Lucius Claudius Verecundus, the new mining engineer.”
In the whitewashed room allocated to him, Lucius opened the greased leather wallet containing his instructions. The emperor was to tour Britannia, might already have landed at Rutupiae. While the insurgents in the north of the province had been suppressed, the issue over defending the border against terrorist infiltration remained to be sorted. An officer who twitched hands and face over his wine had told Lucius all that in a crowded bar in Londinium. He had fought with the governor Quintus Pompeius Falco in the campaign. Too much stabbing at close quarters, the panicked eyes, the crunch of steel on bone, the warm jets of blood, the foul stench of filleted guts. The drink dulled his night terrors. At best he would be dismissed for drunkenness, at worst he would be executed for neglect of duty. Lucius would look at the mines the following day. The growing dimness made ghosts of his hands, a gutter splashed, the drain in the courtyard gurgled. He lay down on the wooden bunk, the wallet under him, and soon dreamed of Hispania and the heat of the mines at Flavium Muniguense and of being buried alive. He awoke in a sweat. A cock was crowing.
In the latrines a soldier sat down next to him, scratched his armpit, and farted loudly. “Listen to last night’s beans,” a soldier opposite joked as he hitched up his tunic. Lucius cleaned himself carefully and rinsed the sponge. Sometimes the change of climate disturbed the balance of his humours. When he was younger, he had coped better, but now he was in his forties he found travelling more difficult. Cramps, diarrhoea, bleeding. A doctor had given him some red lozenges, to dry his supposedly wet constitution. They tasted of excrement and had no effect.
At the entrance to the mines, he introduced himself to the officer in charge, a saturnine face on a stocky body. They sat in a long wooden building, a plan of the workings on a sheet of leather spread out over the table in front of them. They had discussed the labour shortages, the breakdown of some of the machinery, the problems of raising water from the deep. Lucius sensed hostility, that he was going to be obstructed. “So what exactly,” Decimus asked tersely, “are you here for?”
“To widen a tunnel sufficiently for a someone to walk along it.”
“Over my dead body,” Decimus growled. “Production is down. The last two attempts at finding a lode were failures. I have government quotas to meet. And you want to widen a bloody tunnel.”
“You have quotas, I have orders.”
“I can’t spare you the tools,” Decimus said and got up. “Why don’t you just go back to Spain?”
“Because,” Lucius said quietly and slowly, “the someone I mentioned is important. You could be arrested for obstruction.”
“Threatening me, are you?” Unable to hold the stare, Decimus dropped his eyes. Lucius’ soft manner, thin grey hair, and beaky nose were a quiet mask for a steely resolve. Perhaps he was an imperial agent. “I’ll give you fifteen tools. No more. How long do you need them for?”
“First I’ll look around, then I’ll decide. From my experience at Flavium Muniguense, maybe a month, maybe less.”
Outside the building loomed the scarred mountainside, as if a giant’s fingernails had scraped grooves into its sides. Decimus strode with deliberate ponderousness, splashing Quintus with the puddled mud. Water streamed everywhere. It drove the trip hammer to crush the ore, it slopped into a sluice from the reverse overshot wheel, it poured down from the mountainside to strip away the soil, it ran through channels from which scores of cracked and manacled hands picked out stones. The ground shook with the regular thump of the heavy hammer, the oily air was acrid with burning heather, fire disposing of those fronds too battered to retain the precious sludge. This was Tartarus, Hades, the underworld, everlasting torture with fire and iron to force mother earth to give up her riches. It was what Lucius had trained to do in the army under Eusebius, a Greek engineer who had mined in Cyprus before coming to Hispania. He was a good teacher, patient, knowledgeable, a teller of tales. A fragment of quartz had killed him. Not instantly. The trip hammer had flung it like sling shot into his left eye. They had tried to remove the crystal, but as they did so, mashed brain seeped from the socket. Eusebius had died writhing and shrieking on the bloody ground.
They bent low as they entered a tunnel. Use your nose first, Eusebius had always said, your hands second. Smell the air, smell the rock composition, above all smell the surrounding hazards. Instinctively, Lucius stretched out his hands. Use them like antennae, Eusebius had stressed, be like a snail. He could hear Decimus’s boots scrunching ahead on the chippings. A slight change of air told him that a shaft veered off to the right. Then it was quiet. Decimus was testing him, rubbing him against a touchstone. He stopped, let the darkness heighten his senses, exhaled slowly and gently, focussed his mind on Pluto. “Lord of the underworld, I pray for eyeless sight, wine my offering in return.” Beneath the crystalline dampness, something musky, human sweat, a teasing hint before it fled. He felt the walls, cold, wet, rough. Shale, quartz, the promise of gold. Left, a voice inside him said, go left. The tunnel sloped downwards. A turning on the right smelled dead, an abandoned effort. In front a tiny point of yellow light cast up a wavering shadow of a monstrous head.
“Ah, there you are,” Decimus said sarcastically, “I thought you’d got lost. I had the tools taken out of here last week. Impressive, isn’t it?”
In the tallow flicker Lucius glimpsed a tomblike beehive chamber. Two ladders were lent against the walls. From a teasing hint of heather his nose told him there was another entrance, albeit shorter.
“Very observant,” Decimus said grudgingly. “You’re not fool’s gold.”
They walked, crawled, climbed through tunnels, shafts, domes. In one gallery a massive wheel turned, a slave treading it with the measured thud of his soles, water softly slapping as it was channelled upwards from the depths. In another gallery the clicks of iron picks against the black rocks. Decimus swung his lamp to reveal his endeavour, the light disrupting Lucius’ senses, a transgression of the natural order, what is underground lawful only to remain hidden in darkness. Back in the wooden building, as he crunched on a hunk of twice cooked bread, Lucius ran his finger along the map. “I’ll take that tunnel,” he said to Decimus, “This afternoon is as good as any time to start.”
Of the fifteen slaves, two wheezed and coughed red specks, their bloodshot eyes part of their tragic masks. Tools, Quintus had called them, speaking tools, which might be the legal definition, but Lucius could not see how sickness might foster productivity. He would arrange better rations. Their foot shackles clanked as they shuffled towards the entrance to the chosen tunnel. One hundred feet to be heightened, squared, made walkable. At the end, a massive chamber. On the day of the visit, this would be lit with oil lamps, clean and bright for the emperor. The chiselling started, the tapping iron, the occasional spark, the flaking rocks, the porcine stench of battered bodies. Three guards in chain mail stood still, walked around, looked stony faced. Lucius spoke to one of them, but the conversation dissolved in the damp and the noise and the seeming futility of the exercise. To them Lucius must seem insane, madness insinuated by some god, on a whim or as a punishment. Mining was practical. Remove only as much rock as was needed to reveal the treasure. Skimp the rest. Even wooden props. If the roof collapsed, then a few slaves dead, but no more than the criminals killed in a morning in the arena at Isca for the pleasure of the soldiers.
That evening Lucius sat in the bathhouse with the balding officer he had met when he first arrived. Gaius Senecio Fortunatus, from Lutetia, friendly and unpretentious. He was company when needed, discreet when not, marking off time until he could draw his pension back in Gaul. Lucius noticed how the heat loosened his tongue as much as his skin. The gloom of the hot room lent cover to conversation, rendered it quietly conspiratorial, words floating gently and peaceably in the air. They had talked about their respective crossings to Britannia, Gaius in a heavy swell with groans and sickness, Lucius in glassy calm with a favourable breeze. Gaius inched up closer to Lucius, his breath smelling of the mint and charcoal with which he cleaned his teeth.
“That Decimus,” Gaius whispered, “I’d be careful. He’s an efficient engineer, but ruthless. You’d not want to stand in his way. Things have happened in the past. Incidents, shall we call them? The commander puts them down to accident. I’m not so sure.”
After he had scraped and oiled himself, Lucius went to the mess. Bean and leek stew. Coarse dark army bread. Watered wine. He tipped the dregs of his beaker over the floor. The speckled red spread like thin blood over the cement floor. “To Pluto,” he murmured, “my vow fulfilled.” Why he had been sent he now understood. Decimus would have bridled at such a senseless order. It would have been fulfilled, but the smooth functioning of the mine might have been affected.
Fifteen days. The work was progressing more smoothly than he had hoped. Perhaps the extra rations helped. The stone too was friable. What a waste of labour to be able to stand up in a tunnel, yet perversely elegant, the geometrical neatness almost a palace corridor to receive Persephone when she returned to the underworld for winter. Death and darkness. “Who knows whether the gods will add more tomorrows to our todays.” He must have been twelve. With so many tears had his schoolteacher recited the poem that the emotion had wedged Horatius’ words deep into his mind. When he was not taking measurements, checking the condition of the tunnel, or directing where the wooden props needed to be positioned, he explored more of the mines, noting the scale of the techniques, admiring in particular the bank of reverse overshot wheels, the depth they allowed the shafts to be sunk without the risk of flooding. When he returned to Hispania, he would attempt the same. Sometimes on his wanderings he sensed that he was being watched, tracked, his movements recorded. It was as if he was in the entrails of a giant, the trip hammer its beating heart, its huge eyes following him.
He had estimated a month and he was right. The tunnel was almost finished. Another day or two and he would be able to hoist his backpack and walk to Isca. From there a boat to Abona, then a visit to the lead mines at Iscalis before a boat from the south coast to Hispania. He thought of his favourite bar at Flavium Muniguense, the spicy sausages, the plump olives, his familiar quarters, his old messmate Marcus. Would the emperor ever walk along his tunnel to gaze at the huge chamber in the centre of the mountain, the source of some of his gold, the coins that built his palaces, maintained his armies? The imperial entourage would arrange any visit, the senators and bodyguards and secretaries and household slaves. He was a nobody, a mere mining engineer, a petty organiser behind the grandiose scenes. His woman had died of quartan fever, his one surviving son was serving as an officer on the eastern frontier.
To bid farewell to the mine, he entered the tunnel which led to the water wheels, their rumble a distant titan’s snoring. In his leather wallet he had placed a sketch of the machinery which he had drawn on thin birch slats, together with dimensions, materials, and average rate of uplift. After two hundred feet he stopped, let his heart slow, his senses sharpen. On his left was tunnel he had not noticed before, narrow, so that he had to crouch low. It was in use. A hint of body wafted for a moment, an almost imperceptible spirit from the underworld. Inquisitive, he entered the crude portal and followed his nose. For about fifty feet the floor was flat, then it dropped, gently at first, then steeply. The smell was stronger, perhaps too strong. He suspected now that it was not living flesh. Something, somebody, almost certainly a slave, was slowly putrefying in the darkness. Yet as he felt the surrounds with his palms, all seemed intact, stable. There had not been a rock fall. Decimus was a good engineer. While he could not avoid the sudden collapse of a roof or the caving in of a wall, he had not in his terse conversations mentioned such a problem. Nor had Gaius at their frequent meetings in the bathhouse. As he began to back up the passage, his mind mulling the possibilities, his hobnails slipped on a rock, and he slid, a brittle cascade of small stones pursuing him over a sudden drop. With his left hand he punched through what had once been firm, but which in decay now yielded with a fetid puff. Gravel pinged like hail across his back. Then sepulchral stillness. Into what he leaned was unmistakeable. Something similar he had encountered in Hispania, but Britannia’s chill preserved like a butcher’s sunken storeroom. He should have been more cautious. Eusebius would have castigated him for not using his senses better.
He reached up to the ledge over which he had fallen. He flexed his body. Other than bruising his back, he was intact. The walk to Isca would be sore, but he had not broken anything, twisted anything, sprained anything. With his left foot he found a projecting rock and levered himself back up to the tunnel. His hand stank enough to make him almost vomit, sweet and earthy putridity. For a while he crouched, controlling his breathing, until he had attained a state of equilibrium. The craving for light, the homely yellow of olive oil, he pushed as blasphemous from his mind. He shuffled up the incline, the swish of scrabbling scree underfoot, used his hands to haul himself over the slippery rock, the slight scent of fresher air from the main tunnel lending him energy. Or was he imagining the feeble draft? Because the passage had ended. Blocked. Decimus. An incident. Gaius. Perhaps at the end of the tunnel he had been in the presence of death longer than he thought. Perhaps there had been a branch which, in the shock of the fall, he had missed. The mountain giant had him in its grip, the god Pan was invading his mind. The dream he had on the first night in Luentinum of living burial. The sweat. No cock crow down in the darkness of Hades. Spirits might be unable to escape the underworld, but he was still alive, and he would find a way. Panned gold. Horned Pan. Hot panic. “Eusebius,” he whispered, “Eusebius.” Control. Without control of his mind he became controlled, a slave to fears, fit only to be manacled and shackled.
A draft again, present from Persephone, the route from black formlessness to shapely green. He fingered the chiselled walls, the rocks impressed by dint of slavish tools, felt the sharp angle of the tunnel, realised there was no blockage. In his eager prying he had not registered on the way down this strange dog leg, thought instead the way was straight, hubris at his vaunted expertise deceiving him. When he had reached the main tunnel, he began trembling, cold and wet vying across his sweaty face. He remembered the bar in Londinium and the twitching officer. Then he had inwardly mocked such feebleness. Yet how much can mortals withstand before the immortal gods have them jib and gibber in their puny bodies? He composed himself, offered a brief prayer to Pluto for his safety, and bent over like an old man stumbled towards the tiny white ring that marked the upper air. Outside Decimus was at the head of a metallic jingle of soldiers and slaves. He pointed at Lucius and laughed.
“Seen a ghost, have you?”
Mark Grant has a family background in Austro-Hungary, the legacy of which is baking torte and pondering ancestral history. He once hitchhiked across France from Calais to Marseille. Home has included Scotland and Switzerland, his jobs ranging from chef and housekeeper to classics teacher and college counsellor. He now grows heritage vegetables on an allotment in south-west England. Regular emails from Letter Review encourage him to keep writing
Original artwork by Kita Das