Hello everyone! An extra special thing for you today (after weeks of putting up with me talking about the same thing every week) – a rather fabulous story from the awesome Emma J. Newman (@EmApocalyptic on twitter). I first met Emma at a launch for her short story collection, From Dark Places, and believe me, she writes stonking short stories. You’re in for a treat. And so I will hand over to Emma…
This is the tenth in a year and a day of weekly short stories set in The Split Worlds. If you would like me to read it to you instead, you can listen here. You can find links to all the other stories, and the new ones as they are released here.
His Black Heart
Carn Brea, Cornwall, 1861
Denzel listened to the booming pulse of the beam engine pumping the water out of Dolcoath mine. As he arrived for his shift in the pre-dawn darkness, the huge black engine house was only visible as an absence of stars.
“Mornin’ y’Majesty,” he muttered, doffed his hat. His fellow shift workers thought him strange, but it was only polite to greet the Queen of Cornish Mines properly. In the twenty years he worked there he’d never had an accident, because he paid the proper dues to the correct parties. He might doff his cap to the Bassett family if he saw their carriage, but he felt no respect for those getting fat off their labour. He respected the mine’s solid beams and pumps, and the Buccas and the Knockers who kept him safe every shift in return for a morsel of food.
“How’s your little’un Denzel?” Jack asked as they queued for their turn on the man engine.
“Better,” he said, a smile slipping free. Tamsin’s fever had broken just before he’d left the house, as he was putting his wrapped pasty into the pail he’d heard a thin “Da?” from the corner. It was the first time she’d spoken in two weeks. He gave her a little milk and kissed the damp black curls atop her head with tears in his eyes. He couldn’t bear to lose another.
He lit Jack’s helmet candle, his friend returned the favour and Denzel took his place on the wooden tread. As he always did when he grasped the handle, he silently thanked the man engine about to carry him into the deepest workings of the mine. His father had had to climb down hundreds of feet of ladders, reaching his pitch half exhausted before he’d even begun the shift. Now he and Jack and the others just had to stand and step on and off bits of wood in the right places. They’d all turn into lazy buggers if they weren’t careful.
The air was warmer the lower they sank. Some said the deepest shafts were getting too close to hell and one day they’d blast their way into the devil’s parlour. Denzel smirked at the thought. Old Nick wouldn’t dare come through the hole if it happened; everyone knew he was too scared to come into Cornwall.
He worried about Tamsin, hoped the neighbour would take good care of her during his wife’s shift at the mine. Then he realised he’d left his pail on the kitchen table, the pasty warm within it.
He swore and hit the handle. First time in twenty years he’d forgotten his lunch. As the spike of anger receded, it left worry behind. Was it a sign? Was Tamsin’s recovery false? Would there be an accident today? What did it mean?
“Means you forgot your pail,” he muttered to himself, trying to keep the fretfulness at bay.
When they finally reached the bottom, the air was thick with powder smoke from the last shift, he’d be coughing up black lumps by the end of the day. Down this deep, it took too long for the blasting fumes to clear, they couldn’t afford to wait before starting the shift. The candles flickered in the gloom as they trudged their way through the tunnels. He peeled off his shirt when he got to his pitch, left in only his flannel trousers and boots, sweat rolling down his back already. He got to work, the air so thick with dust he could barely see the end of the drill steel, missing it a couple of times as he tried to hit it into the rock. He wiped a drip of sweat from his eyebrow and tried again, the hammer striking true and the steel driving into the rock, settling him. He worked through his lunch break, not wanting to stop and sit there, hungry and miserable. “Sorry,” he called into the shadows down the tunnel, imagining the Knockers waiting for their tithe. “I forgot m’pail. I’m hungry too.”
A chip flew up at his face from the next strike, it hit his helmet a couple of inches above his eyes. He set the hammer down, wondering if it was their revenge, and took off his helmet to check for damage. Embedded in the stump of clay holding his candle in place was a shard of ‘black tin’ ore. He pulled it out, finding it was shaped like a heart, like the one his wife had embroidered on the handkerchief she’d made him for Christmas.
The black heart was the size of his thumbnail, he decided to take it home for Tamsin to tuck under her pillow as she got better. This was a good sign, the tunnel giving him a gift, as if to reassure him all would be well.
The rockfall came without warning. No creaking joists, no tell-tale knocks, just a terrible roaring noise and then pain. The candle was snuffed out, it took him a few moments to work out he was on his back, a terrible pain radiating from the side of his head and weight pressing down on his legs. The gentle patter of falling dirt faded until he was left in the silent darkness.
He could still breathe, even though the air was foul. He could feel blood running down into his ear, if he hadn’t taken his helmet off to pull out the heart, his head would have been better protected. He followed it back to the moment he forgot his pail. It had prevented him from tossing a pasty scrap to the Knockers, and in their anger, they’d failed to warn him about the fall.
He became aware of a sharp pain in the palm of his hand, discovered the heart had cut him as he’d clasped it tight in the fall. He traced it with his thumb, its surface slick with his blood and he knew he couldn’t die down there, he couldn’t leave his last child.
There was no prayer in him, his faith had left him a long time ago. How his wife still sang in church for a God who took three boys and two girls from them he’d never know. The Knockers were angry with him, the Buccas wouldn’t grant a wish without food either. Who would help him?
The darkness pressed in, so complete he kept blinking to check if his eyes were open or shut. He wondered whether he’d fallen through to hell, the devil taking him for all the angry words he’d shouted at God over those tiny graves.
There was nothing to call upon, nothing to focus on other than the sharp edges of the black heart and his blood bathing it. “I swear,” he whispered, “if I live to see the sky again, I’ll mine more tin than any other bastard ‘ere. I’ll put every last drop of my body into this mine.” He’d live to give his girl the best start in life he could. “I swear it.”
The heart was warm, he fancied it pulsed with his own heartbeat as he slipped closer to the pit of sleep and death, but then a shout, a tumble of rocks a few feet away and then a chink of light fell onto his hand. “Denzel!” Jack shouted.
“Here,” he croaked, gazing at the black heart in the sliver of candlelight. “I’ll keep m’word,” he whispered. And he knew he’d never forget his pail again.
Thanks for hosting Jennifer (I want to call you Senny…)! I hope you enjoyed the story. If you would like to find out more about the Split Worlds project, it’s all here: www.splitworlds.com. If you would like to host a story over the coming year, either let me know in the comments or contact me through the Split Worlds site. Em x