by Bill Hartley

Down in the permanent blackness, an organism retains a memory of a food source untasted for many centuries...

‘Wrapped in mist and fog’

– Homer, the Odyssey Book 11

   Threads of opaqueness rolled back, maintaining the distance. Ahead of the car it was relentless, a heavy grey scarf which masked the surrounding country. Selwyn was forced to rely on guesswork. He knew or thought he knew that he was in the vicinity. A semi circle of cinders came into view by the roadside and this made the decision for him. He touched the brakes and pulled over. Immediately moisture began to settle and run down the windscreen.

   In the stationary car doubts began to return. Selwyn sought to suppress these with activity. He went to the boot, located his rucksack and fumbled for the map and compass. The map gave a guide to how far he’d travelled since the last junction but that was all. Carefully distancing himself from the car he translated grid to magnetic, aware that this was merely a guestimate; at best a means of finding his way back here if visibility remained this bad.

   He shouldered the rucksack, then with compass to hand set off. Behind the road was soon absorbed as the curtain closed shut behind him. He began to climb and as the gradient grew steeper had to scramble over loose rock. This was a good indicator and provided a clue to what he sought. Selwyn had entered an industrial landscape. Here was a man-made scree slope consisting of waste hewn from an exposed rock face, carelessly abandoned to crash down as far as the gradient would take it. Today the low and insidious mist masked scars of copper mining which once made this narrow valley clang with industry. He knew what must lie near him but Selwyn’s world was reduced to a circle of moist greyness, hovering over dirty brown grass.

   Again the doubts came back to him. He should be accompanied. That was basic and what he’d planned for. The message cancelling arrived en route, an impersonal few words from a friend who hadn’t troubled to explain why. Selwyn was frustrated but having travelled most of the way, felt reluctant to give up. He made compromises with himself. It would be just a reconnaissance; a way to prove his theory and an incentive for another visit.

   Selwyn had brought a stick which he used to assist himself on this steeper part of the climb. His compass bearing was now a tenuous link to the world, the mist anechoic, muffling his approach. He must have been only a few yards away when abruptly some visibility was ceded and he halted at a sheer rock face. Although this wasn’t unexpected the barrier still came as a surprise. The rock face, vanguard of the invisible mountain above, rendered his compass bearing redundant. He turned and began a traverse, hoping once more that he would prove to have guessed correctly.

   It ran like a great fissure some thirty feet up the rock face before disappearing into the mist. Years of weathering had made this lesion appear a natural part of the mountain, yet the red smears down the country rock gave a different impression to the initiated. Selwyn had covered a further quarter mile and now stood looking upwards with something close to awe, aware that human action had made this. It was a stope, cut high into the rock by free miners who had found this precarious foothold to be the easiest way to work a vein of copper. It would have been both hard and dangerous, standing upon makeshift platforms, often on worse days than this.

   He felt a fine drizzle moistening his face which also left minute droplets on his waterproofs. Selwyn dropped his rucksack and looked carefully at the foot of the stope, noticing how the place seemed to be its own ecosystem. Lurid green mosses sheltered inside, protected from the worst of the mountain climate. Whilst the grass around his feet had deteriorated into a monochrome brown, a variety of unfamiliar plants prospered among the rocks. Selwyn couldn’t get any closer; he was separated from the base of the stope by a pool about fifteen feet across, which created a protective moat. It was fed by water dripping incessantly from above and must have begun to form as soon as the miners ceased working the site. To Selwyn it appeared as a self-contained micro world, abandoned but guarded. Water had been a regular problem for Selwyn and his absent friend on earlier expeditions. Hence he had expected to encounter it at some point but finding a pool in this spot was something unusual. He knew he could leave now and return again when accompanied, which was the wisest thing to do. Instead he reached into the rucksack bending to retrieve a flask and then stood contemplating the pool as he drank some coffee. No vegetation grew or even skirted the edges, probably because the water was acidic and sterile. This was confirmed by the lack of animal droppings. Not even a sheep could drink here.

   He finished his coffee and shouldered the rucksack once more. Selwyn decided to test the pool. Its surface was opaque: mist absorbed the limited light. He took a first tentative step, using the stick as a probe. Immediately cold water soaked his feet. Beneath he could feel chunks of loose rock; more waste which had fallen from the workings above. As he continued the water reached his knees. Each step was taken with care to be sure one foot was securely down before trying another. Even across such a short stretch of water it was slow progress. Selwyn told himself that if the water deepened he would go no further but it remained constant, just above his knees. He stabbed downwards irrationally afraid that the stick would disappear to a depth which it couldn’t plumb.

   The crossing must have taken the best part of five slow minutes. Selwyn had become used to discomfort and getting wet was no deterrent. He looked into the depths of the recess made by the stope. A short reconnaissance he told himself: enough to show his absent companion that he’d made the preliminary effort. He anticipated appropriate signs of embarrassment and a proper apology. At some future point they could return together but this depended on what he next hoped to discover.

   He scrambled out of the pool, water dripping from his legs and immediately felt an airflow stroking his face. Up to this point the mist-laden air had been without any movement. The light, poor already, was even weaker in the shadow of the stope though Selwyn supposed that even on a sunny day it would be no different. He walked closer, allowing himself to be lured by the breath of cool air. There was a high wrench of rock, split and resembling a giant serrated knife blade. Passing round it Selwyn paused and looked carefully into the gloom. It was what he had hoped for. In a deep right angle the stope concealed a portal, hidden from a casual observer deterred by the pool. The stope had been just a first working. To minimise the effort of burrowing into the country rock the miners had driven a coffin level, an aperture little larger than the outline of a man. Each step into the mountain would have taken days of labour with primitive iron tools. Selwyn went and stood at the mouth of the portal. The breeze on his face felt a little stronger. The presence of this airflow meant that somewhere within lay another aperture, creating natural ventilation around the recesses of a mine. Perhaps at some stage the miners chased a vein of ore upwards and realising they were close to the surface had broken through.

   Selwyn knew this was enough. Previous visits to the district had convinced him that some deep mining must have taken place here. High on the side of the valley any opening would be harder to spot, hence the idea of a close traverse, to see if a portal could be found. He paused enjoying the feeling of success. To enter would be a task for another day when accompanied. Still, he’d come equipped and going in a short distance presented little challenge for someone of his experience. There was the possibility, hardly tenable given the airflow, that the portal led no further than a blank drive; an exploratory tunnel abandoned when no vein of ore was found. Checking this faint possibility provided the excuse.

   He loosened his rucksack, dropping it to the ground to fish for helmet, lamp and torch, then with a sigh of frustration realised that water was pooling about his feet. He moved the rucksack to a dry spot hoping that moisture hadn’t penetrated the canvas. Then he fitted the lamp to his helmet and checked the light.

   The coffin level proved to be a featureless tube. Only the occasional gleam of red wetness from the rock broke the monotony. Selwyn soon realised the level led somewhere, easily disproving the notion of a blank drive and therefore he should by now have abandoned what was supposed to be just a brief sortie. He convinced himself that there ought to be something of interest which he could use as an incentive for a second visit. Persuaded he carried on, the beam from his headlamp alternately hitting the roof and then the floor. There was an inevitable sense of constriction, since the floor was little more than a narrow path. The miners had probably moved ore stuff along here in barrows, before it was taken to be crushed and smelted. Selwyn’s vision and indeed his whole world were shaped by this tunnel, with a roof that lay just a few inches above his head. Over that stood the mountain whose riches had prompted men to burrow into her depths.

   The monotony of travelling through this tube was beginning to invade his mind. He started to appreciate the value of having a companion who could share a conversation and help suppress dark thoughts. Down here was a quantum world where things worked differently. He paused for a moment, took a step to one side and watched as perspiration from his body formed a wraith-like companion which hung next to him. Then as a sense of infinity was beginning to invade his imagination, the tunnel widened. His lamp reflected off a circle of water, level with the tunnel floor. He stopped immediately. It was a winze: a vertical shaft from one level down to another. Dry, it represented a lethal trap for the unwary. Wet it was still a barrier. This one had flooded up and over the collar. A century and more of idleness in the mine had allowed the water table to reassert itself. He approached carefully. The lamplight was making it difficult to discern where the shaft began. Pulling out his hand torch Selwyn shone it into the depths. A few feet beneath the surface hung a black and sagging timber bridge, still resisting the forces of erosion. The water was brilliantly clear and had risen unseen and undisturbed, fed by secret aquifers within the mountain.

   The effect of submersion on the copper traces lining the winze had been to change its colour. Down the deep vent the walls glowed an eau de Nil green in the torchlight. Following the beam, he noted the mesmerising effect as it probed at random into the flooded fathoms. Drowned beneath was the effort of hundreds of man hours: a mine within a mine. He kicked a piece of rock from the edge and watched as it plunged downwards, bouncing off pinnacles and buttresses which briefly slowed its descent until the lamplight could penetrate no further and it was absorbed into the grasp of opaqueness.

   Once more Selwyn made an attempt to persuade himself that this was the point to turn back. He’d already travelled some hundreds of yards. However closer inspection revealed the flooded winze was a barrier that could with care be circumvented. Around the collar was a submerged ledge on which the bridge had once rested. His boots and lower legs were again immersed in water. This time he sensed slight warmth, suggesting that the water was thermal. Deep below the geological pressures which had created the metallic ores were at work and the mountain still sudated these.

   Trying to avoid directing his headlamp into the green depths he moved around the submerged ledge, hoping that it would maintain its firmness. Edging forwards he could feel his heart beating erratically. It seemed interminable but finally he reached the other side. Beyond was extensive evidence of the productivity of the mine. A whole working face had been hacked out of the rock. To one side rotting timbers held back tons of deads or waste rock. It took enough energy extracting the ore and taking it back to the portal. The deads had simply been pushed out of the way. Selwyn looked upwards, his headlamp beam taking in the sight of collapsing ore chutes high in the man-made cavern. He wondered if this huge subterranean effort had been the last attempt to extract ore from the mine. Despite the primitive methods such a mine unless it yielded a good supply of copper, could be ruination for unwary investors in distant London or Cardiff.

   He felt reluctant to admit to himself that a return back across the flooded winze was something to be deferred but wondered if there was more to be found here. As if to encourage this a finger of air returned to brush his face. The tunnel led away from the workings but only caught the beam of his headlamp for a short distance. Unlike the earlier stretch leading to the winze it corkscrewed crazily. Instead of penetrating, the beam danced along identical walls. Where water bled from these an acrid smell suggested the acidicity he’d first noticed in the pool outside.

   Selwyn halted. Facing him was a wall smeared with weeping redness. It was a blank drive, going nowhere. The crazy angles of the tunnel had probably been cut that way to increase the prospects of locating a new vein. Then perhaps the money had run out and the miners told to give up their drilling and chiselling. Selwyn’s emotions fluctuated between disappointment and relief. He had dangerously exceeded a sensible distance for solo travel underground, although there probably was no such thing as sensible. Retracing his steps Selwyn paused to look once more at the abandoned ore chutes, and then went to the winze, an irrational feeling of relief growing in his mind.

   Something had changed. It took a moment to realise what. The surface of the water had fallen, exposing to the air the black and greasy timbers of the collapsed bridge which hung like a parody of its original purpose. Deep below something had affected the water table. This might be a regular event. The quantum chemistry had made its presence felt. Selwyn moved closer allowing his headlamp to shine downwards, hoping that it was an illusion. This reality remained. Walking back along the ledge now presented too much of a risk since the water had sunk well below the collar of the shaft. To fall in would leave him trapped.

   The elusive airflow touched him, a reminder that the workings must be ventilated. He returned to the chutes trying to locate the source. Previously he’d given the wall opposite no attention but now he noticed a low arched aperture only a couple of feet high and mostly obscured by debris. It was the source of the airflow, or at least Selwyn persuaded himself this must be so. He switched on his torch to augment his headlamp.

   This was no coffin level. It had been cut with tools much more primitive. Squirming in and allowing his headlamp to curvet across the walls, Selwyn realised how different this was to his past underground experiences. In a half crawl he edged forwards, intrigued and for a moment forgetting the reason for entering. He moved on and began to marvel at the shades of red interspersed with green, where water had attacked the ore. He could see tiny leaf-shaped flakes of brown native copper, smelted in the subterranean heat then forced upwards and fused to the rock. This was the prize for the prehistoric miners who had worked here. Selwyn went on, still half crouching. He knew it likely the men who worked the mine he had just left would have avoided the place. Superstition was a very real thing among those who risked their lives underground.

   He began to hear sounds, vague and distant. Sounds he thought to be running water. Perhaps a stream had widened a hole from the surface, large enough to admit those first miners. The airflow was now less precise in its direction. Selwyn imagined it being winnowed through water descending from a surface vent. The passage twisted, wedging him in to the mountain. At one stage he was forced to half turn to ease his body through a particularly tight right angle. His next sensation was one of being enveloped. He gasped, thrashed out with his arms and ignored the pain of an elbow connecting sharply with a rock. The light from his headlamp struggled to penetrate a mucoid curtain which was wrapped around him. Drawing short panicky breaths Selwyn struggled to free himself. Even brief contact with this substance was sufficient to be overwhelming. With blind urgency he fought free, throwing off globules of the stuff which hit the walls and slid downwards.

   Afterwards he lay on the tunnel floor, conscious of moisture soaking into his clothing. Above his face and absorbing the light like a filthy cloth was what he recognised as Acidithiobacillus. He’d heard of it but this was his first encounter. Its effluent had spread everywhere, virtually blocking the narrow passage; anchored as pseudo stalactites from each protuberance above the rough-hewn tunnel. Selwyn was wiping away the by-products of an extremophilic bacteria. A living thing, hanging there in the darkness, synthesising sulphur compounds to draw sustenance from the volcanic rock. He felt the astringency on the skin of his hands and face. The bacteria secreted sulphuric acid. Acidithiobacillus and he were now two living things sharing this space.

   Suppressing his revulsion Selwyn struggled through the mucoid curtain and crawled onwards. The air was much heavier yet he felt reluctant to take the deep breaths he craved. The bacilli still hung close to his face, quivering as the acid sweated out. Ahead were the same muffled sounds, distorted but still sufficient for Selwyn to convince himself that it was falling water. His watch was no longer working and he struggled to make an estimate of how long he’d been underground. The beam from his headlamp had faded. He checked the torch but that seemed no better. Both needed their batteries replacing and the prospect of completing this simple task brought a renewal of purpose.

   In the confined space it was difficult to remove his rucksack. After several attempts Selwyn finally managed to do so, then groped inside and at the bottom found spare batteries. Their touch felt different, instead of a waxy sheen something crumbled in his fingers. He brought the batteries into the fuzzy beam of his torch. A recollection came of wetness after placing the rucksack on the ground. Acid-laden water had soaked through and eaten into the batteries rendering them useless. From each extruded a white crystalline mess, like dirty snowflakes. He looked at the fading torch light, its weakness already calling back the shadows. The headlamp was no better. Selwyn moved on, urgency competing with the first tendrils of despair.

   The sounds were closer now, mixed with the shades near him. Gone was the reassurance of falling water. Shadows in the fast-fading light worked the rock. The Acidotholobacillus bacteria leached its sustenance and in return its vitriolic effluent helped mine the rock. All around the curtain of mucus had expanded and inside it the shadows continued to labour. The sounds had now clarified as rhythmic hammering. It was a fusion of effort, human sweat and the bacilli, both on a mission to derive sustenance from the country rock. Selwyn’s headlamp had shrunk to a faint circle. His energy gone he remained staring brokenly as the light from his torch retreated across a few inches of the tunnel floor then went out. He could smell the sulphur which had been excreted from above. Mucus fell on his hand but he failed to react. When the last light from the headlamp vanished, the bacteria would return to its perpetual darkness. Eventually it would reach out to a source of nutrients it had not known for centuries.

Bill Hartley

Bill Hartley is a former soldier who currently works as an archivist for the Mining Institute in Newcastle. He is the author of Hezbollah Wishes You a Safe and Peaceful Journey and From Contention City to Stalingrad. He lives in North Yorkshire.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

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