The Milford Mine Disaster of 1924, David Kroman

1.
WRITE ME EVERY DAY. It won’t be hard. Don’t write very much, but do it every day. Hello, you could say. How are you, you could say. What did you do today, maybe. If you wanted, you could just send a blank sheet of paper and I will fill in the words. Maybe you’ve already written something? Maybe you started before I even left? That’s okay if you didn’t. But if you start now, in two weeks I’ll get a letter every day. It will be like we are close, like you slipped it under my door. You could even send two a day. I will make up questions to the answers you have already given. Then I will read the second one and make up some more questions. Backwards conversation.

I tried to sketch you a picture of where I am. The Ms in the sky are supposed to be birds. They are big here and they glide when they land. But I cannot draw so well, so I drew little Ms. The Ws are their reflection. There are lakes where the other mines used to be and they are frozen. They are just the same color as the sky – a grayish blue. It is pure rainwater. When I stand on them, it is like I am standing on one of your pupils.

2.
I AM IN THE MILFORD MINE AT CUYUNA RANGE. Cuyuna sounds Indian, like Chippewa or Ojibwe or Sioux. I thought it might be a Minnesotan tribe I had never heard of. It turns out that the wife of the man who found it combined his name with the name of their dog. Cuyler Adams and his dog Una: Cuyuna.

There used to be a forest here. The range is so wide open, but the patches of trees are thick. Too thick to have grown so sporadically. I’d like to see the range from above. I imagine it would look like a map: the vast white of the snow would be the water; the remaining forest, land. Except there are holes in the ground. Canyons perhaps? Canyons with men deep inside of them. Canyons that are becoming deeper by the day.

It is warmer underground, with the iron. The further they lower us down the warmer it gets. We have the option of going to the top to eat our lunch, but I usually stay underground. Most of us do. We sit as close to the Tungsten lamps as we can for the heat they put off. All the way around the mine, men are huddled as close as they can to the lights so only their faces are lit up. They look like hungry fireflies perched on the walls. Sometimes they forget how illuminated they are and will make faces that no one is supposed to see: one man’s lips never stop moving; one man stretches his face; one man cries. When break is over, everybody returns to the shadows so I don’t know if they make the same faces when they work.

3.
LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT THANKSGIVING DINNER. For the first course, we had soup. When I received my bowl, I noticed a fly floating on the surface. I went back to the counter and asked the chef, “What is this fly doing in my soup?”

He said, “Looks like the backstroke.”

They gave us biscuits with dinner. The chef said, “You know, it takes a real man to make a biscuit.”

I said, “No, it takes a real man to lift one.”

He then said, “The flour company is having a contest. We’re sending in all of our box tops.”

I told him, “Why don’t you send in the biscuits and I’ll eat the box tops instead.”

During the main course, I was eating a turkey drumstick. I dropped it and it landed on my neighbor’s foot. The doctor thinks he’ll be walking within two weeks.

There’s a big sign in the cafeteria that says, “Watch Your Coat and Hat.” But while I was watching my coat and hat, somebody stole my food.

4.
I WOKE UP EARLY this morning and I couldn’t fall back asleep. You know how sometimes you can wake up before you even open your eyes? And especially if you’ve been having a really good dream, you will keep your eyes closed as if trying to fool the morning? I woke up this morning and reached out to touch you. I lay there until the sun rose. Like a good dream, I thought that as long as I kept my eyes closed you might be there.

The house I’m in is made of wood. No matter how much they heat it in the evening, it’s still frigid in the morning. The nights are longer here. You were
always so warm. I bet that even here you would never get cold.

I can’t remember how you smell. Already, I can’t remember. When we met, you were wearing expensive perfume that you’d mixed with water. Do you remember that? On the bus? The smell was so faint, I thought the older woman in the back was wearing it. And I asked, “Can you smell that?” You smiled.

“Yes I can,” you said.

Then we got off together and I could still smell it and I said to you, “Are you following me?” And then we walked in the same direction and I knew you were wearing the expensive perfume. I said, “that smell is either me or you, and I’m sure my soap isn’t that nice.” I asked if I could get a closer smell and you smelled like expensive perfume and a wooden house. I can’t remember what that smells like. When I get home, we can buy the expensive perfume. You have to promise to mix it with water so I can still smell the maple that seems to stick to your body.

4.
ARE YOU WRITING? I have been here almost two weeks. I should get a letter from you soon. But only if you have been writing. It snowed last night. Now there’s almost three feet of snow on the ground. Does snow have a limit? Will it eventually collapse on itself and become more dense? Write me something pleasant. It’s quiet with all of this snow. Don’t you think that’s pleasant? Sound gets stuck. It’s like talking into a pillow. I imagine that when it melts, all of the sound from the whole winter will escape. So if I stand in just the right spot, I’ll hear my whistle from a couple of days ago or my chuckle from this morning. I wish I could pack you up like the snow. Then I could melt you later and it would be like I was never gone.

5.
PLEASE JUST ONE.

6.
TELL ME AGAIN WHAT YOU SAID BEFORE. When you write, tell me what you said when I left. You told me something I liked. Something about next year. Something about us. It had to do with a house and a kitchen. I don’t remember the words exactly. Didn’t you say we’d live where it was warm? Didn’t you say you’d bake whole wheat bread? Did you say that? Tell me again about the trips we’d go on. How we would flip a coin at every turn: heads left, tails right. And how when we got somewhere we liked, we could just stay. We could pitch a tent until we could find a house. Then you said something about what our kitchen might look like. It might have a rack for pots, I remember that. But what else? Would there be a table in the middle, where we could eat every meal?

You also told me you would think of a surprise for when I returned. Did you think of one? You could tell me with a riddle. You could hide my surprise somewhere in the page of your letter. Wrap it up in the text: subtle repetition of a certain clue or spelled out in the first letter of every line. Think hard. I’ll keep my eye out.

7.
NOTHING HERE MOVES. I woke up today, like I woke up yesterday, like I’ll wake up tomorrow. But it’s still just today. I have heard that this stay will feel like no time at all. That before I know it, it will be all over. But I don’t have the luxury of retrospect. Today I pulled out the biggest piece of magnetite in a week. It sort of fell from the wall. Then they put it in a on a pulley and I kept working. Then I ate the potatoes and green beans they give us every day. Not with chicken and white wine sauce like yours, but just salt. I will work. I will continue to work and I will find a larger piece of magnetite and again it will be raised to the surface. It will be smelted and sold and I will eat potatoes and green beans. All that will move will be the pulley and even that just loops around. Around, around, around, around, around, around, around. I will lose meaning, like the word around repeated on the page.

8.
I THINK I HAD A DREAM with you in it, and then I got your letter. I knew it was coming today. It’s like it had to happen, because I wanted it to come today. And then it did. Hello. That’s what you said: hello. Do you remember what you said? Hello was first. And now I can say hello too. Hello. Now it’s a conversation. Do you remember what you asked? I am good. Things are hard. Does that make sense? My house is wood and it’s cold. I already said that, but you must have not gotten that one. Now it’s a response. My house was hand built in the summer when it wasn’t so cold. When the sun rises in the morning, the wood shifts and creaks as the wood warms. It sounds like it’s tiptoeing. Before I even open my eyes, I like to pretend it’s you. I kind of said that already too. But not in a conversation setting.

One of the men asked if I had someone back home. I said yes. He asked, “How many letters have you gotten?”

“She’s writing now,” I said. He didn’t believe me. He said I would have gotten a letter. “She’s writing now,” I said. The man is ugly. His eyes cross and he coughs into the same handkerchief. His hands are large and clumsy.

“I hope you’re right,” he said.

“She’s writing now,” I said. Now I will show him your letter. I will ask him when the last time he got a letter was; when he received anything so pristine. And I will let him smell it, for although it is faint, your letter brings the smell of a woman. There are no women here. The men only smell like iron and iron smells like blood. I will let him smell your letter and ask him who’s writing to him.

9.
WHERE DO YOU GO ON SUNDAYS? I go to the church in Crosby, the nearby town. It’s small. There is only one road that runs down the center. It is coated in snow and ice. Light from electric street lamps reflects off of its surface at night. Sometimes I have to squint, even at night; I find the light from gas lanterns much softer. When the moon is out, I don’t think they need anything at all.

The church is white except for the roof of the steeple. They put in brass tiles to reflect the sun and the cross on the steeple’s point. Icicles form along the edges so that it looks like the cross is melting. I wake up, I catch a ride into town, I sing hymns and then I go back to my house. Nobody knows I’m there because I sing so quietly. Still, it feels nice to have a community, even if only for a couple of hours. They’re hosting mass on Christmas Eve next week. Anyplace will be better than Christmas on Cuyuna Range.

Where do you go on Sundays without me? We used to go to church and sing. Every Sunday:

“Good morning, Pastor Jonah.”

“My most loyal pair, good morning.”

Where do you go now? Not to Jonah, not without me. Maybe you just sing hymns to yourself. Maybe you sweep the floor and drink your coffee and sing hymns. Maybe that’s enough. We’ll sing the same ones. I’ll stop going to church and we’ll sing the same songs at the same time and we will be our own congregation. Far apart, but the strongest two person congregation in the country.

10.
THAT LETTER YOU SENT WAS GOOD. The one from before. It was what I needed. Every morning I get up and it’s dark. And then I go to the mine and it’s still dark. The sun rises, but when I come up, it’s dark again. I’m so far north. I never get to see the sun, not even in the day. That letter you sent was nice. The paper was so white and clean and your writing so neat. I read it over and over and it was the closest thing I had to light all day. I wish you would send more. We get mail at the end of the day that we get to come home to. How about this: tear a sheet from a notebook; write Welcome Home in large letters; leave a smudge of your pasta sauce in the corner; make it grainy with whole wheat flour; give it a clever post-script; sign it with only an “E”; address me with only an “H”; scrawl it out quickly and misspell a word; stuff it in the envelope and send it quickly. It will sit on my bed and after a day in the darkness you will welcome me home. You will have left it there before leaving to buy a red pepper or green spinach, because your sauce was a deep brown and needed more color. I will close my eyes and wait for you and for the red pepper or green spinach or orange carrot and the day will not feel so dark. All it needs is some more color.

11.
I DIDN’T GET A LETTER from you today.

12.
YOU’RE RIGHT. I got your letter today and you’re right. But what can you expect? How can I sound different? Do you remember when you broke your necklace? It was made of silver and it hugged your neck. You never took that necklace off. Just chain links made of silver, but you never took it off. I could touch your whole body, but when I got to your neck there was the necklace. I had never seen you fully naked. And then the necklace broke. “Be calm,” I said. “It’s a necklace.”

“You’re right,” you said. “It’s a necklace.”

We had gone to the city. You wore a black dress under a heavy coat. I wore a fedora hat and a wool jacket. We stood in the main square. Do you remember? Geese flew overhead, south. I pointed and we both looked up and you strained your neck like you yourself were a goose. You twisted and stretched, following the geese. The necklace snapped. “Be calm,” I said. “It’s a necklace.”

“You’re right,” you said. “It’s a necklace.”

And then what? Can you finish the story? You sat. You sat in the square and held the necklace in your fingers like it was a dead child. We stayed in that spot for a long time. A long time. You mourned. “Be calm,” I said. “It’s a necklace.”

“You’re right,” you said. “It’s a necklace.”

Now let it be my turn. You’re right. You’re right. Now let me sit. Let me sit right where I am, just like I let you. Let me come up from the mine at the end of the day. Let me wipe the dust from my forehead, my cheeks, my nose, my mouth, my ears, my eyes, my neck and my arms. And let me sit. Let me write and let me mourn. While I sit, just read and just write like I let you sit. The geese have flown south, did you see them?

13.
I DIDN’T MEAN WHAT I SAID. I wrote it and sent it, but now I want it back. When they lower us into the mine everything feels heavy: the air, the rocks, the tools, the food. Above too: I lay in my bed and my body feels heavy; when I wake, even heavier. Sometimes, I just want to push back. You’re the only thing light enough to give.

The air at that one beach was light. I watched you. The waves spread thin against the sand. You dragged your feet and watched the tracks disappear. That was when I decided to never leave your side. Have I told you that before?

It’s hard to control what I do and what I say here. The heaviness presses on my chest.

We slept at that beach. There was nobody else there because it was too cold – too cold to sleep at the beach. But we stayed anyway and wore sweaters to sleep in. We were intimate. No matter how cold it was, we were still intimate. We only took off the clothes we needed to. We kept our sweaters on the whole time and muffled ourselves in each others’ wool. The cold was light enough for us to push back.

The cold here gets underneath my sweaters. It seeps through their pores. It seeps through my pores. I wouldn’t take off anything in this cold.

Would you come? Would you come here? Would you come to this place? Bring your sweaters and we can be warm. Ask for John, it’s what they call me here.

No. You wouldn’t come here. You don’t even want to write. Besides, someone so light might be crushed. It’s not the same cold. Someone so light couldn’t push back.

14.
A MAN’S SKULL WAS CRUSHED YESTERDAY. Nobody knew his name. A pulley broke and the rock landed on his head. He didn’t make a noise. A few men kept working before they noticed what had happened. We walked up to him like vultures. A man in the back almost laughed before stopping himself. The dead man disappeared from existence without so much as a sputter. I doubt he even felt it. We can’t feel our hands when we dig. We can’t feel our toes when we stand. We can’t even feel our faces when we eat. I doubt I could feel a rock on my head. I have to laugh too. It’s funny isn’t it ? He had a kid and the kid had a father. Without a grunt, without us noticing right away, without any warning from above, he has no kid and the kid has no father. He has no more ties or emotions or people he cares for. He has no more financial troubles. He doesn’t get cold. He won’t see any more of the new year. A faulty pulley and a heavy rock say, “not any more!”; they say “you’re done!” and it is so. Isn’t that funny? They’re forgiven for it too: the iron from that rock was sold today.

15.
I SMOKE CIGARETTES NOW. I roll them myself. The men who smoke cigarettes take more breaks than those who don’t, so now I smoke cigarettes. Their smoke is almost thick enough to chew. If I smoke at the beginning of the day, I can’t taste the dust. If I smoke before meals, I can’t taste the potatoes. If I smoke at the end of the day, I can’t smell my stench. You hate cigarettes. If I smoke when I come home, I don’t care as much that you have not written. The man you write to doesn’t smoke cigarettes.

16.
THE SNOW FEELS SOFTER NOW and the work is not so hard. Rocks fall more easily. The ice over the old mines is starting to thin as well. Children from Crosby can no longer ice skate. The sun stays longer too. I saw it set last night. There was pink and red as well as orange. For a moment I felt warm. My body is bruised. My muscles are tight. But if I close my eyes and face west, I relax for a moment. It is brief, but my face relaxes.

Don’t be worried. You don’t need to be worried. I appreciate the concern, but I’m fine. I am fine. One man has pneumonia, a very bad case. His family is very concerned – I saw it in one of their letters to him. He is not fine. Another man got frostbite, a very bad case. His family is also very concerned. He is not fine. Me, I am fine. No need to be worried because I have neither pneumonia nor frostbite. So I appreciate your concern for me, but there is no need.

17.
February 6th, 1924

To whom it may concern:
We regret to inform you that Henry McCutcheon has been fatally injured in the unfortunate collapse of the Milford Mine. You are receiving this notification as a listed correspondent. Please contact the Cuyuna Range Foundation for details concerning the remains and the deceased’s final pay check.

The Cuyuna Range Foundation

Source: Write me every day

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