The Pit-Heads

By DAVID NICKLE

  

Illustration by David Nickle, Copyright 2007 

All painted illustrations located within in the text by Lawrence Nickle, Copyright 2007



Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Canada License.

Paul Peletier and I drove up to Cobalt one last time, about seven years ago. It was my idea. Should have been Paul's -- hell, almost two decades before that it was his idea, going to Cobalt to paint the pit-heads -- but lately he hadn't been painting, hadn't been out of his house to so much as look in so long, he was convinced he didn't have any more ideas.

"Bullshit," I said to him, ignition-keys jangling in my fingers, coaxing him outside. "You're more of an artist than that."

"No," he said. "And you're not either."

But Paul didn't have much will left to fight me, so he grumbled around the house looking for his old paint-kit, the little green strongbox filled with the stuff he euphemistically called his Equipment. Then he climbed into the cab of my pickup, grunted, "well come on, Picasso, let's do it," and we headed north.

Just to see.

There are other things to paint in Cobalt, after all: the black-and-umber tarpaper houses, built high on the rock with materials as likely stolen as they were bought; the roads wending dangerously through the lips of bedrock, like the untended streets of a medieval town; the grocery, built on top of an old mine shaft, a three-hundred-foot deep root cellar where the owners dangle their overstock of meat and cheese against the improbable heat of high summer in northern Ontario.

We'd painted them all before, in every season and under every sky, and when the pit-heads were still up, they never got old.

So we turned off Highway 11, parked by the grocery and set up our easels. Paul dallied a bit in his strongbox -- took out the old silver chain and put it around his neck, muttered a little prayer from his Catholic school days. And then, because there was nothing more but to get started, he reached into his kit and took out a blank pallet, squeezed out some acrylic from the little magazine of ancient paint-tubes he kept in a dark recess of the kit.

I even remember what we were painting. I've still got the panel at my studio -- it's not very good, a not-very-confident study of one of those houses, rambling up a slope of rock and perched on a foundation of cinderblock. In a fit of whimsy, I included the figure of a man, bending down at the septic tank, tool box at his feet, an expression of grim determination painted on his tiny face. In fact, no one came out of the house the entire time we painted.

Or should I say, the entire time that I painted. Paul just sat there, lifting his brush, swirling it on his pallet. Setting it down again.

"Nothing here anymore, Graham," said Paul, fingering the chain at his neck, and squinting over the still rooftops of the town in the too-bright summer sun. "They're gone."

"They're buried, you mean."

Paul shook his head, and he smiled. "The mining companies’ll say it’s because of taxes. Hailiebury taxes dearly for a pit-head, next to nothing for a cement plug over a dark shaft."

Then he looked at me, the tiny pewter Jesus at the end of the chain caught in a vise-grip between his thumb and the hard stem of his brush.

"As long as the price of silver stays low, the pit-heads stay down. Holes stay covered, to keep the weather out of the shafts. That’s the story, eh Graham?"

"I guess those miners had the right idea, then,” I said. “I guess it's time to go."

"I guess so," said Paul.

And so we packed up our brushes and pallets and paintings, and we followed the miners’ example. Paul was inordinately cheerful on the way back, and so was I, I have to admit. There was an ineffable feeling of freedom leaving that town -- finally admitting it was over for us there; we were strictly on our own, from that moment on. We made jokes, shared a few carefully-chosen reminiscences, were just like old friends again on that four-hour drive south.

But much later, back at my own place in the cold dark of the early morning, I woke up with the once-familiar scream in my throat -- memories of the miner Tevalier's age-yellowed flesh, his cruel and hungry grip, renewed in my blood.

Trembling alone in my bed, I vowed to myself that I would not call Paul Peletier, and I would not go to Cobalt again.

*

 

Paul was the first one of our little group to visit Cobalt, and when he reported back on it, he didn't tell us the whole of the story. Not by far.

It was 1974, just a year after Paul's divorce, and he was making ends meet teaching landscape painting classes to art clubs in and around North Bay. In April, he drove up to Cobalt at the invitation of the Women's Art League of Hailiebury, and spent a weekend critiquing the septuagenarian League ladies' blurry watercolors out at the Royal Mine #3. He told us about it in July, when the four regulars in our own little Art League -- me, Paul, Jim Osborne and Harry Fairbank -- were camped on the south arm of Opeongo Lake, on what would turn out to be our last annual mid-summer painting trip together.

"I wasn't up there to work, which is why it was such a damned shame. It was all I could do to keep my paints in their tubes," he said, leaning against the hull of his canoe as he spoke.

Jim took a swill from his thermos and grinned. Jim worked as a lawyer back in the city, and at the end of the year I figured he bought almost as many paintings as he produced. Privately, Paul told me that he thought Jim Osborne painted pictures the way that other men went fishing: he didn't want to catch anything, just get out of the rat race for a few days every summer and escape to the bush.

"Keep your paints in the tubes." Jim rolled the words thoughtfully. "Or did you mean keep your tube in your pants? Those art club biddies can be pretty spry, I hear."

Paul laughed, but it was a distracted sound, barely an acknowledgment. He was never easy with vulgarity.

Paul continued: "The geography around this town is spectacular. It's all rock and scrub, a few stands of poplar and cedar here and there, and it's had the life mined out of it. But I don't think it's possible to make a bad painting there."

Jim was about to say something, but I shushed him. "High recommendation," I said.

Paul grinned. "The pit-heads outside Cobalt are a Mecca for those ladies -- they swear by them, and I can't argue based on the results."

"Practise makes perfect," deadpanned Jim.

Paul gave Jim a look, but I cut in before he could comment. "Just what kind of pit-heads are these?" I asked. I was only 25 then, and almost all of the out-of-town painting trips I'd been on had been with Paul and the rest -- which pretty much limited me to Algonquin Park and one quick trip up to Lake Superior.

Paul pulled out his sketch pad and began roughing out an illustration: "Here's what they look like."

Harry put down the paint-smeared panel he'd been swearing over all afternoon and studied Paul's drawing in the failing light.

"Do you want to do a trip there?" Harry finally asked.

Paul swatted at a black fly on his neck, and examined the little bloody speck on his hand. "It'll be one hell of a drive -- about eight hours from your place in good weather, and I want to go up in November when the snow will have started. It's a long way to go for a painting."

Harry took another look the sketch, then at his own failed oil painting. "This --" he threw his arms up, to include the entire, Group-of-Seven, Tom-Thomson splendor of Algonquin Park on a clear summer evening "-- is already a long way to come for a painting. And by the looks of things tonight, I don't even have a decent one to show for it. Give me a call when you've set a schedule; I'm in."

Paul smiled and set down the sketch on the flat of a rock for all of us to see. It was crude, but I think it may have been the most accomplished work we'd ever seen from Paul to that date. His carpenter pencil had roughed out the thick spruce beams that splayed out from the narrow, peaked tower head, which Paul had represented with a carelessly precise rectangle of shadow. The trestle emerged from the far side, a jumble of cross-beams and track that draped like a millipede over the spine of a treacherous spill of rock. The thin curves and jags suggesting hills and a treeline seemed like an afterthought -- although Paul would scarcely have had time for one. He had completed the whole, perfect sketch in less than a minute.

"Any other takers?" Paul asked, in a tone that suggested there might have been a real question.

*

 

The forecast had called for frozen rain in the Hailiebury area, but by the time we pulled onto the mine road the air was just beginning to fill with fine, January-hard snowflakes. They caught in the crevasses and crannies of the low cliffs that rimmed the mine-road, making thin white lines like capillaries of frozen quartz.

I watched Paul's tail-lights through the scratch of snow. He drove an old Ford panel van, and he had set up a small household in the back of it -- a foam-rubber mattress near the back for sleeping, a little chemical toilet tucked in a jury-rigged bracket behind the driver's seat, a big cooler filled with enough groceries to feed him for several weeks if need be. And a 12-gauge shotgun with a box of ammunition, in a case beside the mattress, for painting trips during bear season. Paul made his living from his painting, but it wasn't enough of a living to spring for a week in a motel every time he went off on an overnight painting trip. The rest of us followed his lead.

It was scarcely four o'clock, but darkening towards night already, when we finally reached the pit-heads of the Royal Mine. We pulled up on the edge of a wide gravel turnaround maybe three hundred feet downslope from the nearest of the two pit-heads.

The turnaround was near the top of a great boulder of a hill, gouged by glaciers from the tiny slit of a lake that was barely visible through a stand of poplar to the north. The two ancient pit-heads rode that hill's peak, like signal-towers for some forgotten empire.

"We won't have enough light to get any work done tonight," said Paul as he emerged from his van. "But we should be able to go up and have a look inside before nightfall." He hefted a big, ten-battery flashlight on a shoulder-strap he'd tied together from old boot-laces.

Harry put his hands in the small of his back and stretched, making a noise like an old man. "Are those things safe?" he asked.

Paul tromped past him up the slope towards the nearest pit-head. "Not entirely," he said simply. "No, not entirely."

*

 

The pit-head was in disuse that year, so the main room underneath the tower was black and empty. Before anyone went in, Paul speared the flashlight beam inside and ran down a brief inventory of what would otherwise have filled the darkness: the great cable spool, driven by a diesel motor in the back of the hoist house, connected to a wheel that would perch in the very top of the tower, where the belfry would be if this were a church. The bare rock floor of the hoist-house was empty, though, the tower just a dark column of cold, lined by beams and tarpaper; according to Paul, the Royal company had moved their operation out of here three years ago, and had warehoused anything remotely portable in Hailiebury. He ran the flashlight beam across the floor in the middle of the chamber, where the cable would have attached to the lift platform. At first, I couldn't even see the mouth of the pit: Jim had to point it out.

"It's pretty small," said Jim, and he was right: the hole leading into the depths of the Royal Mine wasn't more than eight feet on a side.

"This was one of the first mines in the area," said Paul. "One of the ladies from Hailiebury told me it dates back to 1903, when the whole silver rush got its start. Story goes that a prospector found a vein of silver by accident, getting his boot out from where it stuck in a crack in the rock. This pit wouldn't be legal if it'd been dug today -- the minimum width now is something like ten feet."

"You sound like a god-damned tour guide," I said.

Paul chuckled. "Why don't you go in and take a look for yourself, Graham?"

Not taking my eyes off the pit, I stepped inside the structure. The top of the tower was partly open, and the north wind blew a steady beer-bottle C-sharp across it.

"How deep is it?" asked Harry.

"I didn't ask." Paul's flashlight beam followed me like a spotlight as he spoke.

As I got closer to the edge of the pit, it seemed as though the ground were actually sloping inward towards it, growing unsteady beneath my feet. A smell of machine oil and something like must wafted out of the hole. I stepped back.

"That's good, Graham," said Paul, motioning me back to the wall with the flashlight. "Don't get too close to the opening. I'd hate to have to tell your mother we left you at the bottom."

Both Jim and Harry sniggered at that, and I laughed as well, with deliberate good humor. I backed up a few more steps, until my shoulders were pressed against an old wooden ladder. The wood felt soft, ancient; like it would crumble under my weight.

"You find this place inspirational, do you Paul?" I asked, fighting to keep the quaver out of my voice.

"The Art League ladies swear by it."

The ladder shifted minutely behind my back. From up high, a sprinkle of sand fell, catching like a miniature nebula in the flashlight beam. I tried to imagine how far that sand would fall into the earth before it found something to settle on.

"Well, we can't let Graham here soak up all the juice," said Harry. He stepped inside and peered up into the dark, nose wrinkling.

"Smells in here," he said finally. Jim stepped inside, sniffing.

Behind me, the ladder shifted again, and more dirt fell into the mine. The wind shifted up a half-tone in pitch and with it, the timbers high in the tower creaked. I let go of the ladder and inched further along the wall. I felt like a reluctant suicide on a high-rise window ledge.

"Paul, be a good man and swing that flashlight up there," said Harry, pointing to the top of the ladder. His voice was quiet, almost a monotone. Paul obeyed, and slashed the beam up through the cascade of sand, to the place where Harry pointed.

"Jesus H. Christ!"

I don't know which one of us yelled it; it might have been me, for all the attention I was paying. The only thing I know for sure is that it didn't come from the narrow platform at the top of the ladder, where the light-circle finally came to rest.

There was a man at the top of the ladder.

The light reflected back at us three times: dimly in each lens of the round safety goggles that he wore underneath his helmet, much brighter from the Cyclops-lens of his own helmet-mounted light. He wore a snowsuit, bright yellow underneath, but obscured by thick, hardening smears of mud. A shadow from a cross-beam fell on his chest and chin, enshrouding his features utterly. His arms dangled at his side, and in the mitten of his left hand, he clutched a crow-bar.

Harry lifted his hands -- as though the crow-bar were a rifle, and the miner were a policeman placing the four of us under arrest.

"Hey fellow," he said. "Just thought we'd take a look around before it got too dark up here. Hope we're not trespassing."

The stranger stood stock still, and didn't answer immediately. He was about fifteen feet above us, on a narrow platform that seemed to extend around the entire second storey of the mine-head. The ends of the narrow-gauge tracks that the mine carts rode on extended out into space from the platform near his feet.

"Bonjour, Monsieur Peletier." The voice was deep and gravelly, and the man up top didn't move as he spoke. It was almost as though the voice had come from somewhere else -- the top of the pit-tower, maybe the depths of the mine itself. But Paul answered readily enough, and with an easy familiarity that sent a premonitory chill through me.

"Bonjour, Monsieur Tevalier. Ils sont ici -- oui, mon pere, ils sont toutes ici."

Paul's Northern Quebec French has always been a challenge for me, but even without the benefit of my Grade 10 French, the meaning of that simple sentence would have been unmistakable:

They are here -- yes, my father, all of them.

No sooner had Paul spoken than the miner's left hand opened and the crowbar clattered to the floorboards over our heads. He stepped back, and for the briefest instant as the shadows passed from his face, we could see him -- an absurdly weak chin framed by mutton-chop sideburns the color of dirty snow; hard yellow flesh, drawn tight as a drum skin across high cheekbones; and of course, we could see his teeth. They were like nails, hammered down through the gums so far that they extended a full inch over the lips.

Paul turned the light away as the creature leaned forward. As it raised its arms to fall, I heard the flick of a flashlight switch and that light disappeared. Something moved in front of the door, and the darkness of the pit-head became absolute.

The creature took Harry first. He was the oldest among us, he'd been slowing down for years, and from that sheerly practical standpoint, I guess he made the easiest target. There were no screams; just a high whimper. The sound a beaten dog would make, if that dog were Harry Fairbanks.

"The rest of you, stand where you are," said Paul, his voice preposterously calm. "One wrong move, and you could find yourself dead at the bottom of the shaft."

"Oh, you bastard," said Jim, the words coming out in sobbing breaths, "oh you think you got us trapped in here, oh you God-damned bastard."

"Only for a moment," said Paul. "Only a moment. Stand still, and we'll all walk out of here together."

The whimper had devolved into a low moan, and it was quickly joined by another sound: dry clicks, the sound old men sometimes make with their throats, as they swallow their soup.

It was at that point, I think, that it occurred to me that Paul's warning to Jim didn't really apply to me: my back was still against the wall, and so long as I kept in contact with that wall, I'd be safe from making a wrong step into the pit. And the ladder to the second floor was only a step away.

Harry let loose a horrible, blood-wet cough, and with it, my decision was made: left hand still pressed against the rough tarpaper wall, I reached out and grabbed a rung of the ladder with my right. It was just as soft as I remembered it, but I didn't take the time to worry whether or not it would hold and in a single motion, swung myself around and started to climb.

The bottom rung snapped under my foot, but I was working on momentum at that point and managed to pull myself past it. The climb couldn't have taken more than a second or two, but it seemed like hours. I was torn between two dreads: of the moment the rungs snapped -- beneath my feet, or my hands, or both -- and I fell back into the mine; and of the instant that the creature below stopped swallowing, and reached up with whatever kind of claws it had hiding under those big miner's mitts, to grab my ankle and pull me back towards the pit.

But the clicking continued, and the ladder held, one rung and the next rung and the next, and finally when I reached for another rung, my hand fell instead on the rim of the second floor. As I scrambled to get up, my hand closed around the cold metal of the crow-bar the creature had dropped, and when I got to my feet, I hefted it in front of me like a club. There was marginally more light up here, and I took a moment to get my bearings. What remained of the day filtered in through cracks in the far wall, and reflected dull steel gleam off the mine-cart tracks even as they converged toward that wall. I couldn't see clearly, but I knew there would have to be a door there -- those tracks would lead out to the trestle, and the jagged heap of rocks that it traversed.

"Graham! For Christ's sake!" It was Paul, but I didn't take time to answer him. Something more important had suddenly occupied my attention:

The clicking had finally stopped.

And the ladder creaked under new weight.

I turned and ran towards the light. The floor was clear, but the boards had heaved over the years and I almost tripped twice before I finally fell, against the huge door at the end of the tracks. It rattled on its runners as I righted myself. Behind me, I heard the sound of wood snapping, and something grunted -- a sound a pig would make.

I found a metal handle about half-way up and lifted, but the door wouldn't budge. So I wedged the tip of the crowbar between the floor and the bottom of the door, and stepped on it. There were more splintering sounds; this time coming both from the door in front of me and the ladder behind me.

"Graham! Get back here!"

"Forget it, Paul!" I was surprised at how giddy my voice sounded, echoing back at me through the darkness.

"I'm doing you a God-damned favor!"

Whatever was holding the door shut gave way then, and I nearly lost the crowbar as it shot up with the force of the released tension. In a fast motion, I scooped up the crowbar under one arm, and lifted the door up with the other. The pit-head was briefly filled with gray November daylight and I let the door rest on my shoulder.

The creature was at the top of the ladder. It had cast off its helmet and goggles, revealing patchy whips of hair on a mottled yellow scalp, eyes that seemed all pupil -- they glittered blankly in the new light. Its chin and beard were slick with Harry's blood and its hands were claws. The gloves had been discarded on the way up, and they poked out of the snowsuit's sleeves, dead branches blackened by flame.

The thing held its arm up against the light for only an instant before it launched itself at me.

I swung my head under the door and, checking my footing on the trestle outside first, let go. The door clattered down, even as the creature fell against it.

I backed up a few steps and raised the crowbar again, this time holding it over my shoulder, like a baseball bat.

I don't know how long I stood there before it dawned on me that I could climb down any time I wanted; that it wasn't coming out.

Before it dawned on me just what kind of creature the thing inside the pit-head was.

I threw the crowbar ahead of me, and in careful fits and starts, made it to the ground.

*

 

Paul raised his hands and stepped away from the van. I held his 12 gauge cocked and ready at my shoulder, an open box of ammunition on the floor of the van beside the chemical toilet, which I was using as a stool. If the gun were to go off, it would do so with both barrels, and take Paul's head away in the process.

"Stay where I can see you," I told him, and he made no move to disobey. He was framed perfectly in the open panel. "But don't come any closer. No more tricks, all right?"

"I'm glad you weren't hurt," he said, and at that I swear I almost did shoot him.

"No thanks to you."

"No, Graham," said Paul, his voice very cool and reasonable considering his circumstances, "if you'd done what I told you to, stood still and waited for it, believe me -- you'd thank me."

"Yeah, Paul. Just like Jim and Harry are thanking you now. I want you to hand over the keys to the van."

"So you can just drive away? Leave all this, leave your work behind?" Paul stood still, kept his eyes on mine as he spoke. "I'm disappointed."

I'd been in the back of Paul's van for about an hour before he'd shown up, and once I'd pried open his gun case and found where he'd kept the ammunition, I'd had little to do but think. Paul had set us up -- set us up for something awful -- that much was clear. Other things were clear too, but it was the wrong kind of clarity; I needed confirmation.

"That miner -- that thing in the mine -- it drinks blood, doesn't it?" I demanded. "We're talking about a vampire, aren't we?"

"It's not the only one," replied Paul. "There are maybe twenty or thirty of them, living down in the tunnels. When the mine's active, they feed on the miners."

"And when it's not active, they kill the tourists."

Paul actually smiled at that. "Don't be stupid. They don't kill anyone; how long do you think they'd be able to survive here in these mines if they did? They just --" he searched for the word "-- just feed, they milk us if you like. And they always give something back. It's a transaction."

"So that thing in the pit-head -- the vampire -- didn't kill Harry?"

"He's sleeping in his car."

"Or Jim?"

"They're both fine."

I sat back and let that sink in for a moment. If Paul were telling the truth, my original plans -- stealing Paul's van at gun point, hightailing it to the OPP station in Hailiebury and reporting a brutal triple-killing-by-exsanguination at the Royal mine-head north of Cobalt -- would all bear some serious rethinking.

"What's the deal, Paul?" I finally asked. "Why'd you do this to us?"

"I didn't do it to you," he said, sounding a little exasperated. "I did it for you -- particularly for you, Graham."

"So you keep saying."

"Look: When you joined our little group three years ago, you were just out of art college. And even though you're pointing my own shotgun at my head and it's probably not the wisest thing for me to do, I'll tell you: your work wasn't much to look at then, and three years later, it's still not much to look at. You might as well be doing paint-by-numbers. You've got technical skills that Jim and Harry would both probably kill for -- hell, you went to art school for two years, you'd better have learned something -- but artistically? You're all cast from the same mold."

When Paul was done, I lowered the shotgun. If I’d left it trained on his forehead, the temptation to pull the trigger would have been too great to resist.

"It may hurt to hear that," continued Paul, "But I think it's the case. It's the case for all of you, and more days than not, it's the case for me too. Which is why when this opportunity arose, I couldn't pass it up. And I couldn't have let any of you pass it up either."

"What opportunity?" My voice sounded like metal in my head.

Paul shook his head. "How do you think," he said slowly, "the Women's Art League of Hailiebury managed to produce such consistently good work here? You think they were born with talent? Or maybe that it was God-given? They made an arrangement, Graham -- just like I did."

There was a rustling in the darkness behind Paul, and I raised the shotgun again. I could barely see Paul in the vanishing light; the shadows that emerged from the stand of spruce behind him seemed insubstantial.

"Let them inside," said Paul. "They'll change the way you see."

"Go to hell," I said.

 

*

 

The cold was fierce through the night, but I was glad for it; I managed to stay awake for all but a brief hour before dawn. Paul came by every so often, to check on me -- he was waiting, I guess, for me to slip, for the miners to take me the way they'd taken the rest of them, so he could get inside and use his cot for the night. He would pound on the side of the van, shout -- "Still corporeal, Graham?" -- and tromp off laughing every time I told him to go screw himself.

For their parts, the miners weren't half as annoying. Their claws made a noise like branches as they caressed the side of the van, but they stayed clear of the windows after I made it clear that I was quite willing to shoot the next one that tried to smash its way through the glass of the front windscreen, or tried to jimmy the door locks with its long talons. They kept clear of me to the extent that when I finally did nod off, at about 6:30 in the morning, it was Paul and not the miners that woke me up.

"Rise and shine, young Graham!" he hollered. "The sun's almost up, and it's time to get to work!"

I snapped alert, hefting the shotgun from where it had slid down between my legs. I looked out the front window and confirmed it was safe. Dawn was a thin wash of rose watercolor on the flat gray sheet of November cloud.

"You're not still mad at me, are you?" Paul stepped into view outside the windscreen. "Come on, Graham, at least give me the Coleman and the cooler -- the guys want some coffee."

I let go of the shotgun with my right hand, flexed my fingers; I could barely feel them. My feet were similarly numb. And the prospect of hot coffee was impossible to resist.

"I'm still mad at you," I said, and set the shotgun down on the floor. "Yes, you could say that."

I made the fingers of one hand into a claw around the handle of the side door; the thumb of the other hand pushed up the lock. The door slid open, and the fresh morning cold pushed the stale chill of my first night alone in the van into the vaults of memory.

*

 

I don't know why I stayed on the week. Harry, neck swathed in gauze and looking perversely healthy, better than he had in years, apologized for the troubles. He offered me a lift into town, even to pay for my bus ticket home if I wanted.

"The painter's life isn't for everybody," said Jim, still relishing his new artist's eye as he peered at the trees and hills through the "L" of his thumb and forefinger. "No shame in admitting that now rather than later."

Paul crouched against the wheel of Jim's Buick and stared at the pit-heads. They were black as coal in the scant morning light.

"No." I rubbed my hands together -- feeling was beginning to return to my fingertips, and I figured that by my second cup of coffee I'd be able to hold a brush again. "I came up here to paint some pictures."

"Suit yourself," said Harry.

And so I fell into the ritual of genial artistry that the three of them had established a decade ago and I had joined three years past. After an early breakfast, we all readied our paint kits, slung them on our shoulders and set out in different directions, to find our spots for the morning. Then it was work, about five hours straight, and back to the camp to compare notes and share some lunch.

In the afternoon, we'd go back to work -- sometimes in the same spot as the morning, sometimes we'd swap. We tried to avoid one another while painting -- there was no point in two of us working the same view -- but we'd occasionally wander by between panels, just to see how the other fellow was doing.

As the week wore on, I found that I was doing most of the wandering. After finishing a half-dozen so-so studies of the pit heads, the lake below them, the remains of a fallen spruce tree that lay smashed across the back of a boulder bigger than Paul's van, it seemed as though I'd exhausted the possibilities of the place.

So I wandered. And I watched, as Jim and Harry, even Paul, found their art in the skies and the soil of the Royal mine-head, and turned out some of the most accomplished work of their lives.

Harry painted the pit-heads almost exclusively. At first, he chose the highest vantage-point, and worked in tight series' of sketches that took my breath away. He used primarily shadow in preference to line to define form, spotting nuances in the light that I, with my art-school trained eye, could only see in the land after studying one of Harry's panels.

Jim did a couple of studies of the pit-heads, then moved off downslope to the lake, where he watched the ice as it spread its crystals, submerging and cracking here and there as winter struggled to solidify its hold on the mine lands. His paintings were abstracts, eggshell whites and stipples of gray and blue -- November ice was personified there. It was a complete departure for Jim that was no less shocking to him than it was to the rest of us.

Paul stayed with the pit-heads too. But unlike Harry, who circled them almost daily, Paul remained in a single position, and worked a single canvas, three feet on a side. In the past, Paul's work had always been characterized by a broad brush-stroke, form suggested rather than stated. Color had always been his medium.

With this canvas, Paul had discovered detail. And with his nightly visits to the pit-head with the other three, he had found the art with which to convey it. As I watched the intricate tapestry of his painting take form, the realization came to me:

Paul Peletier wouldn't need to teach art lessons in Cobalt any more. With work like this, he'd be able to write his own ticket.

None of the three were very good company when I visited them. Part of that no doubt was my fault; I'd been staying in Paul's van -- alone, awake most of the night and with a shotgun on my lap. It was clear that I made them uncomfortable. And they, frankly, had better things to do than pass the time with me -- they moved brush between pallet and panel with the hungry compulsion of newfound genius.

In my sleep-starved state, I compared badly against them. My outlines were tentative, frequently poorly-drafted; my colors became muddy and indistinct as I tried again and again to correct them, make them match the land there, the sky.

On the fifth morning at the pit-heads, I knew I couldn't put it off any longer. When we finished breakfast and split up for the morning's work, instead of getting my paint-kit, I went back to Paul's van and picked up the shotgun, a box of shells, his flashlight, and a coil of yellow safety rope. As stealthily as I could, I made my way back up to the pit-head.

The cloud had broken that day, and the mine-heads were bathed in clean sunlight for the first time since we'd arrived. But as I stepped inside, it was as ever, as dark as midnight.

*

 

I tied the rope off against one of the larger beams supporting the tower. The shotgun had a strap, and I hung it over my shoulder while I wrapped the flashlight string around my forearm. It dangled aiming downward as I lowered myself into the pit.

By this time, I'd stopped being angry with Paul. I still wasn't about to come around to his way of thinking, but I realized that he hadn't been lying to me -- he was only thinking of my best interests as an artist when he brought me here. He was doing me a favor, opening a door.

And he was, in large part at least, right. The destination beyond was a place that I very much wanted to be. It was just that Paul's door was not the route I wanted to take to get there.

I wrapped the rope twice around my waist, looped and tied the end, and, kicking the last vestiges of snow off my boots, lowered myself into the shaft.

I only lost my footing twice, both times near the end of my descent. The walls had become slippery with ice, and the first time I managed to recover my footing perfectly. The second time came just before the opening of the topmost tunnels, where rock had given way and crumbled around the tunnel's edge. I clutched the rope as it burned against my mittens, swinging free in the narrow shaft. Eventually I propelled myself inside.

The smell I'd first noticed at the top of the pit was stronger here: Heated metal and smoldering engine oil, an underlying badness that pervades old industrial sites -- or, I guess, mineshafts that’ve gone dry.

I slung the flashlight in front of me, lowered the shotgun to my side, and peered ahead.

At the time, I don't think I knew precisely what it was that I was looking for. I certainly wasn't there to let the miners -- the creatures, the vampires -- feed on me; I didn't want to cement any transaction in that way. I still like to think that, had they been given a choice, Jim and Harry would have come to the same conclusion.

These miners had something, all right. But they weren’t only doling out art lessons -- those miners took something different away in return for their blood. And simply because they had so far only bestowed in exchange for blood was no reason to assume that blood was the only coin they understood -- or that trade was the only way to draw the genius out of them. I hefted the shotgun to remind myself of that possibility.

The tunnel was wider than it was high at first, and I had to stoop under lips of shale and thick, tarred cross-beams as I moved along. After a time, the tunnel widened out to a space that must have been used as a lunch room when the mine was active. I played the light over the few artifacts that the miners had left: a metal-topped table, surrounded by four folding metal chairs; a stack of more chairs, leaning against an oblong wooden box -- an oblong box! -- which I pried open with shaking hands only to find it empty but for three badly-corroded car batteries.

Sitting on the table was a fabulous anachronism -- an ancient oil lamp, with a single crack snaking up from its base. Layers of soot made the glass nearly opaque. It would make a good still-life, I thought, and laughed quietly.

I should have brought my paint-kit down.

  *

 Beyond the lunch room, the tracks ended and the tunnel took a steep downward slope. There were no steps, but long stems of cedar had been bolted to the rock wall on either side, making banisters. I descended the staircase, such as it was, and at the bottom found a room filled with buckets, made of wood slats and iron hoops and filled with a black liquid that was, after all, only water. The tunnel continued beyond that, and as I followed it I noticed that the long wires and wire-mesh lighting fixtures that had been stapled to the ceiling had been replaced by ornate lamp-shelves, such as one might have found in a home around here, before the advent of electricity.

I had stopped for a moment, resting against the wall between two of these low sconces, when the miners found me.

 *

Three of them stepped into the light, and stood frozen there as I hefted my shotgun. Unlike the first creature I'd seen in the pit-head, these wore nothing but a few rags over limbs that were taut with sinew. Their eyes were round and reflected back the flashlight beam like new pennies. The hair on their scalps and their chins was thin, and shockingly white.

"Don't come any closer," I said.

In response, the tunnel filled with a low chattering. I caught fragments of thick Quebecois French, mixed with other sounds: whistles, clicking; a pig-grunt; a wet, bronchial wheeze.

I don't think they understood me any better than I understood them. But they understood the shotgun all right. The trio watched me for a moment longer, then one of them turned and vanished into the dark. When the other two followed, I was after them.

We ran deeper into the mine. If the floor had been rough as the upper tunnels, I don't think I would have been able to keep up. But the rock down here was so smooth it seemed to have been carved, not dug.

The creatures finally escaped me in a wide room -- so wide that its walls were beyond the reach of my flashlight. It had a low slate ceiling, supported with thick wooden posts at regular intervals. I stopped, scanned my flashlight across the shadows around me.

"Bonjour, mon petit."

It was the same voice we'd heard in the pit-head. The one that had spoken to Paul, with such familiarity.

Paul had called it, what? Monsieur Tevalier. Mon Pere.

Father.

"Show yourself," I said.

Monsieur Tevalier's breath made a frosting on the hairs of the back of my neck.

I whirled, barely in time to face him. But I couldn't get the shotgun up as well. The flashlight fell to the ground and I felt his talons dig into my coat. I only caught the barest glimpse of his face as he lifted me into the dark. The mutton-chops had darkened, and the flesh on his cheeks had reddened, plumped out with the new blood.

"Vous étudiez avec le mâitre," said the vampire -- then, in thickly-accented English: "I show you the way."

  *

 How was it for Paul, the rest of them? How was it for the miners, for that matter -- who made their own dark bargains here in the earth beneath Cobalt?

I can't say for sure, but it must have been different than the darkness was for me. The twin punctures of the vampire's teeth would have been an utter shock to them -- until the moment it occurred, they would have had no reason to expect such a complete invasion as the vampire would have perpetrated.

I was prepared for the attack, though. Where five days earlier I might have looked away -- forgotten the assault -- as Monsieur Tevalier pierced the flesh of my throat in the rooms beneath Cobalt, I did not lose myself.

Tevalier spoke through my blood, and I was attentive.

He and his kind had been in the land here for as long as the mines had been in Cobalt, moving between the great rocks that remained when the world last thawed. As my blood pulsed down his throat in clicking gulps, he showed me: the earth pulsed too, and that essence that moved through it also flowed through Tevalier, through me. If Tevalier drained me, swallowed all my blood, then the earth's pulse would be all there was. The clarity would be absolute, because I and his land would be as one. In the early days of Cobalt, before the pit-heads and the I wondered at what the miners, the prospectors, would have made of that clarity.

Because there was the secret of Tevalier's gift. It dwelt in the razor-line between my heartbeat, absolute insularity -- my life -- and the earth's simpler rhythm, a final subsumation to the external -- my death.

Should I ever stray too far, one way or the other, there would be Tevalier, waiting in the pit-head to nudge me back onto the artist's one true path. Did I understand the depth of my dependency? he asked me through my blood. I felt his tongue on my neck, rough like a cat's. Then, with the care of a physician removing a long hypodermic, he withdrew.

I thought again about the prospectors -- thought about the strange town they had built on the earth above, the mining companies that had prospered in it, and the terrible bargain that had founded it.

Did I understand the depth of my dependency?

Before he could withdraw completely, I swung the barrels of the shotgun up, pressed them against the brittle flesh and bone that covered the vampire's heart.

"Je comprend," I whispered, and pulled both triggers.

*

 

The hardest part of getting out of the mine-head was the climb up the rope, something I hadn't expected. But the run up along the tunnel had proven exhausting, and I was light-headed already with the loss of my blood. When I fired off the last two shells back into the tunnel, the recoil nearly knocked me into the shaft. The buckshot did its job though, sending the two vampires that followed me screaming back into the depths. I wanted to rest then, wanted the escape to be finished, but of course I could not, and it was not. I had to ascend the rope.

I lost the shotgun, and nearly lost the flashlight on the way up. Finally I did have to rest, so I tied myself off and dangled there in the shaft, the timber creaking above me and my limbs feeling like meat below; I had the feet of a hanged man.

From the depths, the vampires whispered a cacophony. I had removed their head with Tevalier, taken the one who had made them, shown them their own line -- evidently, they had much to discuss. When I resumed my ascent, the whispers had grown quieter, and nearer.

It was near noon when I reached the top of the shaft, and that may have been what saved me. Cobalt is too far north for the sun to have shone straight down the open tower in November, but it made a bright yellow square among the upper rafters, and the light filtered down through the dust to make the pit-head brighter than I'd ever seen it. Clutching at the numbness in my throat, I stumbled to the door and out into the afternoon.

Only as the sun set, five hours later, was I able to calm Paul down and convince him that we had to leave Cobalt before dark. And then, I think it was only the screaming, hungry and subterranean as it echoed from the dark of the pit-heads, that convinced him:

Tevalier was gone; and with him went the razor-line that protected us, and gave us our art.

*

That summer, the Women's Art League of Hailiebury disbanded, after an early-June tragedy that made the national news reports and forced a six-week coroner's inquest. But throughout that inquest, not one witness stepped forward to charge that the deaths of Elsie LaFontaine and Betty-Ann Sale were the result of anything other than stepping too close to the edge of the mine-shaft.

In 1978, the shanty-town houses of North Cobalt were destroyed by a fire so huge it lit the sky for a hundred miles and kept them warm in Quebec. The Ontario Fire Marshall’s office raised the possibility of arson a number of times in the course of its inquiries. But never was it remarked -- at least not in public -- how close some of the old mine tunnels came to the surface in that section of town. The news reports never dwelt upon the prevailing view in southern Cobalt -- that North Cobalt wasn't so much burned, as it was cauterized.

Painting was good in that time. We took precautions, of course; when he got back to his studio, Paul went down to the library in town and came up with a whole list of them. Chains of garlic; Catholic-blessed Holy Water; crucifixes, one for each neck; and silver coins, to cover the eyes. He put them together in a green strongbox, and never came within a hundred miles of Cobalt without his Equipment. I preferred the simpler approach, and as my painting career allowed me to afford it, I expanded my arsenal to the very limits of the prevailing Canadian gun laws.

When the vampires came to our camp outside the pit-heads, we knew how to deal with them. We only allowed them enough blood to complete the transaction: attempts to get any more were met with garlic and holy water and buckshot. The razor’s edge remained, even in Tevalier’s absence.

It paid off for us all over the years. Jim went professional in the early 1980s and moved to New York in '86. Paul abandoned oils and embraced watercolor, and for five years made a fortune off royalties from art books and calendars featuring reproductions of his hyper-realistic landscapes and naturalist paintings.

We nearly lost Harry in 1981, when he got too close to the edge one night; after that he got spooked and stopped coming out. But he'd produced some damned fine panels in the meantime, and I know they'd pleased him.

And for myself, I did fine, I think; a lot of good work over those years. The rise of my career was far from meteoric -- I have yet to see my work on postage stamps, the biggest interview I ever gave was to the North Bay Nugget, and I've still never been able to afford a new car. But groceries are never a question and I keep the furnace going all winter long.

The mining companies finally surrendered in 1985, and tore down every one of the pit-heads, capped the holes. In a way, I'm surprised it took them as long as it did; for Paul and Jim and Harry and me, adaptation was relatively easy -- we were only up there two or three weeks out of the year, and when we were there, we knew how to behave. But the men who ran the companies in Cobalt didn’t adapt so well; they didn't even have enough sense to put a guard-rail around the edges of their shafts -- let alone recast the bargains that had made them wealthy in the early years.

It was a scary time for us, in the years after the pit-heads came down. Paul stopped painting altogether, and has sat in an artistic paralysis ever since. Jim traded on his reputation and actually made the cover of Esquire after he hired a loyal coven of apprentices to do the actual painting, while he busied himself with what his publicist calls conceptualization, articulation. He's done quite well for himself, but I don't think he'll ever work again.

I, on the other hand, kept on painting. My work's gotten repetitive over the years, but I keep a couple of dealers in Toronto happy -- if nothing else, my pictures are a good match for the style of sofa-beds and arm-chairs that well-heeled doctors and their wives favor as they furnish their cottages in Muskoka.

Art is in the narrow line between life and death -- Tevalier was right on that score. I walked that line with Jim and Harry and Paul for more than a decade, against all my better judgment; and I'll admit, it does offer its intoxication.

Now, the pit-heads are down, the pictures there are done. Cobalt has been bled dry -- of silver; of art; and of blood. The bargain, whatever coin it was that sealed it, is finished.

But here’s the thing: in that bargain’s wake, the town of Cobalt persists -- a little quieter, maybe, hunched a bit around the scarred land and flesh that the Tevalier and the prospectors and the mining companies that came after left behind. But the town accepts its strange shape, acknowledges its new limitations. Within them all, it persists.

I’ve been warped by Tevalier’s knowledge, too, and bent again by its absence. But when I wake up in the morning, after I’ve driven away the nightmares with my coffee and an egg and seen to the other mundane chores, I still pick up my brush and set to work. Because when art is finished, the land remains.

And whatever may have transpired in the past -- whatever Tevalier's grave-cold shade accuses, in the small, quiet hours of the night -- I don’t need a bargain with anyone to paint that land.

*