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From Thunder, To Silence


There was thunder in the mountain, and we were disoriented in the dark. We couldn’t see each other; we couldn’t hear. Only touch. And smell. The smell of smoke and burnt flesh. It was Jim. We all thought it. He was closest to the dynamite.

The world was a flip book with black, vacant pages and a white noise. Am I dead? We all thought it as we scrambled in the dirt. When we found each other, we smiled even though no one could see our blackened teeth. We stared at each other without eyes and we yelled without the ability to hear: “What’s happened?” We maintained touch because it was all we had to grasp the world with, and I thought of naked mole rats and I thought this must be the sum of their existence. Then, I thought of graves and my brother. We always had so much in common.


I associated the blast of gunshot with the smoke. I figured it was something atmospheric because the sound made me think of air splitting. The next time I heard something that loud was twenty five years later in a mine in Georgetown, Colorado; it sounded like the clap of God.

Franky showed me how to reload it and bragged of how many “Confederate Bastards” he’d kill with it. I said, “You’ll get some kind of reward, or something.” Then he told me that louder was always better; that it was manly to be loud, so I screamed at the top of my lungs, and he laughed. “Looks like you’re quite the man, Henry!” And I smiled.

The next time I saw my brother, a month after the Union’s victory, I had to dig into the earth to find him. When my nails finally peeled back some flakes of cold skin, I realized he was sleeping, and so I covered him back up to keep him warm. But I knew he was dead and he wasn’t just sleeping.


Boulders rolled and crashed. We rediscovered our sense of hearing just in time to hear the sound of Fletcher’s bones shatter under the rock, and then, when we heard it, we all wished we could run back to the blessed ignorance of the deaf.

When the air settled, King lit an oil lamp and we could see. I looked at my new brothers cowering on the ground, and thought of our migration from Ohio to Colorado and our dreams of striking gold. King was the only man standing, our father. I remembered grabbing a dusty key from his clean hand five months earlier. “Welcome to Georgetown,” he said. “You’ll be living by the lake.” He gave me a pick and a hard-hat. “See you in the morning.”

There were nine dead; Fletcher and Jim and seven others. We could only identify Jim by the tan jacket with a faded pony sewn into it by his daughter, because there was nothing left of his flesh. The others were hunks of meat. I thought of the Georgetown butcher and his cleavers hanging on the wall and how he once joked that man-meat “tasted like chicken,” because he loved to scare his customers.

“Stop looking.” King was always efficient, always prepared. He liked to brag about his efficiency. “The mine has caved. We’re going to need to find another way around.” We sat and stared at him with our noodle legs. “Get up! We need to get out now. There’ll be no air soon.”

We moved as sheep move, and we followed as sheep follow. Our shepherd guided us. We walked in the confines of the tunnel until the mine opened up to us like a Venus flytrap.

I looked up and remembered the feel of the sky.


The crowd cheered for a top hat and a funny beard; they cheered for justice. When he spoke, he was charismatic and I felt something inside of me stir. I cheered with them all and my mother, at my side, said “Henry, you’re just like your brother.” I took it as a compliment, even if wasn’t supposed to be one.

He honored the deliverance of the slaves and we cheered. He honored justice and the declaration of freedom and we cheered. He honored all those who died in pursuit of that freedom and a crumb of me melted into his beard. “What an incredible speech!” I beamed. My mother frowned. “It’s that sort of talk that loses mothers their sons.”

She left the audience but I stayed because that’s what Franky would have done.

Years later, that would be my reason to enter the mines of Georgetown, Colorado. Leanne would tell me “that’s a stupid reason to risk your life,” but I wouldn’t listen. She would get angry at me for preferring the metal in the earth to the metal around my finger. “Take a walk by the lake,” I’d say. “I’ll be back before you know it.” Then I would go to the mines. Because that’s what Franky would have done.


A man named Arthur screamed. He’d fallen into the mine pit, and I imagined the flytrap’s maw slamming shut. There was a fragile moment where he hung to the dirt like an infant gripping at its mother’s shirt, just before he plummeted into the pit, when he stared at us with glassy eyes, but we were motionless because we were horrible brothers.

King once said, “There’s no room for heroes in the mines.” And he looked at me and asked, “You a hero, boy?”

He asked all of us back in the town before letting us take a swing at his whores. And we answered with pocketed hands while we watched Arthur die. There are no heroes in mineshafts; there are only humans.

King continued the spiral descent and we followed, minding our careless footsteps as we went along. King hummed to himself and asked if I was still married to Leanne. I told him I was, and he snickered. A few of us spat into the hole on our right and counted the seconds before it splattered on the ground. We never heard the impact.

“It’s a far way down boys,” said King. “Luckily, the tunnel out of here is only halfway down.” The rest of us nodded and stared solemnly into the abyss, then turned back to the path at our feet that was crumbling because of the explosion. We tip-toed like dancers, guided by a florescent lantern, and hoped we wouldn’t be the next to fall. With every step, our throats tightened and our heads inflated. The air was thin, and it became more and more reluctant to accommodate us into the earth.

I will die soon. I will run out of air. We all thought it; I know we did. We wanted to speak, just to maintain contact so that we could comfort, but none of us wanted to be the first to do it. Instead, we focused on dirt, and I wondered if Leanne was still walking by the lake.


The train whistle blew and steam bellowed into the heavy air. It was hard to breathe through the smog of “goodbyes” and “I’ll-return-soons” because she knew that he will never return. I turned to my mother and said the same thing, but hoped that she realized it was a social formality, and that she understood the truth. She asked “Will you be safe?” and I said, “Of course.” She wiped her eye with a handkerchief. “I swore I would never have to wave goodbye to another son again.” I smiled and patted her on the back. “I know.” She waved until she morphed into a speck on the horizon, and I refused to cry because men don’t cry.

When the Rocky Mountains rose like tidal waves over the dreary Great Plains, I thought of Franky and his determination to a cause. He always knew what had to be done and how he had to go about doing it. I remembered him punching my arm after signing his life over to a Confederate bullet at Gettysburg. I told him I was proud to call him my brother. He smiled and punched me again.

When we got to Georgetown, we were greeted by King and his whores. The deal was a fuck per gold nugget. Silver got us a blow job. A wise ass asked if touching was free, but the King and his whores only stared at him. I’m pretty certain he died on his first day in the mine because I never saw him after that. Or maybe he tried touching without the nuggets to show, so the King had to cut his balls off. Leanne tells me it was the latter and that she was the whore he tried to touch. A man has an obligation to believe his wife.

We all talked shit about the whores. We told them they were filthy and we told them to bend over. But Leanne told me that every man she ever took to the bed spent an hour afterwards telling her that they loved her, and they brushed her hair and kissed her nose. But they never admitted to it. Leanne figured that for every hour spent exposed, the men would spend three days insulting their whore until she swore she would cut his balls off if he ever tried it with her again. Three days for one hour, Leanne said. That was the equation.

When Leanne and I got engaged, King was bitter. The rumor around town was that he was angry because Leanne was his favorite whore, and that he never thought she’d really settle down, and that if she did, it would be with him. I asked Leanne if the rumors were true, but I never got a straight answer.

She told me she was pregnant and that I couldn’t go into the mine, because I had to be a father. But a father supplies for his family, so I told Leanne that I had to go. I told her, “Take a walk by the lake,” and walked out of the house to the mine, leaving her with dripping eyes on the couch.


The walkway collapsed before the miners had time to scream. There was only the sound of the dirt and rock crushing pulpy bodies. I turned to find only three out of the original twenty of us remaining. King told us we had to keep going, and that time was of importance, but we couldn’t help but stare into the pit and imagine their broken bodies at the bottom of it. I lingered and thought of Franky.

The tunnel slithered deeper into the mountain until our eyes hazed and our brains screamed at our lungs for oxygen they couldn’t provide. We swayed back and forth, clutching the walls for support because our legs refused to move any further. King said that the lift was just around the next bend, but after he’d said that seven bends back, we all stopped hoping that we were close and realized that King only said it for motivation. This must be the life of a naked mole rat, I told myself. This must be the sum of their existence.

Then, a man named David stopped moving. He collapsed to the dirt. King said “The lift is just around the next bend,” and David laughed. Black spittle dribbled down his chin. “I have a wife back home, in Virginia,” he said. “If any of you ever get back out there, tell her…” he coughed more of the black tar. “Tell her I’m sorry I never gave her children.” King stared and nodded, rubbing his hands on David’s shoulder. His eyes bulged from his head because the skin around them had been stapled to the bone. I tried not to stare. “Leanne’s pregnant isn’t she?”

He stared me with his bulging marbles and I nodded because speaking required air. He coughed a hunk of tar into his hand and stared at it. “You shouldn’t speak,” said King. “Save your air.” David laughed. “I like the sound of my voice.” We smiled at him; there in the tunnel while the dying flame flickered, and he laughed then lay still as the last breath wisped through his lips.

We left him smiling and moved on, only the two of us struggling in dwindling light. I conserved my air with shortened breaths, and thanked my mother for forcing me to swim as a child, while King’s face was skeletal. He probably wasn’t a good swimmer.

The tunnel kept winding and fatigue splintered King’s stride. He grabbed hold of the wall and handed me the torch because holding the damn thing up took too much effort for him. I offered to help him, but he rejected the offer. I guess I had to admire the man’s fortitude, even if it meant his death. We made it another two bends before he collapsed.


“I don’t like the dark,” my brother told me the night before he left. “I don’t like the finality of it.” We sat in the barn with a hundred candles burning stale air. “Well it’s a good thing we have all these candles,” I said. He laughed and punched my arm.

We walked every square inch of the farm that night looking at the ground. We didn’t speak of the war, or of guns. We counted cornstalks to pass the time, because we were both exhausted, but neither of us wanted to be the first to call it a night, and when we came to the northeast corner, my brother asked me, “How many does that make?” I laughed and told him I had lost count a long time ago.

We watched the sun rise over the cornfields, setting row after row ablaze with oceans of gold. Franky smiled and licked the light on his lips, then looked over at me. “You’ll have your own war to fight, some day,” he told me. “I don’t want to fight in any wars,” I said. He laughed and asked if I was too afraid to fight. I told him I didn’t like fighting. “All the same,” he said, “you will have one.”

That morning he left in a green carriage pulled by a black horse with a scar on its neck. There were birds in the sky, screaming. They rode off into the east, pulling away from me, under the belly of the sun, while the fiery orb came to greet me in the sky.


King whispered and I could barely hear him over the sound of my brain screaming. “I’ve always hated these fucking mines.” He laughed and the same black tar that crusted David’s chin dribbled down King’s neck. I wondered if it was on my face as well, but didn’t want to waste the energy to check. Instead I nodded. “I never got married,” he said. “Women are good for fucking, but that’s about it.” He gazed up into the ceiling as if he could see through the mountain, the busty whores waiting for him beneath his bed sheets. “I’m an efficient man, Henry. I’m a good man.” He looked back at me. “Tell me I’m a good man, Henry.” I nodded because I didn’t want to waste air. He smiled, “Leanne was my best whore. Don’t know how you got her to leave my bed, but you’re a lucky man for having that one.” I grimaced at the thought of my wife in the bed of another man. “But I’ll tell you one thing.” He coughed a clot of tar onto his chest. “I’ve spent most of my life in this hole. Sometimes I try to calculate how many hours I’ve spent beneath the earth, and how many I’ve spent under the sun, so I could compare them. But when I sit down to calculate, I can’t bring myself to do it, because I already know the result.” He grabbed my shoulder and leaned in to me. “A man comes to this mine to prove himself and to find wealth.” His eyes swam like frantic fish. “But let me tell you, there’s only dirt.” He released his grip and slumped back, then coughed the remains of his blood.

I didn’t think I’d live; I began to crawl. When I looked at my hands, I couldn’t see the skin through the dirt. When the torch died, I fumbled along walls, hoping to feel metal. I thought of the irrelevance of time in a world that stood still, and I thought of the rock and how it hadn’t moved it centuries. I couldn’t tell whether my eyes were open or closed.

Should I panic? I always imagined some glorification to death, like a parade before the big event that got the audience prepped and warmed up before they were hurled into the heat of a baseball game. I thought there was supposed to be a lot of noise. But the only noise came from my shuffling along in the dirt. I didn’t have enough air to make much more, and I didn’t have enough air to panic.

When my hand brushed against metal, my feeble heart leaped. I tried to smile but the skin was stretched so thinly across my cheeks that it hurt when any of the muscles moved. Nonetheless, I rejoiced. When my fingers found the lever, I squeaked and forced my taut skin into a smile, and then pushed the lever up. The metal clanked and grinded against the rock while the pulley system flexed its stiff joints that it hadn’t flexed in years, and the cage lifted off the ground. I opened my mouth in dire hopes for air.

I stared up until I saw the sun, and I thought of Franky, and I thought of my mother, and I thought of Leanne, and I thought of my son still nestled in her belly.

I stared down. I thought of rock, and then I thought of nothing. I turned back to the sun.


There was only the sound of a damp wind. It brushed against the leaves and moved along the grass like a phantom, while I stood in a grave with broken fingernails, panting, and the phantom stroked my hair.

I knew he wasn’t sleeping because his chest was still, and his skin was blue. But maybe that’s just because of the weather, and he’s just cold, and maybe he’s just holding his breath; he was always an excellent swimmer. I remembered how he once said, “There’s honor in a spot in the earth with brothers.” So maybe that’s what he was doing. Maybe he was just being honorable.

My mother always said Franky was a leader, and that whatever he did, I would do as well. She told me to think for myself, but I can’t help it if he’s already thought all my thoughts. She said, “That’s a strong boy,” about Franky. “That boy will be a leader someday.” When he went off to war, she didn’t like thinking about her eldest son in the earth. She never suspected that was where he’d end up.

I touched his cheek, but only for a moment. “Never touch a dead body,” my teacher had said. “Even if it’s a family member?” “Especially if it’s a family member.” I touched my brother again, and then looked up.

His tombstone was a tower that cast an enormous shadow, and even though it was brand new, the words already seemed faded. I had been in the hole for three hours and I wondered if my mom wondered where I was. I told myself only ten more seconds.

Ten. “To endure,” his epitaph read. Nine. I thought of how my brother always wanted to be a man, and not a boy. Eight. He bought his first gun at the age of ten, even though our mother told him not to. Seven. I tried to buy one, too. Six. When he left, my mother hugged me and refused to let go. Five. When I told her she was hurting me, she told me she loved me, so I let her squeeze some more. Four. He told me what it meant to be a man the day we shot guns together. Three. It had something to do with making a legend, but I was too young to understand. Two. I wouldn’t understand what it was to be a man for years, and that, in truth, it was something else entirely. One. “To endure.”


There was silence. Like judgment. And I stepped into the sun with a sense of discovery.


Mark Mangelsdorf has been published in Ski Racing Magazine and Umbrellagraph Journal and currently resides in Boulder, Colorado


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