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Dust

a short story by Carolyn Leigh

Willis was always cleaning bones out of the mine. He squinted into the gloom at the entrance as he fished around for the old key in the pocket of his jeans. Back in the mine, beyond the padlocked grate of the door, the shadows of ancient ore cars loomed ominously. In front of Willis, peering expectantly inside, stood a sturdy little boy, a fair copy of his dark-haired uncle.

Behind them the waste dump spilled sugar bowl fashion down the hillside. Scrub oak and yucca grew ever green on the south ledges of the little canyons and hills while a few junipers thrust up from the water furrows on the north. The sky usually hung clear dry when they came, since even jeeps seldom got up the mine road during the rainy seasons. Sometimes, on late summer days such as this one, the little intermittent stream below the old abandoned rail spar still ran. It flowed ocher and turquoise after it passed the dump. When it dried, the pocket pools took on the look of paint pots left by a wandering and confused artist.

"You find the key yet, Uncle Willis?" the boy questioned impatiently.

"Yup, don't I always?" He handed the key down to the boy. "Now you all see if you're tall enough to unlock it by yourself this time."

They had been at this game for several years now. Every year Pliny got closer, but he still wasn't there yet. The dump below the entrance kept eroding out during the heavy summer rains, just enough to keep the padlock beyond his reach. Willis reached down, hoisted the boy about six inches off the ground and let him turn the key in the lock.

"Now stand back," Willis told him. "Can't tell what we're gonna wake up this morning."

It amazed them how many critters came in and set up housekeeping in the front of the mine. The barn owls left their pellets strewn over the floor, full of snake skulls and rodent ribs, as delicately cleaned as if a laboratory had done it. Pliny took the pellets out and picked them apart, separating the fur and other dry waste from the desirable bones. He kept a whole collection of those bones cached away in cigar boxes under his bed.

Coyotes or cats sometimes denned in if no human came to check for awhile and once Willis saw a fox, fleet as shadow, slip past him. The animals left bones and droppings that were not as neat as the owls'. Willis always took a push broom along and swept some of the mess out and down the dump, an effort born of some old sense of neatness that amused even him. Today only the barn owls moaned their irritation at Willis before they flew out of the entrance. They passed over Pliny's head like great white ghosts headed towards the cover of the junipers.

Willis adjusted his hard hat and lamp. Then they picked their way back alongside the row of cars to where the main shaft started down to the other levels. He tossed a can over the edge for Pliny and they head it rattle off the walls for awhile before it hit water. When the owners abandoned their mines decades ago, they turned the pumps off and the ground water had slowly seeped into all the lower levels. He always worried about people coming and blasting the door off the mine, either to steal the cars or to kill themselves exploring the shafts. People were damn fools about such things, he thought.

"Can't I come on back with you this time, Uncle Willis?" the boy asked him.

"Nope, I can't be worrying about you falling down some hole. You go on out and wait on the dump, you hear?"

"Aw."

"Now I mean that," he said firmly. He watched back towards the sunlit entrance to make sure the boy obeyed him, then did his usual inspection of the timbers and the track. Like his sweeping of the entrance, it was habit. Nothing much was slated to happen at this mine or the other gold mines very soon, even though his boss always had some deal in the works. His job entailed simply making sure everything remained more or less as it had been for years, and it generally was.

Once, his boss fished a dead man out of one of the shafts, Willis's predecessor, in fact. The man got crazy drunk and wandered back into the mine chasing some dream only he would ever know about.

"Always wondered if he figured out he was gonna die before he hit bottom," his boss remarked to Willis. "Damn owls must have hooted for him."

Willis felt friendly towards the owls, but not everyone shared his sentiments. They said that the dead man once dumped a load of rocks down on top of a nest he spotted in a shaft. The stones knocked the mother and her owlets caterwauling to their deaths. Rumor had it that the man died down that same shaft. Of course they pulled his body out, so it sort of ruined the poetic justice of all the bones in a common grave, Willis thought. The local funeral parlor shipped the remains back East to a very fancy grave, the not-so-grand finale of another rich family's errant son sent to slide to his end in the West.

His inspection finished, Willis walked back out into the sunlight. Pliny sat at the berm edge of the dump, methodically tossing stones down the heap.

"How about something to eat?" Willis called to him.

"Yeah, I'm coming," the boy answered. He hurriedly pitched the rest of his pile of rocks down hill so that they rolled and rattled like a small avalanche.

"Find any good bones?" his uncle inquired as they sat down under one of the gnarly oaks.

"Nah, you made me go out before I got a chance to look."

"You already got a lot of bones."

"Yeah." Pliny took the thin wheat tortillas out of their plastic bag and laid four of them out on a log like plates. "You think I got too many bones?"

"Why, I don't know. I reckon I never thought about it. You want to hand me that can of chilis? What're you gonna do with them?"

"Save 'em."

"Oh." Willis took out his hunting knife out of the sheath and swiftly diced up the chilis on the stump of the log. Then he scooped them up on the flat of the blade and neatly distributed them among the tortillas.

"Yeah," Pliny told him. "I bet I got a bigger collection than anyone in town."

"Probably, not many people save bones," Willis replied as he opened a can of sardines.

"Yes, they do."

"They do?"

"Uh, huh, our class went to the museum when we went to the State Fair and they've got stacks of bones."

"Stacks, huh?"

"Well, they're in boxes. They all got labels."

"What for?"

"So they'll know where they are in case they want to find them again."

"Oh." Willis put two sardines on each of the tortillas.

"Yeah," Pliny said as he helped his uncle roll the tortillas up to make burros. "They got bones from everywhere."

"Kinda funny, don't you think?" Willis looked at him with a twinkle. "Going to all that trouble for bones?"

"Nope, they need 'em to study."

"To study, huh?"

"Yeah, we learned all about that."

"Well, I'm glad," Willis said as they bit into their burros. "What'd you learn?"

"Lotsa stuff."

"Like?"

"Like there used to be dinosaurs here and then there were big tigers and then there were Indians."

"There still are Indians."

"Different Indians."

"Oh? You're sure?"

"Yeah, I mean, those Indians in the museum are dead."

"I guess we don't put live Indians in museums," Willis frowned a little as he looked down the canyon.

"No, yuck, who'd want live people in a museum?"

"I guess that's right, might be too much." Willis opened a can of peaches and let Pliny drink out most of the juice before they shared the fruit. They watched the sun shift over to the edge of the junipers, poised to cast the afternoon shadows down towards the creek.

Willis slowly turned the gold band on the ring finger of his right hand as he studied the canyon. It had been his brother-in-law's wedding ring. He helped his sister pay for it. She was still in high school when she got pregnant and their mother never reconciled herself to that. When the young couple got killed in the auto accident and Willis took Pliny, he also took the ring. Sometimes, if he didn't want to be bothered with questions about who Pliny was or about how he managed to bring up a boy alone, he wore the ring on his left hand. Usually though, it stayed on his right.

He lost the tip of that finger in a drill rig accident only a few years before he got Pliny. Most of the older wandering men he worked with generally lost bits of fingers here or there. His own uncle lost the middle three on his right hand down to level with the end one. Willis never remembered even hearing how it happened, but when he lost his own, he felt proud in some perverse way, as though he now genuinely belonged with the men. His mother and girlfriend got really upset, but he felt no sorrow over it.

It seemed right that the symbol of his bigger loss fitted onto the first. The ring held good memories for him as well as sad ones. He planned to give it to Pliny some day when he got older, so he'd have some daily reminder of his folks, even if they were only faces in photographs to him.

It's damn sad they missed all this, he thought, when he looked over after Pliny. The boy had finished eating and since his uncle seemed to be looking off somewhere he couldn't see, he wandered over towards the dump. Willis leaned back against the stump and watched the noon shadows start to creep out from under the trees. He liked to look at the shapes of light and dark, trace the edges of the oak leaf patterns in the dust, but he seldom got any quiet time off for himself; sometimes it made him feel a lot older than he was. Like my mom must have felt alone with us all those years, he thought. He fell asleep among memories, his hand relaxed gently like a leaf.

He dreamed of himself and Pliny. They stood and looked along the canyon. When he reached down to tousle the boy's blond cowlick, some of it floated out between his fingers like dandelion fluff to drift down the canyon in the dancing sun. Pliny chased after it in delight, calling back to his uncle to help. It was all in sepia like an old time movie, nice, except that suddenly Pliny was crying. Willis heard the fear in his voice, but he couldn't figure out what had gone wrong. The dream started to break apart as he struggled with it, like a cliff face after a dynamite charge goes off, jagged chunks plummeting down into the sink of the canyon.

Except for the sound of Pliny screaming. It was real. Somewhere. His thoughts grappled with the sound. Not on the dump or at the truck. The mine.

Damn, did I lock the gate, he thought. Told him not to go back inside. Stupid going to sleep. Only a kid. Gotta watch him. Not dead. He's screaming.

Later, he only clearly remembered Pliny's face, the sharp bloody steel of the big hunting knife and the two finger tips where they lay fallen among the owl pellets Pliny had been chopping apart like some mad little butcher in a medieval shop.

He figured out that he must have first wrapped the small shaking hand in his bandana to stop the bleeding and carried the boy to the truck. Gone back to get the finger ends, wrapped them up in wet newspaper and put them in the empty plastic tortilla bag in the ice chest. Picked up the knife, apparently locked the mine and driven both too fast and too slow down the canyon.

All the time feeling only half out of his dream as he damned himself for leaving the knife out, the mine door unlocked. Being thankful Pliny was alive and not hurt, or worse drowned in a shaft.

Talking to his dead sister, "Goddamn, how could you go off and leave me, Sis? I can't do this right by myself."

And, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

Arriving sometime after dark at the hospital. Talking to Pliny, "It's gonna be okay. They got good doctors here. It's gonna be okay."

Giving information and the finger tips to the nurse. He remembered her at Pliny's age; they'd gone to elementary school together.

"Now, Willis, he'll be okay," she said.

Following her like a puppy down the hall and waiting.

Sitting. Sitting.

Putting a quarter in for coffee. Wishing he could start over and wake up in his dream. It'd been such a nice dream, but he should've been watching Pliny. It was his fault. Stupid, careless. Could've been worse, of course, but bad enough already. Goddamn, Pliny didn't deserve to have his fingers messed up, looking like him. He was just a kid. Kids oughta be safe.

He sat twisting the ring on his finger, waiting, until, "You want to come in now," she announced. "They got him all patched up."

Then he remembered driving home with Pliny curled pale and silent beside him. His fingers taped white and stiff, resting on the seat.

"Good chance they'll heal up," the surgeon told him. "You did all right. Kept the pieces moist. He'll probably just have a couple of small scars there on the ends of his fingertips if they take. We'll just have to wait and see."

The housekeeping unit Willis rented at the town motel looked like a real home to him as he parked the truck. He carried the boy inside and tucked him into the bed. Pliny's usual clutter lay on the covers: a tennis ball, a school book, a couple of toy cars and a box of his bone collection.

Willis sat on the edge of the bed and awkwardly smoothed the boy's cowlick with his left hand. In the lamplight it shone the dandelion color of his dream. "You want a drink or something?" he asked him.

"Nah." A couple of tears meandered down Pliny's cheeks.

"You don't have to cry now," Willis comforted him. "You're all fixed up."

"I'm sorry, Uncle Willis."

Willis looked at him seriously. "Me, too. You shouldn't have been playing with my knife or going in the mine, but I shouldn't have left it unlocked or gone to sleep. Too dangerous for little kids up there. We'll both try and do better, okay?"

"You're not mad at me?"

"Nope, waste of time being mad."

Pliny stared down at his hand. "My fingers are all messed up, huh?"

"Well, the doctor said they've got a good chance of being okay. You're gonna have three rings. This one of your dad's and the lines where they stuck those two tips back on. Pretty fancy, you know, some people haven't even got one ring."

"Yeah?" Pliny asked, not quite convinced.

"Yeah, and anyway you're lucky," Willis reached back across the bed, picked up the open box of bones, balanced it on his lap and held one up. "You could've lost some finger bones out there. Someone might've picked them up and stuck them in an old box like this one in a museum --- thinking they were dinosaur bones."

"Nah, they wouldn't have," Pliny said indignantly, forgetting his tears.

"Why not?"

"Dinosaurs got different bones."

"You're sure?" Willis raised an eyebrow.

"Yeah."

"Okay. So then you think maybe everything's gonna be all right?"

"Yeah, I guess so."

"I'm mighty glad."

Willis sat on the bed until Pliny went to sleep. He stroked the boy's hair with one hand, and, with the other, he gently fingered through the cigar box bones.

See also: Momma Bones

Dedicated to the great memories of two good friends: James E. Sharp and Martha Simpson Eastlake. Thanks again.


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