by Matthew Murphy
An excerpt from Tio, an excellent new novella from Montreal author Matthew Murphy. Murphy has also written A Beckoning War, which we reviewed and excerpted here. He has been described as an “amazing new talent” (Quill & Quire) who’s set “for a glittering literary career” (Kirkus Reviews).
Damn him! thought Pablo as Arturo dropped his pick as he tripped over a fallen rock. “Be more careful, will you? Get to your senses, already! You know, as they say, ‘Time is money!’ You must make me rich, Arturo, you must make me rich because, me—” He coughed a dry, dusty cough for emphasis—“I have little of either! Pick up your tool and get working!”
“Yes, Uncle, yes, I am sorry.” Arturo pulled himself up from the stones and uttered a small cough of his own. He felt a slight chill in his spine; perhaps this was incipient silicosis. He had been at work in the mine for several years now, and surely his turn would come as it had to so many others, as it had to Pablo, coughing and hacking and sputtering his days away. He picked up his pickaxe and took a sip from his water bottle, his head still thudding out the last of his hangover. “I will get working again.”
“Yes, enough talking already, and more working.” Pablo was aware of the irony of this statement, uttering a thin-lipped grin on his lined sandpaper face, and he even whistled a couple random notes, having warmed to his workday, and having a little fun with Arturo’s sense of guilt and shame over coming into work late, as if he himself had never done so in his youth about every other week. “Get moving, you, if you ever want to be your own boss around here!”
Arturo chipped at the wall, and a slate of rock slid away with a dry squeal of stone on stone and fell to the tunnel floor with a crunch. He looked to see what riches he had brought to half light—and discovered nothing. A sigh. He hacked away again and again, looking for the gleam of silver, or at least the dull shine of tin in the cone of his headlamp. He hacked and hacked, his biceps burning as he did so, consuming himself in the rhythm of his work, thinking of nothing as he became hypnotized by the repetitive swing of his hammer, the exertion of his arms. Swing by swing the mountain gave way, a reluctant chip here, a generous slab there under the weight of Arturo’s and Pablo’s pickaxes. They found equilibrium in what they did, swinging back and forth like pendulums, like hypnotists’ pendants, marking time, becoming time in the motion of each swing for minutes on end, grunting and sweating as they did so, before making for their water bottles and replenishing the sweat which soaked into their work clothes, and coughing and clearing their throats of the mephitic atmosphere of the mine.
On one of these water breaks, both were silent. Arturo lit up an herbal cigarette and thought of almuerzo. This afternoon he would hopefully enjoy chicken and soup and avocado, and he could already feel bodily cravings for such, his stomach growling and boiling in anticipation. Hunger began consuming him; he needed more smoke and more coca to suppress it. The bread and the orange he had had for breakfast were wearing off fast. As he puffed on his cigarette, he dreamed up great, wondrous, savoury meals, like steaming coils of spaghetti and tangy red Bolognese sauce with meatballs such as he saw wealthy people eating through restaurant windows in the old city streets at night; he longed for salteñas filled with peas and minced meat and spicy chilli sauce; he craved pizza topped with pepperoni; he yearned for grilled llama, the tang of aji. Then, for dessert—oh, dessert!—he wished for chocolate cake, and he fantasized about its moist and spongy texture, its sweetness and the creamy layer of chocolate icing basted on top like fresh stucco, oh yes, he was so hungry he was salivating, his body was primed to eat his very thoughts, to digest from them the essence of what scant nutrients there were in them to be taken. Visions of food were conjured in the curls of cigarette smoke that drifted into the darkness.
As he took a pull from his water bottle, he thought about his future. If only he could strike a lode of silver in here and get the hell out. Get out of Potosi, and if possible, get out of Bolivia altogether. Get onto a bus and head off somewhere else, into the hills, along the Altiplano, through all the Quechua villages where he had aunts and uncles and cousins, some who trickled into the city to work in the mines, much like himself; and on and on down into the lowlands, down to Santa Cruz to take a plane out of here. He fantasized about this many times. He longed to see America, where all the movies he watched when he could watch them came from. The ones he liked, anyway. The last time he snuck into a theatre he saw Smokin’ Aces. Now there was a movie. Gangsters living the kind of gangster life he fantasized about, if only to get out the drudgery of the mines. Beautiful women. Guns and action. Most of all, lots of money. Much more money than he would ever mine out of the reluctant rock of Cerro Rico, of that he was sure. Oh how he longed to one day leave.
In the last two years, his brother Marco had died in a cave-in the mine; his sister Tica had died in childbirth; his father had died just a year previous of a heart attack, though it surely had something to do with his compounded grief and his own case of silicosis. He was wracked with spasms of wet and hacking coughs for the past several years, and the two deaths in the space of three months rapidly worsened his condition. At a glance in his final months he was a little blue in the face, not that he stopped smoking. In fact, he smoked more, as if to help himself on his way, and he also began drinking heavily. Arturo joked darkly with him, saying that if he was not careful, the booze would mix with the dust in one of his coughing fits and his lungs would fill with cement and harden. His mother and his other three siblings did what they could for him, all the while knowing the end was nigh.
None of these thoughts kept him from whistling as he worked, which he began doing after finishing his cigarette after the last of his headache subsided, and he got back to picking away at the rock walls in search of a silver vein in the flow of which he hoped to be carried away to the promise of his dreams.