The man in the mine looked like an alien—like an insect drilling itself ever further into a sordid hole. He wore a suit of some thick, impenetrable material, gray and striped orange; and there was a heavy pack strapped to his back. On his head was a bug-eyed helmet with a dull sheen that caught light like a beetle’s carapace. He worked by the green gas glow of a light and his pick chinked away at the rock walls and the eyes on his head were compound and large and red and glittered in the dark under-atmosphere of the singular shaft he had carved into the surface. He breathed through a notched filter at the bottom of his helmet, a short proboscis through which the dust and toxins were filtered. By that mouthpiece his voice was amplified, even as he scarcely used it for speech, and so the thick sound of his breathing came through, like a man choking on molten rock: but steady. And so this was his day, by the day: the ever-presence of his breath, the steady beat of his pick on the rock, and the observation of incremental progress: the stone flaking away, bit by bit, for something. He was a miner alone, with no fellows, no supervision, no deadline, on a dead planet, and on he mined.
However, the miner was not alone entirely: with him he had a mechanical bluebird. The bird looked very real—one could barely see the hinges and could only ever find them if they looked, and for what use would that be: the bird sold its illusion well, and chirped, paced, cocked its neck, narrowed its eyes, hopped, and—if it were allowed—flew with all the grace and/or clumsiness that a normal bluebird might have. Sadly, the bird was never afforded the opportunity to fly because it was kept in a cage for fear that it might fly off. However, this did not dampen the illusion, but rather enhanced it. The only thing that might break the illusion besides the hinges on the wings or the screws underneath the throat was the fact that the bird could speak, but even then it spoke with the throatiness and rasp one might expect from a bird, and so it was that the bird’s speech was less a demonstration of its mechanical artifice than it was a natural extension of what, at that point in his life, the miner believed a bird was capable of doing.
The bird spoke to him at this point: “Lunchtime. Lunchtime. Stop working. Time to eat.”
At that moment, the miner struck the rock and the rock crumbled to reveal a pocket. In the debris something shined. The miner—very nearly in spite of himself—cried out softly in surprise and stopped. He looked as the thing glistened even in darkness. The bird cocked its head curiously. This was the only noteworthy thing he had come across in… weeks, months. With his gloved hands the miner picked it up, brought it to his multifaceted eye, and then away, and then back again, and so forth: he wanted to examine the angles, the edges, the geometry by which the precious stone was made permanent. It was a diamond, or some approximation of a diamond, and briefly the miner wondered if the constancy by which a diamond was made carried across planets, was universal. And then as he spun the stone on its angles, he saw only the bird’s black eye shine back through it.
“What is it?” asked the bird.
The miner tossed the diamond and it clattered away, disappeared into the crags. “Just a rock,” he said.
Rock and dirt, a barren world outside; trees stripped of life and leaf and bark and standing so far apart from one another like alabaster obelisks, their roots long and unseen; the small cracks in the dried dirt he dreamed of one day slipping into on accident, even despite their small size: a child’s nightmare, the sort of dreams that took place in a lawless universe where your body followed no rules and it would drop away into blackness, into a pit at the center of existence. In many ways it would be faster than the stone burrow behind him, than the ugly mineshaft cut diagonally into the ground—but then, what would he find there? What would he do? A light wind skittered across the surface. The bird in its birdcage creaked in his hand.
“Weather’s nice today,” the bird said.
“Yes, it is,” said the miner. He couldn’t feel a thing from underneath his suit. If he took it off—any of it, the helmet, a glove—he would die. The sky was silver, splitting yellow, the brown clouds unfurling. The day would roll on in this way, turn red, and then he would go home, and then the night would enter: black, silent.
The miner placed the bird on the ground and the dust scratched over its metal claws. The miner unshouldered his pack, pulled out a folding stool, and sat on it. There was a table which he could assemble in there, too, but he had no real use for it anymore—he had chiefly used it to remind him of different homes on different planets but now it lay at the bottom dusty, the thin metal poles jabbing into his back, day by day. He ate his meals from a tube now, had since he came to this planet, and they were chilled in a cooler at his home, just pounds and pounds of multicolored tubes, some formless substance, and he attached the tube to his filter and sucked on it. He breathed back out and the bird watched his chilled breath fog the sides of the tube. The food was red today. The miner’s wife often tried to give him different colors to break up the monotony.
With only a singular task to which his life was now devoted, it was curious what the miner’s mind would drift towards. Sometimes—often—it would be thoughts to no end: disconnected fancies, monotonously unfolding scenarios of events towards nothing: a discussion with an old friend from another planet about the futile points of a dead argument they had had; his first regret, his first romance, what it would be like to fly his spaceship again, to take to the stars and watch the cosmic dust caress his cockpit and to watch the distant planets grow in his view—to watch space fill. Today he thought of the diamond, or the abstract of the diamond, and how it clattered away on its hard edges towards darkness, beyond his sight, into the cracks of the mine and down there—whatever that was. He wondered if he would ever know what was done there, if that was a good enough reason to be here, digging; and what the diamond would be like down there, in a place absent of light, a thing so beautiful, crafted by inanimate forces to be a thing inanimate in its own right but, there: absolute. He kept coming back to it, the simple, impossible image of a diamond shining in the dark, with nothing else around at all but the stone, the silence.
A gust of wind tore the branches from one of the trees, the world carving a white pillar onto itself; the sky belched out a thick brown cloud; the bird creaked its metal limbs, cocked its bluebird head and narrowed its blank eyes and opened its beak: “Something’s coming. Think it’ll rain?”
“Not today,” said the miner.
The bird bobbed its head. “But soon.”
The day was finished on the repeat image of the pick against rock, the metal head flashing in the light from black to green, then red, then black, then again, and so on. Outside the sky reddened and the bluebird saw this and said to the miner, “Evening’s come. Time to go,” and the miner stopped, stared at the stone. Then the bird added, “I want to be out of here.” This was curious. The bird never spoke like that—never really talked about itself—and the miner regarded it with what might have been a stare of concern, or curiosity, or anger, or any emotion at all, but none could be expressed behind that mask. The bird hopped and flapped its creaky metal wings. And he shouldered his pick and took the bird in his cage and walked outside.
The sky was then the exact color of the miner’s unblinking eyes and was in them reflected: vast, inscrutable. A lonesome silhouette against the coming night, the impending storm of days not yet passed, and he travelled across the barren, empty landscape and through the framework of eternally rising vistas and plateaus with his helmeted head braced against a wind barreling endlessly towards night.
On the shore of an emerald ocean was his home. The house was simple: two stories, a slanted roof, a little window peeking out on each of the four sides. He had brought the materials himself. The sea around emitted a soft glow, although it was dampened and the true colors of it difficult to discern under the lighting the miner saw it in. Then—often—the sea appeared to him as a broad current of rippling vermillion, a calm, unwavering symbol of stasis. Other than that, there was his spaceship, the torn silver bullet that had brought him here, the stilts sinking in the sand.
The ship would never fly again. He had seen to that when he had purposefully pushed the ship past its limits and flown himself and his wife past the edges of the charted galaxy. “We’re bound to find something,” he had said to her, “something just for ourselves.” To get away from it all. To leave it all behind. Their past, their future, so on: all the same things two lovers promised each other. They were no different in that regard. And now the spaceship sat empty of fuel, of purpose, a hollowed-out husk of a beforetime, a symbol of “all that” they had left behind. But they had found the planet, this planet, in the same journey—in the same breath—and it had pulsed like light shining through an opal even in the vacant blackness of space. There it was: the vibrancy of the colors of the atmosphere, the vivid promise of a new life not lived yet, silently growing from the view of the cockpit. And when they got down to the planet it was, of course, just a rock, stretching endlessly away to an alien sun.
Now, the creaking of the birdcage. The ocean shore washing on pebbled rock again and again, softly; the atmosphere: weightless, no longer foreign if it ever had been, just cast in the strange glow of an alien world, day by day; the sick sense of removal. The bird said, “Here again,” and the miner said nothing, tried to make himself a sponge to the world again, but couldn’t—the suit was too thick, the helmet immutable, and he only breathed. But the bird was looking at him, he realized—he could feel its blank, sightless stare on him. He turned his eyes like lamplights onto the bird.
“Whaddya think, big guy?” said the bird. “Here again. Whaddya think.” The bird paced mechanically, sent his hanger rocking in his cage. The miner walked towards the shore and placed the birdcage just outside of the reach of the tide and the bird became still, and the miner went inside.
The home was simple. Larger than it needed to be for two people as sparse as the miner and his wife, but simple. It was furnished with handmade furniture and the floors were of the same stone on the planets except painted and etched to look as if they were tiled. His wife was there in a rocking chair wearing the same suit that he was: gray, striped orange, bulky, it revealed nothing of her womanhood, nothing of her age or shape; and her red, bulbous eyes scanned the pages of a book, an actual book with paper, and it was old, very old, with the cover nearly hanging off and the front pages torn out completely and now repurposed as bookmarks. The miner knew she had read it before, and knew that she would read it again. She hummed gently out of her mouthpiece.
When she saw that he was home they began to eat dinner. They sat at a table across from each other and silently attached their feeding tubes to their mouths.
“How was your day,” said his wife through sucking on the tube. Through the mouthpiece, her voice was nearly the same as his. A bit crisper, perhaps; lighter, airy, like the noise underneath an object as it rises to the surface of water
“Stone’s the same as ever,” said the miner. “Stone’s the same everywhere.”
She nodded and waited, as was customary, for him to ask about her day, or her book, or what she was thinking about. He did not. They sucked on the tubes until they were empty.
Then he said, “The bird was acting up today.”
“Don’t know why. Might have to take a look at it.”
“That’s nice,” said his wife.
“Funny thing,” he said. “Never had a problem with it before. Or—or maybe I just never noticed. How long has it been? Something like—”
“Twenty-five years,” said his wife. She didn’t much care for the bird. “It’s been twenty-five years.”
“That’s right,” said the miner.
And that was all. Their dinner was finished. They moved away from the table and from each other for the time being. His wife read her book to completion and started over. The miner watched as the day became dark and the alien sun set over the rim of the planet and the bluebird out the window became black and then was gone. Like a diamond through the cracks. Behind him, his wife said that she was going to bed, and silently he followed her, two indistinguishable beings loping gently through the place and up the stairs to their bed where they lay and slept, stiffly, neither one shedding their suits: just their heavy, artificial breathing melding together until the sun rose again.
Violet haze of the morning and the world he walked through the larger for it, the arbitrary distance between his home and the mineshaft made apparent. The thick intake of fog through his mouthpiece, how heavy it felt inside him, but even so early morning passed quickly and before long he was at the entrance to the mineshaft, the yawning gape he had carved into the planet.
The bird’s cage was not creaking. Somehow the miner could feel the silence in the air, like it was something that pressed down on his shoulders; for once, he felt some sort of exterior weight from the planet.
“Storm’s coming today,” said the bird. “Don’t leave me outside.”
“What’s it matter to you,” said the miner.
The bird looked at him. If the miner didn’t know better, he would have said it looked confused. But he could only guess at that. And so, to occupy his mind, he mined, and mined, and he found nothing. And then he thought, What use is there for a barren planet out in space, with no more draw to existence than its own emptiness?
Which, inextricably, brought his thoughts back around to the bird, which had been made for him a long time ago, in a land of purple leaves and mountains. It had been made for him by a woman, a lovely woman, with small, delicate hands, little fingers as smooth and as white as flakes of moonstone. Not his wife. He remembered watching her construct the bird—before he knew that it was a bird, before he knew that it was going to be for him—and her fingers strung the wires and the gears and the sensors together, little blinked beads of light in a mechanical carcass, like a galaxy contained in that breast. It was marvelous, really: he had nearly forgotten what a bird looked like, and was amazed she had even known. So much, he thought, so much was gone; from whatever world he left he took part of it with him and left it behind in the dust of space.
The bird called to him then, “Lunchtime. Lunchtime. Storm’s coming. Time to stop. Time to go.” The miner set down his pick, listened to the rattling of his breath. He walked over to the birdcage and opened the cage door and held out his hand. The bird, for a moment, hesitated—a suitable illusion, like it actually had something to consider—and then it jumped into the palm of his hand and clambered up to his shoulder. It pecked the side of his helmet. The miner could not feel that.
Outside the sky rippled turquoise, cloudless, the very atmosphere twisting like the scrunched-up fluff of a pillow. And unwinding. Bleeding orange, light of heaven, and the deep purple of a coming storm. A silent wind blowing: nothing to pass through, no object in the world to give it voice, to give it cause to declare its existence in the lone world, or beyond that; but the miner could feel that silence. He inhaled, breathed it in: just clean, just nothing, just the empty world of his helmet’s interior. He looked at the bird on his shoulder. The bird, too, observed the barren world, but as if it were new to it. And the miner noticed that, in his neglect of caring for the bird—in his refusal to actually look at it—the hinges around its wings had rusted, and pits of the metal skin had fallen away, and through the small holes left there he could see the shiny skeleton underneath, whirring and clicking and catching, catching on something and sticking there until it whirred and clicked again to the same spot. The bird cocked its head toward him, and the little eyes contracted, spiraled closer to him, and he found himself very moved. The feeling to him was like what he imagined water would feel—if water could feel—when something was dropped into it and the surface broke. Behind his helmet he blinked back tears, steamed his red lenses. It was silly, he thought, to get emotional over such things: a machine: its representation: a passing fancy in a distant world. How strange it was to be on a planet so scarred, so alone, that he could still feel like he could want something more than he already had. She had eyes like opals, he thought, but only because he couldn’t remember the exact color. And then there was a crack in the air, the orange belly of the storm cloud coming, split through the sky and its shadow over him, and the bird chirped and flew off his shoulder and was gone.
The man against the storm looked like exactly that as he made his way home through its gale: a black speck in an endless land, torrents flailing at his rubbery suit, the world whipping against him and the distant rock of the world curving away from him as if he was in a bowl, the plateaus slick and alien and monolithic against the green flashes of lightning.
But he was not struck. And as he walked the storm moved past him, rippled away to where he had made his home, and he endured in mist. It was a storm, he thought, like one the planet had not seen in a while, at least not where he was or where he had ever been, and he felt grateful for that. The way he sucked in the alien rain through his filter: he thought he could nearly taste something. But that could have just as well been an illusion, the fleeting sense of something he could no longer feel passing by.
When he came home the storm was over the sea, the shore roiling and his spaceship laced with water like a fountain. He saw his wife sitting there on the beach with nothing, the only thing beside her an empty chair. He sat with her to watch the storm until its end, or at least until it moved past their vision. And the entire time they did not speak, only this: briefly after he sat down, and for a brief moment in itself, they clasped their hands against the broken surface of the ocean—and then, as they watched that torrent, as they never took their eyes off it, they saw one bolt of green lightning land upon the sea, a cosmic catalyst, and for one instant that body was illuminate white, the world wrought again before them in stark clarity against the fallen indigo of a heaven past and then the world itself receded and was gone in the same instant that it had been, the brief flash of its life extinguished.
And that was all.
Joseph Conrad Payne is a recent Creative Writing MA graduate, now eking out a living with freelance tutor work and getting by with copious amounts of tea. His fiction has been published in Fleas on the Dog, Light and Dark, Arlington Literary Journal, and Another New Calligraphy. He grew up on a small farmhouse, which fostered a quiet and contemplative atmosphere. Besides writing, he enjoys bathrobes, drawing, fencing, long bike rides, and a good cat.