Brian Russell Roberts
Some songs feel exactly like drowning. Especially when they’re sung by a plain-looking miner whose every breath feels like it’s his last, sung as if he was locked in the forecastle of a sinking ship with the air getting bad. I should know. I knew that a forecastle was a below-deck sailors’ quarters thanks to reading a few stories about life at sea. And I knew what it was to feel like I was suffocating, in common cause with this landlocked man who sang like he was drowning—because I would spend considerable time in the evenings at the Copper Blossom, where my wife worked. I would show up there after my shift at Godiva Mine. And sometimes David was there too—he was Godiva’s owner and hence my boss’s boss. Sniffing around.
If you spent enough time there, in 1941 at the Copper Blossom Club in the central Utah town of Eureka, you’d hear this miner sing. He’d walk in just like anybody’s hidebound brother or tumbledown cousin but would sit with his guitar and sing like he was dying. Dying—as in, if you knew you had the length of a song, a half-dozen minutes, before you drowned below deck in the locked forecastle of a sinking ship and the only thing you could do was sing something fished up from a forgotten eighth sea, how would you sing it? He only ever played one song, a ballad he must have smelted all by himself from the Cambrian and Silurian sediments. Then he’d pass his hat and walk out. Six minutes to drown. Each time, I wondered what it would be like if he played another. But he couldn’t take you dying with him, absolutely drowned, and then revive you for a second song and have you die with him a second time, still absolutely lost.
I should know for certain he sang exactly like drowning feels, because I drowned—heart stopped, lungs full, lips blue in the black—in Godiva Mine, in a tunnel four hundred and sixty feet down. The ticking clock during this ballad: my beating heart, a hammer on an anvil counting out the length of three verses. My immediate collaborator was the mine foreman, who pounded a backbeat, a code tapped through the rock on the other side of the cave-in.
On the first verse of my drowning. Godiva was a shaft mine, drilled and dynamited straight down. And out from the main shaft, at several different underground levels, Godiva’s arms extended horizontally. Most miners would call them drifts, and people who aren’t miners would call them tunnels. But we who worked in Godiva—we called them Godiva’s arms. For one thing, they reached out for ore. And they also had a way of holding onto us day by day, pulling us back down into the dark.
I was pretty new at Godiva but was already working close with the foreman, who told me to come in with him early in the morning, a couple hours before the main shift, because David as the owner wanted us to get some things started for the new week. It was just me and the foreman alone down in the arm we were still blasting at the four-hundred-sixty-foot level. Down in the four-sixty, we had hit water the month before. But the engineer said there was good prospects, so they set up a pump to keep it from flooding.
When we got to the room with the pump, the foreman told me to crawl on into a smaller tunnel to take some ore samples, and he would stay in the room and watch the pump. I didn’t like it—crawling felt too closed-in for me. But I got down and started. Then, after I got a piece into this new crawlway where we had been exploring, there was something—a flash, a copper blossom like liquid metal—that heaved up from behind me, shoving me scraping against the side wall.
The next three things felt like rhyming lines: my helmet was off and headlamp blown out, the side of my head was oozy, and egress was cut off—when I turned around and started scrambling back on my hands and knees, I felt a bunch of rubble and trash between me and the direction of the pump room. I could feel myself shaking. And in the dark, my ears were like hands grasping for something solid, like the next ladder rung in a shaft, eager to hear the pump working, keeping me dry. And through the ringing in my ears, I heard the pump still pumping, sending its metal drone through the stone, something to hold onto.
Then there was the rhythm: I could hear the foreman on the other side of the cave-in. Click-clack—he must have crawled in after me and was hitting something metal on the rubble, working to dig me out. I was in a bad way but joined in, from my side, supporting my weight with one hand and clawing at the jagged tiers of newly broke rock with the other. The foreman— he had worked in Godiva for years, and before that at other mines, and he had arms strong like trunks of cedar trees. I was sure he would know how to work this, sure he had helped a few of his men out of tight spots before, and together we would get me out and back to my wife. It was a strange calm settled down there for a second. Maybe she’d take off early with me from the Copper Blossom, and we’d laugh as I joked about how my day began with a copper blossom explosion in Godiva’s arms and ended with me getting back to hers at the Copper Blossom.
I couldn’t see anything in the dark. But I clawed the rock best I could with the spindles of what were starting to feel like bird hands. Who knows why we think what we think when we think it, but I could see her on that first night, when her hair tumbled onto those bare shoulders, just over six months ago. When I saw her then, and now like a dream in this stone forecastle, my every heartbeat was a hammer on the anvil of the whole earth.
I don’t know how I realized it between those anvil strikes, but the foreman’s backbeat had stopped. I couldn’t hear him working on the other side. And then aside from the anvil, it was quiet. Meaning—and here my ears gasped for the absent sound—that the pump had stopped. We had tested it before. Without the pump, the water would rise fast. Cold water already biting my wrists.
On the second verse of my drowning. The foreman was back on the other side. I could hear him, click-clack. He was tearing through it, and I was at it hard as I could with my new bird hands, knuckles bending five different wrong ways in the dark between the broken rocks, getting cut and sloppy. I would be out of this before the end of the third verse, I knew. And with the loud clacks I heard from the foreman, it could probably be this verse. The sound of those sharp rocks tumbling, cracking away from the cave-in wall—dead stones taking orders from his cedar arms. I even thought I could hear him calling out or sort of grunting a couple times through the cave-in rubble.
It was a cold stew of rhythms, between the rocks I was splashing down into the elbow-high water, his clacking from the other side, and my metronome heart. Then the rhythm from the other side changed. Or maybe it didn’t change but I just heard something I hadn’t before, like a snake blends into the rocks: you see it but don’t see it until you do. With his clacks from the other side, the foreman was saying something—doing double duty, digging me out and using code. I knew Morse code from earlier, but hadn’t known he knew it. I let my ripped talons rest and listened, panting and dizzy. Most was random—that was his digging. Sometimes with a word interspersed. One set of dots and dashes came through as W-E-T-O-I-J-L-K. Wet: He was telling me he knew it was water up past my elbows, up past mid-thigh as I held myself in that closed-in crawling pose. And then T-P-O-H-A-T-9-P-T-V-G. Hat: He knew my helmet light was blown out, already lost underwater. S-O-S, I pounded, hitting a smaller rock on one of the rough goblins blocking my way out. He kept working and then it was: G-F-J-K-O-P-P-I-N. Pin: What about a pin? I couldn’t think. The pump used a pin? Something about a pin and my headlamp? I wished he could stop working long enough to take the time he needed to explain.
I needed to rest a few seconds since I was sucking air but not getting anything. WET HAT PIN: The three words took me back to the Copper Blossom, how my wife had once brought out David’s meal and a pin fell out of her hair and into his beer. They laughed. He immediately downed the whole bottle and retrieved the pin, sucking drops of beer off it like meat from a chicken bone. He stood up, bowed gallantly, and slipped it back into her hair. He took her hand, put something in it. Later, she told me he had said superstition demanded he extract a penny from her for returning the hairpin. But he was so amused that he pressed a silver dollar into her palm and, as he closed her fingers on it, said, “It is I who must pay you.” David always spoke like that, like a king. We were lucky to get a sliver of his noblesse oblige pressed into our hands.
The second verse was ending. I was heaving in the forecastle, lungs inside out. And there also was my heart, a closing refrain, trying to pull the bad air in when lungs weren’t good enough—every heartbeat, a hammer on the anvil of the earth.
On the third verse of my drowning. I had shook David’s hand a few weeks ago and thought it was all settled: I would appreciate it if he wouldn’t give her anything else. I was young and still poor, I said, and so I appreciated, really did, that he had given her that string of pearls, put it around her neck, like I saw him do up by our house on Leadville Row. It was just that if my wife was going to have pearls, I wanted to buy them myself. I might never be able to buy a necklace, but, I told him, if she was going to have them, I wanted to buy them, for as much as I appreciated what he had done for her.
The air seemed clear then. He stood up behind his desk and smiled and told me he was glad she had shown me the Chinese pearls, since he hadn’t wanted it to seem like a secret, like he was going behind my back. He said he admired me greatly, the work I was doing in Godiva, noble work, with some of our proud ingot finally making its way to Europe to combat Nazism. There were men out on the battlefields risking their lives for home and family, and I myself as I worked in Godiva was not a far cry from those men of merit. It was risky work, dangerous even, four hundred feet below the mountains of this Tintic Mining District, and I was honoring home and family by undertaking it. He said I would be seeing a good raise, Godspeed my quest to buy her pearls, and said it was written in both Shakespeare and the American Constitution, and even in the Psalms of his own namesake, that the laborer is worthy of his hire. He clasped my hand hard, like a man who always meant what he said, and the next day came word I would be working with David’s foreman as his assistant.
Down in the four-sixty, I was grinding my face, grating it, against the tunnel’s low ceiling, trying to keep my nose and mouth in the slender breadth of black air above the black flood. Almost nothing to breathe. Almost breathing, but in reverse. Still, there was a taste to it all—
When the man sang at the Copper Blossom like he was drowning below deck in a locked forecastle, I had never considered who had done the locking. But now, as that slender breadth of life between the rock and water vanished, my heart pounded on the earth’s anvil, and I tasted it all—all coppery and like spent gunpowder, leeched out of stone and dissolved for eons in a lost ocean whose waters under Utah had forgotten everything except gravity, percolation, and the will to supplant plant and animal with mineral. The way the rest of the drowning song tasted: it was the captain who ordered the foreman to lock the forecastle, to nail it closed and keep it closed, jealous of lifeboat rations and the sailor’s wife waiting in some far-off Nantucket. It was all a murder ballad, a psalm of David and Bathsheba, sung in a half-dozen minutes.
Then it was like the miner at the Copper Blossom hit a chord to start a second song, a phoenix. And I knew there were two kinds of sound. The crick-crack that’s over almost before it starts, hammer on rock. And the thrumming—where the steel string, the guitar’s wood, and the human thrummer send out an attenuated fuzz and blur hanging in the air, stippling the waters. I tasted it. All death in the world is like this. Some disappear in a hammer-crack, absolutely gone. And then there’s others of us. A ghost? Yes. But I wouldn’t say so much a ghost as a thrum—and as far as I can tell we dissipate slowly, like a line of steel hit at the beginning of a second song, needing no living memory to persist, because the sound is both the thrum itself and the memory of the thrum.
A thrum sounding over Eureka: I can feel the people come and go, with all living a slow drowning, beyond resuscitation. Find me—that thrum, less than an apocrypha of dust trying to dull the glister on a string of Shanghai pearls. Find me in the hairline cracks, and in the rougher seams of a miner’s voice when he finally sings his second song. And find me, a blur and a buzz on the air, strung somewhere between the Copper Blossom’s threshold and a roving murder of magpies.
Brian Russell Roberts is Professor of English at Brigham Young University. He has won the Darwin T. Turner Award for best article of the year in African American Review, and his most recent book is titled Borderwaters: Amid the Archipelagic States of America (Duke University Press, 2021), published in Russian translation in 2023. His work in literary translation (Sitor Situmorang’s Oceans of Longing, co-translated with Keith Foulcher and Harry Aveling) has been recognized with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Staff Picks Award. Roberts has been Featured Poet in the UK journal Staple, and his fiction has recently appeared in Joyland. “A Psalm” is part of a novel in stories.
Artwork: “Breathe It In” by Rachel Wold
Acrylic and ink on wood panel