F R O M T H E J O U R N A L O F J. M. L I N C O L N
MY NAME IS J.M. LINCOLN. I am a man who cannot drown or be drowned. I know this even before I step into the chlorinated water and sink beneath soft waves. I drop slowly until my body at last comes to rest at the bottom of the fifteen-foot swimming pool. As I inhale,water rushes through my nose and throat to fill my lungs. My face wears a grimace of pale indifference. I exhale, seated on the floor of the pool, the sunlight glowing high overhead. My chest slightly rises and falls as I unconsciously continue to inhale and exhale. Why do my lungs function underwater? How can I inhale liquid but process it as oxygen? I would welcome drowning. But what can I do? I am a man who cannot be drowned.
There are many hillsides in the Pocono Mountains, though there’s one I especially favor. Atop this hillside are planted six giant sequoias. They form a circle. The trees are not native to Pennsylvania or suited for a climate that features harsh winters and dry summers. But I’ve taken special care to ensure their survival. There is a grave in front of each tree. Five of the six contain the bodies of family members: My parents, my wife, and our two children. My father died at the age of eighty-two, my mother, seventy-nine. My wife survived a scant seventy-seven years before succumbing to cancer. My son, Joshua, was a pilot for a major airline. He perished in 1955 at the age of fifty-nine when his jetliner, a Boeing 707-138, exploded high above the Atlantic Ocean. My daughter, Janey, succumbed to pneumonia at the age ninety-two. Janey’s death was the most recent, occurring just over a decade ago. It was at that time, having lost my last-known living relative, I’d transported at a substantial expense of time and effort–both mine and Peter’s–the giant sequoias to the Pocono mountains. It was at that time I’d exhumed the graves of my loved ones, and brought them here to this calmer place, buring each beneath a great tree. Five trees, five graves.
The sixth tree is reserved for me.
My continued survival keeps the circle from attaining closure, though I’ve long ago dug the grave–my grave. Dug long ago in anticipation of an end that refuses to come. I sometimes visit at night and lie there, partially burying myself in the damp, cold earth. The spiders and earthworms that surround me are quiet companions, unselfishly allowing me to inhabit their world. There is an unparalleled tranquility here at night, in the cold ground, with these tiny creatures at my side. I sleep and dream peacefully of death. But in the morning I wake; the tranquility, fleeting. The dreams remain only dreams. Existence has no ending to one who cannot die, and I fear that immortality may soon trigger madness.
Not to say I’m impervious to pain. Far from it. I can hurt, bleed, and suffer injury like anyone else. But I’ve never felt, never experienced, the pain associated with aging–with growing old. The aching back that worsens with each passing winter. The tightening of knee joints that causes the simple act of descending a stairwell to become a daily challenge. The numbness of fingers while penning a letter or sewing a loose button. The increasing reliance on stronger and more powerful corrective lenses. These physical handicaps are denied me and, inasmuch, I suppose I’m fortunate. But I’m a man who knows well the emotional pain of isolation, of denial. An individual who has the physical health and appearance of one in his late thirties or, at most, early forties. In 2000, I turned turned one-hundred fifty.
Too long. Too long for anyone.
T H E E A R L Y Y E A R S
It is shortly before the dawn of the 20th century, I am forty years old and employed by the Charles Brothers Mining Company of Wheeling, West Virginia. I live with my wife and our two children in a small, run-down shack owned by the Company. I work twelve-hour shifts, six days a week. On Sundays, I work a minimum of five hours. The mines are dark and perilous. My son, Joshua, works the mines also. Ten hours a day, every day, from 8:00 PM to 6:00 AM. He is six years old. I see Joshua less than eight hours each, often less. Our combined incomes are barely enough to pay for the Company house–which is small and dirty–and the groceries, clothing, water, and other necessary amenities.
On June 23, 1882, the southernmost shaft of the Hawkingsworth mine collapses, the result of an ill-planted explosive. The seventeen fatalities include four children. I’m thankful Joshua, whose shift ended in the morning, is not among the dead or missing. I’m less fortunate and am among the lost. We are buried alive–myself and four others–nearly a half-mile below the earth’s surface. In darkness. Death surrounds us. There is little air. We avoid speaking to one another but for the occasional cry for help. Lanterns are quickly extinguished to conserve oxygen.
One of the miners, a fat, mountain-of-a-man named Collingshead–who joined the mining company just one week earlier–wheezes heavily. There are five of us, including Collingshead. In the enclosed area of our entrapment, his breathing is amplified, a constant reminder of our predicament. I cannot see. None of us can see. There is only darkness and death and the heavy wheezing of a frightened, obese man named Collingshead. Time has little meaning, and I begin praying in silence, knowing that death awaits. The air will soon be gone and we will, all of us, suffocate.
As each agonizing second ticks by, the others grow impatient with what they perceive as Collingshead’s excessive use of air. Despite their threats, the portly man continues to wheeze in the darkness. Minutes pass. There are whispers, followed by movement as my trapped coworkers descend violently upon Collingshead with mob force. Soon he wheezes no more. They continue to pummel the felled man, their own breath heavy, and are oblivious to my actions. I dig with bloodied hands through the rubble and the darkness, stopping momentarily to affix a handkerchief over my nose and mouth before proceeding. I dig frantically, yet with a sense of reason and calm logic. Collingshead is being murdered in the darkness. There is a sound that may or may not be breaking bone and then silence except for the digging. The murderous cohort hears me but is too spent with exhaustion to speak, much less help. I fear they may soon target their anger at me. One less to share the air. I continue to burrow in silence and when, at last, I’ve fashioned a small escape route, squeeze painfully through mere seconds before it collapses upon itself, forever separating me from my homicidal colleagues.
But freedom is still denied me. The skin of my fingernails separates from my fingers. The pain is intense. Fear overshadows my former calmness as desperation mounts. My hands are wet with blood. I bite the cloth of the handkerchief to help withstand the pain and continue tunneling, a mouse in search of a hole. Another blocked path awaits and once again I tunnel. I’m frantic. Frantic to the point that I nearly fail to notice the green glow emanating from rocks through which I dig. I stop and hold one of the strange luminescent stones close to my face. Despite its radiance, my hands–black and crimson–are like two massive silhouettes. The rock is no larger than my palm, yet is unlike any stone I’ve previously seen. I can neither explain why it glows nor what significance, if any, this has. The instinct to survive soon replaces my bewildered curiosity. I toss aside the rock and resume the task of digging, escaping.
More glowing stones. The layers of green radiant rock are never ending. The glow lights up the blackness of the mine shaft, revealing the bodies of other colleagues, their lives snuffed out by falling debris. I forge ahead. Past corpses. Past green rock.
I emerge, like Lazarus, from the cold earth. Darkness surrounds me, the darkness of a starless night. How long had I been buried? I stagger toward the field office where I’m spotted by a clerk who quickly summons help. Six days. I’m told I’d been buried for six days. The search for survivors had ended two days earlier. The staff physician is roused and assesses me for injuries. Aside from weight loss and non-permanent damage to my hands and fingernails, I am unharmed.
The local newspaper reports my survival as “miraculous.” I do not speak to journalists regarding my survival aside to say “I’m lucky.” I do not speak of Colllingshead or the men who killed him. I do not speak of glowing stones or the horror of clawing through the wet, cold earth. I am not asked, nor do I explain, how I was able to tunnel through a half-mile of rock-hard earth barehanded for six days with no food, water, or air.
I often think back to that event, particularly at night when the darkness surrounds me. Though even the darkest room on the most starless of nights is but a fraction of the blackness I recall from my ordeal, and in the deepest recesses of my mind I see the glowing green. I hear the wheezing of Collingshead growing ever fainter. I hear the splintering of bone. I feel the skin dislodge from my hands. There are bodies on the floor of the collapsed mine shaft. There is blood and soot on my hands as I scrape the cold, unforgiving earth.
I will never again descend into the mines. Nor will Joshua.
During my recovery I’m greeted by the Charles Brothers who, astonishingly, offer me a job at the company store. I can only attribute their kindness to either a feeling of guilt or, most likely, a token gesture appear compassionate since they deliver this news while flanked by a local reporter. The pay rate is ten percent higher than my former wage, and the work is infinitely easier. As for the widows of the miners who perished in the Hawkingsworth mine, no compensation is offered save for letters of condolence.
I tell Joshua that whether above the ground or beneath it, the world is a very dark place.
NEXT: . . . as a Mad Immortal Man continues.