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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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The Black Queen

By William Nachbar
Illustrated by Harold Altman

The Magpie, Spring 1940, v. 24, n. 2, p. 23.

THEY were like ants streaming from their holes in the earth. Stupid like ants, each black and grimy, following the next one into the twilight, hardly sensitive to anything except their toil. Ants, whose only excuse for being was to serve with blind obedience, a society and a queen. Now they were temporarily reprieved, coming up from their many roomed castle down in the earth to blink at the setting sun, and follow their own paths. But tomorrow they would return, for they would always return. Eternal servitude, from birth to death. was required for the queen that lay dormant and waiting in the darkness below.

* * * *

McGork was no philosopher, but he thought about life a lot. He thought now, thought how he was serving the Black Queen of coal. His folks had all been miners. He was bound, by invisible ties, to the stifling heat, the utter blackness, the constant danger of the mine; there was no escape.

He turned diagonally across the road, and paused a moment before his home. Home—that's a laugh. This was just a temporary stopping place, where he might rest between shifts. An unpainted ramshackle building with a broken down fence, and a muddy plot in front that could be called a garden. How could anything grow in this soot? He looked at the shabby curtains in the window, at the partially collapsed porch, and around the house to the junk yard of tangled clothes lines, garbage heaps, scrap metal and the outhouse in back. There was a silent curse at the evil deity, as he went through the creaking gate.

* * * *

At first he thought that he was back in the mine again, for it was all about him, and there was a stuffy feel to the air. But then he became aware of the softness of the bed, and the silent breathing of his wife, and McGork knew he was at home. A voice floated in from the open window by him, and he saw two men standing in the middle of the road outside. They were half lighted by the dim street lamp, and seemed very unreal to one just awakened from sleep. McGork went over to the window, and whispered loudly across to them. Their voices came floating back again.

"An explosion at the mine, and Shaft Three caved-in. A couple of inspectors were caught in it, but one didn't get out in time. They want all men down quick—he may still be alive." McGork moved rapidly away from the window, and concentrated his attention on dressing. A few moments later he joined the duo and they moved silently off in the darkness.

Spotlights illuminated the mine, spotlights from the emergency squad cars that had drawn up about the entrance. A small tense group of men gathered around Collins, the division manager, as he spoke.

"Men, we don't know what caused the accident; it was probably an explosion. We do know that there is one man lying down there right now. He may have been buried, or he may be in some untouched passage. I've a shift working to try to reach him through Shaft Three, but that section has caved in almost completely, and it will take hours. We must reach him immediately. There is the ventilator shaft, through which we could send a man down, but it would be very hazardous. The entire district is very weak, and may go any minute. I'd like to ask for volunteers."

McGork didn't know why he had stepped forward, even less why he had fought for the chance. There was some hidden impulse, some secret force that was driving him on tonight. The whole business seemed part of a dream to him. It was even more strange that he should feel relieved when he was selected. But he just stood quietly, as the boys prepared the winch and cable, and as Collins poured instructions into his ear. He looked to where the police were holding the crowd back, and to one side, where the lost man's wife was having a fit of hysterics. Poor devil! He hoped that he was alive. But he knew that he was really not going for the man alone, but for something bigger and more powerful; he was not merely tangling with falling rock, he was going to decide his whole life down there, in these very minutes. The winch-men were ready, and Collins finished his instructions. He was going down, down, down.

McGork's feet touched the bottom, and he unscrewed the top of the ventilator cover. Then he dropped to the floor of the tunnel. It was deathly quiet, and to McGork's strained ears came the far-off sound of the men digging in the other shaft. McGork groped his way along the empty corridors, guided by the weak light of his lamp. The sound of digging became louder, and McGork knew that he was approaching the approximate location of the trapped miner. If only the roof would hold! Suddenly McGork stopped, and peered intensely into the murk. No clear passage lay ahead any more, only a mass of shattered coal that filled it from roof to floor, solid and impenetrable.

McGork stood for a moment, in silent contemplation of the wall, before he heard the faint rumblings. A beam must have slipped far above, or a support weakened. It was a warning signal, a forerunner of the tons that would soon pour down on him with shattering concussion from above. McGork felt an impulse to go, but he stood his ground. He realized now why he had come. This was his one chance to come to grips with his destiny. The Black Queen had challenged him, as she challenges every one of her subjects at some time during his life. If he ran back now, it would mean defeat for the will that had held him up, through the rigors of mining, all these years. The chance to free himself lay right before him. McGork threw off his heavy jacket, and stooped down to examine the barricade.

McGork tested the wall in several places with a pickax he had found nearby. It was quite solid. Then, over in the corner, he found what sounded like a hollow spot. He attacked it with flying strokes. In a few minutes, a narrow black hole was uncovered, and McGork flashed his light through. Part of the roofing had formed a natural tunnel, which had held under the weight of the rock. The rumbling noises from above were becoming more ominous, but McGork's heart was filled with exultation as he got down on his hands and knees. Perhaps there was a space between the two caved-in portions wherein the inspector could lie safely.

The tunnel grew very narrow, and McGork slithered through it on his stomach. His hands were being cut on the sharp rock, and the wooden splinters of the timbered roofing dug into his clothing. He heard the noises above, and sweated as he tried to push himself faster. Finally he was out, and he jumped up into a small space, where the light illuminated a huddled form against the wall. He was in luck: the inspector had found refuge in here. He ran quickly over and fumed the man on his back. His face was ashen grey. He moaned faintly about his leg being broken, but McGork hardly heard him. He grabbed him by the collar and dragged him back to the tunnel. The sounds were louder than ever. McGork felt his heart beat, in the queer excitement of the contest.

It was very hard, getting the injured inspector through the long low passageway under the wall. The man's moans soon ceased, for unconsciousness was the only relief from the terrible pain. McGork struggled desperately, keeping one slippery, bloody hand on the other's collar. A nail caught his charge's clothing, and he crawled back to unhook it. The thoughts now ran in a confused jumble through his mind. This would be the place for the Goddess to end the entire struggle, to hurl her wrath down upon the infidel, and bury him forever from the sight of the rest of her slaves. McGork savagely ripped the clothing away, and pulled himself ahead.

He could stand up. He was in the regular passage, and the cave-in had not yet occurred. McGork slung the man over his shoulder, and began to run, bumping into the walls, almost tripping over hidden crevices, yet running. He was almost there—he could make it—the victory was in his hands. There was a dull thunderous sound behind. then a tremendous roar which shook the passage, and threw him violently to the floor. Great fissures opened in the ceiling, and clouds of smoky dust filled the corridors as the earth came tumbling down at him. McGork got up and ran wildly, dodging miraculously the falling timber. The tremendous din rang in his ears as concussion after concussion rocked the ground and the walls collapsed almost upon him. He was almost there, almost there———

Something struck him violently in the back of the head, and his knees buckled slightly. Warm liquid coursed down his neck. He must keep moving; he must; he must. The atmosphere became even darker than before, and he saw a long corridor of shining black marble. A figure was moving down that corridor, a figure swathed in ebony robes. The Black Queen was coming closer and closer to him. (The ventilator was only a few steps away.) Her eyes dashed balefully, and an outstretched finger sent rays of white hot light to burn his soul. She came nearer and nearer, with slow, measured step. (His hand closed about the rope, and he tied his charge to it.) The figure was now close, and McGork felt its burning hate. He backed away: the figure moved faster, faster to clutch him. (McGork clung desperately to the rope with all the strength he possessed.) The wraith took one step and vanished into a blinding flame. Then there was merciful darkness.

McGork regained consciousness for a brief second as he was being lifted into a stretcher. He saw the whole scene in one vivid picture—the crowd—the company officials—the men—and his wife's cheek, burning with happy tears against his. It was a triumphal procession of victory.

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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