Nicolas checked his notes again. He scanned page after page of survey reports. It was Sunday morning and all the miners were relaxing at home, going to church, or spending time with family—well, everyone except Nicolas, the mine’s resident geologist. Five days with no finds had given him a constant headache and a matching scowl. Another week and he had stopped sleeping through the night, staying up to test soil samples. And now, at nearly three weeks with not one glimmer of a gem stone he was certain he had an ulcer.
He reached the last page of his notes and closed the spiral bound notebook, not having to truly read the words he’d poured over so many times already. His eyes searched the side of the freshly dug mine tunnel, finding the quartz vein and the sedimentary layer exactly where he had predicted. Running his hands along the veins, he followed them up the wall and across the ceiling, his footsteps echoing heavily. With his eyes on the rocks above him, his boot caught on a larger chunk of debris, sending him sprawling. With a grunt, he caught himself on one of the tunnel support posts, his shoulder driving hard into it.
Nicolas’s mouth went dry and his chest tightened as a shower of dirt and small rocks rained down on him and the earth groaned above him. But after a few moments, the dirt stopped falling and the groans became dull thuds and then subsided. Amidst the cloud of dust, he picked himself up, coughing and wincing at the soreness in his shoulder and hands.
Stupid, stupid!, he thought. The lack of sleep must be addling my brain. It was the lowest form of idiocy to go into a mine alone, not to mention without anyone knowing he was there. The tunnel was newly dug and supported on Friday, the earth still settling and shifting from the blasts that had concussed the hillside. The whole tunnel could cave in, crushing him, or trapping him until he suffocated before the crew could discover the rubble the next day.
Nicolas’s heart rate began to settle along with the dust, a thin layer sticking to the cold sweat along his skin. A few more moments and he could make out the quartz veins in the stone again, but now the white vein on the ceiling ran dead into a gaping hole. A chunk of stone five times the size of his head had fallen only a hand’s breadth away from where he’d been sprawled against the side beam.
“That was close,” he breathed, stepping closer to examine the fallen stone and the hole it had left behind. Shining his flashlight up into the hole, he had to blink back tears as a reflected brilliance blinded him. “What the…?”
His eyes readjusted quickly in the blackness of the tunnel and he went back to the hole, shining the flashlight at an angle and reaching in tentatively with his hand, encountering only empty air past the rim. The rim continued mostly flat beyond the opening but above it was hollow.
Nicolas smiled for the first time in weeks, carefully but quickly making his way back down the tunnel to grab the ladder from his truck. Ladder in hand, he returned to the hole, positioning the ladder beneath it. Flashlight in hand, he scaled the ladder, and—before he could think better of it—stuck his head and shoulders into the blackness of the hole. The light from his flashlight dimmed underneath the screen of his fingers, threw the palest light onto a place within the earth that had never known what it was. A whole cavern expanded from the hole, facets reflecting from every surface.
Nicolas’s jaw hung wide as he took in the cavern, equally as large as his own house, and all throughout the walls and ceiling crystals had grown in long, almost cylindrical formations, some large enough to have been used for pillars like the ones on the front of the old plantation houses. With no other thought than what lay before him, he climbed the rest of the ladder and carefully stepped onto the floor of the cavern, slowly stretching his leg out about two feet in case the stone around the hole were weak or cracked, and then jumped. He held his breath for a few seconds after both his boots thudded onto the stone, and when no collapse or unsteadiness followed, he sighed and quickly moved to examine the cavern more closely.
His notebook was out in a flash, and his pen flew across the page, describing the unique attributes of the crystals. Their color, number of facets, and size were unlike any mineral he had encountered before and certainly not like any of the local mineral deposits he expected. This could be a huge discovery, Nicolas thought, his breath held as he gazed at his wide-eyed reflection on one large crystal’s pale green surface. His fingertips brushed the smooth surface that was surprisingly warm, a soft glow spreading from the point of contact like a ripple.
Nicolas shook his head and blinked, suddenly trying to remember what he’d just been thinking about. This mineral might be profitable; yes, that must have been what he had thought. He walked over to another crystal, trying to gauge its weight, trying to gauge its worth. Without knowing what it was and what it was good for there was no way to know how much it could sell for, but surely the discovery itself would could make him famous. There were so many possibilities. He continued to walk around the cavern, his knuckles absent-mindedly bumped another crystal and another ripple of soft light spread through it.
Dizzy again, Nicolas rubbed his temple with the heel of his hand. Maybe the air wasn’t good in here, but the dizziness soon passed and he continued to slowly walk to the back of the cavern. I could never gain from this find, he thought, wringing his hands. This mineral is probably worthless or ornamental, a novelty at best. He thought of its reaction to touch and the glow. Yes, certainly a novelty at best. He dropped his note book, unnoticed to the cavern floor and ran his hands through his hair, loosening dust in a small cloud. It was just his luck, another failure to add to the list. There had to be more in order to save his career. He slumped forward and put out his hand to support himself against a crystal, the sluggish glow spreading once again.
The dizzy feeling was stronger this time and he jerked away from the crystal to stand in the middle of the cavern. No, something’s not right, he thought. This is wrong. There’s something I’m forgetting. I shouldn’t have come in here and not alone, never alone. He began to pace a bit, and as he faced back towards where he had entered the cavern, he noticed it. He noticed his reflections in the glowing crystals. His face was wide-eyed and still with a slight smile on the first one, pursed lips and tight eyes in the second, face slack and eyes fallen in the last. They were all different and all frozen and still like translucent photographs. That’s impossible!
Disbelief caught his breath in his throat and he backed away from the mocking images as fast as he could. With a sharp snap, his ankle cracked and sent him sprawling to the ground. A brief cry issuing from his lips. Hard sharp edges caught his fall, cutting into his arms. In his peripheral vision, a soft glow spread behind him. The pain in his ankle overshadowed the dizziness, but he suddenly felt utterly calm. He couldn’t imagine what he had been afraid of in the first place. In a detached way he saw that the crystals were somehow extracting his emotion, trapping it, and leaving him without the feeling of excitement, greed, doubt, or fear.
The cavern began to shake. My yelling and my fall must have affected the unstable stone, Nicolas thought dispassionately. He did not try to stand and he did not try to quickly make it to the hole to escape; there seemed no need to. He was distantly aware that he wouldn’t make it out in time—his ankle’s unnatural twist and already purple hue made that truth unmistakably real. So, as the rumbling grew stronger and the small rocks began to fall, he scooted away from the crystals and contemplated the feelings he had left: happiness, love, contentment. These were feelings he hadn’t felt in a very long time. And strangely, he really was happy, his thoughts full of friends and family that he hadn’t thought about since his work had filled his life.
The cavern ceiling crashed down in a rumble of stone and dust. The crystals shattered into tiny fragments, their glow dying, leaving only the silence and darkness in which they had grown.