Short Story: The Weight of the Earth

By Mavis Thorpe Clark

This story won third prize in The Quill Club's Annual Short-Story Competition of 1948.

Published in The Australasian Post, 3 February 1949

Paid £6/10

See also New Golden Mountain.

"Why can’t you leave him alone?" There was a sting in the question. "He's not for the likes of you."

The girl had been bending over her shabby bicycle, but she looked up now and the flush that coloured her cheeks turned her blue-grey eyes to opal-green. She hadn't heard the woman approach. She felt confused and guilty.

The woman was tall and angular, and she wore a black bibbed apron over her well-washed cotton dress. Her black hair was streaked with grey, and stray wisps of it hung on her neck. The flannel cloth she held in her hand smelled strongly of floor-polish.

Unconsciously, the girl breathed deeply of the strange smell - the smell of his world. She looked beyond the woman to the house with its mirror-clear windows and its starched curtains.

"Don’t ride this way again - just to look at the place where he lives!" The sarcasm was cruel.

The girl put the spanner back in the worn leather case and gripped the handle-bars. She would have been shapely if she’d been a little fatter, pretty almost, if she’d had more Idea of the possibilities of that thick, straight, fair hair, and the round, too trusting expression of her face.

"I'm - I'm sorry, she muttered. Inside she was trembling.

"You're not good enough for my son," said the woman; "your mother's not all she ought to be. I've been wanting to tell you this - keep away from Alan. Every night for the last three weeks you've kept him out 'til the small hours of the morning. I've never said anything - you can't drive AI - but I can tell you," The blue eyes held the girl's. You're not good enough for him!" The bitterness with which she flung the last words reached out at the girl, but, though her shoulders were heaving, there was pity in her heart for this woman who had only child to love.

There was pity for herself, too. Three weeks! Three weeks since she had even spoken to AI. Three weeks since he had been spending those long winter nights in Isabella's room.

Isabella had but lately come to the township. She used bright red lipstick and scarlet nail-polish, and her hair was the colour of dull gold.

His mother still stood there. "He told me at lunchtime that he was going prospecting over at 'The Ridge' mine for an hour. I thought he was going to you. I'm glad he wasn't lying."

She turned then and went up the path into the house.

The girl put her foot on the pedal, and, slowly, began to climb the hill. At the top she stopped to look down on the township. It was a sprawling town. The yellow-red clay of the roads, glinting here and there with the pools of rain-water that lay after the stormy weather of the last few days, criss-crossed the paddocks gleaming with winter green. From the scattered houses with their strangely small gardens and narrow yards, blue feathers of smoke fluffed against the lowering sky.

Marta looked beyond the township to the valley disfigured by yellow mounds of buried dreams. Her father had been killed in one of those mines. He had left nine children. Marta, his wife, was a Swede. She had carried on, but one-half of her was dead. Perhaps she was no good. The second Marta, her eldest, found it hard to judge her. They knew everyone in the township, but had no friends.

Far beyond the valley and the blue line of the mountains, miles away, was the city, Once, a long time ago it seemed now, she had dreamed of escaping into its labyrinth, but that was before Alan had said he loved her. She had 
not thought much about the city lately. She stared across at The Ridge. Her eyes were grey-blue now, and instead of tears were bright with hard pin-points of light. You didn't have to be like Isabella to know her kind. You only had to be a woman - in love. Was that what a man like Alan really wanted? Was it what all men wanted? Well, 
 what had she to lose?

She turned the nose of her bike down 
the hill.

What had really taken Alan to The Ridge, she wondered, giving no thought to the intention that was taking her there. Even as a child he'd never played about the mines or gone fossicking in the old tunnels. But because he had had more nerve than any of them in every other way, the rest of the youngsters had accepted his dislike of the dark depths without question.

She pedalled faster. She was scarcely aware of the storm clouds piling thicker and darker. If Al was still at The Ridge she didn't want to miss him.

Overhead the thunder rolled and seemed to shake the earth beneath her feet. Big drops were falling as she dismounted from her bicycle at the mouth of The Ridge. It was the last of the mines to have ceased working.

Alan's bicycle was resting against a fallen log. She placed hers carefully beside it; then, without even a glance up at the angry sky, she stepped over the side of the gaping mine shaft. Down she went on the rough ladder. She could see the glow of Alan's lamp a little way in from the mine head.

For a moment she stood quite still, wondering what she would do if he turned from her.

"Alan!" she called softly. "Al"

The light flickered. She saw a dark form straighten up. "Why, Marta!" There was nothing but surprise in his voice as he came forward. "What are you doing here?" What's wrong?"

She looked at his crinkly hair, black in the gloom, the deep blue of his eyes; felt the pull of a strong, healthy body. 
She would like to have touched him.

"I - I - what are you doing yourself?" She laughed a little, trying to be natural.

He flicked his handpick at the wall.

"I'm after the usual thing - gold. There's a time in every man's life when he can use some dough - that's me right now."

The words, easily spoken, were like a lash. He was telling her, straight, that he needed gold for Isabella.

"You - you - never used to be interested in the diggings before. You hated the mines."

"I’m going to get married - soon - it takes money to do the thing properly." His voice was rough.

Marta stood very still. Married! Married to Isabella-.

"Anyway, what are you doing here? You haven't told me yet." He didn't 
want to talk about himself.

She looked at him, her eyes pleading her cause.

"I - I -," it was hard to tell him when he stood there flicking with his pick as though she were a stranger. "I - I wanted to be with you." She waited for him to receive her simple statement, waited for him to remember that, before Isabella, he had said he loved her.

Overhead, with the rolling resonance of a heavy orchestra, the thunder menaced, still shaking even the solid earth.

Then he laughed, self-consciously. But still he had no words for her.

"Alan!" she cried. "Look at me!" 
But he didn't look at her, he stared instead at the mine face. Although they were alone in this tight, small world, and there was the eagerness of love rippling through her, she couldn't reach him. Her small fist clenched with the intensity of her impotence.

"Alan!" She caught at his arm with sharp fingers. "I've never had much - never anything at all until you noticed me. You said you loved me. Al -."

"It's over -," he muttered.

"Alan -."

But even as she spoke, it happened.

The thunder struck at the very roof above them, a shudder passed beneath their feet, there was a harsh roar, and 
then the greyish darkness passed to inky black, relieved only by the small light from the lamp.

"A cave-in!" She heard the alarm in Alan's voice, saw his eyes dilate as they swept beyond her to the blocked entrance.

She turned slowly. Only a great wall of blackness lay ahead. There was still rumbling and a muttering about them.

"Perhaps the whole thing'll go!" he 
cried. "Marta! - we're trapped!"

She smiled faintly. She knew what it was to be trapped. She knew that she should be quivering with fear, eyeing those tons of earth with staring eyes, but the only quiver seemed to be in her heart.

"What'll we do? Say something? How long will the air in this tunnel last? What'll we do?"

"I - I don't know!" she forced herself to speak. "It's a bad fall - take a lot of men a long time to move all that. We're lucky we weren't crushed beneath it."

"Better if we had been! Than die slowly by hunger or thirst or - or suffocation!"

"What does it matter how you die," she said, "it's the same in the end." And she thought - how strange if we should die together. I came here - to live!

"There must be some way out - we've got to find a way." Already his eyes were unnaturally bright as he looked from side to side, seeking all outlet.

"There's a tunnel - a little way in on the left," she said, speaking dully; "that comes out at the river."

"I've heard about it!" His voice was thick. "I - I couldn't go through that, Mart - I couldn't!"

She looked at him.

"Even here - where we can stand 
upright - I - I want to fight the walls! As a kid, I - I never played in the mines - or ever wanted to be in one, because - because of this feeling. I - I could scream, Mart - something inside me wants to break out, even of the flesh."

She looked at him steadily. Dimly, she knew what he was talking about - had heard the word - claustrophobia. She knew then that he loved Isabella.

"I'm going to find the tunnel," she said.

"No - don't! Only one man in living memory has ever come through that tunnel - you have to wriggle a long like a snake - on your belly. I - I couldn't carry the weight of 
the earth!"

"We've got to - look!" She pointed to where water was already forming at their feet. "The mine's going to flood - quickly. We'll be drowned before we can be dug out. Come on."

"Mart!" he grasped her hand. She was surprised at its coldness. "Help me! Don't let me lose my head!"

"You won't lose, your head," she said. "I’ll go first."

The mouth of the tunnel - itself a freak of Nature - was four or five feet from the ground, but Marta scrambled up unaided. She had already accepted the fact that Alan's care was not for her.

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Scanned article - first page.

The Weight of the Earth The Australasian Post, page 12, 3 February 1949.

Scanned article - second page.

The Weight of the Earth The Australasian Post, page 13, 3 February 1949.

Scanned article - final page.

The Weight of the Earth The Australasian Post, page 56, 3 February 1949.

Scanned certificate of award.

The Weight of the Earth received Third Prize in The Quill Club's Annual Short-Story Competition in 1948.

"Mart!" The voice behind her was urgent. "What will we do if we find it blocked half-way - and we can go neither forward nor back?"

"Don't think about it," she said, "just keep going." There was nothing, to think about, she reflected, nothing at all, except this task of getting through the tunnel. She was surprised at her own coolness as she crawled forward into a blanket of 
tangible darkness.

They could go on hands and knees here, but she knew that it wouldn't be long before they must wriggle on their bellies. And she thought - why aren't I afraid, like Alan? Why don't I want to scream, too, and beat against the walls? But she knew that 
t was because something inside her was numb. Later on she would want to beat her fists -.

On and on -. How black it was. They'd left the lamp back in the shaft, and they had no torch. Damp, too. A peculiar dead sort of dampness like a dew of death lying on the earth's brow. And the smell of it - it seemed to come in waves as though ahead some evil-smelling creature breathed deeply.

Soon they could crawl no more and had to work their way forward on their elbows. The closeness of it then tore at Marta's throat, and a low cry that wouldn't be choked back came from her lips.

Alan's voice answered her from behind. "Mart - Mart -!" It seemed to scream at her in the tunnel, echoed and echoed, beating on her ears. "Mart!"

"Yes -," she flung the word backwards.

"Mart - for God's sake - stop a second - let me touch you - your leg. You're the only warm, living thing in this tomb. I want to stretch my shoulders against this wall until they break - God! -. Mart, help me!"

She stopped. "Don't let go -," she whispered. "Don't let go -!"

She was frightened now for Alan.

What if he lost his grip - if he fought stupidly, blindly, with the earth that didn't care, that would absorb his flesh with indifference, and wouldn't even notice when his bones whitened in the darkness.

"Touch me every now and again," she said; "it'll help you."

But even as she said the words a dreadful fear shot through her numbness. What if in his madness, he should hold her foot and chain her there with him? She began to wriggle forward, quicker than before. 
Every few yards he touched her, and she felt the cold moistness of his hand. And with every touch the fear shot through her and she wanted to kick his hand away.

The going was getting harder, the tunnel narrower, every now and again her own shoulders scraped the rough walls, and she knew that Alan, who was big and broad, must be getting into worse and worse difficulties.

"God!" her lips formed the soundless cry. "Help us!" And she thought, "Why didn't we stay to drown!"

"Mart! Mart!" Fear tore at her at the desperation in his voice "I can't go on!"

"Alan - you've got to!" She tried to move faster as though to show him the way, and, suddenly, she, too felt the weight of the earth upon her, pressing her down, choking her; she, too, wanted to strain her shoulders, to push and tear at the clammy walls; she wanted to drag the darkness from her eyes and the choke from her throat.

"Mart! I can't feel you! Where are you?"

She stopped then. "I'm here - keep going - you’ll feel me." His hand was like a dead hand as he touched her, and she shivered.

"It - can't be - much farther," she panted, though he didn't believe her own words.

"Mart - don't get ahead again." She felt his need of her, and went forward slowly, in fear.

Then, gradually, the blackness gave way to grey, and the grey to light.

"We're there, Al!" she cried. "We're there!"

Suddenly, willing hands were out-stretched to help her. She blinked at the strong daylight and the crowd - gathered on the pebbly rise of the riverbank. "Thought, maybe - if you weren't injured - you'd try it," she heard a rough, hearty voice say. "Hop back to the mouth, Bert - and tell 'em to stop digging!"

Then she saw them drag Alan forth. He was in bad shape. His clothes were torn where they'd scraped the rough edges - there were blood streaks down his face.

"Give him some brandy, Joe," a voice said.

Then she saw Alan's mother clasp him in her arms. "Al - oh, Al!" Her eyes spat fire at the girl above his head. "If you hadn't kept him there he'd have been out before the storm broke - only an hour, he told me. You - you -.

Alan couldn't speak, but his hand reached out, fumbling for Marta's. The girl saw the hand and the gesture, and she moved slightly, trying not to shiver.

She turned away to avoid his eyes, and her gaze fell on the line of mountains. She remembered the city beyond the mountains, and, suddenly, her heart was light.