A/N: I find myself enamored with thoughts about the life of a coal miner's family in District 12. Writing this story has really been a journey of discovery for me. Feeling the emotions and developing the struggles of a girl who must survive in an occupation that is mostly for men. I hope that you enjoy the story and how Gale began to weasel his way into it. Thank you for reading.
I wake up this morning with unbendable limbs and crusty eyes. After wiping the crumbles away I look over at father's bed. He is still huddled beneath his blankets. I stare at his back and notice that he is trembling slightly. I open my mouth to ask him if he is alright, but become distracted by the wisps of white air that rise from my lips.
Confused, I sit up and immediately feel the cold draft as my covers fall from my shoulders. I shiver and press my arms tightly around my body. Boy, is it freezing.
"The fire," I mutter watching my breath billow out in front of me.
My limbs protest as I rise from bed and slip my feet into slippers. With my blanket secured around my frigid shoulders I walk softly to the fireplace in the living room and peer down at the embers. With the iron poker in hand, I stir them lazily. The embers glow timidly. My eyes fall on the empty portion of floor beside the fireplace, out of wood, of course.
Returning to the bedroom I quietly pull open the top drawer to the dresser and remove a worn wool sweater. I find my crumpled pants by the foot of the bed and retrieve them. Suddenly, father begins a heavy coughing fit in his sleep and I eye him warily. His body has gotten so used to coughing that he doesn't even wake up for it anymore. His large back shakes as the coughs wrack through him violently. I close my eyes and try to will away his pain.
Father and I both know exactly what's wrong, but we don't acknowledge it. There's nothing that can be done. In the Seam everyone knows what a cough that lasts longer than three months indicates. If you've been directly exposed to coal dust for too long you can develop Black lung.
Without Capitol medicines the people who work the coal mines run the risk. Every year miners die who have worked the coal mines since they were young, strong men and women. Father's been down there since he was eighteen. Every day he travels into the black abyss.
The caverns below District 12 are deep and treacherous. A web of tunnels that gather souls and swallow them up whether they are alive or dead. The death trap that could collapse, explode, or poison you with carbon monoxide at any second…and if none of those things get to you first, there's always Black Lung to look forward to.
Black Lung, the death sentence of a coal miner. It kills you slowly. In the early stages you don't even know you're sick. Then, the coughing starts. At first you believe you have a cold, but slowly you realize that it never goes away. It is a long and painful death. It's how my grandfather died and his father before him. So many ways to perish as a coal miner. So many reasons why the elderly population in the Seam is small and mostly female.
I remove the blanket from my shoulders and grab a second one from my bed. As softly as possible, I drape them over father. He doesn't stir.
Entering our small washroom I look at my haggard appearance in the mirror. We haven't been eating very good meals lately and it is starting to thin my face. My high cheek bones appear sharp under my sallow skin. Turning on the faucet I fill my cupped hands with the icy water and splash it across my face. I lift the bottom of my nightshirt to dry my damp features with it. Then my chapped hands pull the thick sweater over my head reluctantly. It's funny how the cold makes appendages difficult to use. My pants feel stiff as I shimmy into them with my thin long-john covered legs.
Upon entering the kitchen I grab the tea kettle and fill it with water. I turn the gas on the stove and take a match from the book to light it. Gingerly I place the kettle over the burner. A burnt spot is visible where the kettle touched a hot pan once when I was five.
I stare at it and think about my mother. When steam begins to flutter out the spout I hear it whistle. I throw a green mint leaf into my favorite mug and pour the hot water over it. My fingers eagerly wrap around the mug and seep up the warmth it provides. The smell of mint drifts into my nostrils, clearing out my nasal passages.
I let it steep for a couple of minutes before removing the leaf. I sip the tea even though I know it will burn my tongue. Probably a good thing that it does anyway, because it will mask the taste of the hard bread I unwrap to go with it. My facial muscles ache as I chew it stiffly and gaze out the frosted window. People on the street are milling about, beginning their Sunday mornings.
Across the street Mr. Pratchett is smoking a pipe on his front stoop. His white hair is hidden under a brown cap. I watch him spit into the lawn beside him and amble off into the street, waving at a passerby. He lives with his wife and their two grandchildren. Sometimes I watch the children when Mrs. Pratchett needs to run errands.
From my perch at the window I can see the Hawthorne's home as well. Hazelle Hawthorne washes our laundry on Wednesdays if we can spare the money to pay her. Usually only father's clothes get the professional washing, because he needs it more than me. Hazelle can remove any trace of coal from a garment of clothing.
I smile to myself while I think of their family, probably still nestled together in bed. Every house in the Seam includes one bedroom. Most families have two beds at least. I can imagine the three Hawthorne boys squished onto one mattress fighting each other over space.
My lips curve into a gentle smile as I finish my tea and get back to the task at hand. I glance at the bedroom and hope that father is warm enough for the time being. I grab my hand-me-down boots from beside the front door. My feet reluctantly toe my slippers off. Gripping the edges, I slip my feet into the boots and grab my wool coat from the hook beside the door. It has black mittens in the pocket that glide scratchily onto my hands. I brace myself and open the door to the chill winter morning.
As I step around the back corner of the house my chest fills with frustration. The wood pile has toppled forward bowing the once perfect stacks into a rounded arch. I sigh as I proceed to throw round logs to the side. I'll have to start the stacks fresh and line them more closely to the house to keep the wind at bay.
The mittens on my hands are ridden with holes that allow the wind to bite angrily at my fingers. My cold hands feel chapped, but I try to ignore the aching sensations. Once the pile begins to show some semblance of balance I strategically begin placing the bigger logs. Each time that a hunk of wood is thrown onto the stack its resounding thunk echoes off the neighboring houses.
During the night there was a light dusting of snow and it crunches beneath my boots. The coal dust hasn't settled into the whiteness yet. Soon the Seam will begin to look grey as the coal dust settles over the blankets of white.
I brace my back against a large gust of wind and begin choosing which wood I want to bring into the house. My arms sink under the weight as I trudge back to the front porch. Unceremoniously I release my burden onto the steps and return to the newly stacked pile for more.
The temperature is dropping further each day. I look sadly at our meager wood pile and wonder if we'll make it through next week. As the days get colder we are using more and more wood. I sigh heavily as I trudge back to the front porch and drop my load. Another sigh escapes my lips as I sit on the top step and use my hatchet to splinter some of the logs into smaller pieces for kindling to restart the fire.
Normally father wouldn't let the flames die out in the night. He would rise from his bed while I slept and keep the fire placated. Even with it lit the winter nights were brutal here in the Seam and father would pile multiple blankets on both our beds and we'd tuck our long-johns into our thick socks. Lately father has been ill and sleeps fitfully through the night. Therefore, he's too sore and tired to keep the flames alive.
And now here I am sitting on the steps preparing to restart the fire and keep father comfortable. I worry my bottom lip between my teeth and split a few more pieces off a big log. The smaller kindling will help me to nurture the fire to life. A big log might smother it before the flames can lick it. Across the way I notice Gale Hawthorne closing his front door. His hands grasp the collar of his jacket to shake it out and put it in place. My eyes follow him as he crosses his lawn in long strides and disappears behind the house. Collecting wood most likely.
He's an interesting man. We're in the same year, but he hasn't spoken to me much since we were really young. I remember summers playing together in the meadow. That was before his father died in a mine accident and he became the man of the household. Growing up fast really changes a person.
I admire him though, for the way he protects his kin. Maybe also for the way he lives, hunting in the woods and selling his game for money at the Hob. He's brave. A lot of the girls at school think he's the most handsome bachelor in the Seam.
I won't deny that he does have striking features, or that he's a head taller than most men. Heck, I won't even deny that his muscles appeal to me, but he's still little Gale, my childhood friend. All those girls fawning over his every move, it must be strange. It makes me feel slightly sorry for him. I feel worse knowing that the only girl who he has eyes for is currently "dating" her fellow victor, Peeta Mellark.
I finish splitting my kindling wood just as Gale rounds the corner with his arms full of a large load of it. His eyes have found me now and he nods a hello.
"Good morning," I call with a small wave of my mitten hand.
He smiles briefly before tapping the front door with the toe of his boot. His younger brother Rory opens the door for Gale to enter. I lower my hand and gaze at the wood in front of me. Back to work, I think as I rise from the step. I fill my left arm with a chord of wood and open the door with my right.
The portion of floor beside our fireplace is usually where I stack the wood that will be used for the day. Two armfuls get us through a day most of the time. After the pile is neat I return to the porch and retrieve what I have left behind.
My stiff hands lean the kindling up against each other in the hearth. I place a crumpled piece of newsprint at the bottom to act as a catalyst and take a match out of the matchbook that I left on the table. The flames need a little care and tender doctoring before the kindling ignites. I keep feeding more pieces on the flames until they are able to engulf the wood heartily and lick away at the surface bark. I add a large log that will last for quite some time and stand back to admire my work.
Warmth begins to seep slowly throughout the room. My cold body seems to tingle with life as it heats gently. Father's thick cough presents itself again. My eyes fall grimly in his direction and I wonder vaguely whether he will be able to go to work this week. Whether we will make it past the last pile of our wood.
I look at the fire and feel helpless. I think of mother.
Father is coughing worse today than usual. His chest heaves as another attack seizes him. I sit across from him at the kitchen table and bite my lip between my teeth. His face is turning purple with the effort to gasp in air. My heart is squeezing as I watch him helplessly.
He went to work three times this past week even though I discouraged it. On the third night he was brought home by one of his co-workers who had to help him walk through the coughing fits. When the miner showed up with father in tow he gave me a sorrowful look. After he helped father inside he looked at me and without saying a word he spoke to me with his eyes.
Black Lung, his sorry eyes said.
He whispered to me as he held his headlamp between his hands, "A few months, maybe less, what with this cold winter and all."
I understood. He was telling me how long father would be alive. How long I had before I would lose the only family member I have left. I smiled painfully and thanked him for his help.
Now, as I sit here watching father choke himself my mind spins circles around what I must do. Father won't like it one bit, but it's the only choice I have. The only thing that will give us enough money to keep father fed, warm, and semi-comfortable.
"I won't let you go back to the mines tomorrow," I murmur when he has finished coughing. Father's eyes are watery from the exertion. He shakes his head softly and blinks several times.
"Sidney, I have to. We need the money," his voice is like gravel. Different then it was when I was a child. I shake my head right back at him and ball my hands into fists beneath the tabletop.
"You're too sick. You need rest. I'll send for Mrs. Everdeen in the morning. I can't watch you wither away like this. I'm sure she can give you something. When I know that she is on the way I am going over to the mines to speak with the foreman," my voice sounds smooth and strong even though my heart feels weak.
Father's eyebrows furrow at the mention of the foreman. He takes a sip of his tea and eyes me over the rim of his cup. I think he knows where this is heading.
"I'm going to tell him that you can't come to work anymore and that I want to – no, I am taking your place on the line," I let my words seep through the air and into silence. Almost immediately, father's face contorts. His muscles look rigid. What is that emotion springing forth?
"No," he states and forces his cup back onto the table. His hand rubs his temples as he closes his eyes to think for a moment. "I can't let you go down there. It's no place for a woman. It's no place for anyone, especially my own child."
I feel the frustration welling up inside me, ready to burst through me. I try to ease my voice calmly, "I won't take no for an answer. I'm 18 years old and I have the right to make my own decisions regarding this family." He shoots me a glare, which I gladly return.
I stand my ground and continue, "I'm sick of all this no place for a woman stuff too. I am just as capable as some of those men. I need to provide for us just as badly. The mines' the only place where I can make decent wages." If you can call them decent wages.
I stand when I am finished, hoping that this emphasizes my point. I think it does, because father's shoulders drop and he places his face in his hands. When he looks up I can see the pain in his eyes, "Sidney, I don't want you to do this. When I'm gone – and let's face it, I'll be gone soon – when I'm gone I want you to quit that job. Find something else. Find something that will keep you fed and pay for the house. Just not this way."
All I can do is nod and wrap my arms around his broad shoulders. My cheek rests on his dark hair as I hug him to me.
The following morning I rise and dress myself warmly for the day. After helping father with breakfast I stoke the fire and tell him to rest. Before I leave him I remind him that Mrs. Everdeen will be over in a few hours and that he needs to drink some mint tea. He smiles weakly, but his eyes are dark as I close the front door behind me.
The coal mines are on the South end of the Seam. The site has several buildings, a coal tower, an elevator up to the tower that carries coal on a conveyer belt, and 2 lifts that lower miners into the Earth.
Snow is lightly falling from the sky as I approach the foreman's office. Men pass me wearing helmets with headlamps on them, carrying pick axes and other tools. Some of them look at me curiously as I meander through them.
The building that houses the offices is small, probably only the size of my house. A woman that I assume is the secretary is standing at a filing cabinet when I enter. The door clangs behind me and I look up to see a bell attached to the top. At the sound the secretary looks up and smiles softly.
"May I help you?" She asks as she returns to the desk in the center of the room with a file. I nod as I remove my mittens and stuff them into my pockets.
"I would like to speak with Foreman Banks please," I say evenly. She nods and places the file down before pulling out a clipboard with a schedule on it.
"Foreman Banks is currently in a meeting would you like to take a seat and wait? He should be back in a few minutes." I nod as take the seat beside her desk.
The small room is much warmer than the outdoors, so I have to remove my coat after five minutes have passed. I watch the second hand of the clock over the door. I can hear it softly tick as it moves. After a few minutes the Foreman enters pulling his coat off and brushing snow off his hat. He places both of them on a coat rack by the door.
The secretary notifies him about some tasks and hands him a few stacks of paper and files. Then she nods in my direction, "Someone's here to see you sir."
Foreman Banks is a tall man, but he is thin and wiry. His face is wrinkled, but his hair is only partially grey. He's probably older than my father by about ten years. I think I remember hearing that he has been at the mines since he was about sixteen. His father was the Foreman before him.
"Hello, miss-" he pauses and I stand to introduce myself, "Miss Sidney Elmwood." My voice sounds smooth and controlled again, but my heart is beating furiously. At the mention of my last name he nods and beckons for me to follow him into his office. I oblige and carry my coat over my arm. He offers me a seat in front of his desk. He places the pile of tasks on his desk, leans back in his chair and fixes me with his gaze.
"Your father is very ill," he begins and clasps his hands together on his chest. I look at his fingers, long and laced together.
"He has been ill for quite some time. I think we both know that he shouldn't be coming to work any longer. I assume this is why you have come." I nod and look back into his eyes.
"My father and I only have each other to take care of, but I don't have a job. The mines are the only means by which we can survive right now." He nods in agreement, but then he shakes his head sadly.
"I'm sorry Miss Elmwood, but we can't have a miner holding up the crew like that any longer. We can't help your father." I see where he is heading with this, but I break him off before he tells me I should leave.
"No, you don't understand. I'm not here for my father to keep his job," He looks confused.
I swallow hard and try to calm my beating heart as I continue, "I want to take his place." Foreman Banks sits forward in his chair and places his hands on the edge of the desk. He eyes me carefully, looking at my entire physical stature.
"You're a woman," He says simply.
"And you're a man," I reply icily. Again with the woman speech.
I know that there are several burly women who work here, I've seen them from time to time. It occurs to me that he thinks I am a weakling. My hands ball into fists as my fear is replaced with a simmering anger.
"I can hold a pick axe and I am more able bodied than some of the men you have down there," I say indignantly. He lets his eyes rake over me again.
"Stand up," he orders. My eyebrows nit together in confusion at his words. In reply, he makes a hand motion for me to rise.
I do it begrudgingly. He approaches me and eyes me carefully. He grabs my arms and inspects them. I start to feel a little ridiculous. He turns away and grabs a pick axe that has been leaning against the back wall. When I grasp it in my hands I don't flinch at the weight. I've held my father's multiple times.
Foreman Banks returns to his chair and rubs his chin with his right hand. It is clear that he is in thought, but I feel foolish standing there holding the axe like I am about to go into battle.
"I want you to start tomorrow. Bring a lunch and work clothes. Use your father's lamp and axe, we don't have spares at the moment. Fill out the papers with Gloria on your way out." I sigh in relief and lean the axe against his desk. Just as I am about to thank him he continues.
"There will be trouble from some of the men. I don't want any of that to reach this office. You hear?" His voice is stern and I nod several times.
"Keep your chin up kid and I better see a lot of progress from you." I nod again, this time almost feverishly. "Good, now get going. Be here by 8am."
I grab my coat off the chair, "Thank you Foreman." My voice sounds far less tense than when I was angered before.
I close his door behind me and go back to Gloria the secretary. I explain the situation to her and ignore her wide eyes. She shows me how to fill out the paperwork and once I have finished I return it to her. After I finish fastening my coat I give her a tentative smile and leave.
My heart seems to have leapt into my throat as I walk home. It is a sensation like having something stuffed inside there. I try to swallow it down, but it stays.
Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of my life, I think wryly as I walk slowly towards my street.
A life where the mine might collapse or explode. The snowflakes continue to fall around me slowly. I feel the wind biting at my cheeks, but my mind ignores the sensation and carries on with thoughts of tomorrow. Before I round the corner, I glance back at the opening to Lift 1.
The carrier of souls. Briefly the thought passes my mind that tomorrow my soul could be trapped in the Earth beneath me, whether I'm dead or alive.
So many ways that a miner can die, I laugh bitterly for a moment. I am no longer a coal miner's daughter from the Seam of District 12.
I am a miner. Tomorrow I might die.