illustrations by Mike Krone FICTION Yellowcake BY EILEEN WELSOME The following is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress about a miner named Leonard Benally and his family. The story takes place during the uranium boom of the 1950s in Grants, New Mexico. Sections of the book are based upon real-life events, including the efforts by a Public Health Service epidemiologist named Duncan Holaday to call attention to the deadly levels of radon gas in the mines, which subsequently led to the deaths of hundreds of miners, both Native Americans and Anglos. EW As Leonard crouches in the narrow shade of the boulder, waiting for the all-clear signal from the Kerr-McGee man, he can feel the sun edging its way across the sky, vacuuming up everything. It sucks up the faint smell of dew that lingers in the roots of the juniper bushes and beneath the rocks near the mouth of the cave. He can even feel its thirst on the parched slopes of his cheeks and presses himself further into the rock until no part is left open and exposed to the slashes of light. Although it is only early June, the fiery air has burned off the green shoots, leaving the hills and arroyos powdery and dry. In the brittle emptiness, sounds can travel uninterrupted for many miles, and the torn scrap of a human voice, stiff with anger, rises up the mountainside and weaves itself into the flitting, thin dreams of the miners. Only Leonard is awake, and his mind pads back and forth in a dull, caged way, calculating the money that will be docked from his pay while the company men are inspecting the tunnels to make sure the mine is safe to re-enter. Far below him, he can see the railroad tracks and the smoke stack of the gypsum plant. Beyond lies Route 66. A small pickup truck crests the hill, plunges down into the center of Grants, and then reappears, toiling west toward the Arizona border. It is a square of blue going somewhere. Anywhere would be better than here, Leonard thinks to himself, breaking off a branch from a dying pition bush and digging his fingernails into its curdled needles. A faint spiciness wafts up out of the greenish juice, but Leonard’s nose and throat are so clogged with the acrid mine dust that the subtle odor is lost on him. Finally, he hears the bawling voice of the supervisor and hurries back into the mine. He feels his way along the narrow tunnel, his fingers catching on the chain-link fencing and ridged bolts that cover the walls and ceiling to keep the loose rock from caving in. Once his eyes have adjusted to the darkness, he can see the glint of fruit jars the miners have placed in the crevasses to collect the cool water. Although the water tastes like rust, the miners are convinced it has restorative powers, and drink it down with their tortillas and beans, or take it home to their families at night. Leonard stoops down and slurps up some of the water with his hand, wipes his 32 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JANUARY 12, 2007
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