In the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, the mines have names like Yankee Girl, Orphan Girl, Cecilia, Dora, Linda. Underground, we hear things: quick footfalls, rockfall, laughter. Underground, by headlamp-light, we see silver, we see gold. Through blasting dust, we see curtains of shining hair. In the darkness, softness brushes my cheek like silk. At the end of my shift, when I am hoisted above ground, the other miners stare, and I touch myself and feel the lacerations, the dried blood.
We learn the origin of girls. They are found, say the geologists, most commonly in veins of quartz, the whitest veins; sometimes in rhodochrosite; and always above treeline. Fragments are common in tailing piles—the stub of a finger, one bright eye staring up at heaven. I stay away from tailings. The girls we mine and mill are packed in crates and shipped by rail down to Durango, from there to be sent all over the world, some to brothels, others to collectors of refinement. Some say the girls don’t breathe, that they don’t need oxygen, but I’ve felt their exhalations underground. Some say they mean us no harm, but why, then, from November through June, in the gulches above town, do they send the killing snow-slides down, erasing a miner, a boardinghouse, a whole townsite? We learn not to speak too loudly or too much of them. I take my own wife from the earth at Cinnamon Pass, at thirteen thousand feet. Our bed is a cornice of ice and snow where elk have stepped. The air is thin. When my hands ache, I pull out splinters of purest quartz.