They called it the ‘Hand of Galena.’ The great, grasping hand that glittered like obsidian; a monument to the perseverance and prosperity of the town of Galena. The hand reached skyward, rising from the sterile mound below. The monument was built from Caecius Candeo, the dark mineral, which sat in abundant reserve below, and upon which the town of Galena –and it’s fortunes- had been built.
The mineral glistened darkly, twinkling like distant stars against the backdrop of the cosmos, in even the most minimal light.
Each night, as the sunset in the west, disappearing behind the reaching fingers, an elderly man traversed the barren mound, desiccated and cracked, with tentative but determined steps. As he reached the top of the mound and the base of the Hand, his thick, callused hands would grasp the weathered rungs of the ladder, ascending step by step, until he reached the palm.
In the palm of the hand sat a silvery basin filled with oil. Since they’d cut the power to the town, he ascended the ladder alone each night, striking a match and lighting a splint, which he’d lower into the oil. At once, the oil would ignite, providing a guiding light to merchants, prospective townsfolk, and weary travellers seeking shelter within Galena.
As the beacon burned, he would look out at the town, as the last tip of sunlight dipped over the horizon. The fields, which were once thick and bountiful with wild flora, had become desolate and empty. The river, which once coursed down from the hills and meandered between the neighbouring towns of Pitreece and Cardiner, now seemed almost stagnant, with shallow, muddied waters of maroon that seemed to exude a metallic odour. The wooden houses, which once boasted manicured lawns and picket fences –where children would play in the street from dawn to dusk- sat in neglect and dilapidation, flakes of beige paint peeling from them, falling to the ground below like autumn leaves.
The bells of the church on the eastern side lay in rusty disrepair, and yet, as the old man sat on the palm, lamenting upon the fields of dried mud and rocks, the rivers of sludge, and the flaking paint and rusting hinges of the houses, he could still hear the curfew bell tolling. He was the only one remaining; sitting in his own solitary purgatory, loathe to go back, powerless to go on; unwilling to die, unable to live. Tonight, he could hear the bells ringing louder and louder, each percussive chime ignited within him memories of every glove that cut him down and split his cheeks to the bone.
He thought back to the early days; when he’d rode into town on his pale stallion, leather boxing gloves dangling from the saddle. He’d been a welterweight boxer of wiry frame, scrappy and tenacious, with a mean left hook which could spin a man like a ballerina, hence his nickname ‘Lights out Lindeman’.
There were three towns: Pitreece, Cardiner and Galena, each separated by the estuaries of the Korrumpare river, which fed from Mount Venenum in the distance. Each town had been settled by people of the Quapaw tribe, where they had lived for centuries.
From the back of his pale stallion, Lindeman had looked up towards Mount Venenum, tracing the meandering estuaries as they glittered in the balmy summer sun, making their way towards the neighbouring towns. His left forearm ached as he tugged on the reins of his white stallion, the residual pain of a hairline fracture that had forced him into an early retirement.
His head whirred and throbbed as he recalled the golden years of his former friend and fellow boxer, Johnny ‘Spider’ Webster. In his prime, Spider was a God; a tenacious and scrappy in-fighter known for his ability to lure his opponents into a sense of false confidence. He’d feint his way through the first few rounds, panting and wheezing, taking hits on the chin and falling back. And when his opponent thought the match was over, Spider would burst forth with a vicious barrage of jabs and punches fired from all directions and with surgical precision. Soon enough, his opponent would be on the ropes, and just before he delivered the final shot, they’d look up at him with betrayed eyes; eyes which wouldn’t remember the glove that struck them to the ground.
Spider’s success eclipsed Lindeman’s, and whilst Spider tore through his opponents like a freight train, Lindeman suffered an injury which put him out of action, right before the 1904 summer Olympics in St. Louis. Spider competed in the games, winning a silver medal, which he wore proudly at each and every opportunity.
When people asked him if he worried about somebody trying to steal it, he’d raise his fists in the air and challenge any would-be thief to take it. Lindeman would often joke that he would have taken the gold home, had it not been for his injury, to which Spider would rebut that it didn’t seem to halt George Eyser, the gymnast who took home six medals, despite having a wooden leg.
But as the memories of the summer Olympics began to fade away, Spider began to change; first he complained of dizziness and headaches. Sometimes he’d stumble about like a drunk or walk with his head cocked to the side like he was eavesdropping on an imaginary conversation. As the years passed, his words began to slur, and he became paranoid that people were coming after his money, and would lock up his silver medal in a safe. On occasion, he’d fly into a rage at the slightest perceived insult, tearing through a crowd of people with indiscriminate fists. The end came when Spider began leaving the house at night, sleeping in train stations like a vagrant, recounting fantastical stories of monsters chasing him in the night.
It was Lindeman who identified what remained of his body. He was found on the railway tracks, struck down by a passing train. With no family that he knew, Spider had left his money to Lindeman, and as soon as he received it, he’d bought a stallion and left St. Louis forever.
As he’d chased the sunset into the West, he’d come across the bountiful town of Galena. The babbling brooks and wind whistling through the trees had implored him to stay. And so, he’d purchased a small box house in the centre of town, hung his brown leather gloves up on the wall, and opened up a drugstore.
The residents -of which there were about nine-hundred- were mostly Quapaw, and had welcomed him with open arms. Reluctantly, and at the urging of the locals, he’d recounted tales of his boxing career, and of the 1904 summer Olympics, and though he lamented the stories, he felt a sense of relief when they ended, for it reminded him that those days were behind him.
He spent his evenings on his porch, talking with the locals. The Quapaw spoke of the legend of Attakkǫ Ita Kaγá; a monstrous creature of fire and smoke, which –in times long passed- had risen from Mount Venenum, descending the mountain with ash and soot, turning the Korrumpare river to boiling sulphur and leaving charred footprints in his wake. The stars cast down their light upon Attakkǫ, forcing him to retreat deep into the earth, stealing the starlight that glittered beneath the ground where he rested.
It was a warm summer evening when he’d met Ardina, a Quapaw girl slightly younger than himself. The pair had become close very quickly, and spent the evenings rocking on chairs on Lindeman’s porch, or sat upon the roof of the drugstore, looking out over the fields surrounding Galena, looking out for foxes, hares, and the occasional wild boar or armadillo, as the bats above danced in the summer heat.
At weekends, they would hike up Mount Venenum and set up a canvas tent and a campfire encircled with glistening black rocks. As the sunlight retreated behind the mountain, the black rocks would sparkle against the light from the flames like twinkling stars, like a dizzying cosmic spectacle.
The following day, the smouldering campfire yielded a silvery sludge intermingled with soot. The sludge had a foul metallic odour, and had to be mixed with dust and soot and brushed away in order to remove the stench. Beneath the sludge however, tiny dark crystals could be found; in time, these crystals would bring great fortune to the town.
As Lindeman and Ardina began to collect the crystals, storing them as mementoes of their camping trips, they began to notice that they possessed unique qualities hitherto unknown to mineralogy. The crystals glistened in the smallest amount of light, reflecting hues of azure, violent and brilliant white. When heated, the crystals would glow in bright mauve and ruby or deep embers of orange. When submerged in water, they would refract light in such a way that they appeared almost liquid, and when a placed above a light source, the light would fall in strangely animated shapes, performing a curious dance of illumination.
Lindeman sent a sample of the crystal to the recently founded Mineralogical Society of America, and within a few years, the crystal –which appeared to be unique to Galena and the surrounding area- had become a valuable curiosity. The ore from which it was derived became known as Caecius Candeo, and it’s byproducts –the silvery sludge and the beautiful crystals- were named Caecius and Candeo respectively.
Whilst the Mineralogical Society of America sought to find practical and scientific applications for Candeo, Lindeman began to amass a small fortune simply selling the crystals as jewellery and for decoration.
Soon enough, the demand for Candeo outweighed Lindeman’s ability to supply, and so Lindeman invested the money he’d earned –and that which was left from Spider’s inheritance- into buying up plots of land around Galena, Pitreece and Cardiner and opening Candeo mines.
In a similar manner to the California Gold Rush in the middle of the previous century, thousands of prospective workers migrated to Galena to find their fortune. Within a few years, the population of Galena alone had swelled from nine-hundred to over twenty-thousand. New houses were being built every single day as the economy of Galena began to flourish.
Lindeman –whose wealth had quadrupled- had closed down his pharmacy and purchased a large house on the banks of Korrumpare river. It was then that Lindeman and Ardina decided to marry, in a small ceremony on Mount Venenum, surrounded by her family and friends.
Within a year, she gave birth to their first and only child, a girl whom they named Joy. When he held her in his arms for the first time, and looked into those dark eyes –the same as her mother’s- he decided that she would want for nothing. She would go to the best schools, and have every opportunity available to her. He would invest the remainder of his future into securing hers. And so, he reinvested the profits he had accrued into buying up the farmland from the Quapaw.
The offer was simple; he’d buy up their land for a fair price, and allow them to live upon it. Never again would they have to toil the fields or work the land, instead, they could simply retire on the generous buyout that Lindeman offered. Though many accepted the buyout, few of the Quapaw remained to live on the land, electing instead to leave Galena altogether. The more superstitious among them spoke of rumblings from below, claiming that the mining activities had awoken the spirit of Attakkǫ Ita Kaγá from his subterranean slumber, and his vengeance would be catastrophic.
Lindeman dismissed such fantastical notions as the overactive imaginations of the elderly, attributing the rumblings from below to the whirring of mining machinery and nothing else.
The major drawback to Candeo mining was waste disposal. For every ounce of Candeo crystal that was mined, 49 ounces of Caecius sludge remained. Initially, Lindeman had elected to store the sludge in old grain silos that remained on the farms, but these quickly ran out. A solution was reached when it became apparent that the sludge could be neutralised in sand. The resulting powder was named ‘Chat’, and was placed in large heaps around the town.
The mountains of chat became suitable running grounds for local school track teams, and families began to fill up their sandboxes with the mixture. The children found the enormous piles of sand to be a great novelty, building castles out of the sand and digging holes. Some of the older folk would walk their dogs on the chat piles, and the local builders found the material an excellent source of free sand to mix with cement.
Every evening, the Hand of Galena would erupt into light at night, drawing in more and more prospective miners, looking to find their piece of prosperity.
One hot summer when Joy was five years old, she’d been playing on one of the chat piles with a group of friends. By the evening, she’d come home with a nasty case of sunburn. As Ardina rubbed an Aloe Vera mixture into her sore, cracked skin, a neighbour –Harry Newman- had come to the door, sweating with panic. His child –one of the boys whom had been playing in the chat piles- had gone missing that afternoon.
Lindeman set out with a posse to find the Newman boy, searching throughout the chat piles and the surrounding areas. Eventually, they came to a patch of freshly disturbed chat, the spot where Joy and the others had been playing. As they dug down into the soft chat, horror had befallen to posse to discover the soft hair of the buried Newman boy, as the crown of his head appeared amongst the grains.
Lindeman covered Joy’s face from the site, and instructed Ardina to take her home. When he returned home later, after exhuming the boy’s sore, reddened body from the chat, he’d delicately tried to explain to Joy what had happened.
The boy had fallen into a hole and couldn’t get out. He was in heaven now, and was smiling down upon them.
“He wanted us to bury him.” She smiled, “He wanted to be born again.”
At once, he clapped his hand over the little girl’s mouth and told her never to say that again. It was the other children. They didn’t know what they were doing, and it must never be spoken of. What would it achieve?
Lindeman offered the Newman family a large chunk of money. The family needed time to grieve before Harold could return to work in the Candeo mines. But he never returned to work. The Newman family –like many of the Quapaw before them- left Galena, never to return.
Two years later, the chat piles had become enormous mountains of silt that eclipsed entire sections of the town in an almost permanent twilight. On windy days, chat swirled through the streets in vortexes of sand, scratching the paint off cars and fogging up windows. The sand would sometimes block up the Korrumpare river, causing it to burst its banks and flood the low lying areas of the town with bitter water. As the demand for Candeo increased, output from the mines began to run short, and Lindeman –in order to maintain profitability- had to reach out further, digging into streams of Candeo which meandered under the towns, and reducing the salaries of the workers dramatically. As his profit margins waned further and further, Lindeman found himself forced to cut corners. Mines were reinforced more sparingly, and old equipment could not be replaced or repaired as readily. He asked his workers to persevere and try to do more with less.
One afternoon, a came from below the town of Pitreece, as a huge section of one of the mines caved-in. Hundreds died in the cave in, taking with it a large section of roads, damaging numerous houses, and swallowing the gymnasium of the local school.
Lindeman set up a fund, paying out compensation to the families of those who had died, and promising to repair the damage that the cave-in had caused. The accident cost him dearly, forcing him to sell his house on the banks of the Korrumpare river and return to the old box house; his former drugstore.
He would never regain his fortunes, as miners began to demand higher wages and better conditions. Unable to meet their demands, a mass exodus began to occur, and labour shortages forced the closure of many of the mines.
The children who played in the chat piles began to come down with a horrific sickness. Their skin would redden like sunburn –even in the shade- and they would suffer from violent convulsions and fever, hallucinating and frothing at the mouth.
Lindeman reopened his drugstore, offering free treatment to any child who suffered from the sickness, but despite his efforts, drugs only seemed to temporarily numb the pain of their maladies.
Some of the children began sleepwalking, leaving the house at night and wandering to the chat piles. Many were found the next day half-buried in the sand, twitching and writhing, uttering slurred words –jumbled ramblings about being reborn in his image.
One by one, the children began to fall to the sickness. It started with the youngest ones, they’d be found in their cots with cracked and reddened skin, with tightly closed eyes and dry, open mouths, the wailing of pain etched into their frozen faces.
Soon the older children began to die, some of them in their homes, and others, out on the chat piles, fully or semi-buried. It was then that Joy’s skin began to turn red. The fever swept through her like a hurricane. She cried out for the sand piles, as the foam seethed from her mouth. Within no less than forty days, she was dead.
The next night, they lay her in a casket in her room. Ardina and Lindeman spoke the wordless language of grief, holding themselves together with numb silence, which fell away to heavy sobbing, followed by periods of dreamless sleep.
The next morning, the casket was empty. Joy’s body was gone.
In frantic desperation, Lindeman rounded up a posse to look for his little girl, and the monster that would snatch her away. He lined up the townsfolk, and with violent paranoia burning through his veins, he threatened each of them, raising his fists to their cheeks and demanding to know where his daughter’s body was, threatening to break every bone in the body of the man who took her.
After searching hysterically for many hours, he found a set of tiny footprints ascending a chat pile. At the top of the pile, he saw a small head poking out of the chat; Joy.
Ardina left no less than a week after Joy’s funeral. She slipped away silently in the night, following her family, whom had the year before. She left nothing more than a note, which read: “Do not try to find me.”
Finally, every crystal of Candeo had been mined, and pursuing more of it would be more costly than profitable. The population of Galena dwindled to less than one-hundred in what felt like a few weeks. Most of the inhabitants could not find buyers for the houses they had bought, and left the town poorer than they’d arrived.
On those autumn evenings, Lindeman’s only company was his rocking chair and a bottle of bourbon. As sand whistled through the night air and the bottle slowly drained away, the wind began to whisper to him in dark voices. He’d fall into a slumber and wake with a start. As his vision adjusted, he could make out a dark, crystalline creature, with eyes that glistened like hot Candeo. As his eyes focused, the creature would roar into flame and then melt into silvery sludge.
In the morning, he’d quench his thirst with a glass of bitter water that spluttered from the tap in intermittent bursts. The remaining townsfolk slowly drifted away, and soon enough, the electricity to the town was cut off entirely.
Lindeman took it upon himself to light the Hand of Galena each night by himself. As he sat upon the palm, he’d withdraw the hipflask from his pocket and drink until he fell asleep, warmed by the flames beside him. In his drunken slumber, he dreamed of the light that stretched out in the empty night, hoping that –if he continued his ritual- the rivers would run once more, the fields would once more become bountiful, and Ardina and Joy would return to him, reborn and rejuvenated.
And so, he sat upon the hand, as the hipflask became lighter in his hand, and the ache in his forearm began to melt away. He called out to the darkness, hoping that something out there in the wasteland would hear his empty call and answer his prayers. He slumped to the floor, letting his eyes fall closed.
He woke with a start, listening to the clanging of the runs upon the ladder as someone ascended the Hand of Galena. Could it be? Ardina, Joy –had they come back to him?
A glittering face appeared from the ladder, rising up to the Hand of Galena, standing upon the platform, glistening in the light of the flame. The creature stood over him, looking down upon him with incandescent eyes and dark, crystalline skin.
The creature held his hand over the flame, which seemed to retreat in its presence. As the flame died, and with it, his hope, the creature turned to him and spoke:
“Lights out, Lindeman.”
(c) JC Axe 2018.